The recent decision by voters in Great Britain to leave the European Union has provoked some probing questions about the virtues of democracy among writers and editors at various mainstream publications like the Financial Times, The Economist, The Times of London, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and many other like-minded newspapers and magazines. Are voters really capable of making decisions about issues as complex and far-reaching as whether Britain should leave or stay in the European Union? Should a decision of this complexity and magnitude ever be turned over to voters to decide in a national referendum? Is it possible in any case to discern what voters were trying to express when they cast those ballots to leave the European Union? Might the blunt results of the referendum be overturned by Parliament or by some official body whose members truly understand the issues at stake? Democracy, they seemed to be saying, is generally a good thing, but it is also a blunt instrument in need of being checked or refined by institutions that reflect a more sophisticated understanding of the common good. In this case, they agreed, majority rule yielded a result that contradicted the views of experts and was likely to do great damage to Britain’s standing in the world.

Little did these critics realize that their skeptical views about democracy and majority rule are not much different from those expressed by philosophers and statesmen through the ages going back to the time of Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece. Up until recent times, Democracy was thought to be an inferior form of government, subject to disorder, mob rule, abuses of power, and civil wars, and for these reasons incapable of sustaining itself for any considerable period of time. This was the view of the great Greek philosophers just mentioned, of Cicero in ancient Rome, of Christian theorists through the centuries, of early modern theorists such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke, and even of the founding fathers of the United States. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist, in a comment on popular assemblies in ancient Athens, “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” Democracy, in his view, and in the view of his fellow members of the Philadelphia convention, was a perverted form of popular government. The goal of the convention was to create a republic in which public opinion would be filtered through representatives and checked by courts, deliberative bodies, and constitutional guarantees of individual liberty.

Up until recent times, Democracy was thought to be an inferior form of government.

It is only in very recent times that democracy has been held up as the ideal form of government and the standard against which all regimes should be measured and judged. The great wars of our time have been “wars for democracy,” while important political decisions and movements are now assessed in terms of their contribution to the onward march of democracy. This is one reason why the reaction to the “Brexit” vote has been so interesting: it runs against the grain of the conventional wisdom of our era.

In this ambitious and comprehensive new volume, Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought, James T. Kloppenberg shows how the concept of democracy evolved over the course of three centuries from roughly 1600 to 1900 from a term of abuse to a widely shared governing ideal.1 As his title suggests, Kloppenberg, a professor of history at Harvard University, views modern history in terms of an ongoing and never-ending struggle in the direction of a democratic ideal. He focuses for the most part on three countries—Great Britain, France, and the United States—and on the popular revolutions that took place in those countries between the middle of the seventeenth and the middle of the nineteenth centuries. In doing so he goes over intellectual terrain already well covered by other historians—most recently by Sean Wilentz in The Rise of American Democracy (2005) and by R. R. Palmer in his classic work, The Age of Democratic Revolution (1959). Kloppenberg’s study differs from these in its focus on the intellectual and philosophical debates—rather than the historical events—that partly drove and then developed out of the popular revolutions of this era. The great value of this volume lies in its comprehensive and generally astute coverage of these debates and of the ideas of the philosophers and statesmen who participated in them—from Locke and Milton in the seventeenth century to Rousseau, Montesquieu, Madison, John Adams, and Jefferson in the eighteenth, and finally to Mill, Tocqueville, and Lincoln in the nineteenth century. Though there is little in this coverage that is new, it does have moments of originality—as, for example, in Professor Kloppenberg’s discussion of Adams and his differences with Jefferson and in the role he assigns to Mill as a transitional figure in the evolution of liberalism with his emphasis on educational and cultural reform as a means of uplifting the common man. If the book has a weakness, then it lies in its length—nearly 900 pages of text plus endnotes—and in its frequent digressions into theorists and political movements of marginal importance to the story Kloppenberg tries to tell.

The hatreds and lingering resentments that flowed from these events also slowed the further march of democracy.

Professor Kloppenberg hits upon a couple of broad themes that were important in the rise of popular government but which are not sufficiently appreciated today. The first is the link between the Protestant reformation and the rise of popular government and of the mutually reinforcing spread of these two movements from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. He emphasizes the connections between the Christian virtues of benevolence, simplicity, and reciprocity and the rise of democracy. As Benjamin Rush, one of the American founders, wrote in a letter to John Adams: “The precepts of the Gospel and the maxims of republics in many instances agree with each other.” Jefferson described Christianity as the religion “most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind.” Still, Christianity dominated the European continent during the twelve centuries from the conversion of Constantine to the Protestant reformation without provoking any movements in the direction of democracy. It was the specifically Protestant interpretation of Christianity, with its various emphases on congregational government, the disestablishment of religion, the authority of individual conscience in matters of religion, the literal interpretation of the Bible, and the corruption of the Roman Church, that ignited the movements in Europe and North America toward popular government and away from monarchy and theocracy. The cause was strengthened in America by the fact that many of the early European settlers were Protestant refugees from religious oppression, though very little of it came from Roman sources. Professor Kloppenberg deftly follows the religious thread all the way through this period showing how Christian ideals—usually Protestant interpretations of those ideals—found secular expression in movements for popular rule.

A second theme in the book is the central roles played by revolutions and civil wars in the rise and eventual triumph of the democratic movement. The three great revolutions of that era—the English, American, and French—provide ample evidence for that point, as does the American Civil War, which Professor Kloppenberg sees as a culminating event in the three-century struggle for popular government. Perhaps it was inevitable, as he suggests, that a novel movement in the world had to make its way forward through revolution and civil war. At the same time, as he also emphasizes, the hatreds and lingering resentments that flowed from these events also slowed the further march of democracy in all three countries. His point about violence is entirely accurate, and one that he might have pressed further. After all, the rise of democracy as a governing ideal in our time would have been inconceivable absent those victories in the three great wars for democracy between 1861 and 1945—the American Civil War and the two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century. In view of this, it is a good question why Professor Kloppenberg ended his narrative with the U.S. Civil War instead of developing it further to take account of the world wars that proved so decisive to the triumph of democracy in the twentieth century.

Our present form of government is not a democracy; perhaps it no longer even qualifies as a republic.

Toward Democracy is an important and finely crafted book, but there is a muddle at the center of it. What is democracy? Professor Kloppenberg never provides a clear definition of what he means by it, or how his understanding comports with or departs from the traditional understanding according to which democracy is a flawed form of government. He does attempt a definition of sorts when he writes that democracy rests upon the pillars of popular sovereignty, equality, and autonomy, though this seems incomplete and unsatisfactory as a definition. The fact remains that none of the great popular governments of our time would qualify as a democracy as that term has been traditionally defined. The authors of the United States Constitution did not create a democracy but a constitutional republic based upon representation and formal checks on the power of majorities. In terms of present-day politics, it is quite a stretch to call the United States a democracy when most of the far reaching political decisions in the country since 1950 have been handed down by a nine-member Supreme Court, or when the party in power can use the taxing authority to harass and intimidate opponents, or when somehow we have empowered administrative agencies to issue edicts that affect millions or hundreds of millions of citizens with very limited popular oversight. No doubt this short list of departures from democratic or popular rule could be supplemented at great length. We do not have a good term to describe the form of government under which we live today. It is not a democracy; perhaps it no longer even qualifies as a republic. The founders and theorists of popular government from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries associated it with limited government or government of strictly limited powers in the belief that large establishments are incompatible with liberty and popular rule. Were they wrong about this? That is a good question, and one that more people should be asking in our era of “unlimited government.”

Paul Cartledge poses a similar question to Professor Kloppenberg, but arrives at a much different answer in this provocative and unconventional new volume, Democracy: A Life. Cartledge, an emeritus professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge and a widely published scholar on the ancient world, agrees that the ideal of democracy fell on hard times for millennia after its disappearance in Greece in the third and second centuries BC, but he disputes the claim that we now live in an age of democratic resurgence.2 In fact, he argues the reverse—that by the democratic standards of ancient Athens and hundreds of other smaller city-states on the Greek peninsula, the popular systems of today look less like democracies and more like oligarchies of one kind or another. Professor Cartledge would dispute the claim that modern history is moving in a democratic direction.

Athens practiced “participatory democracy with a vengeance.”

He views Athenian democracy as an ideal that unfortunately fell out of favor in the ancient world and was never afterwards able to recover its vitality. The term “democracy” comes from the Greek term demokratia, a combination of demos (the people) and kratos (power)—thus a system in which the people exercise political power. In ancient Athens during the fifth and fourth centuries BC, this ideal was taken seriously. There, an Assembly of the people, defined as free adult males, met frequently in mass meetings to decide public matters large and small, frequently extending to controversies that today we decide in courts of law (the trial of Socrates being an example of such a controversy). These were large meetings, much larger than the political conventions of our era, since he estimates that there were around 20,000 free citizens in Athens at that time. Of the 700 or so public offices in Athens, nearly all were filled by annual lotteries. A Council of 500 served as an executive committee for the Assembly, preparing agendas for meetings and overseeing the implementation of the Assembly’s decisions. Membership on the Council was also decided by lottery, and no one was permitted to sit as a member more than twice. The Assembly met as often as weekly or bi-weekly, and the Council sat for roughly 300 days out of the year. This was, as the author writes, “participatory democracy with a vengeance.” He maintains this view even as he acknowledges that Athenians owned slaves and did not permit women to participate in these assemblies.

Democracy: A Life is thus an extended brief in favor of ancient democracy and against the heritage of thought that judged it to be a cause of injustice and instability. He sees Aristotle as the main source of the anti-democratic heritage due to the lasting influence of his critique in the Politics where he wrote that democracy is a perversion of the ideal mixed or middle-class constitution and, further, that democracies are unstable because they are prone to the influence of demagogues who rally the poor to plunder the rich. Aristotle did not make this up: he witnessed or read about episodes of mass violence and lower-level conflicts between rich and poor in Athens and elsewhere. The Roman republic evolved under a mixed or balanced constitution under which the Senate, representing the wealthy, enjoyed a preponderance of power. Much later, when ancient thought was rediscovered during the Renaissance, Machiavelli and the civic humanists of that time looked to Roman rather than to Greek models in politics and political philosophy—and thus to the Roman republic rather than to Athenian democracy. In a similar vein, the Enlightenment, which gave rise both to the American and French revolutions, and to the U.S. Constitution, was far more focused upon Rome than upon Greece, and in any case rejected the Greek form of face-to-face democracy in favor of representative systems. Professor Cartledge takes issue with Madison’s attack on Athenian democracy as mob rule in the quotation reproduced above, calling it a “classically Roman rhetorical trope.” This is the tradition of popular government that he says is still dominant today—that is, representative democracy rather than what he calls “pure, ancient Greek–style democracy.”

Is Professor Cartledge engaging in a pipe dream in his call for a revival of ancient democracy in modern times? Of course he is—and he at times in his book seems to recognize this. There are good reasons going well beyond Aristotle’s strictures why Greek democracy collapsed in the ancient world and was not revived in the modern era of popular politics: it is thoroughly impractical as a form of government, especially in the modern era of populous and geographically extended systems. Madison was undoubtedly correct about this. In New England, town meetings have proved workable as a form of government since colonial times, but only in the local arena and for towns of no more than a few thousand people. It would be difficult today to find many Americans who would look forward to gathering every few weeks with several hundred or a few thousand of their fellow townsmen to debate the budget to repair the local sewer system or to decide which company should get the contract. They are happy to delegate those decisions to representatives, while keeping the option of voting them out of office if they do not like what has been done. For cities of any large size, let alone for nation states composed of tens of millions of citizens, face-to-face democracy is an impractical ideal. Some have recommended the wider use of national referenda via computers, much like the recent vote in Great Britain over the European Union, but such mechanical expressions of popular opinion seem like poor substitutes for the forms of direct democracy in use in ancient Athens. On a more sobering note, direct democracy is rarely employed even in small or modest-sized organizations where it might prove practical, such as in schools, labor unions, trade associations, corporations, or colleges and universities. In nearly all of these organizations, decisions are made by representatives rather than directly by members themselves in face-to-face meetings.

Benjamin Constant, writing a few decades after the French Revolution, drew an important distinction between ancient and modern liberty. For the ancient Athenians, liberty was understood as an obligation of citizenship that involved ongoing participation in civic affairs. Ancient liberty was a burden and a responsibility made possible by the work of slaves who provided citizens with the leisure time required to attend to their civic obligations. It was workable, moreover, only in relatively small and homogeneous polities. Much in contrast to this, modern liberty is based upon private liberties and a strict separation between the public and the private spheres. It is made possible by the spread of commerce, the division of labor, and in turn a focus among citizens upon private concerns like family, work, and the accumulation of wealth. In modern circumstances, liberty led to the concept of representation to save citizens from the burdens of ongoing political involvement, and to geographically extended polities of the type described by Madison in the Federalist. The great error of the French revolutionaries, according to Constant, was to attempt to impose an ancient form of liberty in the modern world where very few wanted or even understood it, such that repeated failures led them to embark upon more extreme measures until the revolution collapsed.

Direct democracy is rarely employed even in small or modest-sized organizations where it might prove practical.

Modern liberty is thus bourgeois liberty—private liberty—and requires republican or representative government, a principle that Madison, Hamilton, and other of the American founders understood very well. The fundamental objective of republican government, in their view, was to preserve liberty, not to perfect democracy—a principle that few seem to appreciate today, including the authors of these two otherwise excellent volumes.

1Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought, by James T. Kloppenberg; Oxford University Press, 892 pages, $34.95.

2Democracy: A Life, by Paul Cartledge; Oxford University Press, 383 pages, $29.95.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 1, on page 97
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