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What Is Democracy?

Edited image by Bruce Stokes via Flickr. Edited image by Bruce Stokes via Flickr.

The following is an excerpt from Chilton Williamson's book, After Tocqueville.

For Francis Fukuyama, liberal capitalist democracy is the highest, most humanly fulfilling, and historically favored form of government, likely to endure in fact and as ideal so far as the prophetic eye can see. Of course, democracy’s worth can be evaluated only by comparison with the virtues inherent in those other possible forms of government, which appear to be limited. Walter Bagehot listed four: the parliamentary, the presidential, the hereditary, and the dictatorial, or revolutionary, systems. To these we may add the modern corporate state, exemplified by China and Russia and toward which the United States seems to be tending, and ideological totalitarianism, which Hannah Arendt called the last political form of government to have been devised since nationalism. Of his four types of government, Bagehot clearly considered the first two to be democratic in essence.

But what is democracy?

The question is unanswerable: there is no longer (if indeed there ever were) an agreed-upon definition or description of this historically odd political system that began as an ideal, developed into an idol, and has now become an international commodity of sorts. Over the past two centuries, the word democracy has grown increasingly elastic: ever more subjective, relativistic, and impressionistic, until today it is really a sort of Rorschach blot. Most recently, it has fallen victim to the verbal dishonesty Orwell condemned when he warned that, when words lose their meaning, men lose their freedom. What has happened to democracy is the same thing as has befallen the word marriage: both nowadays are applied in a manner that ignores, even defies, the original intended meaning of the term. Democracy is perhaps most easily defined by what it is not; yet what it is not is very often what it is called. Bertrand de Jouvenel thought democracy to be so indefinite a term as to make every attempt to define it futile.

“Democracy,” said G. K. Chesterton, “is the enthronement of the ordinary man; if it is not that, what is it?” C. S. Lewis reduced democracy to the practice of voting. The twentieth-century French philosopher Jacques Ellul argued that the word was meaningless if not based upon a notion of “complete individual liberty.” Samuel P. Huntington followed Joseph Schumpeter in thinking that democracy is basically procedural (though Schumpeter also dismissed it as rule by the politician); for the American scholar Robert Dahl it is a matter of contestation and participation. Christopher Lasch called democracy a description of the therapeutic state; “Populism,” he added, “is the authentic voice of democracy.” The journalist Alan Wolfe understands democracy as individual self-fulfillment, facilitated by government. The British political theorist John Dunn defines it as political authority wielded through the persuasion of the larger number and observes that Athenian democracy was heavily dependent upon that political art. An American Europeanist, Roland Stromberg, holds that modern democracy amounts to an insistence on personal liberties, or what in the nineteenth century was called liberalism. The eminent political scientist Kenneth Minogue associates it with what he calls “politico-moral” thinking in search of collective social salvation, and a transforming ideal of social life. And the late philosopher John Rawls insisted that political liberty, or “democracy,” depends upon each citizen’s enjoying a fair opportunity to hold public office and to exert an influence in political decisions.

A problem, noted by Pierre Manent, is that the principle of democracy fails to specify an operational framework for itself. Hence the question whether democracy indicates a type of government or simply a set of political values, or if it might be considered rather as a secondary result of other, nonpolitical, activities. If that is so, one might conclude either that democracy is an expression of modernity or that the two are the same thing. (Father John Courtney Murray in the 1950s described communism as political modernity pressed to its logical conclusion, however unintentionally.) I suggest that “democracy” has become a never-ending attempt, based on the conviction that the politically impossible is actually being realized, to square the circle. “Democracy,” really, is no longer a political concept at all; rather it is a shorthand term for universal human bliss. So democracy today is simply a synonym for utopia.

Original definitions, being root definitions, are significant. Plato meant by democracy “a state in which the poor, gaining the upper hand, kill some and banish others, and then divide the offices among the remaining citizens equally, usually by lot.” Aristotle described it as a perversion of government of the many, in which the constitution or polity had been diverted from a concern for the general welfare to a sole regard for the wants and interests of the needy. After the ancient philosophers, the classical republican statesmen and writers are worth consulting on the matter—in particular the American Founders, who agreed with James Madison that a democracy is the political constitution established by a society few enough in numbers to allow each member of the polity a direct and personal voice in deciding public questions, and confined to a commensurate territorial jurisdiction. Hence, according to the Founders’ understanding, the government they sought to establish was a republic and not a democracy at all. (Owing to their deliberate intent to exclude the majority of ordinary people from fully democratic participation in the affairs of government, the Constitutional Convention was, in truth, more Aristotelian than it is usually given credit for being.)

In the end, no one, perhaps, has better defined or described democracy in terms more widely acceptable to the average democrat than James Bryce, the British scholar and warm advocate of democratic government, as it existed in North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries especially. “Where the will of the whole people,” he wrote, “prevails in all important matters, even if it has some retarding influences to overcome, or is legally required to act for some purposes in some specially provided manner, that may be called democracy.” (Bryce’s description of the democrat himself is touching in its simplicity: “a person of a simple and friendly spirit and genial manners, ‘a good mixer,’ one who, whatever his wealth or status, makes no assumption of superiority and carefully keeps himself on the level of his poorer and less eminent neighbors.”) One is tempted to add, “and where the freedom of every citizen is preserved from abuse of power,” yet the theoretical and historical grounds for the extension do not exist. Montesquieu warned against the error of confusing the power of the people with the liberty of the people, and he was right to do so. Jouvenel thought that the confusion between the two lay at the root of modern despotism. For democracy, of itself, is neither liberal nor conservative. It is perfectly possible for the democratic state to frame an illiberal society, as was the case with Germany under the Third Reich, when “democracy” was for German Aryans only. This is but one reason why freedom and democracy are today almost meaningless words.

The ultimate definition of democracy, I believe, is that it is a false religion—a proposition I shall consider at length further on in this book. For now, we note simply that “democracy” is a form of government based upon faith. “The sole fact that liberalism is against what it recognizes as religious,” the contemporary scholar J. Budziszewski notes, “need not prevent it from being a religion—provided that it does not perceive what it is.”


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