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Sooner or Later, A Sovereign People Asserts Its Authority

Though American politics at the grassroots is polarized and divided, sharp commentators have written thoughtfully about the similarities between the parties as a practical matter. I would add that the similarities extend to their leaders.

While George W. Bush and Barack Obama could not be further apart ideologically, their attitudes toward governing suffer from the same flaw. Bush said he was “the Decider,” to which Obama rejoined: “I won.” Both ran roughshod over public opinion. This is not just a massive failure on the part of our parties to effectively advocate, explain or persuade on behalf of their respective understandings of what it means to be an American; it’s fair to say that we are witnessing contempt from both parties for the idea that persuasion is their primary role.

This misconception about the role of politics and parties is due, in part, to the ballooning of the  modern administrative state, which has replaced government by consent with government by experts. As the putative head of this enormous band of experts, a President who—like most Americans today—lacks a clear understanding of the origins and purposes of American constitutionalism might be forgiven for imagining he is a kind of Caesar. Governing according to this habit tends, over time, to subvert consent, and Presidents lose their patience for explaining themselves to the people.

Having lost that patience, they soon lose even the natural concern an elected official should have for the people’s scorn. That, too, is left to experts. Today we have a whole class of people who know how to wrangle elections, woo interest groups, and cobble together electoral—if not exactly ideological—majorities. Some even put electronic sensors on groups of average Americans to monitor their emotional responses to candidates and issues.

Yet for all this malpractice in American constitutionalism, it remains that we do not elect sovereigns in America. We do not elect them because we, the People, are the sovereign. Radical actions taken without first taking time to build consensus will embitter the sovereign over time.

Put bluntly: Americans don’t like to be snubbed. This should give us some measure of hope. How can one not love this trait in one’s fellow Americans? We still have a spirit of wanting to be free, not subjects. We want to be persuaded, not told what to think. We think we can judge for ourselves when presented with a fair argument. Whatever experts may say, it remains unwise to embark on international adventures or attempt to “transform” a nation with a simple electoral majority. We may have a basic respect for experts and their degrees, but our trust in them has very definite limits.

This is why dismissing Trump’s appeal as voter anger misses something important. There is anger, sure. But to see only generic cynicism and ranting about “politics as usual” — and to dismiss it as emanating from the uninformed, safely to be disregarded—is facile and, like most facile conclusions, mistaken.

While it is possible that some of Trump’s support comes from people caught up in the moment and earnest in taking Trump as a serious candidate, it is instructive to instead suppose that many of them are in on the joke. There is a kind of pleading desperation in their political responses viewed in this light. Not only does the longtime celebrity know what he is about, with his trademark bombast, they know what they are about in giving him the lead in the primary polling. Wouldn’t it be wise to investigate what is behind voters’ desperation? What do they feel our politics is not addressing?  (Hint: Immigration is only part of the story.)

Perhaps Trump’s legions are trying to tell us that the Republican Party actually deserves a clown as its standard-bearer. If not, at a minimum they are saying a clown is preferable to anything else on offer. As the pundits persist in their denunciations (with which, I should add, I am in basic agreement), Trump supporters take that as yet more proof that the party’s “elite” are, as ever, out of touch.

Does it ever occur to the leadership of either party that their most important job is to persuade more people of the merits of their respective platforms? Do they even read the platforms? The grassroots of both parties are tired of the same canned speeches pulled off the shelf for election-year fundraising. And those we like to call the “mushy middle” are often seated there because they long ago tired of this drivel or, in most cases, never warmed to it in the first place. Party leaders are wrong if they think this can go on indefinitely.

Sooner or later, after all, a sovereign will assert his authority. And when that happens, it may not be a salutary development. Often we do not assert our authority in the smartest way—as the outcome of many elections can attest. We seek persuasion but, in the tradition of most democracies, we too often settle for the best and loudest expression of our outrage.

Much of what may be said of Trump and the Republicans could apply to Democrats and their sudden love affair with Bernie Sanders. In this we see a repudiation of an establishment putting forward more entitled legacy candidates like Bush and Clinton to administer a federal bureaucracy that rewards well-connected friends with power and prestige. Meanwhile, Trump makes laughing stock of this establishment and hay with the voters as he brags about his ability to exploit and buy off politicians for his own purposes.

Democrats thought they were getting something different in 2008 with Barack Obama and, though it is a wonder to many on the Right, a good number of them are dissatisfied with his record on behalf of their ideology. While he pushed through legislation and filled the courts and bureaucracy with fellow travelers, he has not succeeded in winning converts. Our political polarization is as bad as it’s become in great part because neither party has done much serious work at building or deserving consensus on behalf of its ideas.

Party leaders do not seem to understand that it is not just that Democrats and Republicans disagree about policy prescriptions. They disagree fundamentally about the problems the policies are supposed to remedy—about the very ends and purposes of government. Living in a perpetual stalemate on such fundamentals is exhausting.

People are looking for an argument worth hearing. They sense that policy disputes will go nowhere if we can’t settle this larger problem first. But while both sides appear to be trying to choose a champion, both parties are churning up men and women ill-equipped for this battle.

President Obama turned out to be too smug to win over new supporters for anything longer than an election cycle. His determination to force people to accept their freedom as he understands freedom brought us the success of the Tea Party, and cost Democrats control of Congress. For Republicans, holding the House and Senate—two chambers where one expected to hear a more  pronounced assertion of the party’s principles—instead appeared to demonstrate their weaknesses. In a country where so much of the legislative power is diluted and redistributed to a professional ruling class, even good rhetoric can be unpersuasive because it is often not followed by significant action. Couple this with the intentional check of the legislative power in the Presidential veto, and you’ve got a pretty emasculated representative of the public’s will.

Unfortunately, Republican leadership did little to explain to voters the complexity of trying to legislate in a government now dominated by an out-of-control administrative state. And they did even less to dismantle it. All they managed was a fair amount of whining about it.

Instead of appealing to the natural pride of self-governing citizens in a republic and inspiring them to resist the patronizing ways of a government that keeps them down and in their place, the GOP in 2012 insinuated that the culture of dependency among the infamous 47 percent made them incapable of self-government.

Where Democrats appeal to the superiority of supposed intellectual experts, Republicans appear to appeal to the superiority of rich guys.

Can voters be blamed for supposing that if we are going to have politicians with so little respect for self-government anyway, we might as well get behind someone who flatters, entertains, and channels a cathartic kind of manly sensibility that demands the attention of our betters?

Trump’s supporters know he is a destroyer. Sanders’ supporters know the same about their socialist champion. The truth that should frighten the elites of both parties is that destroyers are exactly what these Americans think America needs.

Political parties don’t last forever, but voters do. Well . . . they last at least as long as republics do.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on September 02, 2015 at 13:27:07 pm

Several false statements have been made.
1. "George W. Bush and Barack Obama could not be further apart ideologically"
1.1 Both Bush and Obama believe in deficit spending
1.2 Both Bush and Obama believe in bigger government
2. " it remains that we do not elect sovereigns in America"
2.1. Explain FDR and Wilson? and even Ford with WhipInflationNow?
2.2 Perhaps you meant that we don't elect lifetime sovereigns...although FDR is the exception
2.3 it's hard to understand the lifetime appointments in Congress?

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jason
on September 02, 2015 at 14:13:50 pm

I'm rereading Carl Schmitt as I read this. This may be our Schmittean crisis.

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Ken Masugi
on September 02, 2015 at 14:33:16 pm

The idea that our government is "run by experts" is ludicrous. Our government is run by people who think they are experts. If you evaluate them on the basis of outcome produced versus outcome intended, they are the cruelest joke ever.

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Harry Taft
on September 02, 2015 at 15:48:45 pm

You're too generous to the people running our government. They very much intend the ill outcomes their policies are generating. That the Left's intentions are bad, and that they have succeeded in convincing about half the public to view "good" and "bad" in terms of their malevolent ideological goals, is something most conservatives seem to have difficulty understanding.

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djf
on September 02, 2015 at 16:06:36 pm

The link to the article on "electronic sensors" is worth reading. It also includes in interesting discussion on the use of language.

There are laboratories in the US that have tested various stimuli on people as they were monitored with machines such as electroencephalograms to see how they affected brainwaves. There was a time around ten or so years ago when radio commercials would include a sort of strange doodly-oop sound in the background. Those sounds were added to the ads because they triggered certain brain activity.

A lot of folks are not aware of how much testing has been done to help bring us to a more "receptive" state of mind. Few of those tests involve roses, wine and a lovely compliment.

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Scott Amorian
on September 02, 2015 at 17:32:29 pm

Maybe the problem is Harvard and Yale?!

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D. Wakefield
on September 02, 2015 at 22:37:08 pm

The American Republic is dead. The Constitution is dead. The Bill of Rights are Dead. The basis of all rights Property Rights are dead. We have been living under an administrative state since 1934 when America declared bankruptcy. Most politicians are not "leaders" but puppets. American citizens are not sovereign but are numbered serfs. The real sovereign in America is the "deep state." These are the 1/100 of 1 percent: the super rich,the bankers,the elitists who through corporations,foundations and endowments own and control most of the nation including its wealth its politicians, its judges and its bureaucrats. The sad part of this story is that most Americans like things this way. Most Americans don't critically think for themselves. They have traded their liberty for security. They like riding on the government gravy train. As for our political "leaders?" There is no real difference in the 2 major political parties.In essence we have one political party that being a bird of prey with 2 wings. There was a time when America consisted on 2 basic principals: live and let live and let's make a deal. These principals attracted people from all over the world. America was truly unique. But those days are long gone. Instead of America being the "shining city on a hill" it has become a 3rd world fascist banana republic. And,based on the last 80 years or so,short of a 1776 type revolution it will,sad to say,remain that way.

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libertarian jerry
on September 02, 2015 at 23:11:47 pm

The study of Anglo-American constitutional law is that of the liberties of the people. Neither a body of dry technicalities, as the demagogue is prone to consider it, nor an instrument new created in the year 1787 and now but an inconvenient impediment to the national destiny, our own Constitution registers the totality of those principles which, in eight hundred and forty years of struggle, the Saxon peoples have won back again from Norman kings, the common law from Eoman conceptions of a Sovereign State; each rising wave of freedom leaving its record in some historic document, then perhaps to recede again until the next flood left a higher record still. And if to the Mother Coun try is due the invention of the Constitution as a bulwark of "the people against the Executive, to our forefathers belongs the glory of protecting the people against the Legislative as well; and against the usurpations of any Government or law, even of their own making, on that irreducible minimum which time has shown to be necessary to the English-American people for freedom as they understand it. Give them less than this and they will fight.

--THE CONSTITUTION AND THE PEOPLE'S LIBERTIES. BY F. J. STIMSON.

That is from the turn of the 20th century. It remains to be seen if it is still true.

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JK Brown
on September 03, 2015 at 13:15:25 pm

Ms. Ponzi asserts:

"This misconception about the role of politics and parties is due, in part, to the ballooning of the modern administrative state, which has replaced government by consent with government by experts."

Is there actually an error of perception (a mis-reading of the electorate); or, is the perception plausibly based on the factors that have brought about the "ballooning" of the [Federal] Administrative State.

How did this Administrative State come into existence and continue to "balloon;" if not by the "consent of the governed?" States are embodiments of authority. Historically authority was imposed by physical or ideological force (or a combination of them). Our more "modern states" are established by active consent or passive acceptance of those subject to authority.

Perhaps (very likely) those seeking positions in that authority (for whatever motives) sense that the electorate has consented and accepted that authority for the potential of benefits or amelioration of burdens. If so, that electorate would not take kindly to being "faulted" for their course of consent and acceptance and where it has taken them.

So, the dissatisfactions of the electorate with particular, or many, results of their consents and acceptances are dealt with obliquely. One tact brings in the "immigration issues" by their focus on those benefits and ameliorations not created for "them" (immigrants, inter alia). That is more palatable than addressing errors in the origin of those consents and acceptances.

Still, there are, mumblings in the chorus, words that the "Balloon" of the [Federal] Administrative State is rapidly losing its fiscal elasticity. If it does not "Pop," the already thin leaks will spread over its surface, beyond the availability of the current patches, causing compressions of benefits and loss of ameliorations. That chorus will rise as those other distractions by oblique tactics fail to deal with the dissatisfactions - which come from past (and continuing) errors in consents and acceptances.

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R Richard Schweitzer

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.