Paul Pillar

Flawed Accountability in American Democracy

We constantly find new material to illustrate Winston Churchill’s observation that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried. Traditional democratic theory offers several reasons why democracy is better than the other forms, including the positive effects that broad political participation may have on popular attitudes and outlooks. I have always thought the most important aspect of the superiority of democracy is instead simpler and more direct: that the power to vote rulers out of office is the best safeguard against rulers acting continually and blatantly against the interests of the ruled—as happens in countless autocracies around the world.

In practice, holding rulers accountable to the ruled doesn't always work smoothly even in a democracy. Some of the issues involved are related to what Robert Merry addresses in his insightful commentary on an earlier piece of mine that expressed concern about what kind of foreign policy a finger-in-the-political-wind Mitt Romney would follow. Merry notes that with regard to that most important of presidential decisions—going to war—the dominant pattern in American history has been one of popular deference to presidential leadership, with the electorate withdrawing that deference only after a war goes sour. Given current signs of lowered American patience for more war, Merry concludes that if Romney leads the nation into some misguided military adventure, it would be because of his own impulses more than any popular sentiment.

Several questions can be raised about this, one of which concerns the effects of popular sentiment on decisions other than going to war. Sometimes playing to the electorate implies inaction when action would be more in the nation's interests. This might be true, for example, of whether to undertake a concerted effort (to the annoyance of the Israeli government) to promote a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, or to undertake a comprehensive U.S. rapprochement with Iran. Moreover, if a president doesn't have any particular impulses of his own in foreign policy, even a slight puff of the political wind may be enough to set him off in whatever direction has a plurality of popularity at the moment. Notwithstanding the currently growing American aversion to another war and especially a prolonged war, popular sentiment might tend to favor something described as a one-time strike, even if it in fact carried the danger of leading to a longer war. Finally, even if a president factors into his thinking the possibility of the public eventually turning against him if one of his initiatives goes awry, that negative turn may come too late to be very important to him—just as most of the battering that George W. Bush's popularity took as a result of the Iraq War going sour did not come until after he had been elected to a second term.

Let us focus for a moment on democratic accountability, in the form of the aforementioned issue of voters punishing an incumbent for policies gone bad. The American pattern that Merry correctly describes, of the public turning against wars only after they have become long and costly, points to one of the deficiencies in accountability in the United States. Accountability is not achieved until after much damage as already been done, and maybe even after a president who was responsible for the damage has been reelected.

Another deficiency, which appears at least as much in domestic as in foreign policy, concerns the electorate's frequent inability to determine which incumbent or former incumbent is most responsible for something. We see this today in how the state of the economy is playing in the current election campaign. President Obama inherited from his Republican predecessor—in addition to a couple of already-long wars—the deepest recession since the Great Depression. But regardless of how much the White House or Democrats offer charts showing how many jobs were lost under the Republican president and how many have been regained since their man came into office, voters tend to make their current feelings about current economic problems a referendum on whoever is the current president. An irony—an undemocratic one—is that Republicans are profiting politically from the severity of a Republican president's recession. If the recession had not been as severe, and the lingering effects on employment not as long-lasting as the ones we are seeing today, the Democratic president the Republicans are trying to unseat would be losing fewer votes over the economy and the Republicans would be less likely to regain the presidency.

Even worse is when incumbent politicians (other than the president) have a positive political interest in their constituents being bad off economically. The higher that unemployment remains, the lower is Barack Obama's chance for reelection. That means that Republican members of Congress have a political interest in defeating or delaying legislation that would create jobs. They may have an ideological impulse to do so anyway, but their political interest in doing so—bearing in mind that their leaders have declared the defeat of Obama to be their number-one priority—certainly subverts democratic accountability.