This week FiveThirtyEight published a piece entitled “How The Republican Push To Restrict Voting Could Affect Our Elections.” Included in the article is a graph that purports to chart “The GOP’s eroding commitment to Democracy” based on data from the V-Dem Institute. I will not reproduce the chart here, since this blog has a strict policy against charts and graphs, unless they are of antiquarian interest. The chart shows a steep decline around 2000 for the GOP’s commitment to democracy. I’m pretty dubious about the usefulness of quantitative measures of this sort of thing: they just seem to occasion endless dispute about the methodology and metrics used in the underlying study and don’t really serve to clarify or ground anything—quite the opposite really. In fact, the intrinsic vulnerability of such information to “debunking” might explain the gleefully dismissive response of Conservatives to it when it appears. I’m not going to defend the chart, because it doesn’t really interest me, but what is remarkable to me is the reaction of Conservatives to it. Ross Douthat scoffed at it and then many others followed suit, seeing in it the usual intellectual perfidy of liberals, or even, at the more fevered edges of the cohort, an attempted predicate for mass disenfranchisement of Republican voters.
I have to say I find the outpouring of Conservative scorn for the idea that the Republican party might not be totally board with full democracy to be considerably less believable than the chart. It’s very difficult to seriously maintain that the modern GOP and Conservative movement, either in ideology or in practice, is substantially committed to majority rule. They are perhaps still small-r republican (although moments of Trump adulation might’ve smacked a bit of monarchism), but its clear that the degree that the country’s government should be a democratic republic is pretty well-circumscribed in their book. Rather than rely on some specious metrics, let’s just look at Conservatives’ own words and actions.
First of all, let’s attend to the practical and political. The GOP has won the popular vote for President exactly once in the last 21 years, but they have won three presidential elections in that time. The first time in this period that they won the electoral college without the popular vote, it was not even clear that the Republican candidate won the electoral votes of the crucial state fair and square. The election was ultimately handed to the Republicans by the Supreme Court. The party’s most recent loss was too decisive to make possible the legal wrangling that could’ve repeated such a result, but that did not prevent the candidate and his surrogates from trying every desperate move possible to hang on to power in the face of democratic rejection of his rule, including totally preposterous suggestions of massive electoral fraud. This, of course, culminated in a fairly violent attempt by the GOP candidate’s supporters to invade the halls of Congress to interrupt the certification of his Democratic opponent’s win.
Has the person who attempted this deranged and reckless stratagem been cast out of the party never to be heard from again? No, he has just as much—if not more—control over that party than ever before. It’s nearly impossible for the GOP to jettison Trump without alienating virtually their entire constituency. The fact of the matter is, despite his overall unpopularity, he’s the most small-d democratic thing they’ve got going for them: a politician with a broad national base of support.
Besides Trump, a demagogic cheerleader who provides at least some measure of popular support, the other sources of Republican power are the Senate and the courts, both by their very design counter-majoritarian institutions. Democrats, with their razor-thin majority in the Senate, a majority that is barely workable because of the Senate rules, represent some 40 million more people than their Republican colleagues. With the help of an undemocratically-elected President and Senate, the GOP has packed the Federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court with its hand-picked judges. Then, of course, there are the constant efforts to restrict the franchise as much as possible, which was the topic of the article that occasioned this post.
It may be possible to justify these sources of power as constitutionally or theoretically-legitimate and, indeed, the sheer amount of justifications and apologies needed to maintain GOP rule has created a veritable Works Progress Administration for Conservative writers, but it’s hard to say that these arguments are really democratic ones, unless, of course, your definition of the demos conveniently excludes a lot of people. This brings us to the ideological and discursive section of our discussion here.
I think it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the entire ideological edifice of Conservatism at this point is just a sustained attack on the principle of majority rule, either through open rejection of its legitimacy or a more subtle redefinition of democracy into something unrecognizable.
The Conservative movement has various flavors of polemics and polemicists, of differing degrees of crudeness or sophistication, of assorted styles and sensibilities, but they all can make this one case in various guises. For instance, here is the anti-populist misanthropy of Kevin Williamson, channeling the tradition of H.L. Mencken in National Review:
One argument for encouraging bigger turnout is that if more eligible voters go to the polls then the outcome will more closely reflect what the average American voter wants. That sounds like a wonderful thing . . . if you haven’t met the average American voter.
Voters — individually and in majorities — are as apt to be wrong about things as right about them, often vote from low motives such as bigotry and spite, and very often are contentedly ignorant.
So here the people are too dumb to vote. Granted, this is a different mood from the totally wild conspiracy theorizing of the Trumpian right that claims that there are millions of fraudulent ballots or a Deep State cabal pulling the strings, but the upshot is roughly the same: some votes—and voters—are better, realer, than others.
Again, that attitude is not just the outlook of the Right’s vulgar rabble, but has echoes in its most elevated minds and the founders of its intellectual tradition. As Joshua Tait recently argued in a piece for The National Interest, the anti-democratic impulse in intellectual wing of the modern Conservative movement can be profitably traced to James Burnham and Wilmoore Kendall. Of particular interest here is Kendall, because he’s considered to be one of Conservatism’s great majoritarian thinkers. Of course, the composition of said majority is rather peculiar:
Kendall argued in The Conservative Affirmation, published in 1963, that “the Founders of our Republic bequeathed to us a form of government that was purely representative.” Now America had two competing majorities: the legitimate representative majority, expressed in Congress, and the plebiscitary majority of the Supreme Court and presidency. “The central destiny of the United States” hinged on the tension between these majorities. Would the Republic be “much the same as that intended by the Framers, or one tailored to the specifications of egalitarian ideology”—“‘open’ or relatively ‘closed,’ egalitarian and redistributive or shot through and through with great differences in reward and privilege, a ‘welfare state’ society or a ‘capitalist’ society”?
Kendall extended his point in a lecture series composed at the height of the civil rights movement and published posthumously in 1970. He argued that the foundational “symbol” of American politics, dating back to the Mayflower Compact, was the virtuous people deliberating under God and the law. In the Gettysburg Address, however, Abraham Lincoln substituted this foundational symbol for equality, “derailing” the American tradition and providing ammunition for liberals to use rights talk to slice through America’s social orthodoxy.
It was not the people but the virtuous people deliberating, necessarily of a particular geographical and demographic bent, that supplied America with its true demos. Kendall wrote, “the issue is not whether American system is not or is not ‘democratic,’—that which equates it with the government by the ‘deliberate sense’ of the people, acting through their elected representatives, and that which equates it with direct majority rule and equality should prevail...’” On Kendall’s view, in so far as the people remains rooted in a religious conception of the world it is virtuous, the true author of deliberative democratic rule, but if it is committed to the egalitarianism, say, of Lincoln, it has become disordered and the serious question arises of whether or not it is virtuous or really “the people” any longer. This kind of ideological gerrymandering continues to abound.
Perhaps the other great small-d democrat in the American Conservative tradition is Harry Jaffa, an admirer of Lincoln, an avowed political egalitarian, and a fierce opponent of Kendall. Yet his disciples at the Claremont Institute, a cadre which forms the hard-core of intellectual Trumpism, also find themselves constantly having to re-imagine and re-engineer the make-up of American polity to make their form of “democracy” possible. Michael Anton’s infamous call for Trump’s election, “The Flight 93 Election,” bemoaned the growing impurity of the electorate:
…the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle. As does, of course, the U.S. population, which only serves to reinforce the two other causes outlined above. This is the core reason why the Left, the Democrats, and the bipartisan junta (categories distinct but very much overlapping) think they are on the cusp of a permanent victory that will forever obviate the need to pretend to respect democratic and constitutional niceties. Because they are.
Keep in mind that this fellow actually served as a national security official in the Trump administration. Anton’s practical solution to the problem of the bad electorate: basically dissolve it and elect another. Writing in the Washington Post shortly after his time in the White House, Anton called for a Trump executive order to strip millions of people of the birthright citizenship that’s enshrined in the 14th Amendent:
It falls, then, to Trump. An executive order could specify to federal agencies that the children of noncitizens are not citizens. Such an order would, of course, immediately be challenged in the courts. But officers in all three branches of government — the president no less than judges — take similar oaths to defend the Constitution. Why shouldn’t the president act to defend the clear meaning of the 14th Amendment?
This device, like so much contemplated and attempted by the Trump administration, was both patently insane and probably doomed to failure. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that Trump made actual declarations and moves that menaced citizenship rights.
In my own area of research, the paleoconservatives of the late ’80s and early ’90s, Conservative hostility to democracy is clearly manifest. Let’s look briefly at the columns of cronies Pat Buchanan (syndicated columnist and presidential candidate,) Sam Francis (Washington Times opinion editor ), and Joe Sobran (National Review senior editor and syndicated columnist). Buchanan: “If communism was the god that failed the Lost Generation, democracy, as ideal form of government, panacea for mankind’s ills, hope of the world, may prove the Golden Calf of this generation.” Sobran: “Now that democracy has overthrown communism, we can turn to the problem of how to overthrow democracy.” Francis: “Serious conservatives ought to ponder whether the failure of the Reagan experiment means that conventional conservative policies can be implemented in a mass democracy.”
Are all Conservatives and Republicans such rabid anti-democrats? Of course not. But I think pretty much all of them tolerate or encourage anti-democratic discourses or practices from time to time. Granted, some of this stuff is more opportunistic than principled: given the appearance of a truly popular Republican platform and slate of candidates, I would expect most Conservatives to become full-throated majoritarians. But the fact is having no principled commitment to democratic rule means you are not really a democrat. Does supporting checks and balances on majoritarian rule make you not a real believer in democracy. Again, of course not. Some measure of minority protection is necessary to have a liberal democracy. I believe actions and thought of the Conservative movement and the GOP go quite a bit further than checks and balances: they speak to systematic efforts to frustrate and delegitimate popular rule, not to efforts to moderate its extent. The complaint that it’s somehow unjust or untrue to point all this out seems to me not much more than whining. To Conservatives who don’t like being called anti-democratic by Liberals and leftists, I can only say, “Then put your house in order.” But I don’t think they can. The numbers are against them.
I still feel like Russel Kirk's "The Conservative Mind" is one of the most honest accountings of the history of conservative thought in the US and Britain. Because Kirk himself was (I believe) a misanthrope and elitist, comfortable with racism and highly suspicious of democracy, he made no effort to sand off the misanthropic, elitist, racist, or anti-democratic features of conservative thought.
I had never heard of Kendall before, but I'll have to read him. He's basically giving the same interpretation of American history I've come to, but from the other side. Historians of the American Civil War like Foner, Oakes, and McPhereson all argue in their own ways that the Civil War constitutes a 2nd American Revolution, where the modern vision of America as a pluralist democracy finally comes into being. Its probably better to think of America as a white settler society until at least then, and I think that self-understanding of America being a pluralistic democracy only really became hegemonic post WWII, and it seems to be really breaking down now. For that reason, I respect Kendalls honesty in being a conservative who espouses the view that Lincoln was a disaster.
Incidentally, the right wingers I know and talk to here are all obsessed with voter fraud and the "quality of votes". I live in Iowa, and having a conversation about democracy with an acquaintance recently he started babbling about relative differences in birth rates between rural areas and cities being the pretext for why we need to keep the electoral college. It's that grim.