Sullivan departed blogging in early 2015. He explained that “I had to stop primarily because it was killing me.” He dreaded the idea of blogging the 2016 presidential campaign. Now I don’t know about anyone else, but I won’t deny that as I’ve blogged about this election cycle, I have, on occasion, looked at Sullivan’s sabbatical with more than a touch of envy.
Nevertheless, I was delighted to read that he was reentering the public sphere by writing about the campaign for New York magazine. His first essay dropped Sunday night, and even the headline — “Democracies end when they are too democratic” — is classic Sully:
Could it be that the Donald has emerged from the populist circuses of pro wrestling and New York City tabloids, via reality television and Twitter, to prove not just Plato but also James Madison right, that democracies “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention … and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths”? Is he testing democracy’s singular weakness — its susceptibility to the demagogue — by blasting through the firewalls we once had in place to prevent such a person from seizing power? Or am I overreacting?
Sullivan being Sullivan, the essay quickly prompted its own criticism:
Bouie lodged a number of critiques, and you should really read him to check those out.
I want to focus on a different part of Sullivan’s thesis — that we’ve arrived at the current moment because small-d democratic norms have displaced small-r republican norms:
Over the centuries … many of these undemocratic rules have been weakened or abolished. The franchise has been extended far beyond propertied white men. The presidency is now effectively elected through popular vote, with the Electoral College almost always reflecting the national democratic will. And these formal democratic advances were accompanied by informal ones, as the culture of democracy slowly took deeper root. For a very long time, only the elites of the political parties came to select their candidates at their quadrennial conventions, with the vote largely restricted to party officials from the various states (and often decided in, yes, smoke-filled rooms in large hotel suites). Beginning in the early 1900s, however, the parties began experimenting with primaries, and after the chaos of the 1968 Democratic convention, today’s far more democratic system became the norm.
There are two levels of counter-arguments to make to this point. The first is that while we’re all having fun with what the 2016 campaign is doing to The Party Decides thesis, that doesn’t change the fact that it has held up pretty well during the post-1968 period. Indeed, that is what makes the 2016 campaign so unusual.
The second point is that the public frustration with political elites is not concentrated on the presidency so much as Congress and the informal norms that govern the place. The filibuster is not part of the Constitution, and it has been around for a long time. Its use by the minority party has skyrocketed in the past decade, however. This reflects a deeper issue, which is the degree of political polarization in the House and Senate, and how these ideological shifts have gone far further than the shifts occurring among the American public. In other words, America’s political elites have become so polarized that they’re perfectly comfortable to use small-r republican methods to block, oh, I don’t know, the consideration of a Supreme Court nominee.
Sullivan does acknowledge later in the essay that elites are “so bitterly divided the Congress is effectively moot in a constitutional democracy.” But that needs more than a sentence. This is particularly true because his aim is to legitimize small-r republican forms of governance. That can’t be done unless there is some degree of trust in political elites. He writes:
But elites still matter in a democracy. They matter not because they are democracy’s enemy but because they provide the critical ingredient to save democracy from itself. The political Establishment may be battered and demoralized, deferential to the algorithms of the web and to the monosyllables of a gifted demagogue, but this is not the time to give up on America’s near-unique and stabilizing blend of democracy and elite responsibility. The country has endured far harsher times than the present without succumbing to rank demagoguery; it avoided the fascism that destroyed Europe; it has channeled extraordinary outpourings of democratic energy into constitutional order. It seems shocking to argue that we need elites in this democratic age — especially with vast inequalities of wealth and elite failures all around us. But we need them precisely to protect this precious democracy from its own destabilizing excesses.
The trouble with 2016 is that it is extremely easy to trash elites, whether of the foreign policy or economic variety. And the decades-long political polarization of political elites has laid the groundwork for this trashing to continue.
Sullivan has a lot of work left to do with his restoration project. I wish him luck.