Democracy, Elitism, and the Left

by Michael Potemra


One of the things I’ve always liked about the Democrats is their rhetoric about being the party of ordinary folks. A classic instance was the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s line about fighting for “the little fellers, not the Rockefellers.” Republicans, of course, would chaff Wellstone for collaborating with none other than Senator Jay . . . Rockefeller, on various liberal agenda items. As with a lot of political rhetoric on any part of the political spectrum, it helps to be reminded that the aw-shucks I’m-for-the-little-guy stuff is often just a pose. A few minutes ago, I saw a notable case in point: Rachel Maddow was mocking Mitt Romney for posing with mitten-shaped cookies on a visit to a Michigan bakery, which she contrasted with the same day’s images of our Cosmopolitan World Leader President grappling with issues of global significance on the world stage, encouraging (she implied) Russia’s Putin to turn back his helicopter-laden ships that were on their way to Syria . . .

I have my problems with populism, God knows, but isn’t that contrast of images ideally the way democracy should work — one officeholder does a job, and an opposing candidate has to meet ordinary folks and convince those ordinary folks to let him or her replace the officeholder? There are many demeaning elements in our political process, but the bare fact of having to relate to ordinary people in ordinary environments to win office is hardly one of them. In July 1945, a couple of months after the fall of Berlin, Churchill was holding a historic summit meeting with Stalin and Truman — even as the votes were being counted back in the U.K., and Churchill and his team were being unceremoniously dumped by the electorate. My purpose here is not to do an anti-Obama post, so I will content myself with the understatement that Churchill’s record on the world stage was, ahem, no less distinguished than Obama’s, and yet British voters managed to look past the impressive pageantry of statecraft, and come to a decision that their government needed to be replaced. That was an impressive precedent. (There are a number of stories about Churchill’s own reaction to the loss. My favorite is his rejection of a royal honor later that year, with the following quip: “I can hardly accept the Order of the Garter from the king after the people have given me the Order of the Boot.”)

History can be made at summit meetings — but democracy can, and should, happen in bakeries.

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