The Fulcrum

Jonathan Bernstein, who now writes for Bloomberg View, had some good things to say on his old blog in defense of our Madisonian system of separated powers against those (like Matt Yglesias) who think we’re doomed because of our anti-parliamentary Constitutional system (rather than because we’re too big and divided, or because some bright orange asteroid is going to hit.) Bernstein in a different post offered some potential threats to our constitutional system in spite of its resilience:

I count three threats to Madison:

1. Everyone begins to care deeply about the exact same issue, especially one which appears to everyone to have only two choices. This is, essentially, the story of slavery; we can think of the Civil War as the consequence of everyone believing that everything hinged on slavery and all compromise positions disappeared, leaving only two choices.

2. The party one: everyone begins to be passionately partisan. In this case, not only are the stakes very high if your side loses and election, but a loss threatens to be permanent, because if everyone is partisan then there will be few if any swing voters.

3. Ideology. Everyone becomes convinced that all issues are linked together in some fashion so that if you support X then you also support Y and Z and A and B and C.

What they all have in common, I think you can see, is that they return to Madison’s original problem: if elections are high-stakes and at least threaten to be permanent decisions, then the losers will prefer other options to democracy.

Now, we clearly in my view do not have a situation matching situation #1 or #3, at least among the general public. I’d argue that we also don’t have a situation #2 situation, although we’re closer to it than we once were.

I asked Bernstein about this 2012 post the other day and he reiterated that he believed #2 (passionate partisanship) was a genuine threat to the system, but not #1 or #3. He cited Trump in evidence of this, which makes some sense: Trump was obviously outside the ideological orbit of Republicans pre-2015, yet both Republican politicians and voters, some noisy NeverTrumpers notwithstanding, essentially all held together in the election to secure power for their party.

That goes for Republicans; what about Democrats? My strong suspicion is that, just as conservative media succeeded in cementing partisanship for Republicans and Republican-leaners, social media like Facebook and Twitter has succeeded in dramatically solidifying ideology among Democrats, and making a surprisingly diverse set of causes appear to cohere. So we’re definitely seeing #2, and I’d hazard a fair amount of #3, rancorous presidential primaries notwithstanding.

What about #1, the single issue around which everything else coheres? To judge by the protests this week, it seems as though immigration might someday become that issue, dividing the nation the way slavery once did.


Indeed, the central topic of conversation this week seems to be the moral validity of civil disobedience of one kind or another, as Thoreau argued was necessitated by slavery in 1849, and the analogy between immigration restriction and slavery has begun to be made more explicitly by prominent Democrats:


Less well acknowledged is how quickly opinion on immigration has shifted, with a sea change towards welcoming illegal immigration specifically from Democrats:


One could say that the current attention to the issue is largely a phenomenon of Trump, along with Hillary embracing a near-open borders position during the campaign and the shadow cast by Merkel’s brief opening of German borders to migrants last year. But the broader forces pushing this towards a permanent fulcrum of political debate, as slavery once was, are bigger than Trump monologuing about Mexican rapists or Hillary telling Brazilian banks she dreams of open borders or even the million migrants who entered Germany last year.  On the one hand, the victories Democrats have gained in California through demographic transitions, and the further shifts towards the Democrats in the Southwest that the 2016 election revealed, give Democratic politicians very strong incentives to continue to expand immigration:


At the same time, an increasing percentage of Democratic voters, as well as the country as a whole, are immigrants or the children of immigrants.

On the other hand, a fundamental story of the 21st Century, considered at a global level, is of poor countries in Subsaharan Africa, South Asia, and the Muslim world exploding in population while population stabilizes or declines in Europe, North and South America, and East Asia:


A Nigeria that is larger than the United States, a Tanzania that is larger than Russia, an Afghanistan that is larger than Germany, and an India with 1.7 billion people thirty years from now will all put enormous pressure on wealthy countries to expand in-migration, while also almost inevitably creating resistance from native residents on a scale that goes well beyond Brexit or Trump. It is true that the graphs above are mere projections (though a Nigeria that has already more than tripled in size in the last fifty years is a profound change in the world, and the UN doubled its Africa projections in 2015, after these graphs were made), and that changes in birth control and behavior could effect reductions in fertility that moderate these trends. But population structures produce momentum that is not easily arrested even if birthrates decline: given the number of young people in Afghanistan, the population would continue to grow quite quickly for a while even if the Taliban was replaced tomorrow by the Guttmacher Institute:


This is all far afield from the merits of Trump’s recent executive orders (questionably legal or wise even if you are skeptical of mass immigration, arguably unnecessarily cruel even if you think the refugee system is incoherent and self-defeating)  or indeed from whether immigration will ultimately produce a breakdown in the constitutional system. An interesting ancillary question is whether immigration will ultimately unseat race as the central dividing line in American politics. For Thoreau’s generation, slavery was the fulcrum around which all things turned, and since then intermittently and since 1964 more continuously all things have turned on race and the two parties’ relationship to black civil rights.  Democrats have somewhat successfully lumped the issues of race and immigration together in recent years, of Trump’s manifest and proud xenophobic nationalism with a purported and less well-supported white supremacy. For various reasons, though, it’s unclear to me that America’s traditional racial divisions will always and forever mirror debates over the civil rights and economic interests of natives versus immigrants, or if we’ll partly exchange one fulcrum of political debate for another.

4 thoughts on “The Fulcrum

  1. I liked this post, it made me think of a radio program I was listening to the other day on NPR. It’s called “Radio Open Source” and it’s kinda high-brow, not too bad.

    In any case, they were talking about Trump’s victory, and what it says about America. There was a really interesting conversation that caught my attention. The main part, which is about the tea party and immigration, is [38:30] to [39:05] but you might need to listen a couple of minutes before that for context. I don’t think liberals have really thought this one through. For them it essentially comes down to people being against immigration being hillbilly racists who don’t like brown people, whereas smart reasonable people support ” bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform” in order to “bring people out of the shadows” because we are a “nation of immigrants” and you can’t “deport 11 million people”. My point being that libs have just internalized a lot of slogans and propaganda from very wealthy and powerful people who see immigration as a way to become even more wealthy and powerful.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There is a huge debate in political science about partisan sorting. On one side you have a lot of evidence that shows that the electorate is more polarized and “sorted” geographically than ever before, and indeed it is. Lots of reasons, but it started in the late 1960s and accelerated with the fracturing of the national media market/narrative. While it seems unusual to us, it’s merely bringing us back into the pre-WWII norm that you allude too. On the other hand, many scholars point to opinion polling on all the hot button issues (guns, government spending, abortion, etc.) and these show, often through time series polling going back to the start of modern scientific polling, that the electorate is pretty moderate on all of them.

    I hope for a newfound respect for the concept of Federalism and local governance. For far to long, progressives have pushed for more power to the federal government and particularly the presidency, to get around the checks and balances of the Constitution. One size fits all solutions for the whole nation don’t tend to work out when faced with different regional conditions. I’m sure you understand when it comes to education policy. Also, getting policy change is so very difficult when it is national. The difference can be expressed as such, compare the difficulty in getting elected to Congress and building a diverse coalition across party lines and interest groups to change Common Core. But if things were locally controlled, I I wanted to change things up, I can far more easily get elected to my local school board and convince a half dozen fellow board members.

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  3. Well I’ve been on a current WP article on ‘takeaways’ from the 9th circuit ruling and my takeaway is that, while I think the idea of absolute sovereignty at the border and over immigrant selection [even after Congress in 1965 legislated a more open regime] was not too long ago an unexceptional idea, it is not now.

    The idea that the US Constitution has global effect, creating actionable rights for foreign nationals on foreign soil and/or extending the equivalent of 14th Amendment protections to applicants for entry [ie, not just fair treatment for previously admitted PRs], has become more of a substrate of debate than was once the case.

    I think the idea of the sovereign territorial [let alone ‘national’] state has faded faster than anticipated and an inference of open borders is coming faster.

    Liked by 1 person

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