Politics and Democracy

Democracy in an Age of

Anti-Majoritarian Doublespeak

By Steve Rensberry
Lincoln in Springfield, Ill./  RP News Photo
(RP News) - 8/15/2020 - “America is a republic, not a democracy.” How often have you heard that phrase?
    I've heard it on and off my whole life, but most recently came across it as the title of a work by Assumption College Professor Bernard Dobski, described as a visiting scholar with the Simon Center for American Studies by The Heritage Foundation (First Principles No. 80: Foundational Concepts to Guide Politics and Policy, June 2020)
    The publication is too predictable. There is little disagreement that America is not a pure democracy. Neither are there a lot of voices arguing that it should be. The founding documents themselves, particularly the Federalist Papers, explicitly limited public and collective control of government in favor of elected representatives--gatekeepers of sorts--who could temper the citizenry's excessive impulses.
    Such representatives, however, are ultimately chosen through an electoral process set up to operate democratically with fixed regularity --- in effect turning the majoritarian public into gatekeepers for the gatekeepers. Our Constitutionally mandated system of laws and precedent is meant to guide the boundaries of acceptable behavior further still. The Electoral College, arguably, performs a similar gate-keeping function.
    Some people prefer the term “Constitutional republic,” but the best term in my view is “representative democracy,” which fairly well describes a country that is of the people, by the people, and for the people, yet incorporates a system of representation that guards against mob impulses. Are we splitting hairs? Possibly.
    Neither the Heritage Foundation nor Dr. Dobski seem too keen on the democracy part of it though, as this published summary of the article shows. (reference) To quote:

   America is a republic and not a pure democracy. The contemporary efforts to weaken our republican customs and institutions in the name of greater equality thus run against the efforts by America’s Founders to defend our country from the potential excesses of democratic majorities. American republicanism and the ordered liberty it makes possible are grounded in the Federalists’ recognition that non-majoritarian parts of the community make legitimate contributions to the community’s welfare, and that preserving these contributions is the hallmark of political justice. But, the careful balance produced by our mixed republic is threatened by an egalitarianism that undermines the social, familial, religious, and economic distinctions and inequalities that undergird our political liberty. Preserving the republican freedoms we cherish requires tempering egalitarian zeal and moderating the hope for a perfectly just democracy.

   I'll try to keep my argument short but have four points to make:
   1) Protecting one's country from the excesses of anything sounds eminently reasonable, especially if such excesses are of a negative nature, whether due to a tyrannical minority or a misguided majority.
   2) It is entirely understandable how modern efforts toward greater equality might weaken “republican customs and institutions” -- especially if those customs and institutions have helped to perpetuate discriminatory and abusive or socially harmful behavior, which is kind of the point.
   3) While we are not a pure democracy, neither are we a pure republic. The authority and power of ordinary citizens, or the collective population, is limited, as is the power of representatives who have a sworn duty to do what is in the best interests of the people who elected them.
   4) Read this sentence from Dobski carefully: “American republicanism and the ordered liberty it makes possible are grounded in the Federalists’ recognition that non-majoritarian parts of the community make legitimate contributions to the community’s welfare, and that preserving these contributions is the hallmark of political justice.” Now ask yourself, what does “ordered liberty,” “non-majoritarian parts,” and “political justice,” mean? They can and do mean a whole lot of things. “Ordered liberty” could just as well mean a jail cell as it does traffic laws, and Dobski's use of the term “non-majoritarian parts” is disturbingly open-ended, contrary to the concept of non-majoritarian institutions, which I don't think he means. 
    It's clear from this quote and others that the concepts of equality and egalitarianism are particularly loathsome to Dobski, and to others discontented with democracy. Is it because such ideas challenge established social hierarchies, or pose a challenge to groups or religious institutions who would rather not be held accountable? I would argue yes.
    Consider Dobski's own words:
   “As [Alex de] Tocqueville correctly foresaw, the limitless passion for equality—the root cause for seeking direct democracy—undermines respect for all of those social, familial, civic, and religious institutions that separate individuals from one another, establish hierarchies, dictate codes of behavior, and, most importantly, help us preserve our liberties,” he writes.
   In other words: Separation and division are good and natural, while things like unity, acceptance of diversity, and equality are bad and artificially imposed.
   Truth is, the society that Dobski defends is a society that works best when everyone knows their place, and where religious leaders, political leaders, and those who “know best” are given preference in all things, even science. One of many stretches in logic he makes is theorizing about a “democratic theory applied to minds,” with respect to the COVID-19 crisis. He writes: “The democratic theory of minds does not recognize a hierarchy of human knowledge in which scientific expertise is governed and regulated by prudential political judgments, themselves drawn from an understanding of the political good.”
   I think it's his way of saying that democratic minds just don't understand the big picture, because they're all about numbers, but republican minds do.
   The solvency of democratic governments around the world, and respect for democratic institutions in general, has definitely been a topic of concern in recent years, with our own anti-majoritarian political shift to the right mirrored by similar shifts in other parts of the world. It's not the first time we've seen this tug-of-war. Looking through an old copy of a 1955 book by famed political columnist Walter Lippman, The Public Philosophy, I came across this paragraph mid-way through: (reference)
   “The plight of the modern democracies is serious. They have suffered great disasters in this century and the consequences of these disasters are compounding themselves,” Lippman wrote. “The end is not yet clear. The world that is safe for democracy and is safely democratic is shrunken. It is still shrinking. For the disorder which has been incapacitating the democracies in this century is, if anything, becoming more virulent as time goes on.”
   He could have written it yesterday.