Monday, June 06, 2005
The Republican Assault on Democracy
Guest post by John McGowan
The official Bush Administration line in foreign policy is the promotion of democracy. Yet the Republicans have launched a full-scale assault upon democracy at home. Setting aside (for the moment) the simple fact that this assault is about grabbing and using power, it also reflects an impoverished view of democracy, basically one that limits democracy to free elections. In this view, the people ratify a set of leaders—a government—in an election, and, in so doing, gives those leaders a blank check. If the government uses the power given to it unwisely, the people can vote it out next time around. Power rests solely in the hands of the people and in its delegated agent, the government.
This understanding of democracy tends toward the plebiscite—and toward the establishment of a strong leader, usually one who promises to sweep aside the complexities, compromises, frustrations, and inefficiencies introduced by parliamentary janglings and an independent judiciary. From Napoleon III and Bismarck in the 19th century to the Governator in the late 20th century, the plebiscite has almost always favored right wing leaders impatient with legal and institutional impediments to forceful action. In other words, the plebiscite is perfect for establishing the tyranny of the majority that Tocqueville and Mill feared. By emphasizing a direct (even cult-like) relationship between “the leader” and the people, democracy by popular ballot bypasses intermediary associations (either voluntary or constitutional), precisely the kinds of associations that Tocqueville counted on to temper democracy’s possible tyranny. The Progressives who established the plebiscite provisions in various states in the early 20th century aimed, of course, to circumvent corrupt legislatures, but their efforts were almost certainly fated to aid, rather than hamper, right-wing interests.
Why? Not because the right wing almost always does better in direct appeals to the people than the left, although historically such is the case. (Opponents of democracy in the 19th century assumed, as did Marx, that the people, once given power, would insist on distributing wealth downwards—i.e. to themselves. But that has never happened; the most the people have ever tried to do in a leftward direction is to improve working conditions and to make the playing field a little more fair by securing the workers’ right to organize. Sorry for the gross oversimplification here. The history—and theory—of plebiscites is fascinating and important. For one thing, liberalism must rely on direct democracy to establish a constitution in the first place. It cannot avoid the kind of plebiscite to which the EU constitution has just been submitted.)
It is not the results of actual plebiscites that are the issue, however. More crucial is that plebiscites consolidate power. From Montesquieu through the American Founding Fathers (particularly Madison) to Tocqueville, liberals have insisted that tyranny can only be combated by the multiplication and fragmentation of power. A free society is one in which there are various centers of power, various positions from which people have the ability to influence decisions. That’s the whole point behind creating three branches of government, the vaunted “separation of powers.”
It’s easy to say that the Republicans’ drive to consolidate power—a drive manifested in their attempt to create a disciplined party whose legislative wing serves its White House leader smoothly and which captures the judiciary through placing party faithful on the bench—is just what any party will “naturally” try to do. After all, FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court. So we should expect that parties will strive to overcome the “checks” that the constitution tries to establish. Hence my colleague Tyler Curtain’s response to my post on the Amnesty Report. “Of course, the Bush Administration will try to ignore a Supreme Court decision that it doesn’t like. What else would you expect?” (I should hasten to add that Tyler attributed such shrug-of-the-shoulders cynicism to what he deemed a post-Watergate loss of any faith in our government being upright.) Or, as one commentator put it, the Bush response is “how many divisions does the Supreme Court have?”
My point is that liberalism, first and foremost, is a set of expedients (mostly institutional and legal) for minimizing tyranny by setting limits to government power. It also tries to prevent the consolidation of power by fostering the multiplication of power. Democracy, in my view, is not worth a damn if it is not partnered with liberalism. Democracy and liberalism are a squabbling pair; they each locate power in a different place—democracy in the people, liberalism in the law—and they aim for different goods: democracy (in its most ideal form) for something like the “general will,” liberalism for a modus vivendi in a world characterized by intractable conflicts among people with different beliefs, goals, ambitions, and values. Neither one trumps the other; both, in my view, are essential ingredients of a legitimate polity.
Not only the Republicans, but the American nation as a whole, seem to have lost any sense whatsoever of what liberalism means and what it strives to insure. Even at the best of times, the liberal check upon power is a tenuous bulwark that fights against the odds. There is nothing that underwrites the rule of law except the continued practice of upholding it. The law must be reaffirmed anew each and every time it is enunciated and enforced. And the temptation to circumvent the law, to rewrite it to accommodate one’s current beliefs and practices, is also ever present. To pay the law heed is to accept that one’s own virtue is doubtful—or that one’s own beliefs are, in every sense of that word, “partial.” It is their assurance in their own virtue that renders the Republicans most dangerous, most prone to set the law aside when it gets in the way of doing when they know in their hearts is right. Impatience with the law is endemic—and it is the harbinger of extreme politics of either the right or the left. (It is here, of course, that the leftist will leap. But why should we think leftist self-righteousness any more attractive or less dangerous than the rightist variety?)
I will continue on this line of thought in my next post. Here I just want to end by noting how “unnatural” liberalism seems. It involves self-abnegation, accepting the frustration of my will. It involves, as I will detail in my next post, compromise in almost every instance, and thus can seem akin to having no strong convictions, no principles. Yet its benefits are enormous; it provides, I am convinced, the only possible way humans can live in peace together in a pluralistic world. Given how distasteful liberal expedients are in experience, it is a miracle that they ever get established and maintained. But the benefits of that miracle are multiple—and we, as a nation, will sorely regret it if we trash our liberal edifice out of impatience, frustration, or, even worse, sheer forgetfulness of why that edifice was put in place, how it works, and what it accomplishes.