Democracy: A Way of Politics, Not a Way of Life

George Will today tweaks one man, one vote, but his piece of a point misses the important point.

Caucuses are, indeed, less purely “democratic” than primaries. That is their virtue. They are inconvenient, requiring commitments of time and energy that are more apt to be made by especially interested voters. Thus caucuses filter out, disproportionately, the lightly committed and least informed, which is not cause for dismay.

Popular sovereignty is simple in theory — government by consent of the governed — but should not be simple-minded in practice. It need not mean government by adding machine, the mere adding up of numbers. A wise polity also has mechanisms for measuring, accommodating and even rewarding intensity. The Senate does this with the filibuster, which enables an intense minority to slow or stymie a majority, at least for a while.

Caucuses are apt to have (in the jargon of liberal jurisprudence) a “disparate impact”: Some kinds or classes of people will be more inclined than others to want to, or be able to, participate. Caucuses might, therefore, skew participation patterns toward the more leisured, affluent and educated — disproportionately Obama voters. That probably troubles the easily troubled consciences of liberals for whom equality is the sovereign good. One solution is for them to salve their consciences by demoting equality.

This is all fine. But the crucial insight should be that equality under the law is not good enough for the spirit of public opinion, because, in a democratic age, our anxiety about inequality in fact pressures us to confuse the fundamentally different character of party elections and national elections — to the great detriment of our politics. Equal voting power is far more important in a national election than in a party election because it is a good of citizenship but not party membership. Parties are private associations; representative government is a public association, political in fact rather than in attitude.

Probably the worst aspect of the two-party system in an age of equality is its function as a conduit whereby rules that only receive their legitimacy through the authority of our political regime are imported into voluntary associations which require their independence from political authority in order to survive and thrive. This is the real danger appurtenant to ‘politicizing’ culture. It is one sort of ill when citizens motivated by ‘identity issues’ or ‘the culture war’ invade truly political fora (meaning representative bodies as opposed to, say, the public prints). It’s quite another when the political precepts of liberal democracy seek to conquer the less liberal, less democratic associations on which those very precepts themselves depend to survive and thrive.