Could you withstand the pressure?

Two articles, one in The Atlantic and the other in The New York Times, discuss how first-term Representative Nancy Mace–a Republican from South Carolina–initially condemned Trump for causing the January 6 insurrection, only to backtrack since then. She’s no Liz Cheney, in other words.

But it’s easy to criticize. Can any of us be sure how well we would handle the pressure if we were in their situation? (The pressure is the threat of being abandoned by Trump’s supporters in favor of someone more loyal to Trump.) It’s easy to say we’d have the courage and fortitude of Cheney, but unless we face it ourselves first-hand we can’t really know. The sad truth is that, in the aggregate, Cheney is the exception, not the rule.

The implications of this is that, insofar as is possible, we should look for institutional ways to reduce the pressure and to make it easier for our representatives to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing. (One reason I’ve been working on the idea of round-robin voting, and how it relates to the kind of instant-runoff voting system adopted in Alaska, is to explore institutional alternatives that would help reduce this sort of pressure.) The basic insight of Madisonian theory, as I understand it, is that the institutions of government should be structured in such a way as to “economize” on the limited amount of political virtue that inevitably exists given human nature. “If men were angels,” as Federalist 51 says, we wouldn’t need to worry. Conversely, if there’s no virtue whatsoever, republican government couldn’t possibly function (only anarchy or despotism). So the trick is to calibrate institutions to the amount of virtue that exists (which hopefully is at least sufficient), and if possible create a virtuous circle where good institutions breed more virtue, which in turn make it easier for institutions to serve the public interest. (The virtuous circle, in other words, reduces the pressure on individual politicians to outperform expectations in light of human nature.)

The big-picture problem, as I see it, is that right now our Madisonian system is seriously out of calibration. Currently, there’s not enough virtue for our existing set of institutions. Or, to put the same point another way, our institutions are not, or no longer, well-suited to the amount of virtue we collectively have at the moment. We need to recalibrate, to get our institutions and our communal measure of virtue sufficiently back in alignment. But that’s easier said than done.

The advantage of stories like these two on Nancy Mace is that, as incomplete as they inevitably are in explaining our current predicament, they spotlight the the fact that the virtue component of the recalibration effort necessarily operates at the level of individual souls; it’s not just a matter of the overall structural context in which these individual souls operate. To get a virtuous circle rolling in the right direction, we will have to up our game at the individual level, in order to achieve the institutional reforms required to reduce the need to rely on extraordinary virtue, and to secure even more institutional reform, and so forth. It’s going to be a difficult challenge, but there’s no point giving up without trying.

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