“There is no sense in avoiding or diluting the magnitude of this turn in our story: One major political party no longer accepts democracy.”
The author of this sentence is former Obama White House speechwriter Ben Rhodes, writing recently in The Atlantic, but it could have flowed from the keyboard of a hundred different writers in the post-Trump, post-Jan. 6 era. That conservatism and the Republican Party have turned against government by the people, that only the Democratic Party still stands for democratic rule, is an important organizing thought of political commentary these days.
So let’s subject it to some scrutiny — and with it, the current liberal relationship to democracy as well.
First, there’s a sense in which conservatism has always had a fraught relationship to mass democracy. The fear of mob rule, of demagogues rallying the masses to destroy a fragile social order, is a common theme in many right-wing schools of thought, showing up among traditionalist defenders of aristocracy and libertarians alike.
To these general tendencies, we can add two specifically American forms of conservative anxiety about the franchise: the fear of corrupt urban-machine politics that runs back through the 1960 presidential election to the age of Tammany Hall and the racist fear of African American political power that stamped the segregation-era South.
Because all these influences touch the modern GOP, conservative skepticism about mass democracy was a somewhat normal part of American politics long before Donald Trump came along — and some of what’s changed in the Trump era is just an events-driven accentuation of existing tendencies.
Republicans have long feared voter fraud and noncitizen voting, for instance, but the fear — and for liberals, the oft-discussed hope — that demographic change could deliver permanent Democratic power have raised the salience of these anxieties. Likewise, Republicans have long been more likely to portray America as a republic, not a democracy, and to defend our system’s countermajoritarian mechanisms. But today this philosophical tendency is increasingly self-interested, because shifts in party coalitions mean that those mechanisms, the Senate and Electoral College especially, advantage Republicans somewhat more than in the recent past.
But then things get complicated, because the modern Republican Party is also the heir to a strong pro-democracy impulse, forged in the years when Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon won crushing presidential-level majorities but conservatives felt themselves constantly balked by unelected powers, bureaucrats and judges especially.
This experience left the right deeply invested in the idea that it represents the true American majority — moral, silent, what have you — while liberalism stands for elite power, anti-democratic forms of government, the bureaucracy and the juristocracy and the Ivy League.
And that idea and self-image has remained a potent aspect of the right-wing imagination even as the old Nixon and Reagan majorities have diminished and disappeared: With every new age of grassroots activism, from the Tea Party to the local-education revolts of today, the right reliably casts itself as small-d democrats, standing boldly athwart liberal technocracy singing “Yankee Doodle.”
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. In Trump’s toxic dreampolitik there’s actually no tension there: The right-wing coalition is justified in governing from a minoritarian position because it deserves to be a true electoral majority, and would be if only the liberal enemy weren’t so good at cheating.
So seen from within the right, the challenge of getting out from under Trump’s deceptions isn’t just a simple matter of reviving a conservative commitment to democracy. Trump has succeeded precisely because he has exploited the right’s more democratic impulses, speaking to them and co-opting them and claiming them for himself. Which means a conservative rival can’t defeat or replace him by simply accusing him of being anti-democratic. Instead, the only plausible pitch would argue that his populism is self-limiting, and that a post-Trump GOP could potentially win a more sweeping majority than the one his supporters want to believe he won already — one that would hold up no matter what the liberal enemy gets up to.
But if that argument is challenging to make amid the smog of Trumpenkampf, so is the anti-Trump argument that casts American liberalism as the force to which anyone who believes in American democracy must rally. Because however much the right’s populists get wrong about their claim to represent a true American majority, they get this much right: Contemporary liberalism is fundamentally miscast as a defender of popular self-rule.
To be clear, the present Democratic Party is absolutely in favor of letting as many people vote as possible. There are no doubts about the mass franchise among liberals, no fears of voter fraud and fewer anxieties than on the right about the pernicious influence of low-information voters.
But when it comes to the work of government, the actual decisions that determine law and policy, liberalism is the heir to its own not exactly democratic tradition — the progressive vision of disinterested experts claiming large swaths of policymaking for their own and walling them off from the vagaries of public opinion, the whims of mere majorities.
This vision — what my colleague Nate Cohn recently called “undemocratic liberalism” — is a pervasive aspect of establishment politics not only in the United States but across the Western world. On question after controverted question, its answer to “Who votes?” is different from its answer to “Who decides?” In one case, the people; in the other, the credentialed experts, the high-level stakeholders and activist groups, the bureaucratic process.
Who should lead pandemic decision making? Obviously, Dr. Anthony Fauci and the relevant public-health bureaucracies; we can’t have people playing politics with complex scientific matters. 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. 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. Who makes important U.S. foreign policy decisions? Well, you have the interagency process, the permanent regional specialists and the military experts, not the mere whims of the elected president.
Or to pick a small but telling recent example, who decides whether an upstate New York school district gets to retain the Indian as its high school mascot? The state’s education commissioner, apparently, who’s currently threatening to cut funds to the school board that voted to keep it unless they reverse course.
Whereas 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 — the belief that more areas of Western life should be subject to popular control and fewer removed into the purview of unelected mandarins. And even if this is not a wise idea in every case, it is democratic idea, whose widespread appeal reflects the fact that modern liberalism really does suffer from a democratic deficit.
Which is a serious problem, to put it mildly, for a movement that aspires to fight and win a struggle on behalf of democratic values. So just as a conservative alternative to Trump would need to somehow out-populist him, to overcome the dark side of right-wing populism, American liberalism would need to first democratize itself.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.