It’s very well indeed to find an author of Chilton Williamson, Jr.’s distinction and intelligence bidding us to a discussion of democracy.  We need to have such a discussion.  And if you really want to know why we need to have it, consider the tenor of national conversation during the presidential campaign.  Take, for instance, the uproar over Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded comments concerning the 47 percent of Americans to whom Romney imputed intractability in their commitment to the existing democratic order, under which they pay no income taxes.

One couldn’t call Romney’s analysis particularly happy from the standpoint of outreach to the 47 percent.  Yet his comments, and the indignant reaction heard around the land, reeking of faux injury and thirst for partisan advantage, certainly reminded us that democracy, like the old gray mare, ain’t what she used to be.  Unless . . . wait: That might be Williamson’s point.  What democracy “used to be” was mainly, on his showing, a package of hope and inheritance, dependent for success largely on context and the character of its practitioners.  What if the old nag has come down, in our time, with spavin and the heaves?  What if, indeed, the seeds of her disintegration might have been discerned from the start, had we been sufficiently alert, with minds unnumbed by cant and sentimentality?

Williamson’s illuminating enterprise—and let me assure you, it does illuminate—is to examine democracy’s course since the publication, not quite two centuries ago, of Democracy in America.  The fruit of Alexis de Tocqueville’s ten-month visit to America commencing around the time John Quincy Adams assumed the chief magistracy, having temporarily beaten back the rising forces of “Jacksonian democracy,” Democracy in America is no hymn to democracy—no “panegyric,” to use Tocqueville’s own word.  As Williamson reminds us, Tocqueville “was a republican rather than a democrat—in American terms, a Federalist, not a Jacksonian.”  He feared the power of the majority to squeeze and squash the minority.  The people’s will he saw as a notion requiring, if it was not to inflict significant harm on society, moral leadership and tutelage.  He would have thought opinion polls an intrusion into the proper affairs of statesmen and like leaders.  He observed all the same what he took for signs of possibility in the affairs of the Americans.  He wanted, as he said, to observe the “natural consequences” of the “social revolution” he saw in train, if not accomplished in fact.  He wrote “to favour no particular views.”  Mercifully, he had never heard of the New York Times.

Readers of Tocqueville, always struck by his percipience and good temper in relation to the belches and expulsions of a raw new nation, understand that a few changes have taken place since the 1830’s: some diminution of the national strengths he observed (e.g., the spirit of religion), some increase in the dangers to which he pointed (e.g., centralization of power).  Williamson’s purpose, to be sure, is not to update Tocqueville—to dress up his observations in cutoffs and flip-flops.  What we come to understand, on Williamson’s demonstration, and that of the expert witnesses he assembles (Maine, Bagehot, and Brownson, just for starters), is that democracy is infinitely less a system of government than “shorthand for universal bliss”—“a synonym for utopia.”  To put it another way, democracy is what we make of it.  What we make of it depends on what we decide, consciously or unconsciously, we want out of life, hence what our leaders give us out of just concern or, as often, the expectation of reward for services rendered.

Part of “democracy’s” value was always, even in Tocqueville’s day, the possibility of interpretation, like the phrase “cook over a hot fire.”  How hot?  How long?  With what implements?  Williamson rightly sees the term as wide open.  He sees it, more to the point, possibly, as a fundamentally Western construct, grounded in the culture and outlook of Christian civilization.  The insight is an urgent one—not least as the United States of the 21st century yearns (or wants others to think she does) to plant democracy all over the world, in soils and conditions of all sorts, and to make the world thereby a friendlier and less dangerous place.

The point Williamson would have us understand is that democracy’s pedigree is Western.  The institution is “a creation of the Christian West that conceived and nurtured it.  Democracy depends on, if not Christianity itself, then at least a moral and philosophical bent of Christian origin or affinity.”  It assumes grounding in the basic attributes of the West—veneration of, or at least respect for, God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth; acknowledgment of duties toward fellow men and women; careful but not boastful observance of those human rights that proceed from the Father’s authority, which authority casts its shadow over the exercise of all specifically human undertakings.  And so forth.  The Christianity of the West gives democracy its shape and contours.  Look out, though.  Change the West, or—more to the point—permit the West to change itself, and new suppositions creep into the Western understanding of democracy, not all of them pleasing from the standpoint of the older ones.

Williamson—rightly, in my estimation—sees and presents modern liberalism, with its secularity, as the corrupter and seducer of democracy; a whisperer of sweet nothings about our inherent “right”—in Twentyfirstcenturyspeak, our “entitlement”—to the fancies of our choice, starting naturally with money, the procurer of all good things.  There goes the religious element so necessary to democratic understanding and practice.

“Modern democracies,” Wil­liam­son says,

are morally relativist and inherently atheistic societies, devoid of absolute principles and prepared to set the popular will (however that may be determined) above even their supposed commitment to pragmatism.  “One Nation under God” may be a pretty phrase, but it is a lie nevertheless.  More honest is “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,”

meaning “selfishness institutionalized.”  Williamson at this juncture delivers himself of some apt and admirable judgments.  Democracy is “a false religion.”  “The new democratic state is its own god, and that god is a jealous god.”

Back to the electoral horrors of 2012.  The Romney “gaffe” having to do with the imputed dependence of Americans excused for one reason or another from paying the main tax that finances their government—this gaffe (as the media label truth-telling exercises that arise from the right of the political spectrum) contained an important truth about modern democracy.  If regard for the rights of private property was a key element of the democracy that Tocqueville inspected and approved, thirst—sometimes outright lust—for other people’s property is an element of modern democracy.  The money that government bestows in the form of “welfare” or “earned income tax credits” is money generated by others’ work and expressed in tax payments (or the printing of money in the form of a mortgage payable by future generations).  To speak this inconvenient truth is to libel the very numerous recipients of money to which the government declares them somehow “entitled.”

The “entitlement” may have arisen from modern liberalism’s thirst for “social justice” and the redistribution of rewards, or it may have arisen in the form of a political bribe.  Or both at the same time.  The point is the appearance in democracy’s cozy nest of such excrescences as class warfare (another current political term) and economic confiscation.  Tocqueville never saw anything of the sort while in America, though he had his suspicions and anxieties.  Says Williamson,

His chief fear was that democratic individualism would engender selfishness and a materialist spirit in the people, who would in time resort to the state as their ally in the quest for riches.  This alliance would promote the centralization of government, and centralized government, in turn, would lead to a rule by a mandarin bureaucratic class and eventual paralysis in the state.

Well, there we are.  Liberalism turned inside out—from liberty’s protector to its assailant—gives democracy a whole new aroma and flavor.  Not a nice one, either.

The crime-scene investigation goes on.  Drawing on such as Christopher Lasch, Pitirim Sorokin, Bertrand de Jouvenel, Jacques Ellul, Pierre Manent, and Claude Polin, Williamson (who keeps excellent company, it quickly dawns on the reader) looks at particular afflictions of the modern age, such as the degradation of popular culture into mass culture, courtesy of the mass media.  Tocqueville saw the press as “the chiefest democratic instrument of freedom.”  Which it may still be, if handled with discretion in an age that appears to have turned every one of us into a “communicator.”  In such an age, “facts” suffocate quickly beneath “narcissistic opinion and raw, conflicting emotion that Internet writing exalts over everything else, authority especially.”

A pungent chapter on “Democracy and Modern Man” brings to light, among other things, Williamson’s longstanding concern over the flood of immigrants that has poured into America over the past few decades, bringing with them assumptions in which democratic attitudes may fail to flower.  Tocqueville made much of the cultural/ethnic unity of the United States—the nation’s Britishness, hence its grounding in generally agreed-on convictions and outlooks.  The War Between the States, with Smiths and Joneses wearing the uniforms of both sides, and a Lincoln and a Davis at the head of affairs in the two capitals, seems to me less than convincing evidence that America’s “Britishness” was in the end much of a protection.  I imagine further there must be more corrosive things to worry about than a foreign-born man’s or woman’s desire to earn a living and support a family.  Yet Williamson is surely right about “the secular religion multiculturalism” that has already disarmed Europe “in the face of cultural and demographic invasion.”  The liberal instinct to prefer the Other to ourselves, and our tradition, is the villain of the piece.

Then there is what strikes me as matter of even greater moment—the change in us; the change in you, in me.  Meaning what?  Williamson replies:

The men and women of the modern democratic West are almost unrecognizably altered—morally, religiously, intellectually, and culturally—from what they were in the time of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the unification of Italy, and the consolidation of the Germanies under Prussia.

Human nature remains constant—yes.  It is not so with human character, as seductive words of one kind and another pour into ear and eye:

Western thought has revolutionized itself since the beginning of the modern democratic experiment two centuries ago, and it has done so in ways that are not in agreement with democratic theory and practice.

Europe’s intellectual temper is “radically post-Christian and neo-Marxist”; America’s is “evangelical Christian” (well, possibly, I would put in) and “broadly progressive” (not much doubt of that).  The secular assumptions of liberalism feed contemporary democracy.  Democracy as we know it is liberalism.

It is no wonder people of a certain age (mine) are given more and more to an observation commonly delivered while the head rotates slowly, side to side: “I don’t recognize the country I live in.”  A great many things that are so were not so when we went to high school; or when Jack Kennedy was shot; or when Perry Como made known how much Papa loved Mambo.  Yes, yes, everything physical changes over time—hairstyles, music, friends and neighbors.  We all know this.  Often enough we celebrate the fact.  (I’m supposed to complain that they came up in modern times with razors more efficient than the lawnmower versions of old?)  The garish aspect of our culture, viewed large and whole, rather than as a series of vignettes, is that its fundamental assumptions are not as they were.  What we used to believe with grateful acceptance, we now ignore or regard with suspicion.  Are we smarter than we used to be?  I doubt it.

The ideology of multiculturalism, says Williamson, “has come to rule our affairs.”  The elite classes like it that way.  More to the point, “basic civility” seemingly compels us not to make too big a fuss about it.  Horrors!  What if someone called our old-fashioned assumptions “sexist” or “racist”?  Our social standing might go the way of interest rates—through the floor.  There are consequences, nevertheless, to weigh: in our own case, the incoherence that pertains to any country lacking cultural identity or an agreed-on history, not to mention a generally accepted moral system, a sense of national obligation, an appreciation of the past.

We’re just up to page 151 at this point.  Democracy, 21st-century-style, isn’t looking very good.  Nor do matters improve as Williamson weighs the selfishness of “the dominant class” in our affairs (not to be confused with the lately legendary “one percent”); the modern judiciary’s devotion to subjectivity in judging; the resultant lack of faith, especially among Europeans, in the “meaning and importance of the democratic nation.”

We could all have a good cry at this juncture—the louder and the longer if one demanded here and now a point-by-point program for democratic regeneration.  Williamson has not come among us bearing such a program; nor, given his own suppositions, and Tocqueville’s, would he be likely to attempt the task.  Regenerate what at this point?  A concept without intrinsic meaning?  Whereas Tocqueville recommended efforts “to educate the democracy; to warm its faith if that be possible,” the job looked less imposing at the time than it would appear after centuries of cultural and moral erosion.

Williamson does see as essential the discovery of a will and a way to free ourselves from liberalism in its debased contemporary form—a doctrine “founded on an illusory concept of metaphysics, human nature, the essence of the good, and the nature of evil.”  Easier said than done, no doubt.  Williamson’s own contribution to the reparative mission is this richly informed, calmly analytical, yet vigorously argued takedown of “democracy’s” hollow assumptions.  He knows metaphysical reality when he sees it, which is more than one can say for the muddled minds that dominate the discourse of our time.  No less important, when it comes to reality, he recognizes the cheap substitutes foisted on us in the name of the latest feel-good project of government or the academy.

Don’t care for what goes on in the debased politics of our time?  Wonder how in the world we got where we are?  Here’s how.


[After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy, by Chilton Williamson, Jr. (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 264 pp., $27.95]