Democrats Are Getting Democracy Wrong. Here's Why.
Part 1 in a series where I explore the flaws in principle and practice that now dominate my own side.
I try to be relatively modulated in public forums. Part of it is that I don’t care about politics enough to allow it to be a constant source of anger and outrage, haunting my days and nights. I really do believe that life is elsewhere.
Politics should not be anyone’s primary focus or vocation, unless, that is, your life quite literally depends on it. Since America is still a democracy, for all its faults, your life almost certainly doesn’t depend on it. You are not a revolutionary. You are not in the resistance. You are not a freedom fighter. You are someone who cares about politics too much.
That said, I feel like I’m succumbing to a level of frustration that I’m having a bit more trouble keeping inside. There are some things I really do care about. They primarily have to do with the democratic idea (which, after all, is why I started this Substack). And Democrats increasingly seem to be embracing anti-democratic rhetoric in the name of saving democracy from those who might end it. In his recent “pro-democracy” address, President Biden—and I exaggerate only slightly—basically made a version of the following argument: ‘Democracy is dying, therefore to save democracy you must vote for my party. If you vote for the other party, you are helping democracy die. Democracy is on the ballot, and there is only one choice.’
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Is this technically a paradox? Some of my critics—who are, nothing else, if not semantic warriors—seemed to think they had caught me in a trap. A paradox is “a proposition that, despite sound or apparently sound reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.” Presumably, whether you think Biden’s speech was self-contradictory will depend on your level of threat assessment. It will also depend on what you think democracy actually entails, both in theory and practice.
The inconsistencies, it turns out, are glaring.
Which leads to me a question I increasingly find myself asking: Are people really this cynical, or do they just persuade themselves to believe things that aren’t true, because ideological preferences have been made subservient to facts? For example, not too long ago, Democrats seemed to have a stranglehold on the Senate. They had sixty senators—a level of dominance we hadn’t seen in decades. Back then, the structure of the Senate was the same, but I don’t remember anyone insisting that the Senate was inherently democratic and that it should be abolished.
When the Supreme Court could still be relied on to pass down liberal verdicts, liberals valorized the counter-majoritarian nature of the institution: It was good to constrain the whims of retrograde, regressive Americans who couldn’t be trusted to make the right decisions on things like abortion. But then a few years later, the argument seemed to reverse almost entirely. The Supreme Court was still counter-majoritarian, but now it was working against the majority of Americans who now, apparently, were actually kind of progressive, if the polls were to be believed. If only the true desires of Americans could be allowed to stand without the intervention of such an unrepresentative court of unelected judges, the thinking went, then the commonweal could be realized. Democracy! It’s almost if people’s commitment to and understanding of democracy is completely outcomes-oriented, and there not even a pretense of coherence or consistency.