The limits of democracy

BY SHAWN GUDE | APRIL 01, 2011 7:20 AM

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In another life, Bob Vander Plaats and I might have been ideological brethren, fellow tribunes and small-d democrats.

It’s an odd observation for a leftist like myself to make. But Vander Plaats’ jeremiads are suffused with anti-elite rhetoric redolent of the best prairie populists. He frames his rear-guard attack on the Iowa Supreme Court as upholding the “voice of the people.” And he speaks of crafting a new judicial-selection process that would better include citizen input.

These various invocations of citizen empowerment would, in a different context, be salubrious for our body politic. In many areas, the American ideal of democratic equality has become a cruel joke, evacuated of all substantive meaning.

Not so in the judicial branch, though — the target of Vander Plaats’ excoriation.

When three Iowa Supreme Court justices are ousted for having the temerity to safeguard minority rights (as is their duty) and the remaining four justices remain in the cross hairs, there’s a surfeit of democracy — not a shortage.

While I share Vander Plaats’ goal of strengthening citizens’ voices, social conservatives seek to expand democracy to areas in which it has no business being. Because judicial review is a sacrosanct tenet of our liberal democracy, judicial-retention elections are one area in which citizens, on the whole, should be apathetic.

Forget the tendentiousness of Vander Plaats for just a second. Support for his troglodytic social vision will die out. A deeper, irresolvable conflict will remain, however.

The conflict, with which all liberal democracies must grapple, is this: Where does democratic self-governance end, and where do inviolate rights begin? (The inimitable Chantal Mouffe laid the concept out well in her book The Democratic Paradox.)

Far from being a recondite philosophical question, this inherently irresolvable tension is at the root of many of our political debates.

Does the individual mandate in health-care reform limit personal liberty? Do certain worker protections limit the freedom of contract? Are these majority tyranny at work or just democratic self-governance?

And then there’s the gay-marriage question, perhaps the best example of the conflict.

For Vander Plaats and other social conservatives, morality is the bedrock of a prosperous society. As he said at the Sycamore Mall on Wednesday, “This thing called a republic hinges on two inseparable rungs: religion and morality.”

Social conservatives talk about the importance of “traditional marriage” and “family values.” At issue, though, is whether the electorate can impose its conception of morality without unduly limiting personal liberties.

It’s a precarious balance, indeed.

Libertarians, fearing majority tyranny around every corner, are suspicious of democratic majorities. And, as basic civil rights and civil liberties are eroded, it can be tempting to circumscribe legislative bodies. Felony disenfranchisement, a wasteful, ineffective war on drugs, an immigration system that devalues human rights — all are the result of democratically enacted legislation. So why not severely limit what citizens and their elected officials can do?

While the libertarian commitment to liberal individualism is laudatory, too often it leads them to a wholesale eschewal of democratic self-governance. That leaves citizens with inviolate rights, but little capacity to exercise them.

I want a society in which citizen power — rather than technocratic elites and high-powered lobbyists — rules the day. I want a society in which due process and agency aren’t limited to the political process but extend into the workplace. In sum, I want a vibrant democratic society thatdoesn’t infringe upon inviolate rights.

Vander Plaats is right: We do need more democracy.

But not as a means to take away minority rights.

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