Chilton Williamson, Jr. is a
prolific author of both fiction and non-fiction who has worked as an editor for
St. Martin’s Press, National Review,
and, since 1989, Chronicles: A Magazine
of American Culture, published by the Rockford Institute. His most
recent book is After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy
(ISI, 2012), which John Willson, professor emeritus of history at Hillsdale
College, describes as “the best book on democracy in the past hundred years.”
Williamson’s novel Mexico Way,
will be published in the spring of 2013 by Chronicles Press
Books. Williamson recently granted an interview to Carl E. Olson, editor
of Catholic World Report, about the
nature, difficulties, myths, history, and future of democracy.
CWR: There is constant talk about “democracy,” to the point that most
people assume there surely is a clear and common agreement about what that word
means. But is there? Can we locate an adequate and widely accepted definition?
There is no “adequate and widely accepted definition” of democracy, and hasn’t
been for many, many decadesif, indeed, ever. The most common understanding,
strikingly phrased by Abraham Lincoln, is that democracy is “government of the
people, by the people, and for the people.” “Democracy,” Chesterton said, “is
the enthronement of the ordinary man. If it is not that, what is it?” (C.S.
Lewis thought it reducible to the practice of voting.) Of course, government,
in any but a tiny society, cannot in practice be run “by the people” (at best,
it can be managed by representatives chosen by the people), while there is
similarly no way to “enthrone” the ordinary man save in the most metaphorical
way. Since 1789, “democracy” has meant simply what whoever employs the termor
the society he lives inmeans by it. My own definition of modern democracy is “utopia”:
a society that has achieved complete equality and justice and in which no man
lacks for anything he wants, or decides he wants in future.
CWR: As you demonstrate, it wasn't that long ago that democracy was
considered impractical if not impossible. What changed? How did democracy
become such a central notionor even sacred beliefin the West? Why are we so
enamored with “Democracy”?
Democracy became a centraland, as you say, actually a sacrednotion when
modern democrats lost touch with metaphysical reality to the point where they
could no longer apprehend the reality of the human condition. When God “died,”
and human beings discovered themselves, as they think, capable of realizing the
Christian God’s plan for His Creation without His help and strictly by their
own efforts (meaning scientific and pseudo-scientific means, like sociology)that
is when “Democracy” became, for them, a fully realizable goal.
CWR: Alexis de Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America
expressed the belief that democracy was inevitable in the United States. But if
Tocqueville traveled our nation today, what might be his reaction? What would
probably bother him most?
If Tocqueville were to return to America today (as Bernard-Henri Lévy, the
French savant, tried imaginatively to do a few years ago), he would be struck
by several things, all of them in his opinion regrettable. The first would be
the centralizationpolitical, cultural, and intellectualof modern American
society, a tendency he deplored in the France of his day. Another would be the
tyranny of majority opinion and the stultification of popular thought he
predicted (in Democracy in America)
would occur under American democracy. Still another would have to do with the
corruption of honest and orthodox Christian belief in the United States by
modern, or “advanced,” liberal thought. Tocqueville would also view with
despair the bureaucratization of government and society he further predicted
for American democracythe replacement of a free citizenry by the soft,
tutelary despotism he also foresaw. Finally (in terms of this list, not of the
many further possibilities I can imagine) he would take disapproving note of
the election, by the government (Brecht’s excellent phrase, out of context), of
a new polyglot American people imported from all over the world to replace the
original, more or less homogenous European population that arrived in the New
World “completely civilized,” as he said, and therefore in no need of
instruction in the fundamental beliefs and practices that make democracy
possible and created it in the first place.
CWR: Tocqueville, as you explain, saw the flaws and weaknesses in
democracy, including the possibility of a form of democratic totalitarianism.
How is it possible that democracy can lead to a totalitarian state? Have we
arrived there already?
Democracy leads to totalitarianism chiefly through an unswerving and
single-minded dedication on the part of its elected leaders to achieve total “democratic”
equality for its citizens. Democracy is totalitarian to the degree that it is
an equalitarian project.
CWR: How has the rise of relativism and a slow-burning revolt against
Christianity undermined and transformed democracy? Is it possible to have a
democratic state without a foundation of Judeo-Christian beliefs?
A democratic state is indeed possible without a grounding in Christian belief,
though it is unlikely to survive long without the formative influence that
brought it into existence in the first place. Democracy is based on and
expresses a commitment to civility, a quality that traces essentially from the classical
world and was subsequently reinforced by the Christian notion of chivalry.
Without civility and chivalry, attempts to create or sustain democracy go the
way of those destructive efforts we are currently witnessing in the Arab world,
where civility toward anyone who disagrees with you is literally unthinkable.
It is possible also to have democracy without liberalism (itself a
perversion of Christian social and political thought), as the history of the
Third Reich demonstrates. In Europe, democracy followed the socialistic path;
in the US, the nationalist one. Both socialism and nationalism are natural
tendencies in democracy. Put them together, as Hitler did, and you have
National Socialism. Nazi Germany, indeed, was a realized democracy for Aryans
and Christianswhile excluding and persecuting everyone else. But there was
nothing “undemocratic” in this exclusion. It was simply an application of the
majority will, of which democracy is supposed to be the expression.
The germ of After
Tocqueville was the intuition that “democracy,” from the very beginning,
has been a revolt against authority, both human and Divine, as the history of
the Middle Agesthe unrelenting attack upon the social and political authority,
first of the monarchs, then of the Churchshows.
The contemporary French political philosopher Claude Polin
correctly argues that democracy sets the will of the majority above the will of
God. The more the democratic majority becomes unchallengeable, the more divine
authority is subject to dismissal by that majority. And the more the democratic
majority dismisses Christian moral and social teaching, the more it weakens the
democracy it represents.
CWR: What are the key differences between a democracy and a republic?
And how and why are the differences important for Americans today?
The idea of a republic is a classical notion, arising from the Greek city
states and based on the classical understanding of what men areof human nature
as unchanging and universal. It is thus fundamentally a religious concept,
wholly alien to the modern democratic idea. While the terms “republic” and “democracy”
are often conflated, Polin insists that the two things are actual opposites. A
republic, he says, is “the unity of a diversity” in which a balance is struck
between private and public, local and central, interests. Republicans are
independent, but do not value their freedom as individuals above their
membership in the community. A republic is a middle-class society founded on an
agrarian interest that does not hold one man’s interest at the expense of
another man. It is a community on a small geographical scale, allowing its
citizens a familiarity with one another. And it is characterized by minimum
government, whose actions do not depend for their legitimacy upon the citizens’
political participation in the decisions leading up to them. The leaders of a
republic are intellectually and morally prominent people, and popular
participation is chiefly by representation. Clearly, this description of a
republic is not congruent with democracy as the word has been used since 1789;
yet it was a “republic,” and not a “democracy,” that the American Founders
sought to achieve. Their vision was maintained until the 1830s by the
Federalist Party, when it was finally swamped by the naturally more popular
(and populist) democratic one.
The political philosopher Donald W. Livingston holds that the
political history of the United States consists of a series of attempts to
reconcile the Founders’ misapplication of the republican ideal to the immense
size of the territory the Constitution proposed to govern. The better modern
day Americans understand this fact, the better they are equipped to come to
terms with their history, understand contemporary problems for what they are,
grapple with these, and devise solutions for them.
CWR: You argue we have witnessed, in the 20th century, the rise of the
“modern leviathan state,” and now we are witnessing the rise of “corporate-state
societies.” What does this mean for the future of democracy in the US and the
West in general?
I believe the future for liberal capitalist democracy in American and the West
is very dim, for several reasons. One is the scale of modern societies,
beginning with their mass populations that must somehow be more and more
tightly governed as they become increasingly hedonistic and irresponsible,
practically and morally speaking. Another is industrialism and technology,
which demand a counterweight to their growing public powera counterweight that
can only be government. At the same time, government cannot successfully manage
the great corporations to produce either efficiency or profit, a fact which
results in a fusing of the two and the pooling of their expertise and
powersomething that has been happening, of course, since the late 19th
century. Moreover, the degradation of the natural world by industrialism and
over-population (not in Christian terms, of course, but in ecological ones)
demands a coordinated response by powerful governments internationallya
response which, though it appears to be an international moral obligation, is
impossible to coordinate politically and defies all imaginable scientific
knowledge and technique.
In short, human society in the post-modern age has arrived at such
a state of unfathomable complexity that it is today ungovernable and
unmanageable at the same time. This will not prevent governments, of course,
from trying both to govern and to managea collective effort that will lead
eventually to a paradoxical social condition in which chaos exists alongside of
despotism. In other words, something like contemporary Russia and the Republic
of China, raised to the nth degree.
CWR: In recent weeks, riots, violence, and murder have “broken out” in
Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. Why do we persist with the grand goal
of importing and establishing democracy in the Middle East?
is of course impossible for any country to export democracy to the Middle East,
whose societies have no history of democratic institutions and whose people
lack a tradition of public civility and restraint. The reasons why we persist
in trying to do so include self-delusion; national grandiosity, self-importance,
moral superiority, and arrogance; want of knowledge of history combined with
ideological thinking that feeds millennial illusions; the lust for global
political and economic power; the military-industrial complex decried by
President Eisenhower; the anti-republican conviction that the United States
must always be “doing something” in the world; and concern for imperial show
and international publicity and a fixation with global public relations.
CWR: What are the primary myths about democracy today? How can we rid
ourselves of the myths?
The principle myth regarding democracy today is the democratic conviction that
democracy is not only the best form of government, it is also the sole decent
and humane one. People who think this way apparently believe also that all of
the millions of people in the world who lived before the coming of the First
Republic endured lives that were scarcely human, despite considerable evidence
to the contrary. In fact, as I argue in After
Tocqueville, there is no single best form of government, but only that form
of government which is best suited to a particular time and place. Considered
as an ideal, democracy indeed is probably the worst form of government; yet it
was arguably preferable, in the American colonies at the end of the 18th
century, to constitutional monarchyto my mind, and that of the Church before
Vatican II, the best form (ideally speaking).
A second myth traces from the strange conviction among democratic
ideologues that, as Francis Fukuyama argued two decades ago, liberal democratic
capitalism is the ideal toward which all history has been tending, and that no
ideal superior to it exists. Others (though not necessarily Fukuyama) reason
from here to argue that liberal democracy is what all people (and all peoples)
really want, and that their wanting it ensures that they will eventually have
it. In fact, history shows that, more often than not, what people want is
precisely want they don’t get.
How to rid ourselves of these, and other myths
related to democracy? There is only one way, I think, to accomplish this, and
that is to read history. This, however, does not seem to me a prescription
palatable to mass democratic meneven less so their democratically elected