Thursday, August 29, 2013

You Keep On Using the Word "Democracy". I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

This is a blog post I've been meaning to write for about a week, but haven't had time until today. I've found renewed motivation for coming back to this topic after perusing the book room at APSA, where I found several books on this subject.

The starting point for today's argument can be found in an open letter from a coalition of Tea Party groups in Tennessee to Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN). You can read the complete letter here.

The key point to the letter is to encourage Sen. Alexander to remove himself from contention for his Senate seat next year, lest he face a Tea Party-backed challenger in the primary and lose. That, in and of itself, is not all that interesting - political groups interested in affecting the outcomes of elections say all sorts of things, and public threats of primary challenges may be one way to get the person you don't like to step down without a fight. So far, not much interesting to see here.

What is interesting about the letter is the reasoning behind their request/demand/threat. Why are these avowedly conservative groups so upset with Republican Senator Alexander? The money paragraph of the letter is here (underlining added):
During your tenure in the Senate we have no doubt that you voted in a way which you felt was appropriate. Unfortunately, our great nation can no longer afford compromise and bipartisanship, two traits for which you have become famous. America faces serious challenges and needs policymakers who will defend conservative values, not work with those who are actively undermining those values. Quite honestly, your voting record shows that you do not represent the conservative values that we hold dear and the votes you have cast as Senator are intolerable to us.
Now, the groups that penned this letter have every right to disagree with Sen. Alexander's votes and actions in the Senate, and every right to vote against him as a consequence. But the argument that the United States "can no longer afford compromise and bipartisanship" is either fundamentally ignorant or treasonous, depending on whether the authors of the letter understand what they are saying.

The reality is that, however much the members of these groups may believe that their conservative values are superior to the ideas of others, those ideas are not shared by the majority of Americans. Electing new members to the Senate who do share those values will not change this fact. So if you want American political outcomes to reflect the values held by a minority of Americans, you must do one of two things:

1) Take control of enough of the machinery of the government that policies aligned with your values are enacted even though you are in the minority.

2) Convince a large number of Americans that you are right and they are wrong, so that your views become the majority's views.

The first option is, of course, fundamentally anti-democratic. It goes against the very basic principles of any pluralistic political system - and yes, America is a pluralistic system. To argue otherwise is essentially to argue for oligarchy or some form of apartheid-style minority rule. If this is what these Tea Party groups mean, they have failed to understand the most basic roots of our politics and have crossed the line (albeit unwittingly) into treason - they are proposing replacing our current system with the forceable rule by a minority.

The second option is more democratic, although even this is problematic if the values you are espousing call for actions that violate fundamental civil rights. At points in our history, the majority opinion was that blacks shouldn't vote (judging by recent actions in some states, this view may not be so far in the past). But our understanding of the fundamental sovereignty and dignity of individuals was and remains that that view shouldn't hold, even if 51% of the population agrees with it. Tyranny by the majority against a minority is still tyranny.

There's no evidence, in any case, that these Tea Party groups (or the Tea Party movement as a whole) has any serious plan for convincing more people to join its cause, or even an intention to do so. In my experience most of their communications consist of shouting at the rest of the country about how wrong it is, and self-congratulatory back-slapping about the righteousness of their cause. Neither of these is either seemly or productive behavior in a pluralistic democracy.

Fundamentally, all politics tends in one of two directions: either towards greater levels of individual choice and freedom and a removal of government restraints on individual choice, or towards the use of force to impose the views of one set of people on another.

In the real world, political systems have to choose a path between these - enjoying the benefits of a modern society means accepting some restrictions by the state, based on rules which most if not all of us can agree on. There's plenty of room for political argument in there, in which the Tea Party and everybody else is welcome to engage. On the whole and with unfortunate exceptions, American politics has been about trying to steer as close to the "freedom" end of things while keeping the whole mess functioning.

But the moment you start pushing towards the "governance by force" end of things (option 1 above), you have gone off the rails of American politics and deserve to be ignored (if you are a fringe movement) or opposed (if there is some chance you will get your way). Members of these Tea Party groups would do well to think about exactly what kind of country they want to work towards, what the political reality around them is, and whether they really share the American values of democracy and freedom that they claim.

No comments:

Post a Comment