Counter-majoritarianism isn’t in and of itself always a problem. But when it’s based on desperate lies about the majority it sure is.
I have a confession: I don’t find it that hard to imagine circumstances under which a majority of Americans, in my lifetime, vote for a competent authoritarian, or support rulings or policies that run roughshod over the rights of some given demographic. And so, while I hate to throw cold water on a set of arguments that I think is genuinely important, I don’t believe critiques of the GOP that focus primarily on the party’s counter-majoritarian attitudes and actions go far enough. It’s not enough to say “they don’t even believe in democracy any more (and maybe never did)!” There’s much more going on here than that.
The main problem isn’t the GOP’s disbelief in democracy, troubling though that is. The main problem, or in the very least the corollary problem, is all the misinformation and lying about the majority. Right-wing leaders are constantly peddling falsehoods about the threat posed by the majority, and these—which range from distortive hyperbole to manipulative lies—form the justificatory foundation of their anti-democratic efforts. In other words, without all the demonization of Democrats and progressives, the GOP’s claims to minoritarian rule would be seen for what it is: an illiberal threat to the basic democratic foundations of the country. But the GOP’s strategy here is more sophisticated. Republicans are exploiting Americans’ inherent knowledge of the constitutional limits of majoritarianism—summed up perfectly by the asinine phrase “We’re a Republic, Not a Democracy”—to justify efforts at overturning the system. And the distortive lies they tell about the left are key to their case.
And so, in addition to articulating and defending the legitimacy of the democratic principle, it’s also crucial to keep the lying front and center. So far, the discussion of the GOP’s minoritarian angling has shed a good deal of light on the former, without saying quite enough about the latter. But conservatives consistently take a two-pronged approach. They need the lies to be true to justify their minoritarian position, and they couch it all in reasonable-sounding counter-majoritarian constitutional arguments.
Prong One: Conservative Distrust of Democracy (A Recap)
It’s easy to take the democratic principle for granted, and recent criticisms of the GOP’s minoritarianism have been so valuable because they have forced an articulation and appreciation of democratic norms on the part of mainstream liberals (the American left has been at this for much longer, as have been, obviously, civil rights activists; readers looking for more full-throated contemporary defenses of the democratic principle can look to the work of Cornel West, and Astra Taylor, and Danielle Allen; if you want to see someone defend multiracial democracy powerfully everyday on Twitter, you should follow Georgetown historian @tzimmer_history).
I admit to being a bit of a latecomer to the democracy-appreciation game. I entered university as a liberal, and about halfway through that experience was, effectively, ‘redpilled’ by Plato, as interpreted by Straussians, at which point I turned democracy-skeptical. I went on to study political philosophy in graduate school, and wrote about Rousseau and Nietzsche (Rousseau being a great political egalitarian; Nietzsche being one of the most forceful critics of democracy who ever lived).
But graduate school took a while. Studying Nietzsche meant that I had to think hard about the 20th Century and Nazism. I also studied public law in graduate school, which involved thinking about politics in much less abstract terms—I even read some Critical Race Theory! Over time I came around to a much deeper appreciation of democracy and the American civil rights tradition than I learned from reading Allan Bloom as an undergraduate in Canada. I finished grad school with a pretty deep attachment to the basic liberal principles of American democracy, and all my time around conservative intellectuals also brought me a greater appreciation of feminism. And I can attest to the notion that many conservatives—or at least many conservative intellectuals—have very little interest in such things (though conservative women in academia will occasionally acknowledge their feminist sympathies in private).
Here’s a great passage from Will Wilkinson along these lines that hit home:
“Conservatives tend to treat liberal talk about democratic legitimacy as though it were barely a half-step away from Marianne Williamson crystals-and-dreamcatchers woo. Close your eyes, voters, listen to your breath and manifest legitimacy. You know, I used to think this way and spoke disparagingly about “democratic fairy dust,” but I was making a huge mistake. I was an ideological constitutionalist who wanted to structure our basic institutions along the lines of my own controversial comprehensive vision of individual rights and social justice in a way that my compatriots and their perniciously false beliefs — that democratic disagreement — couldn’t touch. I believed, like Jonah [Goldberg], that “[a] democratic society is almost definitionally unjust without any liberalism” and assumed that the version of liberalism that our democratic society would be unjust without was mine.”
The deep, intuitive distrust of democracy that Wilkinson describes was also, for a time, my own. It took time to understand that conservatives have the matter upside down. For any self-respecting, historically-informed people, intuitive trust and hope in the democratic principle makes a lot more sense than cynical distrust (or worse, than pseudo-Nietzschean hopes for something like Patrick Deneen’s “Aristopopulism”). Democracies need constitutional guardrails, but these are to protect people’s rights and freedoms, and to facilitate their deliberations and self-rule, not the other way around. Too often conservatives act like democracy is merely an afterthought or an inconvenience, in service of some argument of the Federalist papers, or some tool to be appropriated on behalf of their own personal vision of the Good, instead of the moral core and inspiration for the whole endeavor, based on a rejection of monarchy and an aspirational belief in the value and dignity of each human life (which many thinkers also, in my view quite plausibly, trace back in part to Christianity).
But the Founders clearly understood the primacy of the democratic principle, and recent discussions of the GOP’s counter-majoritarianism have been so valuable because they have worked to restore the primacy of the democratic principle to the foreground using arguments that go back to the founding era. As George Thomas explained last fall in an essay for the Atlantic, when conservatives use the “republic not a democracy” phrase, they are twisting up the meaning of these words as they were understood at the time of the founding and as they are used today. The principle of majoritarian representative rule is foundational to the American constitution and always has been, while ‘pure’ direct democracy never has. Today, almost no one who speaks of democracy means direct democracy. They mean something closer to what the founders meant when they spoke of republics: they are referring to a mixed, representative, constitutional regime. Madison sometimes referred to the principle of majoritarian rule as “the republican principle” tout court.
In a useful short clip, Mehdir Hasan further draws our attention to Lincoln’s First Inaugural, where he states that “The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible.” This older piece by Ed Burmila is also on point.
Of course a lot has changed since 1776, and since Lincoln’s First Inaugural, and since the Civil Rights Act. American democracy has become much more democratic since the founding, and there are all kinds of reasons to worry about overweening executive power, and a lack of balance between the branches, and so forth. But the representative, mixed, republican structure of the constitutional order is still in place. And in many ways, the democratic changes that have come have meant that for half a century—but only half a century—the country has operated in much closer alignment with the republican principles it professes. Unfortunately, conservatives often use the mere fact of democratization as evidence of a growing majoritarian threat. Which is asinine: the fact of democratization hardly invalidates the principle. What is more, there are still plenty of counter-majoritarian checks built into the constitutional order—the representative system, to start, but also the senate, the electoral college, the courts, the bill of rights, and the separation of powers. In addition to these constitutional provisions, there’s the filibuster.
All of which reveals how arguments of those like Micheal Brendan Doughterty—who pleads for greater understanding on the part of liberals for conservatives’ deep attachment and respect for the counter-majoritarian checks—to be the dubious strawman claims that they are. Sure, conservatives understand and respect the need for checks and balances. But so does pretty much everyone except the anarchists. And that has very little to do with the rules and norms governing our elections, which is the immediate matter at hand, and where Republicans are clearly falling far short. As Greg Sargent notes:
“It’s hard to specify the point where such GOP stances cross over from legitimate views of how the rules of political competition should be structured into something more fundamentally hostile to democracy… But it seems obvious Republicans are moving on a spectrum toward greater reliance on anti-majoritarian tactics, and toward increasing manipulation of those rules toward that end.”
In a related piece, John Ganz tidily delineates the practical upshot of the GOP’s counter-majoritarian overreach. According to Ganz, the reality is that this isn’t about any theoretical concern about constitutional design or democratic principles. It’s about the fact that the GOP seems increasingly unable to win the popular vote. Very recently, this failure to win over actual voters led to a desperate, lying effort to overturn legitimate democratic election results, and also to a violent attack on the Capitol. The idea that any of this is about any principled concern about excess democracy is belied by these grossly irresponsible and destructive actions on the part of the GOP.
And yet Republicans are still saying that too much democracy is threatening our republic. As Ganz puts it, “the entire ideological edifice of Conservatism at this point is just a sustained attack on the principle of majority rule.” That may be a bit hyperbolic, but Ganz is right to point out just how much rides on this conservative defense of minoritarianism. With so many counter-majoritarian checks still in place, and with so little genuine justification for the recent attacks, Republicans really need them to be true.
Furthermore, they have needed them to be true for a very long time. Joshua Tait unpacks the long intellectual history of anti-democratic conservatism in this piece for the Bulwark. The arguments that Tait unveils constitute the basic stuff of conservative life: the anti-democratic arguments and policies that the right promotes today have been cultivated for decades, and so are ready-to-hand and well-honed, for a conservative public that is primed for them. Tait shows how conservative intellectuals like William F. Buckley, Leo Strauss, James Burnham, Russell Kirk, and others, held anti-democratic views that dovetailed conveniently in practice with pro-authoritarian interventions abroad, and racist laws and policies at home. As he puts it, “The conservative anti-democratic tradition created—and continues to create—a permission structure for supporting or tolerating political repression.” Again and again in this history, intellectual abstractions are used to give cover to oppression, and so they become a kind of lie: high ideas mismatched with the ugly realities they serve.
In the wonderful realm of detached political theory, arguments about the dangers posed by majorities are important, educative, and perspective-enhancing. No people or group is safe from the dangers of groupthink or mob action, and abstract arguments against simple majority rule, far from being stupid, are an important part of thoughtful constitutional design.
But just because a good abstract argument exists doesn’t make it true of our historical reality today.
Prong Two: Conservative Misrepresentations of the Left
Today, distortions and lies about Democrats form the backbone of the GOP’s counter-majoritarian claims. It’s important to be specific about the nature of these inaccuracies, because Republicans so often think that what they are saying is true. The substance of what they are saying can’t just be waived away.
Many of the writers I’ve mentioned above do much of this work, more or less explicitly. My point here is merely to emphasize that those who want to counteract right-wing illiberalism should be clear and consistent about how the right’s minoritarian arguments almost always work in close tandem with false claims about the majority. In a feature essay for the National Interest about Wilmoore Kendall and James Burnham, Joshua Tait puts it this way: “these chief thinkers of movement conservatism rehearsed the clichéd lament of constitutional decline and liberal perfidy.” In other words, conservatives rarely just say that they do not believe in democracy, or that they think the counter-majoritarian measures of the constitution are inadequate; they say that illiberal and anti-democratic measures are necessary because liberals are so bad.
I probably don’t need to rehearse too many examples of the kinds of distortions I have in mind. These days the demonization of liberals—an old story on the right—has reached a fevered pitch. I’ve written elsewhere about just how paranoid and conspiratorial much of conservative thought has become. So here I’ll just point to a few of the most dominant deceptive trends.
The infamous Flight 93 essay is the classic example of unhinged rhetorical extravagance against liberals on the part of contemporary conservatives, which I won’t bother to record again here. Beyond the specific language of Anton’s essay, of course, is its ruthless (and repulsive) premise, which likens liberals and Democrats to the terrorists of 9/11. The Claremont Institute keeps pumping out this sort of drivel, which refers to those on the other side as rodents and zombies and “BLM-Antifa evil.” Needless to say, once that sort of general characterization starts to take hold in the popular imagination, it’s a difficult thing to dial back.
The Claremont Institute is hardly the only intellectual group to engage in this type of dehumanizing rhetoric. The racially-tinged work at Claremont dovetails well enough with the more genteel faux populism of folks like Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony and Bill Barr (and JD Vance), who are determined to tell a lame story about how the left is constituted singularly by exploitative liberal elites. They give a consistently cynical and dehumanizing account of the so-called professional classes (whose marriages are merely instrumental, their oikophilia non-existent), and, as with Claremont, again and again they fail to contend with the actual diversity of the working-class (which, as Jamelle Bouie observes, they are suppose to be almost exclusively white). To put this in the simplest terms: the demographic facts of the matter mean that Democrats are not as elite (or as exclusive, or as exploitative) as conservatives consistently allege, and the working-class is more diverse (and urban, and liberal) than conservatives consistently imagine.
Implicit conservative awareness of these unstated demographic realities is manifest in the arguments they use in their efforts to dial back voting rights. Contrary to their populist pretensions, in practice conservatives often want less populism, not more. As Jeet Heer recently put it, “The Trumpian right is an ideological chimera: populism by minority-rule.” He then goes on to provide a fascinating account of how in the last century Wilmoore Kendall sought to square this circle, relying on starkly racist claims. Kevin Williamson of the National Review recently pondered whether the republic wouldn’t be better served “by having fewer — but better — voters?” But this approach has a long racist history. As Tait reminds us in his Bulwark piece,
Buckley insisted that white southerners could suppress the black vote on white-supremacist grounds. “If the majority wills what is socially atavistic,” he wrote, “then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened.”
The morally repulsive premise of Buckley’s argument, which reaches back to Reconstruction (i.e., before the partisan realignment of the 1930s, and so applying then more generally to Democrats), is that somehow former slaveholders and confederates were better-equipped for democracy than the formerly enslaved. Today, the legacy of such arguments is more confined to the Republican party, but the history of anti-democratic voter suppression is more complicated (Jamelle Bouie has a column out today that explores anti-suffrage efforts in the North during the Progressive era).
I won’t go on. My point is that today conservative intellectuals perpetually buttress their arguments about the necessity of counter-majoritarian politics with false claims about the threats posed by the majority. Whether it’s a reference to Democrats being rodents, claims about social atavism, lies about chaos in our cities, or the current lying panics about socialism and CRT, these exaggerations and lies, many of which are racist on their face, are essential components of the counter-majoritarian gambit. The right’s response to General Mark A. Milley’s comments about the importance of understanding the role that “white rage” played in January 6 illustrates the depth of the challenge here. The lying justificatory schema for minoritarian rule is old and entrenched.
America’s relationship to the basic principle of republicanism has never been a straightforward matter. The hypocrisies and brutal contradictions of the founding era were a massive source of injustice and instability from the outset. Today, efforts to turn the adornments of the republican system—its counter-majoritarian checks, exceptions, and escape hatches—into its foundational core are dangerous and ill-conceived. Such efforts work towards a kind of usurpation of the Constitution. They run counter to the higher principles of the American tradition, rely on misconceptions about the US population, and inspire division and instability where efforts instead could be directed towards governance and genuine civic understanding. And they pretend that the counter-majoritarian checks of the constitution are weak and failing, when in fact they are in some instances overweening and unruly.
In the American context, the minoritarian gambit takes up an awful lot of energy. It requires an elaborate intellectual scaffolding that, for all of its superficial elegance and historical “rootedness,” doesn’t make any of it good or true.