Thom Hartmann Foresaw in 2006 the Battle Between Centrist Democrats and the Progressive Left -- And the Danger of Dems Caving to the GOP
Thom Hartmann has long been a friend and contributor to BuzzFlash. He is a Renaissance man, author of many insightful books, and an indefatigable radio host. He is always illuminating and offers a perspective deeply steeped in US history. In 2006, he predicted the current schism in the Democratic Party: “Today that's the battle that's being played out for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party - between the DLC and their front groups, who are basically Republican lite - and the progressives within the Democratic Party.” Add the Democratic Socialist of America to the grassroots forces that are challenging the entrenched Democratic leadership.
Originally Published in February, 2006
The thing that the progressives within the Democratic Party apparently haven’t grasped – or if they have, they’ve simply been frustrated in their attempts to articulate it - is the power of incumbency and majority. The power of power itself. It aggregates. Over time, power adds to itself. ...
That’s the insanity of the Democratic position of saying, okay, we’re going to keep our powder dry on John Roberts, for example, until the next big fight. What happens if you stay out of the fight, is that you actually lose power. — Thom Hartmann
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Thom Hartmann is a regular contributor to BuzzFlash through his illuminating "Independent Thinker" book review column. He also hosts a syndicated radio talk show, heard from coast to coast on the Sirius Satellite Radio system, on CRN, on Air America, and on RadioPower.org. What's more, Hartmann is the award-winning author of such books as Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights; We The People: A Call to Take Back America; and What Would Jefferson Do? Here, Thom Hartmann brings context to the intellectual and policy battles that divide America today - and he looks at why the right wing has, for the moment, gained the upper hand.
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BuzzFlash: A while back you reviewed the book, Leo Strauss and the American Right, for BuzzFlash. Leo Strauss, who influenced many members of the Bush Administration, was, in essence, an elitist. He argued that democracy was too precious to be left to citizens to decide, and that an elite ruling class should, if necessary, delude the masses to lead a country into war, or whatever was necessary to save the so-called civilized world. The people who are running this Administration don’t trust the mass of Americans to decide the course of foreign policy or the course of domestic policy. But the administration presents Bush as a populist – as a man who would really rather be clearing brush on his ranch. Do you see the irony there, and how does that play itself out?
Thom Hartmann: The irony is fairly self-evident. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t know the historical context. Strauss argued that only an elite could ever govern successfully. This was an echo of Plato’s point of view, whom Strauss quoted quite a lot. Plato was a critic of democracy, and so was Leo Strauss.
Thomas Jefferson was another great student of Plato. However, Jefferson was very opposed to Plato’s notion that democracy is intrinsically flawed. This became a huge debate between the Jeffersonians – those who believed in democracy – Jefferson, Madison, and so on – and the Federalists – the Hamilton, John Adams crowd – who really believed that all the talk about democracy is great to pacify the "rabble" – the phrase that John Adams used to describe the average person. The Federalists believed you don't give the masses real democracy - you only want to give them a little bit. You let them vote for the House of Representatives, but you leave the real power in the hands of the Senate, and you don’t let the rabble vote for the Senate. Of course, the United States Senate was not actually directly elected by We The People of the United States until 1913 with the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.
BuzzFlash: Until then, the senators were elected by the state legislatures, right?
Thom Hartmann: They weren’t even elected. What the Constitution said was that it was up to each state to determine how they would decide who would be their two US Senators. In some states, the governor appointed them. In some states, the state Senate selected them. In some states, it was the old-boy network behind closed doors. In some states, it was a legislative election – in very few states. The one common denominator was that it was a fairly corrupt system, and the Senate had historically been the repository for rule by the elites in America. It's still largely a millionaire's club.
BuzzFlash: It was, in essence, the American House of Lords.
Thom Hartmann: Exactly. So Leo Strauss’ teachings, while many people posit them as some new radical thinking, were not new as American political thought. The same arguments went on for the better part of fifty years between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and sometimes very loudly. It’s the same argument that has largely been the subtext of all of American history, including the Civil War - including, some would say, Woodrow Wilson getting us into World War I. The overthrow of this concept of the elite was the cornerstone of Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration. Clearly the people in the Bush Administration don’t trust We The People. It’s the most secretive Administration in the history of the United States.
BuzzFlash: The Republican Party, before it became extremely right wing, ran against this elitism. If you go back to Adlai Stevenson, the Republicans painted the Democrats as being pointy-head, liberal elitists who looked down on the common man. Today we see this played out in the so-called values debate.
Thom Hartmann: What you’re describing is really the spin that the Republicans put on the Democratic idea that government can actually perform a useful function in regard to the regulation of the commons, and that the commons changes over time.
In other words, when Roosevelt came along with Social Security, the Republican objection to Social Security was, “That’s not in the Constitution.” The Founders didn’t define that as part of the commons, and therefore, it shouldn’t exist. They said, you’ve got a bunch of intellectuals in Washington, D.C. who are going to sit around with their actuarial tables and figure out how much money we should get when we retire. And the same argument was used against LBJ – Johnson cut poverty in half in the first four years of his war on poverty. But the cons said, "Oh, it’s a bunch of pointy-headed intellectuals that are deciding how our tax dollars are going to be spent." That’s the Republican spin.
The reality is that in a democracy – in a constitutionally limited democratic republic, which is what we have – in a representative democracy, we elect, or hire people to represent us to make legislative decisions that reflect our will and desires. If the majority of us have the will and desire, and it doesn’t conflict with the rights of any minorities, to have Social Security, or to have national health care, or to have fill-in-the-blank, then that should be the law. That’s the idea of democracy. The Republicans historically have been opposed to that idea.
Another more recent example was during the health care debate. Bill and Hillary Clinton were trying to do a national health care program. The Republicans ran ads saying, "Oh, my God, they want a bureaucrat to decide what doctor we can go to!" Well, first of all, that was never part of the program. But secondly, really the question should be, not do we want our government bureaucrats setting up health care, but, who would you rather have deciding which doctor you can go to - someone from the government, which is responsive to We The People, and we can vote them out of office, and we can change them, and they’re responsive to public pressures? Or somebody who works for a private corporation, which is owned by a small group of people? That’s really the question or decision. By "keeping government out of our lives," what happens is, you create a power vacuum, into which corporations step. It’s a flashback to the robber baron era.
BuzzFlash: The Republicans paint Democratic leadership as liberal, pointed-head outsiders, Hollywood types, with different moral values. And this is very much a part of Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas -- that the working stiff votes for Bush anyway because of the values issue. Some recent Democratic polling by Stan Greenberg confirms this.
We don’t agree it can’t be changed. That’s the difference between us and the Democratic leadership.
Thom Hartmann: Sometimes you just want to grab these Democratic consultants and shake them. The meme that the Republicans get out is that the nature of an elite is to have pointy-headed intellectuals decide what’s best for you. And that’s actually a pretty good meme, because it can be used against the Republicans to say, "Oh, the Republicans want pointy-headed intellectuals like the insurance companies' actuaries to decide what doctors you see. The Republicans want pointy-headed intellectuals at Dow Chemical to decide what pesticides are going to be in your food. The Republicans want pointy-headed intellectuals in America's biggest banks to decide whether or not you can declare bankruptcy and how your retirement funds are going to be invested. And all those intellectuals are also going to figure out how to rip you off - or at least get the most money out of you they can - because that's their job. That's the fundamental requirement of a for-profit business.
In all those areas where the Republicans have said that the Democrats want the pointy-headed intellectuals in government to be making these decision for you – you can flip it. You can very easily flip it. And when you do that, people go: oh, yeah! You know, it’s just that quick, because the meme, the thought-virus, the concept has been well constructed. It’s like that business survey from two or three years ago - they asked average Americans if they think that corporations have too much influence on America and American policy. And over 80 percent – it’s a huge number of Americans - feel that corporations have way too much influence.
So all you have to do is just nudge that meme or that frame a little bit, and all of a sudden, it comes crashing down on top of the Republicans.
BuzzFlash: I want to shift gears and talk about power. There was a politically critical time period when the Democrats briefly controlled the Senate, right after Jeffords defected.
Thom Hartmann: Jeffords was a good guy, by the way – the only Republican I voted for in thirty years.
BuzzFlash: Under Tom Daschle’s leadership, and with the rather infamous leadership of Joe Lieberman on the committee that was responsible for investigating Enron –- the Democrats had this enormous scandal that was personally tied to the Bush Administration in many ways. Bush lied about his relationship with Ken Lay. It was symbolic of the corruption of so many corporations, and how stockholders, taxpayers and the government had been fleeced. But the Democrats basically did nothing with that. They were handed something, not of their making, but something that was a gift to hold out to the American people to say, here is what results from Republican policies. And they did nothing. That seemed almost inexplicable to us.
Thom Hartmann: To me it seems that was the result of two factors: the DLC’s influence on the Democratic Party, and Reagan’s war against organized labor, which is still ongoing. When Reagan came into power, a quarter of America’s workforce was unionized, so roughly half of America’s workforce had a good union job with benefits, retirement, job security, that sort of thing. Now we’re down to having just 8 or 9% of the private workforce unionized. So as Reagan’s war on organized labor was succeeding – and organized labor had been traditionally one of the largest sources of funding for the Democratic Party – Bill Clinton and others around him were looking around saying, where are we going to get some cash? It takes money to run for office.
They looked at what the Republicans had been doing basically since the 1880s, when they first started selling out to the railroads, with the Grant Administration’s railroad bribery scandals, for example. Clinton realized that the money’s with the corporations, and he said, "Let’s get in bed with them." And that spawned the new Democrats – the Democratic Leadership Council or DLC – and a tight corporate agenda.
We've got some Democrats who have sold out to the dark side, some who are beholden to the dark side, as it were – to the corporate force – some who were even in cahoots with Enron. So the Democratic Party wasn’t true to its founding principles any longer. A fair number of them had been as complacent in allowing the Enron scandal to happen as the Republicans had been.
Those Democrats who had a lot of power didn’t want things to be coming out that would harm their ability to get corporate money. So I don’t think that they missed the opportunity - I think they passed on the opportunity to go after Enron and corporations in general. Some of the more powerful forces within the Party basically took control and said, "We’re not going to go there."
Today that’s the battle that’s being played out for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party - between the DLC and their front groups, who are basically Republican lite – and the progressives within the Democratic Party.
David Sirota's probably one of the most effective and articulate writers right now about this schism within the Democratic Party. This is the big battle, and the one that concerns me the most right now.
I’m far more concerned about whether the DLC corrupters are going to succeed than whether the Democrats are going to succeed over the Republicans. If the Democratic Party is entirely consumed by the DLC, it’s doomed. You know, Bill Clinton himself, because of his own personal charisma, was able to win a couple of elections. But the policies of the DLC caused the Democratic Party to lose Congress during the Clinton administration. Their type of thinking and their policies are the reason why, if you ask the average person now what the Democratic Party stands for, they can’t tell you, because the DLC has muddied the waters so badly, mixing up the Democratic Party with a lite version of the Republican Party.
BuzzFlash: We call BuzzFlash a pro-democracy news site. And that’s not just a PR position, we actually think that accurately reflects what we are. But people say, well, you’re really liberal. Why don't you call yourself liberal?
Thom Hartmann: If you go back in history, you'll discover that democracy came out of the liberals of the Enlightenment. The early liberal movement was the Enlightenment, Rousseau and John Locke, and Jefferson, and George Washington, Franklin, Paine, and Madison. They defined themselves as liberals. It was George Washington who famously said: "As Mankind becomes more liberal, they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protections of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations of justice and liberality."
BuzzFlash: Anyone who’s been politically involved will admit the Republicans have made the word “liberal” some sort of nasty word with all sorts of negative connotations. The Republicans have misled the masses as to their world view.
Thom Hartmann: It's a problem for America and for the Democratic Party.
BuzzFlash: But in regard to the DLC, the essential question is: Is it indeed just a tool of the corporate funding that it receives, and therefore its followers in the Democratic Party will take a pass on exposing the vast extent of the Enron betrayal of the American investor and stockholder? Or does the DLC honestly believe – that Americans will vote on "values" over their jobs and so forth, which is the Bush and Rove mantra – and that they have no ability to influence the thinking of that person. That seems to be the Democratic outlook.
Someone like Thomas Frank or David Sirota will say that’s just baloney. And we will say America is a country where you fight for leadership. You influence public opinion. That’s part of the great wrestling match of democracy and the great maelstrom of democracy, is that you fight. Your viewpoints influence public policy. You fight to win over the voter and to support what you think is correct leadership for the nation.
The Democrats seem to have abandoned that. They seem to feel, we have to adapt to the fixed thinking, and the fixed thinking is that moral values trump the economy, so we have to be very powerful on moral values. You have the Joe Bidens who say, well, the polling says Americans value national security, so I’d have to support that we need more troops for Iraq. Are they really that silly to think that they can’t influence public opinion?
Thom Hartmann: A couple of things are going on, I think. Number one, you have some people within the DLC, and Joe Lieberman would be one, who I think share the classic conservative world view that government is too important to leave to the rabble – that there has to be a governing elite. They’re willing to take the good and bad with the corporate powers or whatever powers there may be, if that’s going to further what in their view is the greater good or the national good.
I don’t think any of these DLC folks or Republicans or conservatives are bad or evil people. I don’t think any of them are anti-American or doing what they think is going to harm America. I think that it’s a genuine disagreement.
Again, I suspect it’s the classic conservative-liberal debate that goes back to Plato. Should government be something that’s broad and thin – not particularly deep, but very, very wide? Or should it be something that’s very deep but very narrow – that reaches deep into the population with lots of citizen involvement. My sense of it is that the DLC folks are more of the conservative mind view, that they'll give a lot of lip service to democracy, but they really believe that this is all about policy, number one.
Number two, the thing that the progressives within the Democratic Party apparently haven’t grasped – or if they have, they’ve simply been frustrated in their attempts to articulate it - is the power of incumbency and majority. The power of power itself. It aggregates. Over time, power adds to itself.
This is the thing that the Republicans really figured out with Reagan and his willingness to go to bat hard for very unpopular positions, like making abortion illegal or busting up unions. You never pass up a fight, even if you lose. Every time you have a fight, you get a little more power. And that power incrementally gets greater and greater and greater over time.
That’s the insanity of the Democratic position of saying, okay, we’re going to keep our powder dry on John Roberts, for example, until the next big fight. What happens if you stay out of the fight is that you actually lose power. If you have a fight, even if you lose a fight, you’re creating more power. You’re getting your voice out there. You’re getting your message out there. It’s another opportunity to speak out.
Look at how many times the Republicans have said, over and over and over again, starting back in the sixties, that government is bad. "Government is not the solution. You don’t want government taking care of things." Without saying the obvious, that, "Therefore, let’s replace government with corporate governance. Instead of the people’s elected officials, let’s replace government answerable to the people with corporate boards of directors."
They didn't win early on. They lost a lot! How many times did the Republicans have to say that before the Americans actually began to believe it? It was an entire generation. A full generation!
The Democrats have, at least since Clinton came along, stopped speaking up for traditional progressive and democratic values. They've stopped using every debate as an opportunity to speak out on behalf of those values.
That’s why the average person is uncertain of Democratic and liberal values. They have a sense of the Republicans as a repository of values, and that the Democrats aren’t, because they don't fight every fight, and use each one - even the losing ones - particularly the losing ones! - as a venue to get their values out there.
In part, of course, this is because conservative elements have infiltrated the Democratic Party. But it could also be that the DLC was able to come about because the Democrats stopped speaking up. It’s hard to tell which is the chicken and which is the egg. In any case, the result is that they haven’t been taking these opportunities to have the fight in which they can express their values. They're listening to idiot advisors who only know how to lose elections.
BuzzFlash: It should be pointed out that for two years, the Democratic leadership was constantly saying it wasn’t pursuing certain fights because it was holding its powder dry for a Supreme Court appointee.
Thom Hartmann: Right. Keep your powder dry, like it's a zero-sum game. Like you only have a certain amount of powder. That's nuts. The reality is that the more often you use your powder, the more powder you get.
BuzzFlash: And then they didn't pursue a battle against Roberts because "he’s not as far right as Bush might appoint."
Thom Hartmann: Well, at that point, you look at that party and you say, one of two things is going on here. Either some people in this party are seriously misguided, or you’ve got some people who are bent on the destruction of the party.
I don’t think Joe Lieberman said, "I think I’ll destroy the Democratic Party here, with this DLC stuff and keeping the powder dry." I think rather they’re saying to themselves, "You know, the Republicans are onto something with this idea of a governing elite – small government, and leave the commons to the corporations. We ought to just get on board with that." Over the last fifteen or twenty years, more and more Democrats have been embracing that notion of becoming Republican lite, and they've gained power within the Democratic Party. So you’ve got a party that’s essentially paralyzed – at war with itself.
BuzzFlash: Returning to these terms – progressive, liberal – to us those terms mean that a person is for democracy – is for the rabble deciding – and not for some elite, power-entrenched group in Washington who have cushy jobs. As you say, many Democratic Senators, as well as Republicans, feel they know better than the hoi polloi what should serve the nation. They may give lip service to democracy, but they believe that the inside the beltway creatures do know better. Consequently, nothing seems to really outrage the Democratic leadership. They’ve gotten a little feistier and a little more outspoken. But nothing of all these travesties over the last five years - nothing seems to outrage them.
Thom Hartmann: The problem is that these guys have lost their core ideology. It's like what Reagan said, and – really from Goldwater – that they had lost the Republican Party. I was 13 years old when I went door to door for Barry Goldwater. I read John Stormer’s None Dare Call it Treason, and I’d read Goldwater’s writings. I was really into it – you know, at the age of thirteen. And my dad was on the county Republican Party's board or whatever. And he’s still a Republican.
For me, three years later, I was out marching against the Vietnam War. Vietnam radicalized me. It caused me to awaken. But what inspired me about Goldwater in ’63 was that he had a philosophy and he wasn't ashamed of it, and it made a certain amount of sense. He lost the election but began the conservative takeover of the Republican party, just because of the power of his beliefs. It’s surprising to me how many people I run into who remember the early 60s who tell the same story. They will say, you know, yes, I started out with Goldwater, too, as a teenager.
BuzzFlash: That was the case with Hillary Clinton.
Thom Hartmann: Hillary Clinton and a surprising number of people I know in the progressive movement today. Anyhow, there was this sense of idealism, a vision of America, a sense of making a better country - this ideal that we had to take the country back from the elite. And, you know, at thirteen, I wasn’t particularly sophisticated, but I probably had the level of sophistication that the average person in America does right now. I was paying a lot of attention to politics then, but today the average person in America spends about two weeks every four years paying attention to politics. So you end up with the same level of political awareness. And that was an awakening for me, that politics meant something.
The Democrats had that with Franklin Roosevelt. They had a coherent world view. They had a philosophy. I mean, read Roosevelt’s acceptance speech in July of 1936, in Philadelphia, in its entirety, and it's amazing. You should permanently reprint it on BuzzFlash, because every progressive in general and every Democrat in particular should read that thing. It’s only three pages long. It’s absolutely mind-boggling. And it’s a statement of what it means to be a Democrat – a big "D" Democrat as well as a small "d" democrat. The Democratic Party lost that, in large part, I would say, somewhere in the sixties and seventies.
The Republican Party, on the other hand – they picked up a philosophy. They picked up an ideology. It came out of Russell Kirk’s book in 1953, The Conservative Mind. That book inspired Barry Goldwater. It inspired William F. Buckley. It inspired me. It inspired a lot of people who, in the early days were thinking, here’s an ideology. It continued to inspire the conservative movement, and there is no comparable bible of modern liberal thought unless you go back to that speech that Roosevelt gave, or you read the Founders.
We’re still working to create a Ten Commandments, some dos and don’ts. David Sirota, Thomas Frank, myself, BuzzFlash, and other folks are writing about this stuff. But we need to say, here's a coherent world view. This is the philosophy. This is what we’re all about – this is what we believe in.
BuzzFlash: These are the type of conversations that aren't held in the daily press and the media, because the news responds in six-hour cycles now.
Thom Hartmann: We get lost in the micro and forget the macro. I would also say that, in terms of the Democratic Party, what Roosevelt had done successfully was he had recaptured the spirit of Thomas Jefferson. He found it again. That’s why I so often write about Jefferson, and I’ve written about Roosevelt. I try to bring those things back because these are the roots of the party, and it resonates with the people.
BuzzFlash: At BuzzFlash we periodically get e-mails from right wingers who assert that our site and theories are based on completely faulty premises. We aren’t a "democracy," they write, we’re a "republic." This is something of a mantra on the right. Can you flesh that out? What does that code phrasing mean?
Thom Hartmann: There are two dimensions. The first is that, back around the time of the Gingrich revolution (which makes me think that it was Frank Luntz, since he was behind the wording of the Contract for America), someone in the Republican Party figured out that whenever you use the word "democratic" it makes people feel good, but when you say "democrat," it doesn't have as much juice. Even though the real and only name of the Democratic Party is "Democratic Party," Republicans started referring to the party as the "Democrat" party. They also refer to Democratic Party's policies as "democrat policies," because they found that, when you say "democrat," you get a more negative emotional response, because people think "politicians." When you say democrat-ic, you get a more positive emotional response because people think of the frame of democracy.
Gingrich Republicans started referring to "that democrat politician Harry Reid," for example, or, "that democrat idea." You’ll even see it in the Washington Post and other publications incorrectly, sometimes. You can always tell the partisan bias of somebody based on whether they’re using that or not, because that’s been drilled into the Republicans. You never refer to the Democratic Party. You never refer to Democratic principles or ideals. You always say Democrat policies and Democrat party.
Secondly, there was the idea that the word democracy sounds an awful lot like democratic, whereas the word republic sounds an awful lot like Republican. Therefore, when referring to our form of government, they feel it is better to convince people that we live in a republic than to convince people that we live in a democracy. If you convince people that we live in a democracy, it may seem that the Democratic Party knows more about it. And if we live in a republic, then probably the Republican Party should be in charge of it. This is the thinking and the plan. We’re talking about an actual game plan here.
But here’s the real history of republican democracy. This word smithing began in 1786, the year before the Constitution was to be drafted in Philadelphia. James Madison was finishing up five years of research into the Constitution. He had been designated as the guy who would not run, but instead would be largely responsible for the Constitutional Convention. That is why he is referred to as the father of the American Constitution. Back in 1786, if you looked in the dictionary under the word "republic" or under the word "democracy," you would have found the same definition. It would have said, "republic – see democracy; democracy – see republic." They were essentially the same thing. Plato’s Republic was about democracy, or about the problems of democracy in a republic.
One of the things they struggled with in putting together the Constitution of the United States was that Plato’s arguments against the Athenian democracy - that is, that democracy was essentially mob rule - actually had some cogency. In ancient Athens, it took 6,001 people to show up to pass a law. They could actually get 6,001 people together, and it could be a mob. To participate in that representative democracy in Athens, there was a sort of lottery, something like our jury duty. Everybody’s name was in it, and, when your name came up, you had to show up and be one of the 6001. If you didn’t show up and your name came up, then you were called one of the" idiota" – which is where we got the word "idiot" from.
The founders were looking at this and thinking, this is the only experiment in democracy that has ever happened in civilized society. There also was the example of the Iroquois Confederacy, which Madison relied heavily on, although they were very skeptical because it wasn’t European. They were looking at this and saying, we want to create a federal republic - a central government where you also have individual states - because they had a lot of geographic areas with a lot of differences, and they weren’t willing to homogenize themselves. By the way, the same debate is going on in Iraq right now.
America's founders came up with this idea of the representative democracy. The federal state is a republic, and the democracy would be a "representative" democracy. It was better than having all of us getting together and voting for a particular law. We would vote for a particular representative who would represent us. The only remnant of pure democracy in our system now is things like the California referendum system.
Remember, we were operating under the Articles of Confederation, and lots of people were all for keeping the Articles of Confederation with a weak federal government and strong states. They were markedly opposed to the Constitution being passed.
Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were on opposite sides of the debate about whether or not the rabble should be included. Hamilton was a conservative and Madison was a liberal, and they joined up together to do a sales job on the Constitution. Their sales job on the Constitution took the form of some 70 or 80 articles that today we refer to as The Federalist Papers. In late 1787, James Madison wrote one of the Federalist Papers in which he reinvented the terms "democracy" and "republic" intentionally to sell the Constitution to the average person in America. He said a democracy is mob rule and, Plato’s criticisms of it in Athens were probably valid, and we don’t want to have mob rule in the United States, but that's what the Articles of Confederation could lead to. Then he said a republic is more like rule by representatives, and the rights of the minorities are protected in a republic, which is what the Constitution he was trying to sell would do. In a democracy, he said, the rights of the minorities can be trampled. So he redefined these terms.
For the first forty years or so of America, from 1790 until about 1830, anybody who wanted to refer to this country in a favorable way referred to it as a republic. The people who are today’s Democratic Party – people like Jefferson – all referred to themselves as republicans – democratic republicans – because they combined the democratic faction with the republican faction.
Robert Dahl wrote a very interesting book called How Democratic is the American Constitution? He describes James Madison, in his aging days, writing a letter to a friend of his in which Madison says, "I kind of made up those distinctions between the words 'republic' and 'democracy,' but really what we now have is a democracy."
BuzzFlash: Even then, they were spinning.
Thom Hartmann: That’s right. The bottom line is that there is some truth to the idea that we live in a republic and not a democracy, inasmuch as we defend the rights of minorities and have a representative form of government based on the rule of law. But we also vote for our elected officials, which is one hallmark of a democracy. If you want to get super-technical in your rebuttal to these conservative writers who are quoting the Republican talking points, just say to them, "We live in a "constitutionally limited democratic republic." That’s technically right.
BuzzFlash: For the moment, let's just simplify the basic conflict of views between the pro-democracy forces and the right wingers. There are those who believe that we govern based on the people being given maximum information and then making a decision about their elected officials. Then you have, on the other side, the fringe of the Republican Party that says we are basically a country based on divine inspiration and guidance. Unless we adhere to certain standards, which they claim are in the Bible, then the American nation has gone astray from its original intentions. This group seeks to impose their moral vision on the rest of America. To us, this is as anti-democracy and elitist as you can get.
Thom Hartmann: You’ve opened two really important issues here. The first has to do with the question of whether or not the Constitution gives us rights. This is the fundamental difference in thinking between Scalia and Thomas, on the one hand, and everybody else in the Supreme Court, on the other.
Scalia has said, "If you want a right, pass a law. If you want the right to gay marriage, pass a law. If you want the right to an abortion, pass a law." He and Justice Thomas are both operating on the assumption that the Constitution gives us rights.
Now, during the preceding 7,000 years of what we call civilization, humans had labored under three primary forms of government - warlord kings, popes, and rule by the rich, known as feudalism. In each of these three forms of government, the government held the rights and distributed privileges to the people at will.
But the people did not have rights. They only had the privileges that the government decided to give them.
The radical notion on which this country was founded flipped that upside down to say that We, The People, will hold all the rights exclusively. Any time a bunch of the people get together and create an institution, whether that institution is a church or a corporation, or a civic club or even a government, that institution will only have privileges. And those privileges will be defined and limited by We The People.
A battle over this erupted in 1787. James Madison sent Jefferson, who was our envoy to France and living in Paris, a draft copy of the Constitution. Jefferson was Madison's mentor, and Madison mailed that to him, all proud of it. And Jefferson writes back to Madison and says, you know, this is all fine, and I like this and this and this. But he says, there’s one thing that I will not tolerate, and that’s that there’s no bill of rights attached to this Constitution. Madison writes back to him and says that the entire Constitution is a bill of rights. The first three words are “We The People.” Jefferson argues that future generations may forget that. So future generations don’t go astray and start thinking that the Constitution grants rights, we have to be sure to carve out these things that are absolutely vital for a democracy to thrive.
Then Alexander Hamilton gets into the act. One of the Federalist Papers that he writes argues against having a bill of rights in the Constitution. It’s fascinating to read because Hamilton goes into this long rant about how there’s no need for a bill of rights in the Constitution because the Constitution itself is a bill of rights. It begins with the words, “We The People.” All rights are reserved to the people, and therefore, there are no rights that the government has. The government only has privileges because we the people give them to it.
But Scalia and Thomas believe it’s the other way around. They believe that we have morphed ourselves back into that ancient form of government, that aristocratic form of government, where the government has the rights and they dole them out to the people as they choose. Scalia and Thomas feel the Bill of Rights defines the basic rights that the government has given us, which is exactly what Hamilton warned would happen if they put a Bill of Rights into the Constitution, by the way.
Tragically, the Scalia world view is growing – that the government determines what rights or privileges the people will have, and gives them to them. That’s a very dangerous thing for democracy.
BuzzFlash: Thom, thank you so much. This is the type of context that often gets lost.
Thom Hartmann: And we’ve just scratched the surface here.