clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Will “decoherence” be the doom of American democracy?


The US political system has more centers of power than any other democracy in the world. In addition to a bicameral legislature (somewhat common), we have a separately elected president with a veto (less common). Add in strong powers of judicial review on top of a common law system that makes courts more important (rare), and you really have four effective veto players, the most of any democracy. Add in federalism, with numerous powers carved out for the states (somewhat rare), and you have yet another independent source of power. It all amounts to a unique system with very little centripetal force to pull it all together.

In an earlier time, one could make an American exceptionalism case for the benefits of such a system: More independent sources of power built in more diversity of perspective, and more venues created more opportunities for minority voices shut out of the mainstream institutions. It was a system that favored caution and compromise, which made it highly stable.

Now it all seems harder to justify. Or at least it requires more energy to keep the separate loci of power from pulling apart.

In a stimulating new essay, Brookings scholar Philip A. Wallach gives the increasing chaos of American policymaking a new name:decoherence (the essay is titled "Government Decoherence and Its Discontents").

I like this term a lot. Wallach is pulling an important alarm here: The pieces of our system are not working together; if they continue to pull away from each other, our government can't work. If our government can't work, well, we've got some big and obvious problems.

What is "decoherence"?

Wallach starts his essay by noting that a growing number of scholars have raised concerns that government policymaking institutions are operating in ways that are provisional at best, possibly bordering on illegitimate: "Caesarism. Government by Deal. Government by Waiver. Kludgeocracy. Lawless law... adhocracy," Wallach writes (providing useful links). He argues, however, that these are all just pieces of a larger puzzle: "The deeper and greater problem is — if I can be forgiven for adding yet another label to the already lengthy list —decoherence."

Wallach borrows "decoherence" from quantum mechanics, and takes the term to describe the condition where "elements of a system that had been interacting become disconnected from each other, no longer sharing information"

In the ideal of coherence, Wallach writes, "policies are linked together through a seamless fabric of law and harmonized as part of a coherent policy vision (or at least made to avoid blatant internal contradictions)." This contrasts with our current condition, in which "policies emerge (from new laws and old, and sometimes with very little connection to law at all) haphazardly, without any semblance of hanging together as a coherent whole." The obvious risk? "This will lead to total dissolution of the state or the rise of some more viable alternative rooted in a single leader's plebiscitary connection with the people."

Wallach is drawing here on the German political theorist Carl Schmitt, who raised some similar concerns about liberal democracy in the 1932 book Legality and Legitimacy. Schmitt then went on to become a Nazi supporter, like many German intellectuals who were reacting to the chaos of the Weimar Republic. I suspect if you squint just a little, you can see this same hunger for a populist plebiscitary in Donald Trump's big-mouthed promises to just make stuff happen by the sheer force of him saying so.

Like Wallach, I share concerns about the growing chaos and confusion of American policymaking — though I confess to a certain skepticism about too much coherence, given the obvious totalitarian tendencies in that direction and the difficulties toward coherence inherent in America's unique political institutions.

But it's clear there is a balance somewhere. And when a Tom Friedman column praising China's authoritarian efficiency becomes an acceptable pass-around, and trust in the military is far greater than trust in any of our other political institutions, I do start to worry.

The causes of decoherence

Wallach's essay doesn't do much to explain the rise of decoherence. I do think, however, it's worth looking at the causes, because they can point us to solutions.

The first and most obvious explanation is that this is just the logical consequence of the uniquely American institutional design I described in the first paragraph, with its multiple veto players, each with its own independent source of power, on top of a highly federalist structure. But this alone is not a complete explanation. So what has happened to make America a more decoherent place?

Increased complexity

The world is more complicated than it used to be. This is obvious and inevitable in an advanced, specialized, interdependent economy. Increasing economic and societal complexity creates new conflicts, some of which require new laws to solve. More law requires more specialization and division of labor in government. Specialist communities then arise around different policy areas. As policy communities become more specialized, they become more insular.

I'm convinced there is some wisdom in a system of overlapping jurisdictions, as I argued in this review of Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones's excellent new book, The Politics of Information. But for such a system to work, the policymakers inhabiting the jurisdictions also need to have the experience and knowledge to keep up with the complexity of the world around them, and be able to see past their own vantage point. They need to be willing to look beyond their narrow missions and goals.

This is obviously a challenge. Complexity also increases the totality of knowledge in the world, which means that the share of relevant information any one individual can master inevitably declines. This means it is very difficult for any one individual or even group of individuals to have a coherent response to any public policy problem. Everyone's knowledge becomes more parochial and limited. Means and ends get confused.

Complexity is not itself an explanation. But when combined with the other changes I'll describe, it contributes to decoherence.

More lobbying

In the film Thank You for Smoking, tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor responds to a question from his son for a school assignment about American government:

Joey Naylor: Dad, why is the American government the best government?
Nick Naylor: Because of our endless appeals system.

"Our endless appeals system" captures the ways in which no political loss (or victory) is ever permanent. There are always new venues in which to continue the fight. You lost in Congress? Fight the implementation. You lost at the agency? Fight it in the courts! And you've also got 50 states to use to try to undermine the law as well. That's the American system at work!

At a time when lobbying was more limited, this was less of a problem. But now lobbying is a $3.2 billion-a-year business (in reported expenditures, surely an undercount). Large corporations especially have increasingly overwhelmed the policymaking apparatuses, taking full advantage of that "endless appeals system." What passes in one venue can be undermined elsewhere, or at least modified substantially. Everything can be complicated with carve-outs and loopholes, or modifying kludges, as Steven Teles has convincingly argued.

Moreover, because the multiple veto points of our system make it difficult to pass anything in the first place, the proliferating demands of lobbyists add more small provisions to those increasingly rare must-pass and landmark bills that Congress does approve. Rather than acts of coherent policy, legislation often looks like a record of who was well-organized enough to find a congressional champion willing to support some parochial ask. This contributes to decoherence.

More polarization

The two parties are now as far apart as they have ever been in the US Congress, and "divided government" (in which no one party controls both the executive and legislative branch) is more and more the norm.

Much has been written on the gridlock and paralysis of polarization, and there's no need to belabor the point here, other than to make the obvious observation that if the two parties are deeply divided and far apart, it is very difficult for them to produce coherent legislation that works well with other branches of government. Even if there is a compromise, it is unlikely to be a coherent one.

To the extent that there is some overlap between the two parties, it is possible to at least share some basic understandings of the world. As members of both parties inhabit increasingly separate spheres of ideas and knowledge, you get two fundamentally different worldviews. This all contributes to decoherence.

The decline of Congress

In Federalist No. 51, Madison postulated, "In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates." In Madison's original Virginia Plan, the president (or as he called it, the "National executive") would have been directly selected by the legislature. While he compromised on an electoral college (on the premise that it would serve more like a nominating committee for Congress to decide), he and his fellow Constitution writers kept the powers of the executive relatively weak — certainly weaker than other presidentialist systems that later emerged, mostly in South America.

Our system is set up for Congress to predominate. Yet for the last several decades we've seen presidents time after time ignore Congress, pushing the boundaries of executive power to take unilateral action, building policy out of whatever wire and string and glue they can find in existing law, while Congress occasionally legislates in an opposite direction, or at least threatens to.

And where Congress does act, the result is too often incoherent legislation that mixes of provisions drafted by lobbyists and hackish partisan gimmicks, curated and coordinated by inexperienced staffers with too little sleep. Congress has sidelined itself by failing to invest in its own capacity.

Is there a solution?

Given these possible causes, is there any way to bring back some coherence? The arrow of complexity is difficult to turn around, given that entropy is the law of the universe.

But certainly we can collectively acknowledge that complexity is an enabler of decoherence. This would mean we should hold simplicity in higher regard as a policy goal. This requires considerable work, since the only way to reduce entropy is to introduce energy from outside the system.

Polarization is a problem for a system like ours that requires compromise, but it's not easy to reverse polarization given its many, many interrelated causes. The increase in lobbying is also difficult to reverse. I can't see any reasonable paths to placing limits on lobbying activity, nor am I convinced that would be a particularly wise idea to even try.

That leaves reversing the decline of Congress. Wallach argues Congress is our first, and last, best hope. I agree. In the absence of a competent Congress, staffed by genuine policy experts who don't have to rely on lobbyists to cut through policy complexity, and led by lawmakers who take governing seriously, increasing political decoherence seems inevitable. No other institution has the same authority and inherent power in our political system. It's that simple.

I've been beating the drums and blowing the trumpet for a competent Congress for a while. But I'll do it once more: Coherent policymaking is hard work. If you do government on the cheap, you get what you pay for.

Our decoherent future?

It's possible that, as Dylan Matthews predicted, we will just evolve to a system where Congress ratifies presidential decisions — or that, as Ezra Klein predicts, we will just muddle through, with occasional moments of unified government making big, overdue changes. I'm less convinced that we will have a coup, as Matt Yglesias predicts, though it's possible that at some point, a charismatic leader will make an effective Carl Schmitt–like critique of a worsened state of American decoherence, especially if the current trajectory continues. As Ira Katznelson notes in a new essay in Boston Review, democracy is entering "a profound crisis of moral legitimacy, practical capacity, and institutional sustainability."

My optimistic hope is that the frame of "decoherence" can give us a new way of understanding the problems of our current government, which maybe can move us towards a new way of thinking about solutions.

For decades now, we've had a public argument about the size of government. "Smaller government" (quotes are intentional) has gained more adherents, and government is now a little smaller than it used to be. But smaller government doesn't reduce the demands on government, or make government better capable of dealing with those demands. If anything, it makes government worse at it. So maybe it's the wrong way to evaluate government.

Using "decoherence" as a tool of evaluation leads to a different set of questions. It asks us to look not at raw size, but at capacity for responding to problems and thinking beyond just the squeakiest wheels. It asks us to think in longer-term intervals, and across institutions.

Obviously, given our institutional design, a certain amount of decoherence has to be inevitable, and may even be valuable. The question is how can we make that a source of resilience and innovation, rather than the cause of national decline? I don't have the answers to that here. But I think it begins with acknowledging the risks of too much decoherence.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.