On Hating Democracy

A horrible Atlantic article makes the laughable assertion that we have too much democracy instead of too little.

Way back when I was 16 years old, nearly half my life ago, I had a television show on a local public access station in Florida. It was called Electric Discourse and each week I mixed political commentary with crude animation and some local musical acts. I mention it because, looking back through old clips recently, I found one of my teenage self giving an impassioned rant about democracy. My young self declaimed

I think that too often we condemn the public as idiots. I’ve heard people advocating the use of voter tests because the American people just “aren’t smart enough” to make their own decisions… I don’t think people purposely turn away from facts, turn away from learning… Don’t call the public stupid. Call the media stupid, call the gossip columnists stupid, call the school administrators in charge of teaching our young people stupid. 

Now, watching this clip makes me cringe a lot. I feel as if, in the name of defending people against elitism, I slipped into it myself a fair bit. I still believed then that both the BBC and “being educated” were obviously good things, which I do not today. (Also, if you ever wondered whether I was cool in high school, I think we have clear proof here that I was not.) But I am also somewhat proud of my early instinct to hate the powerful rather than the powerless, and my confidence in the possibility of having informed popular decision-making. And I think you can see how important the point was then and still is now just by opening the November issue of the Atlantic and reading the article by Jonathan Rauch and Ray La Raja called “Too Much Democracy Is Bad For Democracy.” 

I hate this article so much that it is very difficult to read even a sentence of it without wanting to do violence to some object in my vicinity. Rauch and La Raja are staunch elitists: Their argument is that voters have too much of a say, and that because voters are idiots, they are going to ruin democracy for the rest of us. The electorate needs to be taken by the hand and guided—not shown its best interest through a competitive and open primary, but forced to accept what’s in its best interest through the pre-selection of candidates by party bigwigs. 

R&LR ask us to consider “how bizarre the presidential nominating process has become.” Primaries, they say, were never intended by the Founders, and “a spectacle that would have struck earlier generations as ludicrous.” They object to the fact that a “self-help guru and a tech executive” (Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang) have cluttered the Democratic debate stage, while “the popular Democratic governor of a reliably Republican state and a congressman who is also a decorated former marine” were excluded. (I assume they are referring to Steve Bullock and Seth Moulton here. I think we should note, because it is not irrelevant, that the two whose inclusion they object to are a woman and a person of color, while the two they believe unfairly deprived of a slot are both white men.) 

The Democratic debates now have an “odd” range of participants, R&LR say, because “small donors and opinion polls” are used to determine who will be on stage. These, they said, are “peculiar metrics,” and deferring to voter interest as a criterion is a bad idea. Why? Because of Donald Trump, and because “the Democrats in 2016 faced their own insurgency, by a candidate who was not, by any meaningful standard, a Democrat.” Actually, what’s interesting about the piece is that while R&LR are clearly frequently talking about Bernie Sanders, they only occasionally mention Sanders by name. Their thesis is that party insiders need to rig primaries to keep outsiders and rogues from crashing the gates. The consequence of this, as they surely know, would be that Bernie Sanders wouldn’t have been able to challenge Hillary Clinton in 2016, and therefore wouldn’t be in the race now.

Back in the good old days, “most nominees were experienced politicians with impressive résumés and strong ties to their party.” 

“[Candidates] still needed to prove their viability to the party’s elected officials and insiders, which meant showing that they could win influential endorsements, command media attention, appeal to multiple constituencies, attract top campaign talent, and raise money. To be competitive, they had to run a gauntlet of party bigwigs, factional leaders, and money brokers… [P]rimaries are only half of a functional nominating system. The other half is input from political insiders and professionals who can vet candidates, steer them to appropriate races, and, as a last resort, block them if they are unacceptable to the party or unfit to govern.

This process will typically produce “a candidate with a traditional résumé and broad appeal.” “Professional vetting emphasizes competence in governing” and “deters renegades.” Why does it work? Because:

Political professionals—insiders such as county and state party chairs, elected officials such as governors and legislative leaders—are uniquely positioned to evaluate whether contenders have the skills, connections, and sense of responsibility to govern capably. Only they can do the brokering and bridge-building to form majorities and shape coalitions, and to ensure that the nominee is acceptable to a broad cross section of party factions. 

Their article also contains a sentence that I think is a strong contender for the title of “biggest bunch of bullshit I’ve ever heard,” arguing that party elites aren’t looking out for themselves but for the People:

When party insiders evaluate candidates, they think about appealing to overworked laborers, harried parents, struggling students, less politicized moderates, and others who do not show up on primary day.”

I think it’s funny how little R&LR discuss the particular politicians that their favored processes yielded. We hear a lot about how bad Donald Trump was, but R&LR are reluctant to sell us on the virtues of Jeb Bush. We hear about how Unnamed Democratic Insurgent upended the other party’s primary in 2016, but there’s not really a defense of Clinton, or a discussion of the inspiring and “impressive” nominees yielded by the old system like Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and John Kerry. R&LR spend a lot of time arguing that actually, the nominees that the party picks will better reflect the will of voters than an election. One can only argue this without laughing if one does not name any of the individuals the party has tended to pick. The American political elite has put a parade of war criminals and racists in office. Its record is absolutely atrocious. Viewing Donald Trump as a departure from a stable and acceptable norm is, as I have showed before, a mistake. They were all terrible, they’re responsible for building a giant prison apparatus, a vastly unfair and unequal society, a country riddled with colossal unrepaired racial injustice, a nightmare immigration system, and a world being slowly boiled by climate change. We should bid them good riddance and try something else. 

Again, it’s obvious, and I don’t think R&LR would deny it, that if they’d had their preferred system, Bernie Sanders would probably not have been approved by the party. (Because he’s “not a Democrat,” as if anyone cares or that even means anything.) He would not have been able to run in the primary, would not have been able to debate Hillary Clinton, who would have had an unchallenged “coronation.” He would not have done what he has done, which is to change the American political discourse for the better, highlight issues that the party never cared about, foreground the struggles of working people, and push the Democratic Party to the left. The only thing he could have done was run as a third-party candidate, something that I’m sure would have caused R&LR to label him a “spoiler.”

There are lots more implications of R&LR’s views that they don’t really consider. Personally, I like the fact that Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson are in the primary. I think it’s healthy. UBI is worth debating. Williamson’s spiritual approach to politics, her “politics of love,” may sound kooky, but she reminds us that politics, done well, should fill the soul and uplift people. (Her run also gave her the opportunity to make Dave Rubin look stupid on his own show, which was great.) I think R&LR’s emphasis on “resumes” is harmful to politics, and I want ordinary people to have a shot at participating in governing. I think teachers, architects, day laborers, and flight attendants should all be able to run for the presidency, but they’d instantly be disqualified as “unfit to govern” by the R&LR “impressive resume” standard. (My instinct is so totally opposed to theirs that while they think being a governor should guarantee someone a place on the debate stage, I think democracy would be better served if it disqualified you.)

Of course, just think about their system for a few minutes and you’ll realize how horrible and maddening it would be. It feels like something that, if it occurred in a communist country, the U.S. would condemn as sham participation and a sign of an undemocratic country controlled by party apparatchiks. Here, however, it is simply Being Responsible and Serious. Of course, this isn’t a new tendency in American thought. As Noam Chomsky has spent decades documenting, American intellectuals have long viewed the American public with suspicion and believed that popular opinion must be restrained. As Walter Lippman put it, “the public must be put in its place.” Lippman believed in the “manufacture of consent,” that is, of course the consent of the governed matters, but it is acceptable to manipulate the governed into providing that consent. For most of American history, of course, these kinds of concerns were explicitly racist and sexist, and when the Trilateral Commission revived worries about an “excess of democracy” in the 1970s, it was in the wake of the Civil Rights, anti-war, and women’s liberation movements. R&LR say that “because professional vetting was the norm in American politics for all but the past decade or so of our political history, no one can say it is a radical, alien, or untried scheme.” Indeed, no one can, but one can certainly say that it has been tried and found wanting, and that a “radical and alien” scheme called “giving people the elected officials they actually want” might be overdue. 

R&LR invoke the Founders, which I always think is funny, given how entirely democratically illegitimate the government they established was. The “Founders of this country [did not] intend for primaries to play a role in the republican system they devised.” Those same Founders did not intend for women, Native people, and Black people to play a role in that system either. But you know what? Fuck ‘em! We’re doing democracy because you’re not supposed to impose government on people, they’re supposed to get to decide what kind of government they have! If they don’t get to decide, then there’s no reason for them to pay any attention to anything it says. 

Now, the strongest argument that R&LR make is that the current system is not, in fact, democratic. Voters are not very informed, the media don’t help them, the primaries give disproportionate power to a few arbitrary states, a plurality favorite might be opposed by a majority, and money affects everything. They point out that nowadays, billionaires can self-fund campaigns. But they see this as an argument for reinstating the superdelegate system whereas I see it as an argument for… trying to have an actual democracy and getting rid of billionaires! I certainly agree with them when they observe that turnout in primary elections is poor, making the vote unrepresentative. That’s why some of us want to maximize turnout through automatic registration, making Election Day a holiday, expanding the franchise, and encouraging them to participate in their democracy rather than telling them they’re cognitively incapable of making rational decisions. 

R&LR do insist that they don’t think people are lazy and stupid, just that voting is beyond their capacity and they need help. They say they don’t want to return to “smoke-filled rooms,” but it sounds like their only real problem with them is the smoke. They want a “pre-primary vote of confidence by party leaders” or a requirement that potential candidates obtain signatures from party officials. What I am grateful to them for is their honesty. Few nowadays dare say anything like “The most important reform is thus conceptual, not mechanical: changing the mind-set that reflexively regards popular elections as the only legitimate way to choose nominees.” Jonathan Rauch and Ray La Raja are the ones who dare. I appreciate it because sometimes I feel a little conspiratorial when I say that there are those who think a sinister cabal of elites should rule. But there it is, printed right in the pages of the Atlantic: Leave it to the cabal. 

R&LR are not the only ones to condemn democracy or claim that we have “too much of it” as soon as we’ve gotten any taste of it at all. I’ve written before about similar sentiments expressed by free-market libertarians and Harvard liberals. This stuff enrages me today just as it did when I was 16, because it’s so obvious to me that the people making these arguments would be worse at governing than the guy who installed my cable modem. Where you stand on this, though, is primarily a matter of instinct: Are you a cynic, or do you generally trust people? Personally, I have quite a lot of confidence that if people ever did get to govern themselves, they would be better at it than what they’ve had so far. I’m even an advocate of sortition, the random selection of elected officials by lottery from among the general population (you’d serve in Congress like jury duty). And one reason I love Bernie Sanders is that he shares that basic kind of faith, that strong gut-level belief in democracy and in letting ordinary working people into the halls of power. It’s why he’s been such a refreshing and different voice in the Democratic primaries. But for R&LR, it’s why he should never have been allowed to run in the first place. 

There’s no evidence that self-rule wouldn’t work in this country, for the simple reason that it has never occurred. Some people believe that current dysfunctions of our democracy can be cured by revoking it. But it should be obvious that there’s another, far more appealing option: actually taking the principle seriously and creating a meaningfully participatory political process with equal representation and an equal voice for all. It’s certainly not what the Founding Fathers would have wanted. But as I say: Fuck ‘em. 


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