On the Dangers of Democracy

Voters leave a polling station on election day in Olmsted Falls, Ohio, in 2016. (Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters)

The rising authoritarianism of our time is not an aberration.

‘Living in a democracy is no longer protection from authoritarianism,” Joshua Keating argues in Slate. One quibble: Living in a democracy never offered protection from authoritarianism — democracy has as often been the handmaiden of authoritarianism.

For more than a century, we have used “democracy” as a shorthand for good and decent government, and also to indicate a distinctly progressive American view of good government. The founding father of American progressivism, Woodrow Wilson, demanded a war, because, as he said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” When the American Left speaks about its desire to exercise power over businesses or private life, it says that it wishes to “democratize” this or that enterprise. Bernie Sanders calls his proposal to plunder his political enemies his plan for “Corporate Accountability and Democracy.” The more clever kind of Marxist speaks about “economic democracy.” Yet in spite of all this, the word “democracy” retains its positive connotations.

This has not always been the case. The libertarian writer James Bovard famously worried about vulgar majoritarianism, the kind of democracy that amounts to “two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.” (The quip often is misattributed to Ben Franklin, among others.) The American founders by and large feared and despised democracy, which they took from their experience to be a dreary antechamber to anarchy. Democracy in their view was only dominatio plebis, a mutant kind of tyranny but tyranny nonetheless — not a brake on authoritarianism but authoritarianism itself. This anti-democratic spirit animated the thinking of both of the Presidents Adams, which was philosophically sound but politically disastrous: Each refused to flatter the mob, and they became the first and second presidents to fail to achieve reelection.

American progressives have had a complicated relationship with the demos. Progressives have simultaneously sought to make American government more democratic by undermining anti-democratic institutions such as the Senate (which they deformed with direct elections) and by displacing federalist institutions with nationalist ones; at the same time, they historically have sought to limit and diminish the role of legislatures, supplanting them with an administrative state under the guidance of experts (and “experts”) guided by what American academic pretense has christened “political science.” (One of the early presidents of the American Political Science Association was none other than Woodrow Wilson of Princeton.) Progressives who argue for a more parliamentary form of government, longer presidential terms, and longer congressional terms and the like operate within the same contradiction, desiring a government that is both more authentically an expression of majority preferences but also one that is relatively unconstrained by the fickleness of majorities, who are apt to change their minds between one November and the next. That the temporary character of majority preferences could call into question the authenticity and accuracy of any given election as an expression of the popular will is one of those political dilemmas that must be studiously ignored. This is understood by progressives to be a technical challenge for the political scientists rather than a disability.

And if, to take a historical example, the 2.3 million white citizens of Alabama in 1960 wish to oppress the 980,000 black citizens of Alabama, this kind of workaday democracy in action must be understood as a violation of a rarefied higher kind of spiritual democracy rather than the ordinary, predictable, horrifying behavior of human beings operating under a politics of might-makes-right in quantitative form: 50 percent +1 = vox populi, vox Dei.

The Democratic party is, for reasons that are obvious enough even from its name, committed to the rhetoric of democracy-as-decency. Among other things, that necessitates that Donald Trump and his presidency be understood as democratically illegitimate, the work of Russian hackers or secret streams of corporate “dark money” or the last gasp of the wicked old Electoral College. Trump stands accused of attempting to weaponize government policy to disadvantage his political enemies by people whose entire party platform is dedicated to weaponizing government policy to disadvantage their political enemies: economically through taxes and regulations that are designed with political outcomes in mind, politically through proposals to muzzle independent political voices by prohibiting financial support for them, etc. American presidential politics is primarily a quasi-religious exercise in Anno Domini 2020, so set Trump aside for the moment. There is very little doubt that figures often lumped together with Trump as exemplars of the new illiberalism are the result of genuine and robust democratic practices: Narendra Modi is one, with his Bharatiya Janata party winning 303 seats in the 2019 election against 91 for the United Progressive Alliance and 52 for Congress and a combined total of 98 for everybody else. Brexit was the result of a referendum, the most basic of democratic protocols. The election that brought Viktor Orbán to power in 2010 was a thoroughly democratic affair, and it was not close. None of that represents a perversion of democracy — it illustrates that democracy is in itself insufficient.

Which brings us back to Slate and Joshua Keating. “This isn’t quite what we thought the age of Trumpian authoritarianism would look like,” he writes. “We are accustomed to thinking of authoritarianism vs. democracy as a team sport: the Axis against the Allies, the Soviets against the West.” (Of course the Allies were far from uniformly democratic, and the anti-Soviet bulwark in the West included such leaders as Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet. But never mind that for now.) Much of the authoritarianism of the current scene is precisely what many conservatives from the 18th century onward thought authoritarianism would look like: factional strife and popular passions; politics with a quasi-religious character focused on a sacramental strongman; contempt for tradition, institutions, morality, civil society, and the rule of law; the cult of might-makes-right and the cult of self-justifying power (“winning!”) as an end in itself, etc. We have democracy, vats and oodles of it.

What we are missing is . . . everything else.

Before the poetical Thomas Jefferson put his quill in it, the language of the Lockean trinity was clear enough: life, liberty, and property. The right of property is of course always and everywhere a necessary but not insufficient condition for the flourishing of genuine liberty, which is a different thing from genuine democracy. Democracy despises property when it does not envy it and envies it when it does not despise it, and hence Senator Bernie Sanders et al. extol democracy in their war on property, which is a war on liberty, its sometime synonym. Property creates and sustains independent centers of action and makes possible the emergence of men and women of genuinely independent mind and action who are not easily coerced into the obligatory conforming heterodoxies that go along with salaried employment and dependence upon some corporation or another in the private or public sector. That was true of rich men such as George Washington and of poor men such as Mohandas Gandhi. Property provides the wall protecting the circle of private life, the independent sphere of life from which the state and its agents may be criticized and opposed.

The American constitutional order assumes property. It accommodates democracy as a procedural convenience and as a contribution to the “balanced” form of government described by John Adams, one in which popular enthusiasms are taken into account but constrained by the anti-democratic features of the government. Those include the Senate and the presidency, which in theory were to function (but do not) as a kind of republican aristocracy and monarchy braking the engine of democracy, as well as by belt-and-suspenders constitutional restraints on the scope and ambitions of the national government, those being a doctrine of “enumerated powers” that tells the national government what it may do and an explicit Bill of Rights telling it what it may not do. On top of that are the elements of civil society, including a press and churches that are constitutionally protected from political domination, and a population that is difficult to dominate because it cannot be silenced, dispossessed, or disarmed so long as the Bill of Rights stands. Those who fear rising authoritarianism in the United States — and they are right to fear it — may be fixated on Trump and his servile party but must also turn their attention to the other side of the aisle. It is the Democratic party, not the Republican party, that has attempted to gut the Bill of Rights, not only the Second Amendment but the First Amendment as well, which Senate Democrats voted to effectively repeal under Harry Reid’s leadership. It is progressives who promise to “democratic the workplace” and use employment as a weapon of political coercion, as they have at firms ranging from Google to various entertainment and news-media properties. And their antipathy toward property is remorseless, not only among confessing socialists such as Senator Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but also among more moderate-seeming figures such as Elizabeth Warren, who proposes to nationalize American corporations and dictate to them the composition of their boards and their terms of corporate governance, among other intrusions.

Increasingly, Left and Right converge in the worst of their vicious democratic passions, holding that Americans may trade only at the sufferance of the state, speak only at the sufferance of the state, hold their property only at the sufferance of the state, etc. Managing the relationship between democracy, the rule of law, liberty, and property was, until not long ago, at the very center of one of the two major American political tendencies. But after the liberals abandoned liberalism, the conservatives began to abandon conservatism, with the destructive consequences that are everywhere to be seen in our politics, not the least of which is a U.S. government that is increasingly authoritarian in its assumptions but, perversely, unable to get anything done, swollen with power and ambition but bereft of skill and competency. Historical experience suggests that states become more vicious and intrusive as they become less effective — and less liberal as they become more democratic in the true sense of that word.

The rising authoritarianism of our time is not an aberration but the ordinary natural fulfillment of mass democracy when it has overflowed its constitutional restraints. A good government must ask the People what they want from time to time, but a decent one also must tell them “No” from time to time.

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