Emma Goldman (1869–1940), an American radical, said that if elections changed anything, they would be illegal. Such sentiments provoked the wrath of the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, who was hot to make the whole world—except for the American portion of it—safe for democracy. In 1919, Goldman was deported to Russia, the land of Lenin, who believed that in a capitalist democracy, the oppressed are "allowed, once every few years, to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class" should "represent and oppress them."
Today's American left might feel similarly unenthralled about elections as the president-elect picks a Treasury secretary who worked in Ronald Reagan's Treasury Department, and extends the tenure of a secretary of defense who was put in the Pentagon by George W. Bush. Elections really do change policies and priorities; what they do not change is what many people insist they most want changed. As usual, many people, today, led by the president-elect, are saying that the nation must end "politics as usual." And as usual, few of the people saying that seem to wonder why such politics have become usual.
They object to the maelstrom of "special interests" vying for preferential treatment from government. But the fastidiousness of these critics reveals an idealization of democracy, a political romanticism that encourages ambitious, hubristic government that incites the very maelstrom they deplore.
An antidote for such loopy thinking is an antiromantic book published nine years ago by John Mueller, an Ohio State political scientist. His "Capitalism, Democracy & Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery" celebrates "the ascendancy, the curious and unexhilarating triumph, of the pretty good over the ideal." A pretty good institution "can function adequately when people are rarely, if ever, asked to rise above the ignorance and selfishness with which they have been so richly endowed by their creator." Mueller thinks American democracy is pretty good.
"Democracy," he says, "is a form of government in which people are left (equally) free to become politically unequal." Few people have time to engage in politics, or a compelling reason to find time. So democracy "functions not so much by rule by the majority as by minority rule with majority acquiescence."
The more things government does, the more people will be eager for it to do things for them. Since the advent, in the first half of the 20th century, of the regulatory and redistributive state, its interventions throughout society have multiplied the number of groups with incentives to grab government by the lapels to get its attention, or to hire Washington lobbyists to grab for them.
Nowadays, Democrats are especially indignant about the political culture that they, as advocates of hyperkinetic government, have done so much to produce. "We are in this race," proclaimed an Obama-Biden campaign publication, "to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over." Actually, much lobbying is defensive, seeking to fend off regulatory burdens. And government sets the agenda for lobbyists by drawing them, as a magnet draws iron filings, to its activities that allocate wealth and opportunity. Obama promises to expand government's role regarding health care (17 percent of the economy), energy, adjusting the planet's thermostat and many other matters. These promises guarantee increasingly frenzied lobbying.
If Democrats really wanted to discourage "special interests," they could follow the example of Grover Cleveland, the last Democratic president who understood the federal government as the Founders did—as a government of limited, because enumerated, powers. "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government," wrote James Madison in Federalist Paper 45, "are few and defined." And so in 1887, President Cleveland vetoed the Texas Seed Bill, which appropriated $10,000 to purchase seed grain for drought-stricken farmers. Cleveland said: "I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution."
What about the power to provide for the "general welfare"? Madison had said no. He warned that if those words were construed to permit Congress to do whatever it said served the general welfare, that "would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators."
Concerning that metamorphosis, which was completed long ago, there is not a dime's worth of difference between the parties. "We have a responsibility," said George W. Bush in 2003, "that when somebody hurts, government has got to move." Given a sufficiently elastic notion of what constitutes hurting, compassionate conservatism can be an activism indistinguishable from liberalism.
In today's financial crisis, government is more frenetic than ever, which could be considered odd. "When depression in business comes we begin to be very conservative in our financial affairs," wrote a bemused ex-president in 1930. "We save our money and take no chances in its investment. Yet in our political actions we go in an opposite direction." The nation—well, a wee portion thereof—turns its lonely eyes to you, Calvin Coolidge.