What’s at stake in this year’s election? Paul Ryan’s speech at this year’s Republican National Convention offers a clue. Ryan noted that the GOP “will not try to replace our founding principles; we will reapply our founding principles.” Of course, we need to exercise caution here; convention speeches are much more about media messaging than political ideas. In 2008, Sarah Palin talked about her “servant’s heart” because she was speaking in code to social conservatives; while most Americans heard a flowery phrase, Palin was using the language of Christian evangelicals to signal that she was one of their kind. Similarly, Ryan’s claims over “founding principles” are a likely nod to the Tea Party’s obsession with what George Washington had for breakfast. (This particular catchphrase must be testing well since, a month after the convention, Ryan again was telling Fox News’ Chris Wallace that “the President is replacing our founding principles.”) But Ryan’s reference to the founders during his convention speech was not merely a framing device. He actually was getting at the heart of the conservative project; he was, perhaps surprisingly, speaking the truth. The American Right is, in fact, trying to return us to the principles of our founding – or at least some of them.
Looking to first principles often leads us to the theorists who can best explain our current politics: Marx, Hegel, Agamben. Yet this election year I am struck most by the textbook I use in my American Government class. The Democratic Debate (written by a number of scholars, including Bruce Miroff and Todd Swanstrom) is, like any textbook, far from perfect, but it’s a little less sunshiny about the deficiencies of American democracy than many. What I like most about this text is its central premise: the book claims that we can best understand the development of American institutions as an argument between two different views of democracy. Popular democrats push for as much participation from as many citizens as possible; for these folks, truly direct democracy may be an unattainable ideal in a modern setting, but we should work towards it as best as we can. Elite democrats, on the other hand, view free and fair elections as both necessary and sufficient for a functioning democracy. Once these elections are held, our representatives are free to pursue the policies they think best for the country without interference.
Today it is Fox News, Crossroads GPS, and the Republican Party who carry the torch for elite democracy. Whether they admit it or not, they are promoting the idea of “big boy politics”: the rest of us should run along and play, and let the grown-ups decide. But today’s conservatives go beyond just limiting public participation to voting and demand – as, to be fair, most elite democrats do – that even this basic right must be limited to the select few. Elections should be free and fair but also for the informed, with the further implication that they should be left to those who understand what is at stake. The proliferation of state Voter ID laws are the clearest manifestation of this idea that many, if not most of us, are simply not qualified to participate in the governing of our nation in any substantive way. (These laws are also a pretty smart electoral strategy, and may be the only play left for a party facing increasingly unfavorable national demographics.)
And of course, elite democrats have plenty of evidence on their side. Snooki, Honey Boo Boo, and the rapidly growing species of Verus Housewife are easy targets for conservatives who want to idealize some past era during which all voters read newspapers and watched Cronkite every night. But like a broken clock, even the Family Research Council is right to notice that much of our culture is shallow, dominated by the supply of frenzied entertainment rather than anything of substance. My American Government students, almost entirely 17-19 year olds, are products of this culture, and they almost always respond to my textbook as knee-jerk elite democrats. They adopt this view despite the fact that many of them would not pass an American citizenship test. In some cases they adopt elite democracy because of their deficiencies; they want to save the country from ignoramuses like themselves. It’s hard not to sympathize with them, especially when so many of the “47%” that Romney dismissed as “freeloaders” are going to vote for their favorite white millionaire anyway.
The irony of these freeloaders’ support of GOP candidates sharpens when we consider the Tea Party, whose delusions are too numerous to detail here. Unlike Matt Taibbi, who thinks that they are just “full of shit,” I tend to be more sympathetic to the teabaggers, obsessive Fox-watchers and self-loathing government-haters among us. After all, they’ve watched the brief promise of functional democracy and shared affluence that was offered in the post-war twentieth century – a flawed promise, of course, but still – crumble along with their pension accounts. It’s not exactly their fault that they don’t know who to blame, and instead do what working class Americans have always done: blame the guy with darker skin. And so when they, and most Americans along with them, call for a return to Paul Ryan’s “founding principles,” they mean a renewed democracy, opportunity for all, and a return to the greatness they imagine as the default mode of American operations. This kind of thinking is fine, as far as it goes – Americans are generally a decent and well-meaning sort, if they can avoid invading other countries for even a short while– only these are NOT the “founding principles” that Ryan and the Republicans are actually going to restore.
It probably goes without saying that our nation’s founders were elite democrats, distrustful of the yeoman farmers and property-less masses that threatened to undermine the nation’s stability and prosperity. (Or worse, cancel the significant debts they owed the nation’s financial class who, as always, saw little need to modify loan terms for poor debtors just because the country had entered a crippling recession.) Our constitution is the product of a true aristocracy: wealthy, educated men from the Virginia landed gentry and the northeastern financial elite. Again, this is not news for those who have even a passing interest in American history. Almost a century ago, historian Charles Beard made the point, if a little too strongly, that our founders’ constitutional choices didn’t exactly hurt their economic interests. And we’re reminded of the founders’ distrust of the masses every time there’s a hiccup in the Electoral College.
Apologists for aristocracy note that if you get the right guys in place than everything can work out in the end. Plato’s guardians were reluctant rulers, chosen for their wisdom and trained by an educational system that honed their natural talents. If anyone from history ever resembled such a philosopher king, it was George Washington; if he, Madison, Jefferson and Hamilton are your aristocrats, you can end up with a reasonably stable federal system that even occasionally enforces a Bill of Rights. Today we get Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. (Maybe I don’t need to lay this out, but just in case: Mitt Romney is no James Madison.) We get a host of painted clowns like Palin and Perry and Bachmann, awful people who only know wisdom as a town in Montana. These professional politicians – shills for corporate America to a man and woman – envision a country in which most of us sacrifice everything so that a privileged few have the opportunity to prosper.
So again, what principles are at stake in this election? If you believe the gang that wrote my American Government textbook, they are the same principles at issue in every American election since the debates on constitutional ratification (the first of many defeats for popular democrats, by the way). They are, on one hand, the belief in a robust, participatory democracy versus, on the other, the Republicans’ offer of aristocracy. In the most generous reading of their rhetoric, conservatives want us to be led by the best and brightest among us; but I think we can be forgiven if we think we’ll end up mainly with anyone with a country club membership. So if the Republicans are our enemy, then we are left with the other guys as the last defenders of participatory, popular democracy. I know that’s not the best of news.
Take education policy, for instance. John Dewey, agreeing with Plato, recognized that a decent education was essential for human flourishing. More importantly, Dewey thought that educational reforms could produce the “organized intelligence” necessary to confront the dire social problems of the industrial age. An educational system that churned out active and engaged citizens would form a symbiosis with a participatory democracy. Sure, we’d get it wrong sometimes – even Dewey might not have been able to stop No Child Left Behind – but we’d be transformed even by the attempt. Instead, today even the Democratic Party seeks to “reform” public education with neoliberal catchphrases like privatization, de-unionization, and standardization. To “fix” the schools, they’ll listen to everyone but the teachers, administrators and parents who are the actual stakeholders.
The good news is that no one who has ever really worked for a living likes any of this. Even Tea Partiers, while they hate the “teachers” that Scott Walker portray as parasites on the public weal, generally like the ones that teach in their kids’ schools. The bad news is that with both parties locked into the idea of “transforming” public education by turning schools into Wal-Marts, the same hard road faces progressives that they’ve had since the New Deal fell apart (and probably before). It will take the usual bag of tricks to knock the Democrats off course: using whatever older institutions (read: unions) that still have enough battery life to produce political pressure while leveraging the power of new institutions and strategies (read: Occupy) to lay out a different path. The eventual goal is Dewey’s dream of an educational system that ensures real equality of opportunity and a substantive civic education to all. In the meantime we’ll take more Chicago-style strikes and more push-back against the corporate raiders. And we’ll need to force the Democratic Party – as always, the lesser evil – into buying into the solution, even if their leaders just see it as a marketing strategy.
I am not exactly optimistic about the chances of success. But the only alternative is to succumb to the “founding principles” promised by Ryan, Romney, and the rest of the elite democrats of the Republican Party. They remind us that the aristocratic values of property, hierarchy, and supremacy are part of our constitutional history, and require real political work to overcome. Maybe when enough Americans feel like three-fifths of a person we’ll all see what we’re up against.