Breaking the Democratic Chains

A confluence of three recent news items – in the US, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in Chile – provided me with an opportunity to revisit an excellent book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. The provocative title might lead some to be skeptical of the book’s contents, but author Nancy MacLean is an historian skilled at archival work, who is also able to make contemporary political connections in an engaging narrative.

It was her serendipitous discovery of a little known building on the campus of George Mason University, outside of Washington DC, where she found the hard copy archives – papers, letters, and musings – that allowed her to patch together in detail the intentions behind a decades-long effort by a handful of the country’s wealthiest and most fervently anti-government/small government citizens. These men, led by the ideology of a relatively unknown yet profoundly influential thinker named James Buchanan, and funded by the deep pockets of the better known Charles Koch, intended to “save capitalism from democracy” (p.xx).

These oligarchs were troubled that, as more Americans enjoyed and exercised de facto and de jure voting rights – including women, people of color and the poor – these masses would vote for policies they wanted, such as more public education, public health, and consumer and environmental protection, to be paid for through progressive tax rates. Rather than allow this scenario to unfold, an effort to hack the American system began, based on three elements: minority rule (through capturing the Senate, maintaining the electoral college and gerrymandering), highly conservative judicial activism (most notably in the Supreme Court, but also through lower levels), and voter suppression. The country would technically be democratic, but calculated and targeted restrictions would ensure it would be a democracy “in chains.” MacLean’s historical narrative is chilling in its prescience.

The fruits of recent doom-scrolling led me to ponder that three variations are unfolding, in three very different places. The first symbolizes a possible consolidation stage that leads one to wonder whether and how the juggernaut can be stopped; the second outlines efforts at an endgame of political hacking in an institutionalized system in which norms and values of participatory democracy for all have long been discarded; and the third provides a glimmer of hope that resistance to such well-executed, anti-democratic strategies can begin to be rolled back.

First, the ramming through in record time of Amy Coney Barrett to serve a lifetime appointment on the US Supreme Court, represents the pinnacle of the generational effort to control the Supreme Court. The new 6-3 conservative majority could make broadly popular programs impossible to implement (such as some sort of Medicare for All), and could lead to sweeping federally mandated deregulation at odds with voter preferences at the state level (think environmental protection or gun control measures in California.) As awareness of this fait accompli sets in, a variety of options seem to be on the table, ranging from court rebalancing, to commissions on more fundamental reform, to perhaps simply start ignoring certain rulings. However, none of these options will be quick, or smooth. A country with a population that is increasingly diverse and left leaning – particularly among the young – could find itself chained to the ideological goals of an oligarchic few.

Second, and illustrating the chains at a more advanced micro level, is evident in the divided city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina (population ~ 110,000 and falling due to braindrain and out-migration borne of frustration with corruption, patronage and gridlock). In this case, a city that has been divided, exploited and increasingly malgoverned since the darkest days of the wars in the early 1990s is on track to have this dysfunction finally codified and legitimized. It is not a surprise that the city’s two leading parties, the HDZ and SDA, have agreed on a plan to change the city’s electoral representation system in a manner precisely and mathematically tailored to ensure their dominance of city neighborhoods/party fiefdoms while allowing for the veneer of democratic choice. What is a surprise is that some  international actors, desperate for a “deliverable” and a good news story, seek to portray this as a move away from the stagnation in that city that has prevented local elections for more than a decade– willfully ignoring the reality that this will dig the hole of divided malgovernance ever deeper. This external legitimization risks further emboldening party actors as they continue to chain citizens to a system geared solely toward party loyalties rather than represented citizens. Even more troubling is that following local elections in December according to these engineered election apportionment rules, the same parties will claim a popular mandate to continue rigging the system at higher levels of government, finishing by political cleansing the aims that the war in the early 90s did not complete.

The third example – and the only one that leaves one feeling any sense of grounded optimism – happened in Chile, following strong support among voters to re-write that country’s constitution. This case provides a directly relevant glimmer of hope that constitutional rigging can be reversed, because, as described by MacLean, Chile’s political, economic and constitutional structures were put in place not only according to the same “economic liberty” ideology underlying the American experiment underway, but with the direct support of some of the same ideological fathers. Following the 1973 Pinochet coup, this hitherto democratic, now-authoritarian country provided these ideologues – “the Chicago Boys” – with an ideal, anti-communist tabula rasa upon which to test their theories in real-life, as Chile’s military leaders, “wanted to find a way to ensure that Chileans never again embraced socialism, no matter how strong the popular cries for reform. The solution they came up with was to rewrite the nation’s constitution to forever insulate the interests of the propertied class they represented from the reach of a classic democratic majority” (p.155).

This was part of a significant social-structural overhaul in the ‘70s and ‘80s in which industry-wide labor unions were banned, social security and health care were privatized, education was reformed to minimize critical thinking in terms of utilitarian workforce preparation, and the ability of the central government to set regulations was curtailed. While on the one hand this created economic stability that stood out in the region – particularly when compared to less stable neighbors in South America. But the fact that it remained fixed after the country’s democratic transition as part of the price of that transition also ultimately fed the widespread discontent with the endemic and worsening economic inequality, the decrepit social services and education available to the people, huge public debt, and an “endless opportunity” for corruption with no meaningful checks and balances. The description of the damage this economic liberty experiment in Chile wreaked on society could serve as a warning for the US of the perils of placing economic rights above all others.

Taken together, these three cases shine a light on the role structures – constitutional and institutional – play in either enhancing or limiting meaningful political participation, representation, accountability and policy. In a system in which “locks and bolts” (to use another phrase referenced in MacLean’s book) seriously constrain democratic participation, it is facile to suggest voters are somehow to blame for not wanting effective governance “enough” to change it. Chile shows that even when facing such obstacles people can get fed up. This week we will have a glimpse of whether US voters have had enough. And upcoming local elections in Bosnia will serve as a barometer of the lived and expressed frustration of those citizens, and also of the extent to which extent structures expand or contract rights, deter or facilitate corruption, and reflect majority or minority rule.