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Conservatism, Not Populism
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Conservatism, Not Populism

Some democratic principles rely on undemocratic institutions for their preservation.

I’m about to defend Trump-loving, MAGA hat-wearing right-wingers—albeit from a very specific charge. But first, I need to enter some things into the record.

First, I think Donald Trump—who is not and never was fit to be president—should have been impeached, removed, and barred from ever holding office ever again within 48 hours of the siege on the Capitol. As I have written at great length, he tried to steal an election. It was a failed self-coup—what they call in Latin America an attempted autogolpe. Months, if not years before the 2020 election, Trump started laying the groundwork for the claim that any defeat was illegitimate. He declared victory on Election Night not because he won, but because he clearly lost.

Second, I think the prominent Republican politicians and right-wing pundits who know this is true (and there are many of them) but strike a blasé or deferential attitude about it—“Trump’s gonna Trump”—are making a series of profound moral and intellectual errors.

Third, I think the prominent Republican politicians and right-wing pundits who know this is true but pretend they believe Trump’s claims are doing something objectively evil, even if they rationalize it in ways that help them sleep at night. Pretending you care about “election integrity” is fine, I suppose. But doing it in the context of lending aid and comfort to Trump’s effort to steal an election is reprehensible. Winking about how you’re “just asking questions” or “trying to find the truth” when you know the truth of the matter doesn’t let you off the hook.

Anti-democracy hysteria.

With that out of the way, I think the moral panic over the “Republican war on democracy” is somewhat misplaced and flawed. This shouldn’t be surprising given that moral panics are never marked by sober judiciousness and reflection, just as feeding frenzies do not involve eating sensibly and bank runs are rarely about prudent financial planning.

One of the rationalizations people make for indulging the stolen election lie is that telling the truth about Trump and his actions is insulting to his fans. They’ll often say something like, “You can’t tell the 74 million people who voted for him that they’re fools.” I’ve heard this dozens of times, including from very intelligent and sophisticated people. It’s incredibly dumb (and dangerous, for reasons I’ll get to later on).

Fun fact: The 74 million Americans who voted for Trump didn’t vote en masse for the siege on the Capitol or an attempt to steal the election. Neither issue was on the ballot. Assuming that all of those people—a great many of whom voted against Joe Biden more than they voted for Trump—supported his actions from Election Night onward is logically and factually preposterous. 

It’s also incredibly condescending and dishonest. It’s a right-wing version of “trigger warning” and “snowflake” thinking. Most of the people I’ve met who say this stuff about the “74 million” know that Trump is lying about the election. They just think the “little people” can’t handle the truth and need to be humored and indulged. And since this lie doesn’t serve a higher purpose but mere partisan calculation—or the need to hold onto ratings and clicks—it can’t even be called a noble lie. It’s ignoble.

That said, we know that many of the 74 million actually believe the election was stolen. I think the polling on this question exaggerates how many of them there are. Some of the polling questions are leading. Some of the answers are conditioned responses that have more to do with a desire to “own the libs” or show solidarity with Trump. But it’s obviously true that some of those people—20 percent? 30 percent?—sincerely believe the election was stolen.

And that’s important. If you believe some version of the stolen election stuff, whether it’s the pugnaciously idiotic stuff peddled by Lin Wood, Sidney Powell, Roger Stone, and the (pre-Dominion lawsuit) cable hucksters or the more “sophisticated” nonsense they’ve started to peddle, all I can say is this: You’ve been duped. If that hurts your feelings, I’m sorry. You’re likely one of the people who loves the phrase “facts don’t care about your feelings,” so maybe you should practice what you preach a bit more.

But the fact that these people sincerely believe the election was stolen doesn’t mean they are “anti-democracy.” You may be a fool—or simply have been fooled—if you think searching for bamboo fibers in Arizona ballots is a good use of government resources, but that doesn’t make you an opponent of democracy. In fact, it makes you closer to the opposite, because the whole premise of this embarrassing nonsense is that democracy was “thwarted” or “subverted.” Complaining about a stolen election is a pro-democracy thing to do if you sincerely think it was stolen.

This should be a cause for some comfort for those decrying the “Republican war on democracy.” This is a fight over how best to ensure democracy, not how best to repeal it.

A conflict of visions.

In other words, what we’re witnessing is two competing moral panics over the future of democracy, or perhaps two sides to the same moral panic. This, too, is reassuring if you squint and ignore a lot of the noise, because it’s a quintessentially American argument about defending democracy.

Speaking in broad generalizations, one side believes that maximizing turnout is essential to democracy, while the other side believes that “integrity”—i.e. the absence of fraud—is essential to democracy. There are good faith and intellectually defensible arguments on both sides of this conflict of visions.

I think every reasonable person can see that this isn’t an either/or thing. People eligible to vote should have every reasonable ability to do so—otherwise democracy is imperiled—and every reasonable effort should be made to ensure that elections are conducted honestly and fairly. When people aren’t setting their hair on fire, a healthy debate can be had over what constitutes “reasonable.”

Now, some of the things Republicans are trying to do at the state level are manifestly unreasonable, and I have no desire to defend the unreasonable. But three things are worth noting.

First, a lot of what has actually passed is reasonable. The Georgia law that had so many people shrieking “Jim Crow” (including Joe Biden) wasn’t Jim Crow. It was reasonable. That doesn’t mean it didn’t have flaws, but the crazy stuff was plucked out before the final passage.

Second, some of these efforts are attempts to reasonably tighten up laws that were reasonably loosened to deal with the pandemic.

And finally, some of these efforts amount to toothless and cynical boob-bait, intended to prove to the Trumpian true believers that Republicans are “doing something” to prevent another stolen election. Much like Ron DeSantis’ social media bill that he knows won’t survive a court challenge, a lot of this stuff is symbolic “fight the libs” red meat.

The first two things are defensible. The third isn’t (even if some Republicans foolishly thought it would be a way to distance the GOP from Trump).

Last week, Jonathan Swan—a reporter I have a great deal of respect for—interviewed Liz Cheney. “I will never understand the resistance, for example, to voter ID,” Cheney said. “There’s a big difference between that and a president of the United States who loses an election after he tried to steal the election and refuses to concede.”

This seems like an incandescently true statement.

Cheney added, “Everybody should want a situation and a system where people who ought to be able to vote and have the right to vote can vote, and people who, you know, don’t, shouldn’t.”

Swan wasn’t having it:

Swan: You don’t see any linkage between Donald Trump saying the election is stolen and then Republicans in all of these state legislatures rushing to put in place these restrictive voter laws?

Cheney: Well, I think you have to look at the specifics of each one of those efforts.

Swan: What was the big problem in Georgia that needed to be solved by a new law? What was the big problem in Texas? What was the big problem in Florida? What was the… these laws are coming all around the states and like, what are they solving for?

Cheney: I think you`ve got to look at each individual state law. But I think what we can all agree on –

Swan: You can`t divorce them from the context. Come on.

Judging by the reaction to this exchange, Liz Cheney should no longer believe in voter ID laws because Trump launched a mob at the Capitol. I just don’t see why the latter requires the former. I mean how far does this magic extend? Should France abandon voter ID requirements, too? How about Germany?

But Democrats think that there’s a contradiction between condemning Trump and not agreeing with them on every single detail about election “reform.” Again, this is partly because they’re in an understandable moral panic about what the former president did. But it’s also because they have both a sincere ideological commitment to expanding voting as much as possible and a partisan belief that doing so would be to their advantage. Trust me, if Democrats believed expanding suffrage wasn’t to their electoral advantage, they’d come up with reasons to be against it.

The Democrats’ “For the People Act,” which was written before the 2020 election, would do all sorts of unreasonable things to drive up turnout, including essentially federalizing elections in this country. “The 2020 election has underscored the urgent need for transformational democracy reform,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren said introducing the bill. “Across the nation, Americans experienced unprecedented voter suppression.”

They did? The 2020 election saw the largest turnout in U.S. history and the biggest turnout in percentage terms in a century, in large part because states made early and absentee voting much, much easier in response to the pandemic. Where was the suppression?

This isn’t as unhinged as thinking North Koreans and Hugo Chavez’s ghost conspired to steal the election for China, but you can fall well short of that standard and still qualify as unhinged. 

Democracy and populism.

Democracy is vitally important. It’s a good in itself and it’s a procedural mechanism that makes other goods possible and allows them to endure. But as I constantly argue, all poisons are determined by the dose. The popular refrain that “we don’t live in a democracy, we live in a republic,” is wrong. Republics, as the Founders understood the term, are democracies. As Madison explains in Federalist 14, “In a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.”

In fairness to those who say “we live in a republic, not a democracy,” what they usually have in mind, I think, is that there are limits to democracy. That’s why we say we live in a “liberal democracy,” because it is entirely possible to live in an illiberal democracy. One time-honored path to illiberal democracy is populism, because populism takes the logic and language of democracy and twists it toward the zero sum advantage of a single faction which claims to be the sole legitimate faction of “the people.”

Joshua Tait has an interesting piece chronicling American conservatism’s complicated—and not always honorable—relationship with both democracy and populism. I agree with some of it, and pretty passionately disagree with other parts of it.

But my main objection is that I think the piece misdiagnoses the moment pretty dramatically. It takes it as a given that what Republicans are doing flows from conservatism’s supposed animosity toward, or ambivalence for, democracy.

I have no doubt one can make that case about some specific individuals (I still remember Jesse Watters floating the idea that Trump should be a dictator.). But I’m profoundly unconvinced that Tait’s quotes from Bill Buckley, Leo Strauss, Michael Oakeshott, and other conservative luminaries makes that case. Again, outside of some post-liberal integralists, alt-righters, and maybe a couple nationalists, the “war on democracy Republicans” aren’t making anti-democratic arguments. They’re making arguments for democracy. They’re just working off of lies and falsehoods peddled by a populist narcissist and the coterie of enablers he’s empowered.

This is very, very bad. But it’s not the problem Tait and others are addressing. The populist corruption of conservatism is the problem, not conservatism itself. That’s why lending aid and comfort to the fraction of the “74 million” who believe Trump’s lies is so dangerous.

Tait notes that, “For the German-American Strauss, democracy’s singular failure was producing—or failing to prevent—Hitler.” Was Strauss wrong about that? I mean, we can quibble about the word “singular,” and we can bicker about how much blame democracy deserves, but I’m at a loss to understand how Hitler’s election speaks well of democracy.

Trump is no Hitler—Hitler could have repealed Obamacare—but Trump’s election is obviously a good example of the dangers of populism. And one of democracy’s greatest weaknesses is its difficulty in dealing with populism because populism is so closely related to democracy.

The Founders understood this, which is why they wanted a republic that was designed to filter and check populist passion when necessary. That’s why we have institutions and mechanisms that are supposed to ensure the survival of liberty and liberalism when populist passions are empowered by democratic majorities. The notion that one person can be evil, idiotic, ignorant, or irrationally angry, but a million people can’t, strikes me as logically absurd.

My conservative attachment to those institutions—most obviously the Bill of Rights—doesn’t make me anti-democratic. It makes me committed to the things that work to ensure the survival of both democracy and individual liberty over time.

Think about it this way: I want the parties to be stronger. I think it’s madness that we are the only advanced democracy in the world where the parties can’t pick their own candidates. Democratic societies depend on undemocratic institutions. We all can see this when talking about businesses, newspapers, or platoons of Marines. Putting everything up for a vote is no way to run a car wash, a journalistic enterprise, or a political party.

Making the parties outsource the ability to pick candidates to primaries that can be swamped by populists exercising their democratic will did expand democracy in one sense, but it threatened democracy in a deeper sense. Bernie Sanders almost succeeded in marshalling left-wing populism to take over the Democratic Party. Donald Trump succeeded in marshalling right-wing populism to take over the Republican Party. And as a result, to the extent the GOP is “anti-democracy,” the blame lies with populism, not conservatism.

If I had my druthers, I’d sharply curtail democracy in this country by abolishing primaries. I’m sure many people would call me “undemocratic” for saying so. My response is simple: “You’re wrong.” But even if you could convince me that abolishing primaries was meaningfully undemocratic—it’s easy to see the argument—my response would be equally simple: “So be it, democracy isn’t the answer to everything.”

Various & Sundry

Canine update: I apologize for not including links to pictures and video of the beasts last week. It was my fault, but I’ve punished others for my failing. The girls are all doing well, and the mornings have remained cool enough that Zoë is even game for a little “chase the dingo,” though Pippa has had some problems cranking up the waggleator. The Fair Jessica insists I feed them too much during morning treat time, and my explanation that the portions are so numerous because they’re so small continues to fall on deaf ears. I’m not sure why Gracie has been tardy for treat time quite a bit lately, but fear not: Even if I don’t get the video, she gets her due, with special attention included. 

The war on rabbits continues apace, though this morning was a bit of a fiasco. And the beasts remain as needy as ever. Oh, one funny story: The cable guy came over the other day and asked if we could put the dogs outside. I was happy to. At one point, he asked me what kind of dog Pippa was. I told him, “She’s an English Springer Spaniel and the one you can’t see sitting under the bench is called a Carolina dog.” He walked over to the living room window to get a closer look and said, “That there’s a DogeCoin dog.” It’s an understandable mistake.


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.