Democracy’s New Discontents

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

Once upon a time, loud dissent, filibustering in the Senate, and gridlock in the House were as democratic as apple pie.

A Senator Obama once defended his attempts to block confirmation votes on judicial appointments by alleging, “The Founding Fathers established the filibuster as a means of protecting the minority from the tyranny of the majority.”

In 2005, progressives were relieved that a Democratic minority had just gridlocked Congress — ending recently reelected president George W. Bush’s plan to reform Social Security. Gridlock, in other words, was a helpful constitutional tool when a minority party wanted to block a president’s legislative initiatives. A then-cool Senator Obama suggested Bush and his congressional supporters “back off” and “let go of their egos.”

How about loud opposition to a sitting president? Well, in 2003, Sen. Hillary Clinton unloaded on those she claimed had called for less dissent: “I am sick and tired of people who call you unpatriotic if you debate this administration’s policies.”

These examples could be multiplied. But they are enough to offer contrast with a suddenly much different attitude toward what was only recently seen as the wonderful complexity of American democracy.

Take Obama, now the president — and apparently frustrated. He’s angry that his progressive efforts are facing legislative opposition: “We knew this was going to take time because we’ve got this big, messy, tough democracy.”

Obama expanded on “messy” to La Raza activists, who wanted amnesty for illegal aliens, by lamenting that he could not somehow “bypass Congress and change the laws on my own.” He later added for emphasis: “Believe me, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting.”

To quote former Senator Clinton, many people are now “sick and tired” of the Obama administration’s efforts to silence critics. First, during the 2008 campaign, there was “Fight the Smears,” a website Team Obama started to monitor its critics. JournoList followed, with a liberals-only forum of influential media pundits venting their private anger over criticism of Obama. Now there is yet another version,, a creepy website — set up with melodramatic photos and “files” like an intelligence service’s red and black dossiers — that implores readers to scout around and send in examples of criticism of Obama.

In fact, lots of liberal politicians and commentators suddenly do not like our ancestral “messy” democracy. North Carolina governor Beverly Perdue recently unloaded on the current gridlock over the president’s jobs bill: “I think we ought to suspend, perhaps, elections for Congress for two years. … I really hope that someone can agree with me on that.”

Former Obama budget director Peter Orszag is also angry about “the Civics 101 fairy tale about pure representative democracy.” Suddenly, after the 2010 midterm elections, he now wants “a new set of rules and institutions that would make legislative inertia less detrimental to our nation’s long-term health.”

Columnist Fareed Zakaria not long ago lamented the rigidity of the US Constitution itself, and wants to change the “highly undemocratic” Electoral College and the method of electing senators.

Is this sudden liberal discontent with “messy” democracy just typical American politics evident in both parties — the “out” minority party praising obstructionism only to blast it when it becomes the “in” governing party?

Of course.

But there is a deeper problem with the entire premise of Obamaism, which was not sold to voters as just another Democratic alternative, but rather as a holistic hope-and-change movement. Obamaism was to do everything from cool the planet to lower the rising waters, as giddy editors and historians compared its architect to a god, and pronounced a near novice the smartest man ever to be elected president.

If polls and the economy are any indication, that utopian dream is now mostly over. One way of explaining the unexpected Obama meltdown would be that a president with so little prior executive experience was bound not to be up to the job of administering the most powerful nation in history.

Another explanation would be the wrong agenda itself: Progressives finally got their long-awaited messianic messenger — so unlike the inept Jimmy Carter and the triangulator Bill Clinton — but his left-wing message turned off the people as never before.

But there is a third and apparently more useful excuse. The American system itself — suddenly, around 2010 — simply became too rigid and obstructionist to appreciate Obama’s agenda, so now it must be changed.

How odd that some progressive thinkers forgot the age-old fallacy that supposedly noble ends can justify questionable means. Or, to paraphrase the Bard, the problem is not in the stars, but within yourselves.

©2011 Tribune Media Services

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