Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Liberalism has been schizophrenic about democracy for about a century.
It is always amusing to watch the contortions liberals put themselves through when things aren’t going well for them. At the end of the dismal Carter years, liberal intellectuals blamed their failures on the defects of the presidency itself, claiming the office wasn’t powerful enough for modern times. This argument was necessary because Democrats enjoyed large majorities in Congress and couldn’t blame their failures on obstructionist Republicans, unlike today. So our Constitution itself had to be blamed for the “gridlock” that prevents “progress.”
Liberalism has been schizophrenic about democracy for about a century, alternating between deploring anti-majoritarian features of our system such as the electoral college and the filibuster, or maligning populist democratic majoritarianism when it delivers uncongenial results, such as California’s Proposition 13 or last fall’s midterm election beat-down of the Democratic Party—an election that increasingly looks to be a harbinger of more wipeouts ahead at the hands of ingrate voters. So right now liberals are in one of their periodic anti-democratic moods, most remarkably expressed by North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue’s thought experiment last week about suspending congressional elections for two years so that Congress can “help this country recover.”
The heart of the matter is that liberals are incapable of questioning their presumption of being the force for Progress.
She’s hardly an isolated example of this strain of liberal thought. President Obama’s first director of the Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag, took to the pages of The New Republic recently to make the case that “we need less democracy,” saying “we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.” And need we even mention Thomas Friedman’s periodic “China is awesome” columns envying Beijing precisely because of its authoritarian capacities? On the other hand, Harold Meyerson argues in the latest cover story of the American Prospect, “Did the Founders Screw Up?” that “The problem isn’t that we’re too democratic. It’s that we’re not democratic enough.” Following the spinning liberal compass on democracy can give you a headache.
Liberalism has been unable to decide whether it is for or against more democracy for nearly a century now, ever since it underwent a radical transformation from a creed believing that advancing the cause of individual liberty meant limiting government power and protecting individual rights into the creed we know today of believing that larger and more powerful government is the primary means of securing the realization of individual liberty. None of the liberal complaints about “gridlock” are new; Progressives like Woodrow Wilson deplored the separation of powers and other limiting features of the Founding as obsolete years before he tried to ignore them as president.
None of the liberal complaints about ‘gridlock’ are new; Progressives like Woodrow Wilson deplored the separation of powers and other limiting features of the Founding.
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.
The heart of the matter is that liberals are incapable of questioning their presumption of being the force for Progress, and as such always repair behind arguments about process when their policies are unpopular. Meyerson gives away the game when he writes that reform is necessary to enable “decisive legislative action and sweeping social change,” because apparently “sweeping social change” is what government must be doing at all times.
Here’s an interesting thought experiment to try out on a people-loving liberal: If we had a national referendum, and a majority voted to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, would it be legitimate in the eyes of “Progressives”? If you think the liberal compass on democracy is spinning fast now. . .
Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His article, “The Liberal Misappropriation of a Conservative President [Ronald Reagan]” appears in the current issue of Commentary.
FURTHER READING: Hayward also writes “Economists in the Wild,” “Save the Filibuster!” and “Dump the Bipartisan Mush: Here’s How You Do It for Real.” Nick Schulz explains “How the Progressives Almost Killed Football.” Michael Barone discusses “How to Understand Obama’s Chances in 2012.”
Image by Darren Wamboldt | Bergman Group