Democracy and despotism of the majority

As political predictions go it took a good deal longer to unfold than he may have expected, but it rings a great deal truer than much of the pundtitry of our time.

Have we at last entered an age when our masters can in fact do that which we were warned to fear most – those who can destroy not only the body but also the soul, and I’m not referring to the speculations of Donald Tusk about the eternal destiny of his adversaries in the Battle of Brexit. It is a fearful prospect.

Fetters and headsmen were the coarse instruments which tyranny formerly employed; but the civilization of our age has refined the arts of despotism… The excesses of monarchical power had devised a variety of physical means of oppression: the democratic republics of the present day have rendered it as entirely an affair of the mind…

Under the absolute sway of an individual despot the body was attacked in order to subdue the soul, and the soul escaped the blows which were directed against it and rose superior to the attempt; but such is not the course adopted by tyranny in democratic republics; there the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved.

These were words written nearly 200 years ago. They described an anticipated tyranny whose seed was seen in the very structure of the evolving democracy of the United States of America. For a number of reasons – geographical, institutional and cultural – that seed did not germinate or flower in the lifetime of the author of those words. Nor did it flower in the lifetime of many of the subsequent generations – until now. 

In the past several decades, with the shrinking of the world and the spread of democracy, what Alexis de Tocqueville feared might happen to the fledgling democratic polity of the United States is now to be feared across much of the globe. Indeed it may no longer be just a fear. It may be our lived experience.

This lived experience is already a reality in the United States and is preoccupying any number of thinkers in that country who are contemplating the unfolding of many of the dangers feared by de Tocqueville. Among them are Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic, and Patrick Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed  (Yale University Press, 2018). On this side of the Atlantic, Douglas Murray engaged with the same issues in The Strange Death of Europe.

In Levin’s view the late 1960s and the bulk of the 1970s constituted the darkest, most ominous time in America’s post-war path-—it was the moment when we could no longer deny that something fundamental was changing and that, in some profound way, America seemed to be coming apart under the pressure of “the forces of individualism, decentralization, deconsolidation, fracture, and diffusion.”

Levin is not a pessimist. Neither is Deneen, who argues that the flawed foundations of liberalism have led us into a dangerous cul de sac. This unsustainable politics has provoked a reaction which has brought us into a culture war – bordering on a “cold” civil war – which is going to get worse before it gets better. Both see a hard time ahead.

What is truly remarkable is that de Tocqueville foresaw this nearly two centuries ago, foresaw it happening at the moment which mankind abandoned that understanding of itself which identified human solidarity as the key to a politics of peace and prosperity. While he was fascinated by the great good he saw in the democratic politics of America in the 1830s, it did not blind him to a certain paradox he perceived in the system.

De Tocqueville, grappling with that paradox, wrote in Democracy in America that he held it to be “an impious and an execrable maxim that, politically speaking, a people has a right to do whatsoever it pleases”, even though he still asserted that all authority resides in the will of the majority. What de Tocqueville feared – and what we now have stalking the body politic of numerous nations across the world – was the tyranny which the apparently simple and benign concept of majority rule seemed to forebode.

We now identify these as populist movements – and they occupy all sectors of the political spectrum, all equally threatening to our freedoms. What do they all have in common? They are movements riding, with passionate intensity, on waves of emotion and prejudice. They have abandoned the principles of justice and have replaced them with the principles of power and majority rule. They simply neither accept nor recognise that majority rule is no more than a technique by which we organise government, not a principle of justice. They are technocrats, not democrats. They are those who consider themselves not to be populists but to be “on the right side of history” while their opponents are the populists.

De Tocqueville saw it this way:

A general law—which bears the name of Justice—has been made and sanctioned, not only by a majority of this or that people, but by a majority of mankind. The rights of every people are consequently confined within the limits of what is just.

When I refuse to obey an unjust law, I do not contest the right which the majority has of commanding, but I simply appeal from the sovereignty of the people to the sovereignty of mankind. It has been asserted that a people can never entirely outstep the boundaries of justice and of reason in those affairs which are more peculiarly its own, and that consequently, full power may fearlessly be given to the majority by which it is represented. But this language is that of a slave.

Majority rule is a dangerous Leviathan in a society where relativism has resulted in Justice being denied as a universal principle. For that reason he is of the opinion that while in practical terms one social power must always be made to predominate over the others, liberty is endangered when the vehemence of this power is unchecked because it is the inalienable will of the people.

Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power. But no power upon earth is so worthy of honor for itself, or of reverential obedience to the rights which it represents, that I would consent to admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on a people or upon a king, upon an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I recognize the germ of tyranny…

But it is his observations on the power of public opinion, in league with the tyrannies he foresees, that he most prescient and worrying.

Even in his day he saw public opinion in the United States as being far more influential than in Europe. In America, he argues, “as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, a submissive silence is observed, and the friends, as well as the opponents, of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety.”

I know no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America. In any constitutional state in Europe every sort of religious and political theory may be advocated and propagated abroad… But in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organized like those of the United States, there is but one sole authority, one single element of strength and of success, with nothing beyond it.

Is he exaggerating here? Even if he was in terms of what prevailed in his own time, it is certainly not an exaggeration for our time. The Republic of Ireland might be taken as a sample of what the prevailing democracy now offers the dissenter. A two thirds electoral majority effectively legalized abortion there last year. Immediately the defeated minority was jeered at and told by the victorious majority, “It’s over.”  Months later, a public representative, one of those who defended to right to life  of the nation’s pre-born children, was shouted at in the street, “Ha, you lost”.

The reality is, the dangerous reality is, that power exercised in this way, as was done by the Democratic Party’s populist regime under the Obama administrations, produces a populist counter response and gives us the Presidency of Donald Trump.

De Tocqueville foresaw this kind of culture crippling freedom of thought and speech. He argues that within the barriers set by public opinion, the opinion of the majority, an author may write whatever he pleases, but he will repent it if he ever step beyond them.

Not that he is exposed to the terrors of an auto-da-fe, but he is tormented by the slights and persecutions of daily obloquy. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority which is able to promote his success. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before he published his opinions he imagined that he held them in common with many others; but no sooner has he declared them openly than he is loudly censured by his overbearing opponents, whilst those who think without having the courage to speak, like him, abandon him in silence. He yields at length, oppressed by the daily efforts he has been making, and he subsides into silence, as if he was tormented by remorse for having spoken the truth.

He imagines this new sovereign power, this new Leviathan, saying to its subjects,

You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people… Your fellow-creatures will shun you like an impure being, and those who are most persuaded of your innocence will abandon you too, lest they should be shunned in their turn. Go in peace! I have given you your life, but it is an existence comparably worse than death.”

How real all this now seems for the defeated and politically marginalized “losers” of Ireland’s battles for life and natural marriage? They are experiencing life as envisaged by Adrian Vermeule, Professor of Constitutional Law in Harvard Business School, when he summed up in First Things,the forms that “death” is now taking in the heart of our liberal democracies:

Progressive liberalism has its own cruel sacraments—especially the shaming and, where possible, legal punishment of the intolerant or illiberal—and its own liturgy, the Festival of Reason, the ever-repeated overcoming of the darkness of reaction. Because the celebration of the festival essentially requires, as part of its liturgical script, a reactionary enemy to be overcome, liberalism ceaselessly and restlessly searches out new villains to play their assigned part. Thus the boundaries of progressive demands for conformity are structurally unstable, fluid, and ever shifting, not merely contingently so—there can be no lasting peace. Yesterday the frontier was divorce, contraception, and abortion; then it became same-sex marriage; today it is transgenderism; tomorrow it may be polygamy, consensual adult incest, or who knows what?

De Tocqueville concluded that monarchical institutions of the past had thrown odium upon despotism. Let us beware, he said, lest democratic republics should restore oppression, and should render it – despotism – less odious and less degrading in the eyes of the many, by making it still more onerous to the few.

Have we disregarded his warning, to our cost?

The great manipulator strikes again

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In spite of all the blustering tweets, conservatives in America – and indeed across the world – probably feel that President Trump hasn’t actually done anything to harm us yet. The tone of his regime is bit of a problem but our culture is probably robust enough to recover its decorum. The rawer end of mainstream media, Hollywood and elements operating in social media bear far more responsibility for the coarsening our our discourse that the Donald has.

The rhetoric of his foreign policy is hopefully very different from the actual policy being pursued. As rhetoric, it is pretty unerving. For the people across the world who took the risk of pinning their flags to his mast, he has not – as yet – done anything to really make them regret doing that. He kept the Clinton dynasty out of the White House and for that alone they are still happy to live with a bit of risk.

Fraser Nelson in today’s Daily Telegraph puts the whole Trump project in a sensible context. As he sees it, Trump just wants to keep people talking about the things which he feels they need to talk about. The most recent twitter outrage is one perpetrated to get Europe thinking about an immigration problem which no one – with the exception of Douglas Murray – seems to accept for what it really is – an invasion.

Fraser’s assessment should allay the worries which some might have – for another few months at least. He also estimates that the Trump risk may be something that all of us will have to live with for another seven years. Fasten your seat belts. He writes, in his concluding remarks:

A few weeks ago, I met an American fund manager who calculated that his father – who quarried sand in Long Island – would be paid 45 per cent less today if he was still working. This, he said, was why Trump won: because globalisation, immigration and automation are conspiring against the ordinary American and no one else (other than the vanquished Bernie Sanders) seemed to care. The aim of the Trump project, from the get-go, was to convey this anger, a sense that they understood the desperation (a word that those around Trump often use) of the American working class.

Team Trump’s other working assumption is that partisanship now governs American politics. That the Reagan era was the last one with politicians who fought in wars together, and were bound together by a shared experience. Today, it’s tribal – and the winner is the one that best enthuses their core supporters. Much is made of Trump’s low national approval ratings but among Republicans they’re pretty high: 81 per cent, at the last count. So it’s probable that he’ll be a two-term president.

It’s very rare for any American president, no matter how unpopular, to lose a bid for reelection in a growing economy – and even now, there are no signs that the Democrats will find a decent candidate to pit against Trump. He might tire of the job, fake an illness or implode for some other unthinkable reason. But we might well have to live with The Donald for another seven years. The trick will be to take him seriously, but not literally – and as far as is decently possible, ignore those tweets.

Sleepwalking over a precipice?

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Dreaming dreams is one thing. Living in them is another. Visions of our future do not have a great history. A much better pathway to the future is along the trajectory on which our history has already put us. The Irishman’s advice to the straying traveler who is looking for directions, “If  I was you Sir, I wouldn’t start from here at all,” is about as practical as most visionary Geo-political pursuits are. Martin Luther King had a dream. It was a noble vision, and while it brought African Americans some way along the freedom road, it has left in its wake more disappointment than achievement. The quality of life he dreamed of for his people is still just that, a dream.

The European Union is built on a dream. It is a dream which was also generated by an admirable ideal – peace among men and an end to war. But with each decade that passes, as the project stumbles from crisis to crisis, the warning signs are more and more evident that the visionary foundations of its structure are illusory and woefully inadequate for the gigantic and cumbersome edifice it dreams of becoming.

The cultural differences between the peoples of Britain and continental Europe are at the heart of Brexit. Rooted as they are in “the Anglo-Saxon way” and pragmatic as they have always been, the British majority have called time on the European dream. They are pursuing their democraticly and constitutionally exercised decision with characteristic doggedness – despite the scorn of their neighbours across the Irish Sea and the English Channel.

And yet, in spite the sinister rumblings of regional nationalism in Spain, the signals of discontent coming from Poland and Hungary, the sizable minorities in France, Netherlands and Austria, all unhappy with a perceived overreach by the patronizing bureaucracy of this visionary Union, its leadership persists in proclaiming its ideology of the Communion of all Europe’s people. Just now it is Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission, and Emmanuel Marcon, France’s new President, are the latest victims of European myopia.

Back in 2013 it was José Manuel Barroso, then the President of the Commission, when he gave a speech calling for a “new narrative” for Europe. But it wasn’t really a new narrative, it was really a call for the great and the good of the Union to step up to the plate and proclaim the ideal again for the generation of the new millennium. He just wanted to use the old wineskin of the Union into which he would put some newly fermented wine. We have been warned about what that can lead to.

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José Manuel Barroso
Anne Applebaum, in a survey of a recent batch of books on the predicament of Europe in the New York Review of Books, recalls this speech.

Barroso, she writes—like many, many others—saw which way the wind was blowing even then. Europe’s leaders seemed technocratic and remote—and they knew it. Europe’s political institutions were unpopular. The euro crisis had left numerous people angry and resentful. Worse, younger Europeans seemed not to get the point of the union at all. Barroso made a proposal:

I think we need, in the beginning of the XXI century, namely for the new generation that is not so much identified with this narrative of Europe, to continue to tell the story of Europe. Like a book: it cannot only stay in the first pages, even if the first pages were extremely beautiful. We have to continue our narrative, continue to write the book of the present and of the future. This is why we need a new narrative for Europe.

Barosso’s initiative recruited artists, writers, and scientists from across the continent who signed a declaration: “In light of the current global trends, the values of human dignity and democracy must be reaffirmed.” A book was published, The Mind and Body of Europe: A New Narrative. Debates and dialogues were held throughout the continent and the objective was to create a strong sense of European federal identity.

But this is precisely how dreamers – we call them idealists when we think we like them – work and get political life wrong. Real practical politics grows out of real life, not out of dreamed up grandiose schemes.

Applebaum writes that while it’s easy for Anglo-Saxons to laugh, many modern European states were created by precisely this kind of top-down campaign—”think of the unification of Italy or Germany in the nineteenth century, or the resurrection of Poland after World War I.”

They were, and they were not. In all those cases there was a bottom up force at work as well as a top down design. This has never really been true for Europe. Even the United States of America, which might be the closest model on which the European Union could base itself, would be a very false template to use. The United States was forged out of living political realities – an over-reaching and uncomprehending imperial authority – and a subsequent immigrant colonisation with which the new Republic had great trouble controlling. It was unable to hold itself together without creating rivers of blood among the indigenous people and the sacrifice of 750,000 lives in a civil war which is still reverberating under the surface.

And as Barosso found out, dreamt-up intellectual projects without roots in the native soil did not work for his “new narrative”. While Barroso’s project had some of the elements, Applebaum observes, of a popular national movement: intellectual and artistic support, a consistent idea, an inspiring concept, it was not popular and it died the death of most dreams.

In her reading of the books she reviews Applebaum detects no more agreement between them than was evident among the great and good that Barosso vainly tried to enlist to the cause of Europe.

With a little glimmer of the light which Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, aka, Joseph Ratzinger, shed on this subject she notes that the problem isn’t one of national differences. The issues that separate the authors she reviews “are temperamental, ideological, and even, one might say, eschatological.” And there’s the rub. The heart has gone out of Europe. The only coherent identity which Europe ever had as an entity has been abandoned.

In Values in a Time of Upheaval: Meeting the Challenges of the Future, Ratzinger noted how

At the beginning of the 1960s it was still possible for Arnold Toynbee to express his optimism about the victory of European culture. He wrote that of the twenty-eight cultures that had been identified (around the planet), eighteen were already dead; and of the ten that still existed, nine had already visibly collapsed, so that only one—ours, the European—remained. Who would dare to say that today? And what is “our” culture, which allegedly still remains? Is the civilization of technology and commerce that has spread victoriously throughout the world our “European culture”?

Now, he says, in the very hour of its most extreme “success”, Europe seems to have become empty from within. Its life seems threatened by a crisis of circulation, and it almost seems to need a transfusion of blood—but that would destroy its own identity. In keeping with this dying of the elemental forces that expressed the soul, the reduced number of births makes one suspect that Europe is also dying out in ethnic terms.

Even in the 1960s Toynbee conceded that the “Western world” was in a crisis. He identified roots of that crisis in the falling away from religion to embrace a cult of technology, of the nation, and of militarism. Ultimately, Ratzinger reminds us, Toynbee identified the crisis as secularism. “But if we can name the cause of the crisis, we can also indicate the path to healing: the religious element must be reintroduced. Toynbee holds that this element includes the religious patrimony of all cultures, but especially what remains of Western Christianity.”

Ratzinger talks of the collapse of Communism and implies that this brought with it a kind of false dawn of a new age. For him the real catastrophe that the Communist regimes left behind was not economic, it was the devastation of souls, the destruction of moral consciousness. He holds that the fundamental contemporary problem for Europe and for the world is the almost total silence about the moral and religious problems that were the real heart of the Communist aberration.

Christian ideals are real ideals, not dreams. They are the very stuff of life and death, of human conception, birth, living with our feet on the ground but with our heads, through the medium of body and soul, in Heaven. This was part of the original inspiration of the practical political men who set the European Union on its path. This has been wilfully abandoned.

As Ratzinger puts it: The initial enthusiasm for a return to the great constant elements of the Christian heritage soon evaporated, and European unification proceeded almost exclusively from the economic perspective. Scant attention was paid to the question of the intellectual foundations of such a community.

Applebaum concludes her assessment of our prospects recalling an observation by a
European diplomat of her acquaintance who likes to compare Europe and the US to the Western and Eastern halves of the old Roman Empire. The West imploded, with drama, violence and crazy Caesars; the Byzantine East lingered on, bureaucratic, stodgy, and predictable, for many centuries. It’s not exactly an optimistic precedent for Europeans, but it’s a comforting one.

It might be comforting until we remember the ultimate fate of that stodgy old empire. It was overrun by Islam. The book which Applebaum does not include in her review is Douglas Murray’s best-selling The Strange Death of Europe, published in May. She might have done and had she it might have shattered any comfort her diplomat friend was seeking to convey to us.

Our European masters may not be just dreaming. They may be sleepwalking and leading us over a precipice.