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Will Gilmore's Promised Land be democracy or just rule by a new machine?

Meet the New Boss


In the biblical story of Exodus, God rebuked Moses for his pride by denying him the right to enter the Promised Land. He could peer from the mountaintop, but not cross over Jordan.

Gov. Jim Gilmore may have occasion to envy Moses over the next two years. Prophets are not accountable; politicians are. Moses never had to deal with voters who found the milk sour and the honey a bit thin.

Gilmore got a taste of the ingratitude of a stiff-necked people even as he stood on the mountaintop election night of last year. Seeing the Republican legislative majority he had yearned for, he cried out (in the words of the old spiritual), "Free at last! Free at last!"

Critics immediately blasted his impudence in comparing the triumph of a largely white political party with the multiracial vision of Dr. Martin Luther King. But these attacks missed the point. Anyone who has studied the governor's career knows that he feels as strongly about displacing the Democratic Party as civil rights leaders felt about the end of Jim Crow.

To Gilmore, the Democratic party and its unbroken domination of the General Assembly were an affront to democracy. He earnestly believed that today's rather mild-mannered, biracial legislative Democrats were the direct heirs of the ferocious oligarchs who ran Virginia under the Byrd machine.

As history, to be sure, that is spreading it on a bit thick. But buried in the rhetoric is a genuine and profound point about the nature of democracy. Sir Karl Popper, the philosopher, noted that there are two questions to ask about government, one liberating and the other delusive. If we ask, "How can we keep power in the right hands?" we are courting disaster, for no answer will produce truly democratic institutions. If we ask "How can we solve our problems and avoid tyranny?" we are on the path to freedom.

For this reason, it is probably less important to choose good leaders than just to replace them regularly. No society can be truly free without real succession in office. That's because a single group cannot govern well forever, or even for very long. Only periodic changes — new people to correct the mistakes of the old ones — can ensure that a seemingly democratic system does not decay into elected authoritarianism.

From this point of view, even those who don't share the rather limited policy vision of the GOP should admit that it is good for them to have their chance in the Capitol. A few years out of power may render Virginia's Democrats as hungry and creative as their rivals have been for the past decade; then we will see true political competition at every level of state politics.

But the next few years will also test the sincerity of Gilmore's vision. He has never been quite clear about whether the Promised Land is a genuinely democratic state or simply a new machine with Republicans in charge. While no one doubts the sincerity of his disdain for Democratic bosses, he may in fact simply aspire to replace them with his own kind.

A few years ago, a group of state employees suggested to Gilmore that they be given a chance to evaluate their supervisors. The idea bemused him. "I'm kind of a chain-of-command guy," he replied. Indeed, Gilmore sometimes sees chains of command where others might see a free society. He sometimes acts as if members of the General Assembly and appointees to independent state boards are his personal retainers rather than employees of the people. Those who think for themselves face not only his wrath but sometimes his retaliation.

But on this side of Jordan there is no chain of command. We all sit under our own vines and fig trees, and when we offer our views and our talents in the cause of self-government, none shall make us afraid. Governors, as Henry Howell used to say, are our servants and amenable to us — and in Virginia, they are servants with rather short tenure at that.

As his days in office wane, Gilmore may learn that not even Gideon's army will follow him without a bit more persuasion than he seems inclined to provide.

How can we tell whether life in the Promised Land is better than it was in bad old Democratic Egypt? Legislative Democrats may have been rather high-handed with the minority in the past; let us see whether Republicans can refrain from shutting out their enemies — and, of course, the constituents they represent — from a meaningful share in deliberations. If judicial appointments have gone too often to Democratic loyalists to the exclusion of other deserving candidates, will the new leadership genuinely open the bench to merit or simply award these plums to different loyal mediocrities? If the Democrats misused the power of apportionment to skew the balance of power in electoral districts, surely Republicans will want to use it differently — to make sure that communities are represented fairly, even if that raises the prospect of defeat for some favored incumbents.

These are austere commandments for a party and a leader who have wandered in the wilderness for decades. But real democracy is a jealous master; its people may not worship the golden calves of patronage, group rule, and revenge. Not even Moses could live by divine commandments all the time. But those who take on the prophet's mantle must be judged by otherworldly standards.

Has Jim Gilmore led us to the land of milk and honey? Or is he Pharaoh by another name?

Garrett Epps is associate professor of law at the University of Oregon and visiting associate professor of law at Boston College Law School. A native of Richmond, he writes frequently about Virginia politics.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

copyright © 2000 by Garrett Epps

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