How democracy ends: The Sjem-Wiemar problem

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was once a force to be reckoned with, a country more powerful than Russia and far bigger than most of the countries of Europe. What happened to that empire?

Well, the commonwealth was one of the few countries in Europe that had a really influential parliament. It was called the Sjem, and it operated as a legislative body starting in 1493 and became the legislative body of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth when that was founded in 1569. It was, like many republics prior to the modern era, not particularly democratic. Its members were indirectly (by regional bodies) elected by the nobility, which amounted to about 10% of the population.

For much of its existence, any member could nullify legislation that had just passed and end the session by shouting "Nie pozwalam!" (I do not allow.) This is known as a liberum veto.

Harvard political scientist Grzegorz Ekiert argued that:
The principle of the liberum veto preserved the feudal features of Poland's political system, weakened the role of the monarchy, led to anarchy in political life, and contributed to the economic and political decline of the Polish state. Such a situation made the country vulnerable to foreign invasions and ultimately led to its collapse.
For one thing, foreign regimes discovered they could bribe legislators to use their veto, thereby paralyzing the government. This led to the partition of the empire and foreign occupation.

In Germany,  the Wiemar Republic had a rough start, but after the hyperinflation got tamped down, there were some very good years -- until the crash of 1929. The American banks that were helping Germany pay its reparations for WW I had to call their loans in, unemployment went up just as it did in other countries, and the people responded by throwing the bums out. Unfortunately, the bums they threw in tended to be people who didn't believe in democracy, like the the German National Peoples' Party, the Communists, and the Nazis.

Unable to form a majority coalition, Heinrich Brüning formed a minority coalition, but was forced to often rule by emergency decree, because the Reichstag could not pass legislation. Unfortunately, his policies for dealing with the Depression were exactly wrong -- he tightened credit and rolled back wage increases, making him unpopular with the electorate and the Reichstag.

Since his decrees were actually ruining the country, Brüning opened the door for the election of populists like the Nationalist Party and the Nazis. Even business interests turned against him, though it must be admitted that some started financing Hitler long before Brüning became chancellor.

In each case, democracy failed because it could not govern. Francis Fukuyama, in Political Order and Political Decay, argues that American political order is decaying because it has become to easy for special interests to veto decisions. This, he claims, leads to a government unable to function well enough to address the nation's challenges, which undermines the peoples' faith in the ability to address their problems, which leads them to deny it the resources to address their problems, which leads to...well, you get the idea.

The destruction of the Polish Commonwealth and the descent of Germany into the totalitarian hell of Nazi dictatorship had this in common -- democratic, representative government ceased to function. When democracy can't address the peoples' problems, they will turn to a strongman or watch things get worse and worse.

So it is with real dread that I read this:
To prevent Obama from becoming the hero who fixed Washington, McConnell decided to break it. And it worked. Six years into the affair, we now take it for granted that nothing will pass on a bipartisan basis, no appointment will go through smoothly, and everything the administration tries to get done will take the form of controversial use of executive power.
 Sound familiar? This is the way democracy is destroyed. As long as politicians find they can increase their clout by making sure government does not address peoples' problems, and not take the blame for how things turn out as a result, our democratic system is in danger.