President Biden’s Sept. 1 speech in Philadelphia on “unity” is a poignant example of the confusion surrounding the concept of democracy. Mr. Biden declared that MAGA Republicans threaten “the very foundation of our republic.” The phrase a “threat to American democracy” is so common these days that it has almost no meaning—except that it encapsulates the ruling ideology of our time, an ideology so pervasive as to go almost unnoticed. It’s like the air we breathe.
I call it democracy. It is a fanciful and idealistic understanding of people’s rule that despises ordinary people and looks to a cadre of so-called experts to operate the levers of power. Under this ideology, “democracy” and “the people” are a rhetorical cover for the will of the elite. Consider social media’s censorship of misinformation in the name of “supporting democracy” and “maintaining free speech.” How can it be that censorship fits with maintaining freedom of expression?
“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is Strength” from Orwell’s “1984” comes to mind, but there is a long tradition in the West of this paradoxical interpretation of democracy. Enlightenment thinking, and arguably even Plato, advance that thought , that an ahistorical ideal of justice should serve as the primary guide to politics. Jean-Jacques Rousseau applied this idea in “The Social Contract.” The general will, says Rousseau, is what the popular will should be, even if it is not expressed of actual living people The general will conveniently requires the translation of a wise legislator for its instantiation.
Many of the most vocal champions of democracy, from Thomas Jefferson to the present day, have advocated this Rousseauian inversion, using the word “democracy” to justify what would otherwise be bare authoritarianism.
Jefferson is known for criticizing the Constitution on the grounds that it was not democratic enough and that a national government was a threat to liberty. This sounds democratic on its face, but a closer look reveals that he linked celebration of all people to a belief that an enlightened aristocracy would lead the people away from their more conservative social and religious instincts and towards a new age, free of the old superstitions and backward ways. “Thieves and briars can never become wine and olives,” Jefferson wrote in 1822. That’s not wrong, but it’s not democratic either. Jefferson derided his opponent John Adams as a “monocrat” and Adams’ administration a “witch’s reign”, largely because he believed Adams was insufficiently democratic.
Woodrow Wilson is another example of a Democrat. Remembered as an arch-democrat, he advocated some of the most undemocratic measures in American history. He set precedents that, until recently, would have struck most Americans as violations of the First Amendment. But now many on the left would view the Sedition Act of 1918—which made it illegal “by word or deed” to “oppose the cause of the United States”—as reasonable given Wilson’s promise to make the world safe for democracy. The related Espionage Act of 1917, which directed the postmaster general to censor news and publications critical of World War I, is a precursor to President Biden’s ill-fated Disinformation Board and his administration’s collaboration with Twitter and Facebook to censor dissent about Covid.
Barack Obama’s 2011 “We Can’t Wait” initiative was a descendant of Wilson’s policy by administrative fiat. We “can’t wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job,” declared Mr. Obama. “Where they won’t act, I will.” His desire to take the reins from the people’s elected representatives, undoubtedly “in the name of the people”, is another example of the paradoxical effect of democracy: Let me be the proper representative of the people, says the democrat.
The word “democracy” no longer indicates much about people’s rule. The word now simply refers to a hypothetical goal that gives those who invoke its holy name a mandate to do almost anything—even the opposite of what the people want.
America still breathes the musket fumes of 1776, and words that play to the fantasy of America’s founding—”liberty,” “democracy,” “free speech”—are sources of enormous power for the apparatuses that fight, pillage, and censor on behalf of those values . These abstract words help to maintain the facade of self-government.
Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that eventually an “immense and guiding force” would replace true popular government in America. People would accept their guidance, he says, because of their belief that they “hold the end of the chain themselves.” The soft despots of today will undoubtedly continue to use the democratic lexicon even as they transform the fiber of the republic. What better way to pre-empt the opposition than to simply declare it “a threat to our democracy”?
Mrs. Finley is the author of “The Ideology of Democracy.” She holds a doctorate in politics from The Catholic University of America.
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