I am not a racist. I just don’t like democracy.

by Corey Robin on March 14, 2013

So here’s a fascinating moment of right-wing self-revelation.

Last month, Sam Tanenhaus wrote a piece in The New Republic saying that American conservatives since the Fifties have been in thrall to John C. Calhoun. According to Tanenhaus, the southern slaveholder and inspiration of the Confederate cause is the founding theoretician of the postwar conservative movement.

When the intellectual authors of the modern right created its doctrines in the 1950s, they drew on nineteenth-century political thought, borrowing explicitly from the great apologists for slavery, above all, the intellectually fierce South Carolinian John C. Calhoun.


Progress, if you ask me: Tanenhaus never even mentioned Calhoun in his last book on American conservatism, which came out in 2009—though I do know of another book on conservatism that came out since then that makes a great deal of Calhoun’s ideas and their structuring presence on the right. That book, just out in paperback, got panned by the New York Times Book Review, of which Tanenhaus is the editor. Thus advanceth the dialectic. But I digress.

Writing in the National Review, Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru naturally take great umbrage at being tarred with the Calhoun brush. No one wants to be connected, by however many degrees of separation (Tanenhaus counts two, maybe three, I couldn’t quite tell), with a slaveholder and a racist.

But notice how they take umbrage:

Now Tanenhaus doesn’t want you to think he is saying that today’s conservatives are just a bunch of racists. Certainly not. He is up to something much more subtle than that. “This is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun’s ideas about race. It is to say instead that the Calhoun revival, based on his complex theories of constitutional democracy, became the justification for conservative politicians to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.” With that to-be-sure throat-clearing out of the way, Tanenhaus continues with an essay that makes sense only as an attempt to identify racism as the core of conservatism.


In the worldview of the contemporary American right it is a grievous charge—or at least bad PR—to be called a racist. But the accusation that you wish “to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority”—that is, that you are resolutely opposed, if not downright hostile, to the basic norms of democracy—can be passed over as if it were a grocery store circular. Hating democracy, apparently, is so anodyne a passion that it hardly needs to be addressed, much less explained. Indeed, Goldberg and Ponnuru think the charge is Tanenhaus’s way of covering his ass, a form of exculpatory “throat-clearing” designed to make it seem as if he’s not making the truly heinous accusation of racism that he is indeed making.

So, that’s where we are. It’s 2013, and the American right thinks racism is bad, and contempt for democracy is…what? Okay, not worthy of remark, perhaps mitigating?

Update (March 14, 9 am)

Since this point has come up a lot in the comments thread, I thought I’d address it here in order to dispel further confusion. Various people have said some version of the following: Countermajoritarianism is part of virtually every theoretical tradition, across the political spectrum. The left has its own problem with democracy and is willing to supersede the decisions of the majority whenever it suits its purposes. So of course Goldberg and Ponnuru would not think that charge would be worth commenting on.

First, if you read Tanenhaus’s article, you’ll see he’s not merely claiming that the right has an episodic or contingent issue with electoral majorities; he’s saying that opposition to the will of the majority is constitutive of their worldview. Again, that is what Goldberg and Ponnuru are passing over without comment.

Second, and more important, Calhoun’s countermajoritarianism is very different from the species of liberal and left countermajoritarianism people are talking about. Unlike many, Calhoun was willing to go out on a limb and say that the the principles of the Declaration of Independence were flat-out wrong. All men (his usage, of course) are not created equal and thus all men do not possess inalienable rights. In other words, his countermajoritarianism flowed from a position that could in no way be characterized as either liberal (at least not by twentieth-century standards) or left. Nor can it be described as democratic: it was based on a resolute hostility to the basic principles of liberal democracy.

This is not just an issue of antiquarian accuracy; it also applies to the modern right. When William F. Buckley came out in 1957 against the Civil Rights Movement—in an infamous National Review editorial entitled “Why the South Must Prevail”—it was full-square within this tradition. Have a read, and again, no need to focus on the racism; look at how he construes his countermajoritarian position:

The central question that emerges—and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal—is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race….The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. The British believe they do, and acted accordingly, in Kenya, where the choice was dramatically one between civilization and barbarism; and elsewhere; the South, where the conflict is by no means dramatic, as in Kenya, nevertheless perceives important qualitative differences between its culture and the Negroes’, and intends to assert its own.


National Review believes that the South’s premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow down to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence:then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.


The axiom on which many of the arguments supporting the original version of the Civil Rights bill were based was Universal Suffrage. Everyone in America is entitled to the vote, period. No right is prior to that, no obligation subordinate to it; from this premise all else proceeds.


That of course, is demagogy….Millions who have the vote do not care to exercise it; millions who have it do not know how to exercise and do not care to learn. The great majority of the Negroes of the South who do not vote do not care to vote, and would not know for what to vote if they could.


That, needless to say, is not your garden variety countermajoritarianism. Indeed, it actually rejects a critical premise of countermajoritarianism, which is that that the universe of possible voters has spoken.

It’s true that Buckley later repudiated these views. In the Sixties, he dropped the racist dimensions of his anti-democratic position and universalized his critique. Drawing from Ortega y Gasset, he argued that anyone who was unfit, regardless of race, should be disfranchised. Everyone likes to quote Buckley’s famous comment that he would “sooner be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory, than by the two thousand members of the faculty of Harvard University.” Yet Buckley himself proposed that any American who didn’t know what the United Nations was should be purged from the rolls. In this regard, his thinking was closer to that of George Fitzhugh, who argued that all lesser beings, white and black, should be enslaved, than it was to Calhoun’s.

{ 83 comments }

1

Sandwichman 03.14.13 at 4:45 am

Yes, but wouldn’t the electoral success of conservative politicians lend credence to conservatives’ contempt for democracy?

2

pjm 03.14.13 at 4:47 am

Absolutely. It’s part of GOP culture to be anti-(small d)democratic. The rank and file’s talking points seem to include stressing (often mindlessly) the distinction, “We live in a republic, not a democracy”. Interestingly, scholars of the (big F) Founding point out at that “Republic” was used by the FF’s as synonym for “representative democracy”, largely because none larger than a city really existed before (which is not to say the FF’s did a very good job of coming up with one, and certainly had their anti-democratic tendencies).

3

pjm 03.14.13 at 4:50 am

Is it telling or in need of explanation that the struggle for democracy is not a a symbolic (or strategic) foundation for oppositional politics in the US?

4

Corey Robin 03.14.13 at 4:55 am

pjm at 3: Not sure what you mean. Historically? It definitely was (Alex Keyssar’s The Right to Vote is *really* good on this.) Today? Dunno. You certainly always hear the chant “this is what democracy looks like” at almost every rally on the left you attend. Or do you mean something else?

5

pjm 03.14.13 at 5:04 am

S’man @1. It is the lack of democracy which support conservative’s success (as the post on the Senate gets at). Red states in the US are largely both small in population and below average population density (i.e. more rural). Texas is the only large red state (and it is the one large population state that has low population density). A number of small states actually have radical histories, but many of these were politically colonized by the GOP. The electoral and Senate votes you get from small states are a bargain and being less urbanized are not nearly as conducive to counter-organizing. But this is only a superficial take on anti-democratic features of US politics, there is a long list.

6

KH 03.14.13 at 5:12 am

> “to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority”—that is, that
> you are resolutely opposed, if not downright hostile, to the basic norms of
> democracy—can be passed over as if it were a grocery store circular.

To be devil’s advocate for a moment….

Yes. That is no problem at all in western politics. Because it is normal. Everyone does it. Politicians, parties and pressure groups all do that, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum.

For example, I suspect that if the UK’s laws reflected the will of its population (I choose the UK only because it is the most recent place that I lived for long enough to get a feel for public sentiment) then the UK would reintroduce the death penalty, persecute its Muslim minority, close the border to immigrants, castrate sex offenders, drop out of the EU, and bankrupt itself with lower taxes and higher public spending. It is good news for the UK that its government attempts to run things slightly more intelligently than that.

To pick a specific issue, if you were a legislator and you saw that the majority of the US population believed that gay sex was always wrong (e.g. http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin32/hsda?harcsda+gss06 ) then you might say “ah, we shall respect the will of the electorate and ensure that our laws are set up to penalise homosexuality, of which the electorate so clearly disapproves”… but more likely you’d say “the principles of freedom and equality are more important than the prejudice of the majority.”

7

ponce 03.14.13 at 5:32 am

“I always thought John C. Calhoun was right about secession and Lincoln wrong. But…” -Michael Ledeen

http://tinyurl.com/crvbtk5

8

Thompsaj 03.14.13 at 5:42 am

Along the lines of pjm, I think conservatives have, in their minds, absorbed all the middle school civics lessons about the Founders and the Federalist and the ‘tyranny of the majority’ as a way to protect the culturally and politically powerful without trying to understand the historical context, particularly the way slavery and white supremacy were part of the equation from the start. Thus they could point to the Federalist’s anti-democratic passages or the original bicameral design and be like “now you’re calling the Founding Fathers racist!” when of course they were slave owners.

9

Carl 03.14.13 at 5:44 am

How nice of you to concede, albeit in an unkind fashion, that approximately half of the U.S population may not be racists. It must be galling to discover that even those deluded fools who do not share your particular political conceits also have a right to declare that racism is A Very Bad Thing. They may even be sincere too, bless them!

Have you only just discovered America’s long tradition of anti-democratic thought? You seem morally shocked that there are people who don’t give a fig for the “will of the people”! Weird.

10

ponce 03.14.13 at 5:48 am

” I think conservatives have, in their minds”…will reach for any argument they can think of to generate a daily outrage.

11

bad Jim 03.14.13 at 5:57 am

They actually consider themselves the choice of the people they consider real Americans, which is why they work so hard to prevent the wrong sort of people from voting.

12

pjm 03.14.13 at 6:03 am

Corey @4. I am a pessimist about how much or how quickly the US system allows reforms and I think the Left is largely naive about the importance of the “rules”, process matters. The broad left is divided between those who affirm the existing system as basically okay (or may just need finance reform), third party-ists who think structural change is a voluntarist project, and those who don’t focus on the issue of democracy at all. There is just not much appreciation of the structural problems with American democracy. (And though one might think this is a quasi-revolutionary line, I don’t have an problem with aspiring to a s.d. welfare state, according to European standards)

I think the party system, anti-majoritarian legislative process (nationally and at state levels), disenfranchisement/demobilization all reinforce each other. And this is all held together by a “frozen” Constitutional amemdment process which encourages a culture of Constitution veneration (credits to Dan Lazare). But I don’t see how the system is likely to change, i.e., become more democratic, short of large-scale political crisis or exogenous shock. But at a minimum, I wish there was more awareness of the problem, in the same you would hope for more outrage at the anti-democratic aspirations of the right.

13

thompsaj 03.14.13 at 6:09 am

carl, I don’t think anyone is going to concede that no conservatives are racists

14

Hidari 03.14.13 at 6:36 am

` But at a minimum, I wish there was more awareness of the problem, in the same you would hope for more outrage at the anti-democratic aspirations of the right.`

But no one is going to do anything about it because turning a blind eye to the very many anti-democratic features of American democracy (and one could argue that the activist and unelected Supreme Court is actually worse than the Senate) would then highlight the absurdity of American wars `for democracy`. It`s a de facto Trivial Pursuit question that the US is not even officially a democracy, it`s a Republic, but the ontological status of this fact must remain at the level of Ripley`s Believe it or Not …..not as something that might be truly comprehended or even (God help us) acted upon. The whole `official` debate about Iraq let`s not forget was whether or not `we` were entitled to invade and then impose a democracy on another country. If it were widely believed that `we` live in a country that was only quasi-democratic then this whole debate couldn`t even have gotten off the ground. It would just have been laughed out of court.

After all if the US wants to create democracy why doesn`t it invade and impose democracy upon itself?

So the truth can never be spoken in `polite` circles and round and round we go in the circle jerk of complete meaninglessness that makes up most political discourse in the `West` today.

(Of course the `United` Kingdom is not officially a democracy either. It`s a Monarchy, as the name would tend to indicate).

15

bad Jim 03.14.13 at 6:41 am

I’m trying to parse Sandwichman’s snark. He could be saying that one of the defects of democracy is that conservatives are elected. It’s certainly discouraging to find conservative governments in power in the depths of worldwide recession, doing the best they can to make things worse, but it’s worth noting that the less conservative party got the most votes in the last election in the U.S., unfortunately without changing the balance of power appreciably.

Another reading is that conservative politicians are merely cynics exploiting the ignorant electorate, their very success feeding their contempt. I’m not sure that’s generally the case, because their behavior is not greatly different than that of the elite arbiters of opinion who a decade ago lined up in support of the invasion of Iraq. It’s a waste of time to try to figure out the thinking that leads to a conclusion when there’s substantial evidence that thinking could not have been involved.

I’m not suggesting that pundits and politicians are simply bullshitting, just that thinking analytically isn’t part of the job. Their tools are narratives and sentiments. Thinking is hard and originality is hazardous, particularly when your position depends on public approval.

16

CharleyCarp 03.14.13 at 6:54 am

You know, the magic of the internet would let all of us, of whatever persuasion, look at what we were saying about the will of the majority back in 2005. Some folks may well have been more or less consistent with their current positions. I would venture to guess, even, that a fairly solid majority from both sides of the fence would have flipped: they’re not so much interested in the philosophy as in how and by whom power is going to be exercised.

I doubt I can throw any stones on this one.

17

Harold 03.14.13 at 7:08 am

Perhaps it’s too obvious to mention, but white supremacist Southerners were not democrats (small d.) because the majority of citizens in Southern states were African-Americans. They had a vested interest in keeping them from voting.

18

Bruce Wilder 03.14.13 at 7:26 am

Conservative Republicans do not want the elected government to govern. They don’t want to govern, even when they, themselves, are elected!

Look at the young Republican leadership in the House. They are all celebrity spokes-model politicians, preening for their photo-ops, working-out, tending their tans and their hairlines. Not one of them has any interest, whatsoever, in the actual, responsible exercise of political power. They’re there to read the lines written for them by lobbyists and enact the programs and budgets desired by the business corporations.

Their conservative libertarian economic philosophy is laissez faire. They really don’t think the government should be responsible for much of anything, beyond blowing things — and terrorists — up, in far-off lands. Many do not want to concede to the state, even a monopoly on legitimate violence, domestically.

Accountability to an electorate hardly matters, if you don’t think the government should be doing anything for people. The “47%” in such circumstances are just rent-seeking welfare cheats — how could they be anything else, if government has no legitimate role in providing public goods or social insurance? Or, policing markets? Frustrating “the takers” is a public duty.

If all taxes on business and all regulation of business is a dead-weight loss, a burden, that holds back “growth”, then opposition to taxes and regulation is opposition, in essence, to government.

If you do think that government should be doing much of anything, and certainly nothing in opposition to the rich and the powerful business corporations, then what’s democracy, except a potentially hazardous and largely superfluous exercise in public relations and propaganda? The “popular will” is just an expression of the madness of crowds, of a potential mob, which should be frustrated for the good (of all who matter).

The election of a Congress, to a conservative Republican, in accordance with democratic norms, is, at best, an ceremonial exercise, a ritual of the civic religion, of little more practical significance than the election of a Pope. Sure, they might be annoyed that so many on the left are proud as pumpkins to have elected a black man, President, and may be that indicates racist resentiments. And, maybe it’s just an opportunity to demagogue their authoritarian followers, to whom racist ideas make intuitive sense.

But, the big picture, with regard to their anti-democratic tendency, is neither racism nor a certain cavalier cynicism toward the forms of electoral democracy. The big picture is that these conservatives seek a neo-feudal of domination of the political economy by billionaires and the emergent caste of corporate CEOs.

Politics is an opportunity for celebrity fame, not public service, in the service of social and economic domination, for individual, personal gain, at the expense of the undeserving and probably ungrateful mass of losers.

19

Bruce Wilder 03.14.13 at 7:29 am

If you do NOT think that government should be doing much . . .

20

Mao Cheng Ji 03.14.13 at 7:34 am

Does it have to be so that either a dozen politicians circa 1774 are gods or the arithmetics is god?

The idea that 100 people coercing 99 is the triumph of justice, while 99 coercing 100 is an unspeakable tragedy seems highly immature. Democracy is a principle, one of many. Most of them, unfortunately, in conflict with each other, most of the time.

21

Bruce Wilder 03.14.13 at 7:41 am

A plutocracy and a democracy cannot co-exist in the same country. You have to choose. You are for the plutocracy or you are against. The Republicans have chosen. Most non-partisans and most Democrats, too, refuse to even admit that plutocracy-or-democracy is a mutually exclusive choice being pressed upon them. They want to pretend that we can have a high-minded debate over the role of government, that we all want the good of the country, but simply differ ideologically over policy means, and can arrive at compromises that “move us forward”. And, if we are frustrated, we can blame the other side for being “racist”, as if financialization of economy by an elite of parasites has anything to do with race.

22

Bruce Wilder 03.14.13 at 7:46 am

The essence of democracy is not arithmetic, but government of the people, by the people and for the people: a government, which is responsible and accountable for defending, policing and developing the commons and the commonwealth, and which respects every individual as a person, and acknowledges that the vast majority are capable, or can be made capable, of self-government, individually and in community.

23

Phil 03.14.13 at 8:08 am

I’ve only heard “this is a republic, not a democracy” from a survivalist who also encouraged me to read Bastiat; is it mainstream GOP-speak these days?

As for what the distinction actually means (or meant), I’d pick up and sharpen pjm’s point @2. What people overlook is that ‘democracy’ wasn’t the unquestioned Good Thing in the late 18th century that it is now. At that time there were no governments based on universal suffrage, anywhere: the only positive model of democratic government was classical Athens. Well into the nineteenth century, when people used the term ‘democracy’ they were far more likely to be using it literally – ‘rule by the people’ – and with heavy negative overtones: if you asked Burke “what democracy looks like” he’d probably have pointed to the Gordon Riots. At the time of the Fed. Papers, “It’s a representative republic, but it’s not democratic” wasn’t (just) a rearguard action by the propertied oligarchy – it would have sounded like a good formula across almost all of the political spectrum.

Ironically, the new American system was rapidly seen to be very democratic – more so than anything we had in Europe at the time. Toqueville’s title Democracy in America originally had the overtones of a book called Zionism in Israel or Communism in Russia – “this weird radical philosophy they’ve implemented over there, how’s it working out for them?”

24

Chris Bertram 03.14.13 at 8:24 am

Not news about the right. After all, much of the point about public choice theory from now to Jason Brennan is to argue against democracy. On the other hand, perhaps we on the left ought to oppose democracy when the will of the actual demos fails to coincide with the interests of all those affected: such as, e.g. on immigration.

25

Mao Cheng Ji 03.14.13 at 9:09 am

“The essence of democracy is not arithmetic, but government of the people, by the people and for the people”

I don’t want to distort, but this post could be interpreted as promoting conformity, as a virtue. The previous one is mostly about arithmetics.

26

KH 03.14.13 at 10:07 am

Hidari @14, “(Of course the `United` Kingdom is not officially a democracy either. It`s a Monarchy, as the name would tend to indicate).” Really?

There are plenty of monarchies in the world – places where you go to prison for criticising the King, and/or where a ruling family appoints some/all members of the legislative assembly, and/or where elected officials wield power only with the monarch’s consent. Britain is not one of them.

Having a figure-head with flashy titles and nice robes that you wheel out for state occasions (as in the remaining European monarchies, like Britain) is not the same thing as having a monarch control legislative or executive powers.

There are plenty of castles in Britain, too, but they are no longer relevant to the UK’s national defences. Nice for tourists, and they give a sense of heritage, but that’s all.

27

Billikin 03.14.13 at 10:22 am

The “republic not a democracy” meme has a long history. I first ran into it 30 years ago in some online discussions. Since I was raised to think that a republic (in the modern sense) was a representative democracy, I volunteered that republic and democracy were synonyms, that etymologically a republic is a thing of the people and a democracy is rule by the people. That went over like a lead balloon. But at the same time, no one clarified the difference between the two, either. I figured that nobody knew what they were talking about.

The US Constitution guarantees to the states a “Republican form of government”, without defining the term, either. Fine. That means that it was general knowledge at the time. My impression, having done a little reading, is that the guarantee was against rule by a king, emperor, or dictator. It seems ridiculous now, but at the time of the Constitutional convention, a military coup in, say, Massachusetts, was a definite possibility in the future.

In the early 19th century, IIUC, people in the US distinguished between democratic republics and aristocratic republics. It seems like the GOP of today wants to establish an aristocratic republic in the US, even if it keeps the form of a democratic republic.

Fortunately, this is a place where there are people who understand these matters, who do know what they are talking about. I look forward to learning more from these discussions.

28

Barry 03.14.13 at 11:00 am

Sandwichman 03.14.13 at 4:45 am

” Yes, but wouldn’t the electoral success of conservative politicians lend credence to conservatives’ contempt for democracy?”

Think about much of their recent ‘electoral success':
Having more money, Bush vs. Gore, 9/11, Tea Party, Great Financial Collapse (with the financial sector running the bailout), gerrymandering, etc.

29

James 03.14.13 at 11:50 am

The cry of Tyranny of the Majority and duped public when the majority disagrees with me. A call for Absolute Democracy when the majority agrees with me and it’s will is blocked.

30

Main Street Muse 03.14.13 at 12:03 pm

There is an arterial flow of racism throughout this country – it is not confined to the south or small towns. I come from the city of Big Shoulders, which gave us our first black president, and which Martin Luther King Jr. once described as the most racist city in America. In his words:

“I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South,” said King after the march in Chicago. “But I can say that I have never seen – even in Mississippi and Alabama – mobs as hostile and hate-filled as I’ve seen in Chicago. I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.”

I think it is too simple to trace modern Republican thought to one man in the Civil War era. It’s Calhoun bred with Ayn Rand – that’s what’s given us this illegitimate baby we’ve know today as the GOP. Paul Ryan apparently gives “Atlas Shrugged” to his staff. Rich indeed, that a man of the government hands a book about the ills of government to his government staff. Go work in business, Randians! Why do so many Rand acolytes (Alan Greenspan, etc.) work in government? It’s a mystery.

I am fascinated with Lee Atwater’s imprint on the GOP – it was racist to the core – you can hear it in his own words here: http://bit.ly/Z7q7VI

It’s not like the GOP hides its racist thought. That’s the scary part about it. It wins votes. And I agree with Bruce Wilder that it’s done ultimately to control the wealth of this nation.

31

ajay 03.14.13 at 12:15 pm

I volunteered that republic and democracy were synonyms, that etymologically a republic is a thing of the people and a democracy is rule by the people. That went over like a lead balloon. But at the same time, no one clarified the difference between the two, either.

It’s simple. A Republic is like a Democracy, but with much higher levels of Corruption, and though it’s discovered Conscription it hasn’t discovered Recycling yet. Plus, in a Republic the Senate never objects when you want to wage aggressive wars against other countries.

32

Corey Robin 03.14.13 at 12:32 pm

KH at 6 and Chris Bertram at 24: There’s no doubt that the left has its own qualms about certain decisions of the electoral majority. But where both of you have highlighted the ways in which the left’s qualms are actually rooted in fundamental democratic principles — Chris worries that the majority’s decisions “fails to coincide with the interests of all those affected”; KH writes “more likely you’d say ‘the principles of freedom and equality are more important than the prejudice of the majority'” — the whole point about Calhoun’s concern about democracy is that not only is it NOT rooted in democratic principles, it’s actually based on a resolute hostility to democracy as such. Calhoun firmly rejects the principle of equality as well as the notion that freedom is an inherent natural right of all people (unlike many in his Jefferson, he was willing to come out against the opening passages of the Declaration of Independence and declare them to be flat-out wrong). So to say that one is rooting one’s thoughts about the problems of democracy in Calhoun is not simply to say that one is partaking of a broader discussion about the problems of electoral majorities and whether or not their decisions can always be taken as the expression of democratic principles; it’s to say that one is taking a firm side against democracy as such.

Carl at 9: Which brings me to Carl’s comment: “Have you only just discovered America’s long tradition of anti-democratic thought? You seem morally shocked that there are people who don’t give a fig for the ‘will of the people’! Weird.” Some of the other comments in this thread are of this nature.

The short answer to the question is no, I didn’t just discover it. In fact, as the OP states quite clearly (if you would follow the links), I actually wrote a book a few years back that made just that argument. But guess what? When I made that argument, a lot of people — including many liberals and others further to the left, not to mention some conservatives — were in fact shocked by it, so much so that they accused me of all manner of unfairness (including bad manners!)

I’m glad everyone here is so hip to the scene, but I can assure you, from personal experience, that most people are not.

33

Rob 03.14.13 at 12:34 pm

But the accusation that you wish “to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority”—that is, that you are resolutely opposed, if not downright hostile, to the basic norms of democracy—can be passed over as if it were a grocery store circular

That’s cheap nonsense. Successive British governments have opposed the will of the majority and refused to reinstate capital punishment, but I doubt that you would accuse them of hostility to the basic norms of democracy in doing so. The idea that democracy requires that, sometimes, the “will of the electoral majority” be refused is mainstream and just as present on the left as it is on the right – it is fundamental to the concept of human rights, international law and so on. The reason that the “tyranny of the majority” is a silly phrase is that most countries with majoritarian governments also place limits on what the government can do, even if it wins 99% of the vote. (Of course, these limits could be abolished, but I don’t see how abolishing constitutional safeguards is either exclusively a conservative, liberal or socialist position to take).

Now, you might argue that I’m being too charitable, and that the kind of majority-will-resistance conservatives do is fundamentally different from that which is done by the left, but I don’t see how that’s different from saying that the left and right have different political aims in general, and each side seeks to frustrate the democratic majority when it serves their interests to do so. The notion of false consciousness provides the left’s justification for (sometimes) ignoring the democratic majority on the assumption that it’s a “manufactured” majority born of ideology and expensive marketing, whilst the right has its own myths to explain why people sometimes vote in disagreeable ways (the 47%, or ACORN or whatever). I see how one is more likely to be correct than the other, but I don’t see how you can say that rejecting the apparent will of the majority is necessarily anti-democratic in situations where a constitution places specific limits on what democracies are allowed to decide.

34

Andrew Burday 03.14.13 at 12:44 pm

I haven’t read the NR article (and probably won’t), but the passage quoted could be interpreted to mean the opposite of what CR says. Goldberg and Ponnuru could be saying that a criticism of conservative attitudes toward democracy would be worthy of serious debate, but all Tanenhaus really has to offer is a criticism of conservative racism, which is nothing but a smear. That would be consistent with the view one often sees on the right, that there is no real debate to be had about racism, but calling someone a “racist” is the lowest of low blows. It’s also what they appear to be alluding to in their first sentence (“bunch of racists”). G&P’s suggestion would be that if they can show that Tanenhaus is talking about race, not democracy, then no further response is needed — i.e. no real discussion of race is needed.

CR may well be right; I can’t tell without wasting 20 minutes of my life sniffing G&P’s vomit. But I want to point out that the quote he offers doesn’t clearly support his interpretation.

35

David Kaib 03.14.13 at 1:26 pm

I admit that this can be problematic, but very few understandings of democracy require public opinion be automatically and always to be translated into policy. If it did, there would be no democrats and no democracies.

36

mdc 03.14.13 at 2:10 pm

I was struck by the NR remarks, too. Struck by something similar at TAC, as well. What I find most interesting is the convoluted, hall of mirrors ideology of racism here. Nowadays, it seems to me that for many on the left, racism is a feature of everyday life and an living inheritance of our past to be managed and gradually eroded; whereas on the right “racism” has become the epitome of all evils, the worst political sin conceivable.

Also, do you think the “pure” anti-democracy stuff is just for the high-brow types, or is there popular political support right now *that is not thoroughly entwined with white supremacy*?

37

roger gathman 03.14.13 at 2:43 pm

All I know about Calhoun’s political theories I read in Richard Hofstadter’s essay, The Marx of the Master Class. My takeaway from that was, as I remember, that Calhoun found a way of carving out, inside democracy, a way in which the master class could rule within a democratic form. This was the attraction of “small government” and “state’s rights”. The larger the polity, the more mixed the populace, the more lively the upward social mobility, the more the master class was doomed to decline and disintegrate. Small government, which aims at decentralizing government, is not the equivalent of more democratic government – and here I am using democracy to mean not only the process of electing representatives, but the preservative framework that protects rights, without which democracy separates from the notion of greater existential freedom for all and becomes a tyranny whipped up by those who can afford to run the election game. Calhoun saw how an ethnically and culturally homogeneous group of electors within a small domain could be dominated by a caste of permanent rulers. It is important to remember that the Southern states were not hospitable to immigrants, not like the Northern states were (at least, by force majeure – there were plenty of Know Nothings in the North, but immigrants largely favored Northern states, and even more so in the post-war period when the South embraced apartheid ).
I think, then, the issue is not about being anti-democratic so much as it is about manipulating the democratic process to some end – in Calhoun’s case, to enshrine the power of the landed aristocracy, or in other cases, to advantage some technocratic, ‘meritocratic’ group. The other case is unfolding, in fact, in the EU, where unelected technocrats, such as Monti in Italy, are represented as the true representatives of democracy, whereas “populists”, who just happen to garner an enormously larger vote, are represented as “anti-democratic”.

38

Hidari 03.14.13 at 2:52 pm

It is impossible to have a discussion about `what the majority wants` without having a discussion about who owns the schools and Universities (and who therefore controls what gets taught in them) and who owns the corporate (and non-corporate) media and what this tells us about what the general populace are informed about. It is true that English in particular have a problem with immigration but this has much to do with the fact that they are systematically and deliberately misinformed about the realities on the ground from. the faked (and essentially meaningless) `official statistics` to the scare stories in the Daily Mail and Daily Express etc.

39

Barry 03.14.13 at 3:01 pm

bad jim @15: “Another reading is that conservative politicians are merely cynics exploiting the ignorant electorate, their very success feeding their contempt. I’m not sure that’s generally the case, because their behavior is not greatly different than that of the elite arbiters of opinion who a decade ago lined up in support of the invasion of Iraq. It’s a waste of time to try to figure out the thinking that leads to a conclusion when there’s substantial evidence that thinking could not have been involved.”

I would phrase it as ‘I *am* sure that that is generally the case, because their behavior is not greatly different………’

IIRC, the majority of Americans didn’t support the war until a few months before the invasion, after (a) a terrorist attack, (b) massive lies and propaganda deliberately using that to support a war with Iraq, and (c) the fact that by a few months before the war it was clear that the administration was going to do whatever it wanted, full stop.

40

Barry 03.14.13 at 3:04 pm

Bruce: “Their conservative libertarian economic philosophy is laissez faire. “

No, their philosophy is that of Big Government – it’s just that want the big benefits reserved for them and theirs, and the big stick for everybody else. They love government money, they love using government to push people around.

41

Barry 03.14.13 at 3:11 pm

mdc @36: “whereas on the right “racism” has become the epitome of all evils, the worst political sin conceivable. “

In a sense you are right, given the right interpretations of the quotes around ‘racism’. On the right, calling somebody ‘racist’ is Ultimate Evul, particularly if it’s an accurate comment. Of course, calling the left ‘racist’ (or ‘fascist’, or ‘feminazi’) is just good clean fun, because…………

42

rf 03.14.13 at 3:17 pm

“IIRC, the majority of Americans didn’t support the war until a few months before the invasion,”

Here are the polling results from around that time, fwiw

http://www.gallup.com/poll/8074/iraq-war-triggers-major-rally-effect.aspx

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Anderson 03.14.13 at 3:18 pm

My takeaway from that was, as I remember, that Calhoun found a way of carving out, inside democracy, a way in which the master class could rule within a democratic form.

Presumably someone has looked at Calhoun’s thought vis-a-vis the first Reform Act in 1832 over in the U.K., which one has to suppose was a closely-followed debate on the American side of the water. Even that left only 650K voters (saith Wikipedia) out of 14 million people, 1 in 6 males having the vote.

So in the U.K. he had a “master class” enjoying democracy amongst themselves, while denying it to the great majority of the population. It would be strange if Calhoun didn’t find a lot to imitate there. Consider also the background of antebellum Anglophilia in the South.

44

Hector_St_Clare 03.14.13 at 3:24 pm

Re: The idea that 100 people coercing 99 is the triumph of justice, while 99 coercing 100 is an unspeakable tragedy seems highly immature. Democracy is a principle, one of many. Most of them, unfortunately, in conflict with each other, most of the time.

I agree, and I’ve always seen the love of democracy for its own sake as misplaced at best, and pretty much inane at worst. Democracy is a tool, like other forms of government are tools, that can be used for good ends or for bad. As I said on the Venezuela thread, it’s a means, not an end, and when it fails to achieve good ends it should be looked at much more critically.

Re: “whereas on the right “racism” has become the epitome of all evils, the worst political sin conceivable. “

I actually think the whole discourse about racism is going to change in the near future, what with the rise of the ‘race realist’ crowd, and with our increasing knowledge of how much of human behaviour is genetically influenced. (I’m not a race realist, but I’m much more of a hereditarian than I used to be when I was 18). I sort of suspect that ‘out and proud’ racism is going to get more popular in the near future. If the mass base of the Tea Party is blended together with the intellectual contributions of Steve Sailer and his sort, we could see the rise of a straight-up openly racist and eliminationist mass political party sometime in the next decade or two.

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Hector_St_Clare 03.14.13 at 3:24 pm

Re: The idea that 100 people coercing 99 is the triumph of justice, while 99 coercing 100 is an unspeakable tragedy seems highly immature. Democracy is a principle, one of many. Most of them, unfortunately, in conflict with each other, most of the time.

I agree, and I’ve always seen the love of democracy for its own sake as misplaced at best. Democracy is a tool, like other forms of government are tools, that can be used for good ends or for bad. As I said on the Venezuela thread, it’s a means, not an end, and when it fails to achieve good ends it should be looked at much more critically.

46

Anarcissie 03.14.13 at 3:31 pm

If democracy is ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’, one might want to first ask what government means. Well-known examples of the concept range from minimal, weak, strongly restrained institutions of classical liberalism, to authoritarian systems approaching the totalitarian, as in Mussolini’s formulation. The point one starts from along this spectrum is likely to color one’s opinion of the democracy that sort of government embodies, if any. There are many who might like to affect, however trivially, the grand, distant motions of the state, but do not want their neighbors to tell them what to eat for breakfast. Some may consider themselves to be ‘conservatives’ in that they think they are trying to conserve a notion of limited government.

Also, it might be worthwhile to clarify what one means by ‘by (the will of) the people’. If one wanted to elicit the will of the people, it would be reasonable (it seems to me) to attempt to obtain a wide diversity of opinions and desires about the proposed conduct of government from every kind of person, including the poorest and stupidest, and to make every possible effort to at least consider, if not amalgamate and synthesize, these opinions and desires into policies and actions. But that is not what happens in any democracy I know about. On the contrary, in that great poster child of democracy the United States, every effort is made by those in charge to cut the great majority out of both information and power, although a sort of sham is preserved in very occasional, highly manipulated elections. One could say this was a perversion of a good idea, but in fact it seems to be the dominant, indeed, the universal practice. So in fact no democracy is actually democratic — at least on the level of states.

From these two considerations — the vagueness about what ‘government’ is, and the ironies of democratic claims, one might indeed be dubious about a state claiming ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’, even forgiving the rather Hegelian romanticism of the slogan.

As for racism and other forms of tribalism, it seems that almost no one wants to justify them and almost everyone wants to practice them, but maybe this is a good sign, an evidence that people are at least struggling with the problem, including the right-wingers or ‘conservatives’.

47

Bruce Wilder 03.14.13 at 3:40 pm

Barry @ 40

As polemic, accusing the Republicans of being in favor of “Big Government” might be effective; I certainly don’t disagree about the pigs-in-the-trough aspect, or the use of arbitrary power aspect either, speaking from my own point of view.

In my previous comments, though, I was trying to get at how they see themselves, at the rough consistency internal to their own point of view.

From their own point-of-view, the essential point is that they favor weak beyond the point of incompetent, government, a government that fails to govern, a government, which never gets in the way of corporate business cheating or oppressing the mass of ordinary people, who are to have no legal recourse, no countervailing public power to appeal to.

They are perfectly happy to see the largess of the vestiges of “Big Government” spread around, in the form of bloated Defense contracts, or unrestrained health care spending or Federally-guaranteed mortgages or the private-prison industrial complex.

And, the pro-plutocracy forces are also perfectly happy to see the Government run roughshod over local communities, where democracy might rear its head — to prevent municipalities from creating an internet service provider, for example, or from regulating shale gas fracking.

The essential desiderata though is to let corporate business do as they will, and the people suffer what they must. And, that politics is rationalized with the laissez faire rhetoric of classical liberalism and Ayn Rand’s sociopathic, John Galt individualism.

48

Wonks Anonymous 03.14.13 at 3:48 pm

How late was it that any states had a black majority? Buckley’s prediction is falsified by the continued political dominance of whites in the south (at least at the state level), but it was my vague impression that they were the majority even at mid-century, whereas he seems to think they’ll be outvoted.

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Bruce Wilder 03.14.13 at 3:50 pm

KH @ 26

Not to be picky, but Britain’s castles were never instruments of national defense. Their function was to allow a small, parasitic elite to garrison the country after conquest.

50

ponce 03.14.13 at 4:22 pm

“Unlike many, Calhoun was willing to go out on a limb and say that the the principles of the Declaration of Independence were flat-out wrong.”

Today’s Republicans, 60s Republicans and antebellum Southern slaveholders all have one thing in common: The majority of Americans are/were against them.

Why wouldn’t they argue against majority rule?

51

SamChevre 03.14.13 at 5:02 pm

I’m still, even with the update, unclear on the practical difference between:

If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow down to the demands of the numerical majority.

And:

But the accusation that you wish “to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority”—that is, that you are resolutely opposed, if not downright hostile, to the basic norms of democracy….

the left’s qualms are actually rooted in fundamental democratic principles

If I’m understanding the argument, “democratic” is being overloaded the second statement. It’s meaning both “in favor of deciding by majority vote” AND “based on a theoretical underpinning of equality”.

If I’m right, then it’s not the anti-democracy-as-voting that’s at issue. It’s the classic, familiar quarrel between “maximizing liberty” (classic liberalism) and “maximizing equality” (classic socialism)–with both thinking that majority votes should be ignored if they go against those ends.

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Bruce Wilder 03.14.13 at 5:27 pm

Anarcissie @ 44

” . . . in fact no democracy is actually democratic — at least on the level of states” seems a trifle nihilistic.

In the first instance, I would recommend thinking about what social organization and political power are, long before tackling the concepts of governance and government, institutions, the commons, public goods and the state.

Power is the by-product of cooperative social organization, and power is not a zero-sum game. There’s no two-dimensional spectrum relating weak, “limited” government to strong, totalitarian government; nor is there a two-dimensional spectrum of centralized versus de-centralized. These are misleading oversimplifications, and best avoided.

Like most concepts, democratic, representative government can be usefully explored by contrast and contradistinction with opposing alternatives: monarchy, aristocracy, feudalism or, in the present discussion, maybe, plutocracy.

Democracy in America is under sustained assault, and has been throughout my lifetime. My earlier comments were to make the point that the unconcern about respecting the niceties surrounding the ritual of voting might have something to do with the ritual of voting becoming little more than a ritual. The Right doesn’t care at all, because their politics is not about governing through the institutions of representative government — they don’t want to exercise power; they want to abandon the power of the state to the power of private business corporations, while posing as celebrities. The ideology of the Right conveniently blends seamlessly with the interest of the cynically Corrupt. On these points, I trust we have similar views.

In relation to the OP, I question whether trying to rally anyone to the sacred arithmetic of ritual voting serves much substantive purpose in the circumstance. I certainly do not expect anyone on the Right to be embarrassed. I wish someone on the Left would be embarrassed by the triviality of their own commitments and concerns.

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Harold 03.14.13 at 6:10 pm

Wonks Anon @48 : See wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Majority_minority
Weirdly, “hispanics” (a euphemism for “Mestizo”?) are considered “non-white”, though I believe in Texas they were not, traditionally.

In any case, Blacks were certainly a majority in South Carolina at time of Calhoun and probably in much of the Deep South during reconstruction.

As I recall, white antebellum Southerners justified lived in a state of constant paranoid terror of Haitian-style black insurrection/revenge and this was their main rationalization for continued white supremacy and later Jim Crow. New Orleans, however, had a black majority without any ill effects, disproving their fears at the time. See Jerah Johnson’s fascinating “New Orleans’ Congo Square: An Urban Setting for Early Afro-American Culture Formation” (Louisiana Historical Assoc., 1991), among others.

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Jeffrey Davis 03.14.13 at 6:38 pm

Why break down superiority — for the purpose of ruling — to be a racial trait? Why not decide that the rulers should be drawn from an address in the priciest neighborhood in Manhattan? And after that, why not from the plushest building in the priciest neighborhood in Manhattan? And after that, why not from the penthouse of the plushest building in the priciest neighborhood in Manhattan. Why not, to move away from wealth, pick the survivor of a reality show on TV? Or the winner of a beauty contest? There’s no end of slicing and dicing superiority. Deciding that the necessary superiority for the basis of ruling is a racial one is simply announcing that you’re a racist. There’s no end to subsets of human traits.

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Alex 03.14.13 at 6:55 pm

I’d like to second SamChevre’s question @51. I’m sympathetic to the idea that left anti-majoritarianism is “democracy enhancing” in a way that right anti-majoritarianism isn’t, but I do think it requires a more thorough explanation.

56

Billikin 03.14.13 at 7:04 pm

Main Street Muse: “Why do so many Rand acolytes (Alan Greenspan, etc.) work in government? It’s a mystery.”

Two reasons come to mind. Handing out political favors, and sabotage.

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ponce 03.14.13 at 7:23 pm

“Two reasons come to mind. Handing out political favors, and sabotage.”

3. Self-loathing.

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Barry 03.14.13 at 7:23 pm

“Two reasons come to mind. Handing out political favors, and sabotage.”

And because making it in the private sector is hard?

I’ve thought that one of the major factors in young (male) college students embracing Rand was that they’re subsidized, and in a safe environment. It’s easy to think of oneself as an elite. If their parents kicked them out into the Real World at age 18, and the had to actually make their own living for a couple of years, they’d be more humble.

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rf 03.14.13 at 7:26 pm

“If their parents kicked them out into the Real World at age 18, and the had to actually make their own living for a couple of years, they’d be more humble.”

I don’t know. There’s nothing less humble than the self made man (in love with his maker, as the saying goes)

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rf 03.14.13 at 7:30 pm

Although I framed that wrong, you prob get the idea..

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Barry 03.14.13 at 7:37 pm

Yes, but I would hazard that a lot more would realize that ‘self-made’ is both hard-made and luckily-made.

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Carl 03.14.13 at 7:57 pm

Rob @ 33 said it best. Ultimately, the left feels exactly the same way about enacting “the will of the people” as the right does! If the “will of the people” flatters your political conceits, then democracy is sacred and must be respected. If it turns out that the majority do NOT in fact share your notions of how society ought to be ordered, well! What now?

In a sense, the right should be respected for being upfront about their position. They do not regard the magically aggregated “will” of millions of individuals to be a justification for anything, per se. Why would it be?! I don’t think the left’s cause is helped by holier-than-thou i.e more democratic-than-thou rhetoric.

I can’t be the only way who notices that there seem to be as many meanings of the word “democracy” as there are individuals using the term! Yet it is treated as a sacred concept, or sometimes a stick to beat people with. You’re racist! You’re going against the Will Of The People! etc

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Jerry Vinokurov 03.14.13 at 9:07 pm

Wow, we’re really doing some all-or-nothing thinking here.

As I said in a previous thread, almost no one seriously believes that “democracy” literally amounts to the majority being able to do whatever it wants to the minority. Not only would that be incredibly stupid, but it would also obviously fly in the face of lots of other left/liberal goals. Yeah, there are limits on democratic action; why are people acting like that’s not an established part of political theory? The fact remains that a system in which people don’t get to, at minimum, elect their government, is a system lacking a key aspect of legitimacy.

On the utilitarian side of things, we don’t need to show that every decision made by a democracy is uniformly better than every decision made by, say, an aristocracy or a monarchy. Owing to the nature of complex systems, we only need to show that democracies are more likely to make better decisions overall, while minimizing rights violations, all relative to other forms of government.

The aggregate (why magically?) will of millions of individuals cannot justify everything. But it can justify a lot of things.

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The Modesto Kid 03.14.13 at 9:09 pm

the majority of citizens in Southern states were African-Americans.

Were slaves citizens of the US?

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Wonks Anonymous 03.14.13 at 9:44 pm

Harold, wikipedia gives the 1930s as the latest period in which a southern state had a black majority. So it would seem to be well before Buckley’s time. Louisiana had a majority previously, but of course segregation was still in effect at that time.

Modesto Kid, the 13th amendment prohibited slavery and the 14th made them citizens.

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Wonks Anonymous 03.14.13 at 9:50 pm

I suppose I’m erring in only counting black majorities at a state-level when they would still have been a majority at a municipal level. Wouldn’t segregationist governors be powerful enough to impede whatever a city with a majority black electorate wanted to do? On the other hand, I know very little how state vs local conflicts have played out in American history.

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Hector_St_Clare 03.14.13 at 10:08 pm

Re: If their parents kicked them out into the Real World at age 18, and the had to actually make their own living for a couple of years, they’d be more humble.

Being poor and struggling doesn’t necessarily make you humble, it can do quite the opposite. (If it did, the phenomenon of left-wing vanguardist ideology wouldn’t exist). It can make you resent your powerlessness and fantasize about how your going to put the smackdown on rich people when the revolution happens.

Re: The fact remains that a system in which people don’t get to, at minimum, elect their government, is a system lacking a key aspect of legitimacy.

Depending on what you consider legitimacy. People have certainly defined legitimacy in other ways (ideological correctness, heredity, historical inevitability, religious/moral purity, etc.) that had nothing to do with popular consent.

Re: Ultimately, the left feels exactly the same way about enacting “the will of the people” as the right does!

Well, sort of. At a global level, yes. There are left-wing authoritarians in other countries. I don’t think there are many in America, though, except maybe me. Things like communism, Trotskyism, violent Black nationalism, etc. were never more than trivial fringe phenomena in America. Right-wing authoritarian movements, by contrast, were a much bigger deal.

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Salient 03.14.13 at 10:32 pm

Re: The idea that 100 people coercing 99 is the triumph of justice, while 99 coercing 100 is an unspeakable tragedy seems highly immature.

More specifically, it’s the whole notion of ‘coercion’ underlying that idea that is highly immature. In general, people who complain of state coercion while championing interpersonal coercion are either immature or pathological. [Which is not to say anyone here is doing that; that’s the National Review’s purview…]

69

Consumatopia 03.14.13 at 11:37 pm

Take Romney’s complaints about losing because voters wanted “free stuff”. That kind of complaint–which I guess goes back to Road to Serfdom–isn’t just that the current population of voters has bad preferences, it’s that democracy as a form of government actually changes voters and makes their preferences worse by creating a culture of dependency (“takers” or whatever). It is not merely that democracy empowers a corrupt majority, it’s that democracy is the actual source of the corruption.

There are plenty of times when when people on the left disagree with the outcome of a democracy and ask for courts to overrule it. But does the left have any Road to Serfdom moments in which democracy itself, rather than the existing prejudices of current voters, is the problem?

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Hector_St_Clare 03.14.13 at 11:48 pm

Re: isn’t just that the current population of voters has bad preferences, it’s that democracy as a form of government actually changes voters and makes their preferences worse

I think you can make somewhat similar arguments specifically against *liberal* democracy from a left-wing perspective actually. You can make an argument that by encouraging rich people and poor people to both fight for their self-interest in the open political arena, you are going to aggravate people’s sense of self-interest and greed, and favour those who are best equipped to pursue their self interest and to compete in the arena (i.e. the rich). And that only by subordinating everyone from every class to an authoritarian state, can you suppress greed and self interest and get people to think about the common good. This isn’t really a *Marxist* argument as such, it’s probably more what he would have called a sort of left-wing Bonapartist argument, but it’s certainly an argument that was made a lot during the twentieth century by a lot of aspiring left-wing authoritarians (and by some of the more radical followers of Chavez today). I think I was up front about my sympathies in the Chavez thread, but it’s also an argument I at least partly agree with.

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Jacob McM 03.15.13 at 2:24 am

<iYou can make an argument that by encouraging rich people and poor people to both fight for their self-interest in the open political arena, you are going to aggravate people’s sense of self-interest and greed, and favour those who are best equipped to pursue their self interest and to compete in the arena (i.e. the rich). And that only by subordinating everyone from every class to an authoritarian state, can you suppress greed and self interest and get people to think about the common good. This isn’t really a *Marxist* argument as such, it’s probably more what he would have called a sort of left-wing Bonapartist argument

This is actually a corporatist argument that’s historically been very popular among the European right. It was made by nineteenth century Catholics (Adam Müller, Franz von Baader, Frédéric Le Play, Albert de Mun, René de La Tour de Pin), neo-feudalists (Carlyle, Ruskin), as well as by various Romantic nationalists and their interwar Fascist progeny. Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz

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Jacob McM 03.15.13 at 2:25 am

You can make an argument that by encouraging rich people and poor people to both fight for their self-interest in the open political arena, you are going to aggravate people’s sense of self-interest and greed, and favour those who are best equipped to pursue their self interest and to compete in the arena (i.e. the rich). And that only by subordinating everyone from every class to an authoritarian state, can you suppress greed and self interest and get people to think about the common good. This isn’t really a *Marxist* argument as such, it’s probably more what he would have called a sort of left-wing Bonapartist argument

This is actually a corporatist argument that’s historically been very popular among the European right. It was made by nineteenth century Catholics (Adam Müller, Franz von Baader, Frédéric Le Play, Albert de Mun, René de La Tour de Pin), neo-feudalists (Carlyle, Ruskin), as well as by various Romantic nationalists and their interwar Fascist progeny. Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz

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Hector_St_Clare 03.15.13 at 2:39 am

Oh yea, right, it has right-wing versions. Famously, the interwar Catholic church (maybe the Orthodox too) made similar arguments. You can make the same argument in a left-wing vein too, was my point.

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Hector_St_Clare 03.15.13 at 2:41 am

Hobsbawm interpreting Marx, in his essay “Peasants and Politics”:

“[Marx] argues that because of their peculiarities as a class, peasants are: ‘incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own name….They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented. The representative must at the same time appear as their master, or as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power that protects them against other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the smallholding peasant, therefore, finds its final expression in the [State] subordinating society to itself.’ The importance of the political father- or mother-figure, or the patron-state in the politics of peasant counntries today, is worth investigating with Marx’s observation in mind.”

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Billikin 03.15.13 at 5:31 pm

Wonks Anonymous: “Harold, wikipedia gives the 1930s as the latest period in which a southern state had a black majority. So it would seem to be well before Buckley’s time. Louisiana had a majority previously, but of course segregation was still in effect at that time.”

Louisiana had the “one drop rule”, which meant that to have any Black ancestor classified you as Black. Given the creole history of Louisiana, that made virtually every native born Louisianan a Black.

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SamChevre 03.15.13 at 6:06 pm

Louisiana had the “one drop rule”, which meant that to have any Black ancestor classified you as Black.

I think that’s backward. Louisiana was a 1/32 state and never adopted a one-drop rule IIRC.

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John Malone 03.15.13 at 7:18 pm

Interesting discussion.

With respect to the Tanenhaus piece, the reaction at National Review is indeed telling. The dirty little secret of today’s GOP is that its post-1964 ascendency was built squarely on racial politics. LBJ predicted the realignment of Southern whites when he signed the Civil Rights Act, and he was right about both the event and its cause.

The anti-majoritarian strain in white Southern politics cannot be cleanly disentangled from its racial obsessions, precisely because it derives from the white South’s self-image as an enclave of ethnic purity under constant threat from the mongrel hordes that surround it. It’s true that this self-image includes potent cultural and religious elements as well, but these are themselves often understood in racial terms. Southern oligarchs, as Michael Lind points out in a brilliant piece published in Salon last year, look upon poor whites with almost as much contempt as they feel for black Americans, but their characteristic admonishment to the former is expressed in racial language: they should “act like white men” and not allow themselves to sink to the level of African-Americans.

This siege mentality among white Southerners shapes the entire political and cultural vision of the region. Like any believer in herrenvolk democracy, the white South defines its polity as much by whom it excludes as by whom it welcomes. The sense of constant threat gives rise to the paranoia and extremism so common in the region’s political rhetoric, and to the inclination to regard compromise as treachery. These traits, in turn, make it difficult to regard one’s opposition as simply another group of rational actors pursuing its goals in the political, economic, and cultural system. One doesn’t see them as just mistaken or confused: one sees them as ILLEGITIMATE.

These are, of course, precisely the features that distinguish today’s GOP, particularly its incarnation in the House of Representatives. Welcome to the Southernization of conservative politics.

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Jacob McM 03.16.13 at 12:17 am

While debating James Baldwin in the 1960s, when the topic of the black franchise came up, William Buckley said something to the effect of “the problem is not that too few black people are voting, but that too many white people are.”

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Will 03.16.13 at 7:10 pm

I would say that racism is not even an important or essential part of Calhoun’s worldview. It’s elitism based on cultural superiority, not too dissimilar from Nietzsche’s — race enters the picture only incidentally. As Hofstadter’s wonderful essay “John C. Calhoun: Marx of the Master Class” argues, Calhoun’s underlying analysis was not far from Marx’s, but he opted to go radical in a much different way: http://www.mc.cc.md.us/Departments/hpolscrv/jccalhoun.html

As reactionaries go, Calhoun was extraordinarily honest (much more honest than Burke, much more honest than the propagators of all that “divine right” bullshit, much more honest than Thomas Jefferson…). So was Fitzhugh (also not racist). So was Carlyle, who is closely related (racist, but also with plenty of contempt for poor white people!). It is this fact that accounts for modern conservatives discomfort with them.

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Corey Robin 03.16.13 at 8:55 pm

Will at 79: You’re wrong about race and Calhoun, and I’d definitely not follow Hofstadter here.

Race is central to how Calhoun understands and justifies slavery. As he makes clear in his speech on the reception of abolitionist petitions (1837), he “denie[s] having pronounced slavery in the abstract a good.” It is only good “where a civilized race and a race of a different description were bound together.” He refers repeated to “the Central African race” and the beneficial effects of slavery upon that specific “race” (in fact the parliamentary reporter makes a point of noting that “he did not speak of the north or the east of Africa, but of its central regions.”

Calhoun has to emphasize race as much as he does because he also wants to make the point that capital everywhere subjugates labor (this is the passage that Hofstadter focuses so much attention on, in a misleading way). The implication of that argument is that capital should be enslaving all labor, whether white or black (that incidentally was the path Fitzhugh chose and Calhoun explicitly rejected). But Calhoun was too shrewd and astute to go down that path, for he also understood that if slavery were to survive and be defended in a proto-democratic society where white men had the franchise (though that was hardly the case in South Carolina), it would have to be racialized.

And so that is why in his speech on the Oregon Bill (1848), he makes the point explicit: “With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.”

Calhoun is one of the earliest theoreticians of Dubois’s notion of the “psychological wage” white skin privilege pays. It’s almost impossible to claim that race is not central to his vision of slavery.

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John Malone 03.18.13 at 3:25 pm

In fairness, I think Will’s construction of Hofstadter’s remarks has more to do with the former than the latter. In “The Marx of the Master Class,” Hofstadter is clearly struck by Calhoun as the mirror image of Marx: someone who saw class antagonism as a constant in history but approved rather than condemned it. (‘There must always be a mudsill class.”) But Hofstadter realized that Calhoun used this belief as part of a defense of black slavery specifically, and was himself a thorough-going racist. He quotes a chilling letter Calhoun wrote to an overseer on his estate, instructing that a slave receive “lashes well laid on” as punishment for some offense or another.

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Corey Robin 03.18.13 at 4:29 pm

John at 81: Oh, I know, though I still think Hofstadter gets it wrong. The rhetorical thrust of that essay, from the title down, is on what you say above: Calhoun as the inverse of Marx. That is the central abiding idea. The racial dimension is contingent for Hofstadter, not constitutive, whereas it seems clear to me in Calhoun that it is constitutive, driving the entire conception he has of what slavery is all about. It’s a subtle distinction, I agree, but not an unfair one, I don’t think.

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John Malone 03.18.13 at 7:58 pm

The distinction is certainly well-taken, and opens a nice interpretive window onto the essay. I’m just speculating here, of course, but it seems to me Hofstadter might have been willing to accept both dimensions— the racial and the economic— as constitutive for Calhoun’s view of slavery. But it any case, only the economic dimension was constitutive for Hofstadter’s interest in Calhoun. He was clearly driven to distraction by the power of a relatively crude Lockeanism (as he saw it) over the American mind, and seemed fascinated by Calhoun as an example of that logic carried to its remorseless, merciless end.

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