Political Tribes, Institutions and Democratic Failure

Arnold King at American.com reviews two books examining how a successful liberal democracy emerges.

What jumps out:

In order to have the rule of law, a society must have cultural institutions that promote rules and norms that cannot be overturned by autocrats…

The basic problem… is that humans evolved to reward close relatives, to appreciate exchanges of favors with friends, and to compete within tribal hierarchies. We did not evolve to share power with and confer equal status upon strangers.

A corrupt state is one where a single tribal or kinship group appropriates all the benefits of power; a failed state one where tribal appointment and rent-seeking drive its institutions and bureaucracy into the ground.

Our liberal democracy and institutions are grossly unusual, and rely on internalised norms that Fukuyama and  North, Weingast, and Wallis believe need to be seen as sacred.

While I could bang on about our political tribes and their  capacity and willingness to deliver the spoils of government to their members, of more interest is the distinction between democracy and liberal institutions.

Ordinary conversation, and writings among senior political commentators, conflate democracy with liberal democracy. They overlook  the importance of institutions, customs, and checks and balances on democracy’s tendency to deliver mob rule (there is a wealth of literature on this and I’m not going to touch any of it).

Better democracy is seen by many as simply higher levels of administration-by-vote; as having a say in as many decisions as possible. Check out the views at the average BBQ. Participatory democracy movements represent this view at its most developed. You can see some of it at New Democracy.

This is wrong. What makes our liberal democratic societies the “best of the worst” is the liberal part, not necessarily the democratic part. Democracy in various forms has existed for thousands of years; liberal institutions, the thinking behind them, and their embrace as a cultural norm have not.

Independence of the judiciary; a non-compliant media; freedom of speech, assembly and association; embrace of the limits of a Constitution; Madison-style checks and balances; transparency; equality before the law; non-politicised elementary education; even legal concepts like fiduciary duty; the list is longer than most realise. None of these are essentially democratic.

And it is here that an observer can see the real challenges to government. Many of these norms aren’t enshrined in black letter law. And where they are (take transparency and FOI/GIPA, for example) their enshrinement formalises the methods of their obstruction. Consider also the “black box” selection of judges and tribunal members (FWA, anyone?), or the political nature of school curricula.

This is the old question of conventions and power.

And if liberal conventions aren’t so ingrained in our voting and political classes that they naturally adhere to them, then the political class will walk all over them when it suits their tribal interest.

So back we come to our present tribal politics. Consider, for example, the overt placement of political staffers in senior bureaucratic and tribunal roles, the slow politicisation of Federal Treasury, the undermining of the military on what seems ideological grounds, the regulatory overreach to benefit party stakeholders, the failure to manage public sector numbers and pay despite its economic urgency.

Consider too, the US. The overt misuse of TARP money to bail out auto manufacturers was an exercise of power in defiance of either law or liberal conventions, by both Bush and Obama. As is the current US government’s failure to pass a budget for three years.

The point of all this is that the actions of our political tribes (more the Left than the Centre-Right, I claim) over the past 50 years have nibbled away at those liberal institutions that make our democracy work. And in doing so, they have de-sacralised them, and have made their acceptance contingent on some other agenda, rather than for their own sake.

And as soon as those norms can be overwritten by some other “greater good”, the liberal part of our democracy is under threat.

Given the observations of the authors I mentioned earlier, this does not bode well.

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