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Democracy--Our Word, Not Theirs, Pt. 2
Excerpts from My "Democracy Rescue in America" Book Project
As indicated in part one, I envision conservatives being the leading and dominant element of a larger coalition to rescue democracy in our time.
I also sketched why we need a more-friendly-to-democracy type of conservativism, which I call populist-conservativism. I laid out a few of what the standard conservative objections to an unhesitant embrace of the word “democracy” would be, and promised to next provide some draft material from my present Tocqueville-haunted book project, Democracy Rescue in America: Strategy, Constitutionalism, and Political Philosophy, that would speak to these objections.
Here is that material, taken either from the introduction to the book or its first chapter, and somewhat reworked. Forgive the repetition of a few ideas, given their rearrangement here. I of course welcome inquiries about the larger project, and frankly could use some editorial help and publishing encouragement!
…there is nothing unique in my pointing to the necessity of a populist-leaning policy-emphasis and media-strategy, and a Trump-like repudiation of several tired conservative tropes—nearly all open-eyed conservatives point to the same, and assume that our new populist emphasis will involve a political economy approach more focused on fostering and protecting the middle-class, and will feature a greater cultivation of national patriotism in ways that cut against our lenient (and mendacious) immigration policy as well as America’s growing enmeshment in trans-nationalist governance, formal and de facto. But I say the new emphasis must also feature demands for more democratic say and democratic participation. What makes my approach unique is the way it offers a conservatism that is unabashed about its deep connection to democracy, that is, to classic republicanism.
Not a few conservatives will object to this, saying that what has always been key to the conservative defense of liberal democracy is the way it downplays its more democratic aspects, that is, the way it pours cold water upon its more egalitarian enthusiasms, and highlights the anti-majoritarian character of its natural rights and constitutionalism.
The force of that objection comes from a good deal of truth about conservatism’s history, and fundamentally, from a necessary hostility to the ideal of purist-democracy and the (usually leftist) tendency to pose that mirage against an existing form, and against any workable form, of republican government. However, it also comes out of a too-simplistic understanding of the democratic/republican principles built into the foundation of our regime.
And they have not intellectually digested the fact that on the world stage, conservativism’s few unambiguous victories in recent years were only won by means of popular majority votes that went directly against the advice of establishment voices, with the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election being the two key examples. Even if most conservative intellectuals have bowed to accepting the strategic implications of that fact, few of them have even begun to consider its political-philosophical implications. Again, I say these point in the direction of a more democracy-appreciative kind of conservatism. It should be a creed able to articulate both the classic objections to republican governments’ unhealthy instincts, such as their penchant for egalitarian envy, and the ways the best thinkers, framers, and statesmen dealt with these bad patterns, so as to instead bring out the associative, deliberative, fraternal, and liberty-protecting benefits of popular rule. It should be one that insists that the democratic practices which are the ones most likely to sustain and perpetuate democracy have a strong claim to be the only truly democratic ones, for why should we call a practice or policy that will ultimately serve to destroy popular government a more “democratic” one, just because its advocates are more emphatic in their use of that term? (For example, are the provisions of the H.R. 1 bill, dubbed the “For the People Act,” in any coherent sense more democratic than the advancing GOP effort in many states to retighten election-security?)
I say a positive understanding of democracy is not only possible for conservatives, and not the only best one for the struggle we presently find ourselves in, but may be the one truest to the perennial political wisdom on democracy.
…Conservatism has tended to suspect the very idea of democracy, and has sought to oppose calls for “more” of it, or for its “more perfect” realization. This suspicion has expressed itself in a) stronger commitment to natural rights and constitutionalism than to majority say, b) in opposition to referenda and other methods of direct democracy, c) in an aversion to most talk of achieving greater equality, and in d) a preference for terms like “republican government” or “liberal democracy” to describe our mixed system.
Likely, a majority of American conservatives of the 20th century had mixed-feelings about and a grudging attitude toward their duty to help “perpetuate,” as Lincoln put it, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” They have preferred instead to repeat the old Churchill chestnut that “democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that exist.” They have often been too eager to embrace certain classic texts, such as book VIII of Plato’s Republic, Shakespeare’s tragedy of Coriolanus, and one particularly unfortunate paragraph from Madison’s Federalist No. 62, the one about Athenian democracy being nothing but a mob, that lend themselves to painting government by the people in a very bad light. In the 9/11 era, they were too ready to assume that the warnings of the liberal writer Fareed Zakaria about the threat of illiberal democracy were in basic harmony with their own concerns. And we should note that the neo-con enthusiasm to spread “democracy,” one adopted by many standard conservatives, was often an enthusiasm weighted more toward the liberal aspect of liberal democracy than the democratic one. And at present, far too many professional conservatives are refusing to see the need to defend and champion democracy, by indulging in histrionic fears of populism and nationalism.
What I argue is that given the peril that popular government now finds itself in, conservatives must put aside some of their traditional wariness towards all things democratic. This additionally means that in terms of foundational political philosophy, they must stop assuming the priority of liberalism in their understanding of the compound regime liberal-democracy. [Without embracing the error half-suggested by the title of Patrick Deneen’s excellent little book Why Liberalism Failed, i.e., the idea that it is possible for modern democracy to just move beyond liberalism, they should rather soak in the book’s content, which does show the peril of centering one’s conception of democracy upon liberalism.] Instead, they must admit, along the lines of Tocqueville’s analysis, that democracy has always been the driving principle of the American order, and must remain so. It is the word and concept that matters more.
After all, wherever liberal democracy has set-up rights, representation, separation of powers, and fundamental-law constitutionalism to confine the choices of democratic majorities, it has done so on the basis of democratic authority. Our regime can rely on appeals to constitutional/institutional authority to defend it from passing fevers of popular madness, but if the populace has become miseducated out of its understanding and approval of those constitutional features, eventually it will brush them aside. So everything, constitutionalism included, ultimately rests on the education of the citizenry. I mean their education in virtue as much as that in civics.
…while conservatives should never deny the reality of democracy having unhealthy and indeed suicidal instincts, ones which often do result in envy-driven or constitution-trampling legislation, they should seek to better understand its other, and perhaps more fundamental (or at least as fundamental) positive characteristics. Some inkling of these can be found in James Madison’s statement that
As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another. [Federalist 55, towards the end]
Pointing to and building upon such aspects of human nature integral to republican/democratic politics, conservatives should raise up an inspiring, or at least inspiring-enough, vision of democracy’s future flourishing. [My book will do this primarily by exploring ideas from Alexis de Tocqueville’s more positive sketches of democracy, and from Wilson Carey McWilliams’s championship of localism.] If instead, most of them maintain the common conservative stance of continually speaking of democracy as a low thing, as an unpleasant medicine we must accept in order to avoid the horrifying alternatives, they cannot expect to inspire their fellow citizens to undertake the needed rescue efforts….
So, all that’s from my book’s draft material. Again, feedback is welcome.
Friends of the postmodern conservative approach to political philosophy, culture, and the American regime should also appreciate the fact that, in his last (posthumous) book, A Constitution in Full, Peter Lawler said, with his co-writer Richard Reinsch, that our Constitution was not primarily designed to act “against the principle of majority will,” but aimed to “build a republican order that would be governed by the people through deliberation and and compromise.” (p. 76—note that they indicate they are to some degree conveying a point made by Willmoore Kendall.)
In the third part of this essay, I will make it clearer why it would have been no fundamental problem, and no betrayal of the Founders, for Lawler and Reinsch to have inserted “democratic order” in place of “republican order.” And why a less-tripped-by-his-own-rhetorical-moves Madison could have inserted “democratic” in place of “republican,” when he spoke of the government that “presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.” I will sketch why it is an error, albeit an oft-repeated one, to insist on an oppositional distinction between democracy and republic, merely on the basis of a few moves Madison made in three Federalist Papers. Indeed, I begin my Democracy Rescue in America with this:
The last half-decade has revealed that America’s republican government, or to say the same thing, American democracy, is in grave danger. Decisive numbers of our fellow citizens, and especially among our elites, were shown to be capable of betraying the basics of American freedom.
As they rally to the rescue of freedom, here in America and around the world, conservatives should not insist upon a vocabulary usage that would make it difficult to employ the insights of truly wise thinkers like Tocqueville, McWilliams, or Ralph Ellison, each of whom constantly speak of “democracy,” and that would hamper dialogue with the many lesser thinkers who from around the 1830s forward, assumed that “democracy” was a proper word to describe what had emerged in America and which was beginning to in Europe.
And to repeat, I hold that today’s conservatives must not merely stir fears of what the loss of democratic freedom would entail, but must also stir hopes of what democracy’s own activity might be at its best.
It is our word.