What Was Democracy?
Tocqueville remarked somewhere that democracy is a faith-based regime that holds its grip as long as people believe in it. He forgot to say what happens when they stop. For much of the twentieth century, people kept the faith; democratic politics may have been frenzied and inept, but it was generally thought to be on the right path. By the century’s end, academics outdid each other in dusting off old tributes to democracy and composing new ones: democracies would never go to war against one another; democracies would never have a famine; democracies would always muddle through. The list of what they had already overcome was considerable. In the nineteenth century, democracies succeeded in convincing large segments of the population in Europe to forgo allegiance to the old regime in favor of an experiment some thought quixotic. In the twentieth century, a liberal form of democracy defeated one major rival claimant of the term “democracy,” fascism, and fought a successful war of attrition against another, communism. In the postwar decades, India proved its form of democracy could survive, if not thrive, amid extreme poverty, while the United States showed it could at least minimally enfranchise politically, if not economically, an underclass long barred from full participation in the polity.
Victories of this sort were not preordained; many are incomplete and demand more action. But the crisis of democracy today is of a different order: it is no longer a question of soi-disant “democracies” fulfilling their promise, defeating external competitors or melding with new cultures, but whether they can keep the myth intact and survive the growing indifference, distrust and vitriol of their own populations. Our globalized world of nation-states, bound together by capital, may simply no longer be hospitable to the democratic outpourings that gave rise to it.
One of the reasons the democratic ideology was so attractive amid the rapid decline of the institutional religions of Europe was that it allowed people to transfer their faith in a God or monarch to the people. In the United States, the ties between religion and nationalism are even stronger. From the nine unelected lawyers who interpret the Holy Writ of the Constitution, to the widespread implacable belief in American exceptionalism, the country’s real religious motto has been “In the People We Trust.” Yet this almost unalloyed faith in providential democracy, while potent, is also the most difficult to recover once believers start to have their doubts. Tocqueville and Whitman described the dawn of democratic ideology and found its traces in everything from the everyday manners, gestures and conversations of the people to their deepest feelings. But if the culture of democracy is further eroded, a whole climate of feeling, experience and thought risks extinction, and an old climate of naturalized superiority and feudal deference risks returning. “Democracy” as we know it will itself become an ancien régime. Like the pagan gods of Rome, it may command a residual respect. Yet not much more than the name will remain.
One of the ironies of the history of democracy is that its label has spread even as its meaning has become uncertain. As recently as the nineteenth century, countries we now call bourgeois democracies—the United States and the United Kingdom—had serious debates about whether democracy was desirable or feasible. Today, if asked to name the best type of government, an overwhelming majority of Americans would say, unsurprisingly, “democracy.” But so would the leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Everyone now carries a torch for the democratic myth. From Joseph Kony’s United Democratic Christian Army to Isaias Afewerki’s People’s Front for Democracy and Justice—the only legal party in Eritrea—we can count on everyone to slip “democratic” into political self-descriptions. At no point in human history have so many people in the world worshipped the same word, yet shared so little political vision. One thing is all but certain: twenty, fifty, 100 years from now, most countries in the world will still be calling themselves “democracies.” But what those polities will actually look like we cannot know. How much longer can we continue to insist that some idealized regime called “democracy” is the best political system of all, and that our noxious political reality conforms to that ideal, when both claims are so evidently spurious?
In the beginning of the modern era, there was a blood-soaked compromise between the House of Commons and an imported monarch, to which we have retrospectively affixed the flattering word “democracy.” More than three centuries later, we are still just barely able to supply the word with content. Our current institutions could be replaced with a political form more suited to planetary constraints and more in line with our desired outcomes, which might include a more genuine commitment to political and economic equality. But it is more likely that they are gradually being replaced by something much worse.
If the end does come, or even if it already has, the death of “democracy” will not be announced. To justify an irrational, dysfunctional politics, future generations of rulers—much like the present ones—will invoke the aura of democracy long after whatever substance it once contained has been lost.