“In Just About Every Generation, Many People Thought the American Republic was on the Verge of Collapse”

The second installment of our two-part interview with Harvard Business School professor David Moss about his recent book Democracy: A Case Study. “One of the reasons that the most dire warnings have never come true, except in one case, is precisely because our predecessors worried about them so much.”

 

 

In the first installment of our interview with Harvard Business School professor David Moss, we talked about Moss’s unusual—and successful—adaptation of the case study method from business, the discipline it was born in, to American history. In this installment, we delve deeper into the lessons it may provide regarding the current political crisis, seen by many as very worrisome.

 

Guy Rolnik: Is American democracy really in a crisis today?

 

David Moss: That’s a tough question for a number of reasons. To help get at this, let me start with some context.

 

One of the things that particularly struck me as I worked through the various case studies on the history of American democracy is that in just about every generation, right back to the beginning, many people thought the American Republic was on the verge of collapse.

 

At least once, these pessimists were right. In the 1850s, in the lead-up to the Civil War, their predictions of imminent breakdown proved accurate. But in every other generation, arguably, they were wrong. The fact that it feels to many right now that we’re in a crisis of American democracy needs to be considered in this context, since their fears could just be a continuation of this long trend of political hypochondria, if I can call it that.

 

My instinct is that this round may be somewhat different, but the truth is that each round has always felt different to those experiencing it at the time. And yet American democracy has proved to be remarkably resilient.

 

Perhaps ironically, at least in my view, part of the reason that it’s been so resilient is precisely because of the hypochondria that I just mentioned—that people always think the democracy is sick, maybe sicker than it actually is. They think it’s in trouble and they try to fix it. And this turns out to be enormously constructive. This fear that American democracy is always in crisis generates a strong desire for reforms of various kinds, regularly refreshing the democracy and strengthening it.

 

So, are we actually in a crisis of democracy today? More specifically, are we on the edge of collapse? I sure hope not. And based on historical experience, I suspect the odds are strongly against it. That said, there are definitely many causes for serious concern these days, and—as I’ve suggested—I think it’s healthy to worry about the democracy and to focus on looming threats. Certainly, we should try to strengthen our democracy in every way we can.

 

David Moss

So, bottom line: Americans of nearly every generation have thought the republic was in trouble, which can make it difficult to differentiate today’s warnings. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take them seriously. In fact, just the opposite. One of the reasons that the most dire warnings have never come true, except in one case, is precisely because our predecessors worried about them so much. They took action in defense of the democracy, and we should do that again this time around. We should never take threats to our democracy lightly, regardless of how many times we’ve heard the warnings before.

 

GR: What were some of the past episodes that might remind us of the sense of urgency, polarization, and fear that we feel since the last election?

 

DM: When Thomas Jefferson became president, there was a lot of fear among the Federalists that he was dangerous. There was brutal criticism back and forth. Each side was quite frightened of the other. When President [Andrew] Jackson took office, he brought a new approach to democratic governance. It was a much more mass-based approach to democracy. There was a lot of excitement around him. There was also a lot of fear that something fundamental was changing, and maybe not for the better.

 

And of course, when Lincoln took office, a large part of the country—in the slave states—simply wouldn’t recognize his legitimacy as president at all, because he opposed the expansion of slavery. Some Southerners called Lincoln’s election in November 1860 a “hostile act,” and the first Southern state seceded the following month.

 

Across our history, there have been many cases of people being frightened about the direction of the nation’s politics, about the direction of the country. I don’t want to try to directly compare, but there certainly have been many moments of significant unease, even fear. That by itself is not new.

 

This is not to say that something isn’t different today. Without question, we’re experiencing something new, and we’ll have to figure it out for ourselves. But if you’re asking if Americans in the past have been worried about the state of their democracy—about the future of the republic—then the answer is yes. Absolutely.

 

GR: In a February interview with the Harvard Gazette you focused on the press’s role as a major informal institution. Why? And how did the change in the media affect the democratic process?

 

DM: One of the reasons I focused on the press in that interview is that I was trying to make the point that oftentimes, when people think about—and teach about—democracy, they focus only on the formal institutions. These include Congress, the Presidency, the Supreme Court, checks and balances, the Bill of Rights—all of which are enormously important. The formal institutions naturally deserve a lot of attention in any treatment of democracy.

 

But sometimes we don’t give enough attention to the informal institutions, which are also enormously important. The press stands out as an especially powerful example. Although the press is mentioned once in the First Amendment, the Constitution says nothing about how the press should be structured or what form it should take. In fact, the press in the United States is mostly private, and it has evolved over time, in its own way. It is not a formal institution of government, like Congress or the Supreme Court. And yet it’s impossible to imagine a healthy democracy in the absence of a robust press.

 

Keeping our democracy healthy requires that we follow the Constitution, but it also requires much more than that. You can export the text of the Constitution, the blueprint, to another country. But of course that by itself isn’t enough to ensure a well-functioning democracy. Although the blueprint is vital, a broad array of informal institutions, from civic organizations to the press, is also required.

 

The press has particularly fascinated me because it helps to address one of the most famous problems in political economy—something called “rational ignorance.” The idea here is that it is rational for voters not to inform themselves on public policy issues. Theorists have long pointed out that voters have little incentive to become informed. After all, it’s very expensive for them to do this, to carefully investigate and learn about complex policy issues. If you want to go out and study these issues, it takes a large amount of time, energy, and (in some cases) money. Yet you only have one vote, and your one vote is not likely to be decisive in almost any election. So why invest so heavily to collect the data and insight necessary to vote in an informed way, when the vote itself is unlikely to make any difference at all?

 

In principle, at least, this problem of rational ignorance is a serious threat to democracy, because if all voters follow the basic logic and avoid investing in the information they need to make informed decisions, then you’ll have voters who don’t know what’s going on, which is obviously a big problem. Public education is one partial solution, which we could spend some time discussing. As I’ve already suggested, the press turns out to be another one—and, in my view, an extremely interesting one—because it helps solve an underlying coordination problem.

 

Unlike individual voters, the press may have an economic incentive to invest in information collection, because it can make the results of its investigations available to a broad audience and collect revenues, either from customers, advertisers, or both. Not surprisingly, there are typically large economies of scale in information collection. So the press can help to mitigate the so-called “rational ignorance” problem of individual voters. In fact, voters often learn about policy issues in the press essentially as a byproduct of wanting to learn about something else. People may read or tune in to learn about a scandal or crisis of some kind and end up learning about a pressing policy issue in the process.

 

When that happens—when the public becomes more informed as a result of the press—then the democracy can function more effectively. In many cases, the press can serve as a significant counterweight to powerful special interests in the private sector and to powerful government actors as well.

 

Let me give you an example. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw dramatic improvements in mass printing technology. Suddenly, there was the ability to print and sell national magazines on a whole new scale. This, in turn, opened up new opportunities in investigative reporting, and the country saw the rise of muckraking journalism, as it came to be called. To build market share, the muckraking magazines looked for sensational stories, such as David Graham Phillips’ multipart series in Cosmopolitan magazine called “The Treason of the Senate,” which documented widespread corruption among senators (who back then were appointed by state legislatures rather than elected by the voters). As people bought the magazine to read about the scandals and the corruption, they ended up becoming incensed about the whole system, and this helped mobilize support for the Seventeenth Amendment, which provided for the direct election of U.S. senators. So you can see strong historical connections between changes in technology, the rise of new forms of media, the spread of information, and, ultimately, fundamental political reform.

 

In fact, I think you often see something similar with each new generation of media technology. We subsequently saw it with the rise of radio and then television and then the internet. Each time, as people figured out new ways to reach a broad audience, different types of stories became possible; and this had significant political implications, and significant consequences for our democracy.

 

Another example of this involves television and the civil rights movement. Looking back, it’s not clear to me that the civil rights movement—or, at least, the civil rights movement as we know it—could have succeeded without television. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it had the kind of national impact it did when it did, because national television (which was relatively new) allowed Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders and activists to reach an extraordinarily broad audience in a highly personal and emotional way. Through television, for example, Americans all across the country were able to see the events that unfolded in Birmingham and Selma. They were able to see the true brutality of racial persecution and disenfranchisement in a way that they could never have seen without television.

 

Again and again in this country, political entrepreneurs have tapped into new media technologies to transform politics and political movements in fundamental ways, and the nation itself has changed in the process.

 

GR: Looking back at the history of the press and democracy in the U.S., would you say that the press served as a force for good in American democracy, at least most of the time?

 

DM: Some of the time, for sure. Probably most of the time. But all of the time? No, I can’t say that. There have inevitably been abuses from time to time. Also, the press itself has changed rather dramatically over the decades. If you go back to the 19th century, a lot of the press was overtly partisan. Most people read newspapers that openly sided with a particular political party. There are reasonable arguments to be made about whether people were getting good information—whether they were being well informed by partisan newspapers. But at least all of the partisanship was explicit. People knew that the papers they were reading were partisan, and they usually had the option of picking up another paper associated with another party, if they wanted. Whether this sort of explicitly partisan news was good or bad, and in what situations—I’m not sure. It’s a difficult question. There can be no doubt, however, that the press had a large impact on the practice of American democracy. It always has.

 

As for the question of abuse, it was James Madison who said that “some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything.” In fact, he was talking specifically about the press. Are there abuses in the press? Of course there are. But could American democracy survive without it? Definitely not.

 

This is why we have the First Amendment to the Constitution and freedom of the press—because the press is so vital to the health of the republic. Naturally, we always need to be mindful of abuses in the press. But as Madison said, it’s “better to leave a few of its noxious branches…than, by pruning them away, to injure the vigor of those yielding the proper fruits.”

 

GR: Correct me if I’m wrong: Many people are talking about Donald Trump’s obsession with the media, but in fact many presidents were obsessed with the media, with influencing it and pushing it around.

 

DM: I think that’s correct. Obsession with the media goes back a long way. But it may be reaching a new level. We’ll see.

 

GR: You use the term “productive tension” to describe how tensions between competing ideas can actually lead to positive outcomes. Can what we’ve been witnessing since the last election be characterized as productive tension?

 

DM: There’s definitely plenty of tension in our politics these days. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve heard people say that we need to calm down and all meet in the middle, politically speaking. That may sound attractive, but I have to admit it’s not something that’s been especially typical across our history.

 

I think that, often, the kind of compromise you get in American history is not meeting in the middle, but rather each side getting what it most wants. If one side wants A and the other side wants Z, you won’t necessarily get M (in the middle), but possibly both A and Z. Potentially the best of both. Think of the Great Compromise at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The large states wanted proportional representation in Congress (by population), and the small states wanted equal representation (one vote per state). Ultimately, the Great Compromise gave a victory to each side—proportional representation in the House and equal representation in the Senate. I could give you numerous examples of this. It’s a different kind of compromise than we usually think about, but it’s actually quite common in American politics. And this, in my view, is productive tension at its best.

 

Now, returning to our own time, it’s clear our politics today are full of tension. There’s no shortage there. The question is whether that tension is productive—and unfortunately I’m not convinced that it’s as productive as it could or should be. What I argue in the book is that ultimately, what makes political conflict productive is having something in common that holds us together. In the U.S., obviously, we don’t have a common ethnicity. We don’t have a common religion. We have a great deal of diversity along many dimensions. Although this diversity is generally a great strength, it also leaves us with a question: What exactly do we have in common? I think the answer, ideally, is our common faith in the democracy itself.

 

Benjamin Franklin highlighted this back in 1776 when he brought the phrase E Pluribus Unum—“out of many, one”—into our political lexicon, as a national motto for the Great Seal of the United States. I think that he was trying to emphasize that it was through representative government, through self-governance, that many different interests and backgrounds were brought together—out of many, one—and that ultimately it was our common faith in this system that bound us together.

 

One thing I’ve found as I’ve studied American history is that people can have strong (even intense or angry) disagreements with their political adversaries, but that they can make this conflict constructive rather than destructive if they believe deeply enough in the democracy, and if they cherish democracy more than they oppose their political rivals. This is what makes progress possible. This is the source of productive tension.

 

Today, I think there are various measures suggesting that faith in democracy here in the United States is still strong, but not as strong as it once was. The trends, unfortunately, are negative. I do worry that perhaps we’ve become so focused on our partisan and ideological differences that we’ve lost track— at least to some extent—of what most powerfully binds us together.

 

We as Americans will always disagree with one another about policy issues, and we’ll always take sides in partisan debates. Taking sides is a fundamental part of our democratic politics. The question is whether we end up believing in our partisan or ideological position—in our particular side of the contest—more deeply than we believe in the democracy itself. To the extent that’s the case, tension in our politics is likely to be ever less productive. In fact, based on the evidence, I think we’re going to need to watch this very carefully. It’s not all or nothing; we’re going to need to watch the trend. If our faith in the democracy continues to atrophy—if our culture of democracy continues to weaken—then our political conflicts will become less productive and possibly even destructive. To combat this trend, we need to strengthen and rebuild our culture of democracy. This, in my view, is urgently needed. It’s not only about fighting for the side you support or fighting against the side you don’t like. That’s vitally important too. But we also have to fight to identify what we have in common and work to strengthen it—our culture of democracy.

 

I wrote this book [Democracy: A Case Study] hoping that people would think about the various historical case studies and debate them. Ideally, they won’t just read the book in the privacy of their homes, but talk about the cases and debate them with friends and neighbors—in reading groups, in public libraries, and so forth. Ideally, it should be much like what we do with these cases in the classroom: We discuss and debate them, and in doing so learn not only what we disagree about but also what we have in common. My sense is that these sorts of discussions—about our political heritage—are sorely needed.

 

Whenever I teach these cases in a classroom setting, the participants always get very engaged. They argue with each other, frequently across large political divides, but there’s never any difficulty or animus. There’s plenty of tension in the classroom, but it’s absolutely productive tension. Amazingly, people regularly finish these sessions feeling good about our democracy and more hopeful. They get the idea of E Pluribus Unum, which is so important, and my sense is that we urgently need to remind ourselves of this outside of the classroom as well.

 

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