The Federalist Society Isn’t Quite Sure About Democracy Anymore
That approach made sense for conservatives when they still saw the federal judiciary as a liberal force dragging the country to the left. But now that conservatives have secured a solid majority on the Supreme Court — and voters in several red states have soundly rejected hard-line positions on abortion — a spirited debate is underway within the Federalist Society about the wisdom of deferring to democratic majorities as a matter of principle.
“From our very beginning, there has been an aspect of judicial restraint, and there has been an aspect that it’s judges’ jobs to interpret the Constitution, that whatever it says, that’s what they should do — and those two can sometimes be in tension,” said Eugene Meyer, the president and CEO of the Federalist Society, as we spoke in a back hallway of the conference center.
I had only convinced Meyer to talk with me after assuring him and his handler that I wasn’t trying to back him into answering specific questions about cases currently before the Court. At Meyer’s urging, the society goes to great lengths to emphasize that it does not take policy positions or weigh in on the merit of individual cases, preferring to present itself as a neutral “debate society” for right-leaning intellectuals. But Meyer — who tapped his foot nervously as we spoke — was willing to admit that the intellectual winds within the organization are shifting.
“I think it would be fair to say there’s been some movement over time more in the direction of interpreting the Constitution and less in the direction of pure judicial restraint,” he told me.
When I spoke with Blackman, the South Texas college of law professor, he noted that that tension was neatly captured in two of the headline-making decisions that went conservatives’ way in the last Supreme Court term. In the Dobbs ruling, the conservative majority returned the abortion question to state legislatures, limiting federal judges’ role in determining the extent of reproductive rights. Meanwhile, in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen — which struck down a New York law that set the requirements for individuals to receive a concealed carry permit for handguns — the Court trumped the decision of a state legislature in favor of conservatives’ preferred reading of the Second Amendment.
But Blackman’s assessment of the direction of the intellectual current within the Federalist Society was even more candid than Meyer’s.
“The norm that judges be restrained and moderate — that ship has sailed,” he said.
Inside the cavernous ballroom, panelists took turns delivering their remarks from a raised platform, flanked on one side by the American flag and by Texas’s Lone Star Flag on the other. The symposium is hosted by a different law school every year, but there was a tidy irony to the fact that this year’s gathering landed in Texas, which has in recent years seen an influx of conservative transplants seeking refuge from what they see as the insanity and insipient authoritarianism of Blue America.
“Democracy is what philosophers call an ‘essentially contested concept,’” said Daniel Lowenstein, a professor of law emeritus at UCLA and an expert in election law, during a panel on Friday evening. “Differences that seem on their surface to concern the meaning of the word ‘democracy’,” he added, are actually struggles to advance particular and controversial political ideas.”
What democracy does not mean, Lowenstein argued, was “plebiscitary democracy,” or simple rule by democratic majorities. Citing the Federalist Papers — the namesake of the Federalist Society — Lowenstein suggested that governance based on simple mathematical majorities would enable “tyrannical domination of the minority by the majority.”
“The assumption that only plebiscitary forms [of government] are truly democratic is fallacious, and should be openly and directly contested by those supporting non-plebiscitary positions,” he added.
Behind me, somebody whispered, “We’re a republic, not a democracy” — a tongue-in-cheek slogan that some conservatives have adopted as a way to slyly signal their approval of minority rule.
Later on in the same panel, Joel Alicea, a law professor at the Catholic University of America, diagnosed the apparent threats facing American democracy today — political violence, abuses of governmental power, and attempted election subversion, to name a few — as symptoms of a deeper malaise.
“At this point in our society, we can’t even agree whether somebody is a man or a woman, which suggests such a deep level of moral disagreement — and even disagreement about basic notions of reality — that to say that society can form an overlapping consensus is hopelessly naive,” he said. Faced with such fundamental disagreements, Alicea said that citizens have to choose between two approaches: coercion, suppressing disagreements by means of force and intimidation, or conversion, the slow and steady work of persuading people who disagree with you to come around to your point of view.
Alicea advised the attendees to embrace conversion rather than coercion, but in the question-and-answer session after the panel, an audience member proposed a third option: a full-scale national divorce, of the sort recently proposed by Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.