Nonliberal DemocracyI devote a chapter to liberalism's co-optation of democratic energies. Liberalism at once seeks theoretical democratic legitimation (in the form of a notional "social contract") while limiting actual democratic practices. Liberalism's origins were marked by often explicit efforts to establish forms of democracy while largely forestalling actual democratic participation and rule. In that chapter, however, I do not emphasize enough how this bottling of democratic energies is likely to produce a backlash. Liberalism's defenders respond first by giving this phenomenon a pejorative name--"populism"--which is intended to distinguish such electoral energies from legitimately "democratic" ones. More often than not, what are called "democratic" are those policies and politicians that accord with liberal commitments--regardless of whether they garner the support of a democratic majority. Thus one will often encounter condemnations of populist electoral victories as antidemocratic. What is signaled here is liberalism's effort to maintain the appearance of democratic legitimation, even amid evidence that democracy no long supports it.
Democracy, in fact, cannot ultimately function in a liberal regime. Democracy requires extensive social forms that liberalism aims to deconstruct, particularly shared social practices and commitments that arise from thick communities, not a random collection of unconnected selves entering and exiting an election booth. The political scientist Peter Mair described these preconditions of democracy in his posthumous book, Ruling the Void:
"[Relatively] closed political communities were built on a foundation of closed social communities, in which large collectivities of citizens shared distinct social experiences, whether these were defined in terms of occupation, working and living conditions, religious practices, to name the most important. These social collectivities were in their turn cemented by the existence of vibrant and effective social institutions, including trade unions, churches, social clubs, and so on."
As Montesquieu pointed out long ago, democracy is the most demanding regime, given its demands for civic virtue. The cultivation of virtue requires the thick presence of virtue-forming and virtue-supporting institutions, but these are precisely the institutions and practices that liberalism aims to hollow and eviscerate in the name of individual liberty. In a deep irony, liberalism claims legitimacy based upon democratic consent, yet it ultimately hollows out the prospects for functioning democracy.
Today's liberals are divided between those who seek to claim that democracy is legitimate only when affirming liberal commitments, and a growing number who are willing to jettison any residual claim that democracy is a necessary feature of liberalism. Some, such as Jason Brennan, author of Against Democracy, explicitly call for minimizing actual democratic participation--floating proposals for limiting the franchise--concluding that any apparent benefits from democratic legitimation are undermined by democratic decisions that run against liberalism. While such explicit antidemocratic calls remain in the distinct minority, their practical equivalent is found in the strong stress among liberals on the centrality of courts, the executive branch, and the administrative state as main bulwarks against the threat of democratic energies that might undermine liberal commitments, both social and economic.
These rare (but growing) antidemocratic recommendations in fact only affirm long-standing practices and institutions. Elite rule within liberal democracies has been noted for many decades, with few analyses more insightful on this score than James Burnham's 1941 study, The Managerial Revolution (which influenced, among others, George Orwell as he was writing 1984). Burnham described this revolution as a different kind of realization of a Marxist vision: the propertied (aristocratic) class was in the process of being replaced by a new class who perceived that power lay no longer in static property but in the manipulation of ideas and production processes. The new "managerial elite" would maintain the appearance of what Burhham called "Parliamentary control," but power would be pooled in public and semipublic agencies and bureaus. The new ruling elite would govern a state-managed economy in which a nation's (and, eventually, the world's) wealth would necessarily flow through these agencies, enriching the managerial class. The simultaneous cry against the corruption of Washington, D.C.--surrounded by so many of the nation's wealthiest counties--and the lack of any national dedication among ostensibly American corporations was a reflection of a revolution form below against the "managerial elites" Burnham described. What is conventionally called a populist revolution is better described as a global antimanagerial revolution.
1) Liberalism is founded on the notion of the autonomous individual. It is therefore fundamentally at war with any notion of a nation or society as an organic unity with a common culture. It is also, ultimately at war with the notion of civic virtue, because the idea of civic virtue ultimately rests on inherited culture. The Founding Fathers recognized the importance of virtue for the nation, as Washington noted in his Farewell Address:
Liberalism, as a matter of principle, must reject this.
It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.
2) The use of the judiciary, the legal managerial elite, to tamp down populist and democratic impulses is well documented. Surprisingly, however, Deneen fails to note the role of elite control over social media and education as bulwarks against the energies of normal people. The appeal to democracy to censor dissenting antiliberal opinions is certainly remarkable. The same censorship is going on throughout our educational institutions.