John W. McKerley is a research associate at the University of Iowa. His publications include (as co-editor) Civic Labors: Scholar Activism and Working-Class Studies (University of Illinois Press, 2016).
In an April 2016 piece in The American Spectator, written while the presidential primaries were still ongoing, J.E. Blanton argues that the modern primary process – which brought us Trump and briefly threatened Bernie Sanders – has abandoned the public good in favor of factional infighting. Such infighting, he asserts, has the potential to so undermine the nation’s partisan politics as to invite “mob rule,” as one or another populist faction vies for supremacy.
Blanton’s solution is to roll back many of the internal partisan reforms put in place since the early 1970s. Although these reforms were designed to empower rank-and-file primary voters at the expense of party powerbrokers, he argues, “voter turnout has declined, polarization has overtaken the national electorate, and factionalization is deepening within both parties.”
Blanton hopes to avert an even worse national crisis by returning to a system guided by the latest generation of powerbrokers, people whose self-interest in political spoils through electoral success would presumably push them back toward political moderation and compromise. While such an arrangement might be less democratic, he concedes, it would better represent the people’s best interests.
To support his argument, Blanton cites ancient writers and the Founding Fathers, who themselves cited many of those same ancients, regarding their distrust of the alleged excesses of direct democracy. While I can’t speak to the ancient or even eighteenth-century contexts of his sources, I’d like to direct the discussion toward what I think is a much more apt and instructive period in US history – the Progressive Era (roughly 1890 to 1920) – which, I think, suggests very different conclusions regarding American democracy and our current political moment.
The Progressive Era saw its own wave of partisan factional battles and electoral reform. While we in the early 21st century continue to experience the breakdown of Cold War political alliances, Americans of one hundred years ago faced the shattering of a party system forged in the Civil War. By the turn of the 20th century, not only were Democrats and Republicans riven with various (and sometimes overlapping) “reform” and “boss” factions at local and state levels, but those same parties faced vigorous third-party competitors, including the Union Labor, People’s (or Populist), and Socialist Party.
While this period produced some significant and longstanding democratic reforms (including nationwide women’s suffrage and the direct election of US senators), arguably it was distinguished more by an anti-democratic backlash orchestrated by partisan powerbrokers (if not always “bosses”), whose interest in stability was also an interest in moderating or reversing the broad anti-elite reforms made possible through factionalism and third-party politics.
Perhaps the most important expression of anti-democratic backlash took place across the states of the former Confederacy, in which elites within the Democratic Party (sometimes in collusion with frustrated white Populists) enacted a variety of electoral changes aimed at curbing the factional (often biracial) politics that had characterized the South since the enfranchisement of black men and the rise of competitors to Democratic (and white) rule. In the wake of “reforms” like the polls tax and literacy tests, statewide voting percentages fell precipitously, sometimes into the single digits (with both black and many working-class whites disfranchised), opening the door for the codification of a new, stricter, and more expansive culture of segregation that would define southern society for at least another half century.
We can see the role of factionalism in this process even more clearly if we look to those former slave states where such black disfranchisement failed – the states of the Border South, slave states that had remained in the Union (even if nominally neutral). In Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri, proponents of black disfranchisement had pressed their case only to be beaten back, most often not because of resistance from Republicans but from other factions within their own party that saw the reforms as opposed to their own interests. While the failure of southern-style black disfranchisement did not solve any of the pre-existing problems with democratic politics in the Border States, it did prevent the success of the radically conservative, anti-democratic strain of politics that reshaped their neighbors in the former Confederacy.
Thus, the lesson of the Progressive Era is that the greatest threat to democracy is not too much democracy but the over-concentration of power in the hands of the very powerbrokers to which Blanton looks. Far from saving us from ourselves, such political elites (often deeply tied to powerful private economic interests, as in the case of the large southern landowners who benefited from crushing biracial democracy in the South) more often than not use consensus as a way of maintaining an order that benefits them and their allies. Or to put it another way, the more consistent danger in US politics has been oligarchy and not mob rule.
But what, if anything, does this tell us about the 2016 election? To be honest, I’m not sure, but, to hazard a guess, I would say that the recent partisan instability is more hopeful than anything. For over a generation, Republicans have dominated national politics by appealing to the same block of former Confederate states that Democrats had used during the first half of the twentieth century to the same effect. And, much like the Democrats, over time, Republicans have found that appealing to the elite-driven, ethno-nationalism that dominates those states can create significant contradictions and difficulties in winning national elections.
Hopefully, the collapse of a Trump presidential bid will open new opportunities for southern pro-democratic initiatives – like the Moral Monday movements – that can begin to undo the region’s deeply damaged political culture. Likewise, on the Left, perhaps the Sanders movement can energize resistance to the Democrats’ anti-democratic neoliberal consensus. But, whoever wins the election in the next two weeks, Americans will be best served by reviving participatory democracy rather than trusting in the enlightened self-interest of elites.