System design matters

Early this morning I came across a twitter thread summarizing the “theory of now” of Professor Jason Stanley, who endorses the summary. While not exactly my own phrasing or choice emphases, it seems generally accurate to me also.

The main difference in my own “theory of now” may be that I think system design—omitted from Stanley’s theory or at least from a 20-tweet summary he just promoted—plays a critical role.

My own “theory of now” might in fact be summarized in six words that I scribbled down earlier this year:

  • rabid right
  • flabby left
  • bad rules

The summarized Stanley addresses effectively the first two, which are both important. I believe that the third is also essential to understanding the sabotage of America.

I don’t think this is primarily a post to enumerate specific bad rules. I think the big picture is that the fascists have not been winning majority support in America. Since the Reagan phenomenon, which was relatively early in the Republican Party’s transformation into a sabotage cabal (and which was mostly accompanied by Democratic Congresses for that matter), Republicans have not been good at producing a majority coalition. They don’t seem to be getting better at it, either. What they have been good at, and arguably have kept getting better at, is capturing authority by abuse of trapdoors written into our democracy’s rules.

The importance of this can be overestimated and underestimated. I have become skeptical, at this point, that any rules changes can really contain the angry and distrustful proto-nation created over decades by Republican promotion of white grievance. I am also well aware that anti-majoritarian rules have been part of America’s archaic pass at democracy since the very beginning. In a sense American democracy worked for long periods despite that, but, it was a sense in which white patriarchy got to stand in for broader public opinion. That has been the case for most of American history. The exceptions include the Civil War, however, along with a large, organized, slow turn against democracy which began at basically the exact moment America first approached a genuine attempt at multicultural democracy, and which has continued up to the present crisis.

Basically I don’t think that democracy is democracy is democracy, and specific rules are mere trivia.

A democracy can seem to function, and maybe can function for a long time, with bad rules—as long as people mostly accept voluntary limits on abuse and/or fighting back. At the other end of a failing democratic experiment, again, I have serious doubt that any rules can permit a majority to maintain effective governance if a minority faction is angry and big enough.

But in between, maybe system design matters a lot? It seems true in many places that an official menu of options creates opinion as much as it measures opinion. I am not convinced that rules make no difference, and that Disruptors will simply flow around them whatever form rules take. I know politicians; results, as well as habit, shape convictions more than the other way around. The antidemocracy campaign came out on top within the Republican Party more than half a century ago, despite which it has taken more than a generation for Republicans to shed basically every agenda besides power and sabotage.

Would that steady push have continued had Republicans not faced such bountiful options for capturing and exercising authority without popular consent? If the federal judiciary did not offer them a ratchet for voter-proofing policy which voters hate? If House Democrats had won not only more votes in 2012, but an actual majority, taking away a big veto from Republicans? If we did not have a filibuster, or outrageously nonrepresentative Senate? If the state legislators now enacting much of Republicans’ policy agenda did not feel totally unaccountable to voters (aside from Republican primary voters) thanks to gerrymandering?

If Republicans were not able to game the rules and expect to win the presidency with zero expectation of getting more votes than the opposing party?

I don’t assume that if the Electoral College vanished, today, America would never elect a Republican president. Very possibly a very toxic Republican president could win a majority vote. But… you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time. If we had much better rules, I’m not convinced that Republicans would be able to fool a majority of the people for decades, or would even count on it.

As it is, well. Besides the “theory of now” thread which I mentioned at the top of this post, one other item prompted a return to these issues. Lately I’m joining in the effort to rag Toyota and other companies which fund officials who voted to overturn a presidential election. Today, however, it struck me: “officials who vote to overturn a presidential election” is an entirely accurate description of the Electoral College. That’s exactly what the Electors did in 2000, and in 2016 (as well as other occasions although even the popular vote was far from democratic on those occasions prior to 2000). It doesn’t have to be that way, and indeed didn’t have to be that way, but it was a bad pseudo-rule which a flabby left decided to accept as “the rule of law,” and which a rabid right has fully embraced as one more reason why democracy is for suckers.

My one-word theory of now is “screwed.”

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