Unpopular writers have two choices: quit, and be accused by one’s enemies and critics of having no answer, of having acknowledged “defeat”; or keep writing and be accused of obsession, logorrhea, and repetition. Since we know we’re damned either way, we stubborn men choose the latter.
I’m going to single out two persistent responders—Damon Linker and Peter Spiliakos—to one of my core arguments. Others have made the same objection and all that follows applies to them as well. These two are useful stand-ins, though, because one of them self-identifies as “left,” the other as “right.” Yet they fully agree on this core issue, which helps to make my deeper point.
The issue is the basis for popular rule, for the sovereignty of the people. I have asserted that the 2016 election offers a chance—in my view, the last chance—for this principle to be reasserted over an American government that is controlled by a bipartisan oligarchy by means of administrative rule.
Linker and Spiliakos agree that I am wrong because no politician ever speaks for the whole people, as evidenced by the fact that no politician ever gets 100 percent of the vote. This is surely an odd standard to hold, since it’s almost axiomatic in politics that the more lopsided the vote—whether fair (Camden, New Jersey; San Francisco, California) or fake (Warsaw Pact plebiscites)—the worse the governance. One hallmark of successful democratic government is real competition; i.e., the regular alternation of the levers of power among people of competing factions.
A Shameful Banana-Republic Distinction
Is that what we have in America now? Probably both Linker and Spiliakos would say “yes,” at which I can only laugh.
It is now clear in hindsight that, before 2016, the country hadn’t faced a real choice since 1980. The parties may have alternated but the policies have not. Even worse—in-your-face glaring—we now face the sordid prospect of the presidency literally being controlled by the same two families for 28 out of 36 years. If you don’t find that banana-republic distinction embarrassing—if it doesn’t make you frankly ashamed of what your country has sunk to—then there is nothing I or anyone could write that might open your eyes.
Both are apparently confused by the distinction between “the people” understood on the one hand as “the many” or demos and on the other as “the whole people.” In the former sense, the people are a party—and typically the base of a formal party. In the American context, that used to be emphatically the Democrats. Trump has shaken that up, divided the demos, and won a large portion of it over to the Republicans—or at least to himself, since the Republicans seem determined to discard these voters at the earliest opportunity.
“The people” in this sense are always but a part of the polity. Since they are its most numerous part, their claim to a say in how they are governed is strong—only slightly less strong than the claim of superior wisdom. Still, a government based solely on popular rule will be unstable and short-lived. One that repeatedly ignores and even sells out the demos’s wishes and interests is, to that extent, bad, unjust and unwise. And also, eventually, unstable, as we are seeing.
The original solution, which the American Founders tried to implement in vastly differing circumstances, is to “mix” the government so that each side exercises a measure of rule. The whole people—and no one else—are sovereign. But it is understood from the beginning that elemental partisan differences will never go away. The demos is not “the whole people” and to the extent that the former rules unchecked, the latter’s rights are unprotected. But somehow the whole people, to remain sovereign—for self-government to mean anything—must retain the ability to change the direction of their government. As a practical matter, that will always result in division, whether 60-40 landslide or 51-49 nail-biter.
If the acid-test of legitimacy is to be unanimity, then no government will ever be legitimate—except perhaps North Korea. Whose unanimity, I need hardly add, is entirely forced. This can’t be what Linker and Spiliakos mean. But then what do they mean? The Founders’ view—that a legitimate government heeds majority will while protecting minority rights—appears to be too radical for them. All they care about the result of the latest election. 50.1 percent? Good enough! Trample minority rights and constitutional provisions in the process? But we won! Objections are illegitimate once “the voters”—as distinct from the people—have spoken.
Linker tries to trace my argument to Rousseau. In so doing, he implicitly compares Trump to Rousseau’s lawgiver, who sees that “the people can be wrong about the character and content of the general will” and who therefore “make[s] that determination on behalf of the people as a whole.”
Really. Does that sound remotely like what’s happening in 2016? What I see is a people—a majority—who for 30 years has not wanted mass immigration or open trade, and who for at least a decade has been tired of endless, pointless, winless war. Still they get more of it because no matter who they vote for, that’s what the recipient of those votes does. This is “democratic” to the extent that voting still takes place, but if those votes decide nothing—not even majority will—what difference does that make? Right now, Trump may be embodying majority will—because, to say the least, no one else in the political process has—but he is far from determining it. He’s riding a wave. He may yet wipe out.
But let’s also be honest about why. Yes, yes—to some large extent it will be because of Trump’s own faults and mistakes. But let’s not discount the permanent 50,000 thumbs on the scale: the corrupt, partisan media; corrupt, partisan academia which has been brainwashing the professional and intellectual classes for 50 years; a corrupt, partisan intellectual class that sets the terms of every debate in ways that favor the ruling class and demonizes dissent; every commanding height of the popular, middlebrow and high culture; the ceaseless importation of foreign, ringer voters to overwhelm the votes and will of natural born citizens; and when all this fails, stuff ballots in blue cities in purple states. How many votes—how many percentage points—is all that worth? Whatever, all of it accrues to only one side: to Linker’s, not Spiliakos’. Yet still they make common cause.
What Elections Are For
It’s absurd for Linker and Spiliakos alike to accept this as legitimate or “fair.” A politics this rigged is in no wise a representation of the will of the people. Linker pretends it is for obvious reasons: his side always wins. What’s Spiliakos’ excuse?
Opposition to the oligarchy begins at its own 10-yard line, after no kickoff, and two touchdowns in the hole that the other side did not legitimately score. When we inevitably lose, Linker says: the score is the score. Too bad. Spiliakos says: We’ll just have to up our game. When told that next time we’ll start on the five, three touchdowns behind, he says: we’ll just have to up it further. Meanwhile Linker is on the sidelines gloating over the standings. After the next loss, Spiliakos classily walks over to shake Linker’s hand, who magnanimously accepts. Over and over. Ad nauseam.
What I have tried to explain is that, in the American context, legitimacy arises not from unanimity or even from a majority, but from a fair, constitutional process that allows the people to decide their fate politically. That allows them to have an argument, disagree, divide, vote, and come back together to decide how best to go forward, with both sides accepting that—for the time being—one side will have control of the government. But limited control, limited by express constitutional prohibitions.
We don’t have that now. We have massively unbalanced “elections” that are mere tools for ratifying and legitimizing the rule of an oligarchical, administrative state. To return to perhaps the most salient point: the American people don’t want, and haven’t wanted for some time, more immigration or freer trade. They’re going to get them, though, whatever they say they want.
Majoritarians to the Left of Me, Plebiscitarians to the Right…
The American regime, which was designed to allow the people to change their government’s direction via voting, no longer functions as designed. For Linker explicitly and Spiliakos implicitly, that the people have not voted to enact change is ipso facto proof that they wanted this, or at least deserve it. Whether they understand themselves to be or not, they are simple majoritarians—plebiscitarians.
I draw a different lesson from the “bluing” of America’s great cities, states, and increasingly the country as a whole. It was done deliberately to make voting more of a formality and less of a contingency.
The understanding of government I have sketched traces back to Aristotle and was fully shared by the American Founders. That Linker (“Left”) and Spiliakos (“Right”) don’t understand it, insist the Founders could not have believed it (or if they did, that only proves how benighted they were), and think I am insane for holding it just shows how close today are “left” and “right,” and how far apart I am from both.