Why Democratic Democracy Is Becoming a Contradiction

“The only cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy,” said the father of American left-wing progressivism and 1928 Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith. Unfortunately for democracy, Smith lost.

Few would contend that the country would have been better off had the crash occurred under his watch, but the New Yorker’s humbling at the hands of American voters had remarkably far-reaching consequences for his party. The figure that followed the raspy-voiced ward heeler from the Lower East Side and who fast became the Democratic Party’s preeminent statesman, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, did not share his predecessor’s stated reverence for the democratic process. FDR rode a wave of economic fatalism into the White House and proceeded to greatly expand the role of government and test the limits of executive authority, often exceeding them, all in service to the cause of progressivism unconstrained by the petty objections of the insufficiently enlightened voting public. Sound familiar?

To a striking degree, the scions of the Democratic Party who ascend to the nation’s highest elected offices are apt to view the public’s inadequate zeal for their preferred policy prescriptions as moral or intellectual failings on their part rather than considered pushback against overreach. This has been especially true in the 21st Century, as the public and, correspondingly, the Congress has grown markedly more conservative than of the generations who came of age amid New Deals and Great Societies.

Recall the debate over the imposition of the Affordable Care Act on the members of an ungrateful public who, even five years later, stubbornly refuses to look favorably upon the beneficent regulation. The sweeping health care reform law was bitterly opposed by most Americans and for good reason. More than half a decade after its passage, the law’s implementation remains incomplete – much of it was delayed due to its inherent unfeasibility. The Congress is presently suing the president in order to force him to fulfill his constitutional obligation to enforce the laws passed by the legislature, even those with which the present majority vehemently disagrees. For obvious and perhaps understandable reasons, the president and his fellow party members are loathe to see this monstrosity repealed. But they have also balked at even modest reforms to the law, and benefited mightily when flagrantly unconstitutional elements of it were rewritten by an activist Supreme Court more concerned with its place in the history books than its perceived neutrality.

There are, however, times when progressives’ preferred agenda items are opposed by the voters, but the courts refuse to overrule them. In those moments, the veil slips and Democrats reveal how little regard they have for the process of consensus building that should epitomize a constitutional republic. There may be no better example of this unattractive impulse than when the issue of climate change is raised.

Global warming and its presumedly associated weather-related disruptions have been a fixation of the environmental left for decades. It is, however, a relatively recent phenomenon that the fantastical prospect of imposing static conditions on an ever-changing atmosphere has become for liberals an all-consuming priority. Climate change, we are told, is the single most pressing threat to commerce, to the health of our children, to American national security – whatever issue the public mind is preoccupied with at the moment. And while the problems associated with climatic evolutions change (drought, flooding, bizarre cold, oppressive heat, et cetera), the solutions stay the same. In fact, they have been the same since interclass disparities instead of weather patterns occupied the minds of the international left. Whatever the challenge, the answer is always to fetter capitalism and to artificially inhibit the industrialized world’s potential to realize economic growth.

In the Obama era, the Environmental Protection Agency has become an increasingly useful tool for imposing upon the public the will of an executive that would otherwise be stymied by the people’s representatives. For this White House, the purely ideological goal of eliminating coal-fired power plants has taken on a new urgency. Capricious officials in Washington see the EPA as the preferred instrument for making the lives of those in the disfavored industry of coal production and exploitation difficult. But sometimes, even the EPA can go too far for the nation’s unelected authorities. In June, the Supreme Court issued a precedent-setting verdict preventing the EPA from implementing new regulations that were at root poorly disguised efforts to accelerate the shuttering of America’s coal plants. For the left, the Court’s reasoning was obscene to the point of anathema. This regulatory agency, the Supreme Court ruled, had failed to give proper consideration to corporate returns on investment. In short, profits matter.

A less brazenly anti-egalitarian movement would have been chastened by the Court’s ruling, but not modern progressivism. This week, the president lunged again at the coal industry wielding the EPA as his weapon of choice. By 2030, all power plants must cut emissions to 32 percent of 2005 levels, the president decreed. “No challenge poses a greater threat to our future and future generations than a change in climate,” he averred in starkly moralistic terms. “This is the right thing to do.”

But the new EPA rules have a dual purpose. If they are to curtail the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, they are also to preserve the prospects of securing an international climate agreement at an upcoming summit in Paris – a goal that has eluded this president since he personally lobbied for a climate accord in Copenhagen in 2009. In much the same way that the president usurped the authority of the American Congress by presenting the terms of a nuclear deal with Iran to the United Nations Security Council for ratification first, the White House aims to bludgeon Americans with the cudgel of international consensus until they capitulate. But quite unlike the Iran deal, Americans who still jealously guard their sovereignty have recourse in the form of the courts, and the new EPA guidelines are certain to earn their scrutiny.

“When the EPA rule does arrive before the Justices, maybe they’ll rethink their doctrine of ‘Chevron deference,’ in which the judiciary hands the bureaucracy broad leeway to interpret ambiguous laws,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board remarked. “An agency using a 38-year-old provision as pretext for the cap-and-tax plan that a Democratic Congress rejected in 2010 and couldn’t get 50 Senate votes now is the all-time nadir of administrative ‘interpretation.’”

“Meantime,” they add, “states can help the resistance by refusing to participate.” Capital idea! Call it an act of mass civil disobedience – an expression of autonomy and self-determination that Democrats once revered. If altruism is truly what’s at issue, then surely it is compatible with that most foundational of public goods: democratic self-rule. If, however, the Fierce Urgency of Now demands that the cumbersome restraints on autocracy envisioned by the Founders be cast aside, then it should be perfectly clear that raw political power is also at stake.

For many Democrats, democracy has become an irritating obstacle inhibiting “progress.” That realization should prompt the intellectually curious among us to question precisely which direction we are advancing.

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