06 October 2009

Is Popular Sovereignty a Menace?

Back when a man killed an abortion doctor earlier this year, many observers compared the perpetrator to an Islamist terrorist. According to Daniel McCarthy in The American Conservative, one blogger even dubbed the shooter a "Christianist" to make him equivalent to "Islamists." Interestingly, McCarthy isn't going to dispute that the shooter and the terrorists are similarly motivated. He just thinks that religion has less to do with it than many people think.

McCarthy is willing to grant that Muslim terrorists are fighting for a system of rights, much as the American shooter was fighting for the "right to life." To him, this means that mere religion is only a secondary motivation for either party. "The primary one is political: the belief that the state must uphold the values of the people (rightly understood), and should it fail to do so, ordinary men may take action." The American gunman and Osama bin Laden are equally in thrall to the idea of republicanism, the small-r kind as opposed to capital-R partisanship.

The essence of republicanism, according to McCarthy, is that "the people" must have their way. But his critical commentary reads more like a critique of populism, which is always a kind of selective republicanism. This comes through when he discusses the U.S. "In the United States, every four years it transpires that some people are more truly American than others -- they are the 'real America,' regardless of how outnumbered they might be by inhabitants of the coasts and cities."

I don't agree with all of McCarthy's premises, but he seems to be on to something. He accepts that all people are susceptible to what St. Augustine called the libido dominandi or the "appetite for power," and that republicanism taps into a universal libido dominandi that was once enjoyed only by monarchs or aristocrats. "Yet because the republican spirit leads people to believe that their will and values should be expressed in government, it follows that when the state fails to live up to those expectations, individuals feel thwarted and alienated," McCarthy resumes, "A passion has been excited, then denied....[W]hen a government that claims that it is ["the people'] fails to do what the public -- or the person who thinks he speaks for the public -- demands, the entire theory of legitimacy upon which the state rests has been undermined. A practical justification for revolution and the psychological impetus for one (frustration) has emerged."

This is interesting because it seems to explain behaviors on both left and right without taking either side. The problem seems to be that republicanism may not be compatible with pluralism, the idea that society or polity can be composed of different groups, not all of whom can expect to get their way on every question. Extremists on the right see themselves as the "real" Americans, while their counterparts on the left see themselves as "the people." Both attitudes are exclusionary and come with an expectation of entitlement, an idea that politics should be set up to serve them in particular. When they don't get their way, some evil force has stolen their rightful power, and the most extreme reaction is to take up arms against the "usurpers." McCarthy doesn't address populism or pluralism, but these suggestions shouldn't be inconsistent with his own findings.

McCarthy himself would like to see Americans show more deference to their legislators. The Founders set up a deliberative branch of government just in order to dampen grass-roots passions, he suggests. He adds that many recent problems stem from the other branches of government (the President, the Supreme Court) going over the heads of legislators. He cites both Roe v. Wade and President Bush's conduct after 9/11/2001 as instances where the other branches ignored Congress and incited "popular mania," the Court in Roe unintentionally, Bush deliberately to further his own agenda. McCarthy seems to suggest that if everyone lets Congress have the final word on the grave issues of the day, that would give us our best shot at moderate results.

That conclusion depends on the assumption that Congress represents something like the collective, diverse will of the American people. "By their very nature, legislatures give voice to many views," he states, but that assumption grows more questionable as more people question whether the Republican and Democratic parties adequately represent the will of anyone but themselves and their donors. It could be argued that partisanship in its Bipolarchy form, with its focus on Presidential elections and "big tent" politics, has rendered Congress incapable of playing its role of really representing diverse views and moderating all their passions. But the parties themselves may well argue that their big-tent approach accomplishes the goal of moderating extreme viewpoints. The present state of party politics should prove them wrong, but where do we find alternatives to the Bipolarchy parties that won't repeat their mistakes? Won't any new party that aspires to national power claim to represent either "the people" or the "real" America? Could any party that doesn't so aspire succeed in toppling the Bipolarchy? McCarthy's own rather predictable suggestion is that people learn from religion that they can't have their own way all the time. It seems to me that we shouldn't need myths to teach us that, but maybe we need new myths to teach us that the national interest requires some concessions to people who aren't exactly like us and some obligation on our part to listen to people with different interests or values who are nevertheless just as American as we are. We don't need God to show us that we don't rule the universe; we just need to acknowledge the existence of other people and relearn the value of compromise.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes - compromise. That is the problem. The farther left or right you go, the less willing people are to consider compromise as a solution. What I hear most from right-wing extremists is that compromise equals selling out your values. From the left, that compromise is selling out to the establishment. The key words seem to be "selling out". But in a free market economy, isn't that supposed to be a good thing?