SOCIAL QUALITY OR TERRITORY
[This blog is in the midst of a series of postings that aims to share with the reader a history of the nation – albeit highly summary in nature – from the perspective of a dialectic struggle. That is the struggle between a cultural perspective that emphasizes more communal and cooperative ideals of federalism and the individualistic perspective of the natural rights construct.
The general argument this blog has made is that federalism enjoyed the dominant cultural position in the US until World War II, and after a short transition, the natural rights view has been dominant. Whether one perspective is dominant or the other; whichever it is, that fact has a profound impact on the teaching of civics in American classrooms.]
Spurred by the introduction of the New Nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt, the nation considered whether it wanted to leave its more local, communal approach of governance – its federalism – or take on a more national and centralized approach. The latter is known as a Jacobinism-style model of governance. This blog, in the last posting, reviewed and compared two levels of centralization, Jacobinism and consociationalism.
That is, Jacobinism is a highly centralized model, and consociationalism, a less centralized and, consequently, a less democratic model. This posting will move in the non-centralized direction and compare consociationalism and federalism, an even less centralized and democratic model. Daniel Elazar provides the needed explanation of these models as he reports on the work of Arend Lijphart.
First, in this other comparison, one points out that both consociationalism and federalism are types of non-majoritarian forms of governance. Lijphart calls the more centralized form, the Jacobin-style, the Westminster system. He calls both consociationalism and federalism by the descriptive term, “compound majoritarianism.” This is in line with the designation James Madison promotes in Federalist Paper, No. 51.
… Madison presents the compound republic as the best republican remedy for republican diseases, in contrast with the simple republic … [In what he proposes] majority rule is not rejected, but majorities are compounded either from distinct territories (territorial democracy [read federalist arrangements]) or concurrent groups (consociationalism), [which are] not counted through simple addition.
That is, one can compound this notion of majority in various ways. So, a key distinction is that consociationalism divides the populous in aterritorial ways whereas federalism relies on territorial divisions.
Examples of consociationalism-style are, as mentioned in the previous posting, the Netherlands (with its “three pillars”), but also Austria (with its grand coalition) and Israel (with its camps and parties). The reader is invited to look up these references to glean their distinguishing structural makeups, but here, this blogger continues this posting’s definitional explanation.
For the sake of that explanation, one should note that what is highlighted by such compounded systems is how they characterize the majority. As opposed to just counting noses, they outline a system, where to be successful in getting policy enacted, one needs to build coalitions. In turn, the type of coalition depends on the structural character of the system in which one is operating.
That is, how one goes about forming a coalition will depend on the type of compounded arrangement in which he/she is functioning. What those strategies should be is a topic for another venue, but the point here is that these compounded settings call for wider consensus of support to enable them to successfully achieve policy either in the derived laws or the actual implementation of those laws.
The timing of this posting could not be more apropos as the nation is witnessing the difficulty that Democrats in Congress are facing. That is, in the two initiatives President Biden has proposed (voting legislation and the “Build Back Better” legislation), he and supportive Democrats have been unable to pass them into law. This is the case even though polling indicates that those bills, substantively, have overwhelming support among the American public. And in this, to the extent that majoritarian proposals go wanting, it reveals a potential problem for Americans.
In line with this development, a lot of what is in the news lately has been about how democracy in America is under attack. The attack on the Capitol in Washington is just a visible reflection that things are a bit shaky. Many are questioning whether the basic assumptions most Americans make concerning the health of their governmental system and its democratic quality still hold.
Observed through this “compounded” lens, what might be a basic underlying malfunction – one Elazar alludes to – is whether the federalist nature of the system relies too much on its structural composition and not enough on the federal values and beliefs that provide the rationale for their existence.
Many governmental arrangements around the world and in history have set up those structures, but are basically centered, simple majoritarian systems and do not promulgate or utilize federal values. But perhaps that is not the problem in the US today. To be federal is not just a matter of being sufficiently decentralized, but of not being centralized enough.
That is why defenders of federalism do not use the term, decentralized, but instead use the term, non-centralized, to describe their dispersion of power. And in that, has the American system drifted toward becoming too un-centralized or too indifferent to majority wishes? The need is for the right balance between a respect for minority interests and the desires of the majority.
Unlike consociationalism, which is based more on a social system and relies on its culturally based institutions – religion, ethnicity, and other social groupings – federalism relies on a set of principles. Elazar lists Lijphart’s federalist principles:
1. A written constitution which specifies the division of power and guarantees in both the central and regional governments that their allotted powers cannot be taken away;
2. A bicameral legislature in which one chamber represents the people at large and the other the component units of the federation;
3. Over representation of the smaller component units in the federal chamber of the bicameral legislature [is provided];
4. The right of the component units to be involved in the process of amending the federal constitution but to change their own constitutions unilaterally; [and]
5. Decentralized government, that is, the regional government’s share of powers in a federation are relatively large compared to that of regional governments in unitary states [as in the case of France].
What this blog has hinted at is in terms of principle #3; with the filibuster and other provisions, perhaps the balance is too much in favor of non-central, overall minority rights. And the minority being favored in the US today is that element made up of conservative factions or what some might call their reactionary desire to reestablish a white population-centered polity. In that polity, racial and other ethnic minorities are “kept in their place.”
While this is debatable, one can see that the debate needs to be held or one can expect that current anti-democratic developments will continue to grow and threaten what has been America’s style of democratic rule. After all, ask the typical American what type of system America has and he/she is apt to say it’s a democracy.
In any event, this posting will end with one more Elazar quote,
Nevertheless, both [with consociationalism-style and federalist arrangements] the political wisdom that popular government is not only not enhanced by simple majoritarianism but is often defeated by it because civil society in a democracy is both complex and pluralistic and both its complexities and its pluralism must be properly accommodated.
While the narrative this blog is sharing has progressed to the first years of the twentieth century (with a review of the Progressive movement), one can see those debates – in this case over how federal the US system should be – have not been settled or resolved. The debates – sometimes in the open and loudly expressed, a la the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and other times subtle and below the surface – continue; the dialectic beat beats on.
 Daniel J. Elazar, Exploring Federalism (Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1987).
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 22-23. Whereas with consociationalism, they have two primary characteristics, grand coalitions and segmental autonomy, and two lesser characteristics, proportionality and veto power among minorities.
 Ibid., 26.