Democracy

Several months ago, an acquaintance complained that the problem with conservatives is that we don’t believe in democracy. In fact he might have said “Republicans” instead of “conservatives”; either way he seemed frustrated not only with the antics of a few Congressional bigwigs, but with the fact that they continue to receive, if not whole-hearted support, at least votes. It’s hardly a defense, and more reveals the depth of the problem, to point out that the same charges can be leveled at the Democratic party’s political managers and those who continue to vote for them. Actually I thought the statement quite a perceptive one, if not quite as damning as intended.

It is quite true that conservatives, on the whole, do not “believe in” democracy. First, quite a few are, by habit if not conviction, religious and specifically Christian; and in that vocabulary one “believes in” an ultimate good or goal, which earthly governance, since there are immortal souls to care for, is not. Even in earthly affairs, Rome and Westminster have both claimed the state should support the church; and “Christendom” has not truly lost its appeal. This is not an argument for or against such a position; it is a statement of fact about habits of mind. Further, Christian imagery – to say nothing of human history – tends to the hierarchical. If some have concluded – Milton and Lewis, Congregationalists and Presbyterians – that a democratic order tends to restrain tyranny of men over men; that only democratic principles capture the equal share of the dignity of Adam we all possess; well, they may have thought so, but others have not.

Second, conservative theorists on the whole do not “believe in” the good sense of demos – the people. This is neither unreasonable nor a surprise. Progressive theorists do not believe it either – all their programs must be, at first, imposed by force in theory; and in practice, maintained by such. The history of governance – if we can call it that – by greatest numbers (or loudest voices) is not entirely encouraging, and apart from innovation, it would be difficult to point to a specific benefit gained as our governments across the world have become – at least in theory – more democratic. Of course the democratic idealist can point to all variety of mitigating factors: a legacy of monarchy; colonies abroad even while democracy took root at home; perpetuation of national jealousies; unwillingness to actually extend democratic rights to all; and so on. On the other hand, the critic can counter that no “democratic” society has fully and ideally established itself, and could suggest that the dominance of democracy today as an ideal, so that all but the most dictatorial of regimes at least pay it lip-service, could turn out to be just a historical curiosity when seen from the distance of another five hundred years.

It is next necessary to examine the idea of “democracy”. And here again we see a quite accurate assessment hidden in my friend’s complaint. “Democracy” to a conservative refers mainly to a system of government. The government is taken to be set up by the people – or at least, for it to continue, it must be acknowledged to a great enough extent to ensure stability. (These are not exactly the same idea; but are close enough for my purpose today.) But other than this axiomatic sort of democracy, it is not of particular consequence to most conservatives exactly what form the government takes. It is of course plausible that democratic forms will be most stable, but if a monarchy or oligarchy or other form yet to be devised should better secure personal freedom, a free society, and good living – the conservative would have no objection.

I want to dwell on this for a minute, because this seems to me a foundational divide in how we talk about self-government. In the conservative ideal, this means the man governs – or behaves – himself; the family governs itself; the town, the state, the nation – each likewise; and power should be exerted “downwards” only to the extent these lesser authorities are unable to govern themselves. “Democratic” government is here conceived of in the sense that the citizen, the man who belongs to a city, has a say in what his own city does; but the city, if it belongs to a state or a nation, considered as a union of cities and other communities, has a say in what the nation does. A man can know his own neighborhood, and enough else that he may wisely enough govern a city, or choose someone to do so; unless he spends his days himself in the effort, he is unlikely to really know what the city itself requires from a more far-reaching government.

This principle is hardly recognized any more, and barely articulated, even by intellectual conservatives; and practically speaking even the States, for decades now, no longer decide themselves how to choose their senators to send to Congress. Instead, another sense of “democracy” has taken hold: where the individual is a member, to the same extent and in the same way, of every level of society and government that might affect him. It is, when you realize this, unsurprising that we now end up trying to raise all the same issues in almost every election of every official. The most widely-extending government is seen as the first and best; smaller units being mainly convenient for official purposes. In fact most Americans practically take this for granted; but progressive politics tends to make it part of the program, while conservatives are still trying to fight it.

If one were to look for a cause for its appeal, I have one to suggest: that in the conservative sense of democracy, the responsibility of each entity for its own self-government can be – has been – taken so far as to actually preclude government acting “for the people” generally. The starkest example, possibly in all history, is the American colonies declaring their independence, proclaiming the liberty of man – and keeping their slaves. But worst examples are easy to identify. What is more common is for the well-meaning to lose sight of less fortunate realities. Chesterton would hardly have considered himself a conservative, yet in the modern American sense, by virtue of being religious and a traditionalist, he could scarcely be identified as anything else; so I take the liberty of using him for an example. He relates in his autobiography how, at a certain labor meeting, a speaker produced bafflement if not resentment by seriously underestimating the degree to which his listeners might have run into trouble with the police. That which has been is that which will be; and there is nothing new under the sun.

This, I think, is what my friend was really getting at, and the point that in my observation frustrates progressives most about support for conservative politicians. Even if progressive policies may be at fault for, say, the state of various cities; well, the conservatives make mistakes too, and at least – thinks the progressive – we’re trying. Why isn’t that more popular?

It has – if I may be so bold as to suggest I can offer enlightenment – it has to do with how you are trying. The final reason conservatives “don’t believe in democracy” is that “democracy”, when the progressive makes this complaint, rarely refers to government “by the people”. He may, for the sake of argument, have gotten “for the people” down as a goal better than the conservatives do; but the actual democratic element has been lost somewhere. Not only is it national instead of local, top-down instead of popular; progressive “democracy” usually refers to the modern system of government, managed by bureaucrats appointed by “representatives” chosen from candidates selected by parties whose existence is more or less codified and secured by law. The situation is most pronounced in the United States, but hardly different elsewhere, whatever the claimed advantages of “parliamentary” government. The preferred form of this management – one can hardly call it government any more – is to enact mandate after mandate and let the bureaucrats or the judges – also rarely elected – sort it out.

But lest you doubt the repugnance of the procedure, consider: even a schooling mandate is, in a sense, anti-democratic. If we really believed in the good sense of all men, why favor the one who can read, right, and cypher? And if this is so of any such mandate in theory, national requirements are even more so. I am not disputing the benefits of schooling – though I find the years we require dubious – but trying to make a point about the nature of even a policy few would be so bold as to call detrimental. The progressive, no less than the conservative, does not simply believe in democracy. The difference, if there is one, is that the progressive’s vision proceeds from the highest level downwards, and makes exceptions – to be recorded, and registered on the newest version of the required form – only under duress.

In one sense, I am dealing in “no true Scotsman” terms here. If you reply that you find very few Republicans – or even Libertarians – actively trying to curtail and repeal the unwieldy national bureaucratic structure that barely asks for popular input, I can hardly prove otherwise. I wind up concluding that the Republican party is not particularly conservative in any meaningful sense; and then I can answer the progressive wondering why Republicans keep getting votes only by pointing out that the Democrats transgress further still upon conservative principles. Whatever their theories beforehand, progressives in power seem to regard national management by regulation and edict as a positive good, and have no regard for local custom or dissent.

The situation is, as I intimated at the beginning, somewhat dire; virtually anyone who showed actual intent to dismantle our top-heavy edifice before it topples over would receive my political interest. If you point out that there are progressives doing the hard work of engaging with and rebuilding their neighborhoods, while conservatives move further away – I will reply that, supposing this stereotype to be accurate, even Gentiles do the works of the law. It is in any case hardly an argument against conservative principles (although an indictment of conservative self-righteousness) to say the progressives are actually being more conservative. Meanwhile, I have yet to find any progressives really interested in redistributing the political power that puts us all in danger from the whims of the men at the top. Almost every Republican politician, if pressed, will admit the primacy of local self-government as an ideal; most Democratic ones, as far as I can tell, would be confused by the question.

Even the presidency of Donald Trump failed to awaken most progressives to the principle at stake – that the threat of immense power in the wrong hands is too great to trust to always keeping it in the right hands, but must be relieved by reducing the power available to wield. No: the progressive always has one more right or preference or policy or program that in his conception is so important it must be achieved by national – or wider – imposition. But an actual democrat would know that men must be left free to govern themselves, not merely to choose their dictators.

Ideas & Stories Part 0 – Introduction

There is a saying, or perhaps a joke, attributed in various forms to various statesmen or their critics but probably in substance as old as the first disagreement between movers and shakers of the first political regime, in which it is maintained that a conservative is someone who refuses to fix the problems that already exist, while a progressive is someone who is intent on creating new ones.  Beginning with this post, I plan to explore, based on my own upbringing, principles, and experiences, what it might mean – what at the moment I believe it should mean – to be a conservative who does want to make repairs to the political structure; or alternatively, a progressive dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the system.

Here we face the problem directly.  It is common today for political and social conservatives to speak as if the situation, as it is, is somehow the best that could be expected as a product of our ideals and legal principles, when it evidently is not, and which assumption serves as an excuse to pass over problems and belittle solutions.  It is equally common for political and social progressives today to speak as though improvements to the situation as it is can only be made by discarding the system and its ideals – even though their own ideas have grown within the system they so distrust, and their solutions on the whole aim to further its ideals, and become confused or impossible when they depart too radically from them.

I write here in extremely general – not to say vague – terms because in introducing this project I do not wish to demonstrate particular conclusions before illustrating the foundational analysis.  However, it is part of the purpose of this post to state in general terms the project I am undertaking.  I will therefore say that I have three essential theses I plan to demonstrate and defend.

Practically, social and political solutions to problems must be found, but must be found within an acknowledged system.  I do not believe it possible to discard the governmental machinery of particular political systems without actual revolution.  If reforms are attempted which ignore or abuse a system’s own regulations, the eventual result is traditionalist revolt, by those who were harmed – unintentionally or otherwise – and perceive the illegitimacy of the supposed reforms.  Unresolved injustices, on the other hand, result in the end in revolutions which at least begin intending liberalizations, although I am not convinced those experiences are in fact any more pleasant than the other kind.

It is also necessary to recognize that perceived problems are actual problems, especially in a democratic or representative form of government.  A perceived problem which actually exists is of course a real problem.  But a perceived problem, when the perception does not reflect reality, is at least an equal challenge to resolve.  A real problem can be addressed openly, and the solution can be judged effective or not, and a new method tried if the problem is not resolved.  A perception of injustice where there is none cannot be addressed except by education or rhetoric: any greater solution will only introduce new and actual injustices in satisfying those who wrongly believed themselves harmed, and even the effort of education diverts attention that ideally might be spent elsewhere.  It is perhaps most common for social problems to contain both elements, and rare that a real grievance even properly addressed will completely satisfy all concerned.

Finally, I will be exploring this last point: how currently perceived problems are the result, not just of failures to address previous abuses or of efforts to avoid social difficulties when they were first raised, but of misconceptions about details of certain principles we tend to speak of as universal, and about social structures we either assume or ignore without serious thought.  To the extent I have a unifying thesis in this project, it is that the heart of any solution which would resolve current political and social difficulties will lie in beginning specifically to attend to these misconceptions as they have distorted the middle things.  Grand political and social structures and ideals have been conceived, and thousands of personal improvements suggested, but everything in scale between the two has largely been left to muddle along somehow, and it is not surprising that the result is – a muddle.

Speaking the Language

The tax bill currently being worked through Congress’s reconciliation process contained a couple new taxes on and the withdrawal of a couple exemptions or subsidies for various educational institutions, mostly colleges.  As far as I know, no Republican legislator or conservative media outlet defended these changes along the following lines:

“A number of recent studies suggest that college education may be overvalued in our society, and that many would be better off pursuing other fields of interest and career paths.  We’ve decided to take some steps to scale back artificial subsidies which make it too easy for people to fall into what’s really an unsuitable life for them.

“Additionally, it seems probable that ‘getting a degree’ really proves a reinforcement of class distinctions, and that the college-bound lifestyle is primarily a status indicator.  We think it’s reasonable to ask institutions of higher education, especially the richest ones primarily associated with this class and lifestyle, to give something back towards the rest of society.”

This statement I created purely as a hypothetical example.  I have no idea whether it would accurately apply to the effects of this particular tax bill.  However, the ideas referenced about the place of higher education in our society appear to be actual effects which have received fairly mainstream – if limited – attention.  Even if their effects in this case were completely fabricated, or required some creative accounting to make plausible, rhetorically this message would provide a serious problem for any answering liberal.  Either the factual claim has to be shown incorrect (and government math is notoriously fuzzy), or he has to riposte on unfamiliar territory (perhaps limited government, but polls seem to indicate that the GOP’s supporters – to be polite – think higher education is insufficiently responsive to the actual public good), or concede the point.

It is a tremendous problem in terms of public image that conservatives rarely talk openly in terms of fairness and propriety.  I suspect at times – especially with regard to the Republican party as such – that this reflects negatively on actual factional priorities.  We are very strong on rights and laws, and rightly so, but these are means to an end.  Conservatives are often afraid of “sounding liberal”: but the problems with liberal ideas of “social justice” are merely that their particular goals are not actually just and the society resulting if their ideas were implemented fully would be untenable and inhuman.  That “merely” is fully meant: in that they are openly concerned with the good of the civilization, liberals are correct, and being wrong is, in this world – human.  Neither society nor justice are things that can or should simply be abandoned – as they often are in conservative rhetoric – because somebody else has bad ideas about them.

A Bit on the Shutdown

On the one hand, you have a bill that was passed by Congress and signed into law, and has survived a Supreme Court challenge to one of its key provisions.  The will of the people having been declared, its opponents should, in a reasonable society, just get on with life and let the political process run its course.

On the other hand, this same law has been so divisive that in the three years since its passage, the political strategy of the American Right has been consumed by the effort to repeal, nullify, or otherwise pull the teeth of this measure, culminating most recently in a much-questioned decision on the part of Republicans in Congress to defund its operation as part of the budget (or what passes for one these days).

Other scandals, any one of which might have brought down another administration, have come and gone.  Terrorists sacked an American embassy in Libya, and nothing much has happened.  We found out that the government has been collecting data it has no business with, and nothing much has happened.  The administration passed a questionable education bill, encouraging use of a hotly-debated Common Core program, and there was barely any controversy because the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, was drawing all the fire.  The IRS admitted to targeting political groups opposed to the President, and after five minutes of infamy the corruption seems to be forgotten by most.  Political chicanery of the worst sort – you would think – has arrived in the public eye and passed on with barely any notice, but the conservative war drums against Obamacare beat on.

I bring up these other scandals to debunk a common liberal complaint, that the Right only objects to Obamacare for selfish political ends, because it is a measure proposed and supported by a President of the opposite party.  On objective grounds, any of the incidents above would make better political ammunition than an (admittedly entirely partisan) healthcare bill which at the very least appears to have been passed with good intentions.  If the only goal were to disgrace the current administration, there are more effective talking points than, “We object to a bill which he thinks will help the country”.

I have said in other places that I do not agree with the strategy of the shutdown – but merely because I have nope that political exchanges might remain civil.  (Not that this is actually a feature common in the American political system.)  But with liberal leadership refusing to so much as consider the compromise of passing the bits of the budget that are not controversial, it seems that perhaps the defunders had it right after all: they have demonstrated, for anybody to see who cares to, that American liberals are not prepared to go anywhere without this bill – and the control of American health care it hands over to the government.

Further, even assuming that control were admitted in general to be both Constitutional and wise, the authority as exercised so far has shown no respect for the liberties, especially religious liberties, of American citizens.  I am not, on reflection, sure a Christian congressman could in good conscience vote to fund a measure which forces people to pay for others’ contraception and abortion (via the mechanism of an insurance plan, to be sure – but even if this absolves the person paying for the insurance, it merely shifts the guilt to the insurer).

And one more thing: the showdown, which turned into a shutdown, was surely not a step taken without contemplation.  This is a fight that someone, at least, on the Right thought would be won – either make enough of an impression to at least force a compromise, or to serve as ammunition come elections next year.

Yet the American Left’s reaction might best be classified as disbelief.  “Why would they pick a fight over this?”  “Don’t they understand we’re going to help people?”  “Why don’t they just recognize the law was passed, and get on with life?”  The Left seems, on the whole, to be amused by, oblivious to, or straight up shocked by the fact that anyone – let alone half a modern country – would think that the best thing a central government can do is get out of the way.  That half the people who involve themselves in politics still take Reagan’s dictum seriously and find the words, “We’re from the government and we’re here to help,” frightening – that seems beyond the Left’s institutional comprehension, even though individual liberals are quite familiar with the existence of their everyday conservative counterparts.

And yet the government is shut down, the drums against Obamacare beat on, and the Democratic-controlled Senate and the President himself are unwilling to budge even so much as to pass the rest of the budget.  A new era of non-partisanship, indeed.