Major Problems, and Minor
The left claims that majoritarianism is the only source of political legitimacy while also saying that the majority of Americans are a problem.
Dear Reader (it turns out you were my infrastructure all along),
This is peculiar.
I think it’s fair to say that large swaths of the center-left these days are somewhere between mildly and extremely obsessed with what might be called “democratic supremacy.” I don’t mean this as a matter of comparative politics. Few are going around saying, “Democratic societies are better than non-democratic societies.” I’m sure many believe that though, and frankly I’d be happier if more of them said it (more on this in a moment).
What I mean is that, in domestic politics, they’re placing all of their chips on majoritarian arguments. Here are some examples, held with varying degrees of passion as you move leftward from the center:
The Electoral College has to go because it’s anti-majoritarian—the presidential candidate with the most votes, not the most states, should win.
The Senate is “undemocratic” because California gets the same number of senators as Wyoming (they rarely use Rhode Island or Vermont in their indictments, which should tell you something about where their heads are).
The legislative filibuster must go because the will of 50+1 senators should not face any “anti-democratic” impediments.
And the Supreme Court must be packed—“enlarged” is their preferred term—with four new liberal justices to open the floodgates for more majoritarian policies, or something.
Here’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explaining her thinking at a press conference unveiling a court-packing plan: “The idea that nine people, that a nine-person court, can overturn laws that … hundreds and thousands of legislators, advocacy and policymakers drew consensus on … we have to … just ask ourselves, I think as a country, how much does that current structure benefit us? And I don’t think it does.”
Never mind that many of the left’s most prized political baubles—Roe v. Wade, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Miranda v. Arizona—were all imposed by nine justices, or a mere majority of them. “What have you done for me lately” is the rule of the day.
Also put aside the fact that adding four extra justices would not “structurally” do anything significant to change the undemocratic nature of the Supreme Court. I mean, nine justices comprise roughly 0.000002719 percent of the U.S. while 13 justices would represent 0.000003927 percent of the country.
Call me crazy, but that doesn’t strike me as a huge structural change on the terms Ocasio-Cortez lays out. If you take her argument seriously, 13 justices overturning laws is as undemocratic as nine justices doing the same. Of course, that’s not her real argument. The real aim is to appoint four extra justices who can be relied on to greenlight stuff she wants that would “benefit us.” That, by the way, is the very definition of court-packing going back nearly a century.
Oh, one more point on this. Her claim that because “hundreds and thousands of legislators, advocacy and policymakers drew consensus on” this or that is weak sauce, too. First of all, she doesn’t say a “majority” of legislators reached a consensus (and who gives a rat’s ass about “advocacy and policymakers” in this context?). But let’s assume that’s what she means. So what? The primary job of the Supreme Court is to protect constitutionally enshrined liberties. And that function is inherently—and gloriously!—anti-majoritarian.
If supermajorities of the legislative branch vote to override your individual right to free speech or freedom of religion or whatever, the Supreme Court can say, “No dice.” That’s wildly anti-majoritarian, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. If forced to choose between the “liberal” or the “democracy” in “liberal democracy,” I’ll go for “liberal” every time. I’m glad I don’t have to choose, of course, because democracy is an important mechanism for sustaining liberalism over time. But a liberal society can be just with remarkably little democracy. A democratic society is almost definitionally unjust without any liberalism.
Okay so, again, majoritarianism is the left’s bag these days.
The left’s other big argument is that one of the most profound problems with the United States today is, to put it bluntly, white people. Most don’t put it that bluntly. They use terms like “white supremacy” and “white privilege” instead. But at the policy level, they really do mean white people. The push for diversity requires giving preferences to non-whites in things like hiring, contracting, and college admissions in virtually every institution, public and private.
Note: All things being equal, I have no major problem with “inclusiveness” as a factor in many such decisions. But if you take this stuff seriously, never mind literally, this regime—both legal and cultural—isn’t just aimed at “white supremacists” or beneficiaries of “white privilege,” but run-of-the-mill white people (at least when decision-making is zero sum).
If a poor white kid with superior grades, test scores, and extracurriculars is rejected from, say, Princeton while an economically privileged non-white kid with objectively worse qualifications is accepted, you can claim it’s all for the greater good (and you may be right, that’s not my argument for now). But you can’t tell that poor white kid he had it coming. That is, unless, you subscribe to various notions of intergenerational or collective guilt.
But here’s the thing: This stuff runs counter to—or at least is hard to square with—the sort of raw majoritarianism that’s all the rage these days.
Here are the latest numbers from the Census Bureau: Seventy-six percent of Americans identify as white—or “white alone.” That number drops to 60.1 percent if you don’t count Hispanics or Latinos who call themselves white. The share of people who call themselves Hispanic or Latino alone is 18.5 percent. Meanwhile, 13.4 percent identify as black or African American, and 5.9 percent identify as solely Asian. A mere 2.8 percent identified as being mixed race, defined as two or more races. (The actual number is surely higher.)
For context, Princeton recently announced that 68 percent of U.S. citizens or permanent residents admitted to its freshman class “self-identified as people of color, including biracial and multiracial students.”
What should we make of that?
We’re constantly being told several things at once—by the same people. We’re told that majoritarianism is the only source of political legitimacy and that the majority of Americans—whether it’s 60.1 percent or 76 percent—are a problem because their alleged privileges are antithetical to all we hold dear. Which is it? Moreover, we’re also told that the government and non-government institutions have every right, nay, every obligation, to structure policies that benefit people by their racial identity, even though those intended beneficiaries are—wait for it—a minority of Americans.
And then there’s this: Many of these policies are not necessarily supported by a majority of Americans. Polling on affirmative action, diversity hiring, and quotas is complicated and can move with current events. Still, we can generalize. Most Americans favor inclusiveness, but they start turning on policies that count race and ethnicity to the exclusion of other factors or seem to cut against merit. And, sometimes, Americans are just adamantly opposed.
For instance, a Pew poll in 2019 found that 73 percent of Americans oppose using race or ethnicity as a factor at all in college admissions. If you add in respondents who said it should merely be a minor factor, the number goes up to a whopping 92 percent, leaving just 7 percent of Americans thinking it should be a “major factor.” Oh, and opposition cuts across racial and ethnic lines. Sixty-two percent of blacks and 65 percent of Hispanics said race should be a non-factor. It’s just one poll, but these findings are fairly typical over time. Indeed, a majority of Californians—you know, the people living in the supposed poster-child victim of our anti-majoritarian constitutional system—recently rejected a referendum to overturn a ban on using race in admissions.
So the avowed majoritarians aren’t necessarily anything like a majority, at least on one slice of the policies that are central to their cultural argument.
Now, as readers know, I hate identity politics and I am generally disgusted by alt-rightish arguments about the “oppressed white majority.” But this is some amazing cognitive dissonance. If you truly believe people should organize politically around their racial identity, the last thing you would want given numbers like these is to argue for unconstrained majoritarianism.
Of course, the people who argue for organizing around racial identity don’t think in these terms. They think it’s fine for non-white groups to press for advantages based on race. But when white people do it, well, that’s racism. And, let’s be clear, they (often) have a case.
But do you see my point? If you establish a principle, or in this case several principles, you shouldn’t be shocked if other people pick them up and use them. Telling people that majorities should have no impediment to implementing their political desires while also telling people that it’s right and noble to organize for the betterment of your racial identity seems like a fraught gamble.
One last irony. The right has its own issues on this stuff. As I noted in the Wednesday G-File, the nationalist-populists are under the mistaken impression that they, too, are the avatars of majoritarianism. But they’re not. What makes their position even weirder is they don’t even have the luxury of being in power right now. Nonetheless, they’re arguing for structural changes that would empower the state in myriad ways. Wanting to, say, repeal Section 230 and place the government in charge of regulating speech is a great idea—if you’re of an authoritarian bent and if you’re in power. It’s slightly weirder if you’re not in power and you think the Biden administration and Elizabeth Warren pose existential threats to all you hold dear.
All of this populist piffle is the product of elites thinking that they’ve got an open warrant to do what they want because “the people” are on their side. Some people are. But not enough, thank God.
America, the good, again.
A few weeks ago, I took Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to task for his unwillingness or inability to defend America against insults delivered by the Chinese. The Chinese delegation trotted out the usual broadside against America and American racism. Blinken responded by saying, in effect, “Hey, we never said we were perfect, but we talk about our shortcomings openly.”
I wrote: “Here’s the thing: If I call you a racist thug and your response is, ‘Well, I never claimed to be perfect, but at least I’m honest about my shortcomings and I’m dealing with them,’ I would not read that as a forceful denial.”
That was bad, but at least one could conjure some reasons why Blinken felt it unwise to tell the full truth, which, in my book, would go something like this:
“Screw you. We’re a free country, bound to a constitution that protects freedom of conscience, speech, religion, and movement. We’re among the least racist countries in the world. And while we have struggled with racism in the past, we’ve chalked up one victory after another for generations. Meanwhile, your country is ruled by an imperialist, authoritarian aristocracy in the form of the Chinese Communist Party that practices ethnic apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and ethnic genocide. We had a two-term black president. Get back to me when a Tibetan or Uighur is freely elected president.”
Yes, I understand this would be undiplomatic and, given the masochistic tendencies of the Democratic base, impolitic (which is a very sad comment on them). But it would A) be the truth, and B) be much better than what our new ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has been saying.
Speaking to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Thomas-Greenfield basically picked up where the Chinese left off. She believes it is important to “acknowledge, on the international stage, that I have personally experienced one of America’s greatest imperfections. I have seen for myself how the original sin of slavery weaved white supremacy into our founding documents and principles.” Which is why last month, she told the U.N. General Assembly, “[S]lavery is the original sin of America. It’s weaved white supremacy and black inferiority into our founding documents and principles.”
(Presumably she doesn’t include democratic majoritarianism as one of those white supremacist principles.)
There’s some nuance in her full remarks, but the upshot is that we have to come clean about not just our past but our current systemic racism and bigotry before we can speak truth at the U.N. Human Rights Council. I think the picture she paints of America is shamefully distorted and exaggerated. But even if you think it’s dead-on accurate, this is insane. Sure, I guess if we wanted to harangue, say, Canada about its human rights record, we’d have to tread carefully and offer many concessions about our own. But why our emissary to the U.N. should be literally repeating whataboutist arguments that are also being used by the planet’s worst human rights abusers and our geopolitical adversaries is a mystery to me.
This isn’t complicated. We’re a good country, and it shouldn’t be hard for our U.N. ambassador—or secretary of state—to say so with confidence and without apology. As I said, a little democratic supremacy would be nice to hear from progressives in power.
But this is the kind of thing you get when a small clique acts like a claque to the doctrines of critical race theory on the mistaken assumption that they are speaking for a majority of Americans, rather than a majority of the people they know.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: All is good with the beasts, though Pippa still rolls in foulness too much. Her reasoning seems to be that she doesn’t like how she smells when she gets a bath and therefore she should perfume up in something awful (or offal). It’s a vicious cycle. Meanwhile, Zoë has taken to deploying her patented “aroo”—as heard in the opening of the Remnant—to harangue us when we are not fulfilling her expectations. It’s nice when she does it as a “Where were you? Don’t ever leave again!” when we come home. And it’s fine in the evening when she wants to go for her regular perambulation and then have dinner. (Her food is always waiting for her when she gets back, so now the Pavlovian urgency to go out is reinforced; evening walk = dinner.) But she’s started doing it in the morning. I wake up well before Fair Jessica or the kid. But Zoë feels it is imperative to “arroo” at Jessica regardless, to notify her that the unit is on the march. Oh, and I’ve learned from Twitter that our neighborhood bruiser cat, Chester, now has an Amen Chorus. And, finally, Gracie is still the best cat.
And now, the weird stuff