Progressivism and Tram-Ride Democracy

     During the recent failed coup in Turkey, Erdoğan called on the people and even the opposition to oppose the in order to uphold the “principles of democracy”.  The irony of a man who called democracy a tram that one rides until one arrives at their destination*, and then gets off, was only underscored by Erdoğan’s authoritarian purging of political enemies.  This attitude of using democracy to gain power and justifying actions by appealing to “principles of democracy”, until it is not longer useful, it a hallmark of not just Erdoğan, but of Progressivism.

     But just what are these “principles of democracy”?  To but it bluntly, there are none.  Democracy is a procedure, not a principle.  A democratic decision could be a majority of people preventing a tyrant from ruling over them, or a democratic decision could facilitate a tyrant gaining power over them.

     When most people think of as “democracy” is actually a (classical) liberal democracy.  In a (classical) liberal democracy, democratic voting is not the superlative aspect of a (classical) liberal democracy.  It is the (classical) liberal values of the rule of law, respect for liberty, protection for the minority, and the free interaction of free human beings.  The values make democracy possible, and as such the democratic procedure serves to protect those principles.

     Fundamentally, a (classical) liberal democracy is a constrained and limited democracy that has anti-majoritarian restraints.  Undemocratic checks and balances are necessary to prevent a democracy from turning into an ochlocracy, as Polybius pointed out millennia ago.

     This is why a military coup, though per se undemocratic, can actually serve to protect democracy by protecting those (classical) liberal values from being destroyed by a democratic vote; Allowing a democratic outcome to stand no matter what on a matter of principle can serve to destroy democracy, and the very principles a (classical) liberal democracy serves to protect.

     The idea that democratic decisions are always favorable to democracy assumes that a people, themselves or via representative, would never strip themselves of democracy.  It also assumes that a temporary majority (or even a plurality), can not then empower an elite few crush dissent or to otherwise narrow and close off lines of debate and thinking.  A pure democracy as such can only work when people can sit out side of the arena and be free of the consequences of their own actions that might limit them, while remaining fully informed, completely objective, free from coercion by the majority, or otherwise stand as gods overlooking mortals.  This, of course, is total fantasy.  As James FitzJames Stephens noted:

“[Mills] appears to believe that if men are freed from restraints and put, as far as possible, on an equal footing, they will naturally treat each other as brothers, and work together harmoniously for their common good.  I believe that many men are bad, a vast majority of men indifferent, and many good, and that the great mass of indifferent people sway this way or that according to the circumstances, one of the most important of which is the circumstances is the predominance for the time being of the bad or good.”

     The entire Rousseau-esque concept of a Volonté Générale (General Will) spontaneous arising as a singular and willful de facto infallible deity is a fallacy.  The idea that the “people” would never harm the people is a dangerous one.  Rather than the people standing in opposition to tyranny, they aid and abed it.  As James FitzJames Stephehs, again, notes:

“People cam in time to regard their rulers as their own agents and the depositaries of their own power than as antagonistic powers to be kept in check, and it did not occur to them that their own power exercised through their own agents might be just as oppressive as the power of their rulers confined within closer or wider limits.”

     Progressives, and Leftists ideologies in general, openly praise the “power of the people” and point to a favorable democratic outcome as absolute proof of legitimacy.  It is not the number of people that makes a government decision or action legitimate, it is the action itself.  Those on the left who gained power through democratic means, have every motive to then dismantle or otherwise limit democratic power lest it be used by someone else to gain power.  From the European Union and the Brexit vote, to the increasing authoritarianism of Maduro in Venezuela, “democracy” is not a principle, but just a useful and temporary tool.

     A perfect example of this is an anti-democratic diatribe by David Van Reybrouck at the Guardian who tries to grapple with people daring to vote the wrong way by declaring elections to be bad for democracy!  While democratic outcomes can be bad for a (classical) liberal democracy, elections and voting are the very definition of what a democracy is.  Mr. Van Reybrouck argues that in order to best carry out the will of the “people”, then the people themselves should not have a say, but rather have the Volonté Générale divined by Leviathan’s haruspices!

“Isn’t it bizarre that voting, our highest civic duty, boils down to an individual action performed in the silence of the voting booth? Is this really the place where we turn individual gut feelings into shared priorities? Is it really where the common good and the long term are best served?


“But democratic fatigue syndrome is not so much caused by the people, the politicians or the parties – it is caused by the procedure. Democracy is not the problem. Voting is the problem. Where is the reasoned voice of the people in all this? Where do citizens get the chance to obtain the best possible information, engage with each other and decide collectively upon their future? Where do citizens get a chance to shape the fate of their communities? Not in the voting booth, for sure. “

     In effect, he considers elections to be the “fossil fuel of politics”:

“Whereas once they gave democracy a huge boost, much as oil did for our economies, it now turns out they cause colossal problems of their own. If we don’t urgently reconsider the nature of our democratic fuel, a systemic crisis awaits. If we obstinately hold on to a notion of democracy that reduces its meaning to voting in elections and referendums, at a time of economic malaise, we will undermine the democratic process.”

     And what does he blame this problem on?  The free market and public political debate!  We can’t let the will of the people interfere with the “will of the people”, can we?  And what would this “post-democracy” be like?

“‘Under this model, while elections certainly exist and can change governments, public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams. The mass of citizens plays a passive, quiescent part, responding only to the signals given them.'”

     People are just too darn dumb to participate in democracy, according to Mr. Van Reybrouck!  Best to take a “sample” of people and let them make decisions under the benevolent guidance of pre-selected experts?  An example from Ireland is touted as proffered solution:

“The most innovative country so far is certainly Ireland. In December 2012, a constitutional convention began work in order to revise several articles of the constitution of Ireland. Its members were not just a committee of MPs working behind closed doors, but a mixture of elected politicians and ordinary people: 33 elected politicians and 66 citizens, drafted by lot, from both Ireland and Northern Ireland. This group met one weekend per month for more than a year.

“An independent research bureau put together the random group of 66 citizens, taking account of age, sex and place of birth. The diversity this produced was helpful when it came to discussing such subjects as same-sex marriage, the rights of women or the ban on blasphemy in the current constitution. However, they did not do all this alone: participants listened to experts and received input from other citizens (more than a thousand contributions came in on the subject of gay marriage). The decisions made by the convention did not have the force of law; the recommendations first had to be passed by the two chambers of the Irish parliament, then by the government and then in a referendum.

“By talking to a diverse cross-section of Irish society, politicians could get further than they could have by just talking to each other. By exchanging views with elected officials, citizens could give much more relevant input than they could have in an election or a referendum.”

     This is not an isolated opinion, but part of a broader mindset that is increasing common in Europe:

” They clearly reject that democracy can be defined or judged as a procedure, that is, the method by which government and decisions are made; rather they believe that ‘democracy’:

“‘[E]mphasises the need to start from a substantial, rather than a procedural, definition of democracy – that is, a “thicker” definition which characterises democracy in terms of a set of normative principles against which institutional rules and practices should be judged.’

” In effect, it means that a majority voting to support a position or candidate is not democracy unless it fits with other normative principles.


“‘In this context, deliberative democracy offers an ideal framework for the formulation of a definition of gender democracy that fulfils these provisos.  According to deliberative democracy theory, what makes a political decision democratically legitimate is not that is has majoritarian support, but rather that it has been critically examined by “qualified and afflicted members of the community” through a reason-giving practice.  In other words, a legitimate decision is one that can be consented to after withstanding scrutiny by those that are bound by it.'”

     This is frighteningly similar to fascism’s “corporatism” as Mussolini pointed out in “The Doctrine of Fascism“:

“Grouped according to their several interests, individuals form classes; they form trade-unions when organized according to their several economic activities; but first and foremost they form the State, which is no mere matter of numbers, the suns of the individuals forming the majority. Fascism is therefore opposed to that form of democracy which equates a nation to the majority, lowering it to the level of the largest number; but it is the purest form of  democracy if the nation be considered as it should be from the point of view of quality rather than quantity, as an idea, the mightiest because the most ethical, the most coherent, the truest, expressing itself in a people as the conscience and will of the few, if not, indeed, of one, and ending to express itself in the conscience and the will of the mass, of the whole group ethnically molded by natural and historical conditions into a nation, advancing, as one conscience and one will, along the self same line of development and spiritual formation.”

     How does the Left square this circle?  How can they both honestly support a majoritarian “will of the people” while desiring “experts” mold the hoi polloi?  Simply they desire to create a “new people”, as Steven Hayward points out:

“It is hard to make out, but there is a deeper dialectic at work in the Progressive mind, not unlike that more famous dialectic conjured up by that hairy German fellow. The purpose of the Administrative State—best understood with Saint-Simon’s famous single sentence description about how ‘the government of men is replaced by the administration of things’—is to create a new people.

“The late, great Martin Diamond—a former Leninist—understood this clearly. I ran across this old passage from Diamond over the weekend, writing back at a time (the late 1960s) before the more accurate term ‘Progressive’ had re-emerged (hence his use of ‘liberal’ here, which means the same thing as today’s ‘Progressive’):

“The liberal aim is thus clear. In order to transform the human condition, which is his deepest aim, the liberal seeks to make the political order fully dependent upon a transformed people. To achieve the transformation, he seeks the right kind of constitutional institutions to produce the right kind of party to produce the right kind of majority. At the very center of liberalism there is the theory of the truly democratic party—unified and coherent and thus capable of summoning up from the unformed mass the majority acquiescence in the liberal goals that, the liberal believes, is the natural inclination of the true majority. To such a majority, the Constitution with its “auxiliary precautions” does indeed obstruct the way.

“Yes, this is a polite way of saying Progressives are indistinguishable from totalitarians. An elitist minority defines a priori what the majority must believe to be truly ‘democratic.'”

     In other words, it is the desire to make “the new Soviet Man” who will act, think, and work like they are “supposed” to.

     The Progressive Left consider this to be an echt democracy, or as Mussolini again puts it:

“After socialism, Fascism trains its guns on the whole block of democratic ideologies, and rejects both their premises and their practical applications and implements. Fascism denies that numbers, as such, can be the determining factor in human society; it denies the right of numbers to govern by means of periodical consultations; it asserts the irremediable and fertile and beneficent inequality of men who cannot be leveled by any such mechanical and extrinsic device as universal suffrage.


“But if democracy be understood as meaning a regime in which the masses are not driven back to the margin of the State, and then the writer of these pages has already defined Fascism as an organized, centralized, authoritarian democracy.”

     To the Left, “democracy” is just a Leviathan where everyone thinks and acts how the elite believes they ought to.  It isn’t authoritarian, it is ” an organized, centralized, authoritarian democracy”.

     * I’ve seen this translated as “tram,” “bus”, or “street car” depending on the source. I used “tram” because it seems a bit more accurate as to the point that was made.

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