Hillary recently published a piece on CNN decrying campaign finance laws (see Citizens United) and state’s “restricting voting rights.” I’m not convinced that Citizens United is the great evil it’s cracked up to be. Jeb(!) with his grand war-chest is on life support. Trump is playing the game with pocket change. So much for buying elections. Nor do I think that efforts to improve the integrity of the voting process necessarily imprudent (we don’t want dead people voting, do we?). But I’m not interested in either of these issues at the moment. What interests me is Hillary’s belief that democracy, and more of it, is a good in-of-itself. As she puts it: “Let’s restore people’s voices and people’s votes to their rightful place — at the center of our democracy.” Clear away the barriers thrown up by corporate money and voter restrictions, let the unadulterated voice of the people ring forth, bring freedom to the oppressed, and the nation will rise to a glorious future. In this assumption, Hillary is joined by her competitor, Bernie. Of course, it’s Hillary, and she’s received gobs of money from corporations and so I suspect Hillary’s appeal is fundamentally disingenuous, and yet the belief in the will of the people is deeply ingrained in the progressive left.
Dead White Guys At Odds
The problem with this position is that it doesn’t jive with our Constitutional framework. That isn’t to say the Constitution is God-breathed and handed down to the American people Ten Commandment style or even that its that great (although I don’t think its too shabby). It is to say that there is an uncomfortable relationship between progressive faith in the will of the people and the Constitution since that venerated document is designed to hamper the will of the people. The Federalist Papers, written to defend the new Constitution, minced no words over the dangers of allowing the popular will to run rampant. The law must curtail the passions of the populist vote. Damn the bread and circuses. That said, there has been enough Constitutional erosion where the progressive’s awkwardness is more historical than current.
The progressives of the late 19th and early 20th century—Woodrow Wilson in particular—were more sanguine about the will of the people and bolstered the notion that unfettered democracy ensured justice and prosperity. Upon winning the presidency in 1912, Wilson published an edited collection of his campaign speeches entitled The New Freedom with the epigram: “A CALL FOR THE EMANCIPATION OF THE GENEROUS ENERGIES OF A PEOPLE.” In the preface he informs his reader that he will explain “what must be done if we are to restore our politics to their full spiritual vigor again.” He believed that restoration involved the curtailing of corporate power and increasing popular participation in politics. “By tyranny,” declared Wilson, “as we now fight it, we mean control of the law, of legislation and adjudication, by organizations which do not represent the people, by means which are private and selfish.” Elsewhere he writes, “The government of the United States at present is a foster-child of the special interests. It is not allowed to have a will of its own” (Wilson 25). Bernie and Hillary couldn’t have said it better.
Wilson’s solution is realistic as it is idealist. Realistic: in the people reside the power. Idealistic: from the multitude springs wisdom. “Nobody who cannot speak the common thought,” says Wilson, “is the man to speak for America” (Wilson 36). Nor can he be such a man. As Tocqueville observed, “It is the very essence of democratic government that the majority has absolute sway, for in a democracy nothing resists the majority” (Tocqueville, 283). Tocqueville is skeptical about the majority, but Wilson trusts it: “This great American people is at bottom just, virtuous, and hopeful” (Wilson 39). Further, the common man was sensible: “I have found audiences made up of the ‘common people’ quicker to take a point, quicker to understand and argument, quicker to discern a tendency and to comprehend a principle, than many a college class that I have lectured to” (Wilson 37). The Founders, as great as they were, had been excessively fearful. The people of Wilson’s era were not a danger to themselves but the source of legitimacy and wisdom. The masses could hear good sense and elect sensible men (Atto and Pestrito 15). It should be of little surprise, then, that Wilson supported what became the 17th amendment, which required the direct the election of Senators by popular vote.
Before one excoriates Wilson for being a fool for rejecting the Founders’ caution regarding democracy, it’s worth considering his rational for democratic euphoria. He argued that one must respect one’s origins and pursue change cautiously: “We ought to go very slowly and very carefully about the very dangerous task of altering [our institutions].” “The ancient traditions of a people,” after all, “are its ballast” (Wilson 18). And yet, Wilson also promoted the necessity of change (a suspiciously conservative point). The problem with the Constitution, argued Wilson, was that the Founders had created it in accordance with 18th century, Newtonian assumptions about reality: the laws of nature, and nature’s God, were discoverable, fixed, and could be written into law. The Constitution, like the heavens wheeling above, was a machine governed by the law of mechanics—checks and balances—to curb the excesses of human nature. “The trouble with the theory,” according to Wilson, “is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life: It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.” Consequently, “Living political constitution must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of life, not of mechanics; it must develop.” Not to put too fine a point of it he declares, “This is not theory, but fact, and displays its force as fact, whatever theories may be thrown across its track” (Wilson 20). Talk about a paradigm shift.
For right-wingers clinging to their guns and backwards views on science, this is only additional ammunition in the war against the despised lefty elitists. And yet, it should not be missed that Wilson placed his faith in the “common people” to use their common sense to make wise decisions—sort of. A tension between elitism and populism emerges.
Democracy: As Long As You Follow The Leader
It is ironic that the common man (the “simian faithful” as Mencken called them) would so hotly contest the issue of evolution only several years after Wilson’s comments. The “just, virtuous, and hopeful” masses arose (if only for a time) to repudiate their betters in the scientific community and shout them out of town. This, of course, is agitating to the progressive. As Barack Obama put it in 2008 in reference to the backward folk: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Donald Trump, anyone? And yet these are only speed bumps to progress. The progressive is contemptuously confident. The right side of history–the Wilsons, Hillarys, and Sanders–will win eventually and bring the backward folk (kicking and screaming if necessary) into the light.
This smug attitude belies the rhetoric of progressives. Wilson: “Some man… will emerge out of the crowd, will show that he understands the crowd, understands the interests of the nation, united and not separated, and will stand up and lead us” (Wilson 37). True, we find a commitment to democracy, but while the people give direction, they need the leader to hear them out, and then implement their will. In order to do this, the progressive proclaims the necessity of creating a large bureaucratic state to run the show, provide for the people, and keep in line the business interests. And this is where we reach the grand irony: “The strong democratizing argument with respect to political institutions is coupled with an argument on administration that calls for shifting policymaking power away from popular institutions and giving it to educated elites…and thus the progressive argument here seems to be a distinctly elitist one that proceeds under a democratic veneer” (Atto and Pestrito 20-21). Let the people bellow freely, communicate their “wisdom”, and then let the leader and a bevy of enlightened technocrats swoop in to guide the unwashed masses to the heights and protect them from business elites.
And yet in parting we must give the original progressives a fair shake. They faced an unprecedented growth of corporate power at the end of the 19th century. How could a federal government with a tiny budget hope to govern the nation justly with multi-billion dollar companies looming over the halls of power? But this begs the question: are un-elected bureaucrats any better? This is one of the great tension: who do we fear more? Who do we trust least?
But What Of Man Himself?
If there is one thing the Hillary campaign underscores, though, it is how quickly the woman of the people is subject to the same forces she claims to protect them from. The bureaucratic state by its very nature is far from being a disinterested, professional class that the progressive mindset so craves. An unpopular line to both left and right, but the reality is that bureaucrats are people too; unpopular to the right because, you know, you have to hate bureaucrats; unpopular to the left because it reveals the naivete that an enlightened bureaucratic state is possible. Hillary, along with said bureaucratic state, cannot escape the net of self-interest and the threat of regulatory capture. In this way, try as she might, she cannot single-handily (nor can the more honest Bernie) overcome the business-bureaucratic nexus: both are locked in an antagonistic but ultimately mutually beneficial relationship. Unfortunately, in their attempt to curb the ambition of business elites, the progressives erected a structure equally ambitious only compounding the problem.
The problem is that the progressive misunderstands human nature. Fundamentally Jacobin, the progressive does not believe that man himself is the problem. Rather, it is his circumstances that corrupt. Listen to the uninhibited voice of the people, wisely translate their desires into constructive policy, and the nation will thrive. But the mud and grime runs deeper than circumstances, and tinker though they might, they will never dredge the bottomless pit.
And yet there is still something full-blooded American about appealing to the will of the people. Wilson declares: “[T]he trouble with our present political condition is that we need some man who has not been associated with the governing classes, and the governing influences of this country to stand up and speak for us; we need to hear a voice from the outside calling upon the American people to assert again their rights and prerogatives in the possession of their own government” (Wilson 29). Trump couldn’t have said it better (although he’d eschew the high style for a lower one). Whether left or right, this appeal to the masses, to populism, is irresistible. And whether it’s Hillary or Trump or Bernie, or whoever else, the democratic impulse, the rule of the majority, runs deep in the American psyche and we pay the price for it. As H.L. Mencken puts it: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Pestritto, Ronald J; Alto, William J. American Progressivism: A Reader. Lexington Book: Lanham, MD, 2008.
Wilson, Woodrow. The New Freedom. NY: Dodo Press, 2007.