I was reminded recently of the ongoing debate over the nature of democracy. The occasion was my rereading of Claes Ryn’s Democracy and the Ethical Life. In this classic work Prof. Ryn criticizes those who insist that democracy is merely a means for discerning the will of the people. This view, he argues, leads naturally to the conclusion that the will of the people is inherently self-justifying—always right by definition. According to this radical conception of democracy, the purpose of government is merely to put the people’s will-of-the-moment into action. That way lies revolution. How so? The claim to only value procedural rules without reference to some ultimate goal ends up raising the will of the majority to god-like status. Moreover, the state devoted to putting this will into action will be a centralized power that effectively destroys the institutions, beliefs, and practices that make possible personal virtue and pursuit of the common good. Constitutional checks and balances will be destroyed along with intermediary associations, leaving citizens alone to face an all-powerful state that rules in their name, but for its own ends. The empty promises of Rousseau bring Robespierre, then Napoleon.
In opposition to this plebiscitary notion of democracy, Prof. Ryn posits an ethical definition rooted in the natural purpose of politics, namely pursuit of a good life. That life is one lived in community; it is “a civilized living together in which the intellectual, aesthetic, and economic life of society serves the moral destiny shared by all.” Thus, according to Dr. Ryn, “insofar as popular rule is a real concept and not just some utopian dream, it refers to government by the people under self-imposed restraints.” The people rule themselves as a community only when they rule ethically, within constraints they have chosen for the purpose of promoting calm deliberation of how best to promote the common good.
Prof. Ryn’s definition of democracy is at its root Aristotelian. Like that ancient philosopher he understands that, if we are to assign words to genuine, concrete things rather than to our own passing thoughts and urges, we must recognize that those things have an intrinsic nature and purpose. The proper end of government is to allow us to lead good lives in common, so a democratic government must be one that ties the rule of the people to the common good. And this requires constitutional constraints on power. Here Prof. Ryn is especially concerned to note the role constitutionalism plays in checking power and allowing public deliberation to prioritize the common good, fostering a politics of consensus.
In a democracy where constitutional provisions, whether written or unwritten, regulate popular voting, representation, terms of office, divisions of power, legislative procedure, etc., and these rules can be changed only with sustained effort, arbitrariness and whim in the people at large and in their representatives are restrained. Such a government does not give free rein to the people’s impulse of the moment, but requires of public decisions that they be reached in a certain deliberate way.
It is easy in our cynical age to dismiss the call to a good life of any kind, let alone Aristotle’s call to a life of virtue. But the cynicism is dishonest at its root. Those who claim it is humility that leads them to reject politics’ higher calling are in fact surreptitiously reading into democracy a different set of substantive goals. It is just that their goal—principally to gain the power to reshape human nature and the social order—is to be both gained and wielded in the name of the supposedly all-knowing people.
Rousseau himself wrote that
It is good to know how to deal with men as they are, it is much better to make them what there is need that they should be. The most absolute authority is that which penetrates into a man’s inmost being, and concerns itself no less with his will than with his actions. It is certain that all peoples become in the long run what the government makes them…. Make men, therefore, if you would commend men.
Precisely because I agree with Prof. Ryn’s interpretation of plebiscitary democracy and its clear tendency to produce a state that is totalitarian in the sense that it seeks to change the very nature of its citizens, I shy away from his fuller definition of democracy. In discussing free governments rooted in the consent of the governed I prefer to leave in place the vocabulary used by the framers of the American constitution. They chose to refer to republican government as best for American self-government. These men rejected the term democracy because they believed it properly referred to the failed states of ancient Greece, in which the passions and interests of factions brought alternating chaos and despotism.
This is not to say that those who claim the mantle of democracy are not themselves using the term for improper ends. It seems clear that plebiscitary democracy ends, by nature, in tyranny. Moreover, those who for decades have pushed to eliminate our constitutional order in pursuit of plebiscitary democracy have not increased the power of the people to govern themselves. Far from it. These progressives have concentrated power in their own hands and in the hands of unelected administrators taking their orders from the center. But the term itself is freighted with historical meaning. And the meaning of democracy has always been infused with demands for unchecked power wielded in the name of the people.
Like too many other names (one thinks, here, of the term “conservative”) those of “republic” and “constitutionalism” as well as “democracy” have been corrupted by decades of ill-use and intentional obfuscation on the part of self-serving radicals. Still, it is worth remembering that the consent of the governed may be gained through means less ham-fisted than the plebiscite. As Prof. Ryn himself observes, our Constitution positively forbids the application of any mass political will to politics. Americans exercise their electoral power through associations, whether in their particular Congressional districts, in their states, or through their selection of electors for the office of President. This is how a republican people governs itself—in and through the associations in which they live, in which they learn virtue, and through which they may lead a good life.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.