We hear a lot of political discourse these days about “our democracy” as though the term is some self-evident truth. For some, “our democracy” includes the right to take to the streets in protest, and maybe even violently at times. For others, it means tarring anybody who disagrees with the reigning ideology or narrative as fundamentally anti-democratic. The list of threats to our democracy now includes having voted for Trump, having opposed first impeachment and now prosecution of Trump, being a “MAGA Republican,” opposing abortion on religious grounds, opposing gender reassignment surgery, opposing balanced views on social media, and until a couple of years ago opposing court packing.
During the Covid Pandemic, those who wanted to go to work and wanted the schools to reopen were similarly called opponents and threats to our democracy. The ordinary observer might think that the only real tests of democracy are free and open elections and a free press. If people are not being jailed for opposing the government on any matter, it is then hard to see just where “our democracy” is breaking down. Still, to talk about “our democracy” is an amorphous term which at the end of the day means little.
The Framers of the U.S. Constitution did not set out to form a democracy, but a republic. In their view, democracies merely degenerate into what they termed “mobocracies,” rule by the irrational passions of the mob. Let’s say January 6th protestors had not become violent in any way, but had remained peaceful. Would those protests really have been more of a threat to democracy than say the various protests during the summer of 2020 over police brutality and in favor of “defunding the police”? Are we not led to believe that all protests, whether we agree with them or not, are legitimate expressions of democracy?
Still, there is a problem here. Just because there are large crowds of protestors does not mean that they speak for large swaths of the population. On the contrary, there is a concept in the political science literature, usually in reference to interest groups, known as “attentive constituents.” These are the activists who are vocal and thus create the appearance of speaking on behalf of larger numbers than might actually be the case. Which is to say, hundreds of thousands of protestors may only represent loud minorities and not necessarily the preferences of otherwise silent majorities.
This irony was in no way lost on any number of early political thinkers who would have argued that protests in the street may represent nothing more than a tyranny of the minority. Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist papers recognized that the U.S. Supreme Court is an anti-majoritarian institution, which is supposed to check and balance the irrational passions of the demos. And yet, those screaming the loudest that Trump and his followers, and not to mention his Supreme Court appointments, were threats to “our democracy” were calling for the Court to be packed with justices who subscribed to their ideology.
It is worth pointing out that the first attempt to pack the Supreme Court by Franklin Roosevelt went down in utter defeat and almost cost him the 1940 election. Why? Because aside from tampering with a sacred institution, many at the time considered it to be an assault on American democracy. At the same time, those who browbeat us with the sacredness of “our democracy” have no problems with the elites making policy decisions that are a threat to livelihoods of ordinary workers, or what some among the elites have termed “deplorables.”
We have the Fed raising interest rates in a bid to return inflation to a rate of two percent. Despite the fact that the rate of inflation has dropped considerably, the Fed persists in this belief that aggressive rate hikes are necessary. And yet, those who will lose their jobs are ordinary workers, most of whom the political classes are unresponsive to. Moreover, the Fed is totally independent of both Congress and the President. Because its principal constituency is the banking industry, it need not have any accountability to ordinary workers. Why don’t we hear about the unaccountable Fed’s assault on “our democracy”?
One consequence of workers losing their jobs, if even for the lofty goal of reining in inflation, is rising wage inequality. Even when those who express concern over inequality, they do so in terms of the unfairness of it all and that billionaires need to pay. Absent from their concern is that rising inequality is also a threat to “our democracy.” Rising inequality, especially as it signals the disappearance of the middle class, creates social strife and unrest — the very ingredients that could lead to protests, and even riots in the streets.
The same elites decrying assaults on “our democracy” similarly push a green energy agenda which also hurts ordinary workers. Nobody disputes that climate change needs to be addressed and that ways need to be found to reduce our carbon footprints. But a focus on expensive electric cars with tax credits to the affluent? Ordinary workers cannot afford a Tesla starting at $60,000. A more sensible approach might have been to transition with more hybrid vehicles. After all, at the moment, the country isn’t set up with a charging infrastructure that makes electric vehicles attractive. And yet, electric vehicles don’t really solve the problem because acquiring the material to make lithium-ion batteries still requires mining. Moreover, many people working in fossil fuels, especially ordinary blue-collar workers, have good paying jobs. Workers are again expected to take it on the chin as replacement jobs making solar panels don’t pay as much.
One might ask if preserving our democracy is so critical to the future of the nation whether certain policies should perhaps be subjected to a public referendum. After all, we are talking about issues whose consequences more profoundly affect the lives of most people than Trump paying hush money to a porn star. Alas, we have no provisions in the U.S. constitution for public referenda. Rather we created a “representative democracy.” But then again, we have no provisions in the Constitution that allow for the Executive branch to abuse its power. An example of this is clearly the president’s student loan forgiveness. Here the Constitution is quite clear: only Congress can spend money; not the president unless appropriated by Congress in the first place. And now with a federal court blocking an FDA approved abortion drug, there are those in the Democratic party calling on the president to simply ignore the ruling.
It should become clear, then, that discourse on “our democracy” is nothing but a discourse in hypocrisy. Democracy is only under assault when it is the other side saying things that you don’t like. The last thing the elites really believe in is real democracy whereby the workers would actually have a voice. It is worth remembering that those who call themselves progressives and can trace their roots back to the Progressive movements of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, were in no way democrats. They did not trust the masses and firmly believed that they, because of their greater wisdom, should govern.