The importance of not having a center: Polycentricity saves American democracy | Opinion
The events of the last few months, and especially the last few weeks, have led many Americans to think more about exactly what democracy means and why it’s so valuable. The antics of the outgoing administration and its conspiracy-fueled partisans have caused many to wonder whether American democracy is more fragile than we thought. Perhaps contemporary politics has become so fraught that democracy cannot survive.
A broader conception of democracy, however, might lead us to a different conclusion. Too often, we think of democracy narrowly as the mechanisms of political activity, such as elections, parties, and the operation of the branches of government. Those are only pieces of the larger idea of democracy, or better yet, liberal democracy, as a system that also involves the rule of law, private property, and a robust civil society. More specifically, one of the most important features of liberal democracies is that they are polycentric.
Polycentricity refers to the existence of multiple sources of competing power and influence, rather than just one seat of power at the center, or the top, of society. In the United States, the best example of polycentricity is our federalist system in which states and municipalities have significant decision-making power. The states have jurisdiction over a variety of areas, including things like family law and election law.
We have seen the importance of the latter over the last few months. President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results had to be fought in a number of state capitols, rather than with one national-level election process. Not only does this mean more resources are required to engage this kind of coup, making them harder to pull off, it means that no one judge or court has the power to allow it to happen.
The ability of secretaries of state, judges and election officials at the state and local level to stand up to the president by doing their constitutionally-appointed jobs was instrumental in maintaining the integrity of the election process. And while they deserve to be praised for not buckling under to political pressure, the real credit belongs with the Founders, who understood that the polycentricity of a federalist system would be crucial in just these sorts of situations. There are legitimate criticisms of the Electoral College, but its polycentricity is an often-overlooked advantage.
Polycentricity has been important not just in the political system, but between the political system and other parts of democracy more broadly. Liberal democracies include markets and the institutions of civil society (e.g., houses of worship, homeowner’s associations and other voluntary associations). Market institutions and civil society provide other nodes of power and influence that are part of the broader checks and balances of liberal democracy.
The focus in the 20th century was frequently about the way in which government, especially the federal government, could serve as a check on corporate and market power, and that remains central to modern progressives. However, the events of the last week or two have shown how corporations and the marketplace can be a countervailing force against, and an alternative to, political power.
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All of these forms of exit are important ways that the marketplace was able to limit the power and damage of Trump and his partisans, and do so more quickly than the political process has. What makes polycentric systems so effective is that people have alternatives and can exit poor systems or relationships. It is that kind of decentralization of power, and the way that competition among institutions limits the ability of any one set of institutions to go unchecked, that makes liberal democracies resilient in ways that are often unappreciated.
The competing sources of power in a polycentric liberal democracy are absent in one-party states and other non-democratic systems. It’s nearly impossible to imagine the Russian, Chinese or North Korean leadership having their power limited either by lower levels of government or by the private sector or civil society. Even as we remain rightly concerned about the threats to democracy posed by Trumpism, we should not overlook the importance of our polycentric system in responding effectively to its dangers. And we certainly should be mindful that the new administration’s longer-term response to what has transpired does not undo those strengths.
Steven Horwitz is the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.