William F. Connelly

American Politics: “Broken” Since 1885

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De Gruyter | Published online: November 13, 2015

Abstract:

Woodrow Wilson, along with progressive intellectuals and reformers, bears significant responsibility for the decline of trust in government today. Wilson may have eclipsed James Madison in theory and practice, thereby contributing to the decline of trust in government. The criticism today of our politics as “dysfunctional” is, in large part, an echo of Wilson’s criticism of Madison’s Constitution. Today’s concerns about accountability, permanent politics, gridlock, special interests and petty partisanship reflect Wilson’s critique. In turn, Wilson has powerfully influenced the practice of our politics by providing the template for generations of political reformers. Today’s “dysfunction” is exacerbated by constitutionally inappropriate progressive reforms which have produced unintended consequences because reformers failed to appreciate Madison’s complex constitutional context. A century of progressive reforms have augmented dysfunction and distrust.

Introduction

Blame Woodrow Wilson.

We can blame Woodrow Wilson, along with progressive intellectuals and progressive reformers – of the left and the right – for the decline of trust in government.

Of course, progressives alone are not solely to blame. We need to place the above criticism in context. After all, it is complicated.

The decline of trust in government is surely a multifaceted phenomenon. Trust in government has waxed and waned, yet largely declined since the 1950s. [1] The decline of trust in government is not solely an American phenomenon; trust has declined across nations. Trust has also declined across institutions, not just government. Business, press, and religious institutions, just to name a few, also have lost the confidence of citizens. No doubt there are many causes for the decline; Woodrow Wilson cannot bear all the blame, though the theory and practice of Wilsonian reformers – who bear substantial responsibility for the decline of trust in government – will be the focus of this essay.

In brief, Woodrow Wilson has eclipsed James Madison in theory and practice, thereby contributing significantly to the decline of trust in government. Indeed, trust in government has declined as the Wilsonian theoretical perspective has come to dominate our understanding of politics and self-government. The commonplace criticism today of our politics as “dysfunctional” is, in large part, an echo of the Wilsonian critique of American politics dating back to the 1885 publication of Woodrow Wilson’s Congressional Government. Today’s concerns about accountability, pervasive politics, gridlock, special interests and petty partisanship reflect the influence of Wilson’s thought. As Wilson’s perspective has become more pervasive, trust in government has declined.

Today we are frequently told that a counterproductive, contentious, petty partisanship characterizes our politics. Our purportedly “broken” politics suffers from gridlock, a lack of accountability, and a seemingly “permanent campaign” which precludes a serious focus on policymaking as opposed to the mere playing of politics by selfish, ambitious politicians, factions and parties. Is it any wonder that we distrust government given how often we are told it is dysfunctional?

Woodrow Wilson’s theory has contributed to the decline of trust in government. Judged by the standard of Wilson’s ideas, our politics has been found wanting. This consequence may seem ironic given that Wilson was a proponent of stronger, more efficient and more centralized government. Wilson’s progressive ideas fueled the growth of government, yet, ironically perhaps, today we find ourselves increasingly discontented with government.

Wilsonian progressivism in practice has also contributed to the decline of trust in government. The practical consequences of the Wilsonian critique of our politics have been institutional reforms designed to make our politics more “open and democratic.” Congressional Democrats in the 1970s and Congressional Republicans led by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s both promoted such reforms. Wilsonian reformers have targeted both our formal constitutional institutions, especially Congress and the Presidency, as well as informal, extra-constitutional institutions, including parties, interest groups and the media. Many of these Wilsonian-inspired reforms have resulted in the infamous “unintended consequences.”

In a nutshell, a century of Wilsonian-inspired expectations and reforms have left us further disappointed with government. Perhaps it is time to reform the reforms; though if we wish not to exacerbate the “unintended consequences” of reform, we must first understand why progressive reforms often fail to ameliorate the purported defects of our constitutional system.

The unintended consequences of progressive reforms flow, in part, from a failure to understand and appreciate the constitutional context for reform. Wilson saw the constitutional separation of powers – the central structural principle of the Constitution – as a “radical defect,” not a virtue. Wilson also saw the localism and parochialism of the Constitution’s federalism as a problem, not a solution. Tinkering institutional reforms premised on these Wilsonian misunderstandings of the Constitution and the constitutional context have, not surprisingly, resulted in unintended consequences.

Herein lies the rub. Unintended consequences follow from Wilsonian-inspired reforms because – Wilson’s powerful influence to the contrary – James Madison still rules America. [2] Madison still rules America even if Wilson has captured the imagination of political scientists, journalists and political reformers. Madison’s constitutional context still governs. Reforms premised on a misunderstanding of the Madisonian constitutional context are likely to produce unintended consequences. More so than Wilson, Madison understood that institutions affect behavior. An appreciation for Madison’s institutional analysis is the necessary predicate for any successful reform.

Wilson’s influence on the theory and practice of our politics – his effort to reinvent government – has had profound consequences. The centralizing tendencies of progressivism, including the growth of the national government, have contributed to the decline of trust in government. As our progressive expectations of government have grown, so, too, has our discontent. Naturally, as government has grown, there are more and more ways in which government can be found wanting.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Woodrow Wilson’s failure to understand and appreciate the constitutional conundrum at the heart of our separation of powers system has contributed to the unintended consequences of reform. To comprehend fully this constitutional conundrum, we need to return to James Madison’s understanding of constitutional government, including his more complete understanding of the separation of powers and federalism. We need to return to Madison’s realism and republicanism as a cure to the ills of Wilson’s idealism and democratic majoritarianism. Ultimately, we need to return to Madison’s appreciation for limited, yet effective government as an antidote to the dysfunction wrought by Wilson’s admiration for more extensive, more efficient, and more centralized government.

Wilsonians in Theory: The Conventional Wisdom

Are we all Wilsonians now?

Whether it is George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Medicare Prescription Drugs legislation or Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, we seem today to embrace heightened progressive expectations for government, often to have those expectations dashed, giving rise to disappointment and criticism of our constitutional system. The criticisms are all too familiar.

The conventional critique today, that our politics is “broken” and “dysfunctional,” echoes the ideas of Woodrow Wilson, whether articulated by Ralph Nader on the left, Newt Gingrich on the right, or by political scientists, Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein. Congress-bashing is not new, and today it largely draws its inspiration from Wilson, as do the commonplace criticisms of our constitutional system in general. All echo Woodrow Wilson’s root-oriented critique in Congressional Government. In 1885, Wilson proffered a trenchant assessment of the defects of our political system, going straight for the constitutional jugular by citing the separation of powers, the central structural principle of the Constitution, as its “radical defect.”

In 1980, neo-Wilsonian Lloyd Cutler gave a more contemporary voice to Wilson’s criticism of the separation of powers in a now-famous essay in Foreign Affairs titled “To Form a Government.” Cutler, like Wilson, contrasted our separation of powers system with the supposedly more effective British Parliamentary system in which the majority party is commonly the “government” while the minority party is the loyal “opposition.” In our complex separation of powers system, compounded by bicameralism and federalism, neither party, Cutler complained, is ever purely the “government” or the “opposition.” Cutler is right. At no time in our complex separation of powers system is either party, either political branch, either legislative chamber simply the government or simply the opposition. At all times, leverage accrues to both parties, both political branches, both chambers of Congress. At all times, both parties, both branches, and both chambers are part of the government and part of the opposition. Naturally, a “permanent campaign” ensues and strict accountability is impossible.

But is this a “radical defect” of our separation of powers, or a radical virtue? From Wilson’s perspective it is a defect. From Madison’s perspective it is a virtue.

We can usefully elaborate on the commonplace Wilsonian complaints and criticisms to include the following. The complex American constitutional system, we are told, precludes accountability, promotes a “permanent campaign” in which politics crowds out policymaking, is prone to gridlock, is insufficiently responsive to majority sentiment, is overly parochial, and is premised on the unleashing of self-interest, ambition, factionalism, and contentious partisanship.

Let us consider each criticism in turn:

Accountability. It is true, as Cutler notes, that our constitutional system precludes the clear cut accountability of the British Parliamentary System in which one party is the government and the other party is the opposition. Yet, arguably, far from eliminating accountability, our complex system, in fact, promotes a plethora of accountability, between parties, between branches, and between chambers, as well as within parties, within branches and within chambers. Interparty accountability is supplemented, and even augmented, by intraparty accountability.

It is not just Pelosi vs. Boehner, or Boehner and McConnell vs. Obama. It is also the Tea Party freshmen vs. Boehner, or Cruz vs. McConnell. Or Bernie Sanders vs. Hillary Clinton. Or the sixteen-plus wide open 2016 GOP presidential nomination process. House Republicans often disagree with Senate Republicans. A favorite joke among House Republicans is that Democrats are the opposition, while the Senate – even or perhaps especially with a Republican majority – is the “enemy.” Similarly, Congressional Democrats often disagree with President Obama. Congressional parties often feel orphaned by a president of their own party; just as often, they react out of frustration. Thank you, James Madison.

Both establishment and insurgents always have leverage. Intraparty insurgents and challengers forever hold their leaderships’ feet to the fire. Similarly, congressional party and committee leaders often compete with one another. Why does Congress have two sets of competing leaders in each chamber: party leaders and committee leaders? One reason is the constitutional conundrum. Congressional parties and congressional leaders are at all times both part of the government and part of the opposition; hence, they must at all times pursue policy and play politics. Loosely speaking, committees are better at focusing on policy, while party leaders are better at focusing on politics. At all times, both parties in both chambers are part of the government and part of the opposition; thus, both must at all times focus on both policy and politics. Contentiousness within parties – intraparty competition – means that contrary to the conventional Wilsonian critique, there is no lack of accountability in Congress; indeed, there is virtually endless accountability.

Permanent Campaign. The criticism that our constitutional system promotes a permanent all-politics-all-the-time is true. We can blame or credit Madison for this defect or virtue. Politics is how we make policy. It is constant; hence, it is a constant source of ferment, energy and policy entrepreneurship. The fragmented, decentralized character of our separation of powers, bicameral, federal system arguably allows a 1000 flowers to bloom, so to speak. We cannot take the politics out of politics, much to the consternation of Wilsonians who often seem tempted to turn policymaking over to bureaucratic experts following the rules of scientific management. Our system is, indeed, messy, but it invites innovation.

Gridlock. Our constitutional separation of powers is also prone to gridlock, as critics complain, especially when there is a lack of consensus in the country. Yet that is only half the story. Our constitutional system is prone to gridlock, except when it is not. Madison wanted “energy and stability.” Progressive reformers want activist government. Yet change is not always progress. Alexis de Tocqueville warned that “democracy has a taste amounting to passion for variety. A strange mutability in their legislation is the result.” [3] For Madison, mutability of legislation may be as great a problem as gridlock. “The facility and excess of law-making seem to be the diseases to which our governments are most liable,” he noted. [4]

From Tocqueville’s perspective, are we gridlocked largely relative to democracy’s passion for change? Who has not at some time wanted to stop legislation? The Pelosi-led Democrats fought to prevent George W. Bush’s Social Security reform in 2006, just as Congressional Republicans sought to stop Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. We complain about “gridlock,” yet the 111th Congress – the first 2 years of Barack Obama’s Presidency – ranks alongside the Great Society and New Deal periods in terms of legislative productivity. David Mayhew’s empirical study of longitudinal legislative productivity raises serious doubts about the “gridlock” thesis. [5] The real challenge is to balance “energy and stability.” Madison designed our constitutional system to promote precisely this balance.

Insufficiently Responsive. Our political system is indeed less-than-fully responsive to simply majority sentiment. Madison was not a small “d” democrat; rather, he was a small “r” republican. He sought to prevent majority tyranny, while empowering complex majority rule by broad based consensus. Stable and enduring majorities, such as the New Deal Coalition, are able to bring about substantial change over time. Again, Madison was a republican, not a democrat. The constitutional challenge is to promote long term majority sentiment while preventing majority tyranny, including hypersensitivity to potentially destabilizing short term fluctuations in public opinion.

Parochial. Lloyd Cutler and other Wilsonians bemoan the local, parochial character of American federalism, and, in truth, American politics often is overly responsive to intense parochial minority interests. But again, the challenge going back to the debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists has been to strike the right balance between national and state interests, between national and local sentiments. For 40 years, the “permanent majority” House Democrats governed premised on Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous aphorism “all politics is local,” until they were swept away by a 1994 national wave election. We now have the Gingrich corollary to Tip O’Neill’s “all politics is local,” namely, “except when it is national.” Arguably, this healthy tension between national and local sentiment, has, in fact, been built into our constitutional system from the beginning.

Most congressional elections are “wall” elections in which “all politics is local” strategies and incumbent advantages rule the day. Yet sometimes “wall” elections are followed by “tsunami” or “earthquake” (choose your metaphor) “wave” elections, like 1994 or 2006. Election models work, until they do not.

Wall and wave elections come and go. Our political system is neither simply national, nor simply local; rather, it is both. As Madison notes in Federalist # 39 the Constitution is “in strictness, neither a national nor a federal [meaning confederal] constitution,” but a composite of both. [6] Tocqueville concurs: the Constitution’s “new federalism” is “neither exactly national nor exactly federal.” [7] But the tension built into our constitutional federalism is a healthy tension. It sometimes promotes and protects narrow, local, parochial or state interests, but it can also be responsive at times to broad national sentiments as well.

Ambition and Factionalism. The heart of the Wilsonian critique of our constitutional politics may be the complaint that Madison unleashed self-interest, ambition and factionalism into our politics. He did. In the name of promoting liberty, Madison invited the “spirit of party and faction” into our politics. Short of curbing liberty – a “cure worse than the disease” – Madison did not think we could take the politics out of politics. Rather than eliminate factionalism, he sought to manage factionalism through the “extent and proper structure of the union.” An “extended” republic would embrace so many diverse factions – call it Madisonian pluralism – that no one faction could dominate. Plus, the proper constitutional structure – defined as separation of powers, federalism and bicameralism would check and balance majority factionalism while simultaneously empowering all factions by dispersing leverage in our decentralized, fragmented constitutional structure. In this, Madison was a realist and a republican.

Woodrow Wilson’s 1885 critique of our constitutional system has become the conventional wisdom today. Wilsonian scholars, journalists and reformers have intoned repeatedly that our constitutional system is “dysfunctional.” Is it any wonder that we have come to believe this conventional critique – and as a consequence learned to distrust government?

Wilsonians in Practice: Institutional Reforms and Unintended Consequences

Woodrow Wilson may well have eclipsed Madison in the hearts and minds of political scientists, journalists, and reformers. Wilson’s ideas have powerfully influenced our understanding or misunderstanding of the function or dysfunction of our constitutional system. Wilson has also powerfully affected the practice of our politics by providing the inspiration and template for generations of political reformers.

But James Madison still rules America. His Constitution and constitutional structure stand largely intact. And constitutional structure still matters, regardless of whether or not Wilson and Wilsonians fully appreciate this fact. More so than Wilson, Madison understood that constitutional context matters; constitutional structure counts.

The central insight of Madison’s Federalist Papers may be the observation that institutions affect behavior. Constitutional structure molds the behavior of Presidents, Members of Congress, and partisans. In point of fact, constitutional structure even molds the behavior of voters, who, for example, often prefer presidential candidates with executive experience and temperaments. Senators – obvious exceptions to the contrary – often find it more difficult to win the White House than governors. Is this an example of constitutional structure affecting the perceptions and behavior of voters?

In Federalist # 51 Madison declares “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” Where you sit often influences what you think. For example, our appreciation for executive or legislative prerogative may depend on which end of Pennsylvania Avenue we (or our party) sit. Or our admiration for the Senate filibuster may depend on whether we are in the Senate majority or minority – or whether we serve in the Senate or the House. Madison frequently makes hypocrites of all of us, depending, for example, on whether our party is in the White House or has a majority in either the House or Senate.

Madison understood and appreciated the importance (and practical, palpable consequences) of constitutional forms, of constitutional structure. Madison, more than Wilson, understood the importance of thinking institutionally. A failure to think institutionally, and to appreciate fully the constitutional context, especially when promoting institutional reforms, can contribute to the unintended consequences of reform. Wilsonian reforms, designed to make Congress (and our politics generally) more “open and democratic” have contributed to some of the pathologies that plague our politics today.

Woodrow Wilson was dismissive of constitutional forms, as Tocqueville predicted would happen in a democratic age. [8] Wilson bequeathed his lack of appreciation for constitutional context and constitutional structure to Wilsonian critics of our Constitution and would-be political reformers. This willingness to ignore constitutional forms may go a long way toward explaining the unintended consequences of reform. The failure to appreciate the importance of constitutional forms and constitutional structure begins, naturally enough, with understanding or misunderstanding the separation of powers as the “radical defect” of our constitutional system.

Contrary to Wilson, the separation of powers is not reducible to the checks and balances; it does not merely produce gridlock; it is dynamic, not static. The separation of powers, as Madison understood, promotes both stability and energy. It simultaneously humbles and empowers presidents and Congress, House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans. The Madisonian separation of powers is in reality a separation of functions systems; each institution is designed to best exercise its function, legislative, executive and judicial; in turn, each institution is empowered to check and balance the others. Martin Diamond explains that the Constitution’s “functional parceling out of political power” promotes “not only free but effective government” by promoting both ambition counteracting ambition and ambition vying with ambition. [9] Again, institutional reforms premised on a misunderstanding of constitutional context are more likely to produce unintended consequences.

Let us briefly examine the effect of Wilsonian-inspired reforms on our formal, constitutional institutions, in particular Congress and the Presidency, as well as our informal extra-constitutional mediating institutions, parties, interest groups and the media.

Formal Constitutional Institutions

Is today’s “dysfunction” exacerbated by constitutionally inappropriate progressive reforms? Have reforms produced unintended consequence because reformers have failed to appreciate Madison’s constitutional context? Reforms premised on the “more open and democratic” Wilsonian presumption may have weakened Madisonian republican institutions. Institutional reforms may have weakened both Congress and the Presidency.

Examples may include:

Congressional Primaries. By making the nominating processes more “open and democratic” congressional primaries have contributed to red vs. blue polarization. In the “bad old days” the party bosses in their smoke-filled rooms, were, above all, interested in winning. Today, low-turnout, intense primary electorates, such as the Tea Party factions in the GOP, are more interested in being right – and remaining pure.

Sunshine Reforms. Distrust of government has grown as transparency has grown. [10] The closer Congress gets, the better it looks – or not? Surely this is an ironic consequence; though perhaps it should not be surprising that openness reforms designed to increase transparency have, ironically, contributed to the decline in trust in government. Sausage-making is not pretty. The Founders were wise to hold the Constitutional Convention of 1787 behind closed doors, thereby enabling serious, thoughtful deliberation, including allowing members to have second thoughts and empowering them to learn from one another. Congress might profit from this lesson today. At times executive sessions are necessary, as the Senate knows.

Campaign Finance Reform. Campaign finance reform, along with ethics and lobbying legislation, seeks to take the self-interest and ambition out of politics. Short of curbing First Amendment freedoms, a “cure worse than the disease,” this never seems to work. Money, like water running downhill, always finds a way. Meanwhile, all sorts of ironic consequences flow from campaign finance reform. Super PACs, for example, are a result of Federal Election Campaign reforms limiting giving to parties and candidates; meanwhile, Members of Congress are left spending inordinate time dialing for dollars. Is the decline of trust in our politics today due, in part, to decades of Common Cause reformers telling us politicians are corrupt?

Earmark Reform. Earmark reform was meant to limit the influence of special interests. Instead, eliminating earmarks has limited the leverage of congressional leaders. Just ask Speaker Boehner, a proponent of earmark reform. Meanwhile, “phone marks” and other subterfuges have kept the special interests in the game. Journalist Jonathan Rauch is willing to make the “Case for Corruption” defending “honest graft,” including earmarks which smooth the legislative process. [11]

Filibuster Reform. Filibuster reforms meant to make the Senate more majoritarian have paradoxically normalized use of the filibuster, increasing the use of the filibuster over time, thereby ironically slowing the legislative process. Filibuster reform has also reduced minority leverage, thus exacerbating partisan tensions in the Senate. Might the “nuclear option” weaken the Senate by making it a bit more like a little House of Representatives?

Budget Reform. The 1974 Budget Impoundment and Control Act introduced budget “reconciliation,” an ironic name. Budget “reconciliation” may have made reconciliation, that is, compromise, between the two parties more difficult, in part, by making budget decisions less incremental and more comprehensive and all encompassing.

Seventeenth Amendment. Progressive era reformers hoped to democratize the Senate by promoting direct election of Senators, replacing selection by state legislatures. Yet Founding scholar Ralph Rossum contends the Seventeenth Amendment, by further centralizing power in Washington, ironically made our politics even less democratic and less participatory. [12] Earlier, Tocqueville praised “election by two stages” as contributing to the 1830s Senate being filled with notable statesmen, unlike the House which direct election, he concluded, filled with vulgar politicians. [13] While there is no chance we will repeal the Seventeenth Amendment, did that constitutional reform weaken the Senate by compromising its republican character?

Civil Service Reform. Going back even further in time, civil service was a progressive reform meant to take the politics out of politics, promoting instead merit-based bureaucracies filled, reformers assumed, with neutral experts. Wilson’s distinction between policy and administration is not quite that simple; discretion often makes a politician out of a bureaucrat. [14] Political scientist Dan DiSalvo asks if we have, in fact, replaced one form of patronage with another, Tammany with public employee unions? [15] Have we curbed party machines, only to replace them with powerful new interest groups?

Presidential Selection Reforms. Turning to the Presidency and returning to the present time, we have been reforming the reforms since 1972. [16] Indeed, we have been tinkering with the presidential selection process every 4 years, yet we never seem satisfied. How could we be when Donald Trump is center stage in the summer 2015 presidential Hunger Games? Since 1972, we have succeeded in weakening the republican character of our parties, including the role of party leaders and party professionals, replacing them with a media-dominated process that results in the likes of The Donald and Ross Perot. Samuel Kernell cites a further consequence of our more open and democratic presidency: when it comes to governing, presidents are increasingly “going public,” opting for their “pen and a phone” rather than undertaking arduous negotiations with Members of Congress. [17]

In light of this journey down reform memory lane, have these reforms left us better off or more dissatisfied? Have a century of progressive reforms increased or decreased dysfunction and distrust? Have the trade-offs between Wilsonian “more open and democratic” and Madisonian “republicanism” been worth it?

Informal, Extraconstitutional Mediating Institutions

Wilsonian reformers have also targeted intermediary institutions, generally weakening political parties and interest groups; thereby strengthening the media in, what at times, seems like a zero sum game competition between these three key mediating institutions. The changing balance of these three key mediating institutions may have contributed to the dysfunction and distrust in politics today. By weakening parties and interest groups, reformers may have created a more media-dominated political process seemingly even more cacophonous and contentious than before.

Wilsonian reformers, disdainful of “the spirit of party and faction” sharply criticize “jarring, adverse” interests, as did Wilson in his time. Progressive reformers and muckraking journalists decry parties and interest groups as tainted. Campaign finance “good government” reformers denounce PACs as selfish. Public interest groups deplore parties as partisan – as if any faction of the whole polity can be anything other than partial or partisan? Have journalists been escalating the arms race of media criticism premised on Wilsonian principles?

Why is 90 percent of news about politics today negative? Perhaps it is because our politics has become more media-dominated and journalistic norms have evolved. Larry Sabato describes that evolution from the 1930s to the 1960s to today as the media shifting from a role as lapdog to watchdog to junkyard dog. [18] Jonathan Rauch noted in the Atlantic, “The idea of a politics that rises above partisanship dates back at least to the Progressive movement of a century ago, and the term “post partisanship” surfaced as far back as the 1970s.” [19]

Similarly, Davidson and Oleszek in Congress and Its Members lament the all-too-prevalent caricature of Congress in today’s popular culture:

The picture of Congress conveyed in the media is scarcely … flattering. Journalistic hit and run specialists … perpetuate a cartoonish stereotype: an irresponsible and somewhat sleazy gang resembling Woodrow Wilson’s caustic description of the House as “a disintegrating mass of jarring elements.” [20]

This portrayal applies to conservative talk radio as much as to MSNBC. Has the press evolved from Madison’s realism and republicanism to Wilson’s idealism and support for “more open and more democratic” government? Ironically, Wilson’s idealism may be contributing to a more cynical view of American politics.

Out of their own self-interest and ambition journalists hound politicians, seeking more “open” politics with greater access. They criticize our “closed” politics even though Washington is already a remarkably open, accessible city, thanks in large part to the decentralized character of our Madisonian Constitution. Some in the press perpetuate a game-like navel-gazing while Rome seemingly burns. Snide and snarky pass for journalistic excellence in a Bonfire of the Vanities celebrity journalism culture, which, not surprisingly, results in the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

The press focuses more on politics than policy, since the latter can be boring, leaving one wondering at times whether some of the ephemera the press touts even matters. Naturally, to sell papers and air time, the media reports on the planes that crash, not the 1000 that fly successfully every day. Politics is covered the way the Weather Channel covers weather: storm stories all the time. Conflict, not cooperation is the definition of news because it sells; consequently, Washington politics probably seems more contentious than it is at times.

The media seeks to entertain more than truly enlighten citizens about the legislative process. Contrast, for example, coverage of Congress by Congressional Quarterly and the popular press. Is the popular media’s vested interest in promoting a cynical perspective one reason we perceive dysfunction, thus augmenting our distrust? What explains journalists’ cynical perspective today? In Out of Order Tom Patterson agues our politics is “out of order” precisely because it is media-dominated; he insists the press is ill-suited to play the leading mediating role it plays in presidential politics, a role historically reserved for parties. Patterson also traces the “anti-politics” perspective of many journalists to Progressivism. [21] Perhaps we can blame Woodrow Wilson?

One important caveat to the blame game: the central role the media plays in our politics may be due, in part, to something other than a power grab by the press. Technological innovations alone – radio, television, cable, the Internet – have contributed to the media’s central role, perhaps especially the democratizing tendency of the World Wide Web. The press may be as much a “creature” as a “creator” of our more open, democratic journalism. Nevertheless, the “unblinking stare” of the media makes deliberation difficult and distrust endemic. Changing press norms have exacerbated the problem.

In the name of “more open and democratic” government, we may have fallen into a “transparency trap” according to David Frum:

[I]n the name of “reform,” Americans over the past half century have weakened political authority. Instead of yielding more accountability, however, these reforms have yielded more lobbying, more expense, more delay, and more indecision … For fifty years, Americans have reformed their government to allow ever more participation, ever more transparency, ever more reviews and appeals, and ever fewer actual results. [22]

Jason Grumet concurs, observing that sunshine does not always disinfect:

[W]hile openness is indeed key to a functioning democracy, there is a dark side to sunlight. Deliberation, collaboration and compromise rarely flourish in front of TV cameras or when monitored by special interests. [23]

Grumet sees a tradeoff between transparency and deliberation, as did Madison. Grumet concludes, “there are moments in government where the imperative for deliberation trumps the imperative for access.” We seem to have lost that Madisonian balance. Again, Woodrow Wilson has eclipsed James Madison. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Grumet defends closed bipartisan congressional committees since such committees have a built in partisan check. Ironically, Woodrow Wilson, given his admiration for the British Parliamentary model, favored single-party legislative committees run by the majority party – the minority party be damned!

The irony of ironies, however, may be the impact our “more open and democratic” media-dominated politics has had on the press. In The Road to the White House 2016, Stephen Wayne concludes that “[n]ews coverage of strident rhetoric has contributed to partisan incivility and passionate politics that characterizes today’s political environment.” [24] A majority of Americans see the news media as too negative. As a consequence, “[c]onfidence in the press (newspapers, television, and the Internet) has dropped more sharply than public confidence in other American institutions. And it continues to decline.” [25] If the press is to blame, they may be paying the greatest price.

The Growth of Government

Changes in the theory and practice of our politics have contributed, as noted above, to the dysfunction and distrust in American politics. Institutional reforms affecting the Presidency, Congress, parties, interest groups and the media have played a role in this dysfunction and distrust. But the growth of government, fueled in part by Progressive expectations and aspirations, has also contributed to the problem. Given the growth of government, there are many more reasons government can be found wanting. Progressive expectations of government, along with the growth of the political agenda in Washington, contrast sharply with the Founders’ more limited understanding of role of government. As James Q. Wilson noted, at one time government was about a few things; today it is about everything. Big government gives you big politics.

In 1994 Jonathan Rauch wrote a perceptive book about the failures of what was dubbed at the time, “Hillarycare,” the Clinton Presidency’s effort to reform our health care system. Bill and Hillary Clinton failed in that effort, yet Rauch’s book reads today like a commentary on “Obamacare.” Rauch titled his book Demosclerosis, a term meant to deplore the hardening of our political arteries due to a growing glut of interest groups. As government grows, Rauch noted, the interest group universe grows, choking democratic processes with entrenched interest groups. Rauch decried the growing (mostly middle class) “entitlement mentality.” “Programs are property” for the new government-program-inspired special interests.

In a sentence that reads like a prescient description of the fight over the Affordable Care Act, Rauch says at one point: “If you thought people hated government before, just wait until they could blame it for whatever they didn’t like about their healthcare.” In a foreboding prediction, Rauch observes, “[w]hether the program would have damaged the health-care system was a contentious question, but in any case it would almost certainly have wrecked the government.” [26]

Gridlock, Rauch concluded, is not the problem; rather, pandering to democratic demands is the problem. More difficult than getting things done, Rauch suggested, is getting things undone. Demosclerosis cripples the flexibility of government, thus contributing to dysfunction and distrust. Is this where we are today following passage of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, along with George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Medicare Prescription Drugs legislation? Rauch’s solution is something like a return to Madisonian federalism.

Jonathan Rauch is certainly not the first to warn about the dangers of governmental centralization in America. Long before Woodrow Wilson wrote Congressional Government, Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America warned about the dangers of bureaucratic centralization in democratic ages. Yet bureaucratic centralization was only one of two fears Tocqueville harbored for democracy in America. The other worry was for the rise of an industrial aristocracy. Simplifying a bit, Tocqueville warned America about what today might be called Big Government and Big Business.

Bureaucratic Centralization and Industrial Aristocracy

In the 1830s, Tocqueville praised Americans as a nation of joiners. A vibrant civil society, filled with voluntary associations which served as character-building and community-building institutions, taught Americans the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Participating in voluntary associations taught citizens the art of association and self-government, along with that peculiar American virtue, self-interest rightly understood. Self-government begins with governing oneself, Tocqueville argues, and this is only possible in practice at the level of state and local government, reinforced by a vibrant civil society. Allowing this to atrophy, Tocqueville feared, would produce alienation, apathy and anomie among citizens who will increasingly feel lost in the crowd. In today’s parlance, dysfunction and distrust will grow.

In the closing passages of Democracy in America Tocqueville warns about the dangers of bureaucratic government centralization and the rise of an industrial aristocracy. Concentration of power in government and concentrations of corporate capital were the twin dangers confronting politics in America.

Tocqueville feared that a democratic people might come to conceive of government as a “simple, providential and creative power.” Governmental centralization would reduce citizens to being clients, customers, or worst still, wards, of a paternalistic nanny state. A democratic people might too readily bend to rule by a “clerk” with bureaucratic experts ushering in an enervating government as “schoolmaster” and a form of soft despotism. [27]

A concomitant danger Tocqueville warned about is the rise an industrial aristocracy. His discussion of the concentrations of corporate capital sounds a bit like concerns today about “income inequality” and the “one percent.” The Koch Brothers, George Soros, Tom Steyer, and Bill Gates may have taken the place of the Rockefellers, Fords and Duponts, yet the lingering discomfort may be the same.

Together, according to Tocqueville, bureaucratic centralization and industrial aristocracy, may be the twin threats to self-government in a democratic age. Today the disenchanted populism of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements seem to be targeting Tocqueville’s twin fears: big government and big business. Have these two movements and these two concerns contributed to distrust in government today?

A Return to Madisonian Realism and Republicanism

Perhaps we can blame Woodrow Wilson and his penchant for more open and democratic government for growing dysfunction and distrust in our politics today. If so, a return to Madisonian realism about human nature and the possibilities republican self-government might be in order. James Q. Wilson once famously said that Madison understood that human nature was “good enough to make republican government possible and bad enough to make it necessary.” [28] Or as Madison remarks in Federalist 55:

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another. [29]

Madison’s realism is somewhere between the naiveté of Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the cynicism of Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in House of Cards. It may not be too late to recover Madison’s realism and republicanism, especially if we understand that for Madison a certain amount of dysfunction and distrust of government is good – and critical to maintaining limited government.

Distrust of government is as American as apple pie; thus, it is not at all surprising if trust in government declines as government grows. Perhaps we need to second guess that apostle of a more open, democratic, and all-encompassing government, Woodrow Wilson?

Published Online: 2015-11-13
Published in Print: 2015-10-1

©2015 by De Gruyter