The Democratic Party is America’s only small-d democratic party.
The conservative movement, born in opposition to an overwhelmingly popular New Deal order, has always taken a dim view of popular self-government. But the American right’s latent contempt for democracy has grown more unabashed in recent years. As its white, rural, Christian base has rapidly lost demographic weight; as the GOP has lost the popular vote in seven of eight presidential elections; as conservatives have managed to retain outsize influence over public policy on the strength of their coalition’s overrepresentation in Congress and on the Supreme Court; and, of course, as Donald Trump turned hostility to the peaceful transfer of power into a litmus test for conservative purity, the Republican Party has become a forthrightly anti-democratic political institution.
In blue America, we take these truths to be self-evident. But Ross Douthat begs to differ. Sort of.
In his most recent column, the New York Times’s resident social conservative argues that liberals have overstated the right’s contempt for democracy and underestimated their own movement’s ambivalence about popular self-government.
His argument is highly qualified. Douthat concedes that “the present Democratic Party is absolutely in favor of letting as many people vote as possible,” while the GOP is not. He acknowledges that “the fear of mob rule, of demagogues rallying the masses to destroy a fragile social order, is a common theme in many different right-wing schools of thought” and that the conservative movement is now home to southern reactionaries whose views on democracy were shaped by “the racist fear of African American political power that stamped the segregation-era South.” And he further stipulates that these anti-democratic impulses have grown more pronounced in recent years for many of the reasons outlined above.
Nevertheless, Douthat contends that “the modern Republican Party is also the heir to a strong pro-democracy impulse” and that “contemporary liberalism is fundamentally miscast as a defender of popular self-rule.”
Specifically, he notes that American conservatism developed a majoritarian populist streak during the era of Republican presidential dominance that stretched from 1968 to 1992. In that era, the GOP won popular majorities in nearly every national presidential election only to see its power hemmed in by independent executive-branch agencies and liberal Supreme Court justices. Although the “silent majority” has since died off, the right remains “deeply invested in the idea” that it speaks for ordinary people in their conflicts with institutions dominated by liberal elites: the universities, the domestic bureaucracies, the public-health Establishment, etc.
Meanwhile, the modern Democratic Party bears the imprint of its own anti-democratic tradition, namely the early-20th-century progressive movement’s “vision of disinterested experts claiming large swaths of policymaking for their own and walling them off from the vagaries of public opinion.”
Douthat’s extended riff on how a technocratic suspicion of democracy still informs American progressivism is worth quoting at length:
Who should lead pandemic decision making? Obviously Anthony Fauci and the relevant public-health bureaucracies; we can’t have people playing politics with complex scientific matters. Who decides what your local school teaches your kids? Obviously teachers and administrators and education schools; we don’t want parents demanding some sort of veto power over syllabuses. Who decides the future of the European Union? The important stakeholders in Brussels and Berlin, the people who know what they’re doing, not the shortsighted voters in France or Ireland or wherever. Who makes important U.S. foreign policy decisions? Well, you have the interagency process, the permanent regional specialists and the military experts, not the mere whims of the elected president.
Whereas the recent wave of right-wing populism, even when it doesn’t command governing majorities, still tends to champion the basic idea of popular power — the belief that more areas of Western life should be subject to popular control and fewer removed into the purview of unelected mandarins. And even if this is not a wise idea in every case, it is a democratic idea, whose widespread appeal reflects the fact that modern liberalism really does suffer from a democratic deficit.
I think a lot of the discrete claims in Douthat’s column are true. But I’m not sure they add up to a compelling argument — in part because I’m not sure exactly what his argument ultimately is.
For most of his column, Douthat characterizes the GOP’s pro-democracy streak as a frame of mind or rhetorical style. He writes that conservatives are invested in their “self-image” as a populist political force and that “the right reliably casts itself as small-d democrats” when doing battle with liberal technocrats. Which seems true. Yet in other moments, as in the riff quoted above, Douthat seems to suggest the right’s self-conception is largely accurate: Although liberals are more supportive of voting rights than conservatives are, they are also more inclined to remove vast realms of policy from the sphere of democratic contestation and into the realm of expert rule. Which is false.
Douthat isn’t wrong to suggest progressives have our own misgivings about popular democracy. But it just isn’t the case that those misgivings are rooted in an unwavering commitment to expert rule, nor that conservatives are ideologically hostile to technocracy as such.
The Federal Reserve is America’s quintessential technocratic institution. Its governors are selected for their putative economic expertise and empowered to set policy without regard for popular sentiment. Indeed, the central bank’s insulation from democratic influence was long held to be its great virtue as an agent of monetary policy: Whereas politicians had an incentive to go on inflationary binges for the sake of winning favor on Election Day, the Fed’s governors could impartially apply economic science to promote the general public’s long-term best interests. Or so many conservative economists long held.
Progressives, for their part, spent much of the past decade seeking to erode the Fed’s technocratic independence. The Fed Up Campaign fought to re-politicize monetary policy and pressure the central bank to give greater priority to full employment. And its cause has been taken up by all manner of Democratic politicians, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The Supreme Court is the most powerful anti-democratic policy-making body in the country. And under the leadership of its conservative majority, the Court has used that power to veto a wide variety of democratically enacted legislation, from an Arizona law authorizing public funding for candidates who face well-financed opponents, to the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, to a Voting Rights Act the Senate had unanimously reauthorized, among myriad other provisions. These acts of “juristocracy” generally won acclamation from the right and condemnation from the left, which has implored the government’s democratic branches to discipline the judiciary through court expansion.
The partisan conflict over policing in the United States is, to no small extent, a debate over whether a powerful public bureaucracy should be subjected to greater democratic control. And in that debate, the conservative movement’s self-styled populists have routinely argued that civilians should defer to law enforcement’s credentialed expertise about precisely which actions are necessary for deterring crime. In Trump’s own estimation, if the police feel inclined to rough up detained “thugs” before throwing them “into the back of a paddy wagon,” it isn’t for civilians to judge.
Finally, contra Douthat, it was a Democratic president who overruled credentialed foreign-policy mandarins last year in withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan, and Republican elected officials who scolded America’s elected leader for ignoring the Pentagon’s sage experts.
None of this is to say that progressives never seek to subordinate popular democracy to technocratic prerogative or constitutional principle. It is genuinely true that, during the Nixon years, a liberal judiciary advanced busing as a remedy for school segregation in defiance of both conservative activists and popular opinion. Progressives would maintain that privileging the democratic equality of minority groups over majoritarianism is not contrary to democracy as it is properly understood. Yet liberals do not oppose majority rule solely in instances where the rights of the marginalized are under threat. As Douthat suggests, liberalism does champion a secular, scientific epistemology, which it seeks to promulgate through the public-education system. I don’t think many progressives would argue that if a large majority of parents in a given school district favor intelligent design over evolutionary theory, its schools should teach the former instead of the latter. Nor do we generally think the tenure rights or research agendas of scholars at public universities should be subject to democratic rebuke merely because the voting public subsidizes those institutions.
So Douthat is right to suggest that progressives are wont to frame popular democracy as morally sacrosanct even as we carefully guard our preferred exemptions from it. But he’s wrong to posit a coherent, right-left disagreement about the proper balance between democracy and expert rule. The right likes anti-democratic technocracy when it serves conservative ends, and plebiscitary democracy when it does the same. As Douthat notes, conservatism is simultaneously suspicious of the power of “demagogues” to whip the masses into a frenzy and contemptuous of expert governance. Those two impulses are completely contradictory; if mass opinion is easily swayed by charismatic charlatans, there is no reason to favor democracy over technocracy as a matter of course. The reason these two disparate attitudes can coexist within the same movement is that neither expresses a principled philosophy of government. Rather, they are just two alternative modes of oratory and self-justification, which can be deployed as necessary for advancing the movement’s substantive goals in discrete conflicts. When the American right’s British allies scored a victory for xenophobic nationalism through the Brexit vote, referenda were sacred expressions of the people’s sovereign will. When red-state electorates vote to raise the minimum wage, however, sage legislators must subjugate the masses’ unruly passions to the laws of economic science (after all, we are a republic, not a democracy).
Similarly, in the 1980s, when Republicans dominated the executive branch, conservative jurisprudence supported a strong administrative state; once Democrats gained the upper hand in presidential elections while the GOP consolidated power over the courts, the right’s legal orthodoxy shifted to embrace a deep skepticism of federal bureaucrats’ prerogatives.
Progressivism’s affection for popular democracy is also fickle, but it is by no means equally so. Like every other ideological movement in the history of democratic politics, American liberals would like public policy to reflect their preferences, even for issues on which they lack a popular mandate. Nevertheless, they are not trying to immunize their ideological project from democratic rebuke through targeted disenfranchisement or baseless allegations of election fraud. The Trumpist GOP has a monopoly on that pastime. If the left’s commitment to minority rights renders it hostile to some forms of majority rule, that same commitment fortifies its support for fundamental democratic rights since the socially marginalized have a greater investment in democratic equality and rule of law than the socially dominant. Liberals are the fair-weather friends of popular self-rule; the modern conservative movement is its enemy.
It’s unclear to me whether Douthat means to argue that America’s major parties are equally hostile to democratic rule (albeit in different ways). In his column’s closing paragraph, he seems mostly intent on asserting that American liberalism suffers from a democratic deficit that impairs its ability to compete with Trumpism at the ballot box. This is a reasonable argument. Thanks to the collapse of American trade unions (which conservatives did much to bring about), the decline of urban machines, and the rise of progressive nonprofit organizations, the Democratic Party is less accountable to working-class mass-membership organizations — and more deferential to the sensibilities and policy preferences of professional-class liberals — than it was for most of its modern history. But that reality is mostly peripheral to the concerns of Douthat’s column.
The Democrats’ electoral woes have little to do with majoritarian hostility to Anthony Fauci (which does not exist). The party’s chief problem isn’t its inadequate enthusiasm for popular democracy as much as our constitutional framework’s myriad obstacles to the same.