Contrary to their Rhetoric, Progressives are no Friends of Democracy
By design the American political system is supposed to be incremental, thus ensuring that individual rights are protected by default. Progressive Democrats who insist on passing their $3.5 trillion budget with no compromise, not only seek to “transform” the country economically and socially, but to blow up the constitutional system of separation of powers and checks and balances.
Attempting to ram through legislation with a razor thin majority as though an electoral mandate exists is hardly an example of democracy at work. Rather it is the voice of an anti-democratic elite that presumes to know what is good for all of us whether we like it or not. Democracy is only good when the demos are in agreement with them. Otherwise, they are nothing less than deplorable.
To review, we have a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the Senate, which the House refuses to vote on unless the $3.5 trillion budget proposal is passed first. But a couple of more conservative Democrats in the Senate are balking at the price tag as are some moderates in the House. Of course, this type of political brinkmanship is nothing new. And yet, what is lost despite all the claims that we are a democracy, is that we really aren’t. We are a republic, and the two are not the same.
Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham talked about two sovereign masters of the universe towards the end of the Eighteenth into the early Nineteenth centuries: pleasure and pain. Individuals seek to maximize pleasure while minimizing pain. In the neoclassical theory of competitive markets, this has found expression in maximizing profits and minimizing costs for firms and maximizing utility and minimizing costs for consumers.
Bentham, however, was laying out a theory of democracy, which was that utility would be achieved when governmental actions would satisfy the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If a majority of the public desires something, then it is presumed to satisfy the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But are we achieving utility when only a razor thin majority and only fifty senators with a tie-breaking vote from the Vice President pass something?
Contrary to popular misconception, Congress does not operate on the basis of majority vote. Well, yes it does but only as the last act of a final drama. Rather bills that are usually brought to the floor for final votes are generally the product of painstaking consensus building requiring tremendous compromise.
Progressives in Congress act as though they have a mandate from the public to radically transform the country, which in their minds means no compromise. Compromise is weakness and a thing of the past. With compromise, little gets done. But then again, that is the whole point of the Madisonian system of checks and balances.
The American political system was not designed to achieve any kind of monumental change unless there is a crisis. And even then, it is very difficult. If each member of Congress represents a specific district, and senators representing even broader constituencies, the odds of having agreement are virtually nil. On the contrary, a bill can only achieve consensus once it has been watered down through compromise, which often entails a fair degree of horse trading.
Again, what is often missed here is that this process is where democracy really exists because it speaks to broad-based representation. Congressman A tells Congresswoman B that he will only vote for a provision that she wants if she agrees to vote for a different provision that he wants. Each provision satisfies a different constituency. Neither of the two separate constituencies has an interest in the other’s, but because each has received something of interest each feels that it has been represented. When this is multiplied throughout 435 districts in the house and a hundred different constituencies in the Senate, what will have been achieved, at least on budget bills, is something typically larded with pork, but broadly representative of the entire population.
This is also the meaning of distributive politics: everybody gets something and everybody also pays. It is also the reason why new programs can never be removed and deficits ultimately swell. Of course, this isn’t completely what Madison thought would happen. After all, he assumed that most spending on domestic matters would occur at the state level, and that the federal government would have little to do.
What Madison did assume was that the need to achieve consensus as a way to overcome checks and balances would result in measures that would be very minimal in impact so that the effect would be the protection of individual rights by default. Which is to say, public policy would only be made in incremental steps, with each measure building on the previous one. This is what the late Yale economist and political scientist Charles Lindblom referred to as “the science of muddling through.”
If we return to the Bentham utilitarian model of the greatest happiness for the greatest number as the measure of democracy, we have to recognize that there is no place for individual rights. After all, the greatest happiness can be achieved with the majority riding roughshod over the rights of minorities. Jim Crow laws in the South very much represented democracy in utilitarian terms. So much was this so that Twentieth Century philosopher John Rawls had to respond to Bentham with the “priority of the right over the good.”
Protection of individual rights needs to be protected from utilitarian “goods.” Put simply, there is no real democracy if individual rights are trampled on. But isn’t that precisely what will happen if a bill representing the interests of only a vocal few is rammed through Congress on the baseless claim that they have a mandate? Moreover, the failure of the president to make that clear speaks to a larger problem, which is his failure to lead.
We are already hearing Progressives say that if they don’t get exactly what they want, they are willing to blow up the Biden agenda and presidency. The way we used to govern rested on the premise that it would be better to get a little than nothing at all because it was still more than what was there before. For the Progressives, it is better to get nothing than to compromise. One wonders if the real target isn’t the U.S. Constitutional system as we have known it. But please don’t insult our intelligence by touting your commitment to democracy.