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Democracy--Our Word, Not Theirs
Victor Davis Hanson, “Populist-Conservatism,” the “Democracy-Rescue Coalition,” and Conservative Hesitancy to Embrace the D-word
Paint it on our banner, let our heralds shout it clear:
Just a little word, you say? A troublesome term we should regard as an “essentially contested concept”1 since it is used in so many different ways?
Nay, my friends, it is a word of life! A word worth fighting for!
I cannot but imagine that every time it is printed on the masthead of The Washington Post, amid its hypocritical slogan democracy dies in darkness, that the very letters of it recoil from being fixed in such oligarchic surroundings.
Victor Davis Hanson agrees with me. Here is a telling little video featuring him, where he pushes back against a current Democrat Party talking-point, which pretends to worry about a looming “end of our democracy” in 2022 or 2024, and supposed GOP pattern of “attacking democracy.”
They’re worried that [democracy] is going to work too well…They’re terrified they’re going to lose power.
Hanson goes through about five or so of the around-twenty ways the Dems have sought in the last few years to radically alter our constitutional system to democracy’s detriment, and I like it particularly when he lays out how their using, once again, a scripted talking-point reflects not only the way their spokespersons lack originality and intelligence, but also, their having so little faith in the American people’s ability to reason as adults. It is a party of opinion-manipulators who at every turn refuse open and candid debate with those whom they should regard as their fellow citizens.
The idea of fellow citizenship is fading these days, in parallel with the dying of the thing itself, as the title of Hanson’s new book—any Pomocon readers taken it up yet?--suggests.
So that’s the Them, in America-centric terms the Dems, but more broadly, the citizenship-hostile alliance of the managerial/progressivist oligarchs on one hand, and the Marxisant/nihilist/identarian radicals on the other. There is of course much overlap.
What about the We? When I speak in the title of Democracy properly being “our word,” who am I talking about?
It is a coalition composed of one core group, and a set of four potential allies.
The core group is the prudent and aware-what-time-it-is conservatives, the ones I label the populist-conservatives, and whom I count myself among. And don’t be misled by the possible connotation of combination that the compound might imply—I insist that we understand it in the sense of “populist” being the adjective, and “conservative” being the noun. By my understanding, populist-conservative is a possible mode or style of the core commitment, conservatism. It is the mode particularly suited to the needs of our time. Decades from now, it is conceivable that another mode of conservatism may be needed, perhaps even one that returns to certain Reaganite themes characteristic of conservatism circa 1975-2015.
But wise conservatives see that the populist-conservative mode is the best one for our situation. It is not formulated for merely-strategic reasonings that toss aside principles in order to attain electoral victory, but as a way to stand for the deepest principles of conservatism, principles which do indeed defend democracy, in this time of insanity.
Who are the potential allies of this core group? They would together constitute, I hold, a coalition to Rescue Democracy. Who might belong to this—temporary and limited—alliance?
a.) The Old-School Liberals. My main examples would be Bari Weiss, Brandon Straka, Abigail Shrier, John McWhorter, etc. Few of these remain, and you shouldn’t believe it right away when someone claims to be one. A scholar like William Galston, for example, ought to be with this set, but like so many in academia, it seems to me that he refused to clearly stand against current Democrat Party and higher-ed apostasies from basic liberalism. His lack of deeds in the last few years outweighs his decades of most-thoughtful and careful Liberal words.
b.) The Libertarians and Classic Liberals. Pretty clear who these folks are. I would simply highlight the fact, which populist-conservatives might overlook, that a number of them were early in seriously questioning the lockdowns.
c.) The Non-Populist Conservatives Repentant about Never-Trump Excesses. Probably many of the contributors to The Constitutionalist could fit in this category, but it’s up to them what they are going to do in terms of repentance from the worst forms of TDS,2 and in terms of better adjustment to the new situation. Imagine a Liz Cheney-type not obsessed with Trump, substantially less gung-ho and more skeptical about the January 6th commission, but nonetheless, hesitant about a number of the newer populist-conservative emphases, and you have an idea of the sort of politician who would fit this. Or see how political scientists Steve Teles and Robert Saldin describe the “liberal-conservative faction” of the GOP.
d.) Those among the Democratic Socialists who Are Truly Democratic. I’m not sure if these people even exist in any organized sense, and the present DSA is certainly not what I have in mind. However, the day of millennial-gen socialism is young. The relevant fact is that many young socialists despise the oligarchs (of the Dem-Party, Corporate, and Higher-Ed establishments), are quite critical of the identity-first focus of the Woke, and become livid when they see the oligarchs using woke gestures to advance their interests. Of course, conservatives should accept no alliance with socialists who do not clearly repudiate classic Marxism’s promotion of revolutionary politics instead of democratic politics, and thus, should not have anything to do with socialists who refuse to clearly distance themselves from Antifa-type groups or statements. Still, I hold for the eventual emergence of a democratic-socialism that emphases the adjective.
So, the We I speak of is primarily the populist-conservatives, who are the full conservatives of our day, and secondarily, these potential partners, these four fellow democracy rescuers.3
We all laugh when WAPO and similar elites claim to care about democracy.
They only really use the word when talking about it as threatened by Trump. Granting these types the most charity we can, we can admit that the concern about Trump turning out to be demagogic seizer of illegitimate power was a reasonable one prior to his having been in office about a year, and that there was an element of real danger of constitutional crisis during the November 3rd-to-January-6th window when the legitimacy of the election remained unclear, such that certain actions and vague statements by Trump and Trumpists increased the danger. If James Carville is to be believed, we may soon learn some new and shameful details about Trump’s behavior during this window from the Jan. 6th commission, but of course, in the meantime, we are learning that the capitol storming itself was in some significant part, or even decisively caused by, a “Fedsurrection.” (That’s a link to not-to-be-missed Revolver reporting on likely FBI agitators in the crowd.)
I will vote for Trump in 2024 if he is the GOP nominee, however much I would prefer DeSantis. And I remain convinced that the bulk of evidence points to the likelihood that a widely-coordinated cheating effort robbed Trump of his rightful election, but where I differ with some Trumpists is in thinking that our constitutional system provided no workable-in-time remedy to that injustice and that desecration of our elections. In the future, we’ll want an amendment to rectify that unforeseen flaw. But by the constitutional authority of the Electoral College, Joe Biden is our president and will remain so regardless of what any audit efforts show (unless such findings somehow lead to a successful impeachment effort). And as far as I understand the dispute between what Professor John Eastman said was constitutionally possible for Vice-President Pence, and what Pence himself said, I side with Pence, while detesting the efforts by many journalists and academics to summarily condemn Eastman for what I regard as his honest judgment of the matter.
That’s enough of my trying to speak to the concerns of those who remain scandalized-about-Trump. Back to what unites the democracy-rescue coalition.
We should all take cognizance of the various fundamental betrayals of our democratic system recounted by Hanson above, or listed at the end of one of my pieces, that the Democrat elites have committed over the last few years.
Anyone who sees those elementary sins against democracy regards it as laughable, and disturbingly mad/propagandistic/evil, when Bill Kristol tweeted recently, in a weird attempt to comfort his Democrat allies about the likely defeat of the Build-Back-Better bill, that they should calm down because “Democrats still control the Senate. Republicans are still a threat to democracy.”
Ohh-kaay. Accurate criticisms of certain fringe lines of populist-conservative audit-talk and Trump-can-be-restored talk as a threat to the workability, fairness, and widely-accepted legitimacy of our elections, should still be made, by all means. But even if one were convinced—as I am not--by the best of these criticisms, that this a real threat to one aspect of democracy, it would be preposterous for you to conclude, in the context of 2020 and 2021, that this is the only serious, or the main-and-outweighs-all-others, threat to democracy. And no, you are in no sense the friend of democracy when you behave first, as if election integrity requires a very quick public affirmation of the legitimacy of a disputed election once the Respectable Ones have spoken in concert, and second, as if election integrity/democracy is harmed by attempts by state-legislatures to prevent cheating like banning mail-in, restricting or banning computer tabulation, instituting procedures for automatic audits, and requiring voter ID.
And you are in no sense the friend of democracy when you remain on the fence about the various tyranny-of-the majority, administrative power-creep, and rights-dispensing moves made in the name of Covid-19 policy, or when you learn that CNBC permitted Jim Cramer to demand the imposition of the near-Nazi policy of forcible vaccinations (11/30) and you do not loudly call for his immediate firing.
Hanson is right: Democrat, moderate-so-called, and elite-so-called, the only reason you’re bleating now about the Fate of Democracy, is that your leaders are beginning to see that if the elections of 2022 are protected enough from orchestrated chaos and fraud-efforts, democracy is about to deliver you a massive repudiation.
It isn’t your word.
Some conservatives, however, by this point must be muttering, “But it isn’t our word either! Real conservatism has never celebrated ‘democracy,’ but has sought to limit it.”
Here’s their fuller case:
“Don’t you understand that classical political philosophy, best represented on this issue by Plato, harshly criticized democracy?”
“Don’t you understand that a basic pessimism about democracy/republicanism, and about the people’s decision-making ability, was expressed by those who reflected on the whole scope of classical history, such as Livy and Plutarch, and that their criticisms were later encapsulated in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus?”
“Don’t you understand that the Founders preferred not to call their new regime a ‘democracy,’ but gravitated instead toward ‘republic?’ Don’t you know that Madison even set-up an oppositional distinction between the two terms?”
“Don’t you know that the better political scientists of our day, wanting to emphasize the differences between modern constitutional democracy and the ancient kind, and wanting also to remain in some harmony with The Federalist, recommend the use of ‘liberal democracy’ as the best label for our regime, or at least, the use of some other compound term, such as ‘constitutional democracy’ or ‘democratic republic?’”
Yes, I am familiar with all these ideas, and in fact, more familiar with them than most.
I studied for a time under James Ceaser, whose essential Liberal Democracy and Political Science made the best case for the use of compound terms.
I have taught The Federalist Papers around twenty times.
Coriolanus is the Shakespeare play I know best, and, I have studied all the Roman-era writers its political ideas partly derive from, Polybius, Cicero, Livy, and Plutarch.
And there are probably only a handful of scholars, or even none, who have reflected as extensively as I have on Plato’s most democracy-pessimistic moment, his presentation of democracy and the democratic soul in book VIII of The Republic. My dissertation compared Plato’s and Tocqueville’s conceptions of democratic society and character.
I have gone down the path of democracy-pessimism further than most persons.
But I have returned from its dark descending valley, and my message is the same as Tocqueville’s: we are not only obliged to make the best we can of democracy, but there is a positive and in-harmony-with-human-nature model of it that we can strive for, with realistic hopes of achieving, at least in part.
We can and must pose this vision against the present reality of the Dying Citizen. We cannot inspire the enthusiasm necessary to rescue democracy if we cannot make any case for its fundamental goodness.
In some of his notes on the very last chapter of Democracy in America, Tocqueville said this:
Perhaps here I will show that it is only by democracy that you can attenuate the evils of democracy…[and]…the necessity to aim firmly for the government of all by all.” [Liberty Fund edition, Nolla notes, p. 1278]
In part three of this three-part essay, I will more directly address the four objections my conservative unwilling to embrace the motto of democracy has just made, all four of them linked to a specific political thinker. I will also show how more and more conservatives, such as Victor Davis Hanson, and certain interesting moderates, such Roslyn Fuller, are beginning to stress our need to highlight the good sides of democracy, and to not simply defend it in the name of avoiding even worse regimes. But in the part two to immediately follow, I’ll provide a taste from a draft of my current work, Democracy Rescue in America, which will give the reader a sense of my overall position on conservative hesitancy to embrace “democracy” as our term.
Gallie, “Essentially Contested Concepts”
All enablement and defense of the toxic Lincoln Project must be repented of, and slanderous attacks on leading populist-conservatives, such as the one against Michael Anton that marred Shep Melnick’s otherwise interesting critique of Claremontism, should cease. I’m not saying the Melnick clearly belongs to this set of conservatives, being more of a moderate-liberal, but many of them did welcome the tenor of his crude attack.