Paul Pillar

The Extremist Threat to American Democratic Culture

Representative democracies—successful, stable ones—are fragile things. They require a set of attitudes and habits, which are not found in sufficient degree in most of the world's polities, that combine the concepts of majority rule and loyal opposition with an acceptance of the need to compromise. These attitudes and habits are even more important to successful representative democracies than are formal institutions, as suggested by the written constitutions of many authoritarian states that on paper look just as democratic as those in Western countries that are widely regarded as successful democracies. It is also suggested by the example of Britain, which makes do with no written constitution at all and whose government is, if stripped of those essential attitudes and habits, nothing more than a party dictatorship.

The political culture underlying successful democracies takes a very long time to develop. And although a long-established democratic culture has inertia, it can be seriously damaged in less time than it took to develop. A stable democratic system depends on trust and on the belief that others are observing the same restraints and the same unwritten rules as oneself. Any reason to discard that belief is thus a threat to the entire system. The dynamic is similar to patterns of urban crime, in which even small indications, such as graffiti, of an erosion of law and order encourage larger damage.

This is part of why the extremist methods taken up by Republicans in Congress, as practiced particularly by House Republican leader Eric Cantor, are dangerous. Significant economic damage has already been inflicted by the Republicans' recent taking as a hostage the nation's credit worthiness. Ben Bernanke was using restrained central-banker's language but could not ignore what had happened when he said last week that the debt-ceiling caper “disrupted financial markets and probably the economy as well.” Over the long term, the political damage to the working of American democracy may be even greater than the economic damage.

The act of extortion involving the debt ceiling was not a one-off. Now Cantor has taken victims of Hurricane Irene hostage by insisting they should get no aid unless there are offsetting cuts in the domestic programs that he and his colleagues on his side of the aisle don't happen to like. Republicans in the Senate are getting in on the act as well, particularly through manipulation of the confirmation function. They are refusing to confirm even well-qualified nominees to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as a way of trying to negate the legislation creating the bureau, which they also don't happen to like. As Representative Barney Frank, ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee and a coauthor of that legislation, correctly described what is happening, the Republicans are “blatantly distorting the Constitution, substituting a refusal to allow the constitutionally mandated nomination process for the legislative process in which they simply do not have the votes to accomplish what they want.”

Paul Krugman's column in Friday's New York Times cuts to the heart of this attack on America's democratic culture. He points out how fraudulent is Cantor's posturing in the name of deficit reduction, especially given how Cantor and his colleagues had no problem with the huge unfunded expenditures of the Bush administration, most notably the Iraq War (which has cost about $800 billion directly, with the meter still running and not counting the ultimately greater indirect costs). As Krugman comments, however, this hypocrisy isn't even the biggest problem. Here's the biggest problem:

Not long ago, a political party seeking to change U.S. policy would try to achieve that goal by building popular support for its ideas, then implementing those ideas through legislation. That, after all, is how our political system was designed to work. But today’s G.O.P. has decided to bypass all that and go for a quicker route. Never mind getting enough votes to pass legislation; it gets what it wants by threatening to hurt America if its demands aren’t met.

This is the way any number of unstable, undemocratic Third World countries work, in which political outcomes are determined by whoever is best able to inflict or threaten to inflict harm on his countrymen if he does not get his way. We may still be a long way from having Somalia-on-the-Potomac, but the extremists in Congress have taken a step in that direction. The appropriate response by anyone who cares deeply about American democracy is to call the extremists to account, loudly and often, for how their methods are undemocratic and un-American.