Over on American.com, I’ve got up an essay this morning on the deep ambivalence liberals have toward popular democracy. Their incoherence goes back to the theoretical Progressivism of people like Woodrow Wilson, who wanted both more democracy and less democracy at the same time. Here’s the key paragraph:
At the core of “Progressivism,” as it was called then and is again today, was the view that more and more of the business of individuals and society was best supervised by expert administrators sealed off from the transient pressures of popular politics. So at the same time that Progressives championed “more democracy” in the form of populist initiatives, referendum, and recalls, they also developed a theory deeply anti-democratic in its implications. As the famous phrase from Saint-Simon had it, “the government of men is to be replaced by the administration of things.” But this undermines the very basis of democratic self-rule. No one better typifies the incoherence of Progressivism on this point than Woodrow Wilson, an enthusiastic theorist of the modern administrative state who couldn’t clearly express why we would still need to have elections in the future. In Wilson’s mind, elections would become an expression of some kind of watery, Rousseauian general will, but certainly not change specific policies or the nature of administrative government.
Bottom line: at the end of the day, modern liberalism will increasingly come down on the side of less democracy. More on this later, perhaps. I’m in an airport right now.