Wednesday, October 23, 2013

We. Are. Not. A. Democracy.

No one wants to hear it, though. Before, during, and after the recent Shutdown and all of the posturing about Obamacare, there is a line of thought that has been and continues to be repeatedly expressed: that standing in the way of things is wrong because it's not how a democracy is supposed to function. The President, various Democratic (and some Republican) politicians, and a great many pundits have been selling this idea, talking about getting rid of the "extremism" on the Right, and lamenting about how the current "dysfunction" in Washington, D.C. is a new thing that is very much at odds with the way things are supposed to be and usually have been.

It's all fantasy, a-historical claptrap, built around a fundamental ignorance of actual political history in the United States and of how the federal government was actually constituted.

Over a year ago, I wrote a piece on the supposed decline in civility that many on the Left were imagining was taking place, thanks supposedly to the Tea Party movement. As I noted then, no such change was occurring at all. An edginess in the arena of political discourse, the usage of violent metaphors even, has always existed in the United States since the earliest days of its founding. All of the calls for a kinder, gentler tone were and still are--at their root--dishonest; they represent a simple attempt to marginalize dissenting opinions (like those from the Tea Party crowd). The talk from the Left with regard to the Shutdown makes this point abundantly clear, what with all the nonsense about "hostage-taking" and "Tea Party terrorists." The fact of the matter is that the Left wants the freedom to engage in heinous, divisive, and even violent rhetoric whenever it so desires while simultaneously limiting its ideological opponents from doing the same by shaming them.

In the piece linked to above, I told the story of the caning of Senator Sumner in 1856 by Representative Preston Brooks (for the record, Sumner was a Republican, Brooks was a Democrat). It's worth repeating here, just to make it crystal clear how nonsensical the idea is that there as been a decline in civility between the Parties, that a spirit of bipartisan cooperation had always been the norm until quite recently:
For those unfamiliar with the story, it began with Sumner taking the floor of the Senate to make a speech denouncing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed those territories to determine--via popular vote--if they would be Slave or Free States. In the speech, he attacked Senator Andrew Butler--an author of the Act--going so far as to call his mistress an ugly harlot and to mock Butler's mannerisms and speech (Butler had recently suffered a debilitating stroke). A few days later, Brooks--nephew of Butler--beat Sumner into unconsciousness with a cane in revenge for the verbal attacks on Butler and South Carolina.

The incident reflected the the rising tide of emotions that would sweep the United States into civil war. It was seized on by both sides for its propaganda value, the North seeing it as an unjustified assault, the South as a righteous and provoked response to personal attacks.
I should note that Sumner's attack on Butler--via the speech--was rhetorically brilliant, a masterpiece by a gifted orator. At the same time, it was viciously personal. And it is the combination of the two--brilliant and vicious--that so enraged Preston Brooks I am sure, and led him to assault Sumner because Brooks lacked the intellectual chops to respond in kind. Make no mistake, I'm not suggesting what Sumner did should be applauded at all. Mocking people in such a manner is tasteless, to say the least, regardless of the larger goal being served. Nor am I trying to justify Brooks' response. It was most certainly way over the line. But after the incident, people across the country took sides (mostly--but not completely--along a North/South divide) with regard to the caning, sides that were already extant on other issues before the caning.

This became a major incident, stark evidence of just how polarized the nation was over the issue of slavery in that moment. But the inherent conflict between differences of opinion and the means of expressing those differences--through mockery, ridicule, violent imagery, threats, and ultimately actual violence--was nothing new. It still is nothing new. It's the nature of politics whenever there is room in a given system for people to openly express differences of opinion. The turn to physical violence is, of course, lamentable, something that should be avoided at all costs. But beyond that, it really is just politics.

The calls for a cessation of such expressions, for more civil dialogue and the like, are nothing new either. After the caning incident, many did exactly this (even as others happily stoked the fires). And that's fine, laudable even (except when it reflects hypocrisy, which is probably/unfortunately more likely than not). The point is, it's all grist for the mill, all a part of a functioning government imbued with democratic processes. It's not "dysfunction" at all, it's proper functioning within a society--in general--where people are allowed and even encouraged to disagree.

Within the United States in particular, it's not only proper but also entirely intended. For despite the democratic processes that lead to such conflicts, such heated rhetoric, the United States is not a democracy. The Constitution does not establish a democracy, but rather a republic (a federated, representative republic to be precise) in which government interference in everyday life is supposed to be minimized through these very same conflicts. This is the essential component of James Madison's theory of factions, the theory that informs the Constitution and the government it establishes.

Madison took the existence of factions--defined as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community" in Federalist #10--as a given. He understood there would always be issues that would be divisive, would cause some to choose up sides as it were. More importantly, he also understood that direct democracy was no cure for the rise of factions. Indeed, it was exactly the opposite: it encouraged their formation, for as a form it allowed total victory for any faction which could achieved a majority, even if the cause being championed was horribly unjust.

Those who champion the idea of direct democracy, who seemingly believe the will of the majority should be accepted as a matter of course (like the current Administration and a good chunk of the Democrats now in office) fail to acknowledge the last; they assume the majority cannot be unjust, cannot work against liberty, because they fall prey to the fallacy Madison criticizes as a solution for factions: the idea that--somehow--the majority of the citizenry in a democracy will all see things in the same ways (my boldface):
There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.  
It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it is worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.
The second expedient is as impracticable, as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of Government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results: and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.
Thus, Madison recognizes that the government must be so structured to allow and even depend on the formation of factions, on the the variety of interests produced, in a free society. He takes it as a given that the only time there will be some sort of unanimity of opinion--or even a real majority consensus--on a given issue is when it is truly a fundamental issue of justice, of right and wrong. Otherwise, there will be divergent opinion, factions, on everything. And the ensuing conflict is exactly what mitigates the potential mischief (the violation of liberty, corruption, and the like) caused by factions.

The nature of this conflict is really immaterial, but again the fact that we are dealing with actual people with actual emotions and passions, with varied opinions and interests, means it will be heated (to say the least) more often than not. This isn't a problem. It's not dysfunction. It's the way things are supposed to work.

Cheers, all.

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