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.