Democracy As it Was
I’ve been struggling with this essay for quite some time. I haven’t been able to answer the “So what?” question, but it may have come to me recently. You can let me know. Another problem I dealt with was in the topic and message. So far, this site has been heavy on the “Rural,” and not so much on the “Republic.” We’ve been trying to stay fairly non-partisan, although that’s not the same as unbiased, and I wasn’t sure if getting too overtly political would damage that. I have come to the conclusion that there’s nothing wrong with discussing the modern civic live in the Rural Republic. Indeed, one of the animating forces behind this concept, in my mind, was the image from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, where he describes the unique political character of discourse in the rural stage of this republic:
The cares of political life engross a most prominent place in the occupation of a citizen in the United States, and almost the only pleasure of which an American has any idea is to take a part in the Government, and to discuss the part he has taken… Debating clubs are to a certain extent a substitute for theatrical entertainments: an American cannot converse, but he can discuss; and when he attempts to talk he falls into a dissertation. He speaks to you as if he was addressing a meeting; and if he should chance to warm in the course of the discussion, he will infallibly say, “Gentlemen,” to the person with whom he is conversing.
Of course the esteemed Frenchman is having a bit of fun at early Americans’ inability to separate political discussion from other social interaction. The difference between the two cultures was incredibly portrayed in the HBO miniseries John Adams, in the episode where the eponymous founder found himself on a rather uncomfortable diplomatic envoy in France. He may have been English just a few short years earlier, but, as his later trip to England showed, it’s the difference between the politically free citizen and the socially free subject that caused the rift, greater even than that ancient Franco-English rivalry. Apart from his poking fun, Tocqueville had high praise for the new American society, though.
I am persuaded that, if ever a despotic government is established in America, it will find it more difficult to surmount the habits which free institutions have engendered than to conquer the attachment of the citizens to freedom.
This ceaseless agitation which democratic government has introduced into the political world influences all social intercourse. I am not sure that upon the whole this is not the greatest advantage of democracy. And I am much less inclined to applaud it for what it does than for what it causes to be done. It is incontestable that the people frequently conducts public business very ill; but it is impossible that the lower orders should take a part in public business without extending the circle of their ideas, and without quitting the ordinary routine of their mental acquirements. The humblest individual who is called upon to co-operate in the government of society acquires a certain degree of self-respect; and as he possesses authority, he can command the services of minds much more enlightened than his own. … I have no doubt that the democratic institutions of the United States, joined to the physical constitution of the country, are the cause (not direct, as is so often asserted, but the indirect cause) of the prodigious commercial activity of the inhabitants. It is not engendered by the laws, but the people learns how to promote it by the experience derived from legislation.
The men, and even the women, as mentioned in the remainder of that passage, of that era were steeped in democratic responsibility. The discussion in the “ale-houses” was as often as not discussion regarding various measures and policies in the local, state, and federal governments. Can you imagine having a discussion about state bill 1365, or the latest ballot proposals down at Buffalo Wild Wings? I mean, I can, but I’m a nerd and I’m writing this essay. But it certainly would be out of the ordinary. Either way, that’s an image that’s stuck with me for a long time.
Perhaps more than that image, though, was what he said later in the passage. The reason everyone talked about politics was that everyone was involved in politics in one way or another. Everyone, even the lowliest citizen, would serve on some council or board, and would be a more complete, more informed, more confident citizen as a result.
The Division of a Democracy
My, what progress hath wrought. In the July/August issue of the American Spectator, Angelo M. Codevilla wrote an incredible, and incredibly influential essay regarding the class stratification of American society. In a situation of which the “Tea Party” (more on that later) is a symptom, rather than a disease, he theorized that the society today is split not along Marxist class lines, but along lines of political influence and philosophy, into two classes: a Ruling Class and a Country Class. There have always been those with more influence than others; it’s likely Tocqueville’s extremely democratic democracy was more illustration than reality.
Never has there been so little diversity within America's upper crust. Always, in America as elsewhere, some people have been wealthier and more powerful than others. But until our own time America's upper crust was a mixture of people who had gained prominence in a variety of ways, who drew their money and status from different sources and were not predictably of one mind on any given matter. The Boston Brahmins, the New York financiers, the land barons of California, Texas, and Florida, the industrialists of Pittsburgh, the Southern aristocracy, and the hardscrabble politicians who made it big in Chicago or Memphis had little contact with one another. Few had much contact with government, and "bureaucrat" was a dirty word for all. So was "social engineering." Nor had the schools and universities that formed yesterday's upper crust imposed a single orthodoxy about the origins of man, about American history, and about how America should be governed. All that has changed.
Indeed, it has. Today, as Codevilla uses polls and demographic statistics to illustrate, the Ruling Class is incredibly uniform in background and ideas. They’re usually coastal, went to an Ivy League or other extremely prestigious school, and work in more liberal “professional” careers, such as law, education, journalism, or politics. They all behave and believe a certain way, and even talk a certain way. They overwhelmingly self-identify as Democrat, although some other members of the class are establishment Republicans.
On the other side of the divide is the Country Class, a group as varied as the Ruling Class is uniform. (Let me note here that I’m not making this “Country Class” thing up, though it’s certainly a happy accident that the terminology chosen by Codevilla matches so well with the concept behind this site) The most interesting thing is they don’t identify as Republican consistently, but as “independent,” or perhaps in some polls as a practitioner of a generic “Tea Party” if given the option. Regardless, while some members of the Country Class may aspire to the same careers as those in the Ruling Class, a Country Class lawyer will have less in common with his Ruling Class colleague, and no one will know it more than the latter.
The whole essay is as fascinating as it is long, but it’s well worth the read. It’s already being treated as a fundamental shift in the way of looking at the American political scene. It certainly illustrates the difference between the democratic America described in Democracy in America and the aristocracy we experience today.
Democracy as It Is
In their recent book The Blueprint, political journalist Adam Schrager and former Colorado state legislator Rob Witwer delve into the creation of a progressive political machine that has reshaped the state of Colorado, and indeed races across the country, in method and infrastructure. While there is much to glean from a relatively short book, a few things stand right out, in addition to the occasional despair experienced on the part of those who would lament the creation and effects of a progressive political machine. First, the system is what it is, or, as my college philosophy professor was fond of saying “Every system is perfectly designed to effect the result it does,” and the modern political system is apparently perfectly designed for such a progressive political machine. So what are the rules of the system?
The first rule bounding the system is term limits. While it’s not a necessary condition, it accelerates the effects of the “machine,” and recalled a line from Aeschylus:
So in the Libyan fable it is toldThat once an eagle, stricken with a dart,Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft,‘With our own feathers, not by others’ hands,Are we now smitten.’
The reason term limits matter is that any given seat in a state legislature will be in play at some point in an eight year period. With enough influence, no seat is safe.
The second bound to the system is the campaign finance law. To contribute to a campaign or a party, a person must pass a minimum standard (e.g., citizenship), will have their identity recorded and made public, and can give a maximum amount, which is usually fairly nominal when compared to the amount of money spent on a campaign. There is one major exception to all of these caveats, however: so-called 527 organizations. Simply put, these 527s can collect an unlimited amount of anonymous money from anyone, anywhere, and put it toward a political goal, or, more properly, against a political candidate. See, one of the restrictions on 527s is that they can’t collaborate with a political campaign, which in practice means they can’t support a given candidate; they can only oppose the other candidate. Incidentally, if you were wondering why you were getting covered in mud this campaign season, that’s why.
Out of these rules grew an organization designed to take advantage of them for progressive political ends. Various “anonymous,” though we know who they are, ultra-rich donors funded massive coordinated smear campaigns under numerous 527s, all with vague, fuzzy-as-a-bunny-sounding names to get their candidates elected. It was devastatingly effective in Colorado, and is surely on its way to a political race near you.
Democracy as It Is Becoming
But the other side of the political spectrum has an answer to the coordinated, hierarchical, unified structure of the progressive 527 machine: the “Tea Party” movement. As I noted above, of the two classes, the Ruling Class identifies with progressive politics, while the Country Class can be said to identify with the Tea Party. Although, since there is no real “Tea Party,” perhaps a better way of saying that is that the Tea Party is a loose collection of politically-motivated members of the Country Class.
Either way, the Tea Party movement is as different from the progressive machine as can be imagined. Where the “machine” is hierarchical, the Tea Party is organic. Where it is well-funded, the Tea Party survives on small donations and volunteer leadership. Where the machine has defined objectives and carefully-calculated campaign strategies, the Tea Party runs on free information and sheer energy.
In the end, both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. In an article in the National Journal, Jonathan Rauch discussed the advantages of the Tea Party’s disorganized structure with a few of its facilitators. In one such vignette, one of the leaders explains to a newer volunteer how things really work:
Rick, from Albuquerque, N.M., asks if the national agenda includes investigating voter-roll irregularities, something his group is concerned about. Mark Meckler, a Tea Party Patriots coordinator and co-founder, weighs in. Newcomers "often don't understand how badly we need you to lead the way," he says. "If this is an area of concern to you," he admonishes, "the way the Tea Party Patriots works is that you guys really lead the organization. We're a relatively small group of people who are just trying to help coordinate. We're not in charge; we're not telling anybody what to do. You need to take a leadership role and stand up." Meckler suggests that Rick gather a group of people concerned about the issue and go to work.
Rick gets the message. "We'll get on the Ning [social-networking] site and try to take the lead on that."
The interesting thing about the Tea Party movement is not that it’s spontaneous, not that it’s organic, but that it’s not at all novel. As Rick in Albuquerque may soon discover, he might become a volunteer expert on voter-roll irregularities, and have his understanding and methods of dealing with other problems change. And if he is successful, Rick may find himself chosen as a subject matter expert by other volunteers interested in the same problem, and bringing his newly-found expertise to other races and other areas of the country, if not in reality, at least virtually.
Rick is just one of hundreds of volunteers who are “The humblest individual who is called upon to co-operate in the government of society.” In the formless, leaderless structure of the Tea Party, it’s not the goals, or the races, or even the politics that matter the most. It’s that the people are rediscovering “the habits which free institutions have engendered” one conference call, one social-networking post, one political action at a time. It’s no accident that the new organization of the Ruling Class is hierarchical and precise, while the new organization of the Country Class has turned out to be so chaotically democratic. Politics is, after all, just the practical application of a given philosophy.
Democracy as It Will Be?
Where is all this taking us? The obvious answer is all the way to November 2nd. If you are interested in politics or the election, but don’t feel you have enough background or experience, that’s no excuse. As Tocqueville said, everyone was involved in politics in one form or another, and not only did they learn from it, they became better citizens and built a better republic as a result. For my part, the recognition that the system is, if not broken, far from perfect has made me recognize the need for balance in future policies that may emanate from the political realm, particularly regarding campaign finance.
But the real big picture we see is something more than just “man a phone bank” or “knock on doors” or even “here’s my new wonkish policy solution.” What all of these things paint is a picture of our Country Class as an active political society, diverse and unique in every way imaginable, independent-minded, and interested in any number of important and practical subjects. Corn prices matter. But so do elections. Maybe we shouldn’t be as afraid to say so.