Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Ever since the political rise of Donald Trump we have heard mantras chanted about “our democracy,” usually in the context of how Trump allegedly is destroying it. This cliché obscures the actual nature of our Constitutional political order, which created a mixed government more typical of a republic than a democracy rightly understood; and was based on a realist vision of human nature whose destructive excesses the Founders sought to mitigate without diminishing the citizens’ freedom.
More devious, the sloppy use of “democracy” distracts from the fact that progressives for over a century have used the camouflage of “democracy” to hide their systematic dismantling of that Constitutional order that protects the freedom of individuals, civil society, and states from the tyranny of concentrated “large powers and unhampered discretion,” as Woodrow Wilson called for in 1887.
Much of the democracy happy talk reflects the global high estimation of democracy, its “best of good names,” as historian Michael Mandelbaum describes its universal prestige as a form of government “honored and valued everywhere” with “the same kind of aura that surrounds medicine,” and esteemed as “a high human achievement that improves the lives of those fortunate enough to come into contact with it.” Like “natural,” “green,” and “organic,” it’s a term that reflexively evokes positive approval of whatever ideal or policy it’s used to promote.
But such marketing reinforces a false understanding of the American political order, one predicated not on human perfectibility and utopian ambitions, but on humanity’s permanent destructive weakness and corruptibility caused by our universal “passions and interest” that are “sown in the nature of man,” as Madison said. These indelible traits create diverse political “factions,” associations that compete with each other for the power to gratify both interests and passions.
Moreover, these various ideals and aims reflected the diversity of the thirteen colonies, each defined by different landscapes, mores, customs, economies, and religious denominations. For a centralized government to work yet not degenerate into tyranny, the new states had to maintain their sovereignty and distinct identities in order to respect that diversity. Hence federalism became a necessary counterbalance to the new powers of the central government.
Finally, given the universal lust for power, which by nature is of an “encroaching nature,” the structural components of the central government itself must be divided in its functions, with the executive, legislative, and judicial powers separated, each checking and balancing the power of the others. History had taught the Founders that the three major types of unified government––monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy––by nature degenerate into oppressions: tyranny, oligarchy, and ochlocracy or mob rule, each of which destroys freedom. The solution is the Constitution’s “mixed government” that includes elements of each, all three empowered to balance and check one another.
The Progressivism that arose in the late 19th century opposed the Constitution’s divided government as an impediment to progressive improvement. Progressives rejected the Founders’ pessimism about perfecting human nature and creating utopias. Technological progress and advances, they argued, and the rise of “human sciences” like sociology and psychology, made the Founders’ traditional wisdom obsolete, and their Constitution a relic from a benighted age. This antiquated government was incapable of creating “social justice” and eliminating inequalities of wealth and condition, which could be corrected by new knowledge and techniques
Early Progressive theorists were explicit about their goal to undermine the Constitution. Mary Parker Follet, in her 1918 book The New State, rejected the Constitution’s focus on individual unalienable rights, and its prime responsibility to protect freedom from tyranny: “The state has a higher function than either restraining individuals or protecting individuals.” She adds, more disturbingly, this function should “have a great forward policy,” i.e. progressive improvement, “which shall follow the collective will of the people, a collective will, which embodied through our state, in our life, shall be the basis of progress yet undreamed of.”
The result will be a “great spiritual unity which is supported by the most vital trend in philosophical thought and by the latest biologists and social psychologists.” And this shift from traditional wisdom to technocracy requires that “democracy” be redefined: “Democracy is every one [sic] building the single life, not my life and others, not the individual and the state, but my life bound up with others, the individual which is the state, the state which is the individual.”
Gone now is the complex diversity of the American people that requires our Constitution’s protection, replaced by a collectivist vision of a unified, homogenous people managed and overseen by Tocqueville’s “tutelary power” that comprises a technocratic mangerial elite––exactly the concentrated power that defines tyranny. What Follet offers is a perfumed definition of “totalitarianism,” one redolent of Mussolini’s fascism: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
A more consequential Progressive theorist, Herbert Croly, went even further in his 1909 book The Promise of American Life: “The people are not Sovereign in reason and morals even when united into a majority. They become Sovereign only in so far as they succeed in reaching and expressing a collective purpose.” He further defines this “purpose”: “In becoming responsible for the subordination of the individual to the demands of the dominant and constructive national purpose, the American state will in effect be making itself responsible for a morally and socially desirable distribution of wealth.”
A few years later in Progressive Democracy (1914), Croly further elaborated on this new version of the “people” and “democracy”: “Direct democracy . . . has little meaning except in a community which is resolutely pursuing a vigorous social program. It must become one of the group of political institutions, whose object is fundamentally to invigorate and socialize the action of American public opinion.” Or, as a recent progressive president put it, “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” to “spread the wealth around.”
This collectivist and utopian sensibility, one rejected by the Founders’ Constitution, is obvious: “Democracy must stand or fall on a platform of human perfectibility,” Croly wrote in 1909––a statement falsified by 25 centuries of human history.
Ignored by these champions of collectivism and technocracy is the ancient question posed by the Roman satirist Juvenal: “Who will guard the guardians?” Who decides what political policy will unify the people into a whole? The Founders gave us an answer in the Constitution with its federalism and divided and balanced government powers, a system in which, as Madison put it, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Without such a balance of power, the tyrant will seek––under cover of “progress,” “social justice,” or “diversity, inclusion, and equity”–– to aggrandize all power to itself at the cost of our freedom.
Long ago, history has shown us where such collectivist and utopian promises lead. The presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the first quantum leap into fulfilling the dreams of theorists like Croly with his expansion of the federal government’s size and reach at the expense of our enumerated rights and Constitutional structure. And Benito Mussolini approved: “[T]he spirit of [FDR’s program] resembles fascism’s since, having recognized that the state is responsible for the people’s economic well-being, it no longer allows economic forces to run according to their own nature.”
In other words, the diktats of bureaucratic, unaccountable clerks have replaced the free market in allocating resources, and the Article 1 powers of Congress to make laws, in order to further ideological aims of one faction at the expense of our freedom. An aim, of course, touted as advancing and protecting “our democracy.”
But that progressive collectivist version of “democracy” is a fraud. It limits the freedom and threatens the unalienable rights of the citizens, rather than protecting them from both the tyranny of the elite, and the tyranny of the mob. And this progressive goal depends on weakening the Constitution and its guardrails like the Electoral College or state oversight of elections; or the long-established traditions and customs such as seating 9 Supreme Court Justices or the Senate filibuster rule.
So don’t believe the progressives’ claims that eliminating such guardrails is about perfecting “our democracy.” Like most marketing slogans, that phrase camouflages the nefarious aim, now over a century old, to aggrandize more power to the federal Leviathan and its D.C. managers. It’s a bitter irony that the loudest yelps for “freedom” and “diversity” now come from those who are relentlessly laboring to destroy both.