The growth of our Leviathan state in the West has taken place under the auspices of democracy. The words of Ronald Reagan in 1975 come to mind: “If fascism ever comes to America, it will come in the name of liberalism.” Reagan seemed to intuit the power of the democratic lexicon to disguise totalitarian ambitions.
Long ago, in a paradoxical move to welcome popular sovereignty to the table of legitimate governing theories, Jean-Jacques Rousseau conceived of democracy in such a way that it could never be anything but anti-democratic.
Rousseau’s democratic ideal, which is paradigmatic of the Western elite’s notion of “democracy,” assumes that a hypothetical General Will, exists over and above the people’s actual, historically manifest will, evidenced in its traditions, religious beliefs, local customs, associations, and voting preferences. Recall the rationalization of the left that Trump’s supporters had voted “against their own self-interest.” Those who have inherited the mantle of Rousseauean “democracy” claim to be the real arbiters of the people’s interests and will.
This ideological way of conceiving of democracy may appropriately be called democratism.
Woodrow Wilson had insisted that the task of a true democratic statesman is to “rightly interpret the national thought” and then “boldly insist upon it.” Consent is but an administrative hurdle to be overcome by the powerful and visionary leader. “It is the power which dictates, dominates: the materials yield,” Wilson had said. The materials, of course, being the people.
The response of Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and Twitter’s, Jack Dorsey, to accusations that their social media juggernauts had been practicing censorship, is that they are helping to “increase the health of the public conversation” by flagging “hateful” or “misinformed” speech. Zuckerberg and Dorsey would agree with Wilson and many, many other avowed democrats that democracy must be protected from the unenlightened bigots who would destroy it.
The Bush Doctrine, which entangled us in the endless wars in the Middle East, is another example of the democratist ideology at work. The Bush Doctrine was premised on the belief that clearing away old ways of life through military intervention and cultural and educational programs would allow the good people of the Middle East to express their natural desire for democracy. Beneath a people’s apparent will is another, conflicting will that is its true will.
Elites and political leaders whose vision may not be palatable to the electorate find ways to couch their ambitions in democratic language. Historically, they have found workarounds within U.S. constitutionalism and the political apparatus, but we’re starting to see flagrant lawlessness and even the pretense to democracy abandoned. In 2016, one democratist, a scholar at Georgetown University, came right out and argued “Against Democracy” in his titular work. He summarizes the democratist position, stating that an elite “epistocracy” ought to rule while the rest of us enjoy “NASCAR and Applebee’s.”
One of the paradoxes of democratism is the belief that undemocratic, even violent means are necessary to accomplish peaceful, democratic ends. Real democracy is just over the horizon, we are promised, if only we will cede the power to the enlightened ones. When their efforts fail, they blame backward and unenlightened forces in society and call for expanding training and education, for increased efforts to stamp out “hate,” and for more informed “dialogue.” In short, they call for greater propaganda efforts to discredit and wipe out the views of their opponents.
Our tendency to think of liberalism and democracy as antithetical and resistant to ideology seems to have prevented our taking seriously the possibility that a variant of democracy—democratism—has itself become a domineering political ideology. Many implicit assumptions underlie seemingly intuitive and self-evident words such as “democracy,” “freedom,” and “equality.” Yet as abstractions, these words have become Trojan horses for their opposites.
Is it too much to imagine that a faction of Democrats decided not to leave something as important as the U.S. presidential election to an unreliable electorate? If there was indeed widespread election fraud, as the Trump campaign and others maintain, then its orchestrators would no doubt justify their actions in terms of “safeguarding our democracy” from the likes of Donald Trump and his constituents. This is precisely how Dorsey and Zuckerberg and so many other democratists respond when confronted with their decidedly undemocratic actions.
Claiming to speak on behalf of the people and democracy, democratism has proven a source of great power for its perpetuators. The tremendous wealth and influence that our public “servants” amass during and after office signals the fraudulent nature of our democracy, which seems to have become something of an oligarchy with a hereditary component.
The first step toward renewing our political system is exposing the democratist ideology. It is becoming clear by now that what has passed for so long as “democracy” and the so-called “rules-based” liberal order is anything but democratic, and the rules it’s based on are synonymous with the democratist ideology.
Emily Finley holds a Ph.D. in Politics from The Catholic University of America and is a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University. She is the managing editor of Humanitas, a journal of politics and culture, published by The Center for the Study of Statesmanship.