In my last essay, I described the Goldilocks Dilemma of anger in democracy. On one hand, anger is essential to a healthy democracy. It can clear the mind, clarify priorities, and inspire action. And once inspired to action, angry people can make democracy work, wresting power and opportunity from the few and extending it to the many. At least one way to read the lesson of American history is that without anger, there is no democracy.
On the other hand, anger—at least, as it is stoked by today’s tribal blame machine, which reduces all social problems to existential conflagrations between us and them—hardens divisions, increases partisanship, and distorts perception. Angry people badly misjudge the problems they confront and the character of their political opposites, which makes them more apt to promote and follow anti-democratic paths.
When confronted with this dilemma, most people protest that their anger is better than someone else’s. My insistence on equality trumps your claim to liberty, and so on. But this predictably degenerates into an anger arms race, with no obvious way to resolve the competing, and increasingly angry, claims. If the claims can be resolved within the basic structure of our constitutional democracy, we might be content to let the claimants press their positions in the public square, and to the victor go the spoils. This in fact is precisely how we won the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended Jim Crow. But some Americans believe, and not without reason, that competing claims in contemporary society cannot be resolved within the basic structures of our democracy. This leads them to press anti-democratic solutions, which makes us wonder whether, as the battle for our democracy rages, warriors will destroy the edifice they are ostensibly trying to protect.
A recent column in the Guardian by Ben Davis illustrates this tension perfectly. Davis formerly worked for the Bernie Sanders campaign. Like every seasoned practitioner of the tribal blame machine, he begins his broadside with the apocalyptic, charging that the Republicans have “completely overruled” “many of the basic rights and principles of our democracy.” Though Davis does not tell us which rights and principles have been lost, he warns that Republican perfidy has created “a crisis … unprecedented since the Civil Rights Era or potentially even Reconstruction.” The GOP, he says, does not believe in democracy. They have engaged in “asymmetric warfare” and “rigged” the system from top to bottom, emasculating the institutions that once gave the people a voice and replacing them with anti-democratic tyranny.
And how has the Biden administration responded to this crisis? Foolishly, naively, Biden continues to fight from within the confines of the democratic process, or so Davis charges. Biden urges Americans to vote, but “voting will not work, and people know that.” The institutions of democracy are broken, destroyed by a party that is itself anti-democratic. Relying on them against the Republicans is like abiding by the Queensbury Rules to fight against a street gang. Democrats, Davis insists, must free themselves “from the rules of a game everyone has long since stopped playing.” Democracy is lost, he warns, unless Biden embraces “radical changes to the basic structure of American governance.” The President must “disempower institutions” like the Senate and the Supreme Court and take “unilateral action.” Completely without irony, Davis heralds these solutions as “radical democratic reforms.”
Beware people who tell you the only way to save your house is to burn it down.
Davis wrote his column before two events that bear on his argument. The first is the imminent passage in the Senate of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. If, as expected, the bill also passes the House, it will become what the Washington Post calls the most significant climate bill” in U.S. history, providing nearly $370 billion in spending to cut emissions and promote clean energy. As everyone who follows these things knows, the bill is poised to pass in the Senate only after West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin scuttled a vastly more ambitious proposal by the Biden administration that would have provided even more support for a green economy and an even faster transition away from fossil fuels. Still, environmentalists and scientists have widely praised the compromise legislation, which could reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. by 40% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, create 1.5 million jobs, “and prevent thousands of premature deaths from air pollution, especially in disadvantaged communities.”
The second event is the August 2 statewide referendum in Kansas on abortion rights, the first time since Dobbs that U.S. voters weighed in on reproductive rights. Prior to the referendum, reproductive rights were guaranteed by the Kansas state constitution. The referendum asked Kansas voters whether they wanted to transfer the matter to the Republican-controlled state legislature, which is hostile to the right to choose. A vote in favor of the referendum, therefore, was a vote against reproductive rights. Those who drafted and championed the referendum took various steps to increase the likelihood that it would pass. They scheduled the vote in August rather than November, for instance, when they expected pro-choice voters would not be paying close attention, and wrote the referendum in a confusing way that favored a Yes vote.
Yet even without these time-worn tricks of the trade, supporters of the referendum had every reason to be confident. Kansas is a broadly conservative state, Donald Trump carried the state handily in 2016 and in 2020, and Republicans control the legislature and most statewide elective offices. The state has long been a hotbed of anti-abortion activity, and the anti-abortion movement there is well-funded and well-organized. The Catholic Church in Kansas backed the referendum and poured millions of dollars into the campaign.
Despite these myriad advantages, Kansas voters decisively rejected the referendum, which means that abortion remains available in the state. For a media accustomed to seeing everything through red and blue lenses, the result was incomprehensible. But as an organizer with Planned Parenthood explained after the vote, the ultimate issue in the abortion debate is whether the government should be allowed to control a person’s body. Framed in this way, support for abortion aligns perfectly with opposition to government interference in a person’s most private affairs, which is a core libertarian principle that transcends party membership. And that alignment proved exceedingly important; Kansans turned out in record numbers to register their preference.
It should be apparent that the first event—the climate bill—could not have happened outside our democratic process. Yes, it is a compromise at a time when compromise is a luxury we can ill afford. Yes, the larger bill would have been better. Yes, it does not do enough to forestall, let alone reverse the ravages of climate change. But it is more than the United States has ever done, it is far more than any state or private company could accomplish on its own, it will achieve a great deal, and it is apparently the best we could have done. Notably, there is no unilateral action President Biden could have taken, and certainly no lawful action, that would have accomplished remotely as much.
This is constitutional democracy in action.
And the second event—the referendum—could not have happened unless a great many voters in Kansas wanted to retain the right to a safe and legal abortion. The decision in Dobbs offered them their first opportunity to give meaningful effect to this view. I feel strongly that Roe should not have been overturned, that Dobbs was wrongly decided, and that a woman’s right to control her reproductive choice ought not be subject to the majoritarian process. But my view is not shared by a majority of the Supreme Court. Instead, the Court returned the question to the states, and in conservative Kansas, after a campaign that was tilted against abortion, the voters decided overwhelmingly that women should have the right to choose. The landslide has given reproductive rights a much stronger popular footing in Kansas than they ever had under Roe. It also sends an important message to advocates and politicians nationwide, on all sides of the debate: when the issue is framed as a yes/no vote, voters broadly support a woman’s right to control her body and oppose government control of personal choice, regardless of their nominal political affiliation.
This too is constitutional democracy in action.
These two events provide an answer to Mr. Davis’ critique and at least a partial solution to the Goldilocks Dilemma. No one should read the climate bill as evidence that democracy “works.” The better reading is that democracy often supplies the only way to do the best we can. Well-founded frustrations with compromise and partisanship can make people pine for concentrated power. But there has never been a time in U.S. history—or any history, so far as I am aware—when concentrated power produced equitable results. Power is disinclined to share.
This doesn’t mean that advocates must passively accept whatever our imperfect constitutional democracy yields. On the contrary, I think they should fight like hell to get what they want. We secured free public education, a minimum wage and universal adult suffrage because angry people fought like hell. But the battle must take place within the limits imposed by constitutional democracy. Mind you, these limits can accommodate a wide range of economic models, from the socialism of Bernie Sanders to the market fundamentalism of Milton Friedman. But the structural limits to our constitutional democracy—which I take to be regular and honest elections, divided power, and protection of minority rights, all guaranteed by the rule of law—have to be non-negotiable.
Frankly, I am surprised to find myself writing these words, since I had always counted myself among the many on the left who are chronically dissatisfied by the way our constitutional democracy cuts, shuffles, and deals the cards. But the events of January 6 have reminded me both how fragile our system is, and what sort of person would emerge as supreme leader if we ever decide we’ve had enough of it. So fight—for a better climate, for enforceable minority rights, for open elections, for a more just society, and get angry at their chronic absence—but do not aspire to concentrated power and do not toy with “radical changes to the basic structure of American governance.”
And the result in Kansas teaches that party labels sometimes matter less than people think, and that anger—if wielded intelligently—can produce great things. If pro-choice advocates in Kansas had turned the vote into a referendum on the Republican party, especially if they had engaged in the kind of broad-brush party-bashing and demonization that is so common to the tribal blame machine, they would have lost soundly. But by speaking to a superordinate value—that is, a value that ranked even higher than party affiliation—they demonstrated that Republicans are not monolithic and that, even in a deeply divided environment, policy can still trump party. By taking a nuanced, strategic approach, they handily broke the supposedly iron grip of party. No doubt these advocates were furious after Dobbs. But rather than simply lashing out blindly, they worked within the democratic structure and created even stronger support for reproductive rights.
I understand Mr. Davis’ anger and respect his passion. His anger can save our constitutional democracy, but it can also destroy it. As befits a democracy, the choice is ours.