The masses are respectable hands at fighting, but miserable hands at judging.—G. W. F. Hegel misquoting Goethe
Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.—President John Adams
America was founded as a republic: a democracy with an aristocratic overlay. As John Marshall, the first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, observed, “Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.” The chaos that the Founding Fathers feared was the tyranny of the majority: “a democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51 percent of the people may take away the rights of the other 49,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. So they introduced various antidemocratic principles and institutions as speed bumps to prevent pile-ups on the road, and these went far beyond the choice—inevitable in a large country with a widely dispersed population—to eschew the kind of direct democracy that operated in ancient Athens, in which citizens could come out to the agora to debate and vote on legislation. The American plan called for such moderating institutions as the unelected justices of the Supreme Court, appointed for life and entirely insulated from political oversight, the US Senate’s two-per-state counterbalance to the population-proportionate delegations sent by the states to the House of Representatives and the figure of the president himself, who stands above the rest. There is also, of course, the constitutional requirement that the president be chosen not by the direct vote of citizens, but rather, via electors, which was envisioned as a far more robust counterweight to democracy than it has since become. Alexander Hamilton makes clear in Federalist 68 that the idea behind the Electoral College was to vest ultimate discretion in those likely to be wiser and more informed than the common man:
It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.
In our present age, dissatisfaction with the conduct and results of elections has driven increasingly urgent pleas to unwind a good many of these moderating influences. Calls to end lifetime appointment of Supreme Court Justices and to replace the Electoral College with a national popular vote have taken aim at foundational practices built into the original American blueprint. Few have been as eloquent in support of such constitutional reforms as Lawrence Lessig, who has tirelessly advocated a host of substantial revisions to our system of elections. These include the elimination of the Electoral College, an end to giving small-population states like Wyoming the same number of senators as large-population states like New York or California and, most importantly, public funding of campaigns in order to get money and corruption out of politics. Lessig’s reforms are principally intended to get the country back into the hands of the American people by mitigating the outsized influence that unrepresentative and often elite segments of our society currently wield over election outcomes. The goal sounds salutary, and James Madison himself might have been a supporter, if his words in Federalist 39 are any indication:
It is essential to such a government [democracy] that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honorable title of republic.
Yet Lessig’s proposed reforms, if they were to be implemented in our contemporary political climate, would sink us even deeper into dysfunction. They would unleash precisely the kind of chaos—or, in Madison’s terms in Federalist 10, “spectacles of turbulence and contention”—of which the Founding Fathers were afraid. All the pent-up frustration and rage now stymied by our herky-jerky system full of stumbling blocks, roadblocks, detours and outright U-turns would boil over. The opacity, corruption, swampiness and bogged-down stasis of our politics—all those features that stifle expressions of popular will, lead people to feel hopeless, disaffected and apathetic and get them to turn away from politics entirely—are, given the current state of the electorate, virtues rather than vices. A future may come when Americans will be ready and able to play a more direct role in their own governance without burning down the house in which they live. But for that, more fundamental changes than the ones Lessig proposes will be necessary.
For the we-need-more-democracy crowd, the principal reason Americans feel alienated from their own government is that they are alienated from the reins of power. Give people the keys to the castle, and, it is assumed, they will be able to enact their own priorities and come closer to the ideal of a government by the people and for the people, a government that people will feel is truly their own. But, for G. W. F. Hegel, the originator of our modern-day concept of alienation, a healthy society has three layers, with the atomic individual or family at the base and the state at the apex, but with a critical middle layer, the level of civil society (what Robert Nisbet calls “intermediate associations”) that bonds individuals together and orients them toward common ends. If, Hegel argues, a society lacks that essential stratum, when individuals look up and see the state looming over them, they will not see themselves as reflected in its institutions. The state will appear strange, authoritarian and ultimately alienating.
“The Many, as units—a congenial interpretation of ‘people,’ are of course something connected, but they are connected only as an aggregate, a formless mass whose commotion and activity could therefore only be elementary, irrational, barbarous and frightful,” writes Hegel in the Philosophy of Right. For the mass to become a people and a nation, individuals first have to come together in associations, guilds, corporations, village communities and other bodies that structure their lives. Like a stable family rearing a petulant toddler into a functional adult able to live and play well with others, these associations and institutions initiated people into a norm-bound communal existence before they came together to form a nation, armed them with shared expectations, common standards and socially accepted measures of worldly success and, given sufficient time, molded their most basic preferences. The result of this organic process is that the state emerges as a natural outgrowth of its component parts, rather than an alienating imposition from above. The role of the state is to keep all parts of the well-oiled machine coordinated and efficiently moving in the same general direction. Neither Marxian class conflict nor tribal identitarian warfare can prevail in a polity structured along these lines because the Hegelian state completes us and expresses our desires, rather than whipping us into shape or descending into fragmentation, polarization and chaos.
When individuals and their private interests are first harmonized by the institutions of civil society, what emerges is an identification between the private interest and the common interest, the individual will and what Rousseau calls the “general will.” Then, without any need for communism, the individual identifies with the state, and no distinction is left between the government and the governed, between private and public ends. Parochial class, group and tribal interests vanish into a general moral unity.
This model is an ideal, which may work in small and relatively homogeneous communities, but is destined to fail in large, diverse nations like the US. Rather than admit defeat, however, we must put in the work necessary to turn our country into a functional community. In a small community, there is no need to teach the villagers norms and standards: they will imbibe them with their mothers’ milk. But in large, pluralistic empires, what is implicit to some must be made explicit for all. We can no longer expect a sense of community to arise spontaneously. We must teach a mass of individuals to become a people.
There are only three alternatives available to us:
- an authoritarian state: forcibly impose uniformity and order upon the unruly, pluralistic masses and keep dissenting elements suppressed for as long as possible;
- an anarchic state: give up any effort to steer people, leave them to their own whims and preferences, and let them come together every four years to vote, knowing that around half the country will hate the outcome and, eventually, as things descend further into polarization and chaos, will refuse to accept it and bring the situation to a probably bloody breaking point; or
- a pedagogical state: deploy the full institutional power of the state to nurture in children and immigrants good habits, morals and norms of etiquette, civic beliefs and respect for foundational figures and documents and national traditions.
Only one of those three options is viable.
A pedagogical state may seem like a pipe dream, since today’s American electorate is a dysfunctional, polarized mess. The core issue is what Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone recognized as a creeping decline in civic engagement through traditional institutions—the fraternal orders, unions, churches, bowling leagues and the like that once brought Americans together—and their replacement by isolating technologies that amplify rather than dampening differences. Instead of individuals getting to know one another as acquaintances or colleagues in clubs and associations and engaging in naturally arising discussions of important issues, total strangers with nothing in common, often cloaked by anonymity, lash out at each other amidst a jumble of voices in various states of agitation on social media platforms that demand brevity, encourage superficiality and incentivize slams, takedowns and retorts.
Compounding this is the replacement of the centripetal forces that once oriented people towards common polestars by centrifugal forces that put them at odds. A cultural melting pot built around an American civic identity was displaced by a devil-may-care multiculturalism that later metastasized into a marauding anti-culturalism, for which iconoclasm was an article of faith. An educational canon focused on the western classics has been all but completely replaced by an assortment of tracts intended to stoke egos and reinforce individual identities. The reputation of the Founding Fathers has been trashed, as have monuments devoted to these once-unifying national icons. National holidays such as Columbus Day have been problematized as celebrations of oppression, and the Christmas and New Year’s season must now be counterbalanced by Kwanza. Even the primal narrative of America’s benevolent founding as a beacon of hope and liberty in 1776 has been challenged by a counter-narrative of America’s sinister founding when the first slave ship arrived on these shores in 1619. And all the while, Americans have been sorted along lines that tether their identities to the explosive dimensions of race, gender, sexuality, religion and the like.
Contemporary intersectionality—the attempt to uncover the manner in which overlapping dimensions of alleged oppression reinforce or conflict with one another—is a culmination of our descent into a chaos of warring groups. If the building of civil society represents an attempt to gather our provisions, bolster our spirits and map out the trail before we set out on our upward-sloping journey, then intersectionality is its mirror-image, a laying down of crisscrossing vectors of enmity in anticipation of all-out war. If civil society and the pedagogical state represent an alternative solution to the one Hobbes offers in his vision of an all-powerful, authoritarian Leviathan needed to avert the war of all against all, then intersectionality represents an intensification of that war, a picking of teams set to be locked in zero-sum combat over social spoils, the realization of Henry Adams’ dispiriting conception of politics as a “systematic organization of hatreds”—indeed, as their amplification.
But as the experiences of the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan should remind us, societies riven by ethnic, racial or religious tensions can only be held together through autocracy and repression. In such a society, a single seemingly small lit fuse—the killing of George Floyd, for example—can rouse an inferno. If, therefore, an inherently multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious society such as the United States is to survive, we must dampen down the identitarian hostility and fragmentation.
In his 2004 book England and the Need for Nations, Roger Scruton elaborates upon the Burkean critique of the social contract as a paradigm in which a bunch of people who might otherwise kill one another instead get together and agree to relinquish certain freedoms in order to form a nation that protects them from each other. Scruton’s sensible response is that “theorists of the social contract write as though it presupposes only the first-person singular of free rational choice,” whereas
it presupposes a first-person plural, in which the burdens of belonging have already been assumed … Take away the experience of membership and the ground of the social contract disappears: social obligations become temporary, troubled, and defeasible, and the idea that one might be called upon to lay down one’s life for a collection of strangers begins to border on the absurd.
In order to enter into any social contract, in other words, we must already constitute a civil society. Bonds of trust and affection predate constitutions and elections, and without such bonds, no constitution, legislation or electoral reform will succeed in forging a functioning community.
If, in a society like ours, already perilously divided, we implement electoral reforms that confer readier access to the machinery that makes the wheels go round, all we will accomplish is to speed the pace at which we are accelerating towards another fateful collision. People who hate each other will surely vote for politicians who promise to put a finer point on their hatreds. Without a shared vision of the future, all leaders, no matter how duly elected, will inevitably feel to us like autocrats. If we remove the obstacles that make the political process seem opaque, daunting and even hopeless and that make each individual feel powerless in the face of the system, the means of ensuring that calamitous outcome will be all the more within our grasp.
The last thing we need today is more democracy. What we need is more civility, more society and more civil society. We must stop teaching our children to make a totem of their race, and we must stop teaching them to hate their own country. Without crossing over into the extremes of violent jingoism, we must tap into the well of patriotism, for as Roger Scruton recognized, patriotism—far from a form of racism—is racism’s most potent antidote: “Ordinary people,” he writes, “live by unchosen loyalties, and if they are deprived of nationhood, they will look elsewhere for the ties of membership—to religion, race or tribe.” We must re-instill reverence for national and cultural monuments, founding icons and deep-rooted traditions. We must cultivate an attitude of reverence and gratitude for this nation’s unique historical achievements. Our system of education should condemn historical atrocities, such as slavery, but it must not allow those atrocities to turn into tales of irredeemable original sins to which there is no solution but destructive rampages that aim to tear it all down and start afresh. Our aesthetic canons must cease to valorize individual identities, stoke egos and further parochial interests and must, instead, orient us towards the good, the great, the venerable and the eternal. And when we admit newcomers to these shores, we must do so slowly and carefully, making sure that they learn, appreciate and assimilate to our culture, values and ways of life. Integral to those ways must be norms of politeness, as I have argued elsewhere. Social networks, and Twitter in particular, are shattering those norms, amplifying all our impassioned, irrational hatreds and channeling them into brief, barely coherent bursts of combustible rage. Civil society will never get off the ground unless these destructive elements are purged.
Just as a gulf separates the idealistic theory from the brutal practice of a communist or fascist state, there is a chasm between the theory and practice of liberal democracy. In theory, in a garden without a caretaker, a thousand flowers of every variety could bloom. But in practice, the garden gets overgrown, promising blossoms begin to rot on the vine and two or three species of the most assertive weeds vie for pre-eminence. If we want beauty or value true diversity, we need a gardener, a caretaker. We need a pedagogical state. We do not need indoctrination, but we do need nurturing, instruction, a helping hand to guide us in achieving our potential. We need a state that takes our disparate, diverse, rough-hewn populace and tutors us to become Americans. Only then can we begin to think about democracy. Only then will we be able to use more democracy to build a better society, rather than to destroy what remains of the one we once had.
There is another alternative, limit the franchise to vote to net tax payers. That was the original idea until the Supreme Court began moving to the universal one man one vote franchise model in the 1950s.
Much of interest here, and much food for thought – as well as agreement and disagreement on various points made. One aspect of modern, technological “society” we need in addition to address is the fact of mass media – which, by the growth of social media, has now taken on a huge ne dimension, as political and social views now not only spread from the radio or the TV set, but from the “memes” sent by our friends – of which we usually read only the headline. This serves as a sort of community reinforcement of whatever we hear from “traditional” mass media sources – and gives those who know how to navigate these social media a tremendous power of moving the public. For what the framers feared in democracy was based on what they read of ancient Greece and Rome – the power of the tyrants to sway the… Read more »
The first part of this article is a powerful explication and defense of Federalism, which does NOT always favour one party. Democrats eager to change the situation should note that political manipulations sometimes have unintended effects. In the 1888 election the Republicans won both the Presidency and the Senate. They then admitted six western territories as states, hoping for 12 new Republican senators. By 1894 there those states had elected just two Republicans and TEN Democrats! Neither can Supreme Court judges always be relied upon to vote the same way throughout their long careers.
There is a discrepancy between the title of this piece and its actual argument. The title and the first three paragraphs take a stance against such democratic reforms as putting terms on appointments to the supreme court and abolishing the electoral college. (Mr. Zubatov does not mention the competing proposal of introducing proportional assignment of electors.) But there is no actual argument here, just the bare assertion that such reforms will make our problems worse. This sort of defense of arrangements that maintain a concentration of power in the hands of self-described “conservative” political interests (which are not necessarily conservative at all in any historically informed understanding of the term) is as uncompelling as it is lazy. Luckily, the greater part of the article, starting with the fourth paragraph, is arguing for a quite different thesis, namely that the main cause of the alienation of the public from government is… Read more »
Many thanks for this interesting and informative article! The title first struck me as clickbait, but I read on and was impressed, not least by the references to Hegel and Rousseau, neither among my favourite philosophers hitherto. Perhaps Mr. Zubatov is unduly pessimistic about the Internet’s ability to support the sort of mediating communities he espouses. After all, Areo is an online magazine and its authors and commenters a kind of community, however loose.
Democracies would be better understood if they were called “COMMERICAL DEMOCRACIES” because they invariably occur where production and trade give the citizenry more social authority than the leaders of government.
Who gets elected in a “commercial” democracy is less important to the life of the society than how well Walmart or Lowes is doing.
Democracies fall apart when governments begin to get control of the productive life of the culture and redirect wealth to their own uses.
As long as businesses stay one step ahead of government taxers and regulators, we’ll enjoy a democracy.
The shutdowns occurring under Covid 19 show us how quickly the government can kill production and trade in the name of saving everyone.