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America’s Declining Commitment to Self-Government

The president and Congressional supporters of attacking Syria suggest by their actions a strong disregard for public opinion and self-government.

We may chart the progress (or decline) of our political culture by reviewing the things that would once have shocked the public mind but now no longer do. Consider, for example, Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus’s obscene performance at the Video Music Awards, which generated criticism from certain quarters. A few decades ago their actions would have been grounds for prosecution, and a few decades before that would have been unthinkable. We are, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “defining deviancy downward.”

The same test would reveal a decline in our commitment to self-government. Our political elites, and perhaps even the citizenry at large, seem to be losing any strong sense that, in our form of government, the views of the people ordinarily ought to prevail. We continue to have elections, but we are less and less shocked when the governing class decides to flout the will of the majority. We seem to be defining democracy downward.

This trend is most obvious in the liberal judicial activism of the Supreme Court and the typical reactions to it. It is now commonplace for the Court to strike down democratically enacted laws using the feeblest constitutional reasoning, simply because a majority of the justices think the law is somehow unfair or illiberal.

The Court appears to do this with an easy conscience, and even with a sense of righteousness, and without any concern that it is intruding on the people’s right to govern themselves. The Court’s liberal supporters, who absolutely cheer its activism when they approve of its results, display a similar lack of concern for self-government. And even the Court’s conservative critics, who typically greet such activism by stating their disagreement with the outcome, fail to defend popular sovereignty adequately when they explicitly or implicitly concede the Court’s right to settle deeply important matters without the people’s input and even contrary to their known will.

This decline in respect for the popular will is increasingly evident in the behavior of the nation’s elected elites. We can see signs of this disturbing trend in the public debate over whether Congress should authorize the use of military force in Syria.

All indications are that if a force resolution passes, it will do so by a narrow majority. Those who support the resolution seem to think this quite satisfactory. But shouldn’t we be a little troubled at the prospect of making so momentous a decision on the basis of a slim majority?

Admittedly, there is nothing constitutionally improper in this. Yet it departs from past authorizations of war, and this should at least give us pause. America’s declaration of war on Germany in 1917 was passed 86 to 2 in the Senate and 373 to 50 in the House. Our declaration of war on Japan in 1941 passed the Senate unanimously and saw only one dissenter in the House. More recently, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force received 420 votes in the House and 98 in the Senate.

Even the more controversial Iraq war resolution was passed by substantial supermajorities: it won 297 votes in the House (68 percent) and 77 in the Senate. In light of this history, our elite’s determination to go to war on the basis of a congressional squeaker stands out like a sore thumb.

Of course, it would certainly be imprudent to insist on supermajorities for all such decisions. Yet the decision to open the Pandora’s box of war with such weak public support seems not only politically risky (although it is certainly that) but wrong in a deeper sense: it suggests a lack of respect for the community our leaders are supposed to represent.

When President Obama and the Democratic Congress passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) despite well-known and intense public opposition, many conservative commentators spoke as if this was not just a political blunder, but also a slap in the face of our democracy. On previous occasions, they noted, far-reaching social reform legislation that affected the interests of all Americans had been passed by wide and bipartisan majorities, and without defying public opinion. These commentators had a point, but that point is no less relevant in relation to a decision to use military force in another nation’s civil war, a decision that is certainly no less grave than the decision to reform the healthcare system, and no less fraught with possible unforeseen consequences for the whole community.

The ACA debate is an apt comparison, because all the available evidence also suggests that the Syria force resolution will pass, if it passes, without majority support from the public and even in the face of deeply felt and energetically expressed public opposition. Congress would be voting against general American opinion, and many representatives would be voting against public opinion in the districts that elected them.

Again, there is nothing necessarily wrong with this. We have a republic, a representative democracy, and the people’s representatives, not the people themselves, are authorized to make such decisions. At the same time, it is hard to view such a spectacle without thinking that there has been a change in how we understand representative government—a change that has lessened the deference we expect officeholders to show toward the people, and that has accordingly diminished the people’s role in their own government.

The founders openly avowed that the system they created would permit representatives to defy public opinion, and that this freedom was necessary to good and just government. After all, the people are sometimes mistaken, misled into folly or injustice by their passions or whims. Nevertheless, the founders expected that such deviations from public opinion would be primarily passive and not active. Thus they tended to speak of representation as a check on public opinion. In this view, the good representative will resist foolish or unjust measures that the people demand.

But we would be hard pressed to find examples of the founders praising an active defiance of the public. Where in their voluminous writings do we find them praising public officials for foisting projects on the people that the people reject? Refusing to do what the people ask is one thing. They can always do it later if they still want it badly enough. But committing the nation to something the people reject is something else altogether, because undoing policy decisions is harder than making them in the first place. Presenting your own constituents with a fait accompli does not seem like the peak of respect for popular self-government.

A troubling disrespect for self-government also lurks behind one of the arguments for intervention that is being pressed very energetically by some commentators. This argument holds that intervention is necessary to sustain America’s credibility. The president said there must be consequences if Syria used chemical weapons, and if no consequences follow then America’s credibility will be in tatters. Leave aside that this argument ignores that in our constitutional system of separated powers the president lacks the authority unilaterally to promise such consequences. My present point is that, on the facts as they exist at present, such an argument is hard to distinguish from an effort to trick the country into war.

Consider: American credibility in the world is said to require that America “do something” to punish the Assad government. Hence the supposed need for Congress to authorize the use of force. The president, however, who, as commander in chief will direct military operations against Syria, has already promised the American people that such operations will have no decisive consequences. The president has characterized the force he wishes to apply as a “shot across the bow,” but a shot across the bow by definition has no consequences for the ship at which it is directed. Nor can we conclude that the president was just speaking too carelessly here, because elsewhere he has affirmed that any military action taken against Assad will not be such as to topple the regime, or even to disturb the balance of forces in the civil war now raging.

No doubt the president has calculated—correctly—that such a promise is politically necessary, since public opposition to intervention would be even more pronounced if the avowed aim were regime change. The promise, however, makes the argument about American credibility incoherent. How can American credibility be enhanced by taking an action that is openly declared to have no decisive consequences? Those who press this argument about American credibility emphasize that “the world is watching” what we do. But the watching world, and especially cunning heads of state, can hardly be expected to be taken in by such a farce. American credibility surely will not be enhanced by a mere gesture designed to make it appear that we mean business.

How does this argument suggest a troubling disregard for government by consent? Incoherence may signify confusion, but it also may signify lack of candor. Where politics is concerned, count on the latter. Why have some who openly desire regime change in Syria expressed support for Obama’s “shot across the bow”? Perhaps because they expect that American military action, once begun, will escalate and have consequences beyond those the president has said he intends. This is a reasonable expectation, since any effort by the Syrian government to resist American action would probably spur further American retaliation, which would risk altering the balance of forces—the very thing the president has said he does not intend to do.

In other words, these supporters of the force resolution are betting that the president has either mischaracterized his aims to the people, or that intervention will draw the country into more serious conflict, the consequences of which are difficult to calculate, and of which the president has not even attempted to inform the people.

If we do not find this shocking, then we have defined democracy downward. For the founders, the people would set the direction of the country in relation to the most important public matters on the basis of a candid discussion of the alternatives. Elected officials would not strive to commit the nation to a foreign policy that the people reject and would reject even more forcefully if its consequences were more candidly discussed.

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