Two crucial democratic pillars of our republic are under assault, from within government and without.
The American founders created a republic with two key elements of democracy, and they required state governments to have a similar basic structure. Local governments have followed suit. Both democratic elements are crucial to our present and future liberties. Both are eroded already and now in serious, further jeopardy.
One of these key democratic elements is well known: popular sovereignty. Our governments at all levels derive their power and legitimacy from the people. “We the People” established our constitutions, abolishing earlier forms of government, because we are sovereign. That done, popular sovereignty now means that we elect our lawmakers and chief executives, and our laws are made and our taxes imposed by legislative bodies we have elected, such as Congress.
The second key democratic element may be less obvious: volunteer activity in our social institutions. Much of this activity is private, because many of those institutions are not part of or sponsored by a government. Alexis de Tocqueville explained it best: When Americans want to accomplish something, they form private associations — clubs, churches, charities, commercial associations, and many more — and get busy. By contrast, in Tocqueville’s native France, the people turned to their government first. He saw clearly in the mid-1830s that this large, active realm of private associations protected American liberty. He also foretold liberty’s decay, when government grows and supplants private associations. (For more discussion of this, see “I Am a Tocqueville Conservative.”)
Some of this necessary volunteer activity directly serves one level or another of government. For example, many adults volunteer in public schools. Everybody wins: the schools can do more with less tax money, the students benefit by having more hands on deck, and the citizen volunteers are participating and saving themselves tax dollars at the same time.
Thus one of the people’s democratic roles is at the top, because the people are sovereign. The other is at the bottom, acting as volunteers either outside of government, or within government and on its terms.
A Bad Example from Last Century
Soviet communists used to explain that their nation was a democracy, because the people were involved as volunteers — but it was always on the government’s terms. In Abraham Lincoln’s words, this was government of the people, and it claimed to be government for the people, but it was government by the Party elite. This is not exactly the second American democratic element I have described, because there were few if any truly private associations in the USSR.
(Not even the Party theorists I knew claimed that the people were also sovereign, because they elected their government leaders. Their elections typically had only one candidate on the ballot, and all candidates were hand-picked by the government.)
It’s worth remembering that horrific things happened in the Soviet Union, where the people were not sovereign, and where the whole meaning of democracy was considered to be the people’s activity at the bottom of the food chain — and that was further limited to participation in government institutions. This distorted, one-legged democracy was one of the bloodiest tyrannies in history.
Mind you, I’m not equating the United States to the Soviet Union. There are essential, qualitative differences, and, where there are qualitative similarities, there are vast differences in degree. My point is simply that to distort or diminish either of these two key elements of democracy — one at the top and one at the bottom of the hierarchy — is to jeopardize liberty.
Democracy of Sheep I
The Obama administration is systematically bypassing Congress — the people’s elected legislators — to make policy through appointed officials in the executive branch. Some of these, such as the EPA director, were at least confirmed by the Senate, but many of them, including the countless White House “czars” of this and that, were not, and their positions were not established by any act of Congress. Obama is not the first president to attempt legislation without the legislative branch, but his efforts are unprecedented in scale. This is a direct attack on popular sovereignty, one of our two essential democratic elements.
Recently, North Carolina’s governor launched an even less subtle attack on popular sovereignty. She suggested that the 2012 Congressional elections be suspended, so that those currently in office could address our nation’s problems without fear of imminent reprisal by the voters. Various talking heads on the left echoed this seditious idea.
Others advocate a more subtle entrance into undemocratic tyranny. For example, The New Republic‘s Peter Orszag recently wrote:
To solve the serious problems facing our country, we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions. In other words, radical as it sounds, we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.
That is, the elected representatives of the people need to play a much smaller role in the government of the people, ceding their authority to unelected bureaucrats who are unaccountable to the people.
If the people are removed from their sovereign role, but their participation at ground level in public institutions is preserved, the result is a sort of democracy, but it is democracy fit only for sheep, and wholly unsuited to humans.
A Bad Example from Last Year
The democracy of sheep has an unmistakable appeal to officials in some of our institutions.
After a school board election last year in a large Utah school district, that district’s official spokesperson published an essay at the district’s official web site. I could name the district and the person, but something in the essay was so typical of American public school systems and of bureaucracies in general, that it hardly matters who wrote it or where.
The writer was disturbed by some people who set up a web site and created some fliers to air their concerns about and grievances against certain of the district’s policies and practices.
Before we go on, please note two things. First, popular sovereignty applies to Utah’s public schools. The people’s elected representatives in the state legislature created, chartered, and to some degree regulate school districts. The people elect other representatives to school boards to govern specific districts. So the people’s place is at the very top of this hierarchy — above the legislature, the school board, and the district administration. Second, I am heartily in favor of volunteerism, in the public schools and elsewhere, and over the years I have routinely put my time where my mouth is. So both of our essential democratic elements are in this picture, at least for now.
To people with “a concern about [the school district],” the district spokesperson wrote:
I invite you to stop spending time creating websites and writing and sending e-mails to each other, but instead join the hundreds of other parents who are actually volunteering in the schools serving the children every day.
The word “instead” here tells the tale. The people should stop debating, discussing, questioning, and trying to exert their will over the system. “Instead,” they ought simply to serve it on its own terms. They should surrender that first, sovereign democratic element and be content with the second.
I would not say that all people who prefer this model of democracy are tyrants, or that they all realize the implications of their words and inclinations. However, this is the sort of democracy modern tyrants prefer. If this spokeperson were thoughtfully committed to the American sort of democracy, with popular sovereignty at the top and rampant, enthusiastic volunteerism at the bottom, she might have written something like this:
I invite you to keep creating web sites, sending e-mails, and generally discussing and debating public education, but, as you do so, please also join the hundreds of other parents who are volunteering in the schools.
She might have, but she didn’t.
Democracy of Sheep II
Tocqueville foresaw for America an eventual decline “different from anything there has ever been in the world before.” He thought Americans would gradually recreate their government as an overarching institutional parent, and willingly enslave themselves to it, becoming “a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd” — while still believing their freedom was intact and secure:
Under this system the citizens quit their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters and then fall back into it. They think they have done enough to guarantee personal freedom when it is to the government . . . that they have handed it over.
According to Tocqueville, such a government “provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances. . . . Thus it daily makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rare[r], restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties.”
In this decline the people become something less than fully human, something rather like sheep. (Again, for more discussion, see “I Am a Tocqueville Conservative.”)
Democracy of Thugs
The paternalistic society which democratically provides for everyone’s basic needs has proven unsustainable. (Who would have guessed it?) For several months we’ve heard of rioting in Greece, Spain, London, and even Philadelphia, as welfare states have finally begun to face the fact that they cannot keep their outlandish social-democratic promises.
The demos is understandably cranky. People who haven’t needed to work for a living are rarely happy when government payments cease. People who should have relied at least partially on themselves for their retirement, but didn’t, get scared when government retirement programs are scaled back — or when that possibility is discussed. People who haven’t been supporting their own families get angry when program cutbacks force them to do so.
Violence sometimes breaks out, when reality encroaches on social-democratic fantasy. We have seen it for months, more in England and Europe than in the United States, as the unsustainable democracy of sheep decays into a democracy of thugs. Note that the thugs in question are not looting grocery stores because they are starving. They are looting shoe stores and electronics stores because they are thugs, and even thugs like Nike shoes, iPods, and big televisions.
Lately we have seen demonstrations across the United States, notably in New York City, where “Occupy Wall Street” is all the rage. These demonstrations are neither as spontaneous as they appear nor as violent as their European counterparts, and their participants seem easily distracted by sex and drugs. They throw around the word democracy , but what they demand is socialism, in which the government provides for their needs. They don’t wish to see and are not educated to understand that much of the world’s economic tumult is the result of socialism’s unsustainable chickens coming home to roost.
It’s probably unfair to call all these protestors thugs. But it’s not a long leap — in logic or time — from some of their present arguments and tactics to truly thuggish demands like, “Keep letting me live without working, or I’ll bring down your economy and your government.”
Meanwhile, the sporadic violence of these thugs pales next to the quiet, gradual, comfortable, dehumanizing violence wrought against human souls in the process of reducing them to sheep in the first place.
What should we do now? The same things we should always do: Understand the institutions and mechanisms which protect our freedom, including the two crucial elements of democracy here described. Survey the political landscape with unflagging vigilance. Evaluate practical and theoretical threats to freedom intelligently. Then be calm, civil, humane, articulate, and absolutely relentless in opposing those threats, whether their origin is the White House or the local school district’s administration building.
Copyright 2011 by David Rodeback.
All rights reserved.
Permission is given to publish this article elsewhere on the Web or via e-mail only under these conditions: The article is published intact and unchanged, and is properly credited to the author; and a visible link is included to the article’s page at LocalCommentary.com.
This is a syndicated post. Read the original at LocalCommentary.com2012-03-08.