Book Reviews

The Eternal Power Elite

Today’s right no longer just wants to win power. It wants to change the rules and keep it.

By Alan Wolfe

Tagged DemocracyDemocratspoliticsRepublicans

Entrenchment: Wealth, Power, and the Constitution of Democratic Societies By Paul Starr • Yale University Press • 2019 • 280 pages • $28.50

Under normal democratic conditions, the path to political success is fairly clear: You try to assemble a majority in favor of your cause or interest and to rely upon that majority to pass legislation supporting your position. So long as the agreed-upon rules are followed, your win does not vanquish those who stood in opposition to you. It is never nice to lose, but in a normal democracy the losers know that if they react by carrying out the sufficient work of renewed mobilization, they just might be able to win the next time around. Democracy is (at least in theory) a form of protection against winner-take-all politics.

There is, however, another direction that politics, especially at times of democratic crisis, can take: the attempt not only to win, but to prevent your opponents from their chance at a victory in the future. This is what the Princeton sociologist Paul Starr, in his exceptionally insightful new book, calls “entrenchment.” Entrenchment does not imply merely following the rules; it means changing them. A party or interest, for example, may win a majority vote but then alter the rules to make a two-thirds vote necessary for any future legislation, including the repeal of what it just passed. Or a legislature may delegate future decision-making to an undemocratically elected body such as a central bank or a court. Or a constitutional amendment can prohibit “tampering” with a particular area of public policy, say, for example, by making it illegal for any future legislative body to approve of same-sex marriage. (Such an amendment was proposed in the United States after the Supreme Court, in the 2015 decision Obergefell v. Hodges, gave same-sex couples the right to marry.) Entrenchment is one of the primary means by which wealthy and powerful interests protect their wealth and their power. They hope to win not just a contest or two but, insofar as it is possible to do so, permanence. “Unlike ordinary politics,” as Starr puts it, “struggles over entrenchment offer a distinct prize – irreversibility, or as close to it as the institutions of a society can come.”

Despite entrenchment’s bias in favor of those already blessed by wealth or position, Starr does not wish to make it an all-powerful villain. Slave owners found all kinds of ways to entrench their power but ultimately were forced to give up their “peculiar institution.” Although conservatives are generally inclined to restrict the suffrage—Tory paternalism in England and Canada is something of an exception—it proved impossible over time to prevent women and racial minorities from voting. Most importantly, there is also such a thing as “progressive entrenchment”; making Social Security universal, for example, rendered it more difficult to repeal. Nor is Social Security the only such example: Any program stretched to include the middle class or even wealthier interests (in other words, one that is universal) will be more likely to entrench itself, as the case of farm supports, once a New Deal program but now a major benefit to agri-business, illustrates. Starr, thankfully, avoids any conspiracy theorizing about power elites and ruling classes. “Many aspects of a society are like the meandering streets of old cities,” he writes, “the entrenched results of paths of activity laid down long ago for reasons no one remembers, persisting because people have become attached to their own ways and byways, and the costs of tearing them up and carrying our a master plan would be too great.”

Of America’s two political parties, the Republicans have been most active in uncovering these meandering streets and paving them over with obstacles to majority rule resembling nothing less than massive bulldozing. Alas for the health of our democracy, their plans for political renovation are well under way and will no doubt prove difficult to stop.

The bulk of Starr’s book is devoted to two tasks: sketching out a conceptual framework for understanding entrenchment and illustrating the dynamics of how it works through extended historical examples: primogeniture in England, slavery in the United States, and the establishment of liberal reforms that took place during the New Deal and the Johnson years. These parts of Starr’s book are of great value.

Starr’s general command of both European and American history, for one thing, is most impressive. The best example, in my view, lies in his reminder of the extent to which Southern interests went to entrench slavery and all its odious features into the very governing documents of the United States—as well as in the less successful attempts by abolitionism to entrench freedom and equality in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Starr’s chapter on the Civil War and its aftermath reminds us that nothing about that conflict was inevitable. Despite the exhaustive efforts by slavery’s defenders to make the peculiar normal, they could not maintain forever a social system so at odds with the founding ideals of the United States. And despite the transformation of the Fourteenth Amendment into a tool to protect big business, its underlying insistence on formal equality came to its long-delayed fruition a century after it was adopted. “The United States,” Starr concludes “had contained two expansionary economic systems, each of which demanded the backing of the national government. . . . The Civil War did not end the moral inconsistencies between equality and white supremacy in America, but it subdued, for a time, the contradictory relation between the South and the nation.”

Thinking more systematically about the concept of entrenchment is especially important at this present time because entrenching decisions, and in that way excluding them from democratic purview, appears to be gaining in importance with the success of right-wing political movements in both Europe and the United States. In the United States, the Republicans support suffrage restriction; the addition of immigrant status to the census; extreme versions of executive authority; the denial of executive power to incoming Democratic governors; charges of voter fraud; the appointment of as many conservative judges as possible, and questioning the very possibility of neutrality in both reporting and judging—all of these moves are dedicated to enhancing the party’s power and weakening the capacity of the opposition. It can hardly be a surprise that no one at the present moment can be sure what Donald Trump will do if he loses in 2020; Trump appears to like nothing more than the idea of entrenching himself as President. Entrenchment is hard-wired in a Republican Party increasingly convinced that any victory by Democrats is illegitimate. Republicans understand their primary objective not as passing any particular laws but as preventing Democrats from holding power.

We are, moreover, not the only country in which a politics of entrenchment is on the rise. Authoritarianism has become all too common around the world, and so long as it is, attempts at entrenchment will be as well; Starr cites his Princeton colleague, the political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, who argues that populism, for all its seemingly democratic rhetoric, openly attempts to exclude from politics those held to not truly belong. Ethno-nationalism is even more explicit in this regard; its entire raison d’être is premised on one group gaining an entrenched power to prevent other groups from fully participating in politics. Just ask Hungarian Jews, Indian Muslims, or, for that matter, Palestinian Israelis.

As I reached the end of Starr’s book, I was hoping that his emphasis on entrenchment would yield new ways of understanding this global turn to authoritarianism. Starr tries to oblige by including reflections on the “stress tests” currently facing democratic societies. Alas, however, his emphasis on entrenchment, so helpful in grasping the power of political and economic elites, proves not to be all that helpful in understanding the full significance of political divisions rooted in religion, language, region, morality, or identity. In addition, Donald Trump’s particular form of right-wing reaction is inevitably colored by the President’s insecurities, thirst for revenge, and allergy to apology, none of which have much to do with entrenchment—or, indeed, with any explanation rooted in a rationalistic understanding of the rewards and dangers of politics.

Starr’s lack of appreciation for cultural issues is illustrated by the fact that, in his chapter on progressive entrenchment, he ignores one of the most contentious efforts by liberals to “lock-in” their position: their victory in Roe v. Wade. By any definition, Roe counts as a prime example of progressive entrenchment. Access to abortion was treated by the court’s1973 majority as a right, and rights are generally viewed as non-negotiable. Roe also nationalized the right to abortion, precluding state legislatures from substantially modifying it (which never stopped them from trying). Liberals who fret that the court had no business treating campaign spending as part and parcel of a right to free speech ought to gain a glimpse into why conservatives became so infuriated with Roe’s assertion that limitations on abortion interfered with a woman’s right to privacy. Entrenching decisions yields advantages, but it also stirs resentments.

The reaction against Roe also sheds light on why efforts at entrenchment often fail. Those who opposed Roe were protesting not only the substance of the decision but the decision’s implication that the entire issue of abortion had now been placed outside the realm of democratic politics. Whatever one thinks of their cause, and I am no fan of the right-to-life movement, it was fueled by a sense of victimhood. Roe stimulated a major advance in the most single most significant reason for the right’s ability to win support for its policies, even when, as is the case with abortion, they are not actually popular: the idea that liberals are undemocratic and elitist, trampling upon the convictions of ordinary people and their hard-earned common sense. Although untrue—it remains the case, today, as it has always been, that the most powerful elites are those who corrupt politics to suit their own financial interests—victimhood showed the contemporary right a path to power. Should the court soon overturn Roe or significantly limit its reach, the lesson will be clear: Popular resentment can trump progressive entrenchment. Expect the right, under such circumstances, to go after every example of progressive entrenchment it can find, even while trying to expand its own attempts to monopolize the political playing field.

The concept of entrenchment, furthermore, helps little in understanding why it proved to be Donald Trump who rode reaction to power. Trump is indisputably an authoritarian, an American version of a worldwide phenomenon. Yet the greatest danger that Trump poses to American democracy lies not in his support for one or another policy; when it comes to policy, he seems indifferent to any kind of direction. Trump’s danger lies in the way he violates long-understood norms by which democracy functions. A law, once passed, can be repealed, and even a repeal can be repealed. But a norm once destroyed proves difficult, if not impossible, to reestablish. It may take a year or two to pass a law but it takes decades or more to establish a norm; nothing in the Constitution prohibited any President from running for a third term in the 153 years between the end of George Washington’s presidency in 1797 and the start of Franklin Roosevelt’s third term in 1940; it was instead a widely accepted consensus not to do so. When Trump’s tenure is evaluated by future historians, norm-breaking will be among the most serious charges.

In theory, norms can be viewed as a form of entrenchment; they encourage some forms of behavior while precluding others. They can also be strikingly effective: The norm asking that presidential candidates release their tax returns lasted 40 years, although not nearly as long-held as the norm against a third term, is nonetheless a significant amount of time given the usual hurly-burly nature of contemporary politics. But, as the same example shows, norms lack any enforcement power; Trump was able to ignore this particular norm and win election anyway. Trump, I believe, for all his love of self-entrenchment, can properly be viewed as a politician intent on also breaking entrenchment by ignoring norms or practices that limit his authority. Confining Trump seems to be all but impossible. The Homeric hero Odysseus tied himself to the mast to avoid being seduced by the sirens. Trump would have smashed the mast and enjoyed all the sirenic pleasures that followed.

The concept of entrenchment presupposes that politicians care about the future inasmuch as it requires that future policymakers be prevented from taking certain political actions. The Republican Party clearly does, which is why it goes to such extreme lengths to hamper the future prospects of the Democrats. Yet as hard as the Republican Party works to achieve entrenchment, its current President seems to be doing everything in his power not to take the future into account, often, as with his tariff wars, at the seeming expense of electoral calculations. Trump lives only in the moment; tweeting, insulting, demanding toadyism—none of these forms of political action so widely identified with Trump suggest the presence of a mind capable of prioritizing strategy over impulses. With Trump, it is vindictive pettiness all the way down. Our President loves entrenched power for himself but not for anyone else.

Entrenchment’s whole reason for being is to place limits on the reach of normal politics. But what if entrenchment itself becomes normal democratic politics? We just may face such a situation in the near future; if Democrats come back to power, they will be frustrated by the entrenched power of conservative judges—and they will be tempted to respond by trying to increase the number of liberal judges in turn. I have no idea what might follow from an intensification of the entrenchment wars, but I doubt that whatever does will be good for democracy (at least in the long run).

Paul Starr should be given credit for writing a book that, whatever its limitations, reminds us of the importance of structures and institutions. Starr is fully correct when he writes that “no problem is more difficult for democracies than the entrenched power of concentrated wealth.” That will continue to be case so long as the United States relies on a generally unregulated form of capitalism.

But it is also the case that the right seeks entrenchment in culture as much as in economics; it wishes to entrench, among other things, Christianity, unlimited corporate spending, low rates of taxation, leftist-free universities, white victimhood, subservient women, union-free workplaces, and know-their-place minorities. True, we ought never lose sight of the ways in which elites maintain their wealth and power. But we also ignore at our peril the ways in which the right seeks to re-entrench the cultural and moral values of an America that no longer exists, a subject to which, I believe, Starr should have paid more attention. My guess is that the forces of reaction will fail in their efforts to prop up a culture that is losing its appeal in an increasingly diverse society. But the fact that they will try suggests just how appealing the idea of entrenchment, especially to a political party worried about losing power, will remain.

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Alan Wolfe is professor emeritus of political science at Boston College.

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