How can it work?

David Runciman on American democracy

David Runciman on American Democracy

American democracy is an amazing, fascinating, bewildering thing. There has never been anything else like it. Even now, as democracy becomes an ever more familiar feature of our world, there is still nothing like the American version. During the early years of the American republic, in the first half of the 19th century, what fascinated outsiders was its sheer implausibility. Could you really do politics like this, with such fractured and chaotic popular input? It seemed unlikely anything so ramshackle could last long. It was also implausible, especially to British eyes, for the simple reason that it was so clearly fraudulent: slavery made a mockery of it. During the second half of the 19th century, what fascinated outsiders was American democracy’s extraordinary capacity for violence. Europe had seen its fair share of wars, but had never seen anything like the Civil War: mutual slaughter on an industrial scale. It got its own version in 1914: a European civil war to rival the American one. At least that’s what it was until the Americans joined, at which point it became a world war. This event inaugurated the next stage of fascination with American democracy: a glimpse of its extraordinary global power and the promise it seemed to offer of a better future. That promise has always run up against its continuing capacity for extreme violence, along with a seeming inability to deliver on its best intentions. Still, the promise has never entirely dissipated. And now we have a mixture of all these views of American democracy: lingering ideas of the promise, a continuing sense of the power, an ongoing preoccupation with the violence, but behind it all a return to the thought that was there at the beginning. It is starting to look implausible again. Can you really do politics like this and expect it to last?

The immediate objection to any story about two hundred years of American democracy is that it’s changed so much that we’re not talking about the same thing anymore. A democracy with slavery is different from one that abolishes it; a democracy that denies the vote to women can’t be compared to one that grants it; a democracy of 13 states is nothing like one with fifty. Despite these changes, it’s the features that have remained constant which stand out. The most celebrated is the constitution, a uniquely durable – or to put it another way, a remarkably entrenched – document. But I’d like to offer another example, something more prosaic perhaps and easier to overlook, but evidence nonetheless of just how different American democracy is from all the other kinds that have been tried.

In 1845 Congress legislated to require voting for president (that is, voting for the electoral college that would select the president) to take place on a specified day every four years, and always on that same day. The day that was chosen – for boring technical reasons – was the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Until that point, states had been free to set their own timetables, which meant the process could be drawn out for up to a month, adding to the feeling of chaos surrounding American democracy. Creating a single election day was an attempt to impose some order, but it just added to the air of implausibility. You can’t fix things like this in perpetuity. After all, how could anyone know whether the Tuesday after the first Monday in November would always be a good time to be choosing a new government? What if there was a war on? Or the country was in the grip of an economic crisis? Or some natural disaster intervened? Surely there had to be flexibility in extremis. Other democracies are careful not to hold national elections when things look really dicey or if it seems especially impractical (in Britain an outbreak of foot-and-mouth was enough to put us off in 2001). But since that decision in 1845, US election day has never budged, not by so much as a day, though there have been wars on, and worse, a civil war, and though it has often been both dicey and impractical. The election took place as scheduled on 8 November 1864, even though during the summer Lincoln had feared he might lose it (whether it would have taken place if he had still feared he might lose in November is another question). The election took place as scheduled on 7 November 1944 (in Britain electoral democracy was effectively suspended for the duration of the Second World War, as it had been during the First). In 2008, the presidential election was scheduled to take place just seven weeks after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which precipitated perhaps the most dangerous financial crisis in the history of the republic (as George W. Bush said of his country’s economy at the time, ‘This sucker could go down’). The memoirs of Bush’s secretary of the Treasury, Hank Paulson, make clear his utter terror at what the forthcoming election might do to his rescue plans if either candidate chose to pander to popular loathing of bankers’ bail-outs (luckily for him, Obama didn’t need to and McCain couldn’t work out how). But Paulson never seriously thought of a postponement, and nor apparently did anyone else.

In the 1890s Congress decided to extend the provision for election day to cover the congressional mid-terms as well, so now there was a fixed date every two years. Again, it has never been moved, not even in 1942, an exceptionally dangerous year. The closest the US government has come to authorising a postponement was in the spring before the mid-terms of 1918, when contingency plans were drawn up in case the November elections needed to be cancelled. America had joined the Great War a year earlier and now American troops were arriving in Europe to discover the war was being lost: the British and French armies were in retreat and conventional wisdom said Paris would fall in the summer. The war was expected to drag on at least into 1919, probably into 1920, by which time the weight of American resources might start to tell. Come November the country seemed likely to be engaged in an unprecedented mass mobilisation, which meant an election might not be appropriate. But then, in the late summer, the German army fell apart, and the mid-terms were back on. By sticking to the prescribed date – 5 November – the course of history was altered. A delay of just a week would have seen the elections take place on 12 November, the day after Armistice Day. As it was, with America, uniquely among the combatants, still holding elections in wartime, Woodrow Wilson took the opportunity to ask the American people to express through the ballot box their views about the sort of peace they wanted. If they wanted his peace – the League of Nations and all the trimmings – they had to say so by voting for the Democrats to maintain control of Congress. The Republicans, meanwhile, hammered Wilson throughout October for talking peace while Americans were still fighting and dying. The president was stymied. The Democrats lost the election, gravely weakening his negotiating position in Paris and his chances of getting his desired peace through Congress. As one of his campaign managers noted in a memo after the votes had been counted: ‘The Republican slogans “Unconditional Surrender” and “No Negotiated Peace” proved surprisingly effective.’ The surprise is that anyone should have been surprised.

Since then, come hell or high water, election day has been sacrosanct. Last year it was literally come high water. Superstorm Sandy arrived a week before the vote, a natural disaster that may have helped rescue Obama politically by reminding people on the East Coast that a federal government is sometimes a useful thing to have. The advent of postal voting means that the day itself is not quite as special as it once was, but it remains the focus of campaigning, and the nexus of all media coverage. It’s when the horse race ends. And no mere act of God is going to move the finish line.

This is a system of politics that has held its ground under all manner of unpropitious conditions. It has been stress-tested almost to death. So does it work? You’d think we would know by now. But we don’t know. In a recent essay in the LRB (3 January), John Lanchester said the simplest summary of the state of knowledge in macroeconomics is ‘nobody knows anything.’ The same is true of macro-politics. In micro-politics, as in microeconomics, we are drowning in knowledge. The minutiae of the inner workings of American democracy are better understood than they have ever been, not least because many thousands of academics make a decent living studying them. But on the big question of whether it really makes sense to keep doing politics like this we don’t know. This is not because no one can answer the question of whether it works. It’s because there are two obvious answers to that question, and they can’t both be right.

The first answer is: yes, of course it works. Just look at it. It has survived everything that’s been thrown at it for more than two hundred years. During that time the United States has got exponentially richer and more powerful, to become the richest and most powerful nation in history. This is, by far, the most successful system of government the world has ever seen, certainly as judged by those measures (there are others, but these two are hard to argue with). There are some states that have become wealthier – Norwegians are significantly richer per head of population – but nowhere has come close to combining so much wealth with so much power.

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[*] Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy: Markets, Speculation and the State by William Janeway (Cambridge, 329 pp., £22, October 2012, 978 1 107 03125 8).