Conservative Anti-Democratic Elitism

In my last post, I wrote:

“I was only slightly shocked to learn that a mere 8% of Americans were considered legal persons when the Constitution was ratified. This means that 92% of the population had very limited rights of any sort, from voting to having one’s own bank account. Women, for example, were basically seen as property, owned by fathers and later husbands with only widowhood giving them some power and freedom.

“The founding fathers wanted a society determined by class, race and gender. They wanted to create an independently wealthy class of “disinterested aristocrats” (i.e., rich white males). Talking to many conservatives, I realize that this vision of a ruling elite still has strong support.”

 The last sentence was inspired by an actual conversation I recently had with a conservative, although I’ve had similar conversations in the past with other conservatives. This particular conservative thought the founding fathers had a point in not allowing the common rabble, the ignorant lower classes to vote and such things.

He was being completely honest and genuine. This not atypical conservative fears mobocracy more than he fears plutocracy or oligarchy. The reason he fears it more is that he assumes that, if there was a ruling elite, he’d be allowed to be a member. It’s the common desire to have as much power over others while disallowing others to have power over you. It is obviously self-serving and that is the entire point.

This kind of person doesn’t realize that once power becomes undemocratic then who gets it and who doesn’t can become quite arbitrary. His certainty that he’d be part of the ruling elite is rather naive.

I think this is made clear in the words of Benjamin Franklin, at least in interpreting those words according to the present context of democracy: “Those who would give up Essential Liberty, to purchase a little Temporary danger, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Just exchange “Essential Liberty” for “Universal Liberty” and exchange “Temporary danger” for “mobocracy”… and you get the same basic idea: Those willing to sacrifice the freedom of others, intentionally or unintentionally, end up sacrificing their own freedom.

 This conservative explained his reasoning which is what really got me thinking. I pointed out that 8% legal personhood when defined by such narrow terms (whether race, gender or class) is concentration of power. He argued that such benevolent paternalism wasn’t concentration of power if it was done on the local level such as Jefferson envisioned, ignoring for a moment that alternative benevolent paternalism of Hamiltonian federalism.

I was utterly shocked by this profound lack of insight. When a local police force or private thugs beat, kill or imprison labor protesters on behalf of a local business, why would that not be concentrated power just because it was local? When a dictator or oligarchy takes over a smally country, why would that not be concentrated power just because it is on the smallscale? When a cult leader controls the lives of his followers, why would that not be concentrated power just because it only involves a small group of people?

Without inclusive democracy and popular soveriegnty, how does one prevent benevolent paternalism from becoming concentrated power? What makes American conservative ideals of benevolent paternalism different from all those other ideals of benevolent paternalism that have a long history of justifying oppression?

What is scary is that this profound lack of insight is at the very heart of the conservative vision of America. Conservatives are very serious about their fears of democracy. That is why I fear conservatism.

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