Any reader who thinks the gloom that darkened October (“Democracy itself is on the ballot”) was nothing but a silly mistake should stop reading here.
I believe those preliminary fears were justified; that the Democrats have gotten American culture wrong for several years now; and that their lucky escape in November was owing mainly to the choice of untenable candidates by the rival party—a party still cowed by Donald Trump, who never had much interest in politics and who carried his repulsive election-denial program into Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona. Democrats ought to look again at the warnings they received in 2018 and 2020, since the likely effect of persisting in their errors could be read (even in 2022) in Ohio and Florida, and in the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Congressional Districts of Long Island. The final tally of the 2022 congressional races yielded the Democrats 47.8 percent of the popular vote, while the Republicans took 50.7 percent.
What has been hard for Democrats to realize is that they are no longer the party of the working class. Rather, they represent what John Stuart Mill called “the satisfied classes,” along with the needy, whom they patronize in return for votes. (Nancy Pelosi conceded as much when she pointed out that undocumented immigrants take the jobs nobody else wants.) Accordingly, the culture of the Democratic Party has the heft that goes with being the owners and proprietors of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Wall Street, and a sizable share of the weapons industry, the major airlines, and professional sports. The satisfied classes, as Mill put it, “have the strongest reason possible for being satisfied with the government; they are the government.”
And yet the national majority the Democrats can now command adds up to 55 percent on a good day. They have no plan for dealing with the remaining 45 percent—only a small proportion of whom can be dismissed as conspiracy theorists, election deniers, and incurable cranks. A functioning democracy requires the consent, if not the votes, of a good deal more than half the country. How, then, will the 55 percent cope with disagreement on the following issues?
§ Immigration. The status of citizenship offers a sharp definition of the issue here. Our sense of what it means to be a citizen—the rights but also the concomitant duties and responsibilities—will affect any possible agreement about the openness or proper limits of immigration. To become US citizens, legal immigrants must pass a rigorous test on American history, laws, and institutions—a test many of the native-born would certainly fail. Enormous pride attends this achievement, as anyone who has watched the ceremony will know. The current policy of poorly regulated immigration, which has overwhelmed border security, is hardly improved by the Biden administration’s very noticeable avoidance of the subject—this, in a year when Customs and Border Protection has made more than 2 million arrests at the southern border. The void of policy—the contrast between emollient statements from the administration and the pleas of local Democratic members of Congress like Henry Cuellar—cheapens the accomplishment of legal immigrants. The idea that their sentiments and votes are naturally bound to side with undocumented immigrants is itself a racist assumption.
§ Cultural identity. Many Asian Americans have long rebelled against the paternalist ethic that judges people by tribe or ancestral group rather than personal qualities; the North Carolina and Harvard college admissions cases, now before the Supreme Court, brought out the indignation that identity politics cannot help provoking in a society that values merit. Merit: the necessary qualification for the job you undertake—not to be confused with meritocracy, the bugbear of the cultural left. The shorter word denotes a recognition of demonstrated competence that is assigned to an individual and not an ascriptive group.
§ Majority rule and censorship. An idea gaining ground in left-wing circles is that enlightened majority rule may become the guiding principle of a true and unimpeded democracy. A Constitution reduced to an all-encompassing basis in popular sovereignty, with a considerably abridged Bill of Rights, appears to be envisaged here. No longer would the courts, the Electoral College, or the filibuster rule override the unexceptionable judgment of the 55 percent. Their leaders, from Harvard, The New York Times, Google, and Raytheon—in short, the people with the best ideas—would implement the best policies without obstruction by an outmoded minority of opinion. To expedite the process, the minority would be heard from less and less frequently in the mainstream media.
The familiar prop of the argument for majoritarian “good speech” against pluralistic free speech is the theory that words are violence. Once you grant this premise and see that questionable words, on a given occasion, embody a wrong idea, you will be led unavoidably to suppress the violence-bearing words, as well as the people who utter them. But the inconvenient truth of democratic liberty is that words have effects that are unpredictable for better or worse. To suppose otherwise is to take democracy off the ballot.
§ Climate change. Human survival—against the double peril of nuclear war and climate catastrophe—will be on every ballot for the next many election cycles. Here, if anywhere, a political and moral difference between the parties cannot be ignored; but Democrats have let the implementation outrun the explanation of their policy. By folding into climate-change reforms a host of “equity” measures, the Green New Deal only reinforced the suspicion that climate change itself was a chimera. Democrats will soon have to confront an inflexible reality, namely that this is not an issue the 55 percent can take on unassisted. Indeed, it will require a kind of international collaboration for which the world’s sole superpower has done little to prepare itself over the last 30 years. Not war but peace is a necessary condition of such collaboration. Meanwhile, with bipartisan unity on this point almost uniquely, the United States remains the world’s leading exporter of weapons and wars.