Liberal Anti-Democracy, Chapter 5, Part 2:
Democracy Against the People
The other most recent example of the progressive top-down technocratic elite transformation of society is the LGBT agenda. As the LGBT scholar Gary Mucciaroni explains, “sexual politics” in America is “a narrative about a heterosexist majority that has used religion and ideology to maintain its cultural and legal privileges.” The literature of the LGBT movement has always self-consciously identified itself as an elite, minoritarian revolution against this heterosexual majority.
Harvard legal scholar Michael Klarman reveals that elites effectively see progressive social agendas as a large-scale, top-down social engineering exercise, remarking that “educating” the public about concepts such as “diversity” and “representation” is particularly important to the LGBT movement “because over time it forces the majority to understand how gays and lesbians are already completely normal.”
Klarman notes that because a “decisive majority of Americans [have] remained strongly opposed” to the legalization of gay marriage and the intrusion of the LGBT movement into public life, the courts have consequently had to play an important role in the battle for normalization by circumventing the presence of democratic majorities. As legal activist Martha Nussbaum explains, the gay rights movement has traditionally relied on the courts and the legal industry to promote normalization, because “democratic majorities can’t yet be trusted to put aside bigotry.”
Prior to 2012, gay marriage had been repudiated in more than 31 referenda “despite the vastly superior economic resources and lobbying networks that pro-gay forces drew on.” One of the greatest examples was Proposition 8, the California Marriage Protection Act referendum of 2008, which sought to ban gay marriage by adding a provision to the California Constitution affirming that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” In the most liberal state in the country, the majority of voters voted “yes.” However, the will of millions of Californians was later discarded as “unconstitutional” by the seven justices of the Supreme Court of California. In his dissent, Justice Moreno argued that the law would violate the state’s “equal protection principles,” which cannot be overturned by “the will of the majority . . . for it is the will of the majority against which the equal protection clause is designed to protect.”
Note that this pattern has been followed in other countries, such as Slovenia. Slovenians rejected provisions for introducing gay marriage rights in numerous referenda, including in 2012 and 2015, until the national courts overturned the will of the people and introduced gay marriage rights via judicial fiat.
Just as the Roe v. Wade ruling, when “nine unelected officials imposed a uniform policy on the entire country” and legalized abortion, major steps in the progressive agenda have been imposed through the court system precisely because progressive elites could not achieve these goals through democratic politics. Criticizing the Windsor and Obergefell rulings, Justice Scalia attacked the judges for circumventing popular majorities:
The unrepresentative character of the body voting on today’s social upheaval would be irrelevant if they were functioning as judges, answering the legal question whether the American people had ever ratified a constitutional provision that was understood to proscribe the traditional definition of marriage. But of course the Justices in today’s majority are not voting on that basis; they say they are not.
“[A] system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy,” stated Scalia. Instead, he described “the decision[s] [as] an upper-class ‘putsch.’”
While many states throughout the country have tried to introduce similar Defense of Marriage acts, these “democratically passed state constitutional marriage amendments” have been challenged by the largest law firms in the country and defended by none of them. Noting that the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index gave 89% of the country’s law firms perfect scores on their attitudes towards LGBT legalization, Reuters remarked that the legal industry has reached a moment where “dissent on the question of the normalization of homosexuality would no longer be tolerated.” As Christopher Caldwell summarizes, rather than try to convince the majority through debate, “the civil rights approach to politics meant using lawsuits, shaming, and street power to overrule democratic politics . . . [and] organize against the wider society to defend their interests.” Sasha Issenberg of the New York Times reminds us: “Cancel Culture Works. We Wouldn’t Have Marriage Equality Without It.”
Another recent example can be found in the various bipartisan anti-transgender bills recently tabled in dozens of deep Republican states around the country, which — after being ratified by overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate — were vetoed by their governors. South Dakota Republican Governor Kristi Noem vetoed House Bill 1217, which sought to “promote continued fairness in women’s sports” by prohibiting biological men from playing in girls’ sports leagues. This decision was so unpopular with her conservative electoral base that commentators described it as career suicide, calling it “the veto that could undo Kristi Noem’s presidential ambitions.” One month later, Arkansas Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson vetoed House Bill 1570, the Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act, which aimed to prohibit gender reassignment surgeries and the use of hormone blockers for minors.
Recently, citizens of the small Idaho town of Coeur d’Alene were able to force anti-white propaganda out of their local college’s curriculum by influencing the college’s Board of Directors. Since then, the college has had its credit score attacked by Moody’s, national organizations are threatening to take away the school’s accreditation, district judges have tried to overturn election results, and the New York Times is publishing articles complaining about how “local voters” were able to drive the change.
“Not only is the political class more extreme in its positions,” writes the political scientist John G. Matsusaka, “but its priorities do not mirror those of the larger public.” There is massive divergence between the preferences of policy elites and their voting constituents. In 2016, Donald Trump shattered GOP records by bringing in the largest proportion of small donations from working-class people and truck drivers. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of individual donations from journalists, federal government employees, and college professors went to Hillary Clinton. Years earlier, 96% of donations from Ivy League professors similarly went to presidential candidate Barack Obama, illustrating that institutional elites tend to have heavily-biased preferences. These elites “have a combined sense of intellectual superiority, moral arrogance, and existential insecurity, often involving fear of ‘natural groups,’” which causes them to harbor a deep-seated and implacable distrust of popular democratic politics. Cloaking their liberal class-politics under the guise of value-neutral empiricism, they reflect the “naked and unapologetic elitism” of men such as Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann by insisting that “if only responsible elites could be left alone, if only political issues could be kept from the people, the elites would make wise decisions.”
Elite intellectual discourse is regularly plastered with rhetoric such as “[t]he people are ignorant,” “[t]he people can’t be trusted,” and “[w]e need to build institutions to protect us from the people.” Writing for a Trilateral Commission study in the 1970s, Samuel Huntington famously warned about the problem of “too much democracy,” warning elite policy circles that “the strength of democracy poses a problem for the governability of democracy.” The neoconservative Bill Kristol complains that Republicans show
almost too much concern and attention for, quote, the people — that is, the people’s will, their prejudices and their foolish opinions. And in a certain sense, we’re all paying the price for that now . . . after all, we conservatives are on the side of the lords and barons.
The CFR flagship Foreign Policy mocks the concept of the “will of the people,” dismissing it as a rhetorical “trope” for anti-immigration politicians.
From the Left, Alain Minc describes populism as a blight, calling it the victory “of ill-educated people over the well-educated.” Daniel Cohn-Bendit — a member of the European Parliament who bragged about molesting five-year-olds in an anarchist “anti-authoritarian kindergarten” in the 1960s — proclaims: “I’m sick of the people!”
After Donald Trump’s election, Jason Brennan argued for replacing democracy with an “epistocracy” where political rights are based on the knowledge and education level of voters. Joel Stein calls for replacing democracy with “a government of the nerds, by the nerds, and for the nerds.”
As the Yellow Vest riots raged through the Champs-Élysées and tens of thousands of protestors lit fires and fought with riot police, the French Prime Minister announced the government’s refusal to back down: “our course is the right one, and we’re not going to change it just because the wind is blowing.”
Surveys of legislators and administrative officials in the United States have shown “that two-thirds or more of government officials doubted that the public was sufficiently informed, long-sighted, and emotionally detached to provide sound guidance for government decisions.” In another survey, government officials were asked if ordinary voters “know enough about issues to form wise opinions about what should be done.” 47% of Members of Congress responded “no.” 81% of civil servants responded “no.” Elite commentators and pundits regularly claim that the
mass public is prone to contradiction, misinformation, and wild fluctuation as it is whipped along by winds of “passion,” as Madison puts it. By contrast, [they insist that] elites are better able to reach consistent decisions based on objective knowledge regarding the most effective means for furthering the country’s well-being.
In American elite discourse, “the independence of political leaders is extolled in both domestic and foreign policy,” and regularly reifies the elite liberal consensus that “safeguarding our freedom and our form of government requires us to protect the Constitution against . . . pandering to public opinion.” They believe that “[s]ociety suffers when polls inhibit leaders from independent thinking, from anticipating change, or from preparing the public for change.” They maintain that “[v]oters possess neither the knowledge nor the expertise to understand and evaluate the measures on which they are voting,” and aggressively “insist that elected representatives act in accordance with their good judgement of the ‘broader community interest’ and ‘good public policy’ and exercise independence from their constituents.” They urge elected officials to exercise their judgement independently, instead of “doing what the public . . . want[s] . . . [or] yielding to instant public opinion,” which they refer to pejoratively as “pandering” to public opinion.
These attitudes were also apparent in European elites’ hostile reaction to the Brexit referendum and towards direct democratic mechanisms such as referenda, and primary elections generally. After Brexit, the media spewed dozens of caustic headlines such as “Referendums Are Dangerous for Democracy,” “After Brexit, should referendums be banned?”, and “Are Referendums Like Brexit a Disgrace to Democracy?” “This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics,” wrote London School of Economics fellow Alexandre Cirone and Harvard Professor Kenneth Rogoff:
Brexiteers did not invent this game; there is ample precedent, including Scotland in 2014 and Quebec in 1995. But, until now, the gun’s cylinder never stopped on the bullet. Now that it has, it is time to rethink the rules of the game.
This antipathy towards referenda predates Brexit. In 1945, the British Prime Minister Clement Attlee called referenda “alien to all our traditions” and an “instrument of Nazism.” Prime Minister Harold Wilson called them “contrary to our traditions” and “not a way in which we can do business,” fearing that frequent elections might undermine the government by eliminating the income tax. Margaret Thatcher famously called the referendum “a device of dictators and demagogues” and a danger to minorities. Prime Minister Theresa May called referenda a “a gross betrayal of our democracy” that “undermines the whole principle of democracy in this country.
The same goes for America. As the political scientist Matthew Qvortup notes, American elites have opposed the concept since the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the People’s Party fought for direct democratic initiatives. They did so because “[d]irect democracy, as well as the reforms that would be prompted via initiative and referendum, were a threat to the autonomy of these traditional parties, and to the economic interests that influenced them.” The concept is still regarded with hostility, as recent books attacking the concept have been published “with apocalyptic titles such as Democracy Derailed, Dangerous Democracy and Democratic Delusions.” In the academic literature, referenda have been criticized as “alien,” “an import,” and “subver[sive to] the American system of government.”
According to Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully, the referendum is a device that “takes power of decision over a specific question back from the elected representatives and returns it to the people who decide a matter directly.” Yet, this most democratic of all devices is reviled by Western political theorists. Historically, while liberals, social democrats, and even Marxists have been skeptical at best, if not outright opposed to referenda, “it is also interesting that this impeccably ‘democratic’ and ‘authoritative’ device is deployed as often in regimes that are manifestly undemocratic as in those that strive to meet high standards of democratic practice.”
Obviously, Western political elites are nervous about referenda because they are uncontrollable and unpredictable. While “political parties often spend millions on altering the voters’ perceptions and to get them to change their minds,” there is little evidence that any of these efforts successfully sway the preference of the population one way or the other. The political scientist Thomas Stratmann notes that “overall the academic literature has found little evidence that special interest groups can purchase their preferred policies” during referenda, in the same way that they can do so by purchasing legislators and lobbyists. American billionaires such as Tom Steyer and George Soros regularly pour hundreds of millions of dollars into swaying ballot measures, including advertising, public opinion polling, and astroturfing activists and bussing voters to polling stations. “Several tech and entertainment industry billionaires and philanthropists were major donors to California’s 2008 $64 million campaign against a measure (Prop. 8) to ban same-sex marriage,” and yet despite their overwhelming monetary advantage, they still lost the campaign in one of the most liberal states in the country.
Referenda are problematic for elites because they tend to have conservative outcomes that contradict the power elite’s liberal policy objectives. Scholars regularly point to Swiss referenda on women’s suffrage, “the darkest stain in the history of Swiss democratization,” as evidence of the problematic tendencies of referenda. Despite having the most democratic political system in the world with their system of semi-direct democracy in which voters are regularly consulted on policy via referendum, Switzerland was one of the last Western countries to introduce women’s suffrage. Swiss voters regularly rejected proposals for it even after the right was approved by both chambers of the Swiss parliament. Women’s suffrage only succeeded nationally in Switzerland in 1971, and even then there were cantonal holdouts. For example, the canton of “Appenzell Innerrhoden resisted implementation until 1990, when finally the Federal Court made it clear that the new norm had to be accepted and enacted.”
Western elites regularly criticize the practice of referenda, because they contradict the idea of policymaking by a supposedly impartial and objective class of “experts.” Derrick Bell argues that
[t]he emotionally charged atmosphere often surrounding referenda and initiatives . . . can reduce the care with which voters consider the matters before them. Tumultuous, media-oriented campaigns such as the ones successfully used to repeal ordinances recognizing the rights of homosexuals in Dade County, Florida, St Paul, Minnesota, and Eugene, Oregon, are not conducive to careful thinking and voting. Appeals to prejudice, oversimplification of the issues, and exploitation of legitimate concerns by promising simplistic solutions to complex problems often characterize referendum and initiative campaigns.
The liberal economist Joseph Schumpeter complained that “the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests.” Western scholars have continued to criticize direct democracy on psychological grounds. Ordinary people tend to approach politics as a tribal phenomenon and adopt policy preferences based on core identities and values. Politics becomes a conflict between factions that serve as expressions of these core identities, rather than a neutral evaluation of policy issues based on pure economic calculation. Consequently, Western elites are nervous about direct and democratic expressions of the popular will because they excite “irrational” instincts and tribal passions that circumvent dominant liberal norms and represent a potential threat to liberalism at large.
But most importantly, as the Russian Communist Party member Vadim Solov’ëv explained to Matthew Qvortup, elites hate referenda because they do “‘not get the result that they need’”:
According to the constitution, a referendum — like elections — is the supreme form of popular power. On its results, like it or not, corresponding laws have to be adopted. But who needs that? The majority of decisions that are now taken at the top contradict the overwhelming mood in society and are adopted in the interests of some narrow group. It is well known that, if referendums are frequently conducted in a country . . . the authorities only strengthen their position, since they carry out the will of the majority. But if the state constantly foists the interests of narrow groups on society, in the end it all ends in tears, both for ordinary people and for the authorities themselves.
As Alain de Benoist similarly observes, “it is quite likely that a popular poll would lead to the re-establishment of the death penalty and the adoption of strict measures to curb immigration — and this is probably the reason why those in power make sure not to consult public opinion on such subjects.”
In 2005 the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, “criticized the use of referendums in the wake of the defeat of the European Constitution in France and the Netherlands . . . [stating that they] should be avoided because they ‘undermine the Europe we are trying to build by simplifying important and complex subjects.’” This was repeated in 2015 with Brexit, which illustrated how devastating referenda can be for liberal elites. In a similar vein, the first Soviet referenda were also its last, when various republics voted for independence and precipitated the dissolution of the Soviet Union. These referenda, encouraged by Gorbachev, illustrate how they can “backfire” on elites.
British and international elites lambasted David Cameron for allowing the Brexit referendum in 2015, arguing that the results vindicated the American Founding Father’s fears about what Edmund Burke called the “swinish multitude,” proving that they were correct to argue that it is “necessary to leave the public in the dark during important political deliberations.” Agreeing with Madison and Burke, who championed counter-majoritarian mechanisms to lessen the influence of the “the swinish multitude,” Franz-Stefan Gady writes that
the Brexit referendum illustrates as much the failure of the experts and elected politicians as it shows that relying on the masses and populism can lead to suspect and potentially damaging decisions. In that sense, we have to guard ourselves against direct democracy being hijacked by demagogues and populists lest we have to endure the ‘tyranny of the majority’ at the expense of wiser policies.
European Union minister Vera Jourová recently stated, “We have seen too many examples of the risks stemming from the digital realm . . . like the Brexit referendum.” The EU Commission has made moves to change political campaign laws to make initiating independence referenda more difficult. Combined with stricter ad regulation and online censorship, they intend to render similar outcomes more difficult in the future.
Former Goldman Sachs banker, UN Special Representative for International Migration, and European Commissioner for Competition Peter Sutherland complained that “mainstream politicians, held hostage by xenophobic parties, adopt anti-immigrant rhetoric to win over fearful publics,” which is “leading to the growth of movements like UKIP, Le Pen and Geert Wilders and so on across Europe.” For this reason, he urged for migration policy to be transferred to unelected policymaking bodies such as the EU Commission, so that issues like immigration policy would be put outside of the national political debate.
Some European countries have already solved this problem. Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany suggested holding a “Dexit” referendum on German EU membership after Brexit. But the referendum never happened, because referenda are banned by law in Germany under the Constitution of 1949. This is because majoritarian popular votes are seen as violating the important liberal principle of pluralism, and have been used by majoritarian nationalist political leaders such as Hitler and Franco to circumvent parliamentary elites and the checks and balances of liberal constitutionalism. The French President Charles de Gaulle similarly “resolved the Algerian crisis by going against the political elite and consulting the people over Algeria in 1961.”
Liberal elites are consequently skeptical about referenda because they weaken the foundational liberal principle of parliamentary sovereignty and, in the words of Samuel Finer, “‘invite parliament to become its own executioner.’” Populist politics and referenda are incompatible with the independence of the political class and the technocratic liberal rule of the “experts.” They undermine the monopoly of liberal institutions over the political discourse, because under referenda “the voice of ordinary citizens is regarded as the only ‘genuine’ form of democratic governance even when at odds with expert judgements — including those of elected representatives and judges, scientists, and scholars, journalists and commentators.”
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 Darel E. Paul, From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-sex Marriage (Baylor University Press: 2018), 10.
 Michael Klarman, From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage (Oxford University Press: 2013). Quoted in Darel E. Paul, “Culture War as Class War: How Gay Rights Reinforce Elite Power,” First Things, 2018.
 Christopher Caldwell, 220.
 John G. Matsusaka, Let the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge (Princeton University Press: 2022), 8.
 Christopher Caldwell, 228.
 Darel E. Paul, 36; Christopher Caldwell, 232; and Sasha Issenberg, “Cancel Culture Works. We Wouldn’t Have Marriage Equality Without It,” The New York Times, 2021.
 John G. Matsusaka, 11; Curt Mills, “Journalists Donate Far More To Clinton,” U.S. News & World Report, 2016; Jonathan Swan, “Government workers shun Trump, give big money to Clinton,” The Hill, 2016; Tania Diaz Bazan, “Donation Preferences: Republicans Outnumbered in Academia,” Promarket, 2016; Michelle Conlin, “Trump scores with small money, lags with big donors,” Reuters, 2016; Shane Goldmacher, “Trump shatters GOP records with small donors,” Politico, 2016; Perry Chiaramonte, “96 percent of Ivy League professors’ donations went to Obama,” Fox News, 2016; and Michael Rogin quoted in Thomas Frank, 167.
 Lawrence Lessig, They Don’t Represent Us: Reclaiming Our Democracy (Harper Collins: 2019), 220, quoted in Thomas Frank, 215; and Florian Bieber, “How Europe’s Nationalists Became Internationalists,” Foreign Policy, 2019.
 See Lawrence Lessig, 18; quoted in Frank, 230.
 John G. Matsusaka, 11; Jacobs and Shapiro, 300.
 Quoted in Neema Parvini, 117; Jacobs and Shapiro, 301; and John G. Matsusaka, 169.
 Robert Saunders, “How Britain embraced referendums, the tool of dictators and demagogues,” The Economist, 2019.
 Matthew Qvortrup, Referendums Around the World (Springer International Publishing: 2017), 149, 161; John G. Matsusaka, 61.
 Quoted in Matthew Qvortrup, 3.
 Matthew Qvortrup, 37, 39, 59, 135.
 Matthew Qvortrup, 172.
 Quoted in Matthew Qvortrup, 4.
 Quoted in Gilens, 15; Matthew Yglesias, “This is the best book to help you understand the wild 2016 campaign,” Vox, 2016; and Christopher Achen & Larry M. Bartels, “It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral,” 2006.
 Quoted in Matthew Qvortrup, 142; Alain de Benoist, The Problem of Democracy (Arktos: 2011), 56.
 Matthew Qvortrup, 113.
 Franz-Stefan Gady, “Brexit: The American Founding Fathers Had it Right: Direct Democracy Is a Dead Duck,” The Diplomat, 2016.
 Leigh Evans, “Never again! EU makes move to stop another Brexit-style referendum in bloc,” Express, 2021.
 Richard Wheatstone, “Far-right German party demands ‘Dexit’ vote — but can’t get national referendum because of HITLER,” Mirror, 2016; Ben Knight, “New direct democracy campaign launched in Germany,” DW, 2016; quoted in Matthew Qvortrup, 33-35.
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