From Jonah Goldberg at the Dispatch, Conservatism, Not Populism:
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.”
Trump is no Hitler—Hitler could have repealed Obamacare—but Trump’s election is obviously a good example of the dangers of populism.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.”
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