Ross Douthat has waded into the murky waters of the democracy debate.
“There is no sense in avoiding or diluting the magnitude of this turn in our story: One major political party no longer accepts democracy.”
The author of this sentence is the former Obama White House speechwriter Ben Rhodes, writing recently in The Atlantic, but it could have flowed from the keyboard of a hundred different writers in the post-Trump, post-Jan. 6 era. That conservatism and the Republican Party have turned against government by the people, that only the Democratic Party still stands for democratic rule, is an important organizing thought of political commentary these days.
So let’s subject it to some scrutiny — and with it, the current liberal relationship to democracy as well. …”?
We have a complicated relationship with democracy.
I’m speaking for those of us on the “illiberal” and “anti-democratic” side on this debate. We are often portrayed as “far right authoritarians” or “fascists” in coastal media.
1. As many have noted, it is the self-styled champions of “liberal democracy” in this country who are in favor of toppling statues of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson and the enemies of “liberal democracy” who celebrate their memory. Jefferson and Jackson were the founders of the Democratic Party and key figures in the development of both liberalism and democracy in this country.
Jefferson and Jackson created a free country in which almost every White man could vote. Every White man was free to speak his mind in their time. The federal government and its legions of bureaucrats was almost nonexistent by today’s standards. White Americans were happy to govern themselves in their states and local communities. Washington was distant and dealt mostly with foreign affairs.
Was America in the Jackson era “illiberal” and “anti-democratic” or was it a “liberal democracy” as some scholars have claimed? Do we want to get rid of elections and self-government entirely?
2. The “far right” which is opposed to “liberal democracy” often finds itself in the position of defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights from assault by Democrats. In contrast, it is the Left which wants to abolish the filibuster, abolish the Senate, abolish the Electoral College and pack the Supreme Court. We generally support the First Amendment, Second Amendment, Fourth Amendment and the Tenth Amendment. It is the Left which wants to censor speech, impose vaccine mandates, spy on people, restrict gun rights and purge the military of their ideological opponents. Is any of that “liberal”?
3. Populists have always been champions of the people against established illegitimate elites who are perceived as failing to represent the popular will. How on earth is this “anti-democratic”? Aren’t the foreign policy elites who are trying to steer the United States into a conflict with Russia over Ukraine the ones who are “anti-democratic” here? What about the public health establishment?
4. As Ross points out here, PMCs are accustomed to bossing other people around and barking orders at them. Their campaign to deplatform Joe Rogan for spreading “misinformation” illustrates how they are incapable of tolerating any other opinion other than their own and how they don’t trust their fellow citizens to reason and make up their own minds. They have to be told what to do, surveilled and micromanaged. This impulse is profoundly illiberal, undemocratic and authoritarian.
5. The chief complaint that we have here about “our democracy” is that elections are a sham because the policies are sold to billionaires and implemented by technocrats. Is that really democracy?
6. Finally, the debate that we are having isn’t so much about liberalism and democracy as it is social liberalism or cultural liberalism. This is the axis where the culture war is fought. It is centered on race, sex and gender. Is it “illiberal” and “anti-democratic” and “authoritarian” to oppose gay marriage or trans? Is it “anti-democratic” to oppose amnesty and voting rights for illegal aliens? Is it “illiberal” to oppose Wokeism? Is it “illiberal” and “anti-democratic” to oppose cosmopolitanism?
I can envision a scenario in which our side has won.
Immigration is restricted. Abortion is restricted. Public universities have been defunded. Big Tech has been shattered into pieces. “Journalists” have been discredited. America has extricated itself from Cold War foreign policy commitments. Trade policy has been changed. Affirmative action has been banned. “Trans” has been banned. Gay marriage has been banned. The norms of political correctness have collapsed. Millions of illegal aliens have been deported. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments have been overturned. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been struck down by the Supreme Court.
Even in this unlikely scenario in which our side wins out across the board, electoral democracy still exists. There are still elections. Liberalism also still exists. It is just that there is less freedom for things like, say, access to abortion or Drag Queen Story Hour and more freedom for political speech and private health care decisions. Natives are privileged over illegal aliens. Families are privileged over homosexuals. The Victorian era shows how much more rigid racial and cultural norms could coexist with liberalism, capitalism and democracy. It has just been so long that our leaders cannot imagine it.