The "sifting and winnowing" plaque at UW-Madison.
Its not so much about electing the right politicians or trying to force voters farther to the left than they think they want to go. Beating voters over the head with policy details doesnt work much, either. The voters are clueless: polls show that a majority actually wanted the majority of what was in Bidens Build Back Better agenda, and, yet, Bidens approval rating is in the tank and most voters dont know what he tried to do for them. They are complaining about the economy and, yet, the stock market is better than ever. Nobody is conveying the message to voters that stock performance and the average persons quality of life are largely unrelated, but it probably doesnt matter much, anyway.
Most voters have to be able to feel their way to democracy; it cant be an intellectual thing. Its about institutions. Its about having a sophisticated system for democracy. Its about supplementing the inherent weakness of liberal democratic constitutionalism with rigorous civic practice and wholehearted patriotic appeal.
Labor unions and public radio are examples of civic institutions for democracy. Universities and public schools are also supposed to educate citizens for democracy. That was the original hope of progressive thinkers like John Dewey, anyway. But, as we see every day, education for democracy is not working. The system and the vision have failed. Liberal democracy is in crisis today the world over. The four most prestigious democracy rankings in the West are in agreement that democracy and freedom have been declining globally for fifteen years and counting: Freedom House in Washington DC; The Economist Intelligence Units Democracy Index in London; and, two from Sweden, V-Dem Institute and International IDEA.
We need a better system for democracy and splitting hairs over the design of the US Constitution misses the point entirely. The answer to the problem of democracy has to be in the civic realm, not in tweaking the power relations between branches of government and elected representatives, or even the campaign process. Furthermore, democracy wont work without economic incentives: the promise of democracy is wedded to the hope for prosperity. Witness, for example, how The Atlanticthe most prestigious magazine in the countryrecently hosted a rewriting of the Constitution by three groups, progressives, libertarians, and conservatives.
Progressives and conservatives want different versions of judicial supremacy, wherein the Supreme Court has final say over the Constitution and trump-power over the other branches, but they have no answer to the problem of a politicized court. They also want Congress to function more like James Madison intended it to, with less faction and more deliberation for the common good, but they dont know how to make that happen. By contrast, libertarians want a system bordering on confederacyhence, their love of originalism, but theres no point going backward in history. There was never a point in history when life was magically easy and good, or when capitalism was the way it should be, or some other such nonsense.
Theres obviously no reconciling these three groups at the level of the existing government; it must be done in the civic realm with what academics call civic constitutionalism. While the balance of powers is an essential constitutional feature, that balance is based on brute power clashes (realpolitik) between branches and political parties. Weve also discovered that theres no separation of powers whenone party controls all three branches, and Congress is perpetually gridlocked, besides. Its not surprising that this system has never worked very well for defining and legislating Madisons desired common good. For one thing, the common good is an ideal to aim at that requires a more delicate system of rational conversation than the brute power struggle of Congress or the three branches can typically provide.
The common good is also a moving target: it evolves with time and with capitalismitself an evolutionary system that the libertarians crude, Newtonian system of divided powers cannot adapt to. Furthermore, while federalism, another right-wing favorite, has its place, it needs to be subservient to the national interest as a whole, to the common good. Alexander Hamilton understood this point far better than Madison or anyone else did at the time.
In considering these points, it becomes clear that the Constitution is designed for realpolitik, whereas the ideal of the common good requires something like an ideal constitution to be debated and deliberated upon in the civic realm. After all, isnt that what government of, by, and for the people implies? Citizens, businesses, unions, and NGOs alike need a democratic system that enables them to debate and communicate on the ideal policies that determine the common good. An ideal constitution would be, in effect, a Wikipedia version or working definition of the common gooda document very different from the original Constitution. An ideal constitution needs to be open-sourced and available to the entire society. This seems to be the implication of the academic term civic constitutionalism, which is as-yet only vaguely understood. And, when the common good is defined publicly and communicated to the public with true standpoint diversity between progressives, libertarians, and conservatives, that would be the standard or measure by which citizens can hold their state and federal governments accountable.
For, in order to have accountability, there must be a standard of accountability, an ideal by which to judge the representative accuracy of government. We currently have no such thing. The realism of Madisons Constitution needs to be balanced, therefore, with the idealism of true democratic deliberation and civic unity focused on a Peoples Constitution. It turns out that James Madison needed Alexander Hamilton more than he could ever have admitted, but neither of them could have foreseen that the three branches of government would need a further balance, check, and guiding ideal in the civic sphere.
Does this sound implausible? Too good to be true? Not so; such a system was partly built already at the turn of the twentieth century in Wisconsin. It was called, naturally, the Wisconsin Idea: a rudimentary democratic operating system. Tony Evers, the current governor of Wisconsin, just called for a revival of the Wisconsin Idea as a way to boost rural prosperity (By contrast, the former governor, Scott Walker, tried to erase the WI Idea from the University of Wisconsins mission statement. Read The Fall of Wisconsin by Dan Kaufman for the full story on that). Rural prosperitysounds like something voters supposedly want, doesnt it? Like Bidens BBB agenda. They want it and, yet, they dont recognize it when they see it.
A democratic operating system must make it easier for voters to govern themselves and to figure out what they all have in common, thus boosting levels of social trust, unity, and confidence in government. This is the only way to get the government accountability the right supposedly wants. Confederacy only leads to kleptocracy and an infinite regress of fragmentation. Thats why, if it werent for Alexander Hamiltons relentless push for national unity and a government powerful enough to protect it, we wouldnt have a country at all today. The only way to reconcile the ongoing clash between Hamiltonian nationalism and Madisonian checks, balances, and federalism, is through a sophisticated system of civic constitutionalism.
If you like what I wrote here, Ive got a lot more coming, but I need time to write and Im trying to raise the money to do an SJD and a PhD back-to-back at UW-Madison. I want to go back to school to overhaul the Wisconsin Idea and outline the plan for a new type of university, since I think the prevailing liberal arts model is outdated. So, while Tony Evers called for a revival of the Wisconsin Idea, nobody knows how to do it better than I do. Fund me and Ill prove it. The video of me above is visible on my GoFundMe campaign, which I will probably switch over to startsomegood.com in a month or more. The campaign title is Second American Revolution Needed.
Thanks for reading.
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