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democracy

Ronald Reagan & Russell Kirk

At the beginning of the twentieth century, few states in the world could be called democratic. Yet much personal and local freedom existed under the reign of law.

Near the close of the twentieth century, nearly every political regime throughout the world professes to be democratic. Yet in many lands, personal and local freedom has been extirpated.

On the face of things, it appears that the triumph of democracy, far from preserving or enlarging freedom, has brought to power a host of squalid oligarchs.

How is it that we find ourselves in this bent world of anno Domini 1988–all the evangels of Progress having been refuted by circumstance?

T.S. Eliot, in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, stated better than I can today the hard truth about our political condition in his little book The Idea of a Christian Society: “For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life: it would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet.” He went on to decry the Benthamism and secularism that continue to oppress us half a century later:

“Unless we can find a pattern in which all problems of life can have their place, we are only likely to go on complicating chaos. So long, for instance, as we consider finance, industry, trade, and agriculture merely as competing interests to be reconciled from time to time as best they may, so long as we consider “education” a god in itself of which everyone has a right to the utmost, without an ideal of the good life for society or for the individual, we shall move from one uneasy compromise to another. To the quick and simple organization of society for ends which, being only material and worldly, must be as ephemeral as worldly success, there is only one alternative. As political philosophy derives its sanction from ethics, and ethics from the truth of religion, it is only by returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social organization which will not, to its ultimate destruction ignore some essential aspect of reality.”

Then my old friend Eliot set down a forthright line that I quote often:

“The term ‘democracy,’ as I have said again and again, does not contain enough positive content to stand alone against the forces that you dislike–it can easily be transformed by them. If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.”

Amen to that. Democracy, as an abstraction, cannot be substituted satisfactorily for the authority of God. The modern mind has fallen into the heresy of democracy–that is, the ruinous error of vox populi vox dei, that an abstract People are divine, and that truth issues from the ballot box, as in the abrupt ascent of the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

When Tocqueville traveled through the United States, society was sufficiently democratic in America–more so, really, than today–but Americans had not yet succumbed to the dogma of vox populi vox dei. Nor have all Americans, even today, embraced that error; but general resistance to Rousseau’s notion of democracy has been much weakened, the old “territorial democracy” of the early United States is much decayed, and more and more is rendered unto Caesar: that is, to a Caesar now styled as Plebiscitary Democracy.

To argue that democracy has forsaken transcendent authority and so reels endangered before external and internal enemies, I propose first to describe certain confusions that hang about the word democracy; next to suggest how the worship of an abstract democracy and a concrete Mammon betray a people into committing tremendous blunders; and, last, to exhort a Remnant to stand fast.

Some years ago I lectured at the University of Oklahoma on the prescribed subject, “What Is the Best Form of Government for the Happiness of Mankind?” This annual lectureship, always on the same subject, was endowed; and in every previous year, the chosen lecturer had declared that democracy was the best form of government for the happiness of mankind; the previous lecturers doubtless assumed that such a profession of faith was expected of them, quite as in Animal Farm all creatures are required to affirm the dogma “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

But for my part, I heretically denied that dogma of ideological Democratism, assertion to the contrary that there exists no single best form of government for the happiness of all making. The most suitable form of government necessarily depends upon the historic experience, the customs, the beliefs, the state of culture, the ancient laws, and the material circumstances of a people, and all these things vary from land to land and age to age. Monarchy may defend the highest possible degree of order, justice, and freedom for a people–as, despite shortcomings, the Abyssinian monarchy did in Ethiopia, until the Marxist revolution there. Aristocracy, under other circumstances, may be found most advantageous for the general welfare. The Swiss form of democracy may work very well in twentieth-century Switzerland; yet it does not follow that the Swiss pattern, imposed abruptly upon Brazil, say, would function at all.

Nor would the American pattern of politics, developed through an intricate process extending over several centuries, be readily transplanted to Uganda or Indonesia. As Daniel Boorstin puts it, “The Constitution of the United States is not for export.” No, the simple formula of “one man, one vote” will not cure all the ills to which flesh is heir.

For democracy is neither a political philosophy nor a plan of political organization; rather, it is a social condition that may have political consequences. Two centuries ago, not one of the framers of the Constitution of the United States employed democracy as a term of approbation. To the framers, democracy signified the rule of the crowd; and of such politics, they had beheld sufficient in Shay’s Rebellion. The Constitution of 1787 established not a democracy, but a federal republic.

A measure of democracy did develop in America with the electoral triumphs of Jefferson and Jackson. Yet that was what Orestes Brownson called “territorial democracy,” rooted in township or county, hostile to political centralization, suspicious of executive power, bound up with the rural interest. It did not resemble in the least the “plebiscitary democracies” and “people’s democracies” of our era.

The American democracy, Tocqueville perceived, was distinguished from the unstable and often bloody democracies of Europe, moreover, by the restraining power of Christian mores upon American policies.

Throughout the nineteenth century, then, American democracy did not try to do duty as religion or to assert claims to total loyalty: It was no ideology, in short; it did not culminate in what Tocqueville called “democratic despotism.” The general understanding of democracy among Americans was sufficiently expressed by this definition in the ten-volume Century Dictionary of 1904: “Political and social equality in general; a state of society in which no hereditary differences of rank or privilege are recognized; opposed to aristocracy.” The dictionary’s editors quoted a couplet of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “The Grave by the Lake” as illustrative of this meaning: “Rank nor name nor pomp has he In the grave’s democracy.”

This analogy to the grave, nevertheless, was somewhat ominous; one thinks of Bulwer-Lytton’s exclamation, in 1859, that “democracy is like the grave–it perpetually cries, ‘give, give,’ and, like the grave, it never returns what it has once taken…. Do not surrender to democracy that which is not yet ripe for the grave.”

Democracy As Ideology

Yet American democracy was voracious. Only two decades after publication of the 1904 edition of the Century Dictionary, the ideas of John Dewey and his educationist colleagues were at work upon American minds; by the 1930s, those instrumentalist concepts were triumphing in America’s public schools. The Deweyites were systematically hostile to Christian doctrine, eager to separate the political order from religious dogmata. Democracy was a word exalted by Dewey’s school–but not the territorial democracy of yesteryear or the democracy interwoven with Christian mores that Tocqueville had praised. To Dewey and his friends, democracy signified equality of condition, a social and intellectual tableland closely resembling Tocqueville’s “democratic despotism.” The Dewey pragmatists, holding the past in contempt, looked forward to a universal democracy on utilitarian lines, in which (to borrow Mark Twain’s witticism) one man would be as good as another, or maybe a little better.

This belligerent ideological democracy is sufficiently idealized in Carl Sandburg’s poem “The People, Yes!” Instrumentalist educationists proceeded to propagandize for such “democratic values” through the apparatus of the public schools. (It is worth nothing that Sandburg became the poet laureate of twentieth-century democracy in the new school textbooks, with Walt Whitman as his nineteenth-century forerunner.) From textbooks in social studies (a discipline that had commenced to supplant history), the phrases “representative government,” “constitutional government,” “American republic,” and the like began to vanish: in this place appeared the word democracy–monolithic democracy, apparently, with no distinctions as to different types of democracy. Democracy was good, virtually flawless; all other forms of government, past or present, were bad.

I am not suggesting that the influence of the Deweyites alone changed the American understanding of democracy. An ideological signification of the word is sufficiently evident in Woodrow Wilson’s declaration that American troops would “make the world safe for democracy” in 1917. But the educationists’ systematic propaganda for an absolute and abstract democracy, purged of religious associations, did much to break down, gradually, the old constitutional and moral restraints upon the popular will of the moment. The Benthamite doctrine of “one man, one vote” triumphed in the Supreme Court of the United States during the Warren years because public schooling had paved the way for acceptance of judicial intervention in the name of an absolute democracy; and the courts’ interference in the apportionment of legislative districts, federal or state, has damaged practical representative democracy ever since: an ideological abstraction preferred to a practional functioning.

I lack space to offer greater detail about the subtle processes by which the idea of democracy, once intimately associated with concepts of personal liberty–and in America, at least, closely linked to Christian teachings–was transformed gradually into an ideology or quasi-ideology, even in the United States. This word democracy nowadays tends to signify even in the minds of the educated–or perhaps especially in the minds of that multitude of persons called by Peter and Brigitte Berger “the knowledge class”–something rather different from the institutions of the democratic Republic of the United States as those institutions formerly were described in courses in American government when I was a student. Democracy now means to American liberals–and to a good many folk who might be surprised to be called liberals–substantially the notion of one man, one vote, as an inviolable principle; a political order totally secularized, disavowing any transcendent authority over society; a presumption that one person’s judgment is as good as any other person’s (aside, perhaps, from one’s accumulation of university degrees); a hankering after perfect equality of condition, though that may not be immediately attainable; and a confidence that the American pattern of democratic institutions could and should be imposed upon all the world. (Some liberals, true, draw back from accepting this last canon of Democratism, because they are of half a mind that the “people’s democracies” of the Marxist persuasion may already be more thoroughly democratic than the “capitalist democracies.”)

Such is the ideology of Democratism: examination of some social studies textbooks–of the sort brought forward as exhibits in the “textbook trial” in a federal court at Mobile early this year–should sufficiently confirm by hasty analysis of what the word democracy implies two centuries after the Constitutional Convention. All ideologies, that of Democratism included, lead their disciples into intemperance–and presently into servitude. In the words of Edmund Burke, “Men of intemperate mind never can be free; their passions forge their fetters.” Ideology is political fanaticism and unreality. Far from preserving our freedom, the ideology of democratism already has weakened the American constitutional structure, and it will do greater mischief to the cause of ordered freedom unless we Americans recognize that peril and renew the old restraints upon the leveling impulse.

One hears on every hand such phrases as “that’s the democratic way of doing things” or “elitism can’t be tolerated in our democracy.” But cant aside, what advantages do certain factions or interests in the American Republic find in the existing American democracy?

Pitfalls Of Democracy

For no inconsiderable number of our citizens, democracy seems to mean opportunity to indulge one’s appetites, unrestrained. Milton wrote, “License they mean, when they cry liberty.” Plato discerned that the fundamental impulse within democracies was for every man to do as he might arbitrarily choose to do, without regard for others. Having cast aside those Christian mores of which Tocqueville wrote, they find in the ideology of Democratism warrant for every excess. If one man’s values, or absence of values, is as good as any other man’s, why not gratify every craving? When Democratism of this description has corrupted society for a few decades, at most–then it is terminated by force and a master, out of the human instinct for the preservation of some sort of tolerable society.

For another faction of Americans–although of course these categories overlap–the ideology of Democratism serves to justify grandiose designs for the alleged attainment of “equity” through “entitlements”–that is, employment of the political power to tax for the especial benefit of particular interests or classes. The “welfare lobby” immediately comes to mind when such concerns are discussed; champions of the welfare lobby went so far as to approve in print the attempt to murder President Reagan–on the ground that the undemocratic Reagan had endeavored to reduce expenditures approved by them and so richly deserved to die. But many other organizations believe that democracy amounts to the opportunity to plunder other people–that is, the general public; for hasn’t the American democracy a limitless supply of money and goods, the products of exploitation, the rightful spoil of enterprising egalitarians? Doesn’t everybody deserve more of everything, and isn’t the apparatus of taxation well designed to secure that entitlement for tolerably organized factions? The National Education Association, with the most powerful lobbies in Washington, finds itself especially deserving of public benefaction, and the NEA never ceases to extol the merits of democracy. The postal workers’ unions, the concrete lobby, and all manner of energetic–that is, energetic at lobbying–groups and factions demand their democratic share. Many years may elapse before the essential functions of government are so reduced by these democratic exactions that something desperate must be done.

In education, the ideology of Democratism leads eventually to general lowering of standards of scholarship. For aren’t all of us born equal? It’s elitism, isn’t it, to reward some young persons merely because they study harder or are unfairly endowed with better brains, or because their parents have reared them intelligently? Anyone familiar with the requirements of American, British, or European universities four decades ago and the reduced standards at the same institutions in 1987 knows the consequences of the academic Democratism that won its victories in the sixties and seventies. The decay of primary and secondary schooling, which commenced earlier, is yet more striking. All this abandoning of the works of the mind has been justified by the argument that “everybody deserves an equal chance” and the theory that “After all, it’s socialization that’s important in schools.” Scientific and technical skills already have suffered gravely from this aspect of Democratism; but what matters more, the intellectual and moral education of the natural leaders in society is so dismayingly neglected that one must ask where competent servants of the democracy are to be discovered half a century from now.

These phenomena of Democratism have been tripled and quadrupled in their corrosive power by the ascendancy of television, film, radio, and other means of swift communication that can form public opinion almost worldwide within a few hours. The demands of doctrinaire egalitarians are easily publicized by the mass media and awake ready sympathies, while the case for restraint or for prudent alternatives to proposed egalitarian measures is less attractive to the people who profit by the mass media and is less easily understood by the viewing or listening multitudes. One marvels, indeed, that the prejudices, habits, and inherited opinions of many Americans remain strong enough, even today, to resist the tearful or mocking egalitarianism of the mass media.

The more dramatic and perilous consequences of the ideology of Democratism, nevertheless, occur in the conduct of foreign affairs rather than in the internal concerns of this Republic. On one occasion, Democratism enfeebles the diplomacy of the United States, subordinating practicality to sentiment; on another occasion, Democratism propels America into rashness abroad, even to large-scale war. We suffer from the notion that Democracy must be instituted throughout all the world, at whatever cost, and that every democracy must be cloned or reconstructed in the image of the latest embodiment of American Democracy.

Upon such premises President Kennedy intervened in Vietnam. The State Department’s “Gung Ho Boys” thrust American conscripts in great numbers upon President Diem, even though he did not want them, and presently they connived at the over-throw and murder of Diem, having decided that he was not democratic enough. President Johnson followed these grim follies by pouring in more troops and personally supervising plans for the total bombing of North Vietnam–apparently on the theory that people maybe bombed into democracy. True, the Indochinese wars did end in the establishment of democracies–that is, People’s Democracies, with merciless Marxist cliques in power in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and millions of people dead or literally enslaved.

Despite the frantic endeavors of radical opponents of American military operations to discover some selfish motive, some evil interest, behind the sending of an American conscript army into Asia, intervention in Vietnam was undertaken almost solely out of obedience to the dictates of the Democratist ideology. America’s national interest in Indochina was negligible in every respect, and the triumph of a Soviet-backed communist government in South Vietnam has in no material way damaged the United States either strategically or economically. Nor were theories of “containment” of the Soviet Union pertinent in Indochina; indeed, events there persuaded the Chinese communist regime to seek some sort of accommodation with the United States. The Kennedy and Johnson governments lavishly flung American resources and men into Vietnam quite purely out of the notion that they too were making the world safe for democracy. There never had been any measure of democracy in Vietnam before American intervention; now presumably, democracy will never arrive in those lands. As Madame Nusaid in Yugoslavia after the removal of Diem, “If you have the United States for a friend, you don’t need any enemies.” As a souvenir of the crusade for democracy in the very undemocratic cultures of southeastern Asia, the United States is left with widespread addiction to destructive narcotics, a vice not calculated to improve the civic virtue of great democratic nations.

Since the Second World War, the democratic statesmen of America have found insufficiently democratic the governments of various allies, client states, or countries otherwise friendly enough–and so have cut assistance from them, ceased to countenance them or actually intervened to weaken or upset an existing regime. Have those states therefore mended their ways and made themselves perfectly democratic, on the American model? Run over the list: Cuba, Cambodia, Iran, El Salvador, the Philippines, Haiti. Those countries either have succumbed to fanatic ideological tyrants or are menaced by grisly civil war. Very recently Congress and the mass media attempted to give the Republic of South Africa the same treatment but have been diverted for the time being by the difficulties of the Reagan administration and the apparent indiscretions of Attorney General Meese. Such are the conspicuous benefits of demanding Instant Democracy, as prescribed by Jeremy Bentham and Earl Warren, formations wholly inexperienced in the constitutionalism of the English-speaking countries.

There is another fashion, as well, in which Democratism plagues American foreign policy. Much of the time the United States is governed by vociferous minorities, not majorities of the whole people. Thus, no matter what the government of Israel may do, Washington may be counted upon to back up Tel Aviv, for there are many people of Jewish stock in the United States, while the only concentration of Arabs is in Dearborn, Michigan. Similarly, Turkey is reproached and menaced with suspension of military aid from time to time because there are many voters of Greek extraction in this country and few of Turkish descent. The interest of certain ethnic groups may be advanced by the American government even though those groups’ demands are contrary to national interest. This is a corruption of the democratic dogma, of course; but it is justified in the name of Democratism: Some minority pretends to speak for the American majority when in fact the majority may have next to no interest in the policy at stake.

In summary, I have been arguing too hurriedly that an ideology called Democratism affects often both domestic and foreign policies of the United States. Servitude to ideology–that is, to irrational political dogmatism–leads to intemperance of thought, discourse, and action. Men of intemperate minds never can be free, in Burke’s phrase. So it is that the ideology of Democratism, far from preserving our freedom probably will reduce American liberties in more ways than one.

If the twentieth-century god called Demos has feet of clay, whatever shall we do? Away back in 1918 we were promised that glorious democracy would prevail universally; but nothing of the sort has come to pass. The word democracy is everywhere venerated and employed; but the reality of that concept, or what we expected to become the reality, the brotherhood of man and the federation of the world, is not to be found seven decades later.

Yet we need not despair. The first thing for Americans to do is to recall the admonition of Eliot that “it is only by returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social organization which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality.” We must remind ourselves that politics is no more than the art of the possible; it is no source of eternal truth. The ideology of Democratism, like all other ideologies, is a pseudo-religion, immanentizing the symbols of transcendence–in Eric Voegelin’s phrases. The cure for ideology is a recovery of a religious understanding of the human condition.

Then let us not worship an abstraction called democracy. Let us come to understand that democracy may be procedurally useful but does not present a moral ideal. The democratic political forms are one means for attaining a tolerable civil social order; but those forms are not the only means for enabling human beings to live together in peace. In some ages and some circumstances, democratic forms may be suitable means for social organization; in other times and conditions, democratic form may not function at all.

It must be emphasized that the ends of a tolerable human community are order, and justice, and freedom. Democracy, per se, is not the end or object of human existence; it is a possible means, rather, toward those three real ends of the civil social order. Great mischief may result from confounding means with ends. So let us treat skeptically those who would have us establish a civil religion worshiping the great god Demos. The prevalence of Christian mores among the American people was the cause of the success of the American democracy, Tocqueville discerned nearly a century and a half ago. Only the renewal of those religious norms can reinvigorate the American Republic. Those who prostrate themselves before the graven image of the divine Demos cannot, in their heart of hearts, have faith in their own creation. Render unto Caesar only those things that are Caesar’s.

Books on or by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Thought (November 1988).

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