Amid fierce and seemingly irreconcilable disagreements in politics today, the maxim of liberal democracy as the sole legitimate form of rule is continuous throughout. Democracy is viewed through a teleological lens as the ultimate end-station of human political evolution. Whatever our disagreements, almost everyone converges in their belief in the necessity of protecting the sanctity of democracy worldwide. Nevertheless, this sudden praise and embrace of democracy is a fairly new phenomenon. In fact, throughout the history of political philosophy, democracy was regarded as among the worst and most undesirable forms of political organization. For the Greeks, in particular, democracy was not to be seen through a teleological framework as a natural good in itself. Democracy was instead to be instrumentalized, compared, and weighed, as such, against other regime types and 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 illiberal 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; 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. John Locke specified this end in his Second Treatise of Government, writing that the purpose of positive law is not to “abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge” freedom. On the liberal view, government is a means to secure and safeguard the end of individual liberty. The Founding Fathers of America were deeply influenced by Locke and his philosophy, 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 faculties of men.” The role of government is the protection of the natural talents and abilities that we all have — albeit in diverse quantities — which manifest in the varied and unequal obtainment of private property and material possessions. Government, in other terms, exists to protect the greatest possible sphere of individual liberty and does so through the active encouragement of self-interest by what Madison called “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 potentially infringe on private power.
Friction and disunity in the polity were Madison's goals all along: he anticipated that “extending the sphere” 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 achievable private pursuits and aims. In turn, positions in public office would allure exclusively the ambitious and those who are naturally drawn to power — those who Madison called “fit characters,” who would not be unduly bound to the will of the electorate but would instead “refine and enlarge“ the public sentiment. The corresponding augmentation 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 forms of direct participatory democracy that could potentially imperil 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 become a commercial republic. Put another way, if the market mechanisms of America were to expand to a global dimension, the government would have to expand accordingly in size and scope to “defend that commerce.” The government was to ensure the private space necessary for the greatest possible realization of the “diversity in the faculties of men,” and, by extension, discouraging public participation and attentiveness in favor of individual private pursuits. 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 to the power and magnificence of capital.
The arguments laid out in The Federalist Papers were, in significant part, a reaction to the circumstances in America at the time. The very same year James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay published The Federalist Papers under the pseudonym Publius, a populist rebellion took hold in the western part of Massachusetts called “Shay’s Rebellion.” In response to early government policies thought to have been promoting poverty and economic inequality, a coalition of disillusioned farmers — led by Daniel Shays, for whom the rebellion was eventually named — attacked courthouses and government properties, which struck fear in the hearts of affluent property owners and political elites. The inability of the then decentralized U.S. government to quell the internal rebellion led to a new vision for the Constitution that prized a much stronger and more centralized federal government. Such a government was necessary to have the capacity to restrain demotic energies, not only by the creation of a domestic army but by giving sufficient power to the elites of society. In sum, an apparent acclamation of democracy by the thinkers of the Enlightenment was understood alternatively as limiting any further democratic claims.
The vast material 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 practice. 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. Hence 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 opening of his seminal work On Liberty, Mill discusses government tyranny, which he deems an axiomatic evil but one nevertheless that modern constitutionalism had made obsolete. 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 people 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 a 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 elites. For this reason, Mill argued that a society premised on “experiments in living” must be dominated by the best over the ordinary. Indeed, Mill was forthright in his belief that such a society would be especially beneficial for the most educated, the most creative, the most innovative, and the most adventurous. By unleashing extraordinary individuals from the rule of custom, he believed, we could transform the whole of society. Hence the modern democratic age would require that those who are most enlightened are at the helm. For Mill, this would be achieved by 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 strict criteria — would be afforded weighted votes. This end is still achieved today through more unobtrusive and subtle means — namely, the manipulation of public opinion by cultural elites through their monopoly on media, education, journalism, and the administration of both public and 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 in fact 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 been wildly successful. Public acceptance and support for homosexual marriage in America have essentially inverted over the last decade. And yet, all the while, marriage as an institution is in complete shambles, particularly among the lower echelons of the income distribution. Indeed, the more straitened your economic circumstances, the less likely you are to marry and the more likely you are to divorce if married. We all fight for the right of homosexuals to marry, but there is no one today fighting on behalf of marriage — our 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. It is not a coincidence that those with the most private power are also those who are most socially progressive.
Today’s elites promote the further disassembling of custom and the increasing globalization of the economy precisely because a borderless society shorn of custom works to their benefit. The elites are uniquely capable of adapting to globalization and navigating a deinstitutionalized world without too much difficulty. Like aristocrats of old, today’s ruling elite often forms social networks without reference to national borders; indeed, the modern nation-state, for today’s elites, is no more than a barrier, burden, or limitation on their ongoing pursuit of “experiments in living.” It becomes imperative, then, for emerging elites to challenge, discredit, and abandon the moral and institutional fabric of a more traditional society that prized the nation-state as a source of security and valued prevailing norms and customs as securing pathways to human flourishing for ordinary people. As historian and social critic Christopher Lasch notes in his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, today’s ruling class has a ceaseless tendency to extend “the range of personal choice in matters where most people feel the need of solid moral guidelines.”
A political architecture in America that sought to bolster an elite political class at the expense of popular energies has been wildly and incontrovertibly successful. Citizens feel only tenuously connected to their representatives, whose role was to “refine and enlarge the public views;” every institution of government shows declining levels of public trust by the citizenry, whose burgeoning cynicism culminated in a mass demonstration of discontent on January 6th, 2021. Middle America has been put out of mind and even overtly disparaged by today’s elites — epitomized by Hillary Clinton’s pronouncement that half of Donald Trump’s voters were “irredeemable” and belonged in a “basket of deplorables” — whose inhabitants are characterized by their devotion to “family values,” religious commitment, and their strong ethos of communal solidarity. All attempts to give voice to the working classes’ anxieties over immigration, over the impacts on their lives of globalization and the routing of custom, are matched by a relentless barrage of pejoratives meant to dismiss or silence their concerns. For the liberal elite, the indigenous working class comes to symbolize everything that stands in the way of progress, innovation, and advancement.
It is precisely this gaping divide between rulers and their subjects that ignited the unraveling national populist movement that began with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. Not at all coincidentally, both democratically legitimate processes were smeared as “undemocratic” by a chorus of elites who, in invoking “democracy” against electoral results, were not defending democracy but rather defending liberalism against the sentiment of the illiberal demos James Madison and John Stuart Mill alike dreaded and feared. Today’s elites — who have otherwise claimed the democratic mantle — have, in fact, become so unbelievably anti-democratic (in the sense that they refuse to defer to the will of the electorate) precisely because they lack trust in the majority to advance those liberal causes that will ultimately help the elites to the detriment of the working class. In the eyes of the liberal elites, democracy should be endorsed as a set of liberal assumptions within the confines of which the demos must vote for an electoral result to be considered democratic. When the demos vote against those assumptions, the result is to be considered “illiberal” or “undemocratic” — or a combination of the two. Journalists and pundits who identify both with the political left and the political right regularly invoke the specter of “illiberal democracy” as a grave threat to liberal democracy. So, for all the emphasis on 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. Both classical liberalism and progressive liberalism sought to use the power of government to promote an end of maximizing individual autonomy and self-expression; this end, however, was, in fact, hostile to expansive forms of participatory democracy. The thinkers whose intellectual heirs frequently appeal to democracy were all, ironically, antagonistic to democracy and seeking to constrain democratic energies in one way or another.