The Progressives’ Phony Democracy

The fears of the Founders and the prophecies of Tocqueville are on their way to becoming reality.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

The sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia has sharpened the divide between the progressives’ idea of technocratic federal power, and the Constitution’s limited government that Scalia eloquently championed for almost 30 years. This division has a long history that transcends the failed presidency of Barack Obama.

The Democratic Party grew out of opposition to the elitist Federalists, whose president John Adams was known as “His Rotundity” for his girth and alleged aristocratic tendencies. James Madison in 1792 established the contrast between the two parties that persists to this day: the Federalists were “more partial to the opulent,” and believed that “government can be carried on only by the pageantry of rank, [and] the influence of money and emoluments.” Those who would become Democrats, Madison wrote, believed “in the doctrine that mankind are capable of governing themselves,” and he charged that power lodged “into the hands of the few” is “an insult to the reason and an outrage to the rights of man.” In short, the Democrats were about power to the people rather than to privileged elites.

Two centuries later, the Democratic Party still uses the rhetoric of democracy, and castigates the Republicans as the tools of greedy corporations and crypto-fascist plutocrats––“Wall Street” and the “Koch brothers” being the shorthand for this nefarious cabal. Yet in their policies and practices, the Democrats are now the true elitists who have narrowed government “into the hands of the few,” even within their own party. Consider the recent two presidential primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire. In the popular vote Bernie Sanders tied Hillary in Iowa and wiped her out in New Hampshire. Yet Hillary ended up with more delegates––394 to Sanders’ 44. Why? Because there are 712 “superdelegates,” Congressmen, governors, some mayors, and certain party apparatchiks. Each superdelegate is worth about 10,000 of one citizen’s vote. So much for believing  “mankind are capable of governing themselves.”

Much more dangerous for the country has been the consolidation and concentration of power in the federal government, and its metastasizing regulatory agencies and expansive presidential reach, a goal of progressive ideology starting with Theodore Roosevelt. Of course, early progressives continued to use democratic rhetoric to mask this undemocratic inflation of the chief executive’s constitutional authority, and their tyrannical assaults on the people’s autonomy and freedom. Roosevelt spoke of the “triumph of a real democracy,” and Woodrow Wilson touted the “sovereignty of self-governing peoples.” Opposed to this “people” were the “sinister special interests” that “beat back the forces that strive for social and industrial justice,” as Roosevelt put it, and the “invisible empire” of “bosses and their employers, the special interests,” in Wilson’s words. Sound familiar?

But the “people” of the progressives is not the “people” of the Constitution. The progressives’ “people” were not individuals and factions with their clashing interests and beliefs. Those different interests reflected the diverse regional, sectional, and religious identities and folkways comprising the flesh-and-blood peoples of the original states. Rather, the progressives homogenized that variety into an abstract collective “people,” now unified by interests, ideology, and aims as defined by the new techno-political elite. 

Moreover, reducing this variety to a unified people helped rationalize the concentration of power in Washington. Since such a collectivized people had the same interests, they required a centralized authority of technocrats better able to serve them. “The national government,” Roosevelt argued, “belongs to the whole American people, and where the whole American people are interested, that interest can be guarded effectively only by the national government.” 

Wilson was more frankly, and frighteningly, collectivist. The government must be rebuilt by political “architects” and “engineers,” in order to create a political order “where men can live as a single community, cooperative as in a perfect coordinated beehive.” Gone now are the founders’ acknowledgement of the diverse “factions” that reflect various “passions and interests,” whose dangerous competition for power is limited and contained by the separation of powers and checks and balances of the Constitution. And the question progressives begged is whether a nation of such diversity can in fact all have the same “interests” (other than self-defense, foreign policy, and protection of the borders) that can be best served by a distant federal government.

Accompanying this brief for centralized power is the need for an executive much more powerful than the Constitution’s president. Wilson is again eerily prophetic about where the Democrats have ended up. If the “people” are united in their interests, then the clash of factions the Constitution was designed to manage is counterproductive. As Wilson said, “You cannot compound a successful government out of antagonisms.” Instead we must “look to the President as the unifying force in our complex system, the leader both of his party and of the nation.” Wilson’s description of the qualities such a leader needs is a portrait reminiscent of the tyrants who devastated the 20th century:

Whoever would effect a change in modern constitutional government must first educate his fellow-citizens to want some change. That done, he must persuade them to want the particular change he wants. He must first make public opinion willing to listen and then see to it that it listen to the right things. He must stir it up to search for an opinion, and then manage to put the right opinion in its way.

The Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda could not have said it better.

Wilson also described the next step for the “leader of men,” from an essay of the same name:

The competent leader of men cares little for the interior niceties of other people’s characters: he cares much-everything [sic] for the external uses to which they may be put. His will seeks the lines of least resistance; but the whole question with him is a question of the application of force. There are men to be moved: how shall he move them?

In the intervening 116 years we have seen this question answered: the progressives have “moved” people by corrupting the schools, marginalizing civic society, intrusively regulating lives, hijacking the culture, and rigorously policing and punishing any “opinions” that stray from the dogma of the technocratic elite.

Finally, the progressive ideal of the “leader of men” takes us down the road to tyranny the Founders strove mightily to avoid. Remembering the history of the ancient city-states, they feared a tyrant who violently redistributes property in order to buy the support of the masses. But Alexis de Tocqueville more astutely recognized that in an egalitarian democracy, a “soft despotism” was a greater danger than violent revolution. A centralized and concentrated government becomes “an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure [the people’s] gratification and to watch over their fate,” one that “covers the surface of the society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform,” and thus keeps the people “in perpetual childhood.” Self-government disappears, as the government spares the people “all the care of thinking and the trouble of living.”

For over a century modern Democrats have been the agents of this ongoing transformation from self-rule to technocratic “soft despotism.” They are the true privileged elites that Madison scorned. Just think of Hillary panhandling Wall Street and thug regimes for cash, and ignoring the laws governing the handling of national intelligence. But progressives hide their drive for more power and control under the phony democratic rhetoric of “concern for the people” whom they in fact regard as unruly children to be controlled by their more intelligent betters. During the two terms of Barack Obama, the progressives have accelerated this process. The entitlement regime has expanded, intrusive regulatory powers have multiplied and intensified, executive authority has blown past the limits of the Constitution, and the progressive thought-police has vigorously attacked those who still think for themselves––all at the cost of our freedom and autonomy. 

And now, the untimely death of Justice Scalia has made this monitory history of progressive sham democracy and soft despotism even more pertinent. As Scalia said of the Supreme Court decision imposing same-sex marriage on the states, “A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.” If the Senate Republicans don’t stand firm and resist Obama’s choice to replace Scalia, then for decades to come the progressive program to subvert the Constitution’s protection of political freedom will continue, abetted by a Harvard- and Yale-educated Supreme Court unchecked by the electoral accountability to the people that limits Congress and the president. Then the fears of the Founders and the prophecies of Tocqueville will become our reality.