After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy, by Chilton Williamson, Jr. (ISI Books, 2012)
Twenty years ago, as the Cold War ended with the triumph of the West over Communism, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “end of history,” by which he meant that human political community had reached its final and best stage of development in the form of liberal democracy. Samuel Huntington spoke of a third great wave of democracy sweeping through eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. But many of the new democracies were short lived, pulled down in an authoritarian undertow. History had a future after all.
Whether or not they agree with the specifics of Fukuyama’s claims, political scientists, policy analysts, and policy makers share his fundamental assumptions. They disagree chiefly over the means by which liberal democracy should be spread throughout the world. Though the experiences of the last decade have chastened advocates of promoting democracy around the world, support for liberal democracy remains the default position for U.S. foreign policy. Even when support for democracy undermines allies and facilitates the rise to power of anti-Western parties—that is, even when it seems to work contrary to the national interest—American administrations tend to stay faithful to promoting democracy.
That may be why Chilton Williamson, Jr. inclines toward defining democracy as a kind of religion. Williamson is a former literary editor of National Review, currently senior editor of Chronicles, and the author of several novels. He says that there is no generally accepted definition of democracy, and does not try to formulate one of his own, but seems to settle on characterizing it as a false religion that believes that the popular will should always prevail in government (pp. 73–74). If Williamson is right, his definition would go some way toward explaining why so many are blind to the weaknesses of contemporary democracy and the possibility of its demise: The inevitability and permanence of democracy is an article of faith.
The first part of Williamson’s book traces the history of modern democracy from American independence up to the present, focusing on the U.S. and Britain. He believes that democracies have best flourished in periods during which they were imperfectly democratic. Both American and British democracy experienced their golden ages when the franchise was broad but not universal, and when educated men of property played the leading roles in political life. By the late nineteenth century, this “aristocratic balance” was lost. During World War I, governments mobilized their entire populations to fight and extended democracy more broadly than ever before. The war discredited European liberalism, which was blamed for the war and the weaknesses of multiethnic regimes that emerged from it. But the war did not discredit the democratic principle, which was pressed into the service of nationalism and socialism. It was only after World War II and the defeat of totalitarian National Socialism that liberal democracy was wholeheartedly embraced by peoples and governments. Until then, intellectuals were for the most part opposed to democracy. Men of letters as various as Stendahl, Matthew Arnold, Albert Camus, and T. S. Eliot expressed deep skepticism toward democracy. As Wyndham Lewis said, “No artist can ever love democracy.”
Williamson admires what Alfred Kahan called the aristocratic liberalism of Alexis de Tocqueville and others because they believed in popular government but were aware of its potential to threaten individual liberty, intellectual excellence, and the social bodies that make up civil society. While progressives of various stripes have sought to extend the principles of democracy from the political realm into civil society, conservatives have opposed this extension, believing with Tocqueville that nondemocratic social bodies in civil society counteracted dangerous tendencies in democratic politics. Williamson says that “it was in his fears, perhaps even more than in his hopes, that the author of Democracy in America proved himself to be a man of deep intuition and a true prophet of history.”(p. 40) But Tocqueville is more a point of departure than an interlocutor for Williamson because democracy has changed so much from his day to ours.
The second part of the book is a survey of the observations of other writers on democracy. Williamson uses the writings of Bertrand de Jouvenal, Jacques Ellul, Kenneth Minogue, Donald Livingston, Paul Rahe, and Pierre Manent to raise questions about a wide range of issues pertaining to the nature and future of democracy. For example, does universal suffrage inevitably bring about demand for a welfare state, one which not only weakens the people’s attachment to liberty but also promises financially unsustainable services? Can voters be expected to support cuts in popular social services that have been promised to them, even if they know there is no way to pay for them in the future? Does modern bureaucracy doom us to be governed by technocrats with only the pretense of popular government? Is meaningful democracy possible in political units containing as many as three or four hundred million inhabitants? Or do polities of that size make it impossible to know one another, judge our leaders, and deliberate reflectively about public affairs? Does the mass media, instead of facilitating more reflective deliberation about politics, actually make it more difficult? If democracy is a kind of political religion, as Williamson thinks, must it entail conflict with revealed religions?
It is worth pausing here to dissent from his interpretation of Catholic teaching concerning democracy. Williamson accepts a “hermeneutic of discontinuity” regarding the Church’s embrace of liberal democracy. He is correct to point out the deep tensions between liberal democracy’s commitment to individual rights and egalitarianism and the social and hierarchical nature of Catholicism. But he exaggerates the novelty of the Church’s acceptance of liberal democracy and makes it sound unqualified. In doing so, Williamson neglects the searching critiques of liberal democratic corruption found in the encyclicals of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Ultimately, the Church can tolerate any regime that promotes the common good. But recent popes have been skeptical that Western democracies can claim to do this when they, for example, make it a constitutional right to murder innocents in the womb.
Williamson has produced a useful introduction to thinking about the challenges facing contemporary democracies. His analysis compels the reader to confront the possibility that political regimes are not born immortal; they also evolve and eventually die. If his book provokes more serious engagement with those challenges, he will have performed a valuable service.