Big tent democracy

I wrote a post after Brexit, and then I deleted it later, thinking “meh, no-one wants my random takes on something happening far far away, why am I joining the chorus of reckons.” Now I regret deleting it, because some of what I wrote seems important after the Trump victory. Not like “WOW I AM SUPER INSIGHTFUL”, just like, “hmmm, this seems kinda a thing to me but I don’t see other people saying it, so maybe I should say it?”

Here goes then, and this time I’ll spend a little bit more time than I did on the Brexit piece.

Ok, so the basic idea is that there is inherent compatibility between conservatism and liberalism, and they are the twin pillars of democratic engagement, and the danger is posed by their opposites: radicalism and authoritarianism.

People keep thinking conservatism is the opposite to liberalism, but it’s not! It can be opposed to liberal change, but it can also be opposed to illiberal change.

The opposite to a conservative is a radical. And radicals, well, um, they can be good or bad, depending on how we feel about the status quo! If the status quo is good, conservatism is a good protection against unwanted change. In a New Zealand context, opposition to asset sales is conservative, opposition to charter schools is conservative. The insight behind conservatism as a political theory within democracies is that we should be cautious about upending something which is currently working OK (“sure, there’s room for improvement, but we could also lose out if we change too much too fast”).

Radicalism isn’t a political theory. You can’t be a radical all the time. You get one shot at big, sweeping change, and then, presumably, you want to keep the thing you achieved.

Conservatism is part of the political legacy of everyone who believes in democracy, because democracy can’t work without conservatism. Let’s not have a revolution and counter-revolution every few years, that sounds horrible, let’s build enough support from the ground up through democratic processes so that when we achieve the change we want, it’s durable. That’s the progress we need.

Conservatism is an important part of left-wing political ideology. The desire to rein in the industrial revolution and protect human interests? That’s a conservative impulse. The battles fought by indigenous people to retain their cultures in the face of colonisation? That’s conservative too. When we talk about progress, and the desire to make things better, it’s in the context of protecting the things that we want to retain. This is important to ordinary people living their ordinary lives, people with a stake in the status quo because its predictable and familiar (for example, New Zealand needed a dab more conservatism back in the 1980s when Roger Douglas decided to build a new economy from scratch).

On any issue, there might be some people who want change and others who don’t. Erring in favour of the status quo is a respectable default setting, because people come to the conclusion that something is an improvement at different speeds. If you’re part of the vanguard on an issue, you want progress, of course you do! You want to make the world better as soon as possible, it’s urgent, people are suffering in the meantime. I get that, I really do, I’m not minimising it. But if you believe in democracy, conservatism is a necessary compromise. It is ingrained into democratic systems to prevent instability, by ensuring that change occurs gradually, at the speed of shifts in the views of the majority. It can seem like a bad thing, until we consider the alternative: radical change that we don’t want.

Democracy requires change to come through popular support or not at all. This doesn’t mean we should be reticent in our push for making the world better, definitely not! It means we direct our efforts at the hearts and minds of people who disagree with us. It means we keep trying, despite resistance, to explain why this change is justified. It means we embrace their standard for change – that the case for improvement needs to be strong – and then we work to convince them that what we’re fighting for meets that standard.

I did my dissertation on the repeal of the defence of reasonable force for purposes of child discipline. When I started, I planned to focus on the rights-based case for the law change, the child’s right to be free from violence. But it changed shape as I was writing it. I became more and more interested in the question of how representative democracy should respond when there is a tension between protecting rights and upholding popular opinion. I reached the conclusion that to accommodate this tension, we need a deliberative legislative process, that seeks to convince people of the substantive merit of a proposal as part of the system for achieving change. Parliamentary democracy for the win, folks!

What about liberalism? I said above that conservatism’s merit depends on what is being conserved. Liberalism isn’t like that. Liberalism is the bright shining idea that people should be as free as possible to live life in accordance with their own values and desires. Many political philosophers see equality as integral to liberalism: it’s gotta be liberty for all, you can’t go selecting one group to live in freedom at the expense of others, nothing liberal about that. Liberalism without equality is supremacy. The opposite to liberalism, by the way, is authoritarianism.

Trump is a extreme radical traditionalist reactionary, not a conservative. He’s also authoritarian. So it’s terrifying that he’s the president of the world’s most powerful country.

Liberalism and conservatism hold democracy up, and provide the terms of engagement. In a democracy based on these principles, we will have:

  • A system of representative government with diffuse power underpinned by popular support;
  • Respect for the limits of legitimate government and protections for individual freedom;
  • Ideological and practical disagreement on issues of substance, played out within the boundaries of respect for the processes of the political system;
  • Widespread acceptance of a result even when there was significant disagreement, because people respect the process;
  • Neither stasis nor revolution, but iterative change, with modulating back-and-forth between successive governments, avoiding major unstable swings in policy.

For the past two centuries, we’ve been working to build this system. This is the story of democracies. Democracies enable us to resolve disagreement and govern effectively, to avoid radicalism and authoritarianism. The liberal revolutions that we lionise, they had the goal of creating conditions that eliminate the need for future revolutions. They sought to establish a new order that protects everyone’s interests, then maintain that order, integrating conservatism into the structure of the government.

And what of questions of the left and the right, the nature and extent of the government’s role in the economy, the competing interests of capital and labour, regulation to protect the environment, those other things – surely those are big democratic questions too?!

Welllllllll…. not really. Those aren’t questions about system design or the boundaries of engagement. Those are questions of substance. Don’t get me wrong, they’re important questions – but we have had radical, authoritarian right-wing governments, and radical, authoritarian left-wing governments, and they both lead to people against the wall. If there is a common enemy, we should be able to agree it’s authoritarianism. If there’s a common goal, we should be able to agree it’s democracy.

Which is not to say that question of left-vs-right are unimportant. They’re really important. It’s just, we need a big tent in support of democratic processes. I’ve seen things popping up among many of my lefty friends about the need for a revolution and my eyes are popping while I think, wait, did you all not get that the terrifying part of Donald Trump is that he ran on a RADICAL, AUTHORITARIAN platform and WON?! Are you using “revolution” as a term of art for a concerted attempt to convince people of your views? You don’t mean an actual revolution, right, with all the killing and stuff? Trump is an enormous threat to stability, we need to position ourselves in favour of stability!

I’d like to see US opposition to Trump rally around electoral reform. Elections shouldn’t be as high-stakes as this one was. When your preferred candidate loses, you should feel disappointment, not horror and despair. By definition, this outcome demonstrates that the system is flawed. And did you see voter turnout, ye gads! But what do I know, I’m not over there.

So for our own context, here is my take. I find it disquieting when I see people in New Zealand say that, post Trump, we need a “real left”, we need to “channel anger against the establishment and the elites”. Taihoa e hoa mā! There is a time for progress and a vision for the future, but there is also a time to fight to retain what we have. We are not the United States, or the United Kingdom. We have our own history and our own political legacies. A left-wing activist in the USA might look at the features of our political consensus and weep with envy. We have our own problems, but they’re solvable. When we look at the mess the USA is in, we should be heartened by just how solvable our own problems are! For starters, I know a whole lot of National Party voters who were posting their dismay at the Trump election on Facebook on Wednesday night. We have a solid platform for productive democracy in New Zealand: let’s make sure we keep it that way.


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