December 26, 2016 by John Bruce Leonard
The Democratic Era, Part I: The Present and the Past
I WAS GRANTED in recent days a veritable series of those most fortunate moments of awakening that sometimes come to us, in which our ignorance becomes blindingly and inescapably clear to us, and we are permitted at last to perceive certain facets of this crystalline life of ours which had before simply not caught the light. Through them, I came to realize the utter inadequacy of my grasp of the present situation (I owe this to the president elect, whose victory caught me entirely unawares, and I am much indebted to him for it), and also and more alarmingly I came to individuate certain key aspects of the metamorphosis of our times, which I believe escape the better part of contemporary analyses, on account of a number of presuppositions current among us.
I publish my reflections here in case they might be of interest. I divide them into three parts, the first of which considers the present situation and its emergence from the past; and the second and third of which considers instead the likely forms the future will take, given the transitions now upon us.
I. The First Stirrings of the Demos Beneath Us
THREE EVENTS of this very year in our Occident have stood salient to international observers, and all for similar reasons, though they have occurred in three different nations and were meant in address of three very different questions: the British vote on Brexit, the American presidential election, and the Italian constitutional referendum. All of them resulted in unexpected, even in a few utterly surprising, outcomes. All of them culminated (in two cases well beyond their proclaimed aims) in a change of the governments’ foremost public officials. All of them were fueled by public resentment at perceived governmental failures, and were taken by the populace as opportunities to make public and national protest against the political status quo. All of them were marked by the loud wrangling of demagogues and populists, attempting to sway or to harness the resentments of the people. And all of them were carried forward, and perhaps even in some way carried to term, by an unprecedented degree and kind of activity on our “social networks.”
There is much that is noteworthy in all of this, bit I would like to focus a moment on the way in which popular votes on three very different questions of state were used by the people as a chance to announce their dissent against the government as a whole, even at the expense of the specific political problems involved. Indeed, this was true even in the case of the election of Donald Trump, in the following sense: many of those who supported his campaign did so, less to bring him to power (for many of his supporters were well aware of his flagrant deficiencies and those aspects of his character which are less than desirable) but merely to bring a scourge against the back of “politics as usual.” It would be most appropriate, it seems to me, to categorize all of these events under the heading of “populist movements.”
The masses are restless—one cannot avoid this sense, no matter where one looks. They believe they have not been adequately accounted for. They feel the lack of a great many things they believe they have been promised, and the absence of as many things they believe have been unjustly denied them. They hold that the mechanism of state is working poorly, erratically, nay, that it is altogether broken—by which they mean that it has not granted them the accord and the benefits they believe should accrue to them. And thus they are coming more and more to conclude that extreme measures are justified against this straggling ship of state, and that such measures must be invented when they cannot be found, to overhaul an intolerable state of affairs and to reenstate the democratic institutions they feel (often erroneously) they are losing. They measure the degree to which they have arrived at this goal, by the degree to which the popular will is uniformly obeyed by those in public office. And they are not afraid of teaching their public officials a hard lesson by using any kind of national vote whatsoever as a rebuking cane to bring onto the back of the powers that be.
Those in public office, meanwhile, are fast learning their lesson. They are learning that if they do not enact the will of the people, even when that will be whim, then the most unexpected of their own proposals, the best intentioned of their acts of state, or the least likely of their rivals, might be used as the wrecking ball to ruin them. They are being taught, in other words, to slavishly obey popular desiderata over their own better judgement, at risk of being forcibly unseated in ways that not even the sliest of them can altogether predict.
All of this, I hope it will be appreciated, marks a change from the politics of the recent history. I find indeed a widespread sense among acute political observers that we are entering a new political era, one marked by a new and in some ways fundamentally different order, represented by a new generation of in some way unprecedented politicians who have a new relationship with their constituents—one, for example, in which layers of bureaucracy, moneyed interests, and constitutional safeguards are destined to intercede less than they have ever done. We are at a juncture, it is felt, in which new political forms are emerging, which are in need of new theoretic underpinnings.
I have no doubt that there are many books which begin the necessary work necessary to such a refurbishment of our theory, but in my own readings I have found only a single one which seems to me to begin the job with adequate profundity and preparation, and that is The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History by Philip Bobbitt. In this dense but rewarding tome, Bobbitt lays forth a perceptive and cultured history of the modern state, considering the various evolutionary phases that this state has taken since its birth in the Renaissance to the present. He takes the common term “nation-state” in a much more precise and specific sense than we are wont to use it, applying this name to that kind of state which came into its own in the West after the fall of the Nazi state. As all forms of the state, the nation-state was differentiated from previous forms principally by its goals: it was a state which took as its raison d’être the promotion of systems of welfare for the citizens. Bobbitt avers that, since the end of the Cold War (which he persuasively claims was but the last scene of a much longer conflict, called the Long War, which began as far back as World War I), the nation-state has transformed yet again, to become what Bobbitt refers to as the market-state. The market-state has yet to reach its final stage—that will be the work of the decades in which we are even now living—but in its mature form it will be characterized, according to Bobbitt, by a fundamental alteration of the nation-state, most notably through an emphasis on market liberties in the place of welfarist subsidies and state paternalism:
The economic orthodoxy of nation-states counseled state intervention in the national economy as a necessary means of achieving growth and other goals. Economic regulation was part of this orthodoxy and fitted the ethos of nation-states that relied so heavily on law. Market-state will have their own economic orthodoxy and their own distinctive tools.
Eventually, all the leading members of the society of market-states may come to accept views similar to these: that capital markets have to become less regulated in order to attract capital investment and that capital has to become more global in order to achieve the maximum returns on investment; that labor markets have to become more flexible in order to compete with other, foreign labor markets and to keep jobs at home that depend upon producing products at a cost that can compete with the products of states that have lower labor costs; that if the world economy is to grow, access to all markets has to be assured and trade has to become less regulated; that a state’s trade policy will have to become more free if that state’s goods are to be able to penetrate foreign markets and thus participate in this growth; that government subsidies, spending, and welfare programs have to be managed in order to permit more investment in infrastructure and to allow greater private saving…; and that tax policy has to provide incentives for growth in order to attract and to maximize innovation and entrepreneurship.
Now, Mr. Bobbitt is informed by a basis of study and experience I cannot hope ever to duplicate, and I will be the last to dispute the importance of his work for our understanding of our contemporary plight. Mr. Bobbitt, it seems to me, is excellent when considering the strategic and practical difficulties which are confronting our present day political structures, but I suspect a certain inadequacy at the root of his analysis, which I would like to try to bring to light here. It seems to me Bobbitt does not appreciate the degree to which individuals in nation-states might grow accustomed to the benefits their governments have hitherto offered them, or the ways in which their resentment might manifest when they find that these same benefits fail to arrive. Though much if not all of what he says in this quotation is likely true, all of it hinges decisively on conditionals, and there is nothing whatsoever to guarantee that the average voter of any nation you please will follow the strictures of logic, to say nothing of the special logic of economics. He warns that “if these states do not heed those recommendations, [those that do] will gain a decisive advantage over them.” But what is to stop any state you please losing precisely this advantage, on account of the indiscretions of the voting class?
A common individual of our present day, informed by no great education nor enlightened by long contemplations, simply does not appreciate the degree to which the role of a government may legitimately change, in accord with historical pressures or the limitations of possibility itself: he takes the state as it exists now for the state as such, and refuses to accept any alteration of it, if this alteration does not seem to him to be improvement. Any contraction of state welfare programs, for instance, will immediately strike him as inefficiency on the part of the state: for if he was once guaranteed the particular benefit X, he sees no reason he and all his progeny should not always enjoy benefit X, and even X+1. Thus, if X comes to vanish, that can only be sure sign of malfeasance or of complacency at the helm.
Mr. Bobbitt, it seems to me, does not appreciate the inertia at the heart of the common citizen of a democracy. As a historian of the first water, he puts greater weight on those questions of warfare and defense which form only the outward forces which shape the state. He takes the wide view, contemplating the general overarching movement of societies, without recalling that these movements are always nothing but the intersection of the will of great men with the will of the masses. It seems to me that the present situation cannot be meaningfully comprehended without some reference to more classical archetypes of government, which contemplated intimately the ties between the nature of a people, and the regime to issue from it.
We of today live in regimes which were meant to be either republics (as the United States and Italy) or constitutional monarchs (as in Great Britain). Such governments employ democratic elements (such as popular elections and some degree of citizen participation in decisions of state), but stricture these elements through a number of more or less complicated ligatures on the excesses of democracies. Examples of such are to be found in representative rather than direct democracy, positions of authority through appointment rather than election, vestigial monarchical privileges, and checks and balances, to name a few. Given this understanding, we may say rather loosely that republican form of government, in which rule of law is the fundamental precept of state, was the form of government enjoyed by all Western states until just lately.
If we review the three events of this year cited earlier in light of these observations, I think we will perceive the nature of the change that is upon us.
I hold that events like these harbinger the ineluctable mutation of republican and monarchical forms of government, into a more purely democratic one, in which the sovereignty of the people comes to be regarded as a principle of government far more desirable, inviolable, and precious than mere rule of law. I hold that the proliferation of democratic forms and democratic interventions in government, the frequency of popular votes and of the populist parties that seek to dominate them, and the use and abuse of public offices to force those changes most hotly desired by the people into immediate effect, will become ever more the norm among us, and I believe that this constitutional transformation of our state is now inevitable. For we have stepped well past the point in which a simple, sober, respect for law, might yet constrain our step.
And I say that this, the birth of the Democratic Epoch or Era, will be the most important political development at least since the triumph of the liberal state over fascism, and one of the most fateful transitions in the entirety of modernity.
II. Republicanism versus Democracy
I SHALL SUPPOSE I have lost some percentage of my readers. We are so accustomed, after all, to saying and to believing that we live in a democracy, that it appears at first sight meaningless and perhaps even absurd to claim that we are only now entering into some “democratic epoch.” “What?”—many Europeans will reply—“but we have lived in democracies our entire lives, at least since the end of the Second World War.” “And we”—many Americans in their turn will object—“have done so since the good old year of 1776!”
So much has our language disposed of us. I say, we must reclaim a little necessary clarity, and for that, it behooves us to step back.
One of, if not the most, influential of all the constitutions ever penned by men in this or any era, is most certainly the American. We do not much err when we think of it as in some ways the archetype of the dominant contemporary form of government in the world. If nothing else, it is the supreme law of one of the most powerful countries ever to exist. Even those governments which differ from the American in important fundamental respects—as, say, the English—display such similarities of structure and affinities of spirit as to make one suppose, if not influence, then at least a strikingly parallel development of mores and institutions. And in either case, one sees that America has sprouted precisely from the rootstock of those ideas which define our contemporary world.
Now, the American government was most emphatically not formed as a democracy: on the contrary, it was in a very real and important sense formed against democracy, against the debilities and liabilities which attend to all democracies. It was framed, we may say, with an eye toward tapping the benefits of democracies while obviating the disadvantages of the same. The proper name for this peculiar form of government is, as indicated, Republic. The Republic is a mixed form of government. It is unique to the Modern Era, having never existed before the American Revolution. It employs elements of monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies to achieve a stable and effective compromise of their virtues and vices, and seeks to establish governments of long duration, internal peace and liberties, and great institutional strength. In terms of material achievements, the Republics of the world have been by far the most successful forms of government ever envisioned by the mind of man.
I have long thought it a most telling fact that the word “republic” is seldom if ever employed any longer in our public discourses, our private conversations, or our writings. There has been an historical shift in the patterns of speech which, I suspect, maps rather suggestively onto the changes in attitude, institution, practice, and law which we may qualify as truly democratic. Changes in speech are often most intriguing symptoms of deep changes in thought and feeling. If I am not mistaken, the great shift in our use of terms in the United States at least can be traced to the American Civil War. Before then, although the word “democracy” was surely used, it was greatly outweighed by the word “republic,” and particularly in the speeches given by public officials or those running for public office. But after in the post-bellum epoch, “democracy” gradually became a commoner tune for the tongues of the land to sing, thanks in large part to the rhetorical excellence of Lincoln’s justly celebrated speeches.
In review of the past of our European States, we see a similar trend, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that republicanism tends ineluctably toward democracy, or that democracy is the inevitable end of republicanism. It would seem that the republican principle, in essence, seeds in some fundamental way the democratic principle, or that its peculiar alteration of previous forms of government represents a compromise that cannot be maintained indefinitely, insofar as it yields itself if ever so slightly to the spiritual essence of democracy.
We would do well to remember that the ancients viewed in the progression of political regimes a certain cyclicality. Though there are some discrepancies between their vision of the possible regimes (Plato, for instance, seems to perceive five, while Aristotle sees only three, together with their respective corruptions) they agree this far: that the cycle tends toward decay, and democracy is the penultimate regime, the one immediately prior to the final and worst regime. As Socrates tells Glaucon in The Republic,
It won’t be hard for you to hear the [names of the regimes]. For those I mean are also the ones having names; the one that is praised by the many, that Cretan and Laconian regime; and second in place and second in praise, the one called oligarchy, a regime filled with throngs of evils; and this regime’s adversary, arising next in order, democracy; and then the noble tyranny at last, excelling all of these, the fourth and extreme illness of a city.
The founders of the American Constitution sought to escape this fated cycle by tempering democracy, in which they perceived a principle fundamentally inimical to good government. Take as prime evidence of this The Federalist Papers, that most remarkable document written by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay under the pseudonym Publius, in promotion of the ratification of the United States Constitution. “Democracy” is mentioned in the Federalist Papers in very few places indeed, and for no other reason than to separate it from the principle of Republic: the Founders of our nation did not want America to be a democracy.
It may be replied that by “democracy” they meant only “direct government by the people,” whereas republic meant for them “representative government.” This is true, so far as it goes. But the argument against democracy in the Federalist Papers was twofold: the first was practical, the other theoretical. The practical side was this: direct democracy in the time of the founders was simply not feasible, because it would have been impossible to unite the entire body of voters in consideration of even half of the matters set before the legislators, and a mail-vote would have resulted in a most dangerously sluggish and unresponsive system. This impossibility has in our day been nullified by the advent of the internet: it is fast becoming possible indeed to involve all willing voters in the country in many if not all of the legislative questions of the day. The practical argument of the Federalists is fast losing its credibility; we must turn then to the theoretical.
Publius wrote in The Federalist Papers, No. 48,
In a democracy, where a multitude of people exercise in person the legislative functions, and are continually exposed, by their incapacity for regular deliberation and concerted measures, to the ambitious intrigues of their executive magistrates, tyranny may well be apprehended, on some favorable emergency, to start up in the same quarter.
The fundamental argument against democracy was against the inherent weakness of democracy, its susceptibility to faction and to disintegration from within. The authors of the Federalist Papers, and the better part of the authors of the Constitution itself, agreed with the classical philosophical diagnosis of democracy. They sought, following counsel taken in some cases directly from Aristotle, and in other cases from other theoreticians of the modern age or from their own genius, to bind democracy with republican bonds.
The United States, we of the present day are wont to affirm, is the oldest democracy in the world. This is erroneous: it is the oldest republic in the world. Given the duration of the United States, the Founders deserve some credit for the principles they inaugurated. Long has the drake been chained; that they did not succeed in slaying it can be immediately induced from the fact that the political spectrum in the United States has been slowly but inexorably drifting to an increase in liberal thought—which means, by the ancient view, away from monarchy and aristocracy, and toward democracy. The mirror image of this alteration can be glimpsed in this fact: that, though we hear much talk of “threats to democracy,” never do we hear what the Founders might have warned us of—the threat of democracy.
In light of these conclusions, we return to Bobbitt. It seems to me that the transformation which Bobbitt describes as the birth of the nation-state from what he calls the state-nation, is more adequately comprehended as the slow mutation of republic into democracy. But if this is the case, then Bobbitt’s “market-state” is not likely to follow, because it almost certainly cannot follow. The market-state, which “secures political legitimacy through the active pursuit of opportunity for its citizens but declines to specify the goals for which opportunity is to be used” would represent the opposite motion than that which has characterized Modernity almost since its inception to the present day. The goals of state are very much specified in our modern regimes, and will come to be even more specified, by nothing more than the desires, speculations, and caprices of that million-headed hydra known as the people.
It seems to me that the “market-state” is a structure imposed on reality satisfy theory, and perhaps there is even an element in it of Bobbitt’s more personal hopes and desires for the future. I am afraid that where we are going, nor theory nor hope shall any longer form a reliable compass to command our direction and to set our courses.
Continue to The Democratic Era, Part II
1. Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History.
2. Publius’ The Federalist Papers. This document of preeminent statecraft should be read by anyone interested in understanding the contemporary form of government, be he American or otherwise. In the present context, I might refer my reader in particular to Nos. 1 and 85 (note how the Papers begin and end, as it were, with a warning against demagoguery); 10, 58 (in particular, the close thereof), and especially 63 (cf. 68).
3. Plato’s Republic, which reference I hope requires no justification, even in today’s sickly post-modern climate. The reader is invited to refer to Book VIII, which provides at once one of the finest defenses and most damning critiques of democracy ever penned by a philosopher. See in particular, 559d-565d.
4. The inimitable Gettysburg Address. Note in particular Lincoln’s closing, and eternal, line regarding “government of the people, for the people, and by the people.” It is likely, if not certain, that the Founding Fathers of America’s Constitution would have certain protestations to make against this formulation. Cf. The Federalist Papers, 68.