A Response to Dougherty

What Did Madison Really Say About Majorities?

Michael Brendan Dougherty has responded to my piece on Conservatives and democracy on The National Review site. I appreciate that he took the argument seriously enough to respond, but I feel he misunderstood it and largely evades the main thrust.

Dougherty writes:

It’s tempting to dismiss the case outright. Republicans run in democratic elections, and when they win, they take office and exercise the powers of those offices. When they lose, they don’t. And they begin positioning for the next election

Yes, I suppose this is true, with one rather notable exception: the most popular Republican politician has not accepted his loss in the last presidential election and continues to insist the election was stolen from him and is illegitimate. Some efforts to overturn or cast doubt on the election are still underway. Some two-thirds of Republicans still believe the election was stolen. This leads me to the next point.


The January 6 riot was a disgrace. But it’s hardly fair to imply that “the GOP candidate’s supporters” were all for it. A small rabble of Donald Trump’s supporters did it, at Trump’s instigation. Most Republicans have shrugged at the arrests of those participating in the riot.

Nothing I wrote implied any such thing. I wrote that Trump’s supporters attacked the Capitol. That’s a simple statement of fact: the people who attacked the Capitol were Trump supporters. But even if Republicans have “shrugged” at the arrests, both Republican elected officials and, as we’ve seen, Republican voters still believe (or claim to believe) the lies that precipitated the attack. If one honestly thinks the election was stolen the attack on the Capitol is not only justifiable but a patriotic necessity. I happen to think it’s less a literally-believed lie and more a kind of myth that embodies a broader Right-wing hostility to democracy and becomes a principle for action.


Taken together this case blends — or really, conflates without directly linking — a critique of Republican actions with a majoritarian critique of America’s republican institutions, and some observations about conservative intellectuals. Doing so allows the case to be overstated.

The uniting myth of the Republican party and the remnants of the Conservative movement is now just this: “the majority that rules is not fit to rule, it is not the real majority, or they are not the real Americans.” This is now stated explicitly in the American Mind. My point is that the entire political movement, from its ideological justifications to its practical applications, is united by its various attacks on the majoritarian principle. The different flavors or emphases of argument allow people of multiple sensibilities and social backgrounds to unite, more or less, in one movement and political party. The extremely crude conspiracy theorist attracts one constituency and justifies one set of actions, the credentialed and well-educated constitutional scholar another, but the outcome is the same: the frustration or subversion of the will of the majority of American citizens.

I hesitate to be so aggressive since Dougherty was gracious enough to consider my piece, but I can’t help but wonder if Dougherty is arguably doing this all again here: is he not just making an effort to gussy up the anti-democratic impulses of the Right in sophisticated clothes?

Conservative intellectuals today are more likely to turn to the Framers of the Constitution for their suspicions of democracy than to the post-war intellectuals. “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths,” wrote Madison in Federalist No. 10.

Some of the thinkers Ganz cites have very idiosyncratic views. James Burnham, and Samuel Francis after him, weren’t “against democracy” in the way that James Madison was or other classical thinkers were. Burnham had turned away from Marxism to the modern Italian political realism of his “Machiavellians.” They believed all ruling ideologies to be frauds of a ruling minority on the public, including democracy.

I’m sorry but I just don’t buy that Conservative intellectuals are just humble custodians of the founding whose main bedside reading is the Federalist. James Burnham was a founder of the very magazine where Dougherty now works; Dougherty is himself the author of a sympathetic, if not quite admiring, profile of Sam Francis:

Though the paleos are correct and it is expedient for them to distance themselves from the substance and tone of Francis’s later work, there is room for thinkers to carry on his analysis of Middle American grievances. The managerial elite he and Burnham described still exists. Even the neoconservatives, whom Francis detested, have written critically about ‘the New Class’ that Burnham described. If there comes a time when neos and paleos can transcend their differences over foreign policy, the first thing they might discuss is the nature of the elite class and what is to be done about it. Can it be reformed? Is it possible to begin dismantling “the apparatus” of elite power? This idea is worth pulling from the ashes of Sam Francis’s reputation:

To be clear and fair, Dougherty distances himself from Francis’s despicable racial views and I don’t actually know how much Dougherty would still agree with his analysis from this rather old essay, but it seems strange to insist that Francis was some idiosyncratic weirdo on the edges: he’s clearly someone Dougherty himself has thought seriously about.

Moreover, Burnham might not be the main inspiration of many NR articles these days, but he is a constant presence in the mind of contemporary Conservative intellectuals: you just have to look superficially at American Affairs, The New Criterion, and The American Mind to see his continued influence. One might also argue that these outlets, with their more populist and Trump-friendly stances, are closer to the center of gravity of the GOP these days.

When Dougherty writes, “James Burnham, and Samuel Francis after him, weren’t “against democracy” in the way that James Madison was or other classical thinkers were,” he is virtually making my point. The present Conservative disposition against democracy is really not of a piece with the classic republican sources on the necessity for mixed regimes, although it may draw from that tradition from time to time. Let’s look at James Madison’s arguments in Federalist No. 10. Yes, Madison is against what he calls “pure Democracy,” but what he means by “Republic” and “Republican” have strong majoritarian overtones and are very close to what we in everyday language now call “democracy” or “liberal democracy”:

If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. Let me add that it is the great desideratum by which this form of government can be rescued from the opprobrium under which it has so long labored, and be recommended to the esteem and adoption of mankind.

The “republican principle” enables the majority to defeat factions by voting. Moreover, Madison goes on to argue the presence of a large majority forces factions to have to moderate their particular interests: when you have to join with others you have to compromise and moderate because interests are so various. This is an argument for democracy as a positive good. And we can easily see an application of it: the majority of Americans, coming from many different geographical locations and interests, roundly rejected Trump, who was manifestly a product of faction and not liable to rule in the interests of the nation at large. Madison’s definition of “pure democracy” is a system that exists virtually nowhere on Earth in the modern day: “From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.”

Dougherty writes:

Trump’s 2016 victory was a case of majority rule: The majority within each state ruled the distribution of that state’s Electoral College votes. Ganz’s case here is really against distributed sovereignty.

As I said in my original post, Conservative arguments for democracy and majority rule usually require a redefinition of the populace, either in crude terms, like saying some people are too stupid to be allowed to vote or are not really who the Founders had in mind as voting, or are the corrupted subjects of rapacious, manipulative elites, or this is done by some more subtle manipulation of the term “majority.” Let’s look at what Madison said about the states in Federalist No. 10:

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source.

In the case of Trump, the majorities in several states and in certain regions have fallen prey to a “factious leader,” but Madison contends an “improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.” Madison writes, “the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic,--is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it.” (Emphasis mine.) The Union allows for petty tyrannies arising in the states to be overridden by the vastness of its citizenry. Madison also seems to imagine a growing, not shrinking franchise: “The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter.” (Emphasis mine.) The fact that national majorities have always rejected Trump seems to be proof of Madison’s concept.

Arguing against nullification in 1834, Madison writes, “…the amount of this modified right of nullification is, that a single State may arrest the operation of a law of the U. S. and institute a process which is to terminate in the ascendancy of a minority over a large majority, in a Republican System, the characteristic rule of which is that the major will is the prevailing ruling will.” (Emphasis once again mine.) I’m sorry, but this bears repeating: A REPUBLICAN SYSTEM, THE CHARACTERISTIC RULE OF WHICH IS THE MAJOR WILL IS THE PREVAILING RULING WILL.

What the notion of “distributed sovereignty” seems to suggest to me is not Madisonian so much as it is Calhounian: containing the idea that that there are “concurrent majorities” nested within the federal system that can effectively negate majority rule. This is certainly a tradition in American political thought, and I would argue a tradition that has many adherents on the right today, but it is manifestly not the tradition initiated by James Madison.

Dougherty writes, “Separately, we grant that conservatives are not “in principle” committed to unqualified majority rule.” My argument is that in practice today Conservatives are often opposed to even qualified majority rule and wish to institute where possible direct minority rule. This is the upshot of the entire effort to negate or degrade the results of the last Presidential election, to reduce where possible the franchise, to argue, using apocalyptic terms, for the intrinsic unfitness or impurity of the electorate and the necessity to replace it with another.

Dougherty writes:

Some of the conservative tub-thumping against populism and democracy in recent months that Ganz adds to his case was aimed squarely at the January 6 rioters. Ganz picks up on my colleague Kevin Williamson, whose problem with “the people” ruling is precisely their resemblance to the Q Shaman of the Capitol riot.

Elsewhere in the piece, Dougherty objected to me that this group was a tiny minority and that it was unfair for me to associate this group with all of Trump’s supporters, calling it a “small rabble.” But now this small rabble is supposed to be characteristic of the American people? This is the kind of contradiction occasioned by the sheer variety of Conservative polemics, which have to attack the problem of majority rule from so many different angles they eventually become confused. But fortunately it is easy to dispel all this confusion: just hold consistently to Madison’s “republican principle” where the majority is to ultimately rule. The Q Shaman is not really representative of the American people: he is a member of a bizarre and dangerous minority faction that the vast majority of the public rejects. It makes absolutely no sense to ask us to reject democracy because it can potentially empower such lunatics when it’s precisely the triumph of majority rule that’s preventing them from ascending to power.

Troublingly, Dougherty concludes by calling for further retreat from the realm of politics into the more murky dimension of the culture wars:

To close the argument, I would like to suggest that the conservative movement might be too democratic for its own good. That is, the relish with which conservatives engage in electoral politics — and their special anxiety over electoral results — is partly a consequence of their exile from, or refusal to participate in, other institutions in our society that exercise considerable power but are not entirely democratic: our universities, entertainment industry, media and the arts, and the much larger nonprofit sector of nongovernmental organizations and charities, to name just a few.

These institutions are not democratic — they are sometimes nearly medieval, or even institutions of patrimonial capitalism — and they are largely ceded to liberals and progressives. They produce the knowledge, give shape and direction to rising passions and moral impulses emerging in society, and while they certainly enhance and magnify the power of elected liberals and progressives, they have the ability to in some ways soften and redistribute the felt impact of that ruling. The domination of these institutions by liberal democrats and progressives pushes conservatism more toward populism, toward looking for the first 200 names in the Boston telephone book instead of Harvard’s faculty.

Conservative governance often feels “harsher” because it is in a constant state of friction with these non-democratic institutions, and the people formed by them — the most influential in our society.

So much for Burnham and Francis being “idiosyncratic,” because here we have a version of their critique of managerial society. Conservative governance , in so far as I have mostly experienced it in my lifetime has largely been in friction with the expressed will of the American people. I understand and sympathize to a certain extent with feeling alienated from so many of the institutions of civil society. But I think the reason why all these institutions have so much power, for good or ill, is because they are actually more or less reflective of the desires of democratic majorities. They may foster conformity and be oppressive to those with dissenting opinions, but that’s a part of democratic life, which I admit frankly has its own terrors.

Being on the business end of popular wrath is no fun. Freedom of association mitigates this by allowing us to find refuge with those who agree with us. Conservatives have a subculture of their own, but that subculture is becoming so obsessed with its own alienation and its distance from its fantasized ideal of so-called cultural power that it can’t recognize or responsibly wield the power it does presently possess. The Right also makes very little effort to woo the majority, but instead stews in its own sense of dispossession and alienation, and then periodically attempts desperate expedients to cling on to power. The American Right is stuck in a cycle where it alienates public opinion through its strangeness, bitterness, and aggressiveness and then views that very alienation as evidence of the need to become even stranger and more bitter and more aggressive. Unless Conservatism comes up with something with genuine appeal to the American people, it will either become effectively extinct as a political force or it will be a system of justification for minority rule and thereby a vehicle for the end of what Madison understood to be republican government.