Members Only | December 16, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats Have Begun Reclaiming Republicanism

The Democrats are more like the framers than most people think.

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Alexander Heffner, host of The Open Mind on PBS, has a clever and thoughtful piece in this morning’s USA Today worth considering on this dreary gun-metal-gray Monday.

His argument is that the Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are right to impeach the president. Foreign interference, he said, is precisely what the framers feared most. In protecting the US Constitution, he said, they have begun a new era of “liberal originalism to safeguard law and order in America. By “liberal originalism,” he means interpreting the Constitution in the fullness of its context, past and present.

“There has been a bogus contention over too many years that the textualist view of the Constitution is only the 18th century ratified document instead of the text as it organically and authentically matured. This has always been a false choice. You are an originalist by reading the document, in its entire meaning and its entire body of precedent over decades and centuries. This is what [Nancy] Pelosi has done … ”

What makes Heffner’s piece clever is its turnabout. It’s the Republicans who are supposed to be defenders of the Constitution, not the Democrats. It’s the Republicans who are supposed to be “constitutional conservatives,” as we heard so many times during Barack Obama’s presidency. But now, under Donald Trump, we have a GOP standing against limited government, state’s rights, fiscal responsibility and the rest. We have a GOP, Heffner said, fully “cannibalized” by “Trump’s authoritarianism.”

The Republicans don’t care about liberty in any small-r republican sense. The Democrats do.

But this turnabout works only if one accepted the premise that it’s the Republicans who are supposed to be all the above things. It works only if one believed that the Republicans meant what they said and that the party is now a “cannibalized” victim of the president’s authoritarianism. Moreover, it works only if one already believed that the Democrats were not defenders of the Constitution. All of which is to say: it works if GOP propaganda equals truth. Things look different if you are someone, like me and other liberals, who already believed that what we are currently seeing in the GOP has always been there. It’s been hidden by layers of spin, equivocation, falsehood and lies.

Heffner’s turnabout does imply a philosophical truth I’d like to amplify, which is that the Democrats are conservative ideologically. Now, I don’t mean “conservative” in the way Republicans mean it (whether or not they believe it.) I mean “conservative” in the way Edmund Burke and others meant it. There’s no need to change things merely for the sake of changing things. Change must arise from a pressing need, and even when there is a pressing need, change must come from majoritarian will and the democratic process. In this sense, every single member of the Democratic Party is an arch ideological conservative. What makes them different from Republican “conservatives” is that they will change when it’s necessary. The Republicans won’t do that. They will blow up the political order if that’s what it takes to prevent change from happening.

Which is why they are radicals, not “liberty-loving” conservatives. True liberty is rooted in a system in which everyone is accorded the same rights and everyone has the same political obligations (i.e., voting). But the Republicans don’t really care about equality. Therefore, they don’t really care about liberty in any small-r republican sense.

To be sure, they care about their liberty, just not yours. Liberals often make the mistake of accusing Republicans of hypocrisy. Liberals often complain they are acting in bad faith. But, again, these allegations rest on a core presumption: that Republican behavior is based on a shared system of morality, justice and political values. It isn’t. There’s one system for them. There’s one system for the rest of us. Critics like Max Boot and Jonathan Capehart allege the Republicans are no longer principled. Not so. They are highly principled. The principles animating Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham are the same principles that animated John Calhoun and George Wallace.

Heffner is right to say that the Democrats are behaving as the framers would have wanted. But it’s not because they are more conservative than the Republicans. It’s not because they are more liberty loving. I think it’s because they are more republican.

More republican than the Republicans? Yes. To be republican (small r) during the founding meant having a vision of the Good Life, and creating public mechanisms by which citizens could empower themselves to pursue happiness on their own terms. The Good Life excluded women. It excluded slaves. It excluded children. It excluded this continent’s original peoples. But it was a principle, nevertheless, that informed the framers’ understanding of the world, and that shaped much of our founding document.

The Democrats, I’d argue, are more republican than at any time in my adulthood. To be liberal used to mean neutrality in public affairs. It used to mean “negative liberty” (the absence, not presence, of the state). It used to mean pretty much anything that was not Big Government control. But since 2000, and especially since 2016, more Democrats realize that’s not enough. The common good has been neglected. It’s now desiccated. The common good needs replenishing. It needs republican Democrats.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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