Amid fierce and seemingly irreconcilable disagreements in politics today, the maxim of democratic superiority is continuous throughout. The invocation of “democracy” is the great equalizer — all political factions claim to be working to its benefit. Democracy signals and confers legitimacy. This sudden praise and embrace of democracy is nevertheless a fairly new phenomenon. Throughout the history of political philosophy, democracy was regarded among the worst political regimes. It was smeared especially for its tendency to descend into the brute imposition of force by one “partiality,” as Aristotle put it, over another, or an outright rejection of rule altogether, and driven above all by the resentment of the disaffected against their moral superiors. Today, those who stand against the rise of populist nationalism in America and across the world regularly invoke the specter of democracy as itself being under assault by heedless authoritarians. But this advocacy at times runs against the will of a legitimate democratic process — opposition to the Brexit referendum and the Presidency of Donald Trump in the name of “democracy” are two clear examples. In effect, democracy is used in keeping with electoral results or against electoral results as a defense of an implicit assumption of what constitutes democracy.
Well understood, the seemingly unrelenting emphasis on democracy today is not an indicator that we are living in among the most democratic of ages. Shrouding many contemporary appeals to democracy is a deeper and long-standing hostility to democracy born out of Enlightenment political thought — and one so internalized that seemingly inapplicable invocations of democracy against the “demos” are now force-of-habit. Perhaps above all, the politics of the Enlightenment were led by a belief in the legitimizing will of the people, which enshrined itself in the social contract theory. Although the social contract exists in many forms, its ruling principle was invoked by protoliberal Thomas Hobbes with the declaration that there can be “no obligation on any man which ariseth not from some act of his own.” In other words, my obligations are binding only because they are freely chosen. The assumption at the core of the social contract theory is that for a government to be considered legitimate, a quintessentially democratic moment of unanimous or near-unanimous consent was required. Validity is conferred by consent; therefore, citizens put themselves under the obligation to obey. This democratic affinity of early liberalism is evinced in the American Declaration of Independence when it reads, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Although a democratic spirit imbued much of early liberal thought during the Enlightenment, it was simultaneously the legitimizing mechanism for a radically privatistic and individualistic end of government. The Founding Fathers of America were deeply influenced by John Locke and his contemporaries, not only during the lead-up to the American Revolution and eventual split from Great Britain but in their conceiving of the new constitutional government. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison — the architect of the U.S. Constitution — argued that the first object of the new government would be the protection of the “diversity in the facilities of men.“ The motive of government is protection of the natural abilities that we all have — albeit in diverse quantities — and which manifest in the varied and unequal obtainment of private property and material possessions. Madison went as far as to argue that property rights originate and stem from the “diversity in the facilities of men” — a close parallel to the defense of private property made by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government. Government, in Madison's eyes, exists to protect the greatest possible sphere of individual liberty and does so through the active encouragement of self-interest and by “extending the sphere;” that is, creating a larger and thereby more diverse political entity that would “make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.” By taking in a larger variety of opinions, it would inhibit the ability of citizens to concert at length and infringe on private power. Indeed, friction in the polity was Madison's goal all along: he hoped that this initiative would exacerbate levels of reciprocal distrust and make ordinary people less likely to communicate as to their shared political fate, in ways Alexis de Tocqueville would argue “enlarges the heart.” Realizing their comparative powerlessness in the public realm, citizens would instead focus their efforts on private pursuits. Positions in public office would allure exclusively the ambitious and those who are naturally drawn to power — those who Madison called “fit characters.” The corresponding enlargement of the central government, meanwhile, would be channeled to increase individual prospects for private endeavors. In the Madisonian vision, the public sphere was to promote private ends; in doing so, it would inhibit expansive forms of democratic life that would potentially jeopardize private power. Alexander Hamilton, co-author of the Federalist Papers, complemented Madison’s argument with the assertion that the central government must have a claim to an incalculable and thus “indefinite” amount of power (particularly in the realm of foreign affairs) if the United States was to be a commercial republic. In other words, if the market mechanisms of America were to expand to a global dimension, the government would have to expand to “defend that commerce,” in the words of Hamilton himself. The Founding Fathers were aware that if their architecture was well designed, people’s allegiance would shift from their natural affections for their local and particular communities and instead on the power and magnificence of capital. In sum, an apparent acclamation of democracy by the thinkers of the Enlightenment was understood alternatively as limiting any further democratic claims.
The vast inequalities facilitated by Enlightenment liberalism led to a new wave of liberalism — sometimes called progressive liberalism — that attacked the rights-based theories of property essential to incipient liberalism. Its leading thinkers argued that a collective understanding of property would lead to a more universal enjoyment of liberal freedom. In many ways, progressive liberalism was a testimony to the wild successes of classical liberalism in theory and praxis. Progressive liberals nevertheless understood that the mere reallocation of property and material goods would do little to dislodge the traditional cultural views that seemed always to accompany a society that defended property rights. Progressive liberals attacked the privatistic individualism bound up with property rights at the same time as advancing their own conception of social individualism. Progressive liberalism sought to do what classical liberalism had done in the political sphere, in the social realm.
A representative exemplar of this new individualism is English philosopher and early-modern liberal John Stuart Mill. In the exposition of his seminal work On Liberty, Mill discusses government oppression, which he deems an axiomatic evil that society requires to be on its guard. He then claims that the weight of public opinion — expressed through custom — is analogous to such tyranny and possibly even more disconcerting because it could one day be inscribed into coercive law in a democratic society and that the state must act accordingly. Informal mechanisms of social pressure and expectation could, in mass democratic societies, be all-controlling. He writes, “Society can and does execute its own mandates…. it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compels all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.” Here, Mill shifts the needle in regards to the role of government. In the classical liberal tradition, the state was rendered merely an impartial political body with the principal duty to protect negative freedoms — the state, along Millian lines, is used alternatively to forcefully disrupt the obtrusive vestiges of culture — what he witheringly calls the “despotism of custom.” The state would actively protect the expression of individuality from the stultifying conformity of social pressure, which was an enemy far worse than government tyranny because it was so pervasive, unreflective, and hard to pinpoint. Mill justifies a concentration of power in the direction of forcing its constituents to be free and indifferent. He thought that custom must be overruled, so the few who seek to live according to personal choices in the absence of social norms and decencies are at greatest liberty to do so.
Above all, Mill sought to expand the sphere for the expression of individuality. Protecting this sphere, in turn, Mill believed, would spur great transformation, innovation, and ingenuity — what he called “experiments in living.” Conversely, the “despotism of custom” would thwart the more innovative, experimental, and exploratory kinds of lives that would be lived especially by a minority of citizens. For this reason, Mill argued that a society premised on “experiments in living” must be dominated by the best over the ordinary. The modern democratic age would require that those who are most enlightened are at the helm. This would be achieved particularly through the inegalitarian distribution of voting rights, where those with higher educational attainment would be given more votes. In his work Considerations on Representative Government, Mill outlines a plural voting system by which a select few — evaluated on harsh criterion — would be afforded weighted votes. This end is still achieved today through more unobtrusive and subtle means — the manipulation of public opinion by cultural elites through their monopoly on media, education, journalism, and the administration of privatized political propaganda to ensure the people vote, think, and act in lockstep.
The real crisis of democracy is that two ends of the same coin are engaged in a match of tug of war whose climax is somehow a win for both sides. While classical liberalism promoted the liberation of the individual in the economic realm, progressive liberalism focused on the liberation of the individual from stifling forms of tradition and custom. Both iterations of liberalism, albeit in their unique ways, sought to protect a sphere of individuality that would enable people to pursue their particular ends unimpeded and fashion for themselves the good life. The deepest irony is that, while our politics today is described as a clash of classical liberals against progressive liberals, we have, by all accounts, simultaneously achieved more liberation in both the realms of economics and personal life. The kind of individuality envisioned by Mill requires and benefits from the economic liberation all but ensured by the Hamiltonian globe-straddling marketplace. Likewise, the rampant inequality anticipated and lauded by Locke and Madison encourages and allows for the fluid sense of self realized in a liberalized social order. The effects of this convergence are accumulating everywhere we look. Perhaps the largest political agenda in recent years has been the effort to legally and socially recognize homosexual marriage. The wealthy and mass corporations unsurprisingly claimed the mantle of LBGTQ advocacy, aligning themselves with the proponents of Mill’s “experiments in living” — and they’ve triumphed massively. Public support for homosexual marriage in America has essentially inverted over the last decade. And yet, all the while, heterosexual marriage is in complete disarray, especially among the lower echelons of the income distribution. We all fight for the right to marriage, but there is no faction fighting for marriage, or on behalf of marriage — today’s society both psychologically and financially disincentivizes marriage and long-term commitment. It becomes quite clear who benefits from Mill’s “experiments in living,” and who does not. The elites promote the further disassembling of custom and increasing economic globalization precisely because a borderless society shorn of custom works to their benefit.
But is this authentic democracy? Are we today living in a well-functioning democratic order? If democracy is defined as a condition of severe social atomization with limited political participation, a scarcity of civic literacy, class anxiety and insecurity, and pervasive unrest and social upheaval, we are living in among the most democratic of ages. But if democracy is defined alternatively as a condition in which people deliberate in the kinds of ways Alexis de Tocqueville argued expands our worldview and makes us better people and practice a form of self-government through the development of civic capacities, then we are living in among the least democratic of ages. The thinkers whose intellectual heirs frequently appeal to democracy were all, ironically, hostile to democracy and seeking to constrain democratic energies in one way or another.