Stability and Democracy

16 Oct

How does one democratically govern a heterogeneous population with an immense plurality of interests, perceived or real? In fact, how does one keep pressures stemming from economic, ethnic, racial, religious, regional, identities back? How does one avoid centrifugal forces from building up, and cleaving? We build an institutional system that only rewards broad coalitions. There is a nice corollary to the system that demands broad coalitions for governance, one that opens up the opportunity for change: As the coalitions becomes broader and more unwieldy, the opportunity beckons for the smaller party(ies) to expand their base by appealing to underserved segments of that coalition, and perhaps win enough over to get a chance to govern.

Then, if it was the threat of factions that led to the institutional design of American democracy, we have succeeded, almost entirely. The American political system has become a stable duopoly, with factions, even troublesome ones like 1968 McCarthy supporters, now residing largely within the parties, mostly quietly.

But to discuss the success of institutional systems that reward broad coalitions in the American context is to not fully discuss them at all. While it is true that in the American context, the first past the post electoral system (if indeed the kind of electoral system predicts the number of parties) has produced a largely stable two-party system (with occasional bouts of third-parties, the latest being Ross Perot in 1992; and the longest lasting being the ‘left-wing’ parties in the Teddy Roosevelt era), the system has had much less success in India, which boasts of thirty plus parties, with each ploughing its own furrow.

So clearly, there are limits to what institutional design can achieve. A closer inspection may reveal that some of the fault lines are visible even in the US. One may argue that the term broad coalitions is a misnomer, especially in the American context, where a significant number don’t vote, and where you can win an election by appealing to the median evangelist or the median racist, in Republican Party’s case. Similarly, one must question why significant third parties like the Socialist party came to be important players, given the logic of wasted votes. But overall, the system has worked well.

Party on

Democracy is perhaps best understood as a Schumpeterian ideal of mass public choosing from competing elites. Parties emerge as natural coalitional vehicles in a democracy to allow elites to stand on ideas, and not as elites. They allow providing the more ambitious members of the public to gain power, in exchange for co-option, partial indoctrination, and work. And furthermore, they allow for only people who aver by the dogma to rise to the top. But reality impedes. More so now, when media have made possible for politicians to come to the fore with only limited help from the party machinery.

Stable Coalitions

If factionalized political systems amplify every segment’s sane and insane demands, political systems that demand ‘broad coalitions’ are, by design, tethered to broad dysfunctions within a society.

At the heart of it, there is nothing seemingly ‘stable’ or even vaguely comprehensible about the ‘broad coalition’ that the Republican Party commands – it is a coalition of the rich, and the poor, the fiscal conservatives, and the taxation-averse (sometimes both), the social conservatives who elect Larry Craig, the libertarians who want government to legislate marriage (and more), etc. The subtext of this coalition, its glue, is of course race.

To keep broad coalitions from heeding to their worst instincts, one needs an informed, civic and liberal-minded citizenry. Failing which, while democracy with a relatively free press may prevent famines, it may not always prevent slavery or foreign occupation, if that is a broad coalition supports it.