Left-Right Populism versus American Elitism
The principal conservative argument against democracy is the claim that "the people"—ill-educated, vulnerable to mere emotion, susceptible to demagoguery—cannot be trusted. A well-governed state must depend on some kind of aristocracy to rise above such fatal weaknesses.
The flaw in that classical argument was identified by Winston Churchill in his paradoxical comment that "democracy is the worst of all systems, except for the others." History does not show that monarchies or oligarchies, to say nothing of dictatorships, are more just than democracies. Each has its flaws, which can eventually prove fatal. Sinful man cannot create a sinless society.
Hereditary aristocracy is now an irrelevance, with most modern hereditary aristocrats settled into the lives of mere easeful pleasure that most of them led even when they still had political responsibilities. The Virginia Dynasty was a notable exception that helped make the American experiment a success, although at the founding of the nation it shared leadership with northern commercial interests. It was undermined by the opening of the West, and the power of the landed aristocracy was finally destroyed in the Civil War.
Hereditary aristocracy in Europe was undermined not by democracy but by the Enlightenment idea of an aristocracy of merit, whose original champions, such as Voltaire, frankly distrusted "the people" and planned for the day when those people would be properly enlightened.
Alignment, Then Rupture
As the world's first modern democracy, the United States throughout its brief history has in various ways attempted to balance rule by the people with an aristocracy of merit. From the late nineteenth century until the 1960s the two were essentially aligned, because they had a common enemy in "big business," which could be brought under control both by popular resistance (labor unions, the Grange) and government regulation, an alliance that culminated in the New Deal.
But the leaders of the Progressivist movement of the earlier twentieth century, which also culminated in the New Deal, considered most people unenlightened and, in addressing those whom they deemed as enlightened as themselves, candidly urged a kind of meritocracy that would direct a docile populace in the right directions—the "welfare state" in the broadest sense.
This self-conscious aristocracy of merit dreamed dreams that went far beyond the will of the populace, dreams about the role of race in society being the most obvious. But Franklin D. Roosevelt—a rare hereditary aristocrat who succeeded as an idol of the people—repeatedly tempered the dreams of his "brain trust" (and his wife) for the sake of his practical program.
The popular will and the aristocracy of merit split apart violently in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention of 1968, partly over race but more profoundly over the strident claim of the meritocracy that in every respect—religious, moral, familial, educational, political—the populace was backward and stupid. When the dust settled, the Democratic Party had ceased to be populist and—wholly unforeseen—the Republican Party began picking up the populist flags the Democrats had dropped.
That division simmered for sixty years, during which time the country in some ways moved to the right electorally, but the meritocrats got much of what they wanted from courts and other government agencies not subject to the popular will. Religion has been at the center of much of this, as the meritocratic elite has revived the French Enlightenment conviction that religion is the enemy of truth and justice.
Fueled by Frustration
In 2016 Americans are experiencing a phenomenon that is truly historical, in the sense of an unforeseen and unforeseeable reality that does not emerge organically from what has gone before, a phenomenon that does not fit left/right or populist/elite categories. The populist banner is being carried by a billionaire whose record is elitist, while on the other side a presidential candidate who is the living embodiment of the elitism that triumphed in 1968 is threatened by an eccentric quasi-populist. It is by no means clear why voters are attracted to either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, nor why so many reject eminently "mainstream" candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.
The Sanders phenomenon derives in large measure from unacknowledged frustration with the Obama presidency. A man who came to power making the most extravagant (and absurd) promises to heal the nation's wounds leaves a country even more bitterly divided, its problems if anything even more intractable. Many of the meritocratic elite, while continuing to honor Obama verbally, seek to deny the presidency to one of his principal associates, while reaching for a highly improbable alternative whose candidacy is based primarily on that sense of frustration. Paradoxically, support for Sanders is in a sense the simmering populist frustration of an elite—of people who believe fervently in a benign bureaucratic state that inexorably keeps extending its power but somehow still fails to fulfill its promises.
Frustration feeds the Trump candidacy even more—a genuinely populist frustration mostly directed at the meritocratic elite and the bureaucratic state. But it harbors the inherent fatal flaw of genuine populism—the simple inability (or unwillingness) to think, a hysterical susceptibility to demagoguery that allows Trump to sell himself as a friend of the common man and a devout religious believer and allows his supporters to take his most outrageous words and acts not as evidence of a kind of dementia but as further proof of his courage and wisdom.
Judgment of Failure
It was taken for granted that in 2016 the membership of the Supreme Court would be a major issue for pro-lifers and others concerned about the moral direction of the country, and the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia means that the character of the court will be set in concrete for a generation. The next president will appoint as many as four new justices.
For almost fifty years the Democratic Party has, without the slightest hesitation, advanced an extreme leftist agenda on the "social issues." During that same period, social conservatives laboriously struggled to win the Republicans to their cause, only now to face the prospect of success being snatched from them by a demagogue who appears to have no commitment to anything except self-aggrandizement.
William F. Buckley famously dismissed the meritocratic elite with the pithy comment that "I would rather be governed by the first two hundred names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty." But this year's election raises, in an almost unprecedented way, the question whether being governed by the masses is a viable alternative. "Super Tuesday" at the beginning of March greatly reduced Sanders's presidential chances while increasing Trump's. (A possible Sanders-Trump contest in the fall would be almost beyond imagining.) On the Republican side, many people candidly hope for a "statesmanlike" resolution—what is now called a "brokered convention" and used to be called a "smoke-filled room." But such an outcome, however necessary it may be, is a tacit judgment that in 2016 democracy has failed. •
James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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