Kevin Williamson is becoming something of a favorite of mine lately – because he’s so consistently wrong, that it’s rather fun to read him and then go over the ways that he is wrong. It also helps that he’s a splendid writer. Anyways, he’s got a new article in Commentary about Democracy – Liberal or Militant. It is well worth a read. I was going through it and kind of checking off the wrong as I went along, but this passage was the first which seemed worthy of a direct response:
…a more immediately pressing question is whether liberalism can contain democracy—it is mass democracy itself, not jackbooted stormtroopers, that poses the most dangerous threat to freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, property rights, and other fundamentals of citizenship. It is the democratic mob, not an autocratic elite, that demands conformity in life and thought and speech, and brooks no dissent…
The short answer to that is, of course, that liberalism cannot contain democracy. Liberalism is incompatible with democracy. It would take a whole book to write down everything wrong with liberalism, but among liberalism’s many failures is that it is anti-tradition. And tradition is crucial to the success of democracy. A quick bit by Chesterton on this:
But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.
You see, it wasn’t the Constitution that preserved our liberties until just recently – it was tradition. Sure, sure: the words were written down and there was even reference made to the words in various laws and court cases. But the fundamental fact of life is that all the written words in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans if people don’t live by them…and they’ll only live by them via tradition. Why was it unthinkable for FDR to seek a third term in 1940? Because Washington had served two terms and then voluntarily stepped down, even though he could easily have obtained another term (indeed, he could have had the office for life, if he wanted). It became tradition – and even some very successful and popular Presidents felt bound by it and refused to run for a third term. Who broke the tradition? An autocratic elitist by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It should be noted that Roosevelt’s vote total dropped by 400,000 from 1936 when he ran for re-election in 1940 – and this when the country, as a whole, was doing much better than it had been in 1936; while the GOP vote total increased by about five and a half million. Seems that some of the regular folks out there just didn’t like this break with tradition.
But, at least there wasn’t a law prohibiting it. So, there was that. But once you start setting aside tradition, then no tradition is safe. Just a few years later, the President of the United States committed us to war in Korea without a Congressional declaration of war. This action would have been unimaginable even ten years previously. It kinda went downhill from there – to Vietnam; to using the FBI to spy on Americans; to vile, little CIA actions around the world; to refusing to enforce laws against subversion and espionage because the party in power would take a big hit from it; to the use of friendly judges to enact into law things which no Congress would ever approve; to the bureaucracy entering into extra-legal agreements with pressure groups to de-facto make law outside of Congressional or judicial action; to, now, parts of the federal bureaucracy attempting to annul the results of a Presidential election because they don’t like the man who won.
None of this was done by popular demand. The crude and rude mob of American democracy wanted none of this. Because the crude and rude American democracy still clings to its traditions. Most of these people can’t put it into words and couldn’t quote Locke if their lives depended on it, but they know that the law is supposed to apply to everyone; that Congress is supposed to make the laws; that judges are to merely interpret the law; that the bureaucracy is supposed to do as it is told, not as it might want to do. The American democracy watched for decades as autocratic elitists twisted our system to their own liking and increasingly refused to even give lip service to the desires of the people. In the end, they voted Trump – someone as rude and crude as they are. And there is Trump – trying mightily to actually make the system work as it is supposed to work. You know: getting Congress to actually pass laws to do things; curbing the courts via the appointment of judges who know their proper place; insisting that the bureaucracy obey orders. And who is pushing back against this? Not the mob of American democracy…but the very autocratic elitists which Williamson thinks a lesser threat than the mob.
Williamson does note some of the outrages going on out there – specifically some of the anti-freedom actions along the lines of people trying to suppress dissenting voices and so forth. But it isn’t the people demanding this. A few thousand carefully organized demonstrators shouting for, say, Exxon to be destroyed in the name of fighting climate change isn’t the American democracy on display. It is what it is: a carefully orchestrated pressure group designed to give the appearance of popular support. It is created, organized and led by autocratic elitists. If you ask the Average Joe out there, you wouldn’t find one in a hundred who wants to punish Exxon…even among those who believe that climate change is real. No, the shouting mobs of zealots represent no one but a few elitists who want various climate change actions taken because such actions will increase their personal power and wealth.
The cure for what ails us isn’t to curb the mob – it is to allow the mob to rule. I know, we’re all supposed to be opposed to that, but I think our kneejerk disdain for the mob is built into us by a century of propaganda by elitists. You, my friends, are the mob – and either you will rule, or the elite will. Pick which one. As for me, I’ll trust myself to the good sense of the sometimes foolish, often ignorant American people…because, in the end, their core desire is that everyone be left alone to live their lives as they see fit. In a fit of anger they may howl for my blood, but once they calm down a bit they’ll leave me be. Meanwhile, the elite is relentless in its pursuing hatreds. For 60 years, for instance, my Christian views have been hounded until we are now very much a post-Christian nation, and yet these elites continue to demand the complete destruction of my Christianity. The very existence of it inflames them…and they’ll never, ever quit.
Liberals of old had some fine things to say – some good ideas, that is. But they were only good ideas when they were the fulfillment of American tradition. It was liberal to extend the franchise to all men and women…but it was only good because it helped to reinforce the Conservative, traditional idea that we will rule ourselves. And here’s something to ponder – some of the very same liberals who were pushing to enfranchise women in the early 20th century were also working diligently to cut the voting public out of decision-making via a strengthened federal government which would manage the country in spite of what the people might want. Think of all the things going on in this country you don’t like – pretty much if you can name the abuse of power, it was an abuse which was imposed on us, via a judge or a bureaucrat, who took no notice of what the people might want…even if the people had clearly stated their desires at the voting booth. It is no real surprise that elements of the bureaucracy are trying to annul an election…it is just a culmination of what has been going on for a century. That is, it is merely the logical end to a government which decided, not too long ago, that it can take your private property and hand it over to another private entity because that entity promised the government more money. A bureaucracy which can get away with things like that is not likely to think that anything is out of bounds for it.
What we need to save freedom in this nation isn’t more laws or more effective expositions of Constitutional theory – what is needed is merely that the government obey the law, and submit to the will of the people in the creation of laws. Sure, the people might come up with some bone-headed ideas from time to time; like Prohibition…but it should also be noted that the people fixed that particular mistake rather rapidly. Meanwhile, gigantic mistakes like the EPA are now pushing 50 years on with no end in sight…and even relatively smaller mistakes like federal funding for Planned Parenthood can’t be spiked no matter how many pro-life Republicans people send to Congress. The mistakes of the people may be fabulous, but they are usually short-lived…while the mistakes of the Elite seem to go on forever.
Let us endeavor to have the people make our own mistakes, rather than having mistakes imposed on them. Let we, the people rule – and we’ll likely rule most often much better than the elites have. After all, no genuinely fascist or communist or Nazi government really rose to full power via the people…Mussolini’s fascists seized power; communists in various nations directly seized power or infiltrated their way into total power; the Nazis got into office via a shabby political deal among the elites (in the last really free election of pre-Nazi Germany, Hitler’s goons only secured 33% of the vote). I’ll trust my fellow Americans, knowing that in the end, they’ll give me a fair deal.