Center for Civic Education

Democracy and the New Millennium

Politics and Politicians in Current Democratic Systems or: Democracy and its Discontents

Hartmut Wasser

A paper presented at
Democracy and the New Millennium
International Conference
Malibu, California
October 2000

We currently observe on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean similar attitudes with regard to politics and politicians: People are fed up with them. All available demoscopic data reveal growing public discontent with policies and politicians in the U.S. as well as among European nations, and, by the way, the same seems to be true for Japan. This discontent reveals itself most saliently in a continuing decline of voter participation and a tremendous electoral volatility as traditional political parties are deserted for new formations and leaders. Elections provide only the most spectacular index of public impatience. Other observations reinforce the impression of crisis, of a precarious systemic state. Political leaders find it difficult to demonstrate and exercise responsibility, found and find it difficult to follow through on laboriously negotiated national pledges such as Maastricht or the North American Free Trade Agreement. Great break throughs become mired in complexity: How many outside Brussels still retain the 1992 vision of the European Community as a transforming venture? And social cohesion apparently frays at a level even more basic than politics. Citizens here and there become uneasy at the noticeable presence of the foreign-born, worry about the burdens on welfare, and view imported mores, languages and religious manifestations as a threat to national identity. Casual report to deadly force seem to have become more acceptable, whether among American gangs or German skinheads. Commentators point out, and everyday life seems to confirm, a general erosion of civility; only a few years after Eastern Europeans sought to recover the autonomy of civil society; the quality of civil society, Western and Eastern, seems significantly degraded.

Do these and similar manifestations mean that democracies, as some propose, have become ungovernable? In the 1970s, too, critics discerned a crisis of governability. What they usually referred to, however, were excessive demands on the state and economy, as postwar growth deteriorated into stagflation. The crisis then was purportedly the result of "overloaded democracy", shortsighted mass pursuit of present entitlements at the expense of saving for the future. Whether or not this analysis is accepted for the 1970s, today's discontents are different. Citizens do not so much confront their states with demands as they back away in disillusion, disillusion with politics, policies and politicians.

Why so,·which are the main reasons for the decline in political trust to a degree, raising questions of governability, of efficiency and legitimacy of our political systems? The easiest wry to deal with this question is to point to the unbroken chain of scandals during the·past decades, involving politicians in the U.S. as well as in Germany or elsewhere. Will Rogers once called members of Congress "America's only native criminal class", certainly not a very serious interpretation of a major part of the so-called political class. But scandals such as Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair or Whitewater, to forget about Monica Lewinsky, have strengthened widespread convictions among Americans that those in the highest offices, including the president, do not govern by the rule of law and moral principle. And with regard to Germany one could enumerate a whole list of scandals–Parteispendenaffare, Traumreiseaffare, Rotlichtaffare, Putzfrauenaffare, the most recent and most serious one the ongoing scandal around the former chancellor Kohl. On both shores of the Atlantic the consequences are pretty much the same, though the extent to which such scandals do influence the level of political trust among the citizenry remains an empirical question. The list of blames by the political author Martin L. Gross in his book "The political racket. Deceit, self-interest and corruption in American politics" (New York 1996) could as well have been formulated by a German political analyst; it runs, abridged, as follows:

Reading the book of Gross, I was reminded of a famous letter of Thomas Jefferson that has made a deep impression on me, a letter to Tench Coxe, written at Monticello, May 21, 1799 (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, collected and edited by Paul Leicester Ford, vol. VII, New York/London 1896, pp. 380-381):

"How long we can hold our [republican and decent, H.W.] ground I do not know. We are not incorruptible; on the contrary, corruption is making sensible tho' silent progress. Offices are as acceptable here as elsewhere, and whenever a man has cast a longing eye on them, a rottenness begins in his conduct".

But, after all, is the political class not simply the mirror-image of man as such or of existing societies with all of their weaknesses and deficiencies? Well, if so, it shouldn’t, at least not according to a continuing line of occidental reflection on politics and political representation since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans. "Fiduciary power" has been demanded by nearly all of the more important political philosophers, unselfish exercise of this power for the sake of the common good. "Politicians must be conscious of the fact, that they are representatives of the commonwealth, that they have to serve the dignity and reputation of this commonwealth; morally deficient political leaders are the more ruinous for such a commonwealth, because they let vices penetrate the republic... They cause more damage by their example than by their wrong-doing", Marcus Tullius Cicero stated in his famous political treatise "Laws"—and I could add similar quotations by later colleagues of Cicero. He, who wants to represent the people, who wants to exercise "fiduciary power", who wants to be a democratic, a republican ruler must behave better than the average citizen: this is a deep rooting conviction of western political philosophy. Such a demand is not quite unrealistic, at least not in the eyes of a Thomas Jefferson, who believes "that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents... The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society." (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, Monticello, Oct. 28, 1813, in: The Portable Thomas Jefferson, ed. by Merrill D. Peterson, New York 1986, pp. 533-534). And even the profound realist Alexander Hamilton expresses the conviction, that "the supposition of universal venality in human nature is little less an error in political reasoning than the supposition of universal rectitude. The institution of delegated power implies that there is a portion of virtue and honor among mankind which may be a reasonable foundation of confidence." (The Federalist Papers, ed. by Clinton Rossiter, New York/Toronto 1961, no 77, pp. 459-464).

Let us assume, together with a majority of our peoples, that the "natural aristocracy" has somehow disappeared during the last two or three decades, as the growing number of scandals might indicate–and let us look for some of the reasons that might explain this deplorable loss. To a certain degree, we are safe in blaming feelings of personal weakness for the readiness to engage in supposedly power-securing affairs and scandals. For some period of time I myself felt convinced that, just to mention one example, Watergate should be interpreted as a symbol of the "Imperial Presidency", so impressively described by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Today I believe in the theory of weakness; insecurity led Richard Nixon to the Watergate burglary, to efforts of deligitimating the opposition by unacceptable means. The distance between illusion and the reality has been haunting and frustrating, to various degrees, all modern presidents.

Eight White House years couldn't convince Harry S. Truman of the substance of presidential power. Months before his presidency expired, he deplored his successor's aspirations to act and put things in motion. "He is going to sit at this desk and say 'You people do this, you do that', but nothing will happen". And Lyndon B. Johnson complained with a certain bitterness: "The only real power, which I own, is the nuclear one, and it is the one which I can't make use of." Gerald R. Ford in a TIME interview (November 10, 1980) expressed the opinion that "We have not an imperial presidency but an imperiled presidency. Under today's rules... the presidency does not operate effectively... That is harmful to our overall national interests".

If there were enough time available, I could easily enumerate similar confessions or complaints by other members of the political class, in the U.S. as well as in Europe, complaints of being curbed by too many hindrances in one's ability of shaping and accomplishing political goals, of carrying out necessary reforms for society's sake. And there are political scientists on both sides of the Atlantic confirming these and similar political job assessments.

What, for example, are the foundations of presidential power in the U.S.? Forty years ago, Richard Neustadt ("Presidential power and the modern presidents", New York 1960) offered an answer that transformed the study of the American presidency. Neustadt observed that presidents have very little formal power, far less than necessary to meet the enormous expectations heaped on them during the modern era. The key to strong presidential leadership, he argued, lies not in formal power, but in the skills, temperament, experience and character of the man occupying the office and in his ability to put these personal qualities to use in enhancing his own reputation and prestige. The foundation of presidential power is ultimately personal. If the person fails, demonstrates weaknesses, gets entangled in affairs and scandals, if his prestige and reputation dwindles, then the presidency, lacking institutional instruments of enforcing its political intentions, appears like Gulliver as chained giant. Neustadt's notion of the personal presidency dominated the field for decades, but its influence is on the decline, because, if I am not wrong, the presidency in the meantime has been rapidly developing as an institution and a series of Presidential studies nowadays find themselves focusing on the "institutional presidency". Political scientists such as Terry M. Moe and William G. Howell provide rigorous treatments of specific formal powers granted presidents under the American Constitution (Unilateral action and presidential power: A theory, in: Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 4, 1999, pp. 850-872).

They point to the presidential veto power and ask how much leverage this gives presidents to shape legislative outcomes; they refer to the appointment power, which offers presidents important formal means of engineering bureaucratic outcomes; and they, in particular, stress the president's formal capacity to act unilaterally and thus to make law on his own. "Because presidents are executives, and because of the discretion, opportunities, and resources available to them, they are ideally suited to be first movers and to reap the agenda powers that go along with it. If they want to shift the status quo by taking unilateral action on their own authority, whether or not that authority is clearly established in law, they can simply do it–quickly, forcefully, and (if they like) with no advance notice. The other branches are then presented with a fait accompli, and it is up to them to respond. If they are unable to respond effectively, or decide not to, presidents win by default. And even if they do respond, which could take years, presidents may still get much of what they want anyway".

Whether one fully agrees with the findings of this analysis or not, whether one sticks to a certain degree to Neustadt's interpretation, as I am inclined to do, there must be admitted, that presidential weakness or even failure is not primarily rooted in a lack of institutional or formal powers, as presidents themselves often maintained.

With regard to Germany, political scientists often have pointed out that the Chancellors can dispose of a set of institutional instruments to enforce their political will–but sometimes don't or didn't know of how to make use of these instruments (Wilhelm Hennis: Richtlinienkompetenz und Regierungstechnik, Tübingen 1964). "The basic law", Hennis argued, "and the supplementing constitutional and standing orders–regulations provide all legal opportunities for the Chancellor, to make use of his power to define and enforce policy guidelines... At the moment of his election the horse is saddled and bridled, he must only know of how to ride it." The example of Helmut Kohl, though, raises doubts about the validity of Hennis' argumentation: The former Chancellor did not, at least not primarily, enforce his political intentions through constitutional channels, institutional arrangements or formal panels, i.e., cabinet meetings, but made use of personal contacts and small informal groups–proof of the fact that it is not the office of the Chancellor as such which endows him with authority and power, but his position and importance within his own party and the existing party-system in general. The importance of the party as powerpolitical resource for the Chancellor and the tendency, to make decisions in coalition panels, characterizes the FRG as a democracy run and managed by political parties. If their influence fades, the capabilities of governance fade—and the uneasiness of citizens about the political class and politics in general raises.

Summing up, what has been said so far, we might come to the conclusion that it is not so much the office, the institutional arrangements, the efficient organization of governance deciding, whether an administration or whether the political system in general can offer visionary and strong leadership. Successful presidents and chancellors need what Machiavelli called "fortune". Leaders in the New and the Old World react more to challenges than start initiatives, and those challenges are often considered to be very helpful, because they offer opportunities to demonstrate leadership and engage in reforms—just think of the end of Cold war and division of Europe as fortunate moment for Helmut Kohl. But as soon as fortune changes, rulers often fail, because, as Machiavelli knew, "there are hardly any wise men, able, to adjust to changing times; no one can make up his mind, to deviate from the path, he has always walked successfully". The unveiled surprise of George Bush and Helmut Kohl at their election defeats in 1992 and 1998 can well be explained by Machiavelli's observation—but even Machiavelli would have serious problems to explain the current malaise of political leadership and responsibility.

Let us focus on some of the present-day dilemmas of political leadership. We observe a permanent expansion of policy-spheres and, linked up to this phenomenon, a growing complication of decision-making processes. Moreover, a greater sensibility to the consequences and secondary effects of political decisions is to be seen throughout the western world. The widespread "participatory revolution" (i.e. the rising number of citizens' initiatives) increases the number of political actors and the excessive interference of law courts with the realm of politics reinforces this tendency. Finally, the specific effects of our electronic media on the speed and personalization of decision-making processes contribute to the enormous problems of politicians in fulfilling their job in a decent and efficient manner, that would produce respect and appreciation by the people. Perhaps the complexity of modern politics is simply too overwhelming, does no longer allow the presentation of visions or convincing ideological perspectives–and demands too much from the existing political class, discouraging at the same time political ambitions of apt newcomers or outsiders. If this analysis is half-way true, then personal credibility of political leaders is the more important for citizens, as only reliable measure in a non-transparent problem loaded every-day political world–and current complaints about the loss of this credibility have to be taken very seriously.

Political scientists as well as political practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic agree upon the continuing decline of traditional political parties as major source of the loss of political leadership and responsibility (i.e., Martin P. Wattenberg: The Decline of American Political Parties, 1952-1996, Cambridge, Mass., 1998; Franz Walter/Tobias Dürr: Die Heimatlosigkeit der Macht. Wie die Politik in Deutschland ihren Boden velor, Berlin 2000).

Political parties are losing their meaning to the voters. Increasingly, Presidents are no longer making political parties and parties are no longer making Presidents. In Germany as well, parties have lost their almost permanent base of support among a significant and clearly defined segment of the population which has led to a dramatic reduction of their capacities to produce values, concepts, ideas and visions. Recently, there has been a revival of Tocqueville's emphasis on the role of voluntary associations in making democracy possible, but almost all of the discussion has ignored the fact that he gave priority to political associations (the most important of which are parties) because of their role in stimulating other associational activity. That Tocqueville focused upon parties at a time when they were weak and non institutionalized, that he thought them indispensable to the life of a healthy democracy indicates a rare prescience. Political cleavages helped to form them, economic interests, social·and ethnoreligious variations, cultural differences and other factors–many of these have disappeared in a post-materialist world dating back to the mid-1960s, and a post-communist world since 1990. The new political phase, the Western world appears to have entered since the mid-1960s, has either rearranged, reduced or destroyed the bases of support of the traditional "old" parties and simultaneously introduced new sources of social and political cleavage, giving rise to new parties. Daniel Bell and Ronald Inglehart have sought to document the economic, social and cultural effects of structural shifts during the past decades that have sharply increased the importance of knowledge-based and public-service occupations at the expense of production-related jobs.

Inglehart and others have pointed out that this structural shift has opened up new lines of cleavage between those involved with "materialist", production-related issues and the increasing numbers of people employed in the postindustrial high-tech economy. The latter typically are recipients of higher education, place greater emphasis on post-materialist quality of life issues, and hold liberal views on social and environmental issues. Such values are difficult to institutionalize as party issues, though groups like the Green parties and the "new politics" tendencies within the traditional left-wing parties have sought to capitalize on them. The biggest changes in party alignments have resulted from the perceived failure of the social-democratic welfare state to solve key economic and social problems, which has produced a renewal of classical liberal (free-market) approaches, sometimes presented by their advocates as solutions to quality-of-life concerns as well.

The basic question remains: How does a polity sustain (or develop) parties, able to present visions, leadership, responsibility, because they are firmly rooted in cleavages if there are (no longer) the same stark differences in interests, values and ideological views that, in the past, used to divide the people in clearly defined groups, fertile soil for the prospering of our traditional parties? Political leadership suffers from the erosion of parties: leadership in the U.S. Congress, where party leaders have lost the power to tell their troops that something is really significant and to get them to respond accordingly, where party responsibility does not have any real meaning any more. Political leadership in that White House has changed its character, since parties do no longer play a key role in influencing the relationship between the president and the people or since the teamwork between the president and Congress of former decades has ceased to exist, even if the president and a majority of the Congress belong to the same party.

The deterioration of the traditional role of parties in the presidential selection process has been thoroughly documented in the literature; basically, the crux of the change has been to alter the constituency on which candidates are dependent for nomination from the party organization regulars to the public at large, and especially, the mass media. Austin Ranney (The Political Parties. Reform and Decline, in: Anthony King, ed., The New American Political System, Washington, D.C., 1978) has dubbed the new process as "closely approaching a no- party system"; his summary of the current state of affairs is worth quoting at length: "Presidential nominations are contested by candidate-centered organizations. Each organization is assembled by the candidate and his inner circle. Each is financed in part by funds it raises and in part by federal matching funds... The party organizations simply are not actors in presidential politics. Indeed, they are little more then custodians of the party-label prize which goes to the winning candidate organization. The parties have long since ceased to be judges awarding the prize." (p. 239).

In Germany at first sight you may come to the conclusion that things are different as political parties still seem to dominate public life in all of its aspects. But this impression is a more or less superficial one. In reality parties nowadays face tremendous difficulties in recruiting party followers and members, in convincing citizens, that party government is the most reasonable way of governance, both in terms of efficiency and legitimacy, in presenting stringent (and alternative) programs or visions of how to deal with current international as well as domestic political problems.

As a consequence of party weaknesses, political leaders are no longer, at least not in the first line, "produced" by political parties or their regulars, but through the media, the role of which in shaping the public agenda is permanently growing, and by demoscopic factors. Jeane Kirkpatrick back in the 1980's once was asked by interviewer Anthony King what qualified party functionaries, Senators, Congressmen, Governors and the like to choose presidential candidates, and offered the following answer: "What qualifies them is the fact that they know the nature of the political job. They themselves understand what's involved in not only being elected, but in governing and making decisions once elected. And so they have a sense of what kinds of personal qualities will be most useful, and most needed, in a President. For example, they will understand the importance of being able to build consensus. They will understand the importance of having a candidate who can provide 'leadership'—that amorphous and terribly important quality. Why will they know that? They will know it because they experience these. They will also be qualified in another way, they will have dealt with the principal candidates. They'll know how this fellow performs under fire. They'll know the quality of his judgment under stress. They'll know whether he's a hard worker. They'll know whether he's able to consult." (BBC Radio interview, "Talking Politics", September 1980.)

Nowadays, different "qualities" seem to be demanded: you need to be "Mr. Clean", be able to raise lots of money, run a "gaffe-proof" campaign and "look good" on television. "Good candidates" may no longer be the same as what it takes to be a successful political leader, President, Chancellor, Speaker or whatsoever. Political analysts at various occasions have expressed the opinion that leaders like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison or Abraham Lincoln under the auspices of our "electronic democracy" would not even get close to the White House–not a very encouraging perspective indeed.

What to do in order to rebuild governance, leadership, responsibility—indispensable qualities for the survival of commonwealths and societies? How to overcome those moral crises revealing a broad distrust of political representatives, a feeling of historical and political disorientation? Is there any chance to bring to life once again that "natural aristocracy" of Thomas Jefferson, a political class, being able to exercise committed leadership and serve the common good?

Leadership, may I repeat my view, is precisely what distinguishes a representative democracy and permits a collection of self-interested private persons and special interests to act as a civic entity on behalf of public purposes. Leadership is not a surrogate for participation in a representative democracy, it is its necessary condition. Without facilitating leaders, a citizenry is unlikely to remain active; without active citizens, responsive leaders are unlikely to emerge, and leaders who do emerge are unlikely to remain responsive.

Let me at this point of my statement enumerate (not: evaluate) a few proposals with regard to necessary political reforms aiming at a renewal of leadership and responsibility, which recently have been articulated. Frequently, they argue on, what I would label, a "Jeffersonian" pattern of reasoning. Benjamin Barber, i.e., advocates "Strong Democracy" as a solution to current leadership problems, denies the necessity of "strong leaders", because they are inclined to make Americans or Europeans weak citizens, conform to Robert Michels' Iron law of oligarchy and distance the citizenry from the government to which representation is meant to tie it. He looks out for "facilitating leadership" which empowers people, "subordinates itself to the constituency, making itself the vigilant watchdog of the community's civic activity and guarantor of equitable participation" (Benjamin R. Barber: Passion for Democracy, Princeton, N.J., 1998, p. 103).

According to Barber, people concerned with democracy and with the nature of democratic leadership need to shift their focus away from heads of state and towards the body politic that is the citizenry. The remedy of our problems is not better leaders but better citizens; and we can become better citizens only if we reinvigorate the tradition of strong democracy that focuses on citizenship and civic competence. "To reorient democracy away from (conventional, HW) leadership and representation and towards stronger forms of citizenship and participation, we need to foster institutional and practical experimentation with participatory institutions—many of which me already in place at the state and local level." (Barber, op. cit., p. 109). Barber preaches Jeffersonian political philosophy: Institutional arrangements, the endeavor of forming a "natural aristocracy", in order to combat the corrupting effects of political power and the decline of political responsibility must be supplemented by the competence of citizens "to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government." In his brief address at Monticello to a group of local citizens (of Albemarle) who had earlier presented an address of welcome to him, when he returned from Paris, Jefferson admonishes them to practice "strong democracy": "It rests now with ourselves alone to enjoy in peace and concord the blessings of self-government, so long denied to mankind: to show by example the sufficiency of human reason for the care of human affairs (Merrill D. Peterson, ed., The Portable Thomas Jefferson, New York 1986, pp. 259-260); the citizens are elevated to a position of guardians of liberty, decency and responsibility within the commonwealth, even are considered to be "the only safe, because the only honest, depositories of the public rights, and should therefore be introduced into the administration of them in every function to which they are sufficient." (Letter to A. Coray, October 31, 1823).

Scholars, who are not convinced, that Barber's "Strong Democracy" is either desirable or practicable, scholars, who don't share Jefferson's high esteem and reliance on the citizenry as an active political (and democratic) force, draw more limited, system-oriented conclusions of how to cope with the present crisis of representative democracies throughout the Western world.

"Term limits" seem to be one answer to the distressing questions of the time, "term limits" which might help to prevent or at least ease the alienation between the political class and the people, foster attitudes of political responsibility for the commonwealth and the people and increase the chance of getting rid of those members of the political class who don't act and behave as "natural aristocrats". The "term limit"-movement has been successful for a while at the level of American states and is eagerly discussed in the FRG in the wake of the Kohl affair—but there exist many obstacles to a speedy introduction of this idea on the federal level of the US or within the FRG.

Making political parties more responsive, reads the motto of another proposal aiming primarily at the German party democracy. Why not imitate the American invention of' "primaries" in order to give the people some influence upon the recruiting process of candidates for political offices? Why not at least empower all party-members to join the process of intra-party decisions, to let them participate in the finding- and selection-procedures of apt candidates, which do not simply follow party-lines but are able and willing to reflect upon the common good? In my home state, Baden-Württemberg, the SPD has made an encouraging step towards the desired direction. In spring 2001 state elections will be held—and for the first time in the history of this state have all party-members (not only party regulars and delegates) been invited to participate in the process of electing the party candidate for governorship, with the result, that a young woman has been selected to challenge the old, experienced, but uninspiring CDU-Ministerpresident. A revolutionary event, according to many observers of the political scenery, nearly exceeding the bounds of possibility; or, as others argue, just the beginning of a new era of intra-party involvement of politically informed interested and engaged citizens, even non-party members?

In closing, let me emphasize the fact, that moral crises, with their sense of collective disillusion, from which the Western world suffers currently, can generate opposite results: either a surly distrust of institutions, a cynicism about politics, a resentment of elites, heightened xenophobia; or the provoking of societies to recover the public commitments they earlier abandoned. Moral crises are grave, but not necessarily lethal, and if some have undermined liberal democracy (the fate of the Weimar republic!), others have prompted albeit belatedly, a renewed sense of civic mission. Under committed leaders, societies can seek to remoralize politics, to overcome legacies of corruption or entrenched patterns of racism or withdrawals into isolationism. The politics of resentment and of renewed moralization are both possible responses to moral crises of democracy—let us hope, that we are going to experience the positive possibility in the near future. We need both, committed leaders, and committed citizens, the latter ones even more (and by saying that, I think to share convictions of the Center for Civic Education). For, as Thomas Jefferson knew: "Cherish... the spirit of our people, keep alive their attention. Do not be severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to public affairs, you and I and Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors, shall all become wolves." (Letter to Edward Carrington, January 16, 1787, in: The Portable Thomas Jefferson, op. cit., pp. 414-415).

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