The Limits of Democracy

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro (Marco Bello/Reuters)

What is certainly a fake account claiming to be the official Twitter feed for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign PAC is duping a bunch of folks this afternoon. I almost fell for it myself until I saw this tweet:

That seemed impossible. You just dont say some things out loud!

But this was the tweet that almost suckered me:

I was all set to write a sarcastic post saying she had a point. And, you know what? I still will.

You may have noticed that when liberals are in power, they tend to decry things like the Senate filibuster and in some cases the Constitution itself as an impediment to progress and social justice. When it looked like the Supreme Court might invalidate Obamacare, many liberals thought this an outrageous affront to the popular will. When Joe Lieberman killed the public option by threatening a filibuster, the Left howled.

Of course, as a partisan matter, Republicans are hardly immune to this sort of thing. But the Right, historically, has been more deferential to and supportive of constitutional checks (whether that will last is a subject for another day). And very few conservative intellectuals have argued that the Constitution is a relic because it inhibits direct democracy. Meanwhile, the idea that the Constitution-as-written holds us back is a venerable progressive trope that connects Woodrow Wilson, the would-be court-packer FDR, and all the trite modern piffle about the “living Constitution” from most contemporary Democrats.

The funny part is that if the Left succeeded in erasing the Constitution — or simply overcoming it — and implemented their dream cradle-to-grave welfare-state social democracy you can be sure they would never entertain for a moment that it could be undone by voters, judges, or anyone else. For progressives, the wheel of history rolls forward and can never be put in reverse.

One sees this in the way liberals talk about changes they like versus restraints they hate. Overturning progressive precedents is radical and undemocratic. Overturning conservative ones is a blow for justice. Roe v. Wade, Senator Feinstein famously insisted, is a “super precedent” and cannot be overturned. Liberal Republican Susan Collins insists that she wouldn’t vote for a nominee who would overturn Roe, not because she’s pro-choice, but because she’s just totally committed to stare decisis, you guys (I can’t wait for someone to ask her about Plessy vs. Ferguson). When Ajit Pai reversed the FCC rules on net neutrality, some likened it to the apocalypse and at least one person threatened to kill Pai’s whole family.

Heck, Elena Kagan dissented from the Janus decision recently because there’s a long tradition of unions relying on forcing everyone to pony up. (“We need the dues!” as Supreme Court Justice Hardbar ruled in Delta House v. Flounder.) Meanwhile, the idea that the Second Amendment might actually be binding or that treaties should be submitted to the Senate (when Democrats are in the White House) is so much pettifogging legalese.

If America ever got the equivalent of the British National Health Service, you can be sure liberals would circle to protect it from voters in ways they’d never dream of defending the First Amendment.

Which brings me back to that tweet. The reason we have a Constitution in general, and the Bill of Rights in particular, is to put certain questions beyond the reach of voters. It’s not out of reach in an absolute sense, it’s just very, very, hard to amend the Constitution. And because it’s hard, when we do it, the amendments tend to stick because voters, elected officials, and the states have bought in to the change.

Socialism didn’t fail Venezuela. Socialism delivered. To put it in Aesopian terms, the people knew what socialism was when they decided to hitch themselves to that scorpion. What failed Venezuela was democracy in the sense that they didn’t have a functioning constitutional regime that could prevent the sting.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now. @jonahnro

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