Often when politicians take actions to undermine democracy, they loudly proclaim that their actions are necessary to “save democracy.” It reminds me of the Vietnam-era line about destroying a village in order to save it.
For example, near the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address in which he declared that the purpose of that bloody conflict was “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
You have heard those words a thousand times. But reflect on them and their context now as if you were hearing them for the first time. How strange! About half the country at that time could no longer abide the policies emanating from Washington and wanted to go its own way. Today we call that “self-determination,” and the UN Charter and a host of other international agreements and pronouncements declare it to be a fundamental human right. The war in Ukraine is also about self-determination.
Like Lincoln, English poet John Milton knew that to persuade people that a cause is just, you have to cite high-minded goals. In Paradise Lost, Milton has Satan seduce Eve into eating the apple by telling her about all the good things that she can do for people with the power she will obtain.
I do agree that slavery was a great moral wrong, but Lincoln himself wrote one of his media critics that the war wasn’t about slavery. But my point is not about the American Civil War. My point is that, while violently repressing the will of the majority of the people in the South to secede and form their own nation, Lincoln maintained that he was “saving democracy.” Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin justified his “special military operation” in Ukraine as necessary to “save democracy” by protecting the rights of self-determination of the majority in the Donbas region who he claims would prefer to be part of Russia.
To parody Lincoln, Biden’s “democracy” is supposedly government for the People, but not by the People.
Sound familiar? In a televised speech to the nation from Independence Hall on Sept. 1, another president, Joe Biden, claimed he was “saving democracy” from “MAGA Republicans,” and then he doubled down on those claims in a speech on Labor Day. When any politician claims that he or she is “saving democracy,” you should grab your wallet — and your dictionary.
It is particularly important to shout from the rooftops that you are saving democracy when you, as a leader, are in fact undermining it. That is a classic ploy recommended by Saul Alinksy in Rules for Radicals: Accuse the other side of doing “what you are doing.”
My criticism of Biden for his cynical attempt to manipulate public opinion is not in any way intended to excuse then-President Donald Trump’s inflammatory speech on Jan. 6, 2021, which incited a small mob to storm the Capitol. Yes, I do know there are reports that the Capitol police, who report to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, welcomed them in. But you don’t have to believe that the events of Jan. 6 were some kind of inside job in order to see that the Democrats and their media allies have played that unfortunate incident for all it is worth by calling it an “insurrection.”
Hey Joe, that was almost two years ago. Our institutions — including a host of judges appointed by Trump and his own vice president — put down this alleged “insurrection” very quickly, Trump moved out of the White House, and you’ve been president for almost two years now. Might it be time to move on and ask what have you done for us lately?
The list goes on and on. Yeah, right. This guy is “saving democracy”? Biden is telling people to believe him, not their own lying eyes.
That’s what demagogues do — they use language to try to create a false reality that will cause people to behave as they want them to, usually so that they and their kleptocrat friends can stay in power. In the immortal words spoken about Winston Churchill, “[h]e mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” So too Joe Biden, but not for Churchill’s laudable purposes.
Politicians often play mind-control games with the public by redefining words to mean whatever they want them to mean, like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
Note carefully the last line, which is often overlooked: Making words mean different things is all about who is to be “master.”
Thus, for example, in the satirical novel 1984, the propaganda department is named the Ministry of Truth.
That’s what Biden and his media allies are attempting to do now with the word “democracy.” They are trying to redefine “democracy” in the public mind as not what the elected representatives of a majority of people vote for but instead what the permanent governing elite in government, business, and the media claim to be in the best interests of “the People.” Therefore, according to their twisted logic, anyone who opposes Biden’s “progressive” policies is “attacking democracy.” To parody Lincoln, their “democracy” is supposedly government for the People, but not by the People.
Their attempt to hijack the word “democracy” seeks to redefine it to mean substantive policies that the elites claim would help the People, rather than “a form of government in which people choose leaders by voting,” as it has meant for centuries. This intellectual sleight of hand is spelled out in a recent academic book, New Democracy: The Creation of the Modern American State, by University of Michigan Law School professor and historian William J. Novak. (Never mind that Novak borrowed his title from Mao Zedong, aka, Mao Tse-tung, a choice that bears out my point that those trying to subvert democracy always seek to redefine it.) And no, I am not maintaining that Biden actually read Novak’s book, but it was published in 2022 by Harvard University Press, so it likely has influenced the “progressive” advisers and speechwriters around Biden who tell him what to say.
I recently read portions of Novak’s book for a Yale Law School faculty legal-theory workshop. He seemed like a nice enough fella, although a little naïve, as many academics are these days. I won’t reveal anything that was said there lest I get the Yale administration riled up at me. But the blub for the book on the Harvard University Press website accurately summarizes Novak’s book this way:
In the period between the Civil War and the New Deal, American governance was transformed, with momentous implications for social and economic life. A series of legal reforms gradually brought an end to nineteenth-century traditions of local self-government and associative citizenship, replacing them with positive statecraft: governmental activism intended to change how Americans lived and worked through legislation, regulation, and public administration.
For Novak, as for Biden, “the new democracy” means replacing “local self-government” with “positive statecraft” at the federal level to “change how Americans [live].”
The book goes on to detail a century-long process of organizing and lobbying at the local level by various “progressive” causes of which the author approves. According to Novak, progressive policies that are supposedly good for the People, whether they know it or not, reached their culmination under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who put in place the machinery of the administrative state, a permanent government of professional governing officials. This permanent “ruling class” supposedly governs on behalf of the People by implementing policies that are supposedly good for the People, whether the People know it or not.
Sound familiar? The idea that elites know what is in the People’s interest better than the People know themselves harkens back to the philosopher kings and guardians that Plato envisioned in The Republic. That’s really what Novak — and Biden — mean by the new democracy: substantive policies that elites think are good for the People, whether they want them or not.
These changes in the nature of American government were prophesied by President Woodrow Wilson in his (in)famous 1887 article (cited favorably on page 264 of Novak’s book) in which he calls for the development of “administration” by good solid men (yes, only men) educated at Princeton University and (according to Wilson) wiser than all those nasty Irish immigrants that the U.S. was starting to allow to vote. Wilson’s argument for the creation of the administrative state was so frankly racist that Princeton recently took his name off their School of Public and International Affairs. (Note that Princeton apparently didn’t mind Wilson’s deprecating attitude toward the wisdom of the People; it was just that he disrespected ethnic minorities that bothered them.)
Wilson described how the administrative state begins, but, once the pervasive regulatory apparatus of the state is created, allegedly in the interest of the People, at stage two, elites often figure out how to use the power of the state for their own personal advantage. After a while, those in power begin to realize that it is better for them personally if they can convince a gullible public that things that are not in the interest of the People, but that feather the nests of their contributors and allies, are necessary to deal with an emergency or to save the planet. That’s the stage we are now in with Biden & Co. Recent examples include keeping the schools closed but paying the teachers union teachers anyway, or flooding the southern border with cheap labor, or letting Russia corner the market for fossil energy in Europe, or not disagreeing with China’s plan to continue to build coal plants until 2030 while claiming that we must shut ours down.
This process by which the new democracy turns into kleptocracy was unfortunately misnamed “rent seeking” by co-authors James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Economist George Stigler won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1982 for a famous article that described how institutions sold to the public as in their interest inevitably get turned against them by insiders. Today Biden’s Democrats have become “the Party of the Overclass,” the handmaidens of big business, not servants of the People whom they claim to serve. (READ MORE: Biden Revives Secret Laws That Crush Everyday Americans)
Ever wonder why Biden refers to his opponents as “MAGA Republicans”? My, that sounds sinister, doesn’t it? If he spelled out the slogan “Make America Great Again,” he’d only remind people of what a lousy job he is doing in the White House on things that matter, like the economy, inflation, abandoning our allies and billions of dollars’ worth of advanced military equipment to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and getting us into wars around the globe, first in Ukraine and perhaps next over Taiwan.
Better for him, but worse for the rest of us, to change the subject to “saving democracy.”