Saturday, March 20, 2010

Conservative Opposition to Health Care Leads them to Embrace Plebiscitary Democarcy

I oppose the current health-care bill, but a lot of conservative/Republican commentary over the bill is silly and annoying. One of the more annoying arguments in my book is the argument deployed by all stripes of conservative commentators about how the health care bill should not be enacted because polls show that a majority of Americans currently oppose the bill.

Well, shoot, as the old conservative adage used to go, "America is not a democracy, it's a republic." (In this context we should recall that Madison famously, if idiosyncratically, defined a "republic" to be a "representative democracy.") That is, a central political truth about the U.S. is that it is a representative democracy, and not a democracy in the pure sense of direct rule by the people. The Constitution's framers thought that was a good thing, not a bad thing. Ironically, it was the Progressive's who criticized representative government for blocking the will of the people. And now conservatives have adopted the Progressive's rhetoric of attacking constitutional principles to serve in a policy debate.

So now it's the conservative ox that is getting gored, and conservatives now discover that they love plebiscitary democracy. It's just nonsense. I think it's proper to attempt to leverage political opposition to the bill by pointing out to legislators that they may put their political careers at risk by voting for the bill. But that's a different argument than saying that Congress should not enact the bill today because over 50 percent of the American public opposes it, as if popular opposition to a bill had some sort of normative claim on what Congress can or should enact today. That claim -- now deployed by conservatives -- is one that undermines the theory underlying the U.S. constitutional system. Real conservatives do not employ that argument.


Blogger Wittmania said...

OK, I see your point. But I also think that public opinion is at least something to consider when you're talking about a government takeover of 16% of the economy and it's as wildly unpopular as it is. It's not like 51% of the populace thinks we shouldn't name a library after somebody. Poll numbers shouldn't be the absolute rule, especially knowing how fickle people are, but in this case I'm not so sure it's the wrong argument.

March 20, 2010 7:04 PM  
Blogger Wayne said...


March 20, 2010 7:30 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


Yeah, that's credible coming from someone with a graduate degree in Greek. :-)


One can certainly be a populist rather than a conservative. The key question for believing in the separation of powers, or in plebiscitary democracy, is whether the decision-making process is "worth it" even when it generates decisions with which we disagree.

I'll have to stand with the Constitution's framers and affirm that I believe that, on balance, representative democracy generates better outcomes than plebiscitary democracy.

But the next time a majority of Americans line up against a policy you believe in, I trust you won't be writing your legislator to stand up against the majority and just "do what's right."

March 21, 2010 12:15 PM  
Blogger Wayne said...

:-) OK, so I know what it means.

It was, though, the first time I recall ever seeing this word.

March 21, 2010 6:33 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

O.k., I confess that it was a "word of the day" on my dictionary calendar, so I've been trying to insert it into every-day conversation all week.

March 21, 2010 7:18 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

And it probably would have helped if I had spelled "democracy" correctly.

March 21, 2010 7:19 PM  

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