The Democrats Should Fight Fire with Water

Daron Acemoglu

CAMBRIDGE – When US President Donald Trump spoke of “American carnage” during his inauguration speech in January 2017, few could have known that he was offering a preview of what would follow over the next four years. Now, on the eve of the US election, right-wing militias and neo-fascist groups like the Proud Boys are roaming the streets and “monitoring” polling places on Trump’s behalf.

Witnessing all of this, Democrats and independents are right to be dismayed and angered, not just at Trump, but at the entire Republican Party. Having absorbed Trump’s agenda, the GOP is now wholly complicit in his war on American democratic institutions and the electoral process.

After refusing even to consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, in March 2016, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is currently forcing through Trump’s nominee to fill the seat vacated by Ruth Bader Ginsburg when there is only a month to go before the election. This cynicism has convinced some on the left that it is time for the Democrats to fight fire with fire, including by increasing the number of Supreme Court justices if they reclaim the Senate and the White House.

True, by hook and by crook, the GOP has forged a commanding conservative majority on the court, and have demonstrated that they will not behave in good faith. It is clear that the country needs major institutional and policy reforms. But weakening institutions further will not serve Democratic objectives in the long run. The situation calls for gradual radicalism, so that institutions are not destroyed in the process of being saved.

The last time a US president threatened to “pack the court” was in 1937, under Franklin D. Roosevelt. With his New Deal programs being consistently struck down by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, Roosevelt sought legislation that would allow him to appoint additional justices. But Roosevelt’s plan met with stiff opposition, not only from Republicans and civil-society groups, but also from his own party. When the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee came out against him, he was forced to abandon the effort.

But the Supreme Court got the message. That year, it started to accommodate New Deal legislation, and, after winning an unprecedented third term in 1940, Roosevelt was able to push the court leftward by replacing outgoing justices through the normal process. In the end, the Court emerged institutionally stronger.

A similar episode played out very differently in Argentina, however. In 1946, President Juan Perón responded to Supreme Court opposition by moving to impeach the four justices who were most hostile to his agenda. Unlike Roosevelt, he faced little resistance, setting the stage for a further unraveling of Argentina’s institutions. It became acceptable for presidents to appoint their cronies and bypass judicial review whenever they felt like it.

One could argue that this analogy is misplaced, because Perón was an authoritarian who never respected democratic institutions in the first place. But the same can be said of Trump and the current Republican leadership. In pushing for fundamental changes to the system, US Democrats can justifiably claim to be fighting back against the opponents of democracy.

Moreover, the demand for fundamental reform is palpable. America’s economic institutions need to be overhauled so that the gains from growth are more broadly shared. This calls for more progressive taxation and changes to the tax code that rebalance the burden between capital and labor. Equally important, the US needs to curtail corporate power (especially Big Tech); expand protections for workers (starting with a higher federal minimum wage); and enact policies to redirect technological change away from labor-replacing automation and toward innovation that boosts workers’ productivity. And if this year has proved anything, it is that the US urgently needs to implement measures to mitigate climate change and improve its health-care system.

But this agenda would be ill served by political gambits that weaken institutional checks and further erode trust in the process. Rather than playing the Republican’s cynical game, Democrats should use their political capital to pursue comprehensive political reform through the existing channels.

Political reform should come first, because it bears directly on America’s economic problems in at least two ways. The first is the growing power of money in politics – not just campaign contributions from wealthy donors, but also official and unofficial lobbying by powerful corporations. The GOP, and especially McConnell, will brook no reforms to reduce these forms of undue influence. But Democrats can count on the fact that the vast majority of Americans support such policies.

The second major political problem is just as fundamental, but more controversial: malapportionment. Over time, the distribution of the US population has increasingly become decoupled from the distribution of political representation. Political scientists have long recognized that systems with high malapportionment – which one finds in much of Africa and Latin America – are prone to crises and dysfunction.

In the US, one of the two main parties now exists solely to cater to the economic and social interests of a shrinking minority, and it is this party that has been empowered by distortions within the system. The Electoral College and the Senate both increasingly over-represent rural areas, owing to the US population’s gradual shift toward cities (Wyoming, with a population of about 600,000, commands the same number of seats as California, with 40 million).

The GOP’s surrender to Trump’s nativist agenda did not come out of thin air; it is the result of malapportionment. This problem could be redressed through constitutional reform, or by granting statehood to Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico.

Court packing, however, would be the wrong way to go, because it would merely compromise the institutional foundation upon which the broader political and economic reform agenda must be built.

Through gradual radicalism, far-reaching reforms – including constitutional changes – can be implemented deliberatively over time with the support of a relatively broad coalition, and within the established institutional system. This approach is more difficult than the kind of discretionary radicalism that Perón favored. But it is much more durable. Only by restoring trust in institutions can America’s politics and economy be put back on the right track.

Daron Acemoglu, Professor of Economics at MIT, is co-author (with James A. Robinson) of The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.