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"At least it's an ethos"
The conservative intellectual project to both sides threats to democracy
A tension in American governance right now is a dispute over who, exactly, is on the side of democracy. This was captured neatly in a Ross Douthat’s column “So, You Think the Republican Party No Longer Represents the People”
Douthat’s basic claim is that:
the recent wave of right-wing populism, even when it doesn’t command governing majorities, still tends to champion the basic idea of popular power. . . And even if this is not a wise idea in every case, it is a democratic idea.
Douthat at the bar
This is, I think, not just wrong, but dangerously wrong, in that it provides a halo of legitimacy to what is an anti-democratic movement and obscures the threats American democracy faces.
Douthat’s broader project, emblematic of much of the right, is to downplay right-wing populism (see for example, January 6th revisionism), or present it as a pro-democratic force, regardless of all we know of it’s history in America and elsewhere, and regardless of what we can see today. If he cannot fully persuade you of that claim, he will at least make the case that liberalism is a similar threat. A pox on both their houses!
How is this illusion managed? By a deft sleight-of-hand that portrays expertise (and by extension liberalism) as anti-democratic. There are two strong assumptions that Douthat invites you to accept. First, that expertise is anti-democratic, and second, that liberalism is an expert-driven project. I am going to focus on the first of these two assumptions though I think the second one is also suspect.
The first part of Douthat’s argument is that right-wing populism should be seen as an outgrowth of traditional conservative beliefs.
Against this complicated backdrop, Trump’s stolen-election narratives should be understood as a way to reconcile the two competing tendencies within conservatism, the intellectual right’s skepticism of mass democracy and comfort with countermajoritarian institutions with the populist right’s small-d democratic self-image.
I think Douthat makes a good point here. But while Douthat’s intent is to frame Trump-era populism as less extreme because it is familiar, it reads as an admission of guilt: Trump is able to escalate the anti-democratic tendencies on the right because he appealed to a tradition that viewed political participation as a privilege rather than a right.
From here, Douthat suggests that the left is also guilty of anti-democratic tendencies. Yes, the left wants people to vote more, he concedes, but by valuing expertise they reveal a preference to ignore voters. That is how liberals are a danger to US democracy akin to the political faction that recently tried to overturn an election.
This is, in short, nonsense. But its also seems to be such a taken-for-granted trope on the right that it is worth explicitly addressing.
Democracies need expertise to deliver democratic promises
Democracies depend on expertise and specialization to function. While expertise is not inherently democratic, it is essential to the democratic project as much as it is essential to any large scale effort to organize resources toward some outcome.
Totalitarians may rely on experts to be sure, but feel less pressure to provide beneficial outcomes to the mass public relative to democratic leaders. Hence, Amartya Sen’s observation that famines only occur in non-democratic settings. The same logic compels democratic governments to search for knowledge to deal with pressing public problems, and specialization to ensure competent delivery of public services.
A standard critique of expert failures or abuses of democratic power is always valuable. Indeed, it is the availability of such critiques that distinguishes democracies from non-democratic regimes. Astute observers of government have long argued that "experts ought to be on tap and not on top” — in other words, the function of the expert is to serve democratic outcomes, rather than to apply unchecked power. A central feature of the art of governance, and the study of both political science and public administration, is understanding the conditions for effective delegation of democratic power.
Here is a basic thing that anyone who studies public administration or works in government should know. Public organizations are bundles of different values, which need to be carefully balanced and managed. These include efficiency, due process, transparency, effectiveness (which itself may reflect many competing views), and citizen engagement. (See, for example, Barry Bozeman’s work on public values).
It is the balancing of values that is the hard work of democracy. Public officials must be responsive to multiple sets of democratically-imposed goals all at once. This is difficult, and expertise and specialization help to make it easier.
The new four freedoms: #1 freedom from democracy
FDR famously articulated four freedoms as guiding his vision of democracy.
What are the equivalent freedoms on offer from the populist far-right that Douthat insists is motivated by democratic ideas? First, and most obviously, it is a freedom from democracy itself. The movement is centered on the notion that a free and fair election was illegitimate. It sees an attempt to overturn a democracy as no disqualification to running a democracy. This animating belief is at the heart of efforts to take control of the machinery of voting, intimidate election officials, and restrict access to the ballot.
#2 Freedom to die
To return to the point that expertise helps democracies, let’s pick up on three examples that Douthat presents to support his claims. First he poses and answers a question from what he supposes is a liberal perspective:
Who should lead pandemic decision making? Obviously Anthony Fauci and the relevant public-health bureaucracies; we can’t have people playing politics with complex scientific matters.
Here are the facts: Fauci is a high-level civil servant and accomplished scientist who advises Presidents on policy. Presidents are free to ignore him. Trump frequently did. You might believe we would better off if Trump ignored him even more, or the opposite.
Fortunately, we have a counterfactual. In other countries leaders more stringently followed public health advice, including establishing broad societal support for vaccines. As someone who was raised in Ireland and still has family there, I think about this counterfactual a lot. So let’s run the numbers!
Well, that doesn’t look so great. In fact, it looks like ignoring basic public health guidelines during a pandemic conferred upon individuals a greater freedom to die. While the Biden Administration has made errors, the greatest means to reduce risk, vaccines, have been widely available in the US for longer than almost anywhere else. They remain underutilized because of populist misinformation on the right, characterized by distrust in experts.
European countries have begun to relax most restrictions, because the vast majority of their society collectively agreed that listening to the experts made sense. Their long-term ability to enjoy freedom of movement combined with freedom from fear seems to be improved by following the science. We in the US face a future featuring higher health risks because many of our fellow citizens don’t believe the evidence on vaccines and masking.
#3 Freedom to censor
Next up, Douthat pivots to the education:
Who decides what your local school teaches your kids? Obviously teachers and administrators and education schools; we don’t want parents demanding some sort of veto power over syllabuses.
In fact, this claim is not obvious, or more precisely, it is obviously wrong. As I’ve written about before, US education officials are unusual, both in an international context and compared to other US bureaucrats, in the degree to which they enjoy low deference and high direct democratic control by the public. How many other bureaucrats are governed by their own set of elected officials, in the form of school boards?
You might think this is a good or a bad system, but that’s the system we have. You might also think from Douthat’s alarmist tone is that this democratic control is under threat. But are school boards being disbanded? No. If anything, the wind is blowing in the opposite direction. We are seeing an active political mobilization among the far-right to assert control over schools using existing democratic processes like school boards or state legislation to ban certain materials. We are also seeing efforts to establish new forms of control, such as requiring teachers to post each lesson plan, or putting cameras in the classroom. And yes, it’s bad for individual parents to veto parts of the syllabus (as some proposed new legislation permits), because that frustrates the will of the majority of parents and makes teaching impractical.
The outcome of this movement is that content that reflects the identities and history of historically marginalized groups is being restricted because it is deemed too upsetting for historically dominant groups. If you think democracy means the inclusion of such groups, or respect for free speech, or due process for teachers and principals accused of trafficking in CRT, you should be troubled by the anti-democratic ethos of the far-right in this domain.
#4 Freedom to fail
Next, Douthat asks:
Who decides the future of the European Union? The important stakeholders in Brussels and Berlin, the people who know what they’re doing, not the shortsighted voters in France or Ireland or wherever.
This is a weird and abrupt turn! How does the EU pop up in a column about threats to US democracy? A deep suspicion of the EU is a trait of the populist right. Since I’m Irish, I will focus on the Irish part of the story. In 2008, Irish voters rejected a new EU treaty by referedum. Rather than leave the EU, they were pressured to vote again. Vote again until you get the right result! That sounds bad! Anti-democratic! But let’s look more closely.
Polls show that since Ireland joined the EU, a significant majority of people support membership most of the time. A decision to exit the EU would run contrary to those long-held preferences.
If support for EU is so high, how did a referendum for a new EU treaty fail? Referendums have their own dynamics, and fears about domestic issues of importance — abortion laws and military neutrality — were exploited by anti-EU campaigners. With the second referendum in 2009, the Irish government received reassurances on those issues, taking the wind out of the sails of the anti-EU campaign. The “no” result was overturned. The second referendum featured both a higher turnout than the first, and a more decisive outcome. The first “no” referendum was decided by 7%. The second “yes” referendum was decided by a 34% gap between the winning and losing side. It strains credulity to suggest the outcome was anti-democratic.
Again, we have a counterfactual here, which is Brexit. A one-shot referendum, decided by a bare majority, upended decades of carefully developed political agreements. You might think “well that’s democracy.” But we regularly require extraordinary democratic consensus before making extraordinary changes. Exiting the EU is, in US terms, akin to changing a constitution, which has become all but impossible at the national level. Changes to state constitutions are more feasible, but again often require many hurdles, such as multiple approvals from legislatures and popular referenda. To pass a simple international treaty in the US requires a Senate supermajority.
Brexit has proved a good illustration of why major democratic changes should be approached cautiously. Six years on, the United Kingdom still has not resolved some of the fundamental contradictions that were papered over during the populist campaign, such as the claim that Brexit would provide a massive influx of new funds, that it would not affect trade, and that it would have no effect of Northern Ireland. Nothing has done more to shore up support for the EU in Ireland than watching the Brexit mess. Support for EU membership has consistently hovered between 80-90% since 2015.
It’s not that complicated: the people threatening democracy are the biggest threat to democracy
Douthat’s handpicked examples to make the case that expertise is at odds with democracy do not, therefore, hold up to much scrutiny. Similarly, the right-wing populism that Douthat tries to portray as democratic is anything but.
In the last couple of years, America has seen a dramatic drop in faith in our elections, an attempted coup, and a concerted effort to make it harder to vote. Our ability as a society to move past a pandemic has been frustrated by a minority who refuse to accept the science. We have seen our schools subject to censorship and an attempt to reverse the representation of minority groups. All of these trends have, in different but important ways, frustrated collective efforts to make our society democratic, safer and fairer. And they are authored by the movement that Douthat tells us is inspired by democracy.
False equivalences beget false perceptions, in this case that our democracy is being assailed from all sides. We are seeing the result, which is the normalization of asymmetrical democratic backsliding in America. At some point, understating and excusing such trends ultimately serves to advance them.