Democracy means “rule by the people,” but today that seems an increasingly distant ideal. We live in a diverse country of 310 million people with a government responsible for a huge range of domestic and foreign concerns. Even full-time professionals have trouble keeping track of what’s going on. In such a situation, how can ordinary people exercise much control over public affairs?
But if democracy can’t really be rule by the people, at least not under present conditions, what is it? Nobody seems to know, and if someone does no one else agrees with him. With that problem in mind, Chilton Williamson has written a book that explores at length the ambiguities, contradictions, and doubtful prospects of whatever it is that we call democracy.
After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy (ISI, 2012) is extraordinarily wide-ranging. It starts with a long bicycle tour of France by a young British historian, which leads to a discussion of whether the centralized and officially egalitarian France of today is freer or more democratic than the loosely and locally organized France that existed before the Revolution. The author then spends the rest of the book exploring the vicissitudes of the democratic cause, the movements, institutions, and meanings associated with it, and current conditions that make its future success doubtful.
In the course of his explorations Williamson touches on a huge variety of thinkers who have held quite divergent views on the nature, value, and prospects of popular rule. He focuses especially on Alexis de Tocqueville, the great prophet and analyst of democracy in America. Tocqueville was a French nobleman who was truly at home only with other aristocrats. He nonetheless saw America as a sign of the inevitable triumph of democracy throughout the West, and was public-spirited and cosmopolitan enough to recognize that the new order would have certain advantages.
Tocqueville was concerned to secure the advantages of democracy and minimize its dangers, but his confidence in its approaching triumph was not matched by confidence it would endure. His comments are sobering reading today, since America no longer has the qualities that he thought made for democracy, minimizing its defects. Our country is no longer isolated, uncrowded, or decentralized, and we no longer have a religious consensus or a coherent culture based on that of England. We have the opposite of all those things, and are plagued as well by the politically-correct self-censorship, and the growing bureaucratic responsibility for the well-being of an increasingly self-centered people, that Tocqueville saw as dangers even in the 1830s.
As Williamson notes, Tocqueville’s intelligence and insight did not bring him influence, and democracy and Western society have gone their way without reference to his warnings. The outcome has been a setting increasingly unfriendly to democracy. People have become more interested in comfort and security than self-rule, and a technological and globalized world seems too complicated—and problems such as terrorism, environmental degradation, and economic instability too pressing, far-reaching, and resistant to solution—for popular rule to appear workable. Under such conditions Russia and China can seem better symbols of things to come than the New England town meetings that so much struck Tocqueville when he visited.
But what do we make of such concerns and the situation to which they relate? The future is hard to unriddle, and one can argue about whether Williamson is overly pessimistic, but the problems he points to are real. Recent attacks on the freedom of the Church have brought home to us certain difficulties of our situation as Catholics and citizens, and this book helps fill in the picture by drawing attention to problems of popular rule in general.
Our initial concern should be to know what we are talking about when we speak of democracy. As an immediate practical matter, it has mostly meant reducing the importance of various traditional distinctions, and extending the role of popular elections based on an ever-widening franchise. As such, it has had important benefits. Traditional distinctions can violate justice, and popular election of officials means that government has to please the people to some degree. The requirement doesn’t guarantee honesty or good government, but it’s still an important point given the human tendency toward self-seeking and the bad conduct of many non-democratic governments.
However, people don’t view democracy as merely a practical expedient—in Churchill’s words, as “the worst form of government except all those other forms.” If that were their view they wouldn’t treat democracy as so transcendently important. Instead, it has become an overarching social outlook with its own standard of the just and good that trumps all other standards. It is thus a fundamental moral outlook, something Williamson calls a religion.
In that outlook or religion the will of the people is the basis of government and equality is the standard of justice. The will of the people rules, not only in fact but by fundamental right, subject only to limitations based on equality and the needs of the system. As time has passed, those limitations have developed and become increasingly important. Where pure popular democracy would say that the majority can do what it likes, liberal democracy insists on proper procedures and free discussion, and advanced liberal democracy requires equal consideration for the concerns of minorities.
Those limitations seem plausible, but they have been interpreted ever more broadly, and the result has been an ever narrower role for the popular will on basic issues. Thus, where popular democracy would feel free to redefine marriage to include the union of two men or two women if that’s what people want, advanced liberal democracy increasingly feels called upon to redefine it as a matter of equal justice regardless of whether people like it or not. The distinction between man and woman is a traditional distinction, and democracy doesn’t like traditional distinctions, so it’s thought that keeping things as they are would deny democratic principle.
Whichever version of democracy we look at, it’s clear that when treated as an overarching philosophy or religion it does away with higher law in favor of human will as the supreme standard. That’s why Williamson and others have called it inherently anti-traditional and essentially atheistic. Hence what some people consider Catholic waffling about democracy. People often say that the Church used to be against democracy but now favors it, except for a few issues like abortion and internal Church governance. In fact, the attitude has been more consistent and complex.
The Church has distinguished democracy as moderation of social inequalities and promotion of popular participation in government from democracy as the unconditional supremacy of equality and the people’s will. Within reason, the Church is favorable to the former aspects of democracy. Bl. John Paul II tells us that the Church “values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens.” His comments echo Aquinas, who told us long ago that “all should take some share in the government: for this form of constitution ensures peace among the people, commends itself to all, and is most enduring.”
The Church has also taken a moderate view of human distinctions, emphasizing brotherhood and thus basic equality but recognizing rightful differences. The latter can include traditional distinctions: an example is provided by the distinction between the sexes, which the Church considers natural and intended by God. As Bl. John Paul II noted, “women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive.”
On the other hand, the Church rejects democracy as a supreme standard, telling us that the basis of government is not the popular will but God and human nature, and its purpose is not equality and popular rule but the common good. Bl. John Paul II summarized the Catholic view when he said that democracy is “a ‘system’ and as such is a means and not an end. Its ‘moral’ value is not automatic, but depends on conformity to the moral law.”
The conclusion to draw, it seems, is that the relation between democracy and Catholicism is complex. The troubles of democracy are troubles for Catholics to the extent they threaten good government and the spirit of mutual respect on which we rely in a non-Catholic world. To the extent they demonstrate problems with a false political religion, however, they provide an occasion to suggest a standard for government higher than human will. Like all crises, the crisis of democracy that Williamson sees is an opportunity and challenge as well as a danger.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!