The “democracy in crisis” industry is really rocking. Possibly, the Harvard professors and Washington Post editors who are raising the alarm don't believe themselves; they’re saying that democracy is in crisis because they think saying that will help Democrats get elected. But they seem intent on making that evident to the rest of us.
When The Washington Post wants to understand what’s going on or, alternatively, when they want to sell you something, they turn to Harvard professors, whom they’ve identified as the objective truth. After Kevin McCarthy was ousted as Speaker of the House last week, everyone in the newsroom talked to everyone on the faculty. After these conversations, everyone held the same beliefs they started with, but more strongly and "scientifically."
"If you want to know what it looks like when democracy is in trouble, this is what it looks like,” Daniel Ziblatt, professor of government at Harvard University, told the Post's Sarah Ellison. “It should set off alarm bells that something is not right.” Vague enough for you? The thrust of the Harvard faculty is to formulate empty phrases that make you feel something, and so will make you vote for Democrats. Something is not right. It's for insights like that that the Post has Harvard on speed dial. It would surprise me if Ziblatt didn’t also say "This is not normal." That's what his research, which no doubt has focused exclusively on “normal,” shows.
This is what it looks like, to Ziblatt, when democracy’s in trouble: a legislative leader is removed by direct majority vote. Now we'll have to select a new one, by direct majority vote. This is what it looks like when democracy is in trouble: people in the very same party (I mean, there are only two) disagree about something (aid to Ukraine, for example), and vote accordingly. In this case, democracy and the threat to democracy are the very same thing, Professor Ziblatt. Aren't they?
Ellison continues: "Congress arrived at this point for myriad reasons, all of which build on one another, scholars say: Social media and cable news incentivized politicians to perform for the camera, not for their constituents. Aggressive gerrymandering created deeply partisan districts where representation is decided in primary contests, not general elections. Weakened political parties became captive to their loudest and most extreme members. Taken together, those factors handed a small number of lawmakers the power to throw one of the three branches of government into disarray and, for now, paralysis."
That's the Harvard faculty/Washington Post style of explanation: many vague factors have led us into this seeming disaster. Social media. Cable news. Gerrymandering. Partisanship. Weak political parties. Just... everything. When she asks scholars what's up, Ellison writes, they emit a cloud of vague horseshit that either explains the phenomenon in six different ways or doesn't explain it at all.
Unfortunately, with material at the Harvard-faculty level—explanations in the form of a couple of buzz words—it’s impossible to tell whether it has been explained in multiple incompatible ways or left entirely unsupported. It's just a cloud of hyper-familiar bullshit, and emitting clouds of hyper-familiar bullshit is, the piece makes evident, what the Harvard faculty is for.
You probably think I sound anti-intellectual. But what's really anti-intellectual is thinking that, in providing seven vague non-explanations for phenomenon x, a Harvard prof has manifested expertise. Time to think again about who has any cred, and why. And the multi-factorial explanation encompassing everything we think should be suppressed is truly gratuitous in this case, the worst sort of incompetent cant.
Here's a sufficient explanation of the McCarthy meltdown: We operate by majority vote. We have a two-party system. We, and Congress, are closely divided. But, since each party purportedly represents half the population and half the Congress, there are bound to be internal divisions. In this situation, the internal divisions in a party can be dispositive of the outcome: that’s what we'd expect with democratic voting procedures. The structural situation, combined with majority-vote governance, are sufficient to explain the outcome.
"Social media," "partisan gerrymandering," "cable news," "cameras" (really, they said "cameras"): as explanations, these are at a bizarre altitude; taken all together, they dis-explain everything. They’re not necessary to create a plausible explanation. They’re partisan distractions. And they come from the Harvard faculty. Next we're going to ask why people don't believe "the experts" who "say." And the answer is going to be that they are being manipulated by "social media, cable news." Same again, in other words. And you’ve only got the one, don't you? Or the same three vague terms to explain everything you dislike.
Even though Speakers of the House rarely get removed in this way, I take last week's events as a fairly routine little contest for control of the party's congressional delegation, prosecuted by democratic means. It's a crisis only for that congressional delegation and doesn’t in itself seriously challenge even the legislative work of the body. So why are apparently progressive people freaking out? Just because freaking out is in turn useful in condemning their opponents.
The rhetoric’s nuts. Consider this from Charles Blow: "In Greek mythology exists the story of the Gigantomachy, a battle between the Olympian gods and giants. According to prophecy, the gods could emerge victorious only if assisted by a mortal. Hercules came to the rescue. But in Republicans’ version of this drama, McCarthy could have emerged victorious over his party’s anarchists only if Democrats had come to his aid. None did. He was felled by a revolt led not by a giant but by the smallest of men, not in stature but in principles: the charmless Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida.”
The writing’s just ridiculous. But, anarchists, eh? The whole establishment converges into a single voice in order to insult him: Matt Gaetz, the anarchist so vile, says Peggy Noonan, that he makes decadence banal. It's a very elaborate insult, whether it makes sense or not. But I think Gaetz simply made direct use of the democratic procedures that were in place in order to push his views forward. It took Gaetz to show that Blow and Noonan are the same person.
Democracy dies in darkness, Washington Post, I agree. Is Matt Gaetz operating in darkness? Gaetz is right there in your face, directly fucking your shit up by democratic procedures. I don't think you should keep rolling everything and anything indiscriminately into your “democracy under threat!” story, unless you want me to think that all the threats to democracy are this trivial, or this democratic.
And next time you call a Harvard professor, Sarah Ellison, and even if it's Daniel Ziblatt, make him give you some sort of answer.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell