The democratic party that wasn’t there

America, I have realized, doesn’t really have an institution for the protection and promotion of representative democracy, or at least not a remotely adequate institution. If there is a way to make a large multiethnic democracy work, I suspect that it would have to include such an institution.

We don’t have that. There is no formal department, or program with this responsibility. In Congress, there are committees on veterans, small business, Indian affairs, aging, printing… There is no committee with clear responsibility to work on issues of democracy.

It so happens that America does have a Democratic Party, which has been one of the country’s two major political parties essentially forever. There are a number of reasons why the Democratic Party has been ineffective at stopping the sabotage of democracy, but the main reason is probably that “the Democratic Party” is really just a loose concept, not an organization.

Julia Azari among others has proposed that the combination of powerful partisanship and weak parties is an important part of America’s political dysfunction. Perhaps both were once different, but it has always been the case that America’s major political parties are nebulous. Part of the cause is probably that they are old—the Democratic Party’s roots reach back toward not just the beginning of the country but the most primitive beginnings of political parties—and many things tend to hang on forever just because humans are imitative. Another part of the cause is probably that all major political parties exist, primarily, to contest and win elections, and in a formal sense America has no national elections. The only nationwide elected office is the presidency, and even that’s still selected by 50+ separate elections for “electors” not presidential candidates themselves.

In the 21st century, we very much have nationalized politics, but national political party infrastructure is still obviously a ramshackle legacy of the early modern world. Democrats hold a national convention once every four years, as would make sense for a slow era when coordination at that scale required days or weeks of travel. The convention itself no longer even chooses the party’s presidential nominee, and is mostly just a TV special (which it turns out can be done and in fact done better using modern virtual production). In between conventions, national Democratic coordination is both duplicative and near nonexistent. The DNC is little more than a rumor. National coordination for House races, Senate races, governor’s races, etc., etc. are all independent PACs, as are state and county parties…

Meanwhile all of these organizations put together have negligible real power, as the rules of power mostly pretend that parties don’t exist. Trump offers an outsize example, as Republican elites genuinely did not want him at first, but had no ability to deny him their party’s nomination. Anyone can take out petitions to file in any primary, basically, and party organization leaders have no actual power to reject them. Some times that’s good, certainly, but the resulting picture challenges the basic notion of an organization.

Passing from this kind of abstract thinking to a more “common sense” belief that yeah but the Democratic Party has to be a real thing if so many people believe that it is, my summary diagnosis is that said thing is an entirely ordinary major political party in a large complex society. Which is to say, it’s an unwieldy, heterogeneous, very inertial blob. (That’s even without going into the complicated reality of e.g. the Senate coalition between actual Democrats, Democrats in name only, and Democrats in all but name.)

It took decades for Republicans’ reorganization from a comparable blob, into a proto-nation fanatical sect with ruthlessly enforced obedience to an internal zeitgeist, to become essentially complete. I don’t think that this kind of transformation for Democrats is even possible in theory, and if some other modernization and reorganization is conceivable, it is not really even begun.

Ultimately I conclude that blaming the Democratic Party for not being something which it isn’t is sort of choosing the wrong target. Even if we pretend that a Democratic Party exists in the sense of an organization which can reach decisions on coordinated action and implement them (which it doesn’t), a political party’s core purpose of contesting and winning elections* carries with it the assumption of an adequately functioning democratic political system.

Yes, we need something else, but it’s really a failing of America that we don’t have it. It turns out that our institutions are weak, and unfit for purpose, and include a big gaping obvious hole where there ought to be an institution for the protection and promotion of representative democracy. I don’t think you can excuse that. The best one can say is that America was the world’s first real attempt at anything like this (previous democracies not really being comparable to what was a rather large multiethnic empire even from the early days) and it turns out that critical failings can be both impractical to foresee and impractical to correct later on.

History features a lot of accidents which can seem like a functioning system until they aren’t. I have written more than once that our culture was able to take for granted for a couple of centuries a kind of journalism industry which, turns out, is not a naturally emergent feature of modern society but was more a temporary product of technological and economic forces which have now grown obsolete. Ooops. Journalism is probably not the only such poor assumption.

Now, here we are, and it really just feels too late. America has been at crisis-level for years and yet very little has really happened in response. Existing institutions have not transformed. New institutions have complemented the hollow system rather than filling the gap. As a misanthrope, I have to be honest that popular judgment comes off relatively well, given that the forces wrecking America generally don’t have popular approval; alas, that doesn’t address the problem of bad rules which empower those forces anyway. Beyond that, popular opinion is not really with the wreckers but is at the same time too shallow to stop them. I look at Americans’ continued migration to states with more and more radical reactionary governments, and conclude that at the end of the day, average people are simply more interested in a big house, snow-free climate, and low personal tax rates than in liberal democracy. I don’t think America is truly unique in this, either.

After a brief time in the sun, it should (should) be obvious that liberal democracy is not the natural and inevitable “end of history,” and is instead a complex system which requires a lot of constant, professional maintenance to sustain. Absent that, there’s a tendency for very common hostile forces to corrode and corrupt it into something else—often a sham democracy—which turns out to be at least as stable as what it replaced.

Maybe we’ll know better next time, but I don’t recommend taking that for granted, either.

* This is why I propose that the GOP is no longer really a political party, as it is really no longer an organization oriented toward contesting democratic elections, being instead more interested in corrupting them now.

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