Our Potemkin Democracy
When progressives say "democracy," they don't mean what you think it means.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Center.
Lately we’ve heard a lot of anxious talk about threats to “our democracy.” Here at home, Hillary Clinton surfaced to warn that a Donald Trump win in 2024 “could be the end of democracy,” recycling the tired “Trump is a danger to democracy” cliché. Abroad, the Biden administration recently convened a virtual Summit for Democracy comprising over a hundred world leaders, many of whose countries, like the Democratic Republic of Congo hardly qualifies as democratic. There Biden intoned the creaking, hoary formulas of the “rules-based international order,” as he called for a “vision” and the “courage to once more lead the march of human progress and human freedom forward.”
This totemic use of the word “democracy” serves mainly partisan political and ideological interests, rather than a serious understanding of the complex history and dangers of democracy per se. As such, “democracy” functions as a feel-good marketing tool like “organic” or “all natural,” and merely confuses our response to the challenges of tyranny.
In terms of our foreign policy, the Summit for Democracy reinforces the disastrous democracy-promotion policies of the last 20 years, which ended so ignominiously in Afghanistan this year. The parochial arrogance of thinking that nations and peoples not part of the Western tradition want to imitate us ignores the reality of the true diversity comprising different cultures, mores, faiths, and ideals about how we live, and for what we will kill and die. The label “democracy,” then is like the Western suits and ties donned by international political leaders: an often-insincere, superficial concession to the Western powers that created and dominate the modern world, and that other nations want to exploit, weaken, or supplant.
Hence the futility of Biden’s promise to “launch an initiative to spend up to $424 million for programming around the world that supports independent media, anti-corruption work and more,” according to the Associated Press. Even if such plans materialize, we all know they’ll do nothing meaningful other than line the pockets of government functionaries, international activists, and NGO’s. Ignoring those deep-seated cultural differences, attempts to nurture an ideal like sex-equality or freedom of the press are a waste of time. Such efforts will be interpreted as cultural imperialism or, as the Chinese and Russian ambassadors to the U.S. wrote during the Summit that both countries skipped, “as exhibiting a ‘Cold-war mentality’ that will ‘stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world.’”
This confusion about democracy also muddles our political discourse at home. Our country and Constitution were born in the fierce conflict between those who distrusted democracy for nurturing the tyranny of the masses; and those who wanted more popular rule and local autonomy. The solution was a federalism that ensured state sovereignty, and the national mixed government with monarchical, oligarchical, and democratic components balancing and checking each other’s powers. Direct elections by the people was limited to the House of Representatives, and that body was further checked by two-year term limits. The aim was to prevent tyranny, whether of the many or of the few.
Such division, as Woodrow Wilson complained, makes for inefficiency and promotes factional tournaments over power, for power is “of an encroaching nature,” as the saying went, and is “sown in the nature of man,” Madison wrote. Given human nature, people and factions are seldom satisfied with the power they have, and always strive for more at the expense of others. The Founders recognized that inefficiency followed, but deemed it preferable to tyranny.
The rise of progressivism over the last century necessarily required revising the idea of the “people” from what it meant for the Founders. In practice the “American people” actually comprised “peoples,” given the diversity of settlement patterns, ethnicities, churches, economies, landscapes, mores, and “passions and interests.” The progressives found such centrifugal variety and diversity, protected as they were by the sovereign states, to be inimical to their goal of creating a technocratic elite that expanded and concentrated federal power, one supposedly made necessary by new technologies and an industrial economy.
Or as Theodore Roosevelt put it in 1901, “Since the industrial changes which have so enormously increased the productivity power of mankind, they [Constitutional “laws” and “old customs”] are no longer sufficient.” Big industries with national and global reach need big government to monitor and police big business. The commercial oligarchies could not be controlled by states, but needed a champion to ensure the “triumph of real democracy,” as Roosevelt said.
This democracy, however, meant not the freedom of a diverse people to rule themselves unhindered by a distant national government. It meant instead an abstract, collectivist “people” like the “masses” of Marxism, whose diversity, especially of opinion and belief, must be sacrificed for the centralized technocracy to function more efficiently. “The danger to American democracy,” Roosevelt said in his eighth Annual Message to Congress in 1908, “lies not in the least in the concentration of administrative power in responsible and capable hands. It lies in having the power insufficiently concentrated, so that no one can be held responsible to the people for its use.”
For us, who have lived with the regulatory Leviathan for many decades, such faith in human nature and the power of technical expertise are astonishing. From the begged question “responsible and capable,” to the gigantic network of federal agencies––whose unaccountable powers encroach upon the freedom of states, small businesses, civil society, families, and individuals––such rhetoric bespeaks rank hubris. Just the gross bungling and politicization of the covid pandemic by our state and federal government agencies alone graphically illustrates how wrong TR was. Finally, the promise that these agencies could be an advocate for a diverse people against globalist corporations and hold them accountable has ended up in a corporate partnerships with a big government whose own interests serve the interests of global corporations rather than those of the people or the country.
When progressives speak of “democracy” today, then, they don’t mean the Constitutional Democratic Republic comprising diverse sovereign states, but rather concentrated technocratic rule over the masses of citizens whose diversity and interests are marginalized and ignored if they don’t conform with those of the global managerial elite. It’s a “Potemkin Democracy,” giving us freedom over our consumer choices and private appetites and preferences, but constraining our political rights and freedom whenever they stand in the way of the technocracy’s ambitions to maximize Leviathan’s power.
The proof of our diminished Democratic Republic can be seen in the progressives’ agenda to eliminate the “filtrations,” as Madison called them, that checked the tyranny of the majority: goals like eliminating the Electoral College, basing Senate representation on population, packing the Supreme Court, and hijacking state controls over elections in order to make fraud more easy. And what is more contrary to the limited democracy of the Constitutional order than the progressives’ serial assaults on the Bill of Rights, or the corrupt politicization of the DOJ and FBI for the last six years, for which no one has been held accountable? Or what can be more dangerous to real democracy than the nearly year-long abusive incarceration of several hundred January 6 protestors, mostly for misdemeanors?
Finally, just like our foreign policies, the progressives’ “democracy” is more similar to the top-down governments of the EU, which is why Donald Trump, a nationalist who put this country’s interests and sovereignty before those of the “new world order,” drew such hatred from both our and the EU’s globalist elites.
For now, the spectacular incompetence and overreach of the Biden administration have sparked a pushback by millions of citizens. A true democracy’s most important mechanism for checking such misuse of power, regularly scheduled elections, in eleven months may put a stop the progressive Potemkin Democracy from enabling progressive tyranny.