The Dangerous Rhetoric of 'Our Democracy'

Current progressive policy initiatives make an almost reflexive appeal to the poorly defined notion of "our democracy."  Constitutional and legislative renovations such as expanding the Supreme Court, eliminating the filibuster or even perhaps the Senate itself, liberalizing voting procedures beyond the reasonable limits of election integrity, eliminating the Electoral College, and managing media in the name of suppressing politically inconvenient "misinformation" form the basis of their agenda.

The fact that these are innovations and were not included in the first two and a quarter centuries of our constitutional republic raises legitimate skepticism as to whether the phrase "our democracy" refers to an established institution rather than an ideological abstraction.  The idea of "our democracy" is presented in progressive advocacy as an indisputable historical fact, with no other support than the stridency of the assertion.  That nature of constitutional order and the historical facts of our political history reveal that our true democracy is in fact incompatible with the constitutional vandalism currently being urged by the political left.

To understand the rationale and structure of our current Constitution, it is important to recognize one crucial concept: that entities and institutions have interests that are separate from the people who happen to be transiently associated with them.  This principle is seen, for example, in a University Board of Trustees, who must look after the interests of the university as a continuing entity, and not merely as a surrogate for the students and faculty who happen to constitute it at a particular point in time.  The same is true of all manners of institutions such as hospitals, museums, corporations, and churches.  The truth underlying this principle is that in order to provide enduring benefit to generations of people, the long-term interests of institutions take priority over the transient and fleeting interests of the present moment.  Collective entities have interests as enduring institutions that must be considered wholly apart from and sometimes even opposed to ephemeral wants and sentiments.  Our Constitution reflects this principle. 

As originally ratified, the legislative power was given to a bicameral Legislature with the interests of the people represented by the House of Representatives and the interests of the States represented by the Senate.  It was recognized that individual states had interests that required consideration beyond the transient opinions and interests of the people who live there at a particular time.  This is why senators were originally appointed by state legislatures, and why the states, being considered equal sovereigns, had two senators each, rather a number proportional to population.  It is also why, for example, the Senate is given the authority to ratify treaties and confirm appointments to federal office, and why we do not have a popular vote on Supreme Court justices. 

The drafters of the Constitution took it as common sense that states had interests that deserved protection from the passions and fads of the political majority, which possibly were centered far away with little knowledge of, and without concern for, regional issues.  It was assumed that a farmer in Pennsylvania would have significant common interests with a businessman from Philadelphia, even more than he might a farmer from South Carolina.  It seemed reasonable that a German immigrant in Massachusetts would have some common interests with an Irish immigrant from the same state, even surpassing that of a German immigrant in Ohio.  The assumption that different regions of the country, having different climates, economies, and resources, would have different political interests was reasonable and essential, if not enduring. 

When progressives speak of "our democracy," they do not mean the constitutional order that was established at the nation's founding, which consisted of a federal government of limited powers.  The drafters of the Constitution recognized the legitimate sovereignty of the States, but the current progressive innovation insinuates different priorities for institutional interests.  "The government" is now treated as a discrete entity with interests that may be antagonistic to both the states and the people.  Bureaucracies and government agencies have assumed partisan allegiances and loyalties wholly distinct from the considerations upon which they were founded.  The main reason why progressives, wish to redefine our democracy, however, is that they view the sovereignty of states as an impediment to their preferred entity, the political party.

One concept that was unknown to the Founders was the party-line vote.  Political parties have no constitutional recognition or requirement.  What the Founders did not provide for was a situation in which two national political parties would overshadow the political stewardship provided by the states, and in which real-world regional interests would be subordinated to diffuse and abstract ideologies.  

The founders were wary of the emergence of "factions" within the government.  In Federalist 10, Madison gave examples of such factions as religious sects, those who advocated for "paper money, for an abolition of debts, [and] for an equal division of property."  What the political compromises that led to a republican form of government, a bicameral Legislature, and the Electoral College did not foresee was that factions would be subsumed into a party system that included mechanisms for imposing doctrinal discipline.  It then became the case that the progressive in Arizona had more in common, in a political sense, with a progressive in Connecticut than with his next-door neighbor.  The fact that the evolution of the party system gave rise to the two-party system, rather than the more single-issued concept of factions contemplated in Federalist 10, has its own negative implications for democracy.  What Madison feared about factions has simply been organized and disciplined into ideologically motivated parties.   

Progressive rhetoric appears to argue for direct democracy, the type described by Madison as "spectacles of turbulence and contention ... incompatible with personal security or the rights of property, and [which] have in general been as short in their lives as violent in their deaths."  The end state of the progressive conception of "our democracy" is one in which democratic formalities are used to impose ideological conformity to the exclusion of other considerations and interests.  The vanguard of this project is the establishment of unaccountable bureaucracies; subordination of individual rights under the guise of "safety" and public health emergencies; and disdain of checks and balances provided by the filibuster, Supreme Court, and Electoral College.  When leftists talk of "our democracy," they mean "our party."  They refer to a politics of euphemism and grievance in which institutions matter only if they serve partisan interests.

The Founders left us a Republic with democratic institutions that were suitable for the realities of human nature, the perils of the world, and the dignity of free men and women. It was noble and practical. The "our democracy" shills offer a cynical fantasy that obscures what is, at base, partisan opportunism in the service of the more unattractive facets of human nature: ambition, political corruption, and totalitarian instinct. 

Our democracy — the real one, not the rhetorical one of Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi — includes an independent Supreme Court, Senate with equal representation of the States, Electoral College, the Bill of Rights, and a federal government of limited powers that exists only with the consent of the governed.  If someone wants to protect "our democracy," he will do well to begin by protecting those things, ensuring the integrity of elections and reining in unaccountable bureaucracies.

Image: cagdesign via Pixabay, Pixabay License.

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