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Love Me, Love Me, I’m a Leninist

Now that they’ve discovered the notion that a political party, faced with a dangerous political enemy, should suppress all internal criticism of its putative leader lest she be “harmed” by that criticism, and that the party should refrain from fractious internal debates lest it be ill-equipped to defeat the enemy, I wonder if liberals are rethinking their views on Lenin.

The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the Party.

Actually, by the standards of today’s liberal, Lenin’s strictures come off as relatively benign. He at least called for “universal and full freedom to criticise” the party unless and until that criticism threatened “the unity of an action decided on by the Party.”

Whereas the Democrats haven’t even yet decided on Clinton, and we’re already being told that any criticism of her in anticipation of that decision will threaten the party’s ability to act upon that decision once it is made.

Speaking of that language of harm — the New York Times headline reads, “Bernie Sanders, Eyeing Convention, Willing to Harm Hillary Clinton in the Homestretch,” and the article repeats the charge — I’m reminded of the language Justice Scalia used in the Bush v. Gore case in order to grant a stay to the Florida recount.

The counting of votes that are of questionable legality does in my view threaten irreparable harm to petitioner [Bush].

Despite all the obvious differences in the two situations, I’m struck by the similarity: in both cases, it’s being argued that democratic rules and norms should give way to — indeed, might harm — the personal needs and concerns of the candidate.

During the early republic, UCLA political scientist Karen Orren has argued, the prerogatives of political office were thought to be a kind of personal property right, something that belonged to the officeholder.

In the nineteenth century, those “officers’ rights” slowly began to give way — under pressure from democratic movements from below — to a notion of citizens’ rights. Matters of state, in other words, weren’t to be viewed through the prism of their effects upon the officeholder; they were to be understood from the vantage of the democratic citizen and the needs of a democratic polity.

Now, apparently, we’re returning to the earlier view of politics. Now we’re expected to view matters of state through the eye of the officeholder. Now we’re expected to consider how an insistence that we count all votes in Florida — or see a primary campaign through its end — helps or harms the fate, the personal fate, of the officeholder. Or would-be officeholder.

There are many words for that type of political system. Democracy is not one of them.