Oh yes, there is an “ugly side” of American democracy, and it is staring us right in the face—the sad and sorry spectacle of the U.S. House Republicans’ race to the bottom in selecting a speaker for the House of Representatives.
How did the Republicans reach the bottom of the barrel? Well, it started when former Speaker McCarthy decided to be a responsible leader by reaching a deal with President Biden to raise the debt ceiling for two years and divert a government default and support a continuing resolution to fund the federal government for 45 more days at the current funding level.
McCarthy’s compromise rankled a handful of Republicans, notably the firebrand Matt Gaetz (FL) and seven others, including Colorado’s Ken Buck (District 4), who eventually voted to oust Kevin McCarthy from the Speaker’s chair.
Dismayed at what I believed to be immature and irresponsible Congressional behavior, I wrote Representative Ken Buck and told him that as a member of Congress he is expected to demonstrate mature and responsible decision making—that his vote to oust McCarthy was neither.
He responded (email October 11, 2023) that “At the beginning of the new Congress, I supported Kevin McCarthy as speaker because of his promises to the Republican conference—that he would support 12 single-subject spending bills, a balanced budget amendment, and a commitment to scrutinize the unauthorized government programs hemorrhaging American taxpayer dollars. Unfortunately, he failed to keep these promises. Instead, he has made funding deals to appease Senate Democrats and President Biden and pushed through a continuing resolution that funds the government at the prior year’s appropriations level.”
Oh Mr. Buck, is it a sin to compromise? After all, compromising is an essential component in governing responsibly. Is it not? Compromise is not a four-letter word!
I’m at a loss to understand why an elected member of the U.S. Congress believes that compromise is a dirty word. He would rather shut down our government and inflict economic pain on constituents and Americans of all political persuasion and economic standing. I can only conclude that Mr. Buck and others like him don’t understand what it means to be a responsible and mature decision maker.
Surely, Dear Reader, you know what responsible and mature leadership is—qualities that seem missing in action among Republicans in the current U.S. Congress. Should we hold our breath, cross our fingers and expect change? Perhaps if you are a political novice or an extreme optimist, you might so believe. But, alas, change is not likely given the cast of characters now controlling the U.S. House of Representatives.
Learning how to become a responsible and mature leader is possible but it is certainly not a simple matter. Still, it is essential for lawmakers to put on their learning hats. After all, successful politics is, “the art of the possible, the attainable” as Otto von Bismarck, a 19th Century Prussian-German statesman, famously said. Pragmatism and compromise are the life blood of the body politic.
This ungainly example of American democracy “inaction” presents an ugly face that encourages Russian, Chinese, and wannabe dictators worldwide to proclaim democracy is not a desirable alternative to state authoritarianism. “Making the trains run on time,” as Italian strong man Benito Mussolini once boosted, is not a strong suit of democracy.
A well-functioning democracy in America requires a well-functioning political party system where majoritarian rules with minority protection are practiced. “We the people” is not the tyranny of the majority; nor is minority rule that sidetracks majoritarianism acceptable.
Alas, the latter—tyranny of the minority—may become a possible reality according to Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of The Tyranny of the Minority (2023). They contend that “The U.S. system has always contained institutions that empower minorities at the expense of majorities. But only in the twenty-first century has counter-majoritarianism taken on a partisan cast—that is, regularly benefiting one party over another in national politics.”
Levitsky and Ziblatt point to other pillars of minority counter-majoritarianism that contribute to the tyranny of the minority (e.g., the small state bias built into the electoral college, skewed senatorial representation in which states with small populations are on an unequal, advantageous footing with large populated states, U.S. Supreme Court justices “nominated by presidents who lost the popular vote and confirmed by Senate majorities that represent only minority of Americans.”)
Levitsky and Ziblatt’s warning about minority rule certainly is worrisome, as it should be to all Americans, but they do not believe that minority rule is yet entrenched. Minority rule is growing, but it can be stopped. “How?” you might ask. At the ballot box. “Extremist minorities are best overcome through electoral competition” and institutional reform that includes abolishing the electoral college and replacing it with a national popular vote; reforming the Senate so that the number of senators elected per state is more proportional to the population of each state; replace “first-past-the-post” electoral rules with a form of proportional representation; abolish the Senate filibuster; establish term limits for Supreme Court justices; make it easier to amend the Constitution. No small tasks, are they?
Isn’t it past time to cast aside the ugly face of American democracy?
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Donald C. Menzel, Ph.D. is a past president of the American Society for Public Administration, author and international speaker on ethics reform. Before his move to Colorado, Don organized OLLI-USF’s China Special Interest Group. He also served as an OLLI-USF faculty member for over 10 years. Currently living in Colorado, he will be back in Florida for the coming winter.
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