Seven score and 10 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln delivered the greatest speech in American history. Standing on the bloodied battlefield of Gettysburg, Lincoln urged the fractured nation to dedicate itself to the “unfinished work” of the battle. In only 10 sentences—272 words in all—he made clear the far-reaching implications of the Civil War: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
It took a long Civil War and hundreds of thousands of dead, but America eventually rid itself of the scourge of slavery and the democratic cause triumphed, thereby confirming Lincoln’s contention that “ballots are the rightful, and peaceful, successors of bullets.”
The challenge to democratic government, however, would not disappear. In the late 19th century, the Progressive movement emerged in America. The Progressives, like their liberal heirs today, had a paradoxical relationship to democracy.
On the one hand, they championed democratic reforms, like the referendum, the ballot initiative, and the direct election of Senators (liberals today favor the popular election of the President).
On the other hand, the Progressives—again like their liberal heirs—harbored a deep-seated distrust of the unwashed masses.
“The bulk of mankind is rigidly unphilosophical, and nowadays the bulk of mankind votes,” Woodrow Wilson wrote. They “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them,” in President Obama’s infamous formulation.
But all hope is not lost, so long as we put our faith in the rule of experts—the “hundreds who are wise,” in Wilson’s words. From these enlightened few, Progressives would build the modern administrative state: government of the elites, by the bureaucrats, and for what they claim is best for the people. In short, government over the people.
To this day, liberalism continues to present itself as being all for the people—it just doesn’t trust the people to know their own good.
People must be told what to eat, which light bulbs to buy, and which health insurance to purchase. And their will must be overturned when they don’t vote “the right way,” as when they uphold the traditional definition of marriage, for example.
Liberalism has in effect redefined democracy along paternalistic lines: enacting, through whatever means necessary, what the people would vote for—if only they were enlightened enough to know what’s best for them.
This, of course, is not democracy. And it’s incompatible with what James Madison in The Federalist called “that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”
Simply claiming to be for the people does not make a government democratic. As Lincoln taught us in his Gettysburg Address, it must also be of and by these people.
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