It is impossible not to agree with Chilton Williamson, Jr.’s deep insight into the nature of modern democracies (“Contradiction and Collapse,” What’s Wrong With the World, September), all the more as it is enhanced by clear and rigorous phrasing.
I have, however, an issue—maybe only semantic—with his initial assertion that there may be such a thing as a democracy run by an elite concerned with and informed about public matters. This issue happens to be one I had years ago with my philosopher father about a book he wrote, whose title included the term “aristocratic democracy.”
I have nothing against a society ruled by “a citizenry independent enough to be able to form fair, balanced and informed opinions concerning public matters.” The only thing is that I would by no means call such a society a democracy, nor by the same token believe in the possibility of a “constitutional” democracy. The Federalists were no democrats. They saw democracy as a threat they had to contain since they could not suppress it, and the whole Constitution of the United States, I think, was intended to be a bulwark against the rule of the mob, which is true democracy. I am tempted to suspect that is exactly what Mr. Williamson actually thinks, since he mentions the times when democracy was not “completely ascendant, and a balance still existed between the aristocratic principle and the democratic one”—which, even assuming such balance may endure, obviously means one principle contradicts the other.
Then why not revive the word republic and give it its full meaning, restricting it to the description of societies in which competent and responsible citizens rule, as opposed to properly speaking democratic societies, in which, as Mr. Williamson rightly says, “everything is about power,” that of revolutionary elites in cahoots with what Plato called “the fat animal”?
Mr. Williamson Replies:
On the one hand, the issue is indeed a semantic one, as Professor Polin suggests. On the other, M. Polin has caught me out in an instance of slipshod terminology. He is correct that I should, in that initial sentence, have put “republic” for “democracy.” My error reflects the fact that the word democracy, which nowadays means whatever one wants it to mean, has come to have no meaning at all. Thus, it is now considered half-synonymous with republic, which is the sense in which I was using the term.
Incidentally, I have to thank Claude Polin for the opportunity to reply here to Robert Charron’s letter (“By the Bootstraps”), published in Chronicles’ October number regarding the same column. Mr. Charron argues that liberal democratic capitalism has worked “pretty well” for the one percent of the richest Americans, and concludes by asking, “Is it possible that democracy erodes the life of both the upper and lower classes?”
The answer, as I argued in previous columns on the subject, is that democracy indeed corrupts the rich as well as the poor; further, that, under the liberal democratic system, the wealthy are not a genuine upper-class people at all, only affluent bourgeois, and even proletarians. The fact that class today is determined by income, not social attributes, shows the extent to which democracy has made civilized society impossible.