Has Democracy Died?

The author of After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy explains why he believes democracy is misunderstood, over-hyped, and underwhelming.

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?

Williamson: There is no “adequate and widely accepted definition” of democracy, and hasn’t been for many, many decades—if, 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 term—or the society he lives in—means 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 notion—or even sacred belief—in the West? Why are we so enamored with “Democracy”?

Williamson: Democracy became a central—and, as you say, actually a sacred—notion 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?

Williamson: 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 centralization—political, cultural, and intellectual—of 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 democracy—the 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?

Williamson: 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?

Williamson: 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 Christians—while 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 Ages—the unrelenting attack upon the social and political authority, first of the monarchs, then of the Church—shows.

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?

Williamson: The idea of a republic is a classical notion, arising from the Greek city states and based on the classical understanding of what men are—of 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?

Williamson: 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 power—a 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 power—something 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 internationally—a 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 manage—a 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?  

Williamson: It 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?

Williamson: 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 monarchy—to 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 men—even less so their democratically elected leaders.

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.