Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Can Democracy Even Be Threatened?

by Jeff Polet, Director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

I’ll start with a claim that is both non-controversial and controversial: to be a conservative (of the sort I am) is to be skeptical of abstractions. As Edmund Burke once said, their metaphysical perfection is their practical defect. The statement is non-controversial in the sense that almost everyone would agree they are opposed to abstractions, and controversial because it implies that others, maybe most pointedly progressives, tend to indulge them. I would not want to imply that, in no small part because I know many conservatives who think very abstractly.

The word derives from the Latin abstractus (ab—off or away from, and trahere—to draw or pull) and refers to the tendency to pull things apart. Our word “tractor”, for example, also from trahere, refers to drawing a plow, and being on a tractor is a way of being above the earth rather than on or in it. It disconnects us. Readers of Wendell Berry will recognize here his disparagement of tractors because he believes that they destroy the land by disrupting our seeing of it, such seeing requiring that we get our feet dirty. Such seeing is also closely related to scale, as the “eyes to acres” ratio needs to be kept low so the land can be properly cared for. Knowing and seeing are closely related to each other, and so our knowing must get distorted if we see from too far a distance. This is especially true when we consider self-knowing; in an age of abstraction it is we who get pulled apart. Abstract thinkers always elevate detachment — as in the insistence on so-called “critical thinking” — over attachment.

Perhaps no word has become more abstractly used than “democracy.” It has evolved in at least two ways: the first is to treat it as if it is self-evidently a good thing, this despite both historical evidence and the opinion of nearly every political thinker who ever lived; and in the second place, to treat it as an abstract noun. We’ve seen, in the last seven years or so, no shortage of pearl-clutching about the “threat” that “our democracy” is under. I’m not suggesting there is no cause for concern, but such concerns probably need to be addressed more specifically than they are. Too often, labeling something a “threat to democracy” becomes shorthand for dismissing one’s political opponents and bypassing the need for argumentation.

Part of the reason why we might sense “our democracy” is in trouble goes back to its early analysis by Plato. He had a great deal to say about it, mostly because he witnessed first-hand its excesses and tendency to devolve into mob rule. For our purposes there are two main takeaways: he reflected on the kinds of person who tend to inhabit democracies, and the likelihood that, when failing, democracies would lead to autocracy (or some other form of tyranny). The latter worry fuels the vast majority of the hand-wringing over the “state of our democracy.”

But the concern about autocracy is too often detached from the first part of Plato’s analysis: the tendency of democracies to devolve into anarchy. Plato offers us a picture of the typical person who inhabits a democracy, and it is not a flattering one: libertine, promiscuous, self-centered, and unstable (Tocqueville would later observe that in a democracy everything is unstable, but the most unstable thing of all is the human heart). In other words, our desires have no governing principle. They blow where they will. They’re anarchic. Indeed, in Federalist #9 Hamilton reminds us that the republican (not democratic) form of government he recommends vibrates in the tension between anarchy and tyranny.

Plato believed that democracy would lead to tyranny just as surely as night follows day. When autonomy becomes our defining feature (Republic 557b), we rapidly devolve into lotus-eaters (560c), who “indulge in every passing desire that each day brings” (561c). It destroys all modes of authority save that which the self determines for itself. Libertinism brings as its handmaiden egalitarianism (561e): each inconsequential person, in the words of Tocqueville, glutting his or her soul with petty pleasures. Plato contrasts this with “the competence and the knowledge to distinguish a good life from a bad one,” and “to weigh up all the things we’ve been talking about” in both their particularity and universality. Justice requires a person be attendant to particulars and circumstances, and learn how “to make a rational choice from among all the alternatives,” which the person must do “during his lifetime” (618c-e).

The emphasis on personal autonomy, the elevation of individual decision-making, the belief that all “lifestyles” have an equal claim to legitimacy, the underlying moral relativism, the devolution of all of life into politics and politics into power, and the refusal to submit to proper authority are as much defining features of our democratic age as is the possibly that we might collapse into autocracy. Indeed, if Plato is to be trusted, they would be the reason why we devolve to authoritarianism. Blowing hither and yon creates a need for some sort of ordering principle. We will accept bad order over no order, but the underlying spiritual crisis remains. No worrying about the state of our democracy can afford to neglect our age’s subjective moralisms and the way they mask the itch for power.

This site’s favored thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, offered very concrete observations about American democracy, but only after he had engaged in the most abstract of assessments. Writing in 1835, Tocqueville reflected on the 700 year march of “democracy,” how all social and historical developments led to its advancement. Democracy was “irresistible because … it seems the most continuous, the oldest, and the most permanent fact known in history.” The “gradual development of the principle of equality” was a “providential fact.” But the contemplation of this “fact” filled the author with a sense of “religious terror” because “it has advanced for centuries in spite of every obstacle and which is still advancing in the midst of the ruins it has caused.” Indeed, Tocqueville was not only concerned about what democracy destroys, but what it prevents being born. In that sense, Tocqueville was less concerned about what threatened democracy than he was about that to which democracy itself was the threat. Ironically, he believed the most important thing democracy threatened was freedom itself.

As I said, Tocqueville’s abstract review is in tension with the very pointed observations that mark the rest of the book. That review still speaks to our present moment because we still tend to think of democracy in these abstract terms, rather than simply a set of arrangements or procedures.

The latter would be more helpful. I’m not sure exactly what a person means when he says that something “is a threat to our democracy,” although I suspect that might tell me more about the diagnostician than the threat itself. But I do understand exactly what is meant when we abandon the presumption of innocence as a bedrock principle of the rule of law, or when some refuse to play by rules that are determined before a contest or try to change those rules after the fact because the outcome wasn’t what they wanted, or when we consistently fail at the “shoe on the other foot” test, or when we believe we are entitled to resort to violence when we don’t get our way. There are, indeed, a set of dispositions  we might term democratic: charity toward our opponents since we recognize them as fellow citizens and are also mindful of our own fallibility; a commitment to fair play and conducting ourselves politely; no person believing that he or she is necessarily better than another; a commitment to the idea that birth in a particular circumstance is not a life sentence; the belief that people should have a say in the decisions that most affect their lives; a belief that we can do better balanced with the suspicion that we’ll never get it right; refusing to exercise a power yourself that you would not want your opponent to exercise; the idea that no man is above the law and that the rules should apply equally to all; that every person should be able to sit in the shade of their own fig tree and enjoy the fruits of their own vine with none making them afraid. How these principles translate into actual practices of governing will vary according to place and time.

In the American context they have evolved into a widely accepted set of practices that determine our mode of governing, and when those practices are put under pressure then the whole democratic project becomes suspect. For those of us who defend democracy, the preservation or restoration of the integrity of those practices remains a tall and necessary order. But simply defending those practices will never be enough. Democracy is an extremely fragile system of government, but also a resilient one. Its promises continue to resonate deeply within us, but no defense of democracy can work unless it attends to the cultural as well as procedural underpinnings. As Burke reminded us: “It is written in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds can not be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

We are not indifferent to the threats to our public order, which only seem to come mainly from extremes on both ends of the political spectrum. Still, the restoration of a healthy middle remains one of the signature challenges of our day, the absence of which suggests we might not even be, in any proper sense, a democracy. But that restoration can’t occur without some serious cultural shifts, and too often the language of “threats to our democracy” obscures rather than highlights that fact, for it convinces us that our disease can be dealt with cosmetically or by a few relatively simple tweaks. Those illusions will only deepen the problem. Without the unwritten constitution of our people — the habits and mores of a free and responsible people — the written Constitution is a house built on sand. Neglect of the unwritten constitution remains the biggest threat to our democracy.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do people tend to view threats to democracy as threats to their positions or interests, or as possibly leading to the collapse of  the whole system itself?
  2. If our democracy should fail, what would it look like on the other side?
  3. How might the language of “threat to our democracy” be used for ideological purposes?
  4. How much of the possibility of the failure of democracy related to its own inherent instability? 

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