Greek writers, and writers coming after them for the next 2,000 years, attributed the short life and violent end of democratic governments to democracy’s infallible tendency toward demagoguery and the dispossession of the wealthy and educated by the poor and ignorant. Tocqueville thought democracy’s fatal weakness to be uniformity of thought and opinion, and the potential for the tyranny of the majority over the minority. Without ever quite placing his finger on the matter, he came closer than earlier critics of democracy had done to recognizing that the fatal weakness of democratic government is pragmatism—the pragmatism inherent in the commercial society that engenders democracy and with which, in the short run, it is compatible.
Democracy is supposed to mean government by the people, yet democratic publics are never content with the process of self-government. Almost at once, they learn to demand practical and material results from government which the government feels compelled to produce, just as a business enterprise is compelled to create those products most in demand by consumers. The risk to democracy lies in the fact that democratic electoral pressure encourages and agrees with the natural tendency of government toward limitless power through efficiency and growth, which parallels and directly reflects an equal tendency of business enterprise toward greater economic gain and political influence through growth and increased efficiency.
Societies have an historical bent to conform their governments to reflect the spirit and structure of their dominant civic institutions, whether ecclesiastical, social, or economic. In modern capitalist countries, that spirit is the commercial spirit. Noncommercial (or anticommercial) interests like religious and charitable organizations and advocacy and countercultural groups pride themselves on representing an emancipated spirit transcending the dominant ethos. In fact, these associations, for the most part, are as much influenced by that ethos as any cheap politician or callow corporate executive is.
It is not a simple question, however, of ends and means—or, rather, of ends versus means. Commercial society in its various operations is not necessarily indifferent to the morality of its actions, but it is typically careless of their appropriateness and wisdom. The distinguishing faults of commercial man are shallowness of mind and narrowness of vision, not selfishness and ruthlessness. Commercial man is not heedless of what aristocratic man calls principle; he simply believes that what another type of man calls principle is not really principle at all, principle being frequently ineffective in terms of efficiency as he understands it. Nor is he habitually indifferent to the nature of the means. Instead, for him, principle is not the proper beginning but the proper end of a given measure or course of action. His conviction reflects that well-meaning form of naiveté we call idealism. It is quintessentially American, though American prestige and influence have succeeded in spreading it, like a fatal contagion, throughout the Western world.
Similarly, democratic politics is not pragmatic in the sense that it is unconcerned with principle or morality, even if its morality is often only moralism. Rather, it looks to achieve its selected moral ends by means appropriate to the man of business, rather than to the statesman or even the politician—having, in adopting a particular policy, a sole end in view without regard to how its implementation would affect the broader polity, as a CEO is wont to adopt a course of action that, while promising profits for his company, has adverse consequences for the larger economy and for society as a whole. This is how the War Between the States, to the extent that that catastrophic and unnecessary conflict really was fought over slavery, came about. It is also how, after the war, the federal government steadily extended its control over the states, disregarding their constitutional status and usurping their rights and powers in the interests of a stronger, more efficient, more aggressive, and therefore (in its eyes) more perfect union—which was, indeed, much more united, but also considerably less democratic. It is how, consequently, Washington, with the aim of guaranteeing the material security of its citizens and their “right” to “a more abundant life,” created the national welfare state at the expense of their personal responsibility and autonomy and in violation of many of their constitutional rights and democratic freedoms. It is how, in the 1950’s and 60’s, it “freed” the Southern blacks and acceded to the demands of the civil- and voting-rights movements by ignoring the legitimate protests of the Southern states and the arguments of states’ rights advocates around the country and defying a democratically devised and ratified Constitution in the name of a greater democracy. It is how, in the eight decades since the New Deal, the national state, asserting its responsibility for delivering safety in the workplace, clean air, unpolluted waters, the preservation of species and of wilderness, the equality of women, homosexuals, and the handicapped, adequate healthcare and education for all citizens, etc., completed a bureaucratic administrative leviathan undemocratic in action and spirit and repressive to a degree infinitely beyond the ambitions of George III and the British Empire. It is how that leviathan, citing in one breath business’s and agriculture’s need for labor (the pragmatic argument) and the ethical obligations imposed by international humanitarianism, the rights of man, and global democracy (the moral-pragmatic one), has transformed the United States by promoting mass immigration from non-Western and non-democratic cultures that is wholly inimical to what remains of American democracy and the American civilization that produced it. And it is how the president of the United States has engaged in numerous “pragmatic interventions” and several major wars around the world since 1945 without the advice and consent of Congress as specified by the Constitution—a particularly brazen violation that has apparently been solidified as legal precedent by President Obama’s congressionally unapproved “action” in Libya. Achieving the desired result, abroad as at home, is what counts (even if, more often than not, we don’t).
Across the water, the stealthy extension of economic authority contemplated in Brussels today to acquire centralized political control over a federation of sovereign states perfectly exemplifies how the axioms, thinking, strategies, and aims of politicians have merged with those of bankers, financiers, and CEOs. Politicians think increasingly like businessmen, while businessmen, their gaze fixed on the heavenly vision of a global economy, think like politicians. What matters for both is the bottom line, however calculated, as the desirable end of every enterprise. For the man of business, that line is always profit, pure and simple. For the politician, it is “mission accomplished,” without regard to the constitutionality of the ends, the collateral damage to the national polity and to the idea and practice of democratic government itself. Did this particular policy contribute to the further centralization of the state, more dollars for the ghettos, more children graduated from high school, the equality of minorities with majorities, the admission of more immigrants and rescue of more refugees? If the answer is yes, he considers that policy an unqualified success and congratulates himself that democracy as an ideal has been given another push forward, even if democracy-as-actuality has been further diminished toward the vanishing point.
The point is not whether the achieved results are good things in their own right, but whether they tend to weaken or strengthen democratic government. So far we have been considering ends that many, if not most, people would consider morally worthy ones: the alleviation of poverty and unemployment, an end to racial segregation, the toppling of foreign tyrants, and so on. But democratic government is susceptible to an enthusiasm for policies that fall on the wrong side of the moral issue by endorsing such plainly immoral things as abortion, “gay marriage,” and homosexual adoption. Modern democracy’s uncritical support for anything associated with individual rights, personal freedom, and “liberation,” especially when these relate to the demands of minorities of any sort, corrupts democratic societies by making their citizens less and less the kind of people on whom democracy depends to prosper and survive. Pluralistic democracies in particular are always reluctant to take a moral stand against any cause to which a constituency of alleged victims has attached itself—indeed, to validate any moral code at all with the exception of postmodern “ethics,” a nonjudgmental pseudomorality that imposes no moral burden or sacrifice on anyone beyond an infinite unquestioning tolerance. Their response to personal and public immorality of most kinds is precisely that of the modern business corporation: accommodation in the interest of convenience, caution, market interests, efficiency, good publicity, and brand image. Again, simple pragmatism is the rule, and the bottom line the chief concern and measure in assessing the success of a particular policy, without thought to its wider effect on the complexities of democratic government and institutions taken as a whole.
Democratic government is typically about delivering short-term results narrowly conceived and the constitutional and other shortcuts to them—one reason why, before the late 19th century, the rule of thumb among political philosophers and historians was that democracies never last. Lehman Brothers, founded in 1850, had had a good run for its money when it collapsed in 2008—one which the United States as a democratic country may not exceed by much, in proportion at least to the lives of historical nations. Commercial society is one thing; government as business quite another. In this sense, the traditional bias of aristocracies against commercial men in public office appears to be based on instinct, observation, a knowledge of history, and common sense. It is certainly a bad sign that the current Republican presidential candidates are vying with one another for the job of CEO-in-chief. The worst fate that could befall this country now would be for a corporate executive to be entrusted with the fate of the American Republic, so-called. Business executives have a useful and honorable role in society, but that role is not as president of the United States. That august office deserves to be occupied by what used to be called a man of state—no matter whether anyone today can tell the difference between a statesman and a shimmering savior selling us Hope and Change.