Politics

Democracy’s Long Game: An Interview with Paul Starr

Paul Starr teaches sociology, public policy, and communications at Princeton University. He is the author of six books, including The Social Transformation of American Medicine, an institutional analysis of the US health-care system that won the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes. The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications (2004), a historical examination of the political decisions that shaped the evolution of communications media, won the Goldsmith Book Prize. Starr has written widely about health care, communications policy, and politics, and is cofounder and coeditor of The American Prospect.

Entrenchment: Wealth, Power, and the Constitution of Democratic Societies is more explicitly theoretical than Starr’s previous books. It focuses on the ways that institutions and the policies they comprise are entrenched to varying degrees in democratic societies. Starr describes several mechanisms through which policies and institutions may be rendered more difficult to change, addressing the relationship of entrenchment to norms, power, and wealth through case studies of inheritance law, American slavery, the design of political systems, and tax and social policy.

Since Donald Trump took office, his administration and its allies have consistently attacked valued political institutions and social policies that many had considered secure, while attempting to entrench presidential power and the influence of the political right. This volume, conceived as a theoretical contribution, has become vitally relevant to understanding and combating challenges to liberal democracy in the US and around the globe.


Paul DiMaggio (PD): What do you mean by entrenchment, and what motivated you to write a book about it?

 

Paul E. Starr (PS): The entrenched features of a society—the foundational features that are hardest to change—define what kind of society it is. They determine its moral and political character, they influence its economic performance, they are often the result of great historical struggles, and they can become again the object of high-stakes conflict. We need to understand how these constitutive aspects of society and politics get established and become resistant to pressures for change. So that’s the general theoretical motivation behind the book.

But it’s also concerned with the troubled democracies of our time, and understanding the shifting foundations of power today. In the era after World War II through the end of the 20th century, it seemed as though liberal democracies had become entrenched in the West. But in recent years things have been moving in a very different direction. What we thought was sturdy now looks as though it could be very fragile, and there is the potential for the entrenchment of illiberal and undemocratic forms of government. So the book is also concerned with these immediate challenges.

When most people see the word entrenchment they associate it automatically with the entrenchment of privilege and power. But I use the word in a neutral way. It can absolutely refer to the entrenchment of privilege, but I’m also concerned with the entrenchment of the rule of law and the entrenchment of systems of social protection, like Social Security. Under what conditions do those more egalitarian provisions become highly resistant to pressure for change and therefore better able to survive when more conservative governments are in power?

 

 

PD: When you started the book Barack Obama was president, and one of the concerns of liberals was how to entrench the kinds of policies that he had initiated. By the time you finished it, Donald Trump was president. How did your view of the project change over the course of that evolution?

 

PS: Well, that second set of concerns about democracy certainly grew as I worked on the book. At a certain point I realized it made sense to focus on the entrenchment of concentrated wealth and its power. That led me to identify a series of historical questions that are at the center of the book, about the basis for the long entrenchment of landed aristocracy and the entrenchment of slavery, constitutional systems, electoral systems, central banks, and tax regimes. As time went on, it became clear that this project that I had begun with theoretical ambitions might have some immediate relevance to what was happening in the world.

 

PD: It may be a case where having a timelier book is an unwelcome development.

 

PS: Yeah.

PD: Toward the end of the book you talk about the entrenchment of policies in the face of opposition. What are the takeaways for a new Democratic administration that might have an opportunity to get some things done but will be working in the face of fairly implacable opposition?

 

PS: I’ve been asking myself this question in regard to many issues today, for example, climate policy reform. It’s not something that you can do in just one or two years. It’s got to be sustained over a long period of time. So anyone who’s interested in climate policy reform needs to think about how to introduce reforms that can survive even when there is a rotation in power. And that’s a strategic problem.

 

PD: You write about the New Deal and some of the things that the Roosevelt administration did right. What are some compelling examples?

 

PS: I make some distinctions at the beginning of the book about mechanisms of entrenchment. There is deliberate entrenchment, which I refer to as “strategic entrenchment.” In a way, it’s the pursuit of irreversibility. It’s not that when things are entrenched, they’re eternal. But you can create a high barrier to reversal.

One way of doing that in a democratic system is to make these things part of a constitution, because the rules for changing a constitution are typically more stringent than for changing ordinary laws. Other things are entrenched because of the effects they generate, like Social Security and the political support it generates. It has a kind of built-in momentum, and it’s very difficult to reverse it.

So if you go back to the New Deal, there were a lot of policies that quickly disappeared. Social Security did become entrenched and enjoys very strong support as part of these feedback effects. So that’s the kind of thing to consider.

 

PD: Yes. And the Eisenhower administration entrenched the transportation system by building the National Interstate Highway system, which is a pretty effective example of strategic entrenchment.

 

PS: That is quite literally an example of cementing change.

PD: You wrote a chapter on slavery, an institution that was strongly entrenched in the US but, by the time of the American Civil War, was on the way out in most of the world, at least the kind of chattel slavery that was prominent in the US. The South seemed to treat attacks on slavery as an existential threat as early as the 1840s and drew the line against any incursion. Let’s imagine that instead they had focused on maintaining the institutional system of slavery within the states that had it, instead of trying to extend it throughout the country. It occurred to me that it actually might have taken a very long time to eliminate slavery in the US had they taken that more conservative position. Could they have entrenched slavery more deeply than it was?

 

PS: It’s certainly possible. Backing up for a moment: entrenchment doesn’t presume a consistent set of rules. It is very possible to build into a society institutions that are in outright contradiction with one another. In the case of slavery, the US began with contradictory principles: the general principles enunciated in the founding documents, which were the principles that actually resulted in the abolition of slavery in the Northern states; and the system of racial slavery in the colonial South, which then continued in the Southern states after independence.

The North and South effectively had two varieties of capitalism. One was based on free labor and the other recognized slave labor. They were both constantly driven toward growth and expansion, and it was in that context that they came into direct conflict over the control of the West. That was crucial for maintaining national power for each section of the country.

If slavery were to be confined to the South, Southern slave owners felt that they wouldn’t be able to maintain the system because it required power at the national level. They were literally invested in it. The investment in slaves as of 1860 was greater than the total US investment in railroads and manufacturing as of 1860. The abolition of slavery was one of the greatest expropriations of wealth in the history of the world. So it’s an example of a larger pattern, where you can have an entrenched contradiction that is ultimately going to generate some kind of systemic change. In this case, like many others, that change took place through violence.

PD: You mention in the book that one entrenching factor is migration, and there’s a sense in which demography is destiny. How do you understand the rise of populist and nationalist movements around the world at this time, in part in response to the movement of people across national boundaries?

 

PS: One of the arguments I make is that there is often a stronger motivation for entrenchment in a group that has held power or privilege for a long time but is worried about some underlying change on the horizon that could overturn its power. Growing numbers of immigrants can prompt that kind of anxiety.

That’s very much the case today in many countries: there are dominant, native-born groups that have enjoyed certain privileges and have certain assumptions about how society works, and fear the changes that are taking place demographically and culturally. One response in that situation is to try to entrench your power, and one way to do that is in part to control who future generations are, by limiting immigration, for example. Or by establishing control over those institutions that are partly shielded from immediate electoral influence. I think that’s part of what is going on with a lot of the right-wing populist movements around the world.

 

PD: As you talk about the current period, you also mention the politics of constitutional capture, where the effort isn’t simply to entrench rules within a constitutional system but to actually capture power within that system so that the rules don’t matter very much. If you look at leaders like Putin or Erdoğan or Duterte—and perhaps, aspirationally, Trump—it seems like the second kind of politics of entrenchment isn’t about new rules of the game but about creating situations in which an autocrat is free to ignore the rules. Is this something you anticipated when you began?

 

PS: Well, I didn’t anticipate this would be relevant to the US. We used to talk about such things happening elsewhere. It is a surprise to find that we are worrying about this now in this country. I make this distinction between ordinary politics and the politics of entrenchment. For me, ordinary politics is the politics of reversible policies. The domestic policy budget goes up under one administration and under the next administration it goes down. You don’t feel in these battles that it’s the end of the world if you lose, because you can come back and fight another day.

With the politics of entrenchment, you have good reason to believe that if you lose you really may not be able to recover for a very long time. During the mid-to-late 20th century we were mostly involved with ordinary politics. And now we’re in a period where at least some people are playing for keeps. And that raises the temperature of politics. It’s why polarization is so emotionally intense.

PD: In observing the Trump administration, I’m thinking that we sociologists may have overemphasized the importance of norms. Herman Melville, in his short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” created this character who was able to get away with all kinds of unexpected things by simply saying, “I would prefer not to.” And Trump seems a little bit like that. When called to account, to observe what have been regarded as very strong norms, he says, “I would prefer not to,” and then nothing happens. If we look at this as a stress test, this is a very disturbing attack on our institutions and a kind of experiment in social theory.

 

PS: Yes. It is a stress test. It’s a stress test coming from the chief executive—not from some antisystem movement on the outside, but from an antisystem leader at the top. And it does create a very unusual and in some ways extremely disturbing and even desperate situation. We didn’t realize that so many of our institutions depended on forbearance, depended on norms that we were hardly even conscious of, because they were so routinely observed. Now we realize actually they weren’t spelled out in the Constitution. There are ambiguities that an autocratic leader can take advantage of. There are laws like the laws regarding national emergencies, which we just saw Trump take advantage of in thwarting the will of Congress on the appropriation of money to build a wall on the southern border.

But it turned out in that case, Congress had enacted laws about national emergencies that had no clear definition. And they had no clear definition because those laws go back to World War II, to the Cold War, and at that time there was a high level of trust between Congress and the president. So they didn’t spell out narrow criteria for national emergencies.

So, yes, this is bringing out many of the weaknesses that exist in those laws and institutions. Entrenchment is not only a function of the institutions, it’s also a function of whether there is an opponent determined enough, crafty enough to undermine those institutions. And it only looks like a pattern entrenched in law during periods when there is no determined opponent seeking to undermine and change the institutions.

PD: An important argument that runs throughout the book is the tension between concentrated wealth and democracy, and the difficulty of entrenching democratic institutions in a society when it experiences great inequalities of wealth.

 

PS: I argue that capitalism and democracy are continually producing stress tests for each other. So capitalism is throwing up new kinds of wealth, is generating change that will often undermine the stable coalitions that have developed in a democracy.

Over the last half century we’ve seen the emergence of extraordinary concentrations of wealth, really a kind of oligarchy, and many of those people are not willing to accept the bargains that were made during the mid-20th century, for example, the acceptance of labor unions. All of that has come into question.

On the other hand, I’ve said that democracy also creates stress tests for capitalism in periods, like the Depression, when radical change has been on the table. So there’s no guaranteed equilibrium there.

We are in a moment when the course of change could go in radically different directions in the US. The growth in inequality and the adoption of neoliberal policies are bringing about a reaction. Many people, especially young people, face precarious employment, lack of affordable housing, student debt, and uncertain access to health care. The trends that brought about that insecurity could continue, or we could see the pressures build up and produce a turnaround. It’s extraordinary that for a while the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination could be someone who calls himself a socialist. And also that so many younger people are attracted to socialism.

 

PD: If you could have every progressive read your book, what lesson would you want them to take away from it in terms of strategies for defeating the effort of constitutional capture before it’s too late?

 

PS: You have to think one move ahead. Don’t just think about winning the next election. Don’t just think about what you’d like to do if you won the next election. Think about how you’re going to make the changes stick. Think about how those changes are going to sustain majorities over the long run.

For me that’s the potential good side, the progressive side of entrenchment. At the same time, you also have to think about what people on the other side are doing to entrench their power. Things like voter suppression. So that’s the way I’d like people to think about it: focus on the long term instead of the short run.

 

This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloomicon

Featured image: John Trumbull, Declaration of Independence (1819). Oil on canvas, 12 x 18 ft. United States Capitol

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