LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA — Late last week, Congressman Kevin McCarthy abruptly removed his name from contention to replace John Boehner as Speaker of the House. Naturally, this threw Washington into turmoil. That unease, combined with a power vacuum in the House, a fast-approaching debt ceiling, the game show host leading the Republican presidential primaries, and the biggest El Niño in history barreling toward California, made for an air of doom at the Los Angeles Convention Center this past weekend, where the inaugural Politicon conference was underway. Billed as a non-partisan Comic Con for politics, Politicon featured political and comedic bigwigs taking part in a series of far-reaching panels and performances. Entertainers like Trevor Noah from the Daily Show and Veep's Tony Hale took to the same stages as Newt Gingrich, David Axelrod, and Ann Coulter. On top of that, an Edward Snowden impersonator asked Michele Bachmann her opinion about the real Snowden, whom she called "the worst Benedict Arnold in our history," and I spotted a medical clown raising money in the Convention Center lobby to fund her documentary. It may have been the most Los Angeles event in the history of American politics.
But I wasn’t there for the fake Snowden, and certainly not for the clowns. I was there because these aforementioned disaster signs—McCarthy’s exit, the debt ceiling, etc.—got me thinking about an argument Matt Yglesias made a few months ago for Vox: American Democracy Is Doomed. Yglesias’s piece, which provoked a vigorous response from writers on the left and right, has stuck with me for some time. Now, as luck would have it, some of the country's leading politicos—David Axelrod, James Carville, and Newt Gingrich included—would all be in the same convention hall on Saturday, discussing the state of American politics. So I went to ask a few of them if America felt more doomed than usual.
Yglesias' doomsday argument goes like this: Constitutional democracies like ours have much shorter lifespans than parliamentary democracies like that of the United Kingdom. Our current era of hyper-partisanship, he argues, is creating the kind of long-term legislative gridlock that is unique to constitutional democracies, and has led to military coups or putsches in other countries with such a system, like Chile. This is not the result in parliamentary democracies, Yglesias argues:
A prime minister who lacks the backing of a parliamentary majority is replaced by a new one who has it. If no such majority can be found, a new election is held and the new parliament picks a leader. It can get a little messy for a period of weeks, but there’s simply no possibility of a years-long spell in which the legislative and executive branches glare at each other unproductively. But within a presidential system, gridlock leads to a constitutional trainwreck with no resolution.
The piece included a chart of congressional voting records to illustrate today’s historically high levels of partisanship among elected officials. As others would note in their responses to the piece, it’s not just temporary partisanship or a structural flaw working against our presidential system: Public trust in all major institutions besides the military has reached record lows. And, as Jonathan Chait pointed out in his own response to Yglesias, coinciding with these other factors is a far right that has adopted an unusually confrontational strategy in Congress. Many respondents added qualifications to Yglesias’ theory, but few outright disagreed that our democracy was on shakier ground than even the most sober, non-partisan analyst might like to admit.
With all this in mind, in the convention center atrium, I cornered David Axelrod, President Obama’s top political advisor through the 2008 and 2012 elections, and arguably one of the smartest political thinkers of his generation. “Is American democracy doomed?” I asked him sheepishly, as his handler justifiably glared at me. Axelrod was more optimistic than the pundits: “We’ve lived through periods in which members were beaten and almost killed by other members on the floors of the Senate, and lived through a civil war. We have challenges and difficulties now, but I think that we're a resilient democracy.” After a moment, he added: “But this is a troubling time."
(Trevor Noah very politely declined to comment when I tried to catch him as he hurtled toward an exit, saying, “I literally don’t have time for this.”)
“Our democracy is thriving, look at all the nut jobs walking around here today. It’s fine, it just needs some Prozac."
Some might say that an event like Politicon is a sign of a looming constitutional crisis: folks like Noah and Axelrod mingling in the same rooms, talking politics at the same event, surely indicates a deteriorating democracy, with propagandistic, fictional media cannibalizing more wholesome, transparent forms of democratic engagement—town halls, C-SPAN, and such. But some research from the field of political communications has shown that propaganda rarely has the intended effect, and media only modestly reinforces political attitudes we already held.
Further, as Shanto Iyengar and Mark Peters wrote in an influential 1982 research paper examining the influence of the news media: “[M]edia provide compelling descriptions of a public world that people cannot directly experience.” In other words, it’s almost impossible to engage civilly on the actual terrain of issues, whether it’s emotionally fraught social topics like gay marriage, gun control, and abortion, or scientifically complex ones like climate change. It might be the case that the most civically responsible thing to do is watch fake news (or to ask entertainers like Noah for their opinion on the state of our democracy); satirical news gives us an entry point to a political world half-controlled by voters we’ll never recognize, dominated by topics we’d need a Ph.D. to understand.
Later, I cornered a cheery Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, in a dimly lit “VIP” reception that most of the event’s actual VIPs wisely skipped. When I asked him about a potential doomsday for American democracy, Steele laid the problem at the feet of Republicans: "It shows the dysfunction that currently exists in the [Republican] party. It's as much an ideological battle as an operational one. We haven't settled on our identity since Reagan left office.”
Of course, what the Washington and entertainment elite have to say about a potential constitutional doomsday scenario might not matter as much as the electorate’s behavior. Many researchers have quibbled with Bill Bishop’s theory, put forth in his 2008 book the Big Sort—that Americans, enabled by unprecedented affluence and mobility in recent decades, have segregated themselves into politically and culturally homogenous communities; but the theory hasn’t been fully discredited as a primary driver behind the polarized voting records among elected officials that Yglesias pointed to. It’s hard to imagine an end to our current set-up of divided government and partisan madness until a generation of older, arch-conservative voters passes away, or another cataclysmic recession forcibly re-shapes the electoral map.
The comedian and Comedy Central Roast regular, Jeff Ross, wearing a light blue suit and robins-egg blue Adidas (of course), gave probably the best answer, right as the night was wrapping up and everyone headed for the exits: “Our democracy is thriving," Ross told me. "Look at all the nut jobs walking around here today. It’s fine, it just needs some Prozac."