The Democracy Diva on Democracy

This is a response to Kurt Andersen’s New York Magazine story, “Is Democracy Killing Democracy?” All quotes cited are from that article.

As a political science major and an elitist snob, I feel qualified to tear apart the inaccuracies in Andersen’s humorous, entertaining, and largely ignorant attempt at political academia for non-academics in New York Magazine. Let’s dive into this mess and see what we can make of it.

Inaccuracy #1: Madison and the other founders were elitists who feared the power of the common man.

“[The founders] wanted a government run by an American elite like themselves… They wanted to make sure the mass of ordinary citizens, too easily “stimulated by some irregular passion … or misled by the artful misrepresentations” and thus prone to hysteria—like, say, the rabble who’d run amok in Boston Harbor—be kept in check.”

This is an oversimplification. It’s true that Madison did want a powerful institution that would allow the federal government to override factious passions, a policy called the Negative. But in spite of Madison’s monumental efforts in lobbying for the Negative, it did not make the final draft of the Constitution because it was considered undemocratic. So his fellow founders certainly had a conception of the rights of the people; that was why they struck down Madison’s Negative idea.

Furthermore, the Boston Harbor reference is completely inaccurate. Above all else, Madison and the founders believed that the people had the right – even the responsibility – to rebel against an unjust government that did not respect their liberty. The founders would not have wanted to crush a nonviolent protest like the Boston Tea Party; in fact, they would have regarded it as the citizen’s duty to overthrow a monarch who ignored them.

Inaccuracy #2: America is more democratic now than it used to be.

I guess it depends on how you define “democracy.” What Andersen cites as uber-democratic are things like filibustering and the power of very vocal, possibly extremist minorities to gain media coverage and attention from political elites. Andersen defines democracy by yelling; I define democracy by voting.

With respect to voting, America is no more democratic than it was fifty or a hundred or two hundred years ago. Sure, we have more access to voting than we used to, but it’s access that most people take for granted. In the supposedly historic and life-changing election of 2008, only 60% of eligible voters felt motivated enough to go to the polls. And during non-presidential elections, like the 2006 Congressional race, turnout was down to 37%. How can we be living in Andersen’s uber-democracy if so few people’s views are actually represented?

“When the Constitution was written and the Senate created, there were around 4 million people in America, or about one senator for every 150,000 people. For Congress to be as representative as it was in 1789, we’d need to elect 2,000 senators and 5,000 House members.”

This is a blatant manipulation of statistics to make a point. First of all, not all districts are the same size. If we had to redistrict in order to keep the populations in each district equal, we’d never get anything done. So some people will always have more representation than others – people in small districts have more individual power to their vote than people in large districts. Since there are huge discrepancies between district sizes, you cannot generalize a national ratio of representatives to citizens. And each senator did not represented 150,000 people – they represented the far fewer number of property-owning white Protestant males that were permitted to vote. They may speak for the entire state, but they only truly represent the views of the voters.

Inaccuracy #3: Obama was not elected as a populist, but is becoming increasingly populist.

Andersen ignores everything that happened in the two years preceding Obama’s inauguration, and claims that some of his anti-Wall Street, anti-corporate rhetoric are signs of him becoming more populist, which is not a platform that he was elected upon. Obama is not now becoming populist. He ran a full-on populist campaign! If we remember only one thing about the 2008 campaign, it’ll be the word CHANGE. Obama presented himself as the anti-Politician, the savior of a nation destroyed by over-governance and manipulation by political elites, the one trustworthy man in a sea of liars and thieves. That message was far more populist than anything he’s come out with since taking office. He wanted people to rule instead of politicians. And that makes perfect sense – it’s easy to be anti-government when someone else is in power, and you can point to them and say, “You’re fucking this up.” Once you become the government, it’s much trickier to remain anti-government.

Inaccuracy #4: The government will take loons like the modern Tea Party protesters seriously.

Andersen doesn’t think there are enough “sober designated drivers” in government who will ignore the loud populist factions in favor of a larger national purpose. He thinks the government’s kneejerk reaction to listen to whoever is loudest will reign supreme.

Say it with me, friends: It’s all about the Benjamins. Money wins elections. Politicians will listen to people with money so that they can win elections. Doesn’t matter if they’re populist, anarchist, the religious right or the bleeding heart liberals: The groups with the money will always be heard. It’s not how loud you scream – it’s how much you spend.

Inaccuracy #5: Andersen’s concluding sentence.

“When it comes to reenacting our patriotic founding story, we’d better keep choosing to play the deliberative gentlemen engaged in careful compromise more than the apoplectic vandals dressed up as Indians and throwing things overboard.”

I have so many responses to this running through my head that I can’t even single one out to explain it. My first reaction was, This doesn’t make any fucking sense. Let me try and explain all the flaws in this single sentence.

  1. Why and how are we reenacting our founding story? What does he see in our nation that is trying to replicate the late 18th century? Our population has completely changed, as have our methods of electing representatives. Sure, we still use the Constitution, but I’m not sure that qualifies as reenacting our founding story. Is just electing presidents a reenactment of our founding story? Andersen, tell us what you mean!
  2. What does he mean by “patriotic founding story”? They founded the country; of course they were patriotic. If they weren’t patriotic, they would have stayed in England. Or lost the war.
  3. “Deliberative gentlemen engaged in careful compromise.” Who exactly is he hinting at here? Certainly not presidents like FDR and Lincoln and even Bush, who were anything but careful and made controversial decisions in order to save our nation (whether or not they were successful is another story). And certainly not presidents like Jefferson and Kennedy and Clinton, whose extramarital affairs proved that they were certainly not gentlemen. History does not remember deliberative gentlemen, and elections do not reward careful compromise. Elections reward compromise after spewing rhetoric for months; you have to first play to your dedicated party base, and then compromise in order to get anything done.
  4. Um, obviously we’re not going to fill the Congress with protestors pretending to be racial minorities in order to blame their illegal protesting methods on somebody they already hate. I don’t think anybody is really worried about that happening.

And just so Andersen doesn’t think I’m too harsh on him…

Undoubtedly Factual Statement #1: “Jefferson was America’s first great free-spending, radicchio-growing, cheese-and-wine-importing, European-architecture-loving liberal.”

I can’t argue with that.

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6 responses to The Democracy Diva on Democracy

  1. Thomas D

    I think this is a fair rebuttal to Anderson’s piece — and I largely agree with your points — but I’d quibble with your response to his concluding sentence.

    That final sentence is merely a recap of points he’s already made. Recall that he began his piece by linking the modern tea party to the original, while drawing a distinction: The original Tea Party ultimately led to coolheaded gentlemen and practicable, vaguely undemocratic governance. The modern tea party, on the other hand, is prompting not coolheadedness, but rather “hysteria” among politicians who are “indulging (its) populist fantasy.”

    To Andersen’s eyes, the original tea party was a crazy-mob act that prompted a sober-gentlemen outcome; the modern tea party is a crazy-mob act that is prompting a crazy-mob outcome.

    So his concluding sentence simply reiterates that imagery: The modern tea party is harking back to the original (“reenacting our patriotic founding story”) while missing its ultimate point (“deliberative gentlemen,” etc.).

    That said, I thoroughly disagree with Andersen’s premises and conclusions, as I spelled out in a comment there. His leftist myopia leads to a (typical) sort of historical incoherence, exacerbated by the fact that here he’s setting out to lob some nifty, Slate-esque counterintuitive point (“Hey, did you know democracy can be dangerous?!”)

    It’s the sort of thing that makes a liberty-loving American want to bang a head against the wall. Like, wait a minute: the New Deal, the Great Society, the NLRA, class warfare, universal health care, seatbelt laws, ad nauseam… and NOW you’re suddenly fretting about congressmen acting “like wild and crazy small-d democrats”?!

    My comment at NYMag used the word “stunning,” and it is. Andersen’s take overlooks the mob-coddling, democracy-driven proclivity that has led to the above list, while completely misinterpreting the point of the modern tea party, which is to OPPOSE that proclivity.

    The tea partiers are the ones who dislike the dangers of untrammeled democracy, yet Andersen fingers THEM for exemplifying the dangers of untrammeled democracy.

    It’s so off base on so many fronts, it’s infuriating.

    • sdercher – Author

      Thanks so much for your response! I see your point about the concluding sentence, but I still think he was just trying to end with a bunch of fancy and largely meaningless words in order to punch up the conclusion. Glad to hear I’m not the only person who found Andersen’s article insane!

  2. It’s interesting that, way back when, Andersen was a co-founder of “Spy,” one of the first snark-infested tabloid magazines that covered politics, and now his main avenue is a NPR show that most times is nearly narcoleptic in its inanity.

  3. Some Slut

    lolz remember when you blogged about politics……where the one of a kind alexander mcqueen dress in this post mami?

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