How liberalism stole democracy
And how to get it back
The question of electoral integrity is a perennial topic in politics. But ever since 2016, with both the vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s victory in the United States, the question of integrity has become increasingly politicised, especially as a blunt tool to beat Russia and Iran with, and President Joe Biden has been accused of stoking fears by claiming that Russia is interfering in the 2022 midterms.
Moreover, this politicisation seems to have fallen into a left-right, international-domestic alignment. Or, in other words, left-wing politicians (such as Biden, but also Sir Keir Starmer) and commentators (such as Ash Sarkar) increasingly raise concerns over foreign, primarily Russian, interference; whilst right-wing commentators focus on potential domestic interference, such as claims of state-orchestrated voter fraud.
Evidence for both sides circulates occasionally to such an extent that neither has ever been abandoned — but what has energised those on the right of this dichotomy is increasing talk of “fortifying elections”. It is not so much that elections do not need to be fortified; in fact, both sides of this dichotomy spring from acceptance of that same fact. What concerns those on the right is who is doing the “fortification” — their ideological enemies. This particular obsession is not helped by articles with headlines such as “Is the Constitution Obstructing American Democracy?” or “The “deep state” is real. But it’s not what Trump thinks it is”. In an age of clickbait, the headlines are enough to get sabres rattling.
The theory goes that liberals are ensuring that democracy arrives at the right outcome — theirs. This, of course, means the procedures are being built on some biases that favour liberal answers. The odd reality is, we all seem to engage in at least some conspiratorial thinking when our ideological opponents are in power — such as claims that the Conservative Party have gerrymandered the constituency review to ensure they gain seats, despite the review being produced by the Electoral Commission, or that requiring online voter registration is an attempt to lock out un-sympathetic voters.
Scepticism is a useful principle, and when it comes to elections, we have good reason to suspect there are limits in place to what they can achieve. At a normative level, there are certain things we don’t consider to be morally justifiable to put to a public vote — such as, for example, the legalisation of murder.
As the midterms in America loom, a general election is only ever one major parliamentary rebellion away, and a soon-to-be-published book entitled American Resistance: The Inside Story of How the Deep State Saved the Nation is likely to exacerbate this debate once more, it is important to bear one simple fact in mind: elections have always had restraints. And the purpose of these restraints has always been to limit the creative power of the popular element of democracy — what we call “the people”.
This reality was catalogued best by Michael Oakeshott in his distinction between the “politics of faith” — the belief that politics is “understood to be in the service of the perfection of mankind” – and the “politics of scepticism” – an observation that politics is the mediation of conflict, “its chief office is to lessen the severity of human conflict by reducing the occasions of it”. Whilst Oakeshott is working from abstraction, the relevance of this distinction for our contemporary politics — specifically for democracy — has been concretised by Margaret Canovan, who wrote in 1999 that the two styles (note, not forms) of politics translate to the “two faces of democracy” — of redemptive and pragmatic politics, but “inescapably linked, so that it is an illusion to suppose that we can have one without the other”.
In this understanding, under democracy, redemptive politics seeks to exalt the people as the “only source of legitimate authority”. It is an understanding of democracy that reduces legitimacy to a form of majoritarianism and seeks to resolve all questions pertinent to the public via that public. This is, it is important to remember, both impossible to remove, and also unwise to do so — as Canovan reminds us, “at least some degree of redemptive democracy’s promise of salvation is actually necessary to lubricate the machinery of pragmatic democracy.” But what is that pragmatic democracy? It is, as I say above and as Oakeshott identified, the series of rules and restrictions that seek to resolve conflict but, also, “institutions not just to limit power, but also to constitute it and make it effective.”
Put simply, democracy requires both the creative power of the people, and the ability to harness that power and transform it into operationalisable solutions to the problems the people identify. Limits are necessary, but must be justifiable. Theorists of democracy are quite conscious of this, yet one has been bold enough to admit that, actually, representative government as a project of democratisation was an attempt to limit, not unleash, the creative power of the people. Nadia Urbinati’s 2006 and 2014 books, Representative Democracy and Democracy Disfigured, traced the “confrontational environment” in which was born representation “both as an institution of power’s containment and control (of the chief of the church or the king) and as a means of unifying a large and diverse population”. Representation was a rear-guard mechanism by which the “large and diverse” population (diverse, it must be remembered, in opinion, not in the modern materialist sense) could be contained and controlled, especially during the Enlightenment when fears of “the people” as a panicky, impulsive and short-termist mass abounded. A cursory glance at the works of Edmund Burke, Charles de Montesquieu, Joseph de Maistre, and even the Federalists and French Revolutionaries, reveals the full extent of this.
Limits to democracy have always existed
To put it plainly, limits to democracy have always existed. What matters — as the contemporary American right is correct to identify — is who shapes those limits. And for nearly a century, the shapers of the democratic limits have been liberals.
Following the Second World War, liberals — of all ideological persuasions — feared once more the unrestrained creative power of the people, unchecked by constraints, especially those venerated by liberals of the 19th century, such as the rule of law, the separation of powers, and so on. Across Western Europe and America, liberals made it their raison d’etre to reject mass politics, even as it was being fully institutionally realised in mass suffrage: Friedrich Hayek, explicitly rejecting mass politics for both the “classical” reasons, but also for their disorganised nature, sought to influence “opinion formers” to prevent ever travelling down the “road to serfdom” again. Likewise, founders of the European Economic Community sought to minimise the democratic element of its nascent polity, even from the days of the Treaty of Rome (1957), as Sir Roger Scruton recognised, writing “European integration was conceived in one-dimensional terms, as a process of ever-increasing unity, under a centralised structure of command” to such an extent that “in the EU as it is today, the term ‘subsidiarity’ denotes not the means whereby powers are passed up from the bottom, but the means whereby powers are allocated from the top.” Perhaps a concrete example of this is the European Parliament — widely recognised as being the least important component of the European Union — which was never intended to be a seat of national delegates.
Such a fear of “redemptive democracy” had an almost simultaneous, zeitgeist birth on the other side of the Atlantic, too, with the triumph in America of what Michael Sandel called the “procedural republic” and the decline of civic republicanism. For Sandel this was the victory of a “version of liberalism that asserts the priority of the right over the good”, which found its “fullest philosophical statement in the 1970s, most notably in John Rawls’ Theory of Justice.” For anyone who has not read the Theory, our concern is not necessarily the individualism that pervades Rawls’ philosophy, but rather the highly technical, rationalist vision of government in which all principles can be deduced from reason alone, and not with any public consultation — because these principles would be accepted by any “reasonable” person. The consequence, for Sandel, is stark: “American politics has come to embody the version of liberalism that renounces the formative ambition” — a redemptive politics — “and insists government should be neutral toward competing conceptions of the good life… the procedural republic seeks a framework of rights, neutral among ends, within which individuals can choose and pursue their own ends” — a rules-based politics. But “a politics that brackets morality and religion too completely soon generates its own disenchantment.”
Here, in Britain, this problem has found its expression in what Jonathan Sumption has called “The Trials of the State” and the victory of law over politics. Originally delivered in his Reith lectures, Sumption spoke about “our persistent habit of looking for legal solutions to what are really political problems … in practice every scheme of constitutional reform suggested for Britain in recent years has sought to limit the powers of Parliament and government, and to increase those of judges. This is not an accident.” For Sir Roger Scruton, one such triumph of the law over politics is in what he has called “rights inflation”. If a thing can be claimed as a ‘right’, then in contemporary understanding, that thing is no longer the subject of debate.
This leaves us with a simple fact, and a question that must be asked. First, there clearly are, always have been, and always must be limits to what is democratically possible. Second, if this is the case, can the situation be reversed? There are reasons to be hopeful, but such a reversal is only possible with serious struggle. As I wrote last year, populism is one genuinely viable method for doing so. Once shorn of ideological baggage, populism is a rational response (amongst many) to the intentional denial of the people’s attempts to even express their frustration with the existing regime.
Yet, it might well be that actively attempting to bring down the liberal regime might be a waste of time. Not because it is bound to succeed — but rather, it is bound to fail. The many philosophical problems of liberalism have been laid out clearly by Patrick Deneen, amongst which is liberalism’s anti-culture, and the reliance of liberal individualism on a technological system it can no longer control. Most pertinent to this discussion is Deneen’s prediction that has since been vindicated: “Contemporary liberalism will increasingly resort to imposing the liberal order by fiat – especially in the form of the administrative state run by a small minority who increasingly disdain democracy. End runs around democratic and populist discontent have become the norm, and backstopping the liberal order is the ever more visible power of a massive ‘deep state,’ with extensive powers of surveillance, legal mandate, police power, and administrative control.”
Rationalism in politics undermines the conditions on which it rests
Not only will this very visibility be part of liberalism’s undoing, but we can return also to Oakeshott and consider another of his observations, that rationalism in politics undermines the conditions upon which it rests. What we understand as the valuable things worth protecting via politics have only been discovered by pre-political means, by the gradual and experimental development of a communal life; but for liberalism to abstract those things, and attempt to freeze them in time — or, in Deneen’s words, an untime — is to risk forgetting why they are valuable in the first place. By not accepting that the nuts and bolts of political life are subject to constant renegotiation, is to forget that politics is the product and dissolution of conflict, and not the denial of conflict at all.
There needs to be an embrace of the transformative power of democracy proper, as the creative and redemptive power of the people. Part of this will involve reducing the state, not in some faux-Thatcherite manner of shrinking expenditure, but in the massive withdrawal of the state from both peoples’ lives and their relationships. But another part of it will be a wholesale shift in our language, which will necessarily involve moving away from “rights” and talking more about duties, responsibilities, necessities, and so forth. It is likely, historically speaking, that democracy is merely a transitional phenomenon that will not last forever, but attempting to prevent its natural development as liberalism does will hasten its end. The Americans seem to be waking up to this — it is time we did as well.
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