Democracy and Populism

Fear & Hatred

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 John Lukacs
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10773-9

Chapter One


ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE was a visionary, and a historical, even more than a political, thinker. He finished and published the first volume of his Democracy in America one hundred and seventy years ago. Note the honest precision of his title: De la d��mocratie en Am��rique: "About democracy in America." His theme was democracy, as it then existed in America. His first volume was mainly about America, his second volume, published five years later, mainly about democracy. For us this second volume is even more relevant and timely than the first. His contemporaries did not think so; that second volume was criticized, wrongly so; the first volume was not.

Of course much has happened since. America is not what it was then. The American people are not what they were then. America is no longer the only, the main, prototype of democracy in the world. Perhaps Tocqueville should be reversed. For a book remains to be written, with the title and theme of American Democracy: that is, what is particularly American in the political and social conditions of the United States; what and how do they differ from French or British or German or Japanese or Russian or Ruritarian democracy-now, when all around us, all across the globe seethes, bubbles, froths the still spreading tide, the democratization of the world?

Tocqueville proposed this question already at the end of his first volume:

Those who, after having read this book, should imagine that my intention in writing it was to propose the laws and customs of the Anglo-Americans for the imitation of all democratic communities would make a great mistake; they must have paid more attention to the form than to the substance of my thought. My aim has been to show, by the example of America, that laws, and especially customs, may allow a democratic people to remain free. But I am very far from thinking that we ought to follow the example of the American democracy and copy the means that it has employed to attain this end; for I am well aware of the influence which the nature of a country and its political antecedents exercise upon its political constitution; and I should regard it as a great misfortune for mankind if liberty were to exist all over the world under the same features.

And yet: the evolving history of the democratization of the world is well-nigh inseparable from the Americanization of the world. Not identical; but inseparable. "To make the world safe for democracy": this hapless idea of an American president, Wilson (a southern New Englander; a Virginian Puritan), remained more enduring than the revolutionary ideas of his contemporary-they died but a few days apart-the (partly Tartar, partly German) goateed demagogue Lenin. Perhaps Wilson's mindless phrase ought to be-may still be-reversed too: "how to make democracy safe for the world," which is a big question that Tocqueville would have instantly understood.

Tocqueville is not outdated, since many of the questions that he stated, or suggested, have become more and more obvious. Is democracy the rule of the people, or, more precisely: rule by the people? No: because it is, really and actually, rule in the name of the people. That is not simpler but more complicated than anything before. Yes: in its predominant sense democracy is the rule of the majority. (And how is this majority composed, formed, what does it consist of?) Here liberalism enters. (It did not, and does not always.) Majority rule is tempered by the legal assurance of the rights of minorities, and of individual men and women. And when this temperance is weak, or unenforced, or unpopular, then democracy is nothing more (or else) than populism. More precisely: then it is nationalist populism.

Neither "nationalism" nor "populism"-nationalisme or populisme-were terms used by Tocqueville. He understood such phenomena: but these words did not even exist in the French language during his lifetime.

But exist they do; and our question is how traditional democracy can exist much longer, when traditional liberalism has decayed. Tocqueville did not have to face this; but we do. And as we get there-again, more precisely: how did we get here?-we must look at something greater, which was Tocqueville's vision. This was the change from the aristocratic to the democratic age in the history of mankind. A vision grand and simple. So often it has been inadequately recognized, a classic case of not seeing a forest for the trees. (Perhaps George Orwell's twentieth-century statement fits appropriately here: "We have now sunk to a depth where the restatement of the obvious is the duty of intelligent men.")

Tocqueville was a historian as much as a political theorist or a sociologist. (Unlike Spengler or Toynbee or others he had not, he cared not for a philosophy of history. The contrary was true: his philosophy was historical.) Of course he knew a fair amount of history; of course he knew the customary categories, Ancient, Middle, Modern. Different ages of history meant much to him, including the changing conditions of human existence and, perhaps especially, of thinking (something that-so-called-postmodern historians have lately been grappling with, the history of mentalities, mentalit��s: as Oscar Wilde would put it, pursuing the obvious with the enthusiasm of short-sighted detectives). Tocqueville, like his close predecessor Burke (with whom, however, he did not always agree), understood the inevitable historicity of human existence. He saw something even simpler and greater, which was the division of history into something else than chronological periods: the Aristocratic, and the Democratic Age. The first was receding during his lifetime, the second rising and growing, though not yet universal. Since Adam and Eve people were ruled by minorities. Now no longer. He understood what this meant, with all of the humility of a Christian. "I cannot believe," he once wrote, "that God has for several centuries been pushing two or three hundred million men toward equality just to make them wind up under a Tiberian or Claudian despotism. Verily, that wouldn't be worth the trouble. Why He is drawing us toward democracy, I do not know; but embarked on a vessel that I did not build, I am at least trying to use it to gain the nearest port." He also understood that this was a gradual development. But we live more than a century and a half after him. He did not (how could he?) foresee the ending of the Modern Age, in the midst of which we now are. He did see that what was happening was the decline of aristocracy and the rise of democracy-sometimes rapidly, sometimes slowly, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes not, sometimes more politically than socially, sometimes less so.

From us, from our perspective, this is now largely over. (Perspective is an inevitable component of reality; and all perspective is, at least to some extent, historical, just as all knowledge depends on memory.) We can see-more: we ought to see-that the entire so-called Modern Age, 1500-2000, especially and particularly in the West, was marked by this dual development: aristocracy retreating, democracy advancing: and that this was once something new, and that this is now at an end.


Monarchy, aristocracy, democracy: these forms of government, these social conditions, have come to resemble their origins in the past only superficially. These categories and their definitions are Greek. But there is a great mistake to think that Athenian democracy or Spartan aristocracy or Lycurgian monarchy-or, at that, "government" in Greece, or "family" in Rome-had much, if anything, in common with our acquaintance, our experience, our usage of these terms.

At the same time we can recognize, and respect, the knowledge and the understanding of these classical models by our predecessors, champions and architects of our liberties. Their acquaintance with ancient history was the source of the respect they had for what they, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, invoked as Mixed Government. They had read (or at least pretended to have read) their Aristotle. But perhaps even more important was their knowledge and understanding of perennial human nature, a capacity that has been compromised, overlaid, diluted, and perhaps even largely lost now. In any event: they knew that no form of human government can be perfect because human nature was imperfect. Hence their advocacies for the-relatively-best governments for civilized states were those that combined monarchical and aristocratic and democratic elements. That was an achievement of Western civilization. Entire constitutions rose from it: constitutional monarchy in England, the Constitution of the United States, the original (and then rapidly destroyed) impulse of at least some of the French reformers before and in 1789. I need not describe this further: this book is not a treatise in the history of political science.

Still it is interesting to contemplate how and why the framers of the American Constitution chose to begin its text with a bang: "We the People ..." After all, they, too, had their doubts about that inchoate term: "The People." In any event: what every high school student knows or, rather, ought to know, is that the Constitution encompassed, at least originally, the ideals of Mixed Government: a "monarchical" element represented by a president and his powers; an "aristocratic" element by the electoral college and by the restrictions, nominations, elections of senators and of the Senate (and somewhat later by the Supreme Court); the "democratic" element by the House of Representatives.

It does not require much historical knowledge (though it may require a certain historical perspective) to see that many, if not all, of the "aristocratic" elements of the Constitution (as also in other countries) have gradually disappeared or were washed away during the past two hundred years, while the monarchic powers of the presidency and the democratic extent of majority rule became more and more overwhelming. (We ought to recognize, too, how the American Constitution, with all its vaunted unique achievements, collapsed in 1861. After more than a decade of pulling and tugging, it was evidently incapable of preventing the breakup of the republic and of a civil war.)

Tocqueville wrote little about mixed government, or about what Americans still call "checks and balances." But he believed in the few benefits of remaining nondemocratic institutions, restraining total and untrammeled democracy. Thus, for example, in Democracy in America, he observed and praised the American judiciary system and American lawyers (he called them "l��gistes," not "avocats"), suggesting that they represented a sort of American elite, with the principal role of restraining unlimited majority rule and the potential tyranny of the latter. Thus, for example, Tocqueville respected the England of his times (except for its practices in Ireland), including the presence of certain British aristocrats in politics,* as befits a constitutional monarchy. But a century and a half later we need not waste much thought on what happened with American lawyers or with the British aristocracy. The political and the social functions that Tocqueville saw and ascribed to them are gone. Democracy has become unlimited, untrammeled, universal.

* * *

It is worth noticing that monarchies still exist. (Exist, rather than prevail.) Constitutional monarchies, all of them, which is to the good: but we must understand, too, that they exist only on popular sufferance: democracy and majority rule may put an end to them in an instant. Still, the relationship of monarchy and democracy, different as it has been from the relationship of aristocracy and democracy, deserves a rapid cursory look. A hereditary monarchy lends a certain sense of stability to a democratic people, the sense of a family (something that may have emerged as late as during Victoria's reign in Britain). That is not so under the rule of an elective monarchy such as the American one (even though during the last one hundred years popular interest in the American presidents' wives or families has not decreased but increased). Even more important: at moments of grave national crises a hereditary monarch-whatever his other weaknesses or shortcomings-may save an entire country from destruction. In 1943 it was the king of Italy (Victor Emmanuel III) who had Mussolini arrested and deposed; in 1945 it was the emperor (Hirohito) who declared Japan's surrender, the impact of which was even more decisive than either the two atomic bombs cast on Japan or Stalin's declaration of war a week before. In 1989 and afterward the United States may have been mistaken for not favoring the return of constitutional monarchies in Romania and Yugoslavia and even in Afghanistan. But then in 1917 and 1918 many Americans, and especially liberal and Progressive political spokesmen and intellectuals, argued that World War I, "the war to end all wars," was a war between Democracy, incarnated by the United States, against Monarchy, incarnated by the Kaiser's Germany (conveniently overlooking a number of monarchies on the Allied side).

Still: even if constitutional and hereditary monarchies can, and perhaps even should, coexist with a democratic society and state, their continued existence does not vitiate the overall condition, the unchallenged principle of popular sovereignty, worldwide.

* * *

The coexistence-more, a mutual dependence-of monarchy and democracy long preceded the American and the French (and even the English) revolutions. In the beginning of the Modern Age the emerging bourgeois classes sought, and applauded, the rising powers of kings, protecting them from the ravages of aristocracies. Tocqueville was among the first to notice that in France the administrative centralization of the state began well during the near-absolute monarchy and then remained predominant and unchallenged during and after the French Revolution. He thought and wrote that centralization, meaning the ever extending power of central governmental administration, could be endemic for democracy, including the prospects of an eventual welfare state. His prophetic concern with this is well known. He also understood the particular vices and shortcomings of his own French aristocracy in this regard-this was his main criticism of Edmund Burke, who, in Tocqueville's view, was right about the excesses and the dangers of the French Revolution, but wrong in his illusions of the benefices and order of the aristocratic-monarchical order that had preceded it. Anyhow, besides the failures of the aristocracy, a compulsive inclination to categorical governmental regulations was particularly French, one outcome of a geometrical spirit that was Cartesian (and not Pascalian). Beyond France we may note another important inclination: the bourgeois's dependence on the protection of their monarchs included an impulse that was, and remains, typical of the bourgeoisie and of liberals: an element of fear.


Excerpted from Democracy and Populismby JOHN LUKACS Copyright © 2006 by John Lukacs. Excerpted by permission.
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