Chris DeMuth’s new essay powerfully and convincingly argues that well-functioning representative government is a necessary condition for national cohesion in our democratic age.
DeMuth is not starry-eyed about legislatures, or legislators. He knows that their deliberations generate “posturing, parochialism, and muddled compromises” rather than efficient or optimal policies. And yet, like James Burnham long before him, DeMuth is wise enough to see the virtues of the representative mode of public reasoning, which allows multiple factions to learn how they can live with each other through some complicated, continually evolving process of mutual accommodation.
I find his vision of Congress rediscovering some of its virtues in response to a fiscal crisis especially stirring:
When Congress is obliged to fund a much larger share of entitlement and welfare spending with tax revenues, it will just have to pick up its fiscal reins and exercise a level of collective discipline that no current member has experienced. The political parties will have to wake up from populist hallucinations over taxation, redistribution, and economic growth. And American citizens will acquire a much keener sense of their obligations to one another.
The practical sense of nationalism DeMuth expresses here is worth underlining. Any nation worth its salt must be able to face up to its collective obligations with a modicum of honesty—not without some dissimulation, presumably, but without indulging in fantasies of a collective political life without tradeoffs. With the once broadly accepted norm of peacetime debt retirement long gone, and with the economy ambling along well enough, our current political system lacks the gravity to pull the nation’s centrifugal factions together on fiscal questions. But DeMuth is absolutely right that when the day of reckoning does come, it will not be sterling presidential leadership but a return to the rather homely virtues of Congress that will see us through it.
Having professed my admiration for DeMuth’s conception of what Congress ought to be, I find myself in disagreement with his prescription for getting there. In short, I think he has prematurely lost his nerve about the potential of “ambition counteracting ambition” to rebalance our system toward Congress.
I certainly can’t quarrel with the low marks he gives the 114th and 115th Congresses on this score. After Trump’s election, Republican majorities sought to patch over, ignore, or obliterate the internal differences that would imperil their tenuous hold on power. That required downplaying Congress’s specific institutional interests. During the last years of the Obama administration, Republican congressional majorities (more puzzlingly) did precious little to take on their much-denounced adversary in the White House. Congress’s one truly bold maneuver stands out as a kind of parable for the present state of constitutional affairs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell successfully blocked President Obama’s third appointment to the Supreme Court. But he did so in the most institutionally self-abnegating manner imaginable—not by mustering the votes to defeat his nominee, but by insisting that the matter was so important that it needed to be left to the American people’s judgment in the next election.
DeMuth thinks that Congress might be reenergized by stronger parties—and indeed, it might be. But, as Yuval Levin says, both our parties today are exhausted and disoriented, unsure of how their well-worn platforms match up with the current electorate’s desires but nevertheless determined to sell the same ideas. Given that reality, equipping party leaders with more and bigger weapons to enforce discipline is likely to accomplish very little. What deals do we imagine a super-charged McConnell could cut with a super-charged Nancy Pelosi? Is the problem that they can see a way forward, but are blocked by unmanageable “ideological activists” on the wings of their respective parties? I know some people make this argument, but I just don’t see the evidence for it. The most cherished of bipartisan initiatives to die an ignominious death in the last decade was the Simpson-Bowles Commission, and the Republicans who withheld their votes and thus killed it—Dave Camp, Jeb Hensarling, and Paul Ryan—were no Tea Partiers.
Given our current state of political confusion, what we need from Congress is not a leader who can run a tight ship, but an environment in which open-ended deliberation is allowed to play out. Members might even need—gasp—to take some votes without knowing how they will turn out in advance. That prospect is scary for reelection-minded legislators. But we should counter their prudential sense of cowardice by urging them to cultivate a properly nationalistic courage to strike out in new directions, as so many generations of Americans have done before.
What would a more open, deliberative Congress actually achieve for the American people? There is a good chance that supermajorities of legislators would find workable compromises on issues that currently seem intractable, such as healthcare and immigration. But, as DeMuth has shown us, the deeper and ultimately more consequential purpose would be to affirm the American people’s commitment to self-government. As I argued in a paper published last fall, genuine self-government in a republic of 325 million people is a tall order, but only by reinvigorating Congress will we have any chance of fulfilling it.