Friday, June 23, 2017

Populism, Technocracy, and the Liberal Critique of Democracy

Democracy is not much in fashion among liberals today. Reeling from the perceived disasters of Trump and Brexit—and the near misses of Le Pen and Corbyn—many of today’s most perceptive liberal commentators have rediscovered every traditional elites distaste for demotic populism. Even as they excoriate red states for curtailing voting rights, a growing body of intellectuals vigorously campaigns to devalue the vote as much as possible. The hope is that further empowering a class of sober experts and technocrats can counteract the hysterical extremes of mass democracy. There are good reasons to embrace such a thesis. After all, American school children are still rightly taught that ours is a republican form of government, not a direct democracy. Long after the death of Socrates, we know better than to place untrammeled faith in The People.

But today’s defenses of elite rule leave much to be desired. It is easy enough to lament the decisions of the demos. It is easier still to succumb to the technocratic temptation: If democracy is the problem, less democracy is the solution. But as the most assiduous students of American politics have always understood, democracy in this country is a providential fact. The impulse to push it aside and to ignore popular sentiment will inevitably result in evermore explosive reaction. Even with the most sophisticated of institutional implements, populism cannot be excised like a tumor from the body politic. It must be tamed through the hard work of deliberation and persuasion. Neither simplistic plebiscitary elections nor simplistic technocratic autonomy will adequately balance the legitimate demands of deliberative independence within our government with a respect for popular opinion within our society. For the diseases most incident to democratic government, only democratic remedies will do. The problem is too little politics, not too much. 

The liberal critique of democracy

Examples of liberalism’s rediscovery of the elite critique of democracy are not hard to find. Indeed, vulgar versions of Plato’s critique of the demos spring aggressively from the nation’s storied liberal institutions. In a recent issue of the New Yorker Adam Gopnik takes aim at one of the few intact elements of America’s national mythology: the moral triumphalism of the American Revolution. Revisiting the legacy of America’s founding is, of course, nothing new. Intellectual conservatives from Fisher Ames to Russell Kirk have always agonized over the Enlightenment faith of our novus ordo seclorum. Progressives since Charles Beard (or rather William Lloyd Garrison) have celebrated the Revolution’s emancipatory promise while lamenting its suffocation by a conservative constitutional settlement. But a left-liberal critique of the American Revolution itself—specifically of the radical democratic principles underlying it—is relatively rare in our history.

Yet this is precisely the line Gopnik takes. He suggests that we might all be better off had our colonial rebellion been snuffed out from the start. Using categories from recent works of history by Justin Du Rivage, Alan Taylor, and Holger Hoock, Gopnik laments the triumph of Radical Whiggism over Authoritarian Reformism in resolving the American Question. The former camp—which counted as members the entire founding generation—championed Enlightenment ideals and an abiding democratic faith. The Authoritarian Reformers, on the other hand, were the managers and technocrats of the day. Their members included such forgotten figures as William Murray and Matthew Decker. Though guided by relatively humane, liberal moral sentiments, Gopnik’s reformers were far from enthusiastic partisans for utopian transformation. They were experts and bureaucrats, immune from great swings of popular fervor and uniquely capable of driving the nation toward her true interests.

Gopnik suggests that the path of Authoritarian Reform might have been wiser than the bold experiment in republicanism we began. Under their sober rule, America might even have ended slavery without a civil war. As the piece’s title insists, “We Could Have Been Canada.” Orson Welles’ Switzerland too may serve as a counterfactual ideal: instead of warfare and genius, centuries of peace and cuckoo clocks.

It may help to understand Gopnik’s preferred regime of technocratic governance by imagining the state as a massive corporation, managed not by voters and their elected representatives, but by a board of shareholders. The shareholders are each invested in the long-term wellbeing of the polity. That interest allows them to see beyond the hysteria of today’s demotic demands. They are uninspiring men, of course. Bureaucrats always are. But that too is a feature, not a bug, of the system. Inspiration breeds utopian enthusiasm and the cult of charisma. These, Gopnik warns, lead on to “theatrical violence” and Trump.

(As an aside, if that analogy is just, Gopnik finds himself with some surprising ideological bedfellows. The reconceptualization of the state as a firm and its rulers as shareholders is prominently laid out by Mencius Moldbug, a leading alt-right figure of online “neoreaction.” Of course, sharing a particular ideal of political governance with such a thinker need not imply anything about Gopnik or the view—or about Moldbug, for that matter. But pointing out such intellectual concatenations is one of the more amusing pastimes available to us amidst the crisis of today’s political institutions.)

Gopnik’s historical counterfactual of America as Canada is best read as playful and provocative, not as historically rigorous conjecture. It is silly, after all, to believe that America’s brutal racial history would have been painlessly erased if only bureaucrats had more power. With a fifth of the nation enslaved at the founding and with slavery economically flourishing throughout the early nineteenth century, our country seems to have been destined for a bloody end to that chapter of our history, regardless.   

Still, Gopnik’s ruminations can helpfully broaden our imaginings of what an America without (or with less) democracy might look like. That theme is picked up in a more scholarly tone in a recent paper by Jonathan Rauch and Ben Wittes. Both senior fellows at Brookings, another of our nation’s august liberal institutions (and my current employer), Rauch and Wittes make explicit the core assumption implicit in Gopnik’s essay: The American electorate is too ignorant to be trusted with the serious business of governing.

Working readers through a body of empirical research that is by now old hat to political scientists, the paper catalogs the myriad respects in which voters are incapable of making complex policy judgments. It’s not that voters are stupid. They are just rationally ignorant—too busy with life to develop the expertise needed for judicious policymaking. Of course, Rauch and Wittes chafe at the suggestion that they are somehow anti-democratic. They run through a cursory discussion of democracy’s various moral advantages and of the political legitimacy conferred by episodic elections. One need not be a dedicated Straussian, however, to read that portion of the argument as a bit of esoteric misdirection.

Nevertheless, Rauch and Wittes rightly point out how progressive efforts to democratize the political process have produced much of the political sclerosis that now afflicts us. Building off Rauch’s fine essay in the Atlantic last year (about which I blogged at the time), they argue that transparency comes at the expense of compromise. Political reforms that weaken party bosses and equalize campaign financing unintentionally favor charismatic demagogues who can bypass the enabling constraints of back-room deals and the quid pro quo.

There is a great deal of truth in all this. Effective political deliberation requires space between voters and legislators. A golden mean must be struck between outright political corruption and unrelenting popular pressure. If an earlier moment of American politics was too extreme with respect to the former, today’s political culture suffers from the opposite plight. Who, after all, can recognize Publius’ sagacious upper house in the actual workings of the American Senate?

Unfortunately, Rauch and Wittes’ prescription is ill suited to the disease they diagnose. They call for an invigoration of America’s “intermediary institutions,” a category under which they unhelpfully lump everything from the Democratic National Committee to the National Security Agency to the Federal Reserve Board. The only discernible thread unifying these various institutions is their common anti-populist character. But intermediary institutions in the spirit of Tocqueville and Madison aren’t just mechanistic barriers that obstruct popular opinion. They certainly serve to temper populist impulses, but they do so by channeling prejudice, not by blocking it. Their essential purpose, in Madison’s memorable telling, is to “refine and enlarge” the public views. With this ultimate telos in mind, only some of Rauch and Wittes’ preferred institutional reforms will do. Greater privacy in legislative deliberations will help; empowering unaccountable bureaucrats won’t.

Rauch and Wittes focus overwhelmingly on the checks-and-balances within the national government. But that’s only part of the story. Many of our most important mediating institutions aren’t constitutional veto-points; they are the spaces between voters and the national government. Everything from local government and political parties to organized religion and the media must be considered. Schools and workplaces are especially indispensable loci of citizen formation and education. Focusing excessively on parchment barriers, Rauch and Wittes exhibit a classic liberal conceit. They aim to construct the state as a kind of perpetual motion machine, capable of churning out progress regardless of what inputs are thrown in. Precisely because most citizens spend so little time thinking about national politics—the cause of the ignorance Rauch and Wittes diagnose—politics needs to begin from the worlds most people do inhabit. Both institutionally and culturally, a democratic politics must meet voters where they are.

The wisdom in prejudice

The anti-democratic turn in liberalism has no shortage of scholarly antecedents to draw upon. Recent work in political philosophy and political science—Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’ Democracy for Realists, Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy, and Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance—forms the regular basis of highbrow critiques of populism. But better guide to the complexities of democratic life is Bryan Garsten’s 2006 defense of rhetoric and politics, Saving Persuasion. Garsten brings out the roots of today’s liberal ambivalence toward democratic politics. His chapters on Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant make painfully clear the typically unspoken premises that guide Gopnik, Rauch, and Wittes. The canonical figures of early modernity cut to the core of our contemporary discontent with democracy. Democratic politics relies on the judgment of the people, but that judgment is so often commandeered by the demagogic forces of zealotry and factionalism. Few observers emerging from the horrors of Europe’s sectarian history could place much confidence in popular wisdom. The only solution, Hobbes and his intellectual successors declare, is to alienate private judgment, to chain oneself to the public reason of the sovereign. Individual citizens are too unreliable a ground to build a stable politics. Their private judgments must be restricted to the ever-shrinking confines of a private sphere.

Garsten’s readers cannot help but sympathize with the retreat from a politics of rhetoric. A Kantian sovereignty of scholars easily seems preferable to the whims of public opinion. But the attendant technocratic temptation to sever private judgment from the work of government simply will not do in a society like our own. Perhaps a purer aristocracy could flourish in a different place or a different time—on this front, western political thinkers may be guilty of an excessive ideological imperialism. But for all our constitution’s institutional complexity, Tocqueville reminds us, there is no such thing as a “mixed regime.” A deep democratic spirit is our national patrimony. That is no counsel of fatalistic despair, it is a call for us to preserve and to elevate the best in our democratic tradition.

Rauch and Wittes rightly point to intermediary institutions as needed remedies, but they give no way to identify what those institutions are beyond not being democratic. Garsten provides a sounder point of departure: a commitment to deliberation and rhetoric. An obsession with voters’ ignorance leads many to minimize the role of these foundational democratic practices. But as Garsten reminds us, that impulse invariably proves counterproductive:
Liberal strategies of political and moral disengagement, strategies that ask in one way or another for citizens to allow their private judgments to be replaced by judgments made from a separate public perspective, tend to produce forms of opinion more dogmatic and less prone to deliberative engagement than those they initially sought to displace. (Garsten, 185).
Today’s liberal critics of democracy join the early moderns in warning us that public debate and deliberation reward zealotry and demagoguery. That fear of sectarianism leads liberalism to elevate sovereign “public reason” over factious “private reason.” The aim is to demoralize politics, to take ideology out of public debate. Government must be built around agreement over mutually beneficial political procedures, not a thick conception of the good. The goal is a politics of dispassionate reason, often best administered by an insulated, independent political class.

But as Leo Strauss pointed out in a 1941 lecture on the rise of rightwing “German Nihilism,” the attempt to remove life’s most consequential moral debates from politics is itself the cause of the most dangerous forms of populist reaction. Instead of bypassing the dangers of passion, the liberal regime breeds deep discontent. Few will long be satisfied by “the prospect of a pacified planet, without rulers and ruled, of a planetary society devoted to production and consumption only.” Moral passions are inescapable features of human psychology. If repeatedly frustrated and ignored, they produce revolution, not pacification. The democrat’s task is to take seriously these deep-seated convictions, not to relegate them to an increasingly narrow private sphere.

The past two years have witnessed populist backlash throughout the West against an unaccountable “political class.” It almost beggars belief that so many commentators respond by calling for less accountability and more technocratic governance. In America, the Supreme Court’s usurpation of so many issues from the public domain has hardened popular discontent, eliminating the cathartic possibilities of politics. Likewise, the accretion of power in our administrative state has radically empowered the presidency at the expense of the Congress, destroying the possibility of legislative deliberation and transforming presidential elections into precisely the plebiscitary referenda liberals fear. How can it be responsible to react to such phenomena with a call for more technocracy?

Institutional reforms are needed to confront the dangers of a populist politics. But those reforms must entail a commitment to tutoring and refining the wisdom embodied in popular opinion. At its best, democracy begins from a basic respect for the beliefs and emotions of ordinary people. Yet that is the opposite of what is accomplished by the moralizing lectures that dominate contemporary politics. Cultural elites no longer see themselves as embedded within a common culture. As the Onion captured with characteristic clarity, they too often see themselves as the possessors of a special wisdom. “If only the people weren’t so ignorant...” the lamentation runs. “If only they could consume the emancipatory tonic of reason.”

Rhetoric, Garsten reminds us, is the forgotten link between popular and elite opinion. It is the means by which political elites respect ordinary people’s convictions, while aiming to persuade them of something new. Through this back and forth, we rule and are ruled in turn. Rhetoric, therefore, is in large part the art of trust-production. But today, much of the American elite has abandoned that art. Millions of America have lost all trust in established organs of elite opinion. In moderation, that skepticism is a healthy feature of our democratic culture. But it is taken to unbearable extremes when fueled by transparent disdain from the nation's progressive elite. Trump’s call to “Build the Wall” was widely understood by supporters not as a serious campaign promise, but as evidence that this candidate actually respected people's deep-seated concerns surrounding immigration and identity. Likewise, the visceral condemnation of “political correctness” popular today on the political right reflects the deep disrespect many Americans experience from their social betters.

Importantly, respect for popular prejudice isn’t just a demand of prudence. It reflects a genuine appreciation of the wisdom latent within popular opinion. Bill Buckley’s famous quip that he would rather submit our government to the first 100 names in the Boston phone book than to the Harvard faculty was not simply a denunciation of our elite. It was a reflection of the close connection between popular prejudice and the truth. In the case of immigration, for example, the bipartisan refusal to engage with popular discontent wasn’t just politically unwise. It was a major mistake as a matter of public policy.

With an academic and professional class increasingly detached from these founts of popular wisdom and common sense, we risk falling victim to the ideology of a self-contained clique. If a class of people or a set of views is systematically ignored, the merits of their beliefs are easily overlooked. Their genuine grievances go unanswered, challenging popular trust in government and undermining the public weal. 

As the anti-federalists were quick to point out during the ratification debates, a ruling class that fails to resemble the country loses its legitimacy and is more inclined to govern in the interest of the narrow, ruling class it does represent. More recently, Jane Mansbridge has revived the case for descriptive representation. As she argues, being represented by people like you is a valuable means of keeping the government responsive to the opinions and interests of a wider share of the country.

Of course, popular prejudice can harbor insidious strands of bigotry and self-interest. If left in its crudest forms, it can be dangerous and myopic. All the more necessary then that we preserve the means of its refinement. Corrupt views cannot be bludgeoned out of the popular consciousness. They must be respected and engaged through the dedicated appeal to shared values and collective identity. A commitment to a politics of deliberation takes seriously the liberal critique of populist democracy, while proposing a more workable and desirable political alternative.

What then is to be done? An indispensable first step is a renaissance of legislative authority. As Richard Reinsch argues, a Congress willing to reassert its constitutional powers will go a long way in restoring a more deliberative tenor to our politics. Reforms within the Congress will help as well. Rauch and Wittes’ call for greater secrecy in legislative deliberations reflects a genuine need for more independence from constant public oversight. At the same time, devolving political decision-making to more local levels of government is needed to restore mediating institutions between the citizens and Washington. Most overlooked, however, is the need to re-train a people that is losing its taste and its capacity for judgment. As all aspects of our society grow increasingly rigid and routinized, our social institutions no longer provide a sorely needed education in practical wisdom. There is no quick fix to that problem. It demands a broader cultural shift in favor of more humane workplaces and deliberative social institutions.

Addressing our society’s deep cultural pathologies will be enormously difficult. Technocracy offers what appears to be a convenient shortcut. But if history is any guide, aristocratic prescriptions are no cure for democratic ills. Arbitrarily restricting public debate by empowering unelected judges and experts will only inflame populist hostility and social dysfunction.


Institutional and cultural reform is needed to protect a fragile politics of deliberation. Today, that politics finds itself under siege from both mass democracy and elite pretensions of enlightenment. Through deliberative politics, we do not disregard and denounce unconsidered prejudice. Instead, we respect the wisdom embodied in popular opinion, as well as the wisdom needed to refine and enlarge the public views. 

In a free society, sovereignty cannot be singularly located in any individual or institution. Layers of overlapping authorities provide the institutional infrastructure of any humane political community. It is just as dangerous to glorify national referenda as it is to place excessive faith in the wisdom of experts. There is no authoritative voice of The People. There is nothing magic about the opinion of a naked majority. Brexit and Trump command no profound legitimacy as the expression of popular sovereignty. Still, such results can be valuable rebukes of a political class thoroughly out of touch with significant segments of the country. The revolt against the Establishment throughout the West is a crude corrective from an enraged Tribunate. We ignore the Tribune’s warnings at our peril.

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