One of the biggest recent innovations in academia is scholars emphasizing the power of language—how the words we use define the way we think and act. Coincidentally or not, this innovation has occurred as the types of bureaucratic institutions which sponsored it, joined by allies in the press, have begun aggressively using words to try to shape how we think and act about politics.
Particularly since the Trump administration, no word has been more “shaped” or warped by these administrators, academics, and journalists than “democracy.” This summer, they’re at it again.
A Crisis ‘Round Every Corner
The most recent push began with the New York Times, which informed readers in late July that if President Trump wins reelection he is “planning a sweeping expansion of presidential power …end[ing]…Justice Department independence,” and would exert authority over “independent agencies” which are answerable to both President and Congress (and so effectively answerable to neither).
A second, simultaneous push came in Washington’s premiere establishment magazine, the Atlantic, in a “must-read” story by prominent journalist-intellectual Anne Applebaum asking, “Is Tennessee a Democracy?” The article described Republicans’ use of state government to secure favorable electoral maps, a common practice by the party in power in every state.
Soon, established media headlines were proclaiming that democracy was in danger and accusing Tennessee of Trump-style “authoritarianism” while Democrats protested that “[government] agencies keep this democracy in check . . . they provide the checks and they provide the balances!”
A week later in the Atlantic, academic authority weighed in: Eminent historian of the Holocaust Christopher Browning explicitly used both stories to argue that Trump is a fascist—the ultimate threat to democracy. Soon after another historian argued in the Washington Post that overturning democracy and installing authoritarianism has been Republicans’ goal for 50 years.
But all these assertions and amplifications masked the fact that the definitions of “democracy” they were operating on were, at the very least, open to debate. Their first definition was impartiality—administrative agencies staffed by “independent experts” or “neutral arbiters” weighing issues and deciding on them. Their second was “equal access”—these “experts” or “arbiters” involving themselves in state politics to guarantee access to the vote.
Do these definitions sound strange? They should.
What Say the Founders?
Those idealized definitions are nowhere in the Constitution, which secures democracy by allowing people a regular voice in their government based on checks and balances. At the national level, government agencies are answerable to a president elected by the people; a duly elected Congress allocates funds but doesn’t direct agencies; and the Judiciary rules on the constitutionality of government actions but doesn’t enforce them.
At the same time, state governments regulate elections, health and morals, checking the federal government and keeping politics closer to the local level and Americans’ daily lives. This is why our system was constructed and how it was understood: Democracy was the institutionalized will of the people, no matter whether a person believed in more government or less.
But the Times, Applebaum, and Browning are going off of their own idea of democracy—one with much shallower roots. Those roots are in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the administrative state expanded and administrators, often with connections to universities or government-backed conglomerates, began pushing back on the president and Congress and overruling states in the name of ideals like “impartiality” and “equality.”
These ideals got picked up by newspapers, since the administrators sourced reporters and columnists who were trying to shape Americans’ views. Though shifts this vast and quiet are hard to quantify, it’s not a coincidence that New York Times references to “civil servants” and “administrators” climbed sharply in the 1970s, just as reporters started making the main players in their stories bureaucrats rather than the people’s representatives.
Trump Strikes Back
Why are major newspapers and respected thinkers taking this line today? Because their power and influence are being threatened by the movement awakened by President Trump, whose administration began restoring the older definition of democracy.
Trump used his executive authority to reduce administrators’ power and appoint judges who return power to the states, along with curbing the power of government-underwritten institutions like elite universities.
In response, the university-and-media complexes have gone on the attack in support of the administrators, of which July’s are only the latest examples. Over the past six years, reporters have referenced “equal access” to the vote to justify national interference in states, and “experts” have regularly labeled Trump an “authoritarian”—a label which, according to LexisNexis, has surged over the last decade.
Meanwhile, President Biden’s unilateral and drastic actions which expand the power of administrative agencies are reframed using “democratic” ideals of “impartiality” and “equality.” In this read, Biden’s attempted forgiveness of billions of dollars in student loan debt without the approval of Congress, which constitutionally holds the power of the purse, is an “agonized” but “target[ed]” decision empowering “expert” administrators to give young people an “equal shot.”
The end stage of this vision of democracy is chilling, because it makes power subject not to constitutional processes but to grants from unaccountable bureaucrats in partnership with politicians who want to give them more power.
As Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez (CA) recently said in defense of administrators’ policing of “vaccine disinformation,” “No right given to the people of the United States is absolute.”
That’s not what most Americans believe about their democracy—but this is the definition being pushed on an exhausted public by institutions and their operators who claim intellectual authority. Republicans need to start boring into this definition and exposing its logical, inevitable dangers.
Matt Wolfson is an investigative journalist currently finish a history of America’s managerial elite. His work can be found here.