What should politically vanquished people do? Should they resist the political status quo no matter what, or accept it in the spirit of civil comity and bide their time for the next election? What if their political fortunes are waning, and they are ever less likely to prevail politically? What rights and power do seemingly permanent political minorities (e.g. libertarians) possess? At what point is open rebellion permitted in a supposed democracy, and how do we judge principled resistance as opposed to sour grapes from political losers?
Furthermore, what can political majorities rightfully do-- in spite of a minority's strident opposition-- and what policies cannot be altered regardless of majority consensus? What spoils rightfully belong to political victors, and what longstanding rules should not be upended?
These are uneasy questions in the Age of Trump, especially since western governments long ago abandoned constitutional restraints and the cliched "rule of law" in favor or administrative governance by bureaucratic managers. Democracy, at least the mass variety practiced in modern western welfare states, provides no satisfactory answers. Are those unelected managers bound by popular will, or much of anything? What restrains the state?
Ludwig von Mises, a robust social theorist in addition to his staggering work in economics, saw these issues clearly. Despite--or perhaps because-- he witnessed the ravages of actual combat in the Great War, he chose to use the language of warfare in describing the plight of political minorities:
It was liberalism that created the legal form by which the desire of the people to belong or not to belong to a certain state could gain expression, viz., the plebiscite. The state to which the inhabitants of a certain territory wish to belong is to be ascertained by means of an election. But even if all the necessary economic and political conditions (e.g., those involving the national policy in regard to education) were fulfilled in order to prevent the plebiscite from being reduced to a farce, even if it were possible simply to take a poll of the inhabitants of every community in order to determine to which state they wished to attach themselves, and to repeat such an election whenever circumstances changed, some unresolved problems would certainly still remain as possible sources of friction between the different nationalities. The situation of having to belong to a state to which one does not wish to belong is no less onerous if it is the result of an election than if one must endure it as the consequence of a military conquest... To be a member of a national minority always means that one is a second-class citizen. (italics added)
The almost unbelievable rancor surrounding the Trump administration demonstrates precisely how little even rich westerners really revere democracy when they don't like its results. Anti-Trump forces indeed consider themselves conquered, feeling suddenly like second-class citizens in a country they thought they knew (one where an inevitable "progressive" arc would of course elect Ms. Clinton). They don't accept Trump any more than they would accept the head of a hostile and occupying foreign power. But rejecting the outcome of elections is strange position for Clinton supporters, a candidate who frequently gushed about "our sacred democracy."
The same can be said for the Brexit referendum in the UK and rising anti-immigration sentiment across continental Europe-- both pilloried as sinister and ill-intentioned populism as opposed to noble expressions of "the people" exercising their democratic rights. But populism is just democracy delivered good and hard, and technocratic administrators are correctly portrayed as gross hypocrites who use the veneer of democratic support only when it bolsters what they plan to do anyway.
Democracy, far from yielding compromise and harmony, pits Americans against each other while creating a permanent bureaucratic class. All of this is understandable and predictable from a libertarian perspective. Only libertarians make the consistent case against democratic mechanisms, and consider freedom from state power as far more important than majority consensus. Freedom isn't up for a vote, as the hopeful saying goes. Liberty-- properly understood as nothing more and nothing less than freedom from the state-- is the highest political end.
But we don't live in a free world, and most people are not ideological libertarians. Most people, though far less thoughtful, are (small d) democrats like Mises himself. In the interwar years, following the collapse of European monarchies and the rise of Nazism in Germany, Mises saw democracy as nothing short of the societal mechanism for avoiding further wars and bloodshed:
Democracy is that form of political constitution which makes possible the adaptation of the government to the wishes of the governed without violent struggles. If in a democratic state the government is no longer being conducted as the majority of the population would have it, no civil war is necessary to put into office those who are willing to work to suit the majority. By means of elections and parliamentary arrangements, the change of government is executed smoothly and without friction, violence, or bloodshed.
Nearly 100 years later we might wonder if he would still write those words today, having seen the 20th and now 21st centuries unfold. In hindsight they seem unduly optimistic. We'll never know, of course. and even the most doctrinaire anarchist can admit democracy played a part in the success of America and the West.
But there have been both literal and figurative casualties along the way, and more will become apparent in the coming decades. The elite western consensus, favoring globalism, a vague "neoliberalism," and social democracy will butt up against nationalist and breakaway impulses. Whether "democracy" will be permitted when it goes against elite sentiment is very much an open question, and people are not so easily fooled that globalist projects are in any way democratic.
It's vitally important to understand that Mises saw self-determination as the highest political end, and thus strongly argued against universalism and in favor of political subdivision wherever needed and feasible. Reordering political arrangements by creating smaller units, or abandoning them altogether via secession, was Mises's answer to the question of how political minorities could be protected. Breakaway movements were the safety valve in Mises's conception of democracy:
The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars.
At some point Americans of all ideological stripes have to ask themselves a question: if one really believes 30 or 40 or 50 percent of the population is beyond redemption, utterly immoral, stupid, fascist, racist, or communist, what should be done? Should they be killed? Deported? Herded into camps? Re-educated against their will until they vote correctly? Forced into low-caste status, politically, socially, and economically? Tolerated, but punished in future elections?
Or should we listen to Mises, and elevate political separation, federalism, and localism to the highest political principles?
Top-down rule from DC isn't working, and in fact it's making people miserable and ready to think unthinkable thoughts about civil war. Pro-Trump and anti-Trump sentiment is destroying social cohesion, the real "law" in any society. And for what? Miniscule policy differences between two parties that will never lift a finger against war, state power, entitlements, or the Fed?
It takes 70 million votes to control the White House, and the (deep) administrative state may be beyond the reach of even an overwhelming political majority. No matter where you sit ideologically, the risk of becoming a marginalized political minority grows as state power grows. It is time to stop trying to capture DC and start talking about realistic breakaway or federalist solutions, even under the umbrella of an ongoing federal state. The elections of 2018 and 2020 won't settle our problems, but only make them worse. At least 50 or 60 million Americans, a group far larger than most countries, will be politically disenfranchised and ruled by a perceived hostile government no matter what candidates or parties prevail.
If breaking up seems unthinkable, so does civil war. Is it written in stone that 330 million people must live under one far-flung federal jurisdiction, no matter what, forever?