Democracy vs. ‘Democracy’

School board meetings lately have been the scene of irate parents and scared officials. Used to conducting their work without much citizen engagement, school boards have been irritated as parents have been showing up and shouting and chanting—sometimes to the point of being escorted off the premises—for opposing such policies as mask mandates and critical race theory. 

The powers that be are alarmed. Attorney General Merrick Garland has invited the FBI and Assistant U.S. Attorneys to monitor these developments and investigate ordinary Americans. He makes vague suggestions of threats and violence, but incidents seem to consist of civil disobedience at worst. In a nation where murders went up 30 percent in the wake of the George Floyd riots, it is hard to believe intimidating and running down ordinary parents for standing up for their children is a high priority. But it is.

Incidentally, the Democrats are the same group that made a fetish of Trump being a threat to Our Democracy™. But their idea of democracy is a special one. Actual democracy really does involve pissed off parents and voters “throwing the bums out” and generally embraces the idea that the consent of ordinary people, not elected officials, is the ultimate source of the system’s legitimacy. 

For the Left, democracy loses all of its luster when it goes against progressivism. When the people engage the system by participating with passion, this is doubly alarming. Participating in politics, like voting, is supposed to be merely decoration, as meaningful as that childish sticker they give out proclaiming, “I Voted.” Voting and elections serve as a source of legitimacy to the system, buttressing the real power centers that are mostly unaffected by voting, whether they be part of the military industrial complex or the major textbook companies and university education departments.  

While it is rarely said out loud, thwarting the popular will and labeling this “Our Democracy” is an essential part of the leftist program.

Stopping the People

Consider the role of the courts. In a sane system, they guarantee procedural due process, fairly applying democratically-enacted laws, while also infusing popular sentiment from the jury system. But much of the work of the courts, particularly the federal courts, has been devoted to thwarting popular laws on the basis of imaginary constitutional rights. 

The courts have shown little respect for democratic decision making by interposing newly minted constitutional rights that no one ever heard of or voted for and, indeed, actually voted against when given the opportunity. Even when voters have spoken in the most democratic format of all, the referendum, courts have stepped in to overturn the people’s will. This happened both to bans on gay marriage and withholding government benefits from illegal aliens, which were enacted in the not-terribly-conservative states of Oregon and Arizona. 

Conservatives have been vaguely hostile to the courts and judicial activism for some time, but rarely state what the problem actually is: anti-democracy to serve elites and their preferences. From the 1960s onward, the left-wing parts of the judiciary have followed a simple formula: When the people choose wrong, the choice will be taken away from them. 

The original foundation of such robust court action was the civil rights movement, where anti-democratic restrictions of Jim Crow increasingly were overturned by outsiders from Washington D.C., through an army of lawyers and enforcers. Even long after Jim Crow disappeared and far outside of the deep south, the federal overseers stayed hard at work, policing local schools, local police, and local decisions, lest democracy go in the wrong direction. 

This political revolution is the basic thesis of Christopher’s Cadwell’s The Age of Entitlement, and it explains a lot. He argues that in the name of democracy, the courts created a parallel constitution, which acquired a life of its own, growing up alongside and then completely enveloping the actual Constitution.

Tilting the Scales With Imported Voters

Another important change directed from the top looms large in all of this: mass immigration. By the mid 1980s, the old America had thoroughly rejected the Left, in part from the impact of school bussing, higher crime, and other disruptions to their lives associated with elite-supported social changes. In those days, “liberal” was a dirty word, and Democrats ran away from it. 

The old America was still intact; the post-1965 immigration wave was only starting to be felt, and then only in a handful of large cities. Instead of reaching a new modus vivendi with the country’s conservative majority, the Left, abetted by the business class, slowly made sure the old America would be completely overwhelmed. It’s as if a few family members were having a dispute, and someone showed up with 20 newcomers to take his side. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, the party “elected a new people.” 

This is not democracy, or at least not the positive thing most people imagine by the word democracy. The moral legitimacy of democracy depends in part upon the participants being part of the same society. In other words, there must be something in common before democracy that binds people together before they submit to majority rule. They must be a people, not merely people. 

No one seriously supports worldwide democracy for a hypothetical worldwide government, because we know that Indians and Chinese and Frenchmen and Russians and Americans all have different habits, different priorities, and, most important, different loyalties from one another. Transforming a nation to have the same level of disconnection internally through radical, fast, and massive immigration creates the same problems. 

As the nation has become disconnected, and the Left’s legitimacy rests in large part upon condemning the old America as racist and evil, a new kind of ruthless tribal politics has emerged. Whether it is in calls for reparations or knee-jerk condemnations of police when coethnics are involved, the appeal to a neutral standard of justice that applies to the whole community is now absent. There is no community, nor an associated common good. Today, the only communities are these affinity groups, the “Asian” community or “LGBT” community or whatever affinity group happens to be salient. 

The ongoing friction of whites and blacks, a complicated story with deep roots, was not fully resolved by the civil rights movement or even the election of a black president. But in the new polyglot America, it has spawned the proliferation of special pleading by everyone. Newcomers have each spun their own tale of moral superiority and moral claims upon the old America. In business and educational settings, this has now coalesced around critical race theory, which says, in effect, white people of the old America are bad, and that equity demands a never-ending, never-lessening recognition of white guilt. 

Parents, of course, are concerned for their children’s futures and their educations, as well as how their children see themselves. Most imagined and hoped schools would not be so different from the ones they attended. They also thought they had some control over these things. In their defense, they pay for the schools and have a few fairly practical goals in mind: safety, basic knowledge, and preparation for adulthood. 

Nonstop condemnation of their ancestors, their country, and their faith is not something any of them asked for, whether for their children or the many newcomers whom we all live among. But this is what is being done, because teachers have come to think of themselves not as humble service providers, but as the vanguard . . . foot soldiers for the managerial elite, liberating children from the superstitions and ignorance of their parents. 

Needless to say, after a year of no sports, zoom classes, and then the mask wars, this has not gone over well. When two weeks to flatten the curve became a year-and-a-half, and Kafkaesque harassment interfered with travel and work and much else, patience is at an all-time low. Hoping for a return to some normalcy, parents have gotten excited, angry even, at the permanent revolution within the classroom. In other times and places, their efforts would be applauded as the noble will of the people and the expression of authentic, grassroots democracy. 

But when normal people do this for normal reasons, it is verboten

The Two Faces of Progressives

In this sense, modern progressives have much in common with the original Progressives, who praised democracy, even though many were also partial to professional governance by experts. The administrative state, the city manager, and the civil service were all products of that era, which deemed the old spoils system and the hodge-podge of local ordinances as both irrational and corrupt. The idea of politics as a “science” to be conducted by a trained managerial class has little use for the participatory part of democracy. After all, what do parents know about education? 

The Left in power is not particularly concerned about violence, whether against school boards, or otherwise. Nor do they want democracy, if it means they do not get their way. They instead want to win, and one important part of securing their wins requires demoralizing their opponents in the hinterland. Thus, by exaggerating January 6, and letting it be known FBI informants are everywhere, they have cast a cloud over ordinary political organizing, particularly any issue advocacy conducted outside the party system. 

This approach is now metastasizing. By promising local school board protesters that they will be treated like the January 6 protesters, Merrick Garland and the partisan Justice Department aim to impose a similar chilling effect against ordinary parents who have the temerity to stand up for common sense.

The system depends a great deal upon perceptions of omnipotence, inevitability, and popularity. Thus, it polices dissent very aggressively. The beauty of participatory democracy is that it does not require elections or parties or much else to have an effect, other than ordinary people standing up for themselves. Such spontaneous resistance is powerful simply for taking place, because the system wants you to feel hopeless and alone. These parents remind us that we are legion. 

About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

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