The following are remarks prepared for a panel, "Donald Trump and the Future of Democracy," at the Eastern meetings of the American Philosophical Association, January 2018 — Part 1:
The United States faces a crisis of democracy, an internal threat as severe as any we have witnessed for at least a century.
Our politics is polarized. If you were to listen to much of the mainstream media, and even some on the right, you would think that Donald Trump's election to the presidency threatens American democracy. The opposite is true. Donald Trump is democracy’s greatest defender.
The president's supporters see a country drifting far from its founding principles. We no longer have a government of, by, and for the people. Instead, we have a government of, by, and for bureaucracy. We are increasingly ruled by an administrative state, a ''state within the state," as Philip Hamburger has argued, that not only lacks any constitutional justification, but contradicts the philosophical foundations of the American republic.
A little more than a century ago, progressives sought to rein in forces they believed to be centralizing economic power in the hands of a small but powerful corporate elite. They created the administrative state to centralize political power in Washington, D.C. as a way of combatting that.
Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and others with this agenda were well aware that they were deviating from America's founding principles; they intended to replace Locke and Madison’s conception of government with another inspired by Rousseau, Hegel, and Bismarck.
But they never confronted an obvious problem with that conception, a problem I call the paradox of progressivism. Why should we expect that centralizing political power would decentralize economic power? The problem is not just the possibility of regulatory capture — the danger that government will form alliances with special interests, including those it is supposed to be regulating.
It's that, whatever threat the concentration of economic power poses, the concentration of political power would seem to pose even more. Government, after all, has coercive power that no private entity has. And it is no more likely to act for the public good than private entities are.
We now live in the world the progressives created. A vast array of hundreds of alphabet agencies in Washington regulate almost every aspect of American life. Increasingly, the rules governing our political association come not from the president or Congress, and certainly not from the people, but from unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats making administrative law through a process mimimizing public input. They enforce that law through administrative courts.
Courts which fail to offer due process protections. Legal remedies for wrongful administrative action are risky and expensive. The administrative state has maximized its own power, stifled economic growth, ignored the voice of the people, harmed the general welfare, and formed an alliance with politicians, powerful interest groups, and large corporations to concentrate power to an extent that the original progressives could scarcely have imagined.
It has thus created a crisis of legitimacy. The most pressing issue facing our democracy is to shift power from the administrative state back to the people and their representatives.
That Congress and the courts have permitted administrative agencies to make law is responsible for polarization of our political discourse. We have replaced an institutional structure designed to push people toward discussion, debate, and compromise, with an institutional structure that pushes people toward extremes. Our institutions encourage a "winner-takes-all" attitude that replaces discussion with talking points and echo chambers; debate with polemic and character assassination — compromise with edicts.
The administrative state, like the academy and the media, no longer enjoys a reputation for neutrality, objectivity, and expertise. It doesn’t deserve to. The political left dominates the administrative state. One could say that it uses the administrative state as a tool, even as a weapon, to secure its own ends. It might be more accurate, however, to say that at this point the ends of the administrative state and the ends of the left are one and the same.
Within the Department of Justice (DOJ), for example, donors to Hillary Clinton outnumbered donors to Donald Trump by 43 to one.
This political imbalance aggravates the crisis of legitimacy, undermining respect and trust in both directions. Many in our governing class consider half the country deplorable. That half returns the favor.
Even worse, the imbalance undermines the decision-making process itself. Information, evidence, objections, considerations, and arguments that ought to be considered are never heard. Political narratives mix with facts in a way that corrupts the database on which decision-makers need to rely. Government policies move further and further away not only from the people's opinions but from their interests, furthering the cycle of disrespect and distrust.
Daniel Bonevac is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. Author of five books, most recently, "Ideas of the Twentieth Century," and editor or co-editor of four others, he has published over 60 articles in professional journals. He has also written for The Washington Post, The Critique, and The American Spectator. His massively open online course, "Ideas of the Twentieth Century," has enrolled over 50,000 students. He is co-founder of BriefLogic, a marketing communication firm. He is also a contemporary Christian musician and songwriter; you can hear his music on his daughter’s debut album, "Transfiguration." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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