The distinction between principles of process and principles of policy is key to an understanding of democratic governance and its theory. This marks the third section of an effort to offer a comprehensive theory of democracy called The Democracy Paradox.
Dwight Eisenhower is the model of the pragmatic conservative lost from the political environment of today. He did not spearhead reform so much as manage it. The Roosevelt and Truman administrations looked to redefine government for a new political era. Eisenhower institutionalized past reforms. Even when his Attorney General, Herbert Brownell, talked him into the need for Civil Rights reforms, Eisenhower balked when reform moved too quickly.
Few recall the Eisenhower administration supported the famous Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Brownell had filed an amicus on behalf of the administration in support of the plaintiffs. But Eisenhower favored a more gradual approach to school integration where the South took the lead in its implementation. His approach backfired when some Governors refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Brown decision. Ultimately, Eisenhower sent the National Guard to Little Rock to force integration. His commitment to the integrity of the Supreme Court and the Constitution outweighed his preference for a gradual approach.
The conservatism of Eisenhower did not lack for political principles. But his principles drew their inspiration from the political process rather than specific outcomes. Politicians today, particularly the Republican Party in the United States, use the political process as a tool to accomplish their preferred outcomes. The process has no special respect or reverence. Arcane legislative rules and procedures have become weapons to prevent meaningful change and competent governance. Too often political firebrands forget democratic governance depends on the ability to govern. In a democracy, failures of governance become failures of democracy. They sow doubt in the minds of the electorate in their ability to govern themselves.
Government of the People
Democracy is colloquially described as the government of the people. Authoritarians use the failures of democratic governments to legitimize their political systems. The failure to compromise becomes a justification for autocratic government where a single ruler centralizes power. So those who casually claim government does not work challenge the foundations of political freedom. They challenge the notion that the people can govern themselves. The nihilistic assumption that government cannot succeed undermines the fundamental belief in democracy.
Friedrich Hayek argued the expansive role of the modern state threatened political freedom. He made the case that political freedom depended on both civil liberties and economic freedom. Political freedom depended on limited government according to this logic. He argued the expansion of the state eventually led to totalitarian government. Hayek’s political thought ushered in a new political movement later called neoliberalism. It gave primacy to economic liberalization over political freedoms. Classical liberals like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill had also supported similar economic policies like free trade and property rights. But they had placed a primary emphasis on civil liberties. Economic freedoms had been a small component of a wider range of liberal rights.
Political Freedom or Economic Freedom
Neoliberalism reversed the emphasis of classical liberalism. It placed a focus on economic freedom over civil liberties and political freedom. Modern liberalism, epitomized by John Maynard Keynes, believed the state created space for human freedom. Later theorists like Francis Fukuyama have argued for the importance of state capacity for political and economic modernization. But radical neoliberals like Hayek and Milton Friedman gave economic freedom primacy. They focused on the interference the state imposed on the individual rather than the possibilities it made available.
Of course, the state does offer serious challenges for political freedom. Totalitarianism represented an existential threat to human freedom because the state abandoned any pretense of subservience to the law. But Hayek did not recognize this important distinction. He saw the growth of the state as the threat rather than its place of primacy over the law. His preference for economic freedom over political freedom led him to abandon democracy entirely when forced to choose. Pinochet’s coup d’état in Chile in 1973 represented a stress test for political theory. Hayek decided laissez faire economic policy was more important than constitutional government.
Capitalism Becomes a Moral Cause
Ayn Rand took the neoliberal ideas of Hayek and Friedman and raised the stakes. She elevated capitalism into a moral idea. Her philosophy of objectivism took Kantian deontological logic and applied them to economic policy. She came to the conclusion any form of government coercion into the economy was a threat to human freedom. But more than simply a threat, it was immoral. She saw the free market as the natural condition of humanity so any regulation, tax, or social program used humanity as a means for misguided or utopian ends.
Many conservative politicians found inspiration in the writings of Ayn Rand including Paul Ryan and Alan Greenspan. Unlike most conservative intellectuals, her writings had a radical impulse within them. Her philosophy does not hope to manage change, but rather to engineer a capitalist utopia. Unlike most political theorists she saw economic policy as morally right or wrong. She refused to acknowledge the costs or benefits of any economic idea. Instead, she interpreted them within a moral framework of right and wrong.
The danger in objectivism is not their radical policy prescriptions, but the redefinition of policy as principle. A political principle does not have room for compromise. It becomes a line in the sand. Ayn Rand often said the ends do not justify the means, but this is exactly where her philosophy takes politics. When policies become principles, politicians justify any behavior to ensure they do not lose. Ayn Rand said very little about the political process. She never reflected on the relationship between the means and ends of politics. The implication is anything goes in defense of capitalism. The policy ends justify the political means.
Principles and Politics
Successful democracies are uncomfortable for radical political ideologies. Democracy is not the same as majoritarianism. It has elements of majority rule, but offers channels for input from political minorities. Compromise and consent become important elements of any stable democracy. But compromise is a challenge for radicals. They transform positions into principles. Rather than compromise, they look for ways to gain an advantage. When all else fails, conservatives look to the military and leftists look to insurgencies to force their ideas on others.
Too often politicians get described as unprincipled. Certainly many politicians lack any clear moral compass. But some become labeled as unprincipled because they make compromises. Too often the most stubborn political actors become rewarded as principled for their failure to come to agreements. The problem is the emphasis on public policy has given a perverse primacy of principles of policy over principles of process. Compromise requires its own set of political principles based on a commitment to govern effectively and a faith in constitutional government.
Unfortunately, those most intransigent bargain asymmetrically with those committed to the democratic process. Ironically everyone is blamed when compromise is out of reach. But moderates face the greatest criticism. It is widely assumed both sides remain equally unwilling to budge in any negotiation. But the reality is neither side will give ground unless they expect some measure of reciprocation. Radical politics rewards politicians who never give ground. Their supporters consider them principled politicians. But those who base their principles on the process itself get left with a difficult decision. They can either simply give in to the demands of the other party or become considered equally rigid. Negotiations like these are asymmetric. Compromise is not possible, only acquiescence.
Radical Politics and Democracies
Some may find it puzzling no democratic country has adopted communism. Likewise no communist country has embraced democracy. The democratization of former communist countries has occurred alongside economic liberalization. Even in those countries who embraced social democracy, they developed market economies reliant on elements of capitalism. They looked to harness the benefits of capitalism alongside an expansive welfare state designed to offset its costs. These mixed economies relied on a series of political compromises between capital and labor. True Marxists make their political agenda a moral cause so the compromises necessary for democracy become impossible. In the end, the rigidity of Marxism is surprisingly similar to the objectivism of Ayn Rand.
Nonetheless, the radical right has an advantage over the radical left in a democracy. The left fundamentally believes in a role for the state particularly in the economy. The radical right does not. The decision to walk away from a negotiation often means the government does nothing. Oftentimes, this is the desired outcome of right-wing politicians from the start. The more recalcitrant the political right becomes, the more likely the left will makes reforms without their input once they amass enough political power to bring about meaningful political change. Neither approach is beneficial for democracy in the long run. The inability of the two sides to work together raises the political stakes and undermines confidence in democracy among the public.
Principles of Process
Of course, compromise is not always democratic. Sometimes compromise undermines fundamental democratic principles. It is never right to compromise away human rights. Nor is it appropriate to compromise away the democratic process itself. The Civil Rights Movement represents a moment in history where principles of process demanded a change in public policy. The South had demanded accommodations and compromises for generations to allow racial segregation. Finally, liberals made the case these issues did not represent mere public policy, but had implications for the entire political process.
The Civil Rights Movement brought about a transformation of American democracy. Some have called it a second reconstruction. Many scholars have marked the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as the beginning of a truly liberal democracy in the United States. But it also brought a moral tone into politics. The moral demand for civil rights turned towards a moral demand for the Vietnam War. Some liberals went on to find new moral outrages in environmentalism, animal rights, and healthcare. Political causes became moral causes for the American left.
The rise of Reagan does not make sense outside of this political context. Ayn Rand’s redefinition of capitalism as a moral cause did not capture the public imagination in the fifties or the sixties. It remained confined to a small subculture of intellectuals. Reagan and Thatcher redefined conservatism along a moral dimension. It reclaimed a political morality for rightwing politics after the resignation of Richard Nixon. But the elevation of public policy to a moral debate never made sense for politics in a democracy. It turns political opponents into political enemies. Or in the language of Chantal Mouffe it transforms agonism into antagonism.
Challenge of Democracy
The challenge for democracy has always been to clearly define its principles. Democracy opens every aspect to political contention including the democratic process itself. This is the heart of the Democracy Paradox. Beyond universal suffrage, additional liberal rights become essential for democratic governance such as freedom of speech and assembly. But other rights remain less clear. Does a person have a right to basic necessities like food and shelter? How much economic inequality is possible before political equality is undermined? Ganesh Sitaraman has elevated many economic rights into preconditions for what he describes as The Great Democracy. John Rawls believed economic inequality was unjust unless it benefited the least fortunate member of society. Demands for economic democracy risk making political democracy unnecessary because so many political questions have a predetermined outcome for them.
Nonetheless, democracy requires a radical redefinition of political principles. Too many politicians (and voters) focus on the outcomes of politics rather than the process itself. Conservatives give lip service to the constitution for why they believe in limited government, but forget the reason for the creation of the constitution was to establish a workable government. Democracy is more than just the mediation of political interests. It requires a commitment to make the process work. It requires a commitment to make government work.
A Few Sources
Binyamin Applebaum (2019), The Economists’ Hour
F.A. Hayek (1944), The Road to Serfdom
Chantal Mouffe (2013), Agonistics
Thomas Piketty (2019), Capital and Ideology
Ganesh Sitaraman (2019), The Great Democracy
Democracy Paradox Podcast
Elizabeth Nugent on Polarization, Democratization and the Arab Spring
Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue are Worried About Severe Polarization
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