The needed change of the 1980s was a recognition that rolling back the Soviet Union not only was possible without war but in fact was essential to reduce the risk of nuclear annihilation. Recognizing that rolling back our globalized administrative state is not only possible but essential for averting America’s economic and environmental annihilation is today’s most needed change. Our problem isn’t totalitarian Communism but majoritarianism in disguise.
Ronald Reagan thought the rollback of the Soviet Union was possible because its Communist architecture organized Russia on principles that were deeply at odds with human nature. He observed how Marxism’s rigid orthodoxies denied a common sense appreciation of the purposes of the human animal, defied his basic psychology, and starved his needs. The danger is greater today because the disguised majoritarianism of our time organizes itself around principles deeply ingrained in human nature. As with Communism, however, these principles are contrary to human flourishing. In other words, it appeals to the darker angels of our nature. Majoritarianism is at home with the ordinary selfishness of human beings divorced from moral and common sense.
James Madison worried the majoritarian instinct in America would reveal itself as the Many finagled a method for expropriating the property of the Few. That isn’t what happened. In reality, majoritarianism in America has been oligarchic, serving the interests of a small technocratic and wealthy elite. Twenty-first century majoritarianism imposes policies that advance globalism, open borders, and a rigid free trade orthodoxy that, in practice, most often ends up advancing the economic and political interests of crony capitalists at the expense of the their less well-connected fellow citizens.
This majoritarian impulse departs from expectations even further by demonizing entire classes of people; middle and increasingly lower-class men and, to a lesser extent, women who can adequately be identified as “white” according to the dominant Weltanschaung of endless racial classification. They’re kept in check by charges of bigotry and inherent racism. Meantime, minority interest groups are promised policies that will protect them from the demon (i.e.,short term benefits tailored to suit the immediate interests of the minority group) all with a view to actually forming a majority which protects, above all, the interests and power of an oligarchic few.
Just as fish are unaware of water, the beneficiaries of this system are largely ignorant of the medium which makes their well-heeled lives possible. They can only see the policies they favor as fair because they appeal directly to the catechism taught to them in the universities and more importantly, because the policies have enriched them beyond their wildest youthful dreams. An ostentatious class of billionaires keeps them feeling like strivers with a long way to go, slaking their thirst for equality and giving them the sense that they are among the “good ones” working for “social justice.” This allows them to identify—sometimes sincerely—with the middle class they barely know and generally disdain. Our bipartisan ruling class thinks the middle class is just another squirrel out to get a nut. Part of the 2016 story is that the excluded middle finally figured out it is not going to get a nut.
Where might this majoritarianism lead? Since it is premised on an alliance of an oligarchic few with a series of minority interest groups that view themselves as past, present or future victims of another class of citizens, it ultimately fails when it succeeds. That is to say, when the exorcism pantomime finally expels the demon white working class, and no class of men or women is conceivably a greater threat than another, the construct by which the oligarchs have carved up the electorate fails for a want of a common enemy.
When that happens—when everyone is just another patently concocted class of victims—one can expect that this majoritarianism will flower into what one normally would anticipate, a majority seeking directly to seize the wealth and industry of a few (obliterating the wealth and industry in the process and installing an elite having yet greater privileges than the elite that is displaced—a ruling elite for which Hillary Clinton will seem in hindsight to have been a rather benign anticipation). Indeed, we already see signs of this coming to pass on the Left in the rise of Bernie Sanders and of movements like Occupy Wall Street. Should this continue through to completion, the promise of a free economy and its bounty would recede, as would the collective ability to address any crisis. It is important for millennials who have a taste for green policies but who get little from the global administrative state to reflect that if there is a threat to constructive solutions to climate change, it is not from people who question the policy implications of science in a constitutional system of government, it is from the convulsive behaviors of this sort of degenerate majoritarian state we are building.
If this majoritarian dystopia comes to pass it will be extraordinarily difficult to undo. With few constitutional limitations on majoritarian rule and increasing centralization, the self-governing habits of Americans will slide. People unaccustomed to making choices for themselves individually and through a process of forming majorities over thousands of offices, local and national, in continual off-year and on-year cycles of public deliberation about policy, will be at the helm. And they will not be in possession of anything Aristotle could describe as, “speech about the just and the unjust.” The capacity for a politics of freedom will be lost and replaced with the habit of “grievancing” one’s way into power or wealth. This will perhaps become so ingrained as to make it impossible to propose any policy that is in the common interest in such a way as it will be intelligible to voters.
But nothing in political life is inevitable, neither the dominance of an oligarchic interest nor a descent into the barbarism of pure and unbridled majoritarianism. That individuals have the ability—are called upon by human nature—to shape events is the meaning of what we call statesmanship.
Donald Trump may not be an adequate candidate. Whether we support him or not, we all know that. Satisfied that he navigated the maze of the Republican primary, increasingly it seems he may not be up to the task of slaying the Minotaur at the heart of the American political system; this creature that is half political party and half media empire, aka, the Democratic machine. Public discussion has been turned successfully, at least for the present, to the question of whether he can adequately fulfill the immense duties of the office should the contest be decided in his favor. His seeming erratic conduct has channeled much of the “pro-Trump” argument into a promise that his rise can help shift the discussion in ways it needs shifting to inspire an interest in the Constitution.
The campaign’s friends and fellow travelers alike are thus reduced to reminding the public of the greater inadequacy of the opposition candidate. It is an enormous inadequacy but one that is masterfully concealed. Clinton escapes the negative news cycle by moving in measured paces while her opposition lurches from stock character to stock character: teleprompter candidate one day and miles gloriosus (swaggering soldier), senex iratus (angry father) or harlequin, the next.
Yet, the excitement of the Democrats and their many well placed friends, if they manage to pull off a 2016 victory, will be misplaced if they think that in winning they will have driven the beast into the wilderness and successfully saved the status quo. The issue of rulers governing for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of the whole and the restoration of constitutional rule will not go away. Indeed, a Clinton presidency will deepen the crisis. Whatever the outcome, Trump or Clinton, it will be up to new actors with the sense and ability to pick up where 2016 left off.