Note: I have a new post up on Taki today about the Church of Covid. Good to see the headline writer finally took my advice. I also have a new post up behind the green door on the 80’s comedy Back to School.
An old criticism of liberal democracy was that the system would inevitably become less stable, as each election would result in a wild swing in direction. The people would support position X in one election and then support position Y in the next election, with X and Y being opposite positions on some issue. We are getting a sense of that now with Biden’s handlers promising a reversal of Trump’s policies, which were allegedly a sharp break from the policies of predecessors.
One reason for this is that liberal democracies are bourgeois societies, in which the old instinct to dress up interests in objectivity and civic virtue remain strong. It is considered immoral for a group to press their interests in a purely partisan way, so everyone insists that science and the public good are the motivations. The deliberate destruction by the elites of the civic life of societies is not just a naked attempt to remake the world in their image, but an effort to build back better.
Bourgeois objectivity, however, does not work as a brake on the partisanship that comes with democracy. Instead, it works to magnify it. Every issue, instead of being a fight between interested parties, is a fight for eternal truth and cosmic justice. Voting for party X is not about where your bread is buttered, but about where you stand in the moral hierarchy, relative to the people in party Y. The polarization we are seeing today is not about practical politics, but about good versus evil.
Of course, in order to arrive at the point of bourgeois partisanship, you first must arrive at a post-scarcity society. When the threat of extinction is no longer obvious, the people are free to indulge in fantasy and leisure items. In the Cold War, the West avoided this state because the threat of nuclear war was real. The sober-minded had the primary duty of keeping the frivolous under control. Once that was removed, the frivolous and insane were free to run wild through society.
The result is a strange paradox. The issues that rise to the top are increasingly trivial and ridiculous, but the partisanship around them becomes more intense. Two men playing house is a fact of life going back to the dawn of man, but suddenly the embrace of this became a defining issue. If that was not ridiculous enough, what followed was a parade of men in dresses demanding we play along with them. Then it was people with a list of bizarre pronouns demanding validation.
At some level, the bourgeois partisan knows this, but instead of acknowledging the obvious, the demand for public judgement becomes more intense. In the Cold War, the Left had get out the vote drives, by which they meant rigging the voting in major urban areas. Otherwise, there was a quiet understanding that voting should be left to those who pay attention. Today, voting is a moral duty and we are endlessly reminded of it in the months before an election. The truth must be decided.
This is probably the only thing about liberal democracy that makes sense. If everyone votes, then the winners can claim a mandate. If Trump voters, for example, realized the vote was being rigged and boycotted the election last week, the winners could not legitimately claim a mandate. This used to be a tactic in low-trust societies ruled by an elite seeking legitimacy at the ballot box. In modern societies, everyone assumes the truth is fifty-percent-plus-one, so everyone must vote.
Here is where we stumble into another paradox of liberal democracy and another source of partisan anger. All human societies have elites and those elites control the institutions of the society. In theory, popular forms of government either check the power of the elites or place real power into the hands of the people. In one variation, the powerful propose and people dispose. In the other variation the people both propose and dispose. Democracy is about the public will.
In reality, voting is entirely meaningless in a liberal democracy, as the elites control public policy exclusively. The winning side in 1992 thought they were getting a folksy John F Kennedy, when they just got a skeevy Bush I. Bush voters thought they were getting a dim version of Reagan, but got Lyndon Johnson. The people celebrating Biden think they will get reeducation camps and proscription lists, but instead they will end up with a less coherent version of Bush II.
As the researchers in this 2014 study found, those elites that are a permanent feature of all societies control public policy in a liberal democracy, just as they do in every other form of government. In liberal democracy, however, the people are blind to this reality, instead believing that the market place of democracy decides. If elite opinion tracked public opinion, no one would mind, but when elite opinion is at war with the public, it becomes another source of partisan rage.
This leads to the final paradox of liberal democracy. The most rational strategy for minority interests is to withdraw consent, as this strips some legitimacy from the winner of the democratic process. Instead, partisans become more intensely partisan after each electoral defeat and every betrayal. In two years, those red MAGA hats will be a bloody shirt inspiring partisans to vote for the GOP, who will promptly betray those voters at the first opportunity. The anger will keep rising.
The reason that the world appears to be going mad is that liberal democracy, without the brake of thermonuclear war, is a runaway train of partisan fury. Instead of disputes being settled at the ballot box, each election intensifies the dispute. Haldane famously observed that fanaticism is man’s greatest invention. That’s because it is his greatest weapon. As partisan fury rises in liberal democracy, the fanatic becomes the most valued participant. It becomes rule by fanatic.
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