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  • Editor's Introduction
  • Trygve Throntveit

Sometimes it is best to let ideas marinate a while. A bath of swirling contexts draws out certain latent qualities and implications, while preserving the shelf life and improving the intellectual digestion of the items in question. Such, I think, is the case with Ian Shapiro's Politics against Domination, the focus of the symposium composing the bulk of this issue.1 Having hosted a symposium back in 2002 on Shapiro's Democratic Justice, which first laid out his theory of nondomination as applied primarily to civil institutions, The Good Society seemed an appropriate venue for a deep reflection on his long-awaited treatment of formal political institutions and their potential to be reformed along nondominative lines.2

When Shapiro's book was published in 2016, at the end of Barack Obama's presidency of the United States, some readers were bound to find its practical argument too cynical, too fanciful, or both.3 The argument is that aspiring democracies like the United States, which emphasize minority representation and majority constraint, necessarily diminish accountability for political decisions, thereby sacrificing a good that—despite American lore—is secured rather than threatened by disciplined partisanship. For this reason, constitutional systems like that of the United States should be thoroughly overhauled in order, first, to supply winning parties with more power to pursue coherent national agendas rather than a bedlam of parochial interests; and second, ensure that the electoral majority's satisfaction with the ruling party's results is the only thing that can keep that [End Page iii] party in power. Thus a regime of intense bipolar competition, à la Joseph Schumpeter, is the path toward responsible government—but with one caveat: The polity must provide for, and prevent threats to, the basic needs of all its members, including above all health, education, and electoral participation. In other words, we must rebuild democratic polities to foster competition but prevent domination.

In 2016, this was a tougher argument to make. Wasn't intense ideological competition between the two major parties rending American culture and failing American society? Wasn't party discipline—its presence among Republicans, and absence among Democrats—what prevented effective reconstruction of the financial system, truly comprehensive healthcare reform, prudent yet timely troop drawdowns across the globe, and many other nondominative (at least from the Democratic perspective) goals of the Obama years?

From the vantage of 2020, things look a bit different. Donald Trump was able to secure the Republican nomination for president mainly because of his adopted party's lack of discipline and clear subservience to special interests. In the ensuing presidential election, Hillary Clinton failed to rally the Democratic base in hundreds of districts, due in part, it would seem, to her own party's lack of discipline and none-too-sharp distinction from the Republican establishment. Across America, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and moderates, liberals and progressives, felt disenfranchised by a system seemingly incapable of vigorous action or reform.

In this light, some of Shapiro's Schumpeterian remedies for the ills of modern democracy might appear more attractive. If, for instance, Americans voted directly for the representative of a party and its agreed slate of initiatives—rather than, say, for a president who scapegoats immigrants but a representative who seeks to attract foreign workers to her district—is it not logical to expect that executive and legislative agendas would better align? Or again, if candidates were publicly funded—and private money was banned from campaigns—is it not more likely that party agendas would better reflect the actual needs and preferences of the voting majority?

On the other hand, the Trump era is likely to cast a long shadow over Shapiro's arguments for dismantling the system of checks and balances that constrain partisan legislation and executive implementation, despite his apt accounts of their sclerotic consequences for the body politic. One can endorse nondomination and still wonder: Can the remedy for an unaccountable government possibly be fewer checks on the power vested [End Page iv] in partisan ideologues through an electoral machine worthy of a Rube Goldberg cartoon?4

Shapiro offers several other provocative suggestions for revamping democracy in a Schumpeterian vein, drawing not...


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