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Democrats Have a Funny Way of Expressing Concern About ‘Our Democracy’
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Democrats Have a Funny Way of Expressing Concern About ‘Our Democracy’

They bemoan Dobbs, which returns abortion policy to elected representatives, while spending big to boost politicians they see as a fascist threat.

Who gives a rat’s ass about our democracy?

That’s not a rhetorical question. But to avoid confusion, I should rephrase.

Who actually gives a rat’s ass about our democracy?

You might think this is a lead-in to a stemwinder about yesterday’s January 6 committee revelations. It’s not—though we might get there eventually anyway.

I’ve been hearing the phrase “our democracy” a lot lately. Sometimes the context makes total sense, like when people are talking about fixing the Electoral Count Act, fact-checking election conspiracy theories, or other psephological concerns.

But “our democracy” also comes up in other contexts, as if “our democracy” is now the preferred term—chiefly among progressives—for “nation” or “country” or “America.” As political pabulum that doesn’t bother me too much, even though the echoes of John Dewey in such formulations makes me anxious.

But democracy is, you know, a thing. Definitions vary, but I think we can all agree that giving voters and their representatives power to make decisions is part of any serious understanding of democracy. I know that totalitarian and authoritarian countries like to call themselves democracies too. But such claims are what you might call “deceptive advertising” or “false branding” or “lies.”

As the English setter said when making a big fuss about a quail, here’s what I’m getting at: A lot of people described the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade as a blow to “our democracy.”

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said, “No ifs, ands, or buts about it: we are headed down a dangerous spiral that will erode our democracy. This attack on personal rights is not new in the world. We’ve read this book before. I’ve read this book before. Maybe the Supreme Court will now authorize burning the book.”

A statement from Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra begins, “On Friday, June 24th, five Americans decided to use the vast power bestowed upon them by our democracy and our Constitution to unconscionably put at risk the life and health of millions of their fellow Americans.”

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Tina Smith took to the pages of the New York Times to bemoan the harm done to “our democracy” and propose various predictable “democracy reforms.” “We can’t undo in five months the damage it took Republicans five decades to accomplish,” they wrote, “but we can immediately start repairing our democracy.”

As Reed Richards said when introducing his friend Ben Grimm, here’s the Thing: The Supreme Court didn’t remove abortion from “our democracy,” it tossed it back to our democracy. In fact, when the court decided Roe, it removed abortion policy from the democratic process. This, by the way, was the heart of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s criticism of Roe. If Roe—or Dobbs—had banned abortion, a lot of abortion rights supporters would see this clearly. But because they won their preferred policy regime in Roe and lost their preferred policy regime in Dobbs, they mistakenly—or misleadingly—claim that this is a blow to democracy.

I get that they can cite polls saying their preferred policy regime is more popular. And while I can point out the flaws in this claim—lots of Americans oppose what Roe permitted—I think the whole argument is dumb.

Super precedents for me, living constitutionalism for thee.

When you look closely at defenses of Roe as a constitutional matter, they fall almost entirely into two arguments. 1) Precedents matter. Like the Delta House, Roe had a long tradition of existence and therefore should stay on the books. 2) Roe is “popular” according to polls. Let’s take them one at a time.

I agree that precedents matter. Stare decisis—respecting precedent—is generally a good standard. But it’s not an insurmountable one, as Alito demonstrated in his opinion. Everyone on the court has voted to overturn one precedent or another. No one thinks Dred Scott should have stayed on the books.

I should also note that fetishizing Roe as a “superprecedent” is a funny argument for a lot of progressives to make. After all, many of these people want to abolish the filibuster, pack the Supreme Court, get rid of the Electoral College, erase the Second Amendment, and even abolish the Senate because it’s so “undemocratic.” All of these schemes involve ignoring a whole bunch of super duper precedents, and some would require literally nullifying the plain text of the Constitution.

Run a gill net across Twitter and you’ll scoop up thousands of tweets mocking the idea that we should be bound to a piece of parchment written by a bunch of dead white men. But most of these people have no problem with being bound by the decisions of the equally deceased Pale Penis People who wrote Roe v Wade a half-century ago. “Stare decisis forever for Roe, but throw off the shackles of the past for everything else we don’t like!” is a very weird argument.

As for the “Roe is popular” argument, I just don’t get it. Again, this is a much thornier claim than activists acknowledge. For instance, I learned this from Elizabeth Nolan Brown:

In a 2015 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), for instance, 27 percent of millennial respondents called themselves both pro-choice and pro-life, while another 22 percent said neither label fits. The finding—and similar results across age groups from other years and polls—left many scratching their heads. Either you’re for abortion or you’re against it, right?

Wrong. It’s complicated.

But let’s stipulate that Roe is popular. Therefore, what? The Supreme Court isn’t supposed to be particularly democratic, and it definitely isn’t supposed to follow the polls. Let’s assume that you are very passionate about due process. Now let’s assume that America is beset by a crime wave. Should the court decide the rights of the accused based on the latest Pew poll?

You know who is supposed to be democratic and who, at least to some extent, is supposed to follow the polls? Legislators. And that’s who gets to decide abortion policy now.

I get that abortion rights supporters want abortion to be an immutable right. On their own terms, that is an entirely defensible argument. I may disagree, but that’s beside the point. What they are arguing for is less democracy when it comes to abortion. But because so much of their progressivism is emotionally committed to majoritarianism and the unshakable conviction that “the people” are on their side, they can’t make that argument.

But let’s move on.

Nach maga, kommen wir.

There’s one area where I agree with Democrats about the threat to “our democracy.” All of the hardcore MAGA candidates championing the stolen election lie are a real threat to democracy. I may not agree with progressives about the scope or scale of the threat (I suspect our democracy can survive the election of a bunch of Trumpian Mini-Mes). But that, too, is beside the point. You don’t have to buy the argument that these bozos, grifters, useful idiots, and poltroons pose an existential threat to democracy to still think they pose a serious threat.

More importantly, I’m not the one saying they pose an existential threat. Last November, leaders of 58 of the most influential progressive groups wrote an open letter to Congress saying that, “Our democracy faces an existential threat—the very real possibility that the outcome of an election could be ignored and the will of the people overturned by hyperpartisan actors.”

So what have Democrats—who often echo this rhetoric—done to thwart these hyperpartisan democracy assassins?

In the Pennsylvania gubernatorial primary, Democrat Josh Shapiro spent more advertising for Republican Doug Mastriano—an election-denying ultra MAGA goober—than he spent advertising for himself. Why? Because he thought Mastriano would be more beatable.

In Illinois, Gov. Pritzker, the guy who’s supposedly so concerned about democracy, spent $35 million to stop Mayor Richard C. Irvin of Aurora, a moderate Republican, while boosting nutty state senator Darren Bailey as his general election opponent.

Rep. David Valadao is a decent, moderate Republican who bravely voted to impeach Donald Trump. When he voted to impeach, he was lionized for his courage by the left. Indeed, progressives still love to lament how Republicans like Valadao are a vanishing breed. But what did Democrats actually do? They tried to make him vanish by funding his MAGA opponent. Progressives even paid for an ad campaign denouncing him for his impeachment vote.

Democrats have spent $42 million promoting Trumpists and election deniers in primaries on the theory that they’ll be easier to beat in the general election.

Now, in normal times, this would just be cynical hardball politics.

But according to Democrats, these aren’t normal times. They insist that the Trumpian forces are fascists, bent on overthrowing “our democracy.”

Let’s not linger on the question whether these people are fascists—I have opinions. But if Democrats really think they are fascists, maybe they should put their concern for “our democracy” ahead of their desire to have more winnable seats? After all, they might lose a few more races, but they would also lower the downside risk of getting a bunch of Brownshirts elected. When it comes to things like nuclear war, pandemics, and climate change, progressives often like to argue that we should craft policies to prevent the worst case scenario rather than merely mitigate the most likely scenarios. They argue that the odds of a truly calamitous, existential, climate disaster may be only, say, 5 percent, but the consequences of such a catastrophe would be so great that it’s worth doing everything we can to avoid it. But when it comes to the “existential threat” to “our democracy,” it’s perfectly fine to roll the dice if we can get one more vote for Build Back Better.

Again, I don’t share the progressives’ assessment of the threat we face, but if they actually believe it, they are deliberately flirting with disaster.

We are not in the same predicament as Weimar Germany for countless reasons and I reject the comparison on the merits. But we did see this logic before. The most left-wing members of the German Reichstag—aka the Communists—believed the rise of Nazism as a political movement was good for them. They made the strategic bet that an ascendant Hitler—then considered a bit of a clown—would spark a pro-Communist counter-reaction. “Nach Hitler, kommen wir” (After Hitler, we come, or After Hitler, our turn) went the theory. This “first Brown, then Red” tactic didn’t work out for the Communists any better than the Democrats’ early boosterism for Trump worked out in 2016.

This kind of cynicism is so profoundly depressing it inclines me to reach for the bottle or for a Yeats quote: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

I know I should write about Cassidy Hutchinson’s revelations—or allegations. But skipping the recap of all that, I think the moral of her story is the same as the moral of the Democrats’ tactics.

Democracy can work only when enough of the people in charge do the right-but-hard thing in the moment it’s required. The dysfunction of our entire political system stems from the fact that too many people make the wrong decision for the long run because they think they can maximize the benefits for themselves in the short run. Some do it on the assumption that the “system” can handle their self-indulgence. Some, like Donald Trump and his worst enablers, do it because they just don’t care about the system if it’s an obstacle to their desires.

Either way, the only way “our democracy” can die is when we reach a critical mass of leaders who think that way. We’re not there yet, but a lot of people worried about the fragility of “our democracy” are part of the problem.

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.