Democracy: A Case Study stems from a course that historian David Moss developed in order to bring the strengths of the Harvard Business School’s case study method to conversations about governance, citizenship, and democracy. In the spirit of that course, the book highlights nineteen key episodes in the history of American democracy and encourages critical engagement by presenting readers with the information available to decision-makers at the time. Altogether, the cases underscore the profoundly American resonance of intense political conflict, demonstrating what Moss calls the “relentless struggle” of American democracy. In the passage below, excerpted from the book’s Introduction and with reference to its cases, Moss explains why American democracy is better understood as a living organism than a machine.
All too often, in civics and government classes from grade school to high school and beyond, American democracy is characterized as a machine built to specification. Students learn, appropriately, about the intricate checks and balances across the three branches of government, about the strict division of powers between the states and the federal government, and about the explicit limitations placed on lawmakers to protect the rights of individuals against improper infringement by government. All are essential elements of the American political system, and all flow directly from the Constitution. And yet, with so much emphasis on constitutional design and mechanics, students are often left with the impression that a successful democracy is virtually automatic, given the right blueprint.
Such is not the case, of course. If it were, then exporting American democracy to other countries would simply be a matter of exporting the Constitution itself, just as a manufacturer might export the plans for a piece of machinery to be built and operated abroad. But as Americans have learned time and again through hard experience, exporting a democratic system of governance is exceedingly difficult to do. A working democracy requires much more than a successful blueprint.
A closely related observation has to do with the way democracy is modeled in the social sciences. One very influential strain of thought, drawn mainly from economics, focuses on equilibrium conditions in democratic decision making. The basic idea is that given people’s preferences, societies can potentially fashion governing arrangements that are self-sustaining in equilibrium. One of the nation’s leading theorists of political institutions, Barry Weingast, has argued that “democratic stability depends on a self-enforcing equilibrium: It must be in the interests of political officials to respect democracy’s limits on their behavior.”
As an example from American history, Weingast highlights the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which attempted to ensure a political balance of power between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North, in part by drawing a line at the 36°30′ parallel and permanently banning slavery in territories north of the line. Weingast concludes that “over the long run, balance provided the basis for sectional cooperation. Because it meant that radical measures could not succeed, balance induced moderates in each section to cooperate with one another.”
Although the equilibrium model has a certain appeal, it nonetheless feels strangely at odds with the relentless storm and stress of American history. Indeed, the closer one gets to the historical record, the more it seems that democracy is never in equilibrium: lawmakers are forever testing the limits of their power; interests are constantly looking for ways to tilt policymaking to their advantage; and reformers of all stripes are endlessly seeking to change the underlying rules of the game in line with their biases and aspirations.
Following the Missouri Compromise, the United States held together for another forty years, yet sectional divisions and slavery itself continued to roil the nation. In 1828, Northerners infuriated Southerners by passing the so-called Tariff of Abominations, leading ultimately to the Nullification Crisis of 1832. Nat Turner’s slave rebellion of 1831, meanwhile, sent shockwaves through the South, and a surge of Northern abolitionist petitions during the 1830s so unnerved certain—especially Southern—members of Congress that they passed a “gag rule” in 1836 barring such petitions from consideration, despite the First Amendment guarantee of “the right . . . to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The nation was further riven by the Mexican War of 1846–1848 and the bitter fights that ensued over whether territories acquired in the war should be slave or free. In the end, the Missouri Compromise was overturned not once but twice—first by Congress in the fiercely controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which gave rise to the Republican Party, and next by the Supreme Court in the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857.
In fact, the Missouri Compromise that Weingast characterized as a “self-enforcing equilibrium” was prophetically described by Thomas Jefferson in 1820 as the “knell of the Union.” In Jefferson’s view, the Missouri Compromise was not self-sustaining at all, but instead self-delusional and ultimately self-destructive: “A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated,” he wrote, “and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.”
As this example suggests, equilibrium analysis—drawn from economics and, before that, from physics—may not be the best framework for understanding democracy. A better approach, perhaps, can be derived from the field of biology, which offers a strikingly different take on the notion of equilibrium. As one well-known biology textbook bluntly explains, “a cell that has reached metabolic equilibrium is dead! The fact that metabolism as a whole is never at equilibrium is one of the defining features of life.”
The very same might be said of democracy. A healthy democracy, like a healthy organism, is constantly fighting against the forces of equilibrium—the forces of entropy—which drive fragmentation, breakdown, and decay. It’s an imperfect analogy, to be sure. All analogies are. But the comparison to a living organism reveals some fundamental truths about democracy—about its complexity and its animating spirit—and is far more apt than the mechanistic conception of democracy so pervasive in civics classrooms and, to a large extent, in the public mind.
A little more than a quarter century after Atlantic Monthly editor James Russell Lowell characterized the breakdown of the Union in 1861 as a breakdown of faith in the democracy, he famously declared that “after our Constitution got fairly into working order it really seemed as if we had invented a machine that would go of itself, and this begot a faith in our luck which even the civil war itself but momentarily disturbed.” Of course, Lowell knew as well as anyone that democracy is not “a machine that would go of itself”—that for it to survive and thrive, human agency is critically required. Woodrow Wilson had much the same thing in mind when he declared that “government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life.” Although a working democracy may appear simple, particularly in civics class, it in fact comprises an enormously complex array of human institutions, both formal and informal, all of which interact and need constantly to change and adapt to fight off threats of various kinds. The formal institutions, ranging from the three branches of government to the Bill of Rights, are all relatively fixed in the short run, but can be modified in various ways over the medium term and can be more profoundly changed through constitutional amendments over the long term. Informal institutions, meanwhile, ranging from civil society to social reform movements to the press, are equally vital to the health of the overall system and can change rapidly or barely at all, depending on conditions.
In these ways and many others, democracy is indeed more like a living, breathing organism than a machine built to specification. And like an organism, it can’t stand still. It needs to actively work against corrosive forces, both moral and institutional, or succumb to them. We will see this, for example, in the battle to replace the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution in the late 1780s (Cases 1 and 2), and in an effort in New York State in the late 1830s to clean up a corrupt banking system intimately tied to the state’s politics (Case 4). We will see it in the rise of independent administrative agencies in the late nineteenth century and the drive for the direct election of U.S. senators in the early twentieth (Cases 12 and 13). We will see it in battles to expand the franchise (Cases 5, 16, and 17), in the fight for public education (Case 7), and in the adoption of the secret ballot (Case 10) and the initiative and referendum (Case 13). We will see it in the growth and transformation of political parties (Cases 2, 4, and 10, among others), in the development of the abolitionist movement (Case 8), and in the rise of muckraking journalism (Cases 12 and 13). And we will see it in countless softer, but no less significant, changes in outlook and understanding across the nation’s history—including, especially, changed perceptions of African Americans, Native Americans, Catholics, women, and gays and lesbians—often with dramatic political and legal consequences.
American democracy has always been a relentless struggle, both to expand its promise and to protect itself against forces of decay and corruption. It is a remarkable process, to say the least, but not an automatic one. It requires constant vigilance. As we have seen, this struggle—at its best—implies productive tension in the nation’s politics: tension, in the form of competing ideas, interests, and institutions, made productive, ultimately, by a deep faith in—and a shared commitment to—the nation’s system of democratic self-governance. This is what gives life to American democracy and has sustained it through countless trials.