The Creaking Joints of Democracy

One of my favorite liberals, Philly magazine’s Joel Mathis (he’s one half of the “Red-Blue America” column with Ben Boychuk), offers up a conciliatory column in the spirit of Christmas today that I take at face value. A few relevant bits:

Some of my best friends are conservatives. . .

My life is immeasurably better and richer because of my conservative friends, starting with Ben Boychuk—no RINO he—and extending to a vast array of people with whom I grew up and attended college. I don’t just have conservative friends; I love them dearly.

I just happen to think they’re wrong about a lot of stuff. . .

What’s more, I’ve come to think conservatives have a few insights that liberals could learn from. We liberals aren’t in favor of big government for its own sake — it’s usually a means to solving some societal ill. But conservatives are (sometimes) right that expanding the reach of government can involve tradeoffs in personal freedom, that regulation sometimes has unintended consequences, that sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. They’re not always right about these things, but they’re right often enough that liberals should pay attention.

So far, so good. From here, Joel goes on to worry that our disagreements are getting so severe that our democracy itself may start to break down:

The problem? We Americans don’t really pay attention to each other any more. We’re not friends with each other anymore. We increasingly see our rivals as evil, meant to be stopped entirely. Compromise and accommodation—meetings of the minds—seem increasingly impossible in this atmosphere.

Our republic cannot survive this state of affairs for long. It rests on the notion that electoral losers accept the legitimacy of the winners, and that is increasingly no longer the case. . . Our republic also depends on healthy debate.

But I don’t think this state of affairs is brand new, nor especially extraordinary. Think only of the decade before the Civil War. There’s a reason we Claremonsters in particular obsess about that conflict. It was the South’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of the winner of the 1860 election that was the proximate cause of the Civil War.

By coincidence, I was just this morning rereading one of Harry Jaffa’s oldest books, Equality and Liberty (published in 1964), in which he says at the outset:

The Civil War is the most characteristic phenomenon in American politics, not because it represents a statistical frequency, but because it represents the innermost character of that politics.

Let me explain this further with a seeming digression: the single hardest thing to persuade today’s students about is the theoretical limits to majority rule. I usually pose the question to students thus: can a democratic majority rightly vote to enslave itself? It is astonishing how vehement students are in insisting that the answer is Yes, became democracy means majority rule! End of discussion. The moral confusion becomes acute when the next question is: then what’s wrong with a majority voting to enslave a minority—whether racial or otherwise?

The solution to this problem is subtle, but involves an essential point: majority rule is the practical substitute for unanimous consent to the first principles of equal rights (which is not the same thing as equality—take note, liberals) and government by consent. And at the core of those first principles is the philosophy of the natural rights of individuals. Here’s how Jaffa explained it and its connection to the kind of deliberative debate Joel wants to see thrive:

It was because men are by nature equal; because, that is, no man is by nature the ruler of another, that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed—that is, from the opinion of the governed. But government based on the consent of all must operate upon the only practicable approach to unanimity, namely, the rule of the majority (however defined); and majorities can take shape or form only in and through the process of discussion. It is for this reason that discussion is indispensible to the democratic process; but the principle of discussion can never be separated from the principle of majority rule; nor can the principle of majority rule be separated from the principle of the natural equality of political right of all men. (Emphasis in original.)

Now, I doubt Joel thinks he disagrees with anything said here, but I’ll just note that the favorite liberal trope—being on “the side of History”—implicitly negates this older liberal understanding of the basis for democratic politics on a philosophical level, and this decayed philosophy has consequences—such as students having no way to think of a principle to mark out the limits of majority rule. Combined with this is the modern liberal understanding that any differences between individuals today is a violation of the principle of equality, which is the liberal gateway drug to tyranny. Which is why I say that Progressive liberalism (Joel I think can be categorized as an old-fashioned “reform liberal”) remains the chief threat to our democratic order, because of the thoughtless historicism that can be observed in most students being unable to recognize the principled limits to straight majority rule, and to side implicitly with Stephen Douglas’s position in 1858.

Never mind these theoretical aspects of the problem. Here’s one piece of conservative wisdom on this problem of deliberation and debate where liberals clearly are on the “wrong side of history” as understood in the common sense meaning of that phrase: to the extent that we first politicize and then centralize more and more things, our disagreements about fundamentals put more and more stress on our democratic institutions. Just to pick one example, did we really have to make the problem of sexual assault on college campuses a matter for close federal supervision through Title IX? Are not states—and colleges themselves (all run by good and sensitive liberals, keep in mind)—able to manage this?

Descending even further down the metaphysical food chain, it should be acknowledged that liberalism is usually the aggressor in the political wars, with a constant visage of passionate demands for more justice and equality. They are not always wrong to do so; in fact they are quite often right about the fundamental problem in view, if usually mistaken in solution. But the relentless inflaming of political passion will also increase the stress on the joints of democratic institutions. Which brings me back to my all time favorite analysis of the great Michael Oakeshott:

To some people, “government” appears as a vast reservoir of power which inspires them to dream of what use might be made of it. They have favorite projects, of various dimensions, which they sincerely believe are for the benefit of mankind, and to capture this source of power, if necessary to increase it, and to use it for imposing their favorite projects upon their fellows is what they understand as the adventure of governing men. They are, thus, disposed to recognize government as an instrument of passion; the art of politics is to inflame and direct desire. In short, governing is understood to be just like any other activity – making and selling a brand of soap, exploiting the resources of a locality, or developing a housing estate – only the power here is (for the most part) already mobilized, and the enterprise is remarkable only because it aims at monopoly and because of its promise of success once the source of power has been captured. Of course a private enterprise politician of this sort would get nowhere in these days unless there were people with wants so vague that they can be prompted to ask for what he has to offer, or with wants so servile that they prefer the promise of a provided abundance to the opportunity of choice and activity on their own account. And it is not all as plain sailing as it might appear: often a politician of this sort misjudges the situation; and then, briefly, even in democratic politics, we become aware of what the camel thinks of the camel driver.

Now, the disposition to be conservative in respect of politics reflects a quite different view of the activity of governing. The man of this disposition understands it to be the business of a government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down. And all this, not because passion is vice and moderation virtue, but because moderation is indispensable if passionate men are to escape being locked in an encounter of mutual frustration.

Joel and his collaborator Ben are quite right to observe the “mutual frustration” of both sides of the political spectrum in the U.S. today. But I say it is mostly the liberals’ fault, for reasons Oakeshott suggests. I’ve been wondering if it is possible to measure in some quantitative way which side is more disgruntled at the moment, and I’m not sure such an objective measure is possible. But ask yourself this question: why is the left so unhappy—and Bernie Sanders getting so much traction—near the end of the rule of the most leftist president in the nation’s history?

It takes a whole semester, at least, of patient work to begin to unravel these interrelated problems. But that’s enough for this special pre-Christmas session of Power Line University. Now where’d I put down my egg nog?