What is Democracy Anyway?
In a TAC commentary last month, Robert Merry responded to a lament by Brookings Institution fellow William Galston in The New Republic about an “anti-democratic populist” wave sweeping across Europe. In light of the ascent of a Euroskeptic coalition in Italy and the recent impressive electoral win by conservative nationalist Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party in Hungary, Galston believes that democracy has suffered a fateful setback:
The global democratic tide which began in 1974 with the end of Portugal’s authoritarian regime crested in 2006, making way for anti-democratic populists. Many Western leaders have yet to come to terms with this new reality, hoping that anti-immigrant sentiment is just a passing phenomenon.
Merry addresses these complaints by pointing out that it’s not democracy but elites that have failed. There is after all no reason to assess the success of democratic government by how many Syrian migrants European countries take in or keep out. Democracy is about caring for one’s citizens, not turning over one’s cities to a mass of humanity from the Middle East. Nor is there anything intrinsically undemocratic about citizens in Hungary or Italy voting for officials who reflect their views on immigration. Why is it undemocratic to disagree with Galston, the Brookings Institution, or The New Republic? Are we supposed to be grading countries for democratic good conduct by how often their wishes coincide with the preferences of globalist elites?
That said, the matter under discussion may be more complicated than the above observations would suggest. There is no single operative concept of “democracy.” William Galston and those he attacks give dramatically different meanings to the same term; their conflicting understandings were already present when modern democracies took shape. As the franchise was extended and universalized in most Western countries in the early 20th century, the effect was not to limit government. It was rather to expand its reach in the form of public administration.
A common error, as I tried to show in my book After Liberalism, is to imagine that the defense of private property and other liberal freedoms develop contemporaneously with democracy. In fact, they precede democracy by many generations and are more characteristic of 19th century bourgeois liberalism than they are of the ensuing democratic age. The newly enfranchised “people” in the 20th century voted for governments and parties that provided social programs; they entrusted their lives to a class of “scientifically” trained administrators. In the United States, the Progressive movement in the early 20th century set out to empower scientific administrators who it was imagined would stand above partisan politics.
Democracy in some Western countries has always had a universalizing effect, inasmuch as the new administrative class hoped to apply their “science of government” in all climes and continents. What was thought to be “scientific” and therefore moral for one country supposedly had the same validity elsewhere. It was the duty of professional administrators to bring enlightenment to those who were still mired in premodern cultures. Then the judiciaries in developing democracies would define and often create rights for the energized administrative state, and the cultural preferences of the ruling class would be elevated to “human rights.”
Robert Nisbet in The Present Age shows how burgeoning national administration in the U.S. during the early 20th century deliberately destroyed local and regional loyalties. And Nisbet’s hated public administration did not stop at imposing its will at the national level. It advanced to the international level as a protector of newly generated universal rights and scientific rule. This is clearly the idea of democracy that Galston has in mind. There is historical precedent for his interpretation of popular government.
Against this, however, there is another understanding of democracy that was in retreat for some time. Not surprisingly, this understanding is particularly strong in Eastern Europe, where national feelings still flourish and where progressive American fashions are notably weak. European populists scoff at what PC German jurists call “administered consensus.” They are equally contemptuous of international administrations and human rights tribunals. Populists are quite happy to see the popular will express itself politically, and they are certainly not calling for an end to social services. But they insist that their government’s actions be consistent with the traditions and values of their own nation. Populists do not consider themselves to be a mere collection of individuals. They are rooted in a people and view themselves as links in a generational chain. Furthermore, leaders like the president of Poland and the premier of Hungary never let their electorates forget that they belong to a Western Christian heritage going back a thousand years.
This appeal to a common history and ancestry calls to mind how John Jay in Federalist No.2 described the providential blessings of the new American republic:
Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country, to one united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established their general Liberty and Independence.
With due respect to Galston, Orbán could not have expressed populist sentiments any better. The Hungarian premier won a national election overwhelmingly this spring with a higher proportion of eligible voters than existed in John Jay’s America. Orbán’s democratic mandate is far more evident than that of the EU bureaucracy that he and his voters detest.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.