Critiques of democracy are as old as the excesses of the Athenian variety. Here's a classic: The unmediated masses are as capable of doing an injustice as any aristocracy or tyrant. In America, it's acceptable to say, as shorthand, that we're living in a Western liberal democracy. But the fact is that we live in a federal, constitutional republic, because the Framers mistrusted democracy, and the vast majority of Americans retain a great part of that mistrust. We've extended the franchise, amended the Constitution to permit the direct election of senators, and we're likely to eventually abandon the electoral college and elect presidents by the popular vote. But there is broad, deep support for anti-democratic features of our system, like the Bill of Rights.
All of this is totally uncontroversial -- unless it is uttered by Senator Rand Paul, the national politician most likely to evoke irrational paranoia from the political press. Serial anti-libertarian Jonathan Chait is the latest to demonstrate this truth in an unintentionally revealing item at New York.
Here's how he begins:
The most unusual and interesting line in Julia Ioffe's highly interesting profile of Rand Paul is Paul's confession, "I'm not a firm believer in democracy. It gave us Jim Crow." Of course, that's an awfully strange way to condemn Jim Crow, which arose in the distinctly undemocratic Apartheid South (it was no coincidence that the dismantling of Jim Crow and the granting of democratic rights to African-Americans happened simultaneously).
This is an uncharitable beginning. If a scholar of political thought said of ancient Athens, "I'm not a firm believer in democracy -- it required slavery, war, or both, to subsidize the lower classes while they carried out their civic duties," no one would think that a strange formulation -- it is perfectly coherent to talk about democracy in places that didn't extend the franchise universally, given how the term has been used and understood for two thousand years of political history.
What's more, if we include the context that Chait stripped out in his excerpt, Paul's point is perfectly clear. He was visiting a historically black college:
To approving nods, he talked about how urban renewal had really meant "urban destruction" and about how "they tore down a lot of black businesses so people would go to white stores." He found that this crowd, if not totally convinced, was receptive. Though he would still not give them a definitive answer on his position on the Civil Rights Act, he did say that he believed federal intervention had been justified. "I'm not a firm believer in democracy," he explained. "It gave us Jim Crow."
Even in the article, we have no idea what sentences Paul spoke immediately before or after that. Suffice it to say that if anyone else in the United States said, of federal intervention in the Jim Crow South, "They did the right thing overruling decisions made locally in Alabama and Mississippi, even though it was anti-democratic," no one would blink, let alone criticize the speaker.
But Chait takes the quote and turns it into a conspiracy. "It's not just a gaffe or another historical misrepresentation," he writes, "rather, it's an authentic clue into an ideology Paul has been busily concealing as he has ascended into mainstream politics." What hidden ideology does Chait discern?
Rand Paul, like his father, is deeply influenced by the political-economic philosophy of Ayn Rand. Paul usually soft-peddles his Randism, though he sometimes communicates to fellow believers through dog whistles, like playing Rush (who once dedicated an album to "the genius of Ayn Rand") at his victory speech.
Rand's philosophy is a kind of inverted Marxism, imagining politics as a struggle between a virtuous producer class that creates all wealth and the parasites who exploit them. (Marx believed the workers produced all wealth and the capitalists robbed it from them; Rand believed roughly the opposite.) Also like Marx, Rand considered conventional democratic government as a cover for this kind of exploitation. If the majority could tax the rich to benefit itself, this was tyranny.
He goes on:
Here's Rand summarizing her aversion to democracy: "I do not believe that a majority can vote a man's life, or property, or freedom away from him," she argued. A less militant version of this philosophy is now the dominant credo of the Republican Party.
As I read this, I couldn't help but think of Chait as a left-leaning analogue to the character in Bob Dylan's "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues." Those Objectivists were coming around / They were in the air / They were on the Ground / They wouldn't give me no peace. For 2,000 years, critics of unmediated democracy have warned about the masses abusing individuals and minorities. The American system was built from the very beginning to check democratic excesses.
But if Rand Paul distrusts democracy he must've gotten it from Ayn Rand.
It's also interesting that Chait regards Rand's formulation as "militant." Let's look at it again. "I do not believe that a majority can vote a man's life, or property, or freedom away from him." Does Chait believe that a democratic majority should be able to vote a man's life or freedom away? I know that Chait (like Rand Paul) believes that the government can tax a portion of a citizen's wealth. Should a democratic majority be able to single out an individual man and vote away his property? Believing otherwise is certainly not unique to Objectivists, libertarians, or Republicans.