Damon Linker has a deliberately-provocative column out today, arguing that the GOP has made a distinct turn against democracy as such:
This was the week, of course, when the Supreme Court’s five-member conservative majority knocked down limits on aggregate contributions to federal political campaigns, opening the door for the rich to exercise even more influence on the political system than they already do. It was also the week when Rep. Paul Ryan unveiled his latest budget proposal, which would gut food stamps and other aid to the poor. And as I wrote about the other day, this is a political season that has seen the Republican Party working to make it harder for poor people and members of minority groups to vote.
Then there was venture capitalist Tom Perkins suggesting a couple of months ago that only taxpayers should be permitted to vote — and that those who pay more in taxes should be given more votes to cast in elections. And that came less than two years after Mitt Romney was caught kissing up to wealthy GOP donors by denigrating the “moochers” who make up 47 percent of the country’s population.
Ladies and gentlemen, that many data points make a pattern. We seem to be living in an era in which the Republican Party is turning against democracy in an increasingly explicit and undeniable way.
That list of data points includes some considerable stretches – cutting food stamps may be both cruel and foolish, but is it really credible to call it anti-democratic? – but I think Linker has a real point about the current trend on the right. But I don’t think he’s at all correct in saying that this turn is “unprecedented” in American history. And I wish he’d taken the anti-democratic point of view a little more seriously, so that its profound flaws might be effectively exposed.
To take the first point: the United States has turned away from majoritarianism repeatedly in our history. The dramatic expansion of slavery in the South, and the antebellum efforts to extend the legal reach of the slavery into new territories and even into free states, represented a turn away from democracy. The elimination of the franchise for African Americans in the South after Reconstruction, the institution of Jim Crow laws, and their tightening during the Progressive era (Woodrow Wilson is the one who brought Jim Crow to the nation’s capital), the imposition of the poll tax – all these represented turns away from democracy. One might characterize the various 19th- and early-20th century anti-Catholic campaigns as anti-democratic as well – that certainly would be less of a stretch than Linker’s point about food stamps. Ditto for the Lochner-era Supreme Court decisions striking down democratically-enacted laws, intended to protect working people, for abridging “freedom of contract.” The point being: while the evolution of the written Constitution may reflect a monotonic expansion of the franchise and an ever-expanding circle of citizenship, the lived experience of Americans has not been so linearly progressive.
So we may be in one of those regressive periods again.
Presumably because of space constraints, Linker doesn’t discuss why we might have entered one of those periods. I suspect that demographic change coupled with the agonizingly slow recovery from the financial crisis do much to explain the turn to zero-sum thinking in politics, which in turn explains much of the appeal of anti-democratic arguments on the part of those who see themselves as the true proprietors of the state and the country. Nor does he do much to ask whether the anti-democratic stance makes sense in its own terms, other than to say that Aristotle would have recognized it.
Myself, I don’t think it does, and I don’t think Aristotle would (though Coriolanus might). Aristotle’s case for aristocracy very plainly implies a kind of reciprocal obligation that is completely foreign to the Randite arguments so common on the American right these days. And those arguments rarely take the explicit form of arguing that the wealthy should rule because they are more virtuous. Rather, the two most common forms of the argument are: that it’s unfair for one’s representation to be less than proportional to one’s contribution (therefore people who don’t pay income taxes should not be allowed to vote), and that it’s dangerous to give power to the unpropertied (because they don’t have a sufficient stake in stable property rights that promote productive enterprise).
And all of these arguments are transparently absurd. If the question is fairness – that one’s representation should be proportional to one’s contributions – wouldn’t you have to account for the contributions that were never compensated for properly? This country was substantially built by the coerced contributions of African slaves. Should those slaves’ descendants get “extra” votes to compensate for that manifest unfairness? And shouldn’t the benefit one derives from the state also be included as part of the calculus of one’s contribution? The state protects the distribution of property, after all, with the threat of violence. Should heirs, therefore, be disenfranchised, because they benefit from the state’s monopoly of violence, but have contributed nothing themselves?
And why should contributions be measured in monetary terms? Only veterans explicitly risk their lives to protect the country as a whole. Perhaps only veterans should be allowed to vote? Without mothers, there would be no next generation of Americans at all. Perhaps only women with children should be granted the vote? (Or perhaps they should just pay much less in taxes.) Once we start debating who deserves more votes, it’s obvious that the debate will not be resolved by reason, but by force or sheer weight of numbers. Which is a pretty good case all by itself for the universal franchise.
Meanwhile, if the question is the voters’ stake in the state, why should this incline anyone toward restricting the franchise? Is there any evidence that the road to stability and prosperity lies in that direction? Read your Livy. Or take a look at the history of Latin America. I’m not saying that there isn’t a coherent argument that ownership of property is important to virtuous citizenship – but assuming that we actually care about the well-being of the population as a whole, that argument leads logically not to plutocracy but to some version of distributism.
Now, distributism has other problems – most particularly, that it’s not obvious how it would work in a modern non-agricultural context. (Broad distribution of property in the form of shares of large national enterprises is a variant of socialism.) But at least it is a response to the problem that those who worry about “the 47%” are concerned with that doesn’t simply write that half the country out of the sphere of moral concern.
Readers may wonder why I bother even to dispute an argument against democracy, as I have done before in this space. The reason is: that’s what arguments are for. Giving up on that idea of reasoned deliberation and dispute is very close kin to giving up on democracy itself, which is a problem on the left these days as well as on the right.