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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Are our Politics becoming "Weimarized"?

Since the mid-'00s, the blogosphere has been rife with what I regard as a happy but diffusely defined neologism -- "Weimarization." Users of the term argue that our American politics are becoming "Weimarized" presumably because, in important ways, they believe that American politics are beginning to resemble the politics of the so-called "Weimar Republic" of Germany (meaning the constitutional regime in force between 1919 and 1933). But which precise aspects of Weimar Germany resemble our current politics? Most references to "weimarization" seem to pick out an isolated aspect of the Weimar republic's dysfunctions such as the polarization between authoritarian anti-modern factions and liberal democrats or an increase in discretionary executive authority a la Carl Schmitt.

All of these references, I suggest, leave out the really distinctive aspect of Weimar politics -- that is, interaction between bad institutional rules and polarized politics that led to the impulsive empowerment of temporary polarized factions by presidential power unchecked by legislative scrutiny. More specifically, I would reserve "weimarization" for the combination of three characteristics that were peculiar hallmarks of the Weimar Republic's dysfunctionality -- viz.: (a) a polarized electorate, (b) an institutionally induced paralysis in the legislature, and (c) an institutionally induced hyperactivity in the executive. The Weimar Constitution allowed the first condition to interact with the second and third to produce an avoidable Nazi regime. By setting the vote threshold very low for a party to win seats in the Reichstag, Weimar's electoral rules encouraged fragmentation of the Reichstag among small parties, making it hard to maintain a majority coalition. Thus, the legislature was paralyzed: After the Mueller cabinet (formed by the SPD, the DVP, and the DDP) proved incapable of compromising over unemployment insurance in March of 1930, there never was again a parliamentary cabinet under the Weimar Constitution. At the same time, Article 48 gave the President broad powers to rule by decree in an "emergency": The last four governments of Weimar -- Bruening's (which lasted two years), Von Papen's (which lasted a few months), Schleicher's (which lasted a few weeks), and Hitler's (which ended in permanent dictatorship) -- were all "Presidential cabinets" holding power only because President Hindenburg personally backed them with his article 48 and article 53 powers to rule by decree and to appoint chancellors.

By this definition of "weimarization," are we "weimarized" yet? I'd say we are halfway there. We've got much more intensely polarized voters lately, albeit nothing like the powerful position of the KPD or the NASDP, which commanded a Reichstag majority (296/584 seats) in November of 1932. Tea Partiers might risk destroying our economy, but they do not seek to destroy democracy itself. We have a Congress deadlocked by arguably excessively deadlocking rules, although we still enjoy, with our single-member plurality districts, the benefits of Duverger's law and its suppression of all but two effective parties.

The third piece of Weimarization -- a Presidency that can rule by decree -- is largely missing. Our latter-day Carl Schmitts, Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule, are urging to embrace this last Schmittian innovation. Should we fully weimarize our politics by taking their suggestion that President Obama should settle the debt limit crisis with an executive order?


I think not. The problem is that, in a hyper-polarized political environment with a paralyzed legislature, presidents are unlikely to deliberate with sufficient care about their decrees. Unchecked, they can freeze into place a bad status quo tossed up by volatile and polarized politics that cannot be reversed by a gridlocked Congress. Sure, Obama is a competent and cautious guy: So was President Friedrich Ebert, the first President to rule by decree in Weimar (from 1919 until 1923). But Ebert's use of Article 48 emergency decrees created a sense that such plebiscitory presidential rule was normal and even desirable, thereby paving the way for Hindenburg's catastrophic decisions in '32 and '33. Whatever value might be created by an expeditious presidential settlement of (for instance) the current crisis over the debt limit should be offset by the risks posed by the unknown decrees of future and less deliberate president.

Neal Katyal has suggested that internal deliberation within the executive branch could act as a check on impulsive presidential decisions that an internally divided Congress cannot supply. But I tend to buy William Howell's riposte that "[e]ven if internal checks on presidential power do some good—and it is not clear that they do—they are neither perfect, nor even approximate, substitutes for external checks." Moreover, presidential decretal rule can perversely affect the capacity of Congress to govern responsibly. If the two parties in Congress believe that the President stands ready to take the political flak for, say, raising the debt ceiling, then it is possible that they will be tempted to engage in more uncompromising posturing for the edification of their respective bases, even though this results in congressional paralysis. (The Mueller cabinet collapsed in 1930 because the SPD and DVP were squabbling over unemployment insurance -- a trivial cause for the the string of "presidential cabinets" culminating in the Nazi takeover in January 1933).

So I would be reluctant to weimarize our politics completely by embracing a Posner's and Vermeule's unilateral Presidency. At least, I'd like a little more argument for why a model that performed so dismally in 1930-1933 should be expected to be a success in our semi-weimarized America today.

Posted by Rick Hills on July 24, 2011 at 11:09 PM | Permalink

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While I agree with the proposition that “Tea Partiers might risk destroying our economy, but they do not seek to destroy democracy itself,” I suspect that if they end up contributing to the destruction of our economy this will have deleterious effects, to put it mildly, on our democracy, and I don’t think Tea Party movement members are the types of individuals who will appreciate these effects nor believe they’re possessed of a (social) character structure sufficient to counter those effects should they occur. Indeed, I suspect they’ll manifest some disturbingly undemocratic behavior (in the constitutional-legal sense) should such a situation arise or the present state of affairs get precipitously worse. I suppose this is in some respects at least analogous to the situation in the Weimar Republic: apart from the constitutional and governance issues, those on the Left were unable to sufficiently mobilize against the forces of fascism in part owing to the reasons noted by Wolfgang Bonss in his introduction summarizing one inference we might draw from Erich Fromm’s pioneering study, The Working Class in Weimar Germany: A Psychological and Sociological Study (1984 English tr., the original study was conducted in the early 1930s):

“…[T]he outward verbal radicalism of the Left was misleading with regard to the actual anti-fascist potential of the labour movement, and if one looks at the discrepancy between manifest opinion and latent attitude, it seems that in many cases a left-wing outlook was neutralized or perverted by underlying personality traits. Fromm’s conclusion was that despite all the electoral successes of the Weimar Left, its members were not in the position, owing to their character structure, to prevent the victory of National Socialism.”

In our case, the reflexive nationalism and libertarian rhetoric of the Tea Party movement suggests a superficial understanding not only of economics but of law and politics in a constitutional democracy as well. It’s purely speculative of course, but I worry that in a time of prolonged economic crisis in this country latent (social) character structures (in Fromm’s sense) will surface among members of this movement in a manner that bode ill for our democracy. We see signs of this in some of the mass media rhetoric to date, including interviews with Tea Party aficionados and their fellow travelers. I think Fromm’s argument about the “pathology of normalcy” based on evidence of widespread “chronic, low grade schizophrenia” (others might describe this as simply cognitive dissonance) or sundry pathological symptoms manifest among the masses is relevant here as well. We live in a society in which so many express belief in or identify with religious worldviews while allowing for and contributing to the thoroughgoing economization of social relations (and related worship of idols: money, fame, status, celebrity…), including participation in reference groups and filling social roles that have been reduced to vehicles for facilitating a competitive struggle to fix socio-economic identity, position, and status through emulative striving (to be like those above one in the socio-economic hierarchy), exploiting membership in such groups and participation in such roles as a means to studiously avoid meaningful social contact with those “below” them in a hierarchical consumption code indelibly marked by competitive social status and insecure social esteem. This shows a failure to effectively generalize—make equal—the conditions of true (i.e., substantive) freedom. Those identifying with religious worldviews should instead demonstrate their belief in the subordination of economic life to, and regulation of economic through, criteria associated with the fulfillment of our moral and spiritual needs, for establishing the conditions necessary for generalizing the pursuit of self-actualization or self-realization in a psychological, moral and spiritual sense, for generalizing the innate incentive toward worthy living, for generalizing, within the constraints of dignity and self-respect (as Dworkin says), the capacity for realization of what it means to live worth lives.

Capitalist democracy remains committed to the aristocracy of Capital, meaning that, in the end, the special interests of capitalists trump generalizable interests tied to the common good while economic insecurity compels workers to canalize their interests in the struggle for higher wages or short-term material gain. The aristocracy of Capital finds workers dehumanized insofar as they’re indemnified by the false promises of conspicuous consumption and irresponsible affluence, utterly distorting the pursuit of happiness and the potential of individuals for uniquely realizing values and manifesting virtues. This is a fact we’ve been increasingly compelled by the current economic crisis to intimately realize. It is a fact that this Aristocracy (and plutocracy) directly and indirectly corrodes and contradicts our collective commitment to democratic principles, methods and processes. I believe Tea Party members are Capitalists first and foremost, and only nominally Democrats (populism should be distinguished from rule by democracy), hence their displaced anger and rage in the face of existing and proposed democratic constraints on markets and or reliance on the government to regulate the behavior of Capitalists.

In short, this accounts for my being frightened by the Tea Party movement: it bespeaks, in some respects at least, a crypto-fascism, meaning that it betokens a fascism of sorts, given a prolonged or deeper economic crisis that threatens the uninhibited pursuit of economic advantage.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 25, 2011 10:55:03 AM

erratum (third para.): "and regulation of economic life through..."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 25, 2011 11:00:10 AM

Lest someone draw the wrong inference from my comment, I'd like to note that, as a good Marxist, I'm not denying the historical accomplishments of capitalism as an engine for wealth creation and socio-economic progress generally. I'm just wondering if the neo-classical economic model of growth and capital accumulation is pressing up against its inherent limits and contradictions such that a global (neo)Keynesian golden age is no longer possible and thus neither the regressive proposals from the Right nor the economic policies proffered by our government or the elites of other economically powerful nation-states, are sufficient to bring us up (for any prolonged period) from this low point in what may be more than just another economic cycle, with the mania, panics, and crashes endemic to such cycles. IF that's the case, the threats to democracy may be of the unsettling sort that come with the widespread and sudden thwarting of what to that point were increasing (if perhaps unrealistic) socio-economic expectations (and the correlative sense of entitlement).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 25, 2011 11:42:15 AM

To add a little more food for thought, from a finance group: "Let's face it—we are getting beaten because the U.S. government can't seem to make big improvements. Issues quickly get polarized, and then further polarized by the media, which needs extreme viewpoints to draw attention and increase audience size. The autocratic Chinese leadership gets things done fast (currently the autocrats seem to be highly effective)."

http://www.imackgroup.com/mathematics/648580-wall-street-journal-chinas-impressive-5-year-plan/

Posted by: Grandmaster | Jul 25, 2011 12:19:05 PM

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