Why America Is Both Democracy and Republic
Jay Cost speaks with Ben Klutsey about America’s identity as a democratic republic and the value of building consensus
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Jay Cost, a political scientist and Gerald R. Ford Nonresident Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, about the primacy of Congress, the relationship between democratic republics and liberalism, whether the Constitution is outdated, why we need to increase the size of the House of Representatives and much more.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today our guest is Jay Cost. He’s a political scientist. He’s the Gerald R. Ford Nonresident Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on political theory, Congress and elections. He’s also a visiting scholar at Grove City College. He’s a contributing editor at the Washington Examiner. He is an author, and his latest book is “Democracy or Republic? The People and the Constitution,” which is the subject of our conversation today.
Thanks for joining us, Jay.
JAY COST: Thanks for having me, Ben. It’s great to be here.
KLUTSEY: We’ll just delve right in. Now, in this book, you really delve into the concepts and the foundational ideas behind what a democracy is, what a republic is, and why America—and, eventually, the Constitution—was conceived and developed as a democratic republic. As I was reading the book, I was wondering who you were speaking to. Who are you speaking to with this book?
COST: I guess there’s a couple of people that I’m speaking to. I think I’m probably speaking in response to public intellectuals on the left side of the spectrum who have been very critical of the Constitution as being an anti-democratic instrument of government. Although I don’t really think they’re listening. Do you know what I mean? I don’t think that they’re going to read the book. I think that public intellectuals these days are very siloed, so I doubt very much that I’m going to see people complaining about the Senate deal (with the chapter that I wrote on the Senate).
I use those criticisms as a launching point. I envision the book as being geared towards young people, and particularly students who are interested in understanding our system of government—regardless of their politics—and to understand its functions, and people who are still out there digesting information from multiple sources to hear a perspective on why the Constitution was designed the way it was, as opposed to what I think are a lot of straw-man attacks against it.
Congress Is Paramount
KLUTSEY: That’s really good. Now, in the book, you highlight that Congress plays an important role in the constitutional infrastructure of the country. One of the points you highlight is that it may not be entirely accurate to think of Congress as coequal with the other branches, in that it’s paramount because of its republican-enhancing role of generating consensus and compromise with the broader and larger parts of the nation.
Why is it important to understand this particular concept?
COST: That’s a great question. There’s a variety of reasons why it’s important to understand the centrality of Congress. The centrality of Congress really speaks to the intended republican quality of the system that the framers put together, wherein their view was that the people should rule over the government. Therefore, the very essence of self-governance is the rule of the people.
The place where that is really intended to happen was originally supposed to be Congress. It was, and frankly still is, Congress and Congress alone where the full diversity of the American political community can even potentially be expressed. I don’t think Congress does a very good job of expressing that diversity today. But the purpose of the book is really to get at what the framers were thinking.
You can’t have a single person in—the president of the United States—Hamilton argued that an energetic executive is necessary for a healthy republic. The president doesn’t provide, and really the unitary nature of the president is he cannot provide, a diversity of perspectives, which is going to be just endemic in a big, broad political community such as the United States. You’re only going to see that in Congress.
Insofar as our system of government is truly a democratic republic, as opposed to, say, an elected monarchy—if we’re truly a democratic republic, then we have to have a branch of government that reflects the people, which is what Congress is. Because we were intended to be a democratic republic, Congress was given the dominant role. Not necessarily hegemonic; in some cases, though, it can be hegemonic. And that was the way the framers intended it because they saw Congress as being the repository of the public will.
Democracy and Republic
KLUTSEY: Now, back to the title of the book: “Democracy or Republic?” Why should we conceive of these two concepts together—that it’s not solely a democracy and it’s not solely a republic, but we have to consider these two things as sort of joined together?
COST: Right. That’s a great question. “Democracy” in its most straightforward definition means “the rule of the people,” which, in the 21st century in Western civilization, is—I sort of point out—it’s a hegemonic type of government. You cannot be taken seriously by calling for a return to hereditary monarchy. Insofar as there was a debate about which systems of government were best, that debate is now over. That’s a debate from the past; it no longer exists. Democracy “won.”
However, and this is an important point, there are all sorts of limits that we all accept around democracy. The very notion of individual rights implies limits to what the people are able to do. If “democracy” literally translates as “the rule of the people,” there are certain things that the people are not allowed to do. This speaks to what a republic is.
The word “republic” really refers to the ends of the state rather than the means by which the state comes to the ends. Democracy is the means: The people rule. A republic points to the ultimate goal of the rule of the people. From Latin, it means “res publica” or “the public affair.” The function of a government in a republic is to rule for the entire political community.
These two ideas combine, and the reason they combine is because you can have oligarchic republics. Like the Roman Republic was oligarchy; you could even say ancient Sparta was oligarchy. Usually—a lot of it depends on who you count as citizens. The United States, because every native-born person or every naturalized citizen over the age of 18 can vote and participate, that really makes us a democratic republic.
The way I think that the two ideas fit snug together was really well expressed by Abraham Lincoln at the Gettysburg Address, in which he called for the salvation or protection of government “of the people, by the people”—those are both democratic—but the “for the people” line: that government has to work for the entire political community rather than just some subset of it.
That’s what separates a democratic republic from a democratic tyranny, which is another point that I make in the book, is that it’s conceivable that a majority in a democratic system, after acquiring the levers of power, can use that power simply to enrich themselves. That’s not a republic; that’s a majoritarian tyranny. That’s a democratic tyranny. A democratic republic implies the people rule, but ultimately for the purpose of the entire political community.
Liberalism in Democratic Republics
KLUTSEY: Now, is a democratic republic essentially a liberal democracy as well? Just trying to infuse this concept of individual liberty, the concept of equality and the idea that we are one another’s dignified equals—which is a concept that is firmly embedded in the whole idea of classical liberalism. That is, if you have a democratic republic, and it’s doing the two things that you’ve described, then essentially you have a liberal democracy? Or not necessarily?
COST: That’s a good question. I think that liberalism is not necessarily—it has to have—you can have a liberal regime that’s not necessarily a democratic republic. For instance, the great architect of classical liberalism was John Locke. Locke’s argument was for something that we would not call a democracy. Locke, when he was writing his “Second Treatise” at the end of the 17th century, he was arguing in defense of a mixed regime that had a hereditary monarch and a hereditary nobility.
I do think, though, that when we’re talking about a democratic republic, I don’t think you can have a democratic republic that’s not liberal. I think that’s a position that I would base on the Founders. I would say a liberal regime, at its core, is a regime that protects individual rights. I’ll give two examples of individual rights that I think are just so essentially tied to the nature of a democratic republic and I think are two most important civil rights at that.
The First Amendment creates a broad sphere for which the people are allowed to think their thoughts, write their thoughts, speak their thoughts and associate with people who have similar thoughts. I think you can’t have a democratic republic unless you have that, because the people in a democratic republic ultimately are sovereign, which means that public opinion is ultimately sovereign.
That means, in turn, if public opinion is sovereign, there cannot be any prior restraints on what the public is allowed to think, what it is allowed to say, what it is allowed to write, how they are allowed to associate themselves. Because if you say, “Oh, well, you can’t say that,” well, that’s exercising prior restraint on public opinion, which means, in turn, that the public is not actually in charge. There’s limits.
In a democratic republic, public opinion is ultimately sovereign. I think another example of this is the right to trial by jury, I think, is another example of how you have—the jury system. Again, the jury system evolved in England, and it evolved in a regime that became a mixed regime. In the United States, in colonial America particularly, it became the means by which the people were able to stop abuses of governing power.
I think about the Zenger trial in the 1730s. I think that probably our most republican institution is the jury. If the government is going to take your life, it’s going to put you in jail or going to take your stuff, it has to get the approval or the permission of 12 strangers, who have no bias towards you or no bias towards the state.
Really, if we think about government, I like to tell my students that government has the monopoly on the pokey stick. The government is the thing that can hurt you, ultimately—that can lawfully hurt you. For it to actually apply that hurt, what does it have to get the approval of? It has to get approval of a random sample of the people. That’s a very republican institution.
It’s hard to envision a meaningful democratic republic that is not also liberal—certainly on the civil rights thing, and I would argue on economic rights as well, because I would agree with Milton Friedman that your civil rights don’t really have much meaning if you don’t have economic rights either.
KLUTSEY: They go hand in hand.
COST: Yes, they go hand in hand.
The framers thought that too, by the way. I have an article coming out—the American Enterprise Institute is doing a series in honor of, what is it, the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. We have a big set of books coming out on that. I was asked to write an essay on the founding, the revolution and capitalism.
I think there’s a lot of tensions with the modern capitalist state, although I think Mercatus and I would both agree that a lot of this is actually like a version of mercantilism or state support of capitalism. I’ll be very careful of my choice of words here.
I do think one of the things that you see in the founding—you see a lot of diversity of opinion in the founding, but you do not see any diversity of opinion on the issue of the legality of private property. The Constitution very clearly, at multiple points in the Constitution, in both the original text and in the Bill of Rights and then later on in the 14th Amendment, underlines, “Oh, yes, you have a right to private property.” As if all that’s not enough, the Constitution also protects your right to contracts as well.
Economic rights, for the framers, and civil rights—they’re like one and the same: very much so.
The Value of Consensus
KLUTSEY: Now, back to Congress. Seeking consensus and compromise has drawbacks, as you identify in the book. It can be inefficient, with all the haggling going on. It can be slow, because there’s bias towards the status quo, and difficult for citizens to secure their rights sometimes.
Can you unpack some of these drawbacks? I guess, despite these drawbacks, you think it’s still worth it, in that it still works. Walk us through the drawbacks and why you think that it’s still advantageous to have this system.
COST: Yes, sure. The ultimate advantage that I argue that Congress provides is something on which I think our entire government hinges, and it’s the notion of consensus. It gets back to this core question about democracy: how we can have a democratic republic or we can have a democratic tyranny.
The framers, as men of the Enlightenment, were suspicious about the capacity for civic virtue to temper the democratic impulse sufficiently. The anti-federalists were more inclined to lean on civic virtue, but certainly the men who attended the convention in Philadelphia in 1787 were pretty suspicious of the capacity for the citizenry at large to exercise self-restraint. That was part and parcel of the general stream of Enlightenment political thought: that the democratic impulse is a necessary condition for a republic. The framers thought that, but that it had to be channeled in the correct direction.
The conventional answer in continental Europe at the time was this idea of a mixture of different estates. England would be the quintessential example. Montesquieu argues in his “Spirit of the Laws” that England protects—it’s in England where even the spirit of the English laws is, at least in theory, liberty. Because you have not just a separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, but also because those are separated across multiple estates: the king; the wealthy, landowning nobility; and the common citizens, who themselves were landowners too. (I don’t want to go crazy that England was some kind of democracy.)
The Americans couldn’t embrace that, just by default. They had overthrown their king, so that was gone. The king had never bothered to create a landed aristocratic class in America. There was no Duke of Baltimore, for instance. Even if there had been, the mark of aristocracy in Europe was land because land was scarce, and land was not scarce in America. There’s no way to limit the supply of access to land in the United States in the 1780s.
America was thrown, even if it didn’t want to be (although it did want to be)—it was thrown into a system in which the people would have no social—there would be no mixed estates. It’s weird to think about today, because America has a fair amount of economic inequality. But certainly, compared to Europe, there was a surprising degree of economic and social equality in America, and it was just this big mass of people—white male landowners were just this huge clump of people, and they were going to be in charge.
The question was, “Well, how do we keep them from becoming tyrannical?” The solution—I argue, in the book, the solution they came up with was the notion of consensus. The belief was, “Yes, sometimes majorities can be tyrannical. Sometimes they can be stupid. Sometimes they can do intemperate things. But the closer the majority gets to consensus”—and the way I specify that is the larger the majority, the broader the majority, the more deliberate the majority (in other words, the more well-considered and widely regarded the conclusion the people have reached)—the more likely that conclusion is for the good of the entire political community.
Now, it’s not a guarantee. There have been many times in the history of both the United States and the world where the minority was farsighted and turned out to be right. That happens. If you’re going to set up a system of government for the ages, I think, as Madison says it in the Federalist Papers, you don’t know what the policy debates are going to be. You don’t know who are going to be the actors. You’re not going to know the level of virtue in the citizenry. The idea of consensus—you can imagine extrapolating.
Again, an example from the book is imagine two votes in Congress, and you don’t know the details of them. All you know is that one piece of legislation passed with 400 votes in the House and 75 in the Senate. In another one, it passed with 218 and 51 votes. Which one of them is more likely to be in the public interest? It’s certainly possible that the narrow majority is in the public interest. But if you have to make that bet again and again, it’s going to be the broader, larger majority.
As you said, and as I talk about in the book, there are drawbacks to this. It does lend itself to a status quo bias. It’s hard to change things when you’re demanding consensus in a diverse political community because people disagree. And people have disagreed very intensely. Political disagreements are not academic debates. People have real skin in the game: economic skin, or sometimes real disagreements about the nature of the good. The nature of the good life is a view that when people have one of those, they tend to be very committed to it. That can lead to gridlock. That can be a problem.
Another problem would be, sometimes the decisive vote in forming consensus—they don’t really care one way or another. If you want their vote, you’ve got to buy it off with something else. That’s a “logroll.” Logrolling is endemic in our system. I actually think, pretty sure, James Madison was the first person to invent the logroll. He did that all the way back in the Continental Congress. And that creates inefficiencies in public policy.
Then sometimes you get perverse effects, too. A good example of this would have been the experience of the freedmen and African Americans in the late 19th century, and really up through much of the 20th century, where I would say that there was a very solid consensus in the North that civil rights of African Americans need to be respected. But it wasn’t very intense. But the white plantation gentry of the South was very intensely opposed to this, and even though they were a minority, the thresholds you have to cross to get to action in a consensus-based system gave that minority the power of a veto. That minority had bad views. That’s an example of when consensus perversely undermined the public good and undermined individual rights.
Building Consensus Among Diverse Views
COST: So it’s not a perfect system, but no system is. I think that the argument that I make ultimately in the book is that “Look, this is a country of (I think now) 340 million people. I think it’s really hard for any of us to appreciate how many people that is and how broad and diverse the views in this country are.”
It is easy to take for granted, “Oh, well, the United States has been around now for 250 years. The country is the country. Everybody’s loyal to the country.” It’s easy to take that for granted. Ultimately, loyalty to a political regime or any governing regime depends on the consent of the governed. If you’re not threatening the governed with force or you’re not bribing the governed with money to enforce the laws, then ultimately, obedience to the state is going to be based upon the belief that people have that the system fairly reflects their interests and that the laws it promulgates are fair and just.
How do you create that kind of sentiment in a country this large? How do you get public buy-in on that level? You have to make people feel like their voice is heard in a meaningful way—not just like, “Oh, well, you got to vote. But your side lost, so you get nothing.” That’s not going to cut it over time. That’s not enough. It has to be like, “Oh, you lost the election, but you still get a role in the lawmaking process. You still get meaningful input. Your views are still not just heard but actually acknowledged. A good-faith effort is made to reconcile them into what the broader interest of the community is.”
That’s how you’ve found, over the long run, that is where you generate loyalty to a political system. That’s the real virtue of consensus in a country like this. I would suggest that if you want what is basically a continent-spanning—it is a republic, but it’s also an empire in some respects. If you want to maintain a country that stretches from Key West to Nome, Alaska, you have to make sure that everybody in between feels like they actually have a meaningful role to play.
KLUTSEY: Great. So we shouldn’t abandon this for a parliamentary unicameral system anytime soon. Good.
COST: No. Actually, it’s funny that you mention that, because the example that I give in the book—a lot of times people are envious of those parliamentary systems, but look what the British did with Brexit.
I know a lot of economic conservatives were happy with Brexit. I know a lot of people on the political right were happy with Brexit. I didn’t like Brexit. It’s not my business to tell the British people how they should organize their relationship with the continent, because that’s a fraught issue. My ancestors left Britain a long time ago, so I don’t presume …
The thing that I noted, though, is that Scotland hated Brexit. The Scots overwhelmingly voted against Brexit. In our system, having such a large, distinct minority as the Scots are in the English system, you would not be able to get Brexit. You wouldn’t be able to force such a major change in foreign relations without buy-in from a group that is as large as the Scots.
Sure enough, now the Scots are—I’m not sure, by the time I pass from this life to the next, I’m not prepared to say Scotland’s going to still be part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. I don’t think anybody can be, at this point, because the Scots are—they are displeased. I think that they feel like their interests are not considered in the realm. I’m not sure that they’re wrong about that.
Is the Constitution Outdated?
KLUTSEY: Now, going back to the earlier part of this conversation: When I asked you about who this book is for, you mentioned the critics on the left. The question here is, Is the Constitution too old and anachronistic? It gets a lot of criticisms from those on the left who seek changes to advance justice from their perspective. I think we’re getting a lot of criticisms from the right as well. You have the emergence of the post-liberals, who seek to abandon some aspects of our tradition.
Ultimately, I wanted to ask you to reflect a little bit on that critique about whether the Constitution is too old and anachronistic. Basically, what do the authors of the 1619 Project get right about the critiques of the Constitution?
COST: Yes, that is a good question. I do think that when people complain about the age of the Constitution, they’re being selective in their complaints. There are lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of things that are very old that they like. A good example of this is how many critics of the Constitution are operating from within the university system. The university system is a holdover from the medieval—they have professorships. That’s a holdover from medieval guilds.
I think to say that something is bad because it’s old or outdated, in and of itself, is specious reasoning. I don’t think anybody wants to play that game because, sooner or later, there’s going to be something old that they really like. Likewise, the idea of a jury of your peers: Everybody likes a jury of your peers. Nobody’s got a problem with a jury of your peers. The phrase “a jury of your peers” traces back to Magna Carta, which is quite a bit older than the Constitution, right? So just identifying the age of the Constitution as inherently being problematic, I think, is specious reasoning.
I do think, with respect to the 1619 Project, I do think that there is a tendency among conservatives … The post-liberal right, let’s put a pin in them for a minute. I’ll get back to them in a minute. I think that there is a tendency among conservatives to turn the Constitution into a kind of American version of the Ten Commandments, issued on high from God Almighty and is fundamentally flawless and things like that.
I think it is important to acknowledge—and not just to give lip service to it, but to really acknowledge the failures of the founding generation, and in particular the failures of men of the midpoint in the Enlightenment in their definition of civil society as having been too narrow. I think that is one thing that the 1619 Project gets correct, which is that there was an exceedingly narrow definition of civil society.
Now, by the standards of the age, the United States of America had a shockingly small-d democratic civil society because land was cheap. Landowners being able to participate in politics meant a very, very broad franchise, much broader than England, which at the time was broader than anything else in Europe.
Nevertheless, the rhetoric that Jefferson lays out in the Declaration of Independence is a sweeping call for universalism. The country was fundamentally founded on universal principles of human freedom. And self-determination as well—because that’s really what the Declaration is saying, right? It’s that people, being born naturally free, have a right to self-determination. That was something they knew, and that was something they did not follow through on because it was inconvenient to their economic interests. At the end of the day, it was inconvenient to their economic interests. They just crossed their fingers and hoped that the problem would melt away.
That critique, I think, is a very fair one. I’ll give you an example of this. If you go to James Madison—there’s been complaints about the change at James Madison’s Montpelier. But if you go and see it, what they’ve really done is they’ve really brought in the story of the enslaved community on the grounds. I think that’s a very important thing for people to understand: that James Madison, who was really the architect of our system of ordered liberty, was ordering that liberty among people who were not free, and he was enjoying their labor.
We need to keep that close in mind when we’re thinking about these men and to appreciate that they made mistakes. However, just because they made mistakes, this is not the fruit of the poison tree. That’s not how these things work. They’re men. Like all human beings, they have flaws, and they were men of their age, and their age had flaws. But they still had good ideas.
I think ultimately what we need to do is, we need to evaluate their ideas. We need to take what they say at face value and then consider the wisdom of what they say. We don’t accept what they say dogmatically because they’re the Founders. Likewise, we don’t reject what they say because they came from an age where human bondage was still an acceptable thing.
Instead, the spirit in which I think that we should take them is the one that I tried to take them in the book: is that these are Enlightenment men, very well educated, with a thorough grounding in the history of Western civilization, and were faced in it with a very big problem and put together a very brilliant system of government that, in my opinion, has held the test of time.
I would argue we don’t follow the Constitution because James Madison told us to. It’s that we follow the Constitution because James Madison and the other Founders put together a series of arguments that make sense, that it’s a sensible system and it’s a defensible system. The genius of the system is not that it’s old. The genius of the system is that it’s genius. It’s just brilliant.
And it really is. If you were to think about it as somebody who’s not an American, even as a critic of the Constitution, just as a historical—even if we were to decide like, “OK, well, we’re done with the Constitution”—it’s remarkable. The United States of America was the first country in the world to figure out a sustainable way in which a broad population could govern itself without an external monarch or nobility or something like that, and they actually pulled it off. It’s remarkable.
The French tried the same thing a decade later: turned into a disaster. It really wasn’t repeated in a meaningful way until really the 20th century in many respects. You just have to hand it to them for that, if for nothing else: that clearly, they were onto something.
Expanding the House of Representatives
KLUTSEY: Speaking of the size of the country: Earlier in the conversation, you talked about the population being close to 340 million people. In that regard, should the size of the House of Representatives be expanded? Should we change the numbers based on population changes?
COST: Yes, we should. We should. One of the problems that I think we have in this country is that the vision of the Constitution—in some respects, it’s self-effectuating. If Rhode Island were to send three people to the United States Senate, one of them would be turned away. Some things are just obvious. There’s other things where the country can, and at times in the past has, denied the spirit of the Constitution, in my opinion. A good example of that, I think, and a really pernicious one too, in my opinion, is the size of the House of Representatives.
The size was set by law about 100 years ago when the country was, I think, a third of the size that it is now. I think that if the purpose of the House is to reflect the American people in the fullness of their diversity, a country of 330 million people cannot be represented by 435 individuals. It’s almost farcical. If that wasn’t the political climate which we all grew up in, if we were all in a—I don’t like to invoke “what would the framers say” too often, but they would say that’s a sham.
As a matter of fact, that’s the sort of thing, if they knew that this is where things were going, they would have changed the rules so we didn’t do this. This is exactly the sort of stuff the anti-federalists warned about. James Madison: one of his rejected amendments to the Bill of Rights was—I’m pretty sure it was to mandate that House districts couldn’t be larger than 40,000 people. Think about that.
There’s all sorts of downstream effects of this. One of the big ones, and one thing that everybody complains about, is gerrymandering. This is the problem with having districts this large, because then you get into the question of who’s actually in charge. If you have districts that are smaller, yes, you can gerrymander. Gerrymandering is named after Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who was governor in the early 19th century. Politicians always play around with those and have always done that.
When you have districts of so many people, we are now in a situation in which state governments have the luxury of choosing their own voters. That’s not how things should be. That is because there are so many people and so few districts. That’s just the most obvious problem. Beyond that, you have all sorts of problems of campaign finance. It’s expensive. You have a district of three-quarters of a million people. It’s expensive to campaign. That brings in large-money donors who want favors in return. There’s just all sorts of problems with the House of Representatives that’s this small.
The British House of Commons is larger. I think the German Bundestag is larger as well. I’ll put it this way: The only people who expanding the House would be bad for would be current House members. Everybody else would be better off. That’s a big reason why, barring some sort of widespread populist push, it’s not going to happen: because the House members will just kill it.
If you imagine the power of the House of Representatives being divided by 435—if you divide it by, say, 735, then the existing 435 people are going to see their power cut. They’re not going to suffer that, which is a big reason why they capped the number in the first place.
Also, the notion that it’s all just because it becomes dysfunctional at that point: That’s just nonsense as well. We know now organizations can function with much larger numbers than 435 people.
KLUTSEY: I guess it would also align with the Electoral College as well and give it more legitimacy.
COST: Yes. It would do that as well. It would take pressure off of …
Right now, the issue as well is that you have these states that only have one House seat: North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Vermont, Delaware. (Montana is no longer one.) Alaska is another one. They have three electoral votes, get one House seat. Even though Wyoming—Wyoming has fewer people in it than Allegheny County here in western Pennsylvania. They have one House seat, and they have three electoral votes.
This is a major basis of the complaints of the people in California who usually compare the size of California to the size of Wyoming and the imbalance of political power. Now, some of that is they just need to go back and look again at the Connecticut Compromise and why we have a Senate in the first place. But there is a fair point there.
One of the solutions would be—you could call it the Wyoming Rule, you could call it the Double Wyoming Rule, such that no state should have more senators than they have House members. So you start with Wyoming, which is the smallest state: So they would get two House seats. The House seats would be like 300,000 people a district or whatever. I don’t know what it would work out to be. There’s all sorts of ways you could play around with it that would make the House more representative. But again, current House members don’t want that.
Now, what is the role of political parties in our system? That idea of parties, obviously, was not stated in the Constitution, and the Founders were worried about the creation of parties to the extent that they fostered factionalism. Why do we have them, and can we get rid of them?
COST: Those are great questions. The Founders: they did not like political parties. They thought that political parties represented factions within the legislature. And their experience with political parties would have been the Whig and the Tory parties in England, which they believed existed because the British system was fundamentally corrupt. They believed that the British system was fundamentally deficient, and so this is what created the need for party politics.
However, what happens relatively quickly is that the same people who denounce political parties turn around and form political parties. Madison in “Federalist 10” uses the words “faction” and “party” interchangeably, both in a negative way, but then turns around—within four years is writing essays for the first partisan newspaper, the National Gazette.
I think most democratic republics in the world have political parties. Almost all of them do. There is just something about parties, as it turns out, that just seem to go hand in glove with democratic republics. There’s a lot of reasons for that.
Parties solve a lot of problems for political elites. Elites have need for party organization for the campaign. They have needs for the party to have a clearly identifiable set of issues so that voters who maybe are not as well informed as they should be can nevertheless keep themselves from choosing the wrong person. Politicians don’t want to cut down on uncertainty. So there’s all sorts of reasons that parties exist, from an elite perspective.
I also think that one of the functions that parties serve, or at least can serve—and the original party, the Republican Party, which today is misremembered as the Democratic-Republican Party. (That’s not what they called it. They called themselves the Republican Party: Jefferson and Madison. This is not the Abraham Lincoln party.) Their feeling was that the government, under Alexander Hamilton in his capacity of secretary of the Treasury, had been captured by an elite clique of commercial interests in the Eastern Seaboard. The purpose of the Republican Party was to liberate the government from this minority faction.
You can appreciate, then, one of the functions that parties can serve, and the first function that the first party was intended to serve in the United States was to make the public will more forcefully felt. It was a way to direct the public will towards danger. It was a way for elites, Jefferson and Madison, to warn the public about what was going on and to mobilize public action on things that were of critical interest to the public. That, in the first instance, was the creation—that’s why they called it the Republican Party. (They didn’t call it the Democratic-Republican.) That’s why they called it that.
I think that is still a very useful function that political parties can serve. I think they do serve that function. I think that one of the things that party competition does is it keeps the other side from becoming too corrupt. I think both parties are corrupt, but I think without the competition of political parties, I think corruption would be a lot worse. I think it’s always good that the two parties are picking on each other, even when they’re being hypocritical in doing so.
That’s the other thing, too: Parties are, by nature, hypocritical. They don’t see the splinter in their eye; they see the log in their neighbor’s eye. Nevertheless, we’re not talking about religion here. We’re talking about politics, and that kind of hypocrisy—the message is getting out. That’s a good thing. It keeps the two sides more honest than people otherwise would be.
How To Handle Polarization
KLUTSEY: Now, here’s a quote from your book. You said, “The mutual hatred between the Left and the Right leaves little political space for compromise. Fundamentally, they do not wish to compromise; they want to destroy each other.” I’ve been thinking about this. How do we address this problem of polarization? Because the challenge is that it limits our ability to solve problems; all the drawbacks that you mentioned about the whole compromise and consensus idea is related to this. How do we handle this?
COST: That’s a good question. I don’t really know. That’s a tough one. I don’t think anybody really knows.
I tend to think that one of our problems now is that we’re too ideological. When you’re dealing with the world of ideas, which is what ideology is—I mean, ideology at the end of the day is how you organize your worldview—you get too rigid in your ideological thinking. The very notion of compromise becomes anathema.
KLUTSEY: When you say “we,” do you mean Congress? Because it turns out that people—when you poll people about all kinds of policy issues, you realize that we are actually closer than one might imagine.
COST: Yes, I think it’s Congress, but I also think Congress is really reflective of the interests of the politically engaged on both sides. You see this with—a good example of this would be Kyrsten Sinema, who’s a senator from Arizona. She’s just interesting. She’s independent-minded, she does her own thing, she’s a good fit for the state in many respects. But she bounced herself out of her own party because she knew she’d lose the primary because the most engaged voters in the Democratic Party in Arizona hate her.
Even though maybe the middle of the electorate—she’s where the middle voter is and really weirdly reflective of the independent, quirky spirit of the state of Arizona, which is a really cool state. She’s kind of a cool senator and it’s a cool state, you know? The problem is that her political base in the Democratic Party is highly ideological and not interested in that kind of idiosyncrasy.
I think that’s a problem on both sides, is that political ideologies in America—I don’t want to say “increasingly,” because I haven’t really studied it; it’s more of a feeling or vibe that I have, which is that they’re increasingly becoming almost theological in nature. And there’s a rigidity to them that is because they’re almost completely—almost spiritual in some respects.
I wonder if it relates to the decline of church attendance. I’ve made the comment before that I think too many Americans increasingly see politics as like church. And politics is not church; church is church. If you want to achieve some sort of—or you want to embrace some vision of the perfect good, go to church on Sunday, go to synagogue on Saturday. Politics is the place where different people with different ideas come together, and ultimately the purpose of it is to split the difference. If your views of things are so rigid that the very idea of splitting the differences is anathema to you, I don’t know.
Good example of this: You see this with the two parties. Republicans completely, categorically refuse to accept any tax increases whatsoever, even in cases where maybe tax increases would be called for in some circumstances. Certainly in terms of paying for services that people consume from the government—for instance, Medicare: “Maybe wealthy seniors who consume Medicare should pay more.” “No. We’re not even going to consider it.”
The flip side is, Democrats refuse to even consider spending decreases for programs that are not having their intended effect. Refuse to even consider it. What do we get now? Now we’re running a—what are we going to run this year? Like a $2 trillion deficit? My goodness, this is madness on both ends of the political spectrum. And this is just ideology.
At what point are people going to wake up? Is it just going to be the bond market’s going to force everybody to wake up? I don’t know. That’s, to me, a good example of people’s ideology trumping everything else.
KLUTSEY: Now, here’s another quote. This is a Madison quote, actually, in your book. It says, “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks—no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”
Can you reflect a little bit on, perhaps, the kinds of virtues that are critical here for sustaining a democratic republic?
COST: Sure. I’d start by noting the context of that, is that quote comes from Madison’s—when he was debating Patrick Henry and the anti-federalist faction in the Virginia Ratifying Convention of June 1788. One of the things that Henry and George Mason and his allies, their allies, would do to attack the Constitution would be to imagine all of these perverse situations in which the House does this, the Senate does these terrible things.
Madison’s point is to say, “Well, ultimately, the people are going to be—the check is the people.” Ultimately, yes, there’s potential scenarios in which—you can’t just bring up these crazy scenarios and use that as a criticism of the Constitution, because the people are going to check it. If the people don’t have any—and this is Madison’s point. Ultimately any republican system of government is going to rely upon the decency of the citizenry over whom it governs. And if the people are indecent, then it doesn’t matter what we do.
Madison—he says at one point, in an assembly—he imagines the Athenian assembly. If the mob was all Socrateses, it would still be a mob, right? That’s Madison’s point. Even for people as wise as Socrates, you need some way to channel them. There’s a converse point, though, that I think he’s getting at there. To borrow a modern analogy, imagine a political society full of Adolf Hitlers. It doesn’t matter what kind of institutions you put together. That society is still going to be monstrous. You still need some basic goodness.
This, I think, gets to the idea of tolerance, really, which I think is in many respects the signal virtue of our system of government. It’s a recognition that there are competing visions of what the public good are, that there is no certain way to know which vision is the superior vision. Maybe, in some instances, I have the correct view of the public good. Maybe, in some instances, you have the correct view of the public good. Obviously I think I’m right on every opinion I have, but I know that there are some thoughts I have in my head that are false. Every time I think the thought, I’m convinced that it’s true.
Ultimately, toleration stems from a recognition that none of us has all the answers. Recognizing that none of us has all the answers means that if we’re going to get to something—a solution—then we should probably try and find agreement. That, ultimately, requires toleration for people with different views.
People with different views, with this kind of virtue, suddenly go from being a problem to actually being the solution. Because people with different views, you talk to them: “OK, we disagree on these things. I’m not going to compromise on those.” “I can’t; I’m sorry.” “But you know what? You and I agree on these three things, and we have so many disagreements—we agree on these three things. You know what? We’re probably onto something.”
That’s how politics is supposed to work, at least in our system; that’s what the politics of consensus is. And you can’t have that unless you tolerate people. We were talking about this a moment ago: I think the key vice in our political system is this developing Manichaeism. It’s the light versus the darkness, is what it is. Both sides are convinced that they’re the light and the other side is convinced that it’s the darkness. If you have that kind of view of things, tolerating darkness is just allowing evil to win. You don’t tolerate darkness; you don’t compromise with darkness: you defeat darkness. If it’s evil, then you don’t compromise with evil.
That’s an intolerant attitude. I think that, increasingly, at least among political elites—broadly defined to include those who are the most actively engaged in politics—I would say, over the course of my adult lifetime, I’ve seen that view become more entrenched. People are less tolerant of those who have other ideas. Even as we become a society that is more tolerant of race and ethnicity and questions of disability, questions of sexuality, all these sorts of things—we’ve become more tolerant on these things; we’ve become less tolerant of each other on different points of view.
By that, I don’t even mean the extreme points of view. I’m not talking about, like, “Oh, we need to sit down and hear what the neo-Nazi has to say.” That’s not what I’m saying. I’m talking about in everyday discourse, if you listen closely enough to your average conservative commentator, sooner or later you’re going to hear implied that the average liberal is a bad person. You’re going to hear the opposite thing on the other side.
You’re not going to produce success in a consensus-based regime if you walk into it thinking that the people that you disagree with are evil. That is just becoming way too common.
KLUTSEY: Yes. Sadly, sadly.
Now, as we bring this conversation to a close, I wanted to ask if you have any call to action for folks who read your book. What do you want them to do, if any, after reading this?
COST: Yes, that’s a good question. I think, one thing: If there’s things that we could do better as a political community—I mean, it’s hard to say—
Because one of the things is that ultimately, whenever I do speeches and things like that, my talks and books are usually surrounding problems, and so, like, “What can we do about problems in our society?” It’s really hard, when the government is dysfunctional, to talk about solutions, because it requires a dysfunctional government to see them through. That’s what it requires.
I think that what we need in this country, really, is a cultural change in our attitudes towards people with whom we disagree. I think we need that. I don’t think that that can be produced by some—no government policy’s going to do that. Historically, what’s done that is exogenous shock of national security threats, which you don’t want. So, I don’t know.
I will say that something that I would like for people to talk more about is the size of the House of Representatives. That just seems to me to be—that’s the sort of thing that I think we all should be able to agree on. The thing, too, that really gets me as well, because—I mentioned just offhand a moment ago, but I live in western Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is a state that is not growing in size, at least very quickly, but it’s losing House seats. If states are losing House seats, that’s a problem. That should not be happening.
If we’re solving the problem of apportionment by taking representation away from people rather than adding it to other people, that is a problem. That has been happening very rapidly here in western Pennsylvania. It’s something that really gets on my—it really bothers me. I feel like that’s the sort of thing, like expanding the House is a win for probably—it could potentially solve a whole bunch of problems or at least address them.
KLUTSEY: Yes. Well, Jay, thank you very much for your time. This has been a very insightful conversation, and hopefully we can have you back soon.
COST: Great. Thanks, Ben.