Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Last week voters in Virginia delivered a rebuke to the party of consolidated power and technocratic statism when a Republican political tyro defeated a deep-state Democrat in the election for governor. Like Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, the outcome of this victory signals a growing resistance to the Democrats’ overweening, unconstitutional interference in families, businesses, civil society, and state sovereignty. A message has been sent to the Biden administration, a portent of the greater backlash increasingly likely in next year’s midterm elections.
Yet tempering this optimism and faith in our Constitutional guardrails against tyranny is an ancient question, one at the heart of political philosophy for 2500 years: Do the non-elite, ordinary citizens have the capacity to govern? When government power exceeds its Constitutional bounds, will the people use their votes to rein it in? Or is the idea that the common people can govern as delusional as, to use Socrates’ analogy, the crew and passengers of a ship selecting a captain by a majority of their votes?
What happened in Virginia is one of those periodic reactions of voters to policies that are indifferent or hostile to their beliefs and principles. Democrat candidate Terry McAuliffe encapsulated this arrogant disdain for the people when he said during a debate, “I don’t think that parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” following his defense of an earlier veto of a bill while governor that would have given parents some oversight over sexually explicit books in the schools’ libraries. This statement became the emblem of the progressives’ overreach and technocratic disdain for parents.
And the pushback came not just in Virginia. In state and local elections from Pennsylvania to deep-blue Seattle, voters are standing athwart the progressive transformation of this country and yelling “Stop!” Even progressive flaks like The New York Times have warned that these Republican successes “are a grave marker of political peril,” and that the Dems need to return “to the moderate policies and values” that won in 2018 and 2020.
These pushbacks are also responses to the Biden administration’s litany of disasters, and the Democrats’ embrace of progressive extremism: defunding the police and subsequent record numbers of homicides, Critical Race Theory curricula in K-12 schools, the AG siccing the FBI on parents protesting this curricula at school board meetings, two million illegal aliens bum-rushing the border, the Afghanistan debacle and abandonment of hundreds of U.S. citizens and legal residents, metastazing debt and growing inflation, a war on fossil fuels even as the price of gas skyrockets, and overweening covid mask and vaccine mandates based on politics rather than science––no wonder the vox populi is getting angry and demanding change.
This pattern of voter pushback against extremist Democrat overreach characterizes postwar politics, and is the sort of dynamic––what Madison characterized as “ambition must be set against ambition”–– that the Constitution was written to create in order to defend freedom from the tyranny of consolidated power. In 1972, the Dems’ hard-left turn ended in Nixon’s landslide victory. Jimmy Carter’s feckless incompetence, cringing foreign policy, and preachy scolding led to Ronald Reagan’s overwhelming victory in 1980. And voters’ dislike of Barack Obama’s legislative overreach and patent disdain for ordinary voters who “cling to guns and religion” produced in 2016 Donald Trump’s astonishing victory over Hillary Clinton, the ultimate establishment Democrat and Leviathan wrangler.
This historical pattern playing out today seems to validate the belief in the voters’ ability to change course when politicians overreach. But in our times, this resistance is taking place in a different context. Over the last century progressive technocracy and big-government top-down rule have become the norm. Massive redistribution of money to fund ever-growing entitlements, while debt and deficits continue to grow, means that conservative pushback may slow, but not reform the progressive assault on our political freedom through bloated federal agencies and economy-choking thickets of regulations––both of which Democrat lawmakers are currently scheming to increase with their duplicitous “Build Back Better” fiscal binge.
Consider, for example, the role of postwar Republican presidents in expanding the intrusive and expensive entitlement state. Nixon gave us Affirmative Action programs that violate the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act. He also approved the Environmental Protection Agency that has empowered progressive environmental outfits to delay, raise costs, and even kill economic development on public and private lands. Ronald Reagan signed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to 2.7 million illegal aliens, and created the moral hazard graphically on display at our besieged southern border. Reagan also expanded Social Security Disability by adding subjective qualifying conditions like back pain and mental disorders, which have contributed to the program’s expansion and looming bankruptcy. George W. Bush resuscitated the Department of Education, and in 2001 promoted a national curriculum and the No Child Left Behind Act, both of which are progressive-style encroachments on the autonomy of local school districts, and have paved the way for the current colonization of the schools by Critical Race Theory and other pedagogical snake-oil.
Or take the current $1.2 trillion “bipartisan infrastructure” bill, already passed three months ago by the Senate, and recently passed by the House. “Infrastructure” is a euphemism for costly government projects that line the pockets of unions, construction companies, and government regulatory clerks. Projects typically cost more than advertised, and are completed, if ever, years behind schedule.
One poster-child for such boondoggles is California’s High Speed Rail project, which began in 2009 and isn’t even close to completing a mere 120-mile stretch on flat land. As U.S. News reports, “More than a decade later, California High Speed Rail has been an epic disappointment, plagued by repeated delays, ballooning costs and years of mismanagement and legal and political battles; to date, no segments of the project have been completed.”
Yet despite this quintessentially progressive mélange of pork and ideological shibboleths like “renewable clean energy,” the infrastructure bill attracted the votes of 19 Republican Senators, and 13 House Republicans, even though, as PJ Media’s Phillip Klein writes,
The federal government already spends more than enough on infrastructure to meet our needs and the COVID-19 bailout money left many states awash in cash. Despite promises, only a small portion of the bill focuses on traditional infrastructure such as fixing roads and bridges and the legislation (soon to be law) will add $256 billion to deficits. It will also help grease the wheels for the passage of the larger multi-trillion welfare bill that will expand Medicare and Obamacare, initiate a federal takeover of preschool and child care, and impose economically devastating tax increases on individuals and businesses.
Aside from being politically tone-deaf, these votes demonstrate how deeply the progressive redistributionist, technocratic entitlement state has penetrated the minds of some Republicans. These periodic voter pushbacks, then, do not correct the excesses of progressivism, but just slow them down to a “two-steps forward, one-step” back incrementalism.
Finally, today’s voting “people” are very different from those before the Sixties. For all the increase in the number of people with college degrees, many are woefully lacking in common sense and practical wisdom. This reflects in part the degradation of standards in K-12 education and universities, where social engineering and leftist ideology have displaced the teaching of foundational skills, especially critical thinking, which is particularly important for political deliberation about electoral choices and cutting through the fog of partisan sophistries.
For example, Trump’s defeat in 2020 is attributed to white, college-educated women who were put off by his mean tweets and combative rhetoric. If this is the case, what does it tell us about the critical thinking chops of these voters, who ignore a record of substantive successes in unleashing the economy, increasing wages, lowering unemployment, consolidating our energy independence, and restoring abroad American prestige and clout, and vote instead on the basis of an objectionable style or “hurtful” insults?
Only a lack of common sense and practical wisdom, camouflaged by the illusion that a college degree makes those virtues unnecessary, can explain such juvenile thinking. And let’s remember, millions of voters like getting other people’s money. A Republican Congressman who voted for the infrastructure bill said that there was broad support for the bill among his constituents, including farmers, unions, and businesses. Getting free money bespeaks the eternal human flaw that empowers “robbing selected Peter, to pay collective Paul,” as over a century ago Rudyard Kipling described the redistributionist modus operandi. Finally, our enormous wealth and comfort create the illusion that destructive, incoherent, utopian, and illiberal ideas are affordable. But history shows us that eventually, the piper of bad ideas must be paid.
We the people, then, bear some responsibility for the success of progressivism over the last century, and its continuing inroads into our political, social, and economic order despite periodic conservative pushback. And until we all wake up to the looming fiscal and cultural icebergs lying ahead, we will painfully learn the old wisdom of the Romans: “Experience is the teacher of fools.”
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