Institutions are the solution to the paradox of democracy - that sound governance rests in the hands of the plebs. The solution is not authoritarianism. The solution is institutions. This relates to building OSE to last - as an institution of democracy. See The Why of OSE.
This article is useful in that it provides a 1-paragraph overview of broad failures of institutions:
This failure began with the First World War, which I contend is the most under-appreciated driver of modern history. The scale of the war’s destruction, combined with the senselessness of its causes, discredited everything: Governments, modern technology, economic systems, the judgments of the elites...They were willing to try any new system in order to escape another such conflict. The Great Depression followed, in which capitalism itself failed at the global scale. And then, after a few decades of stability, the institutional failures accelerated. Just in the last few decades America has witnessed the institutional failure of the presidency (Watergate), the military (Vietnam), the Church (the decades-long coverups of clerical abuse), community organizations (the bowling alone phenomenon), the family (the explosion of divorce and out of wedlock births), local businesses (the rise of Walmart and Amazon), and the media (the death of local newspapers). These institutional failures took place (mostly) across the river from politics. And while they have proximate causes, underlying all of them may be a larger trend: The Second Demographic Transition.
Also: the article raises questions about issues that include the electoral college - it is corrupt now yet without it there are grave risks. What are the good points and risks of being without the EC?
Confessions of an Institutionalist The only answer is moderation. And even that's a risk, too. JONATHAN V. LAST MAY 15, 2023
1. The People > Autocrats
I had a long, meandering conversation with Will Saletan last week and in the course of it we hit on what is probably the central theme of my writing over the last seven years.
I believe that the people are the problem. We’ve talked about this a lot: Politicians can only be as good as the voters let them be and in the end they will be as bad as the voters demand. Donald Trump is not a cause, he is a symptom. Etc.
But at the same time: What’s the alternative? It’s not monarchy, or autocracy, or oligarchy. Even if you take it as given that the end goal of government is liberalism, and the mode of government that achieves liberalism is value-neutral, democracy is still the best bet by a mile.
Yet the Achilles Heel of democracy is that if you let The People choose over and over and over, then eventually they will choose either illiberalism, or autocracy, or both. And while democracy has to win every time, the illiberal autocrats only have to win two in a row.
None of this is new. The problem is as old as Plato and is what America’s Founding Fathers wrestled with in designing our Constitution. The question is: How do you give The People the final word, but try to discourage them from making bad choices?
And the answer to that is institutions.
2. Institutions > People
Institutions, in the broadest sense, are devices that sit between the demos and its expression of power. Our three branches of government are institutions. Our political parties are institutions. Churches, community groups, the media, businesses, universities—they’re all institutions of one sort or another.
If you imagine the will of the people as a hand and power as a lever, institutions are
like sheets of gauze and webs of elastic stretched between them, through which the hand has to push in order to get to the lever. They restrain and inhibit the hand and make it hard for the hand to grasp the lever too tightly, for too long.
If the institutions were the ones actually in charge, then you’d have a Deep State. But democracy without institutions is just mob rule. What you want is the happy medium: A democracy strong enough to reflect the will of the people mediated by institutions strong enough to discourage or mitigate democratic choices that are harmful to liberalism.
Again: No new thoughts here.
If you were going to distill the history of the 20th century into a single phrase it might be the failure of institutions.
This failure began with the First World War, which I contend is the most under-appreciated driver of modern history. The scale of the war’s destruction, combined with the senselessness of its causes, discredited everything: Governments, modern technology, economic systems, the judgments of the elites.
I never fully understood the flowering of 20th century fascism and communism until reading Whittaker Chambers’ memoir. Both arose in reaction to the horror of WWI. People looked at the Great War and decided that they could never go back. They were willing to try any new system in order to escape another such conflict.
The Great Depression followed, in which capitalism itself failed at the global scale. And then, after a few decades of stability, the institutional failures accelerated.
Just in the last few decades America has witnessed the institutional failure of the presidency (Watergate), the military (Vietnam), the Church (the decades-long coverups of clerical abuse), community organizations (the bowling alone phenomenon), the family (the explosion of divorce and out of wedlock births), local businesses (the rise of Walmart and Amazon), and the media (the death of local newspapers).
These institutional failures took place (mostly) across the river from politics. And while they have proximate causes, underlying all of them may be a larger trend: The Second Demographic Transition.
The Second Demographic Transition is a theory popularized by demographers Dirk van de Kaa and Ron Lesthaeghe to explain the global phenomenon of declining fertility rates.
They posited that humanity underwent a demographic transition during the industrial revolution. Women started having fewer children than they had in agricultural-based societies in part because of the decline in death rates. And as such, people began to redefine their ideas of centrality: Where they had once prized the tribe above all others, after the first demographic transition, the family became the center of focus.
Lesthaeghy and van de Kaa theorize that a Second Demographic Transition began during the 1960s as notions of centrality shifted from the family to the individual in societies. And that one of the consequences of centering the individual has been a decrease in fertility rates.¹
There’s a chicken/egg component to this: If society centers itself on the individual, then naturally trust in institutions—which are explicitly supra-individual—will decline. But maybe it was the failure of these institutions that spurred the shift to prioritizing the individual?
That’s an argument for another day. For our purposes it’s enough to observe that whichever was the cause, these trends reinforce one another.²
Regardless, for me the story of America’s authoritarian attempt is a story about the failure of institutions: Of the Republican party for not being strong enough to repel a hostile takeover from a demagogue. Of the media for not understanding how to present this reality to the public. Of Congress for prizing partisan loyalty over institutional prerogatives.
These institutions didn’t mediate the will of the people sufficiently. And it all worked out in the end (maybe?) only because Joe Biden and 81,283,501 Americans stepped in to stop the slide into authoritarianism.
But this is no way to live: If we need the Democratic party and 81 million voters to bail us out every time, then eventually we’re going to lose. Democrats will nominate a bad candidate. Or there will be a recession at the wrong time. Or turnout will dip by 1 percent because the weather is bad on Election Day. Our democracy won’t really be functioning until we’re back to a place where having a Republican president is fine. Maybe not great. Maybe not optimal. Maybe with outcomes you or I might not prefer.
But fine. Part of the normal give-and-take of a healthy political system.
In order to get to that point, we’re going to need better institutions.
Maybe that means repairing or reforming existing institutions that have faltered. Maybe it means standing up new ones. Probably both.
For instance: We need a Republican party that is both healthy and strong and I don’t think we’re likely to be able to build a new party to take it’s place. So it’ll have to be salvaged, somehow. But when it came to the failures of the media, my colleagues and I decided to build something from scratch.
Like I said, it’s a mix.
But even here, there is a danger in immoderation.
The Electoral College is an institution, too. In the particular case of the last seven years, the Electoral College has proven to be a dangerous institution because where it had once allowed minority rule as a fluke event, the EC has now regularized minority rule as the most likely pathway for one party into the foreseeable future.
But reforming or eliminating this institution could lead to other dangers. If you disappeared the Electoral College tomorrow, you’d make possible all sorts of perilous outcomes: The rise of a self-funded candidate entirely outside the party structures or the fragmentation of constituencies in such a manner that advantages a highly motivated core of illiberal actors are just the two most obvious ones.
There are dangers everywhere around us. Dangers from democracy and dangers from the institutions we have built (and will build) to backstop our democratic impulses.
So what we need is realism, ambition, and modesty.
Realism, so that we have a clear-eyed understanding of the problems we face.
Ambition, so that we attempt to overcome them.
And modesty, to understand that we must be careful, and that even reforms often need reforming.