The Ideology of Democratism

Emily B. Finley writes in this 2022 book:

* democratism is a hypothetical or ideal conception of democracy that is only tenuously connected to the actual, historical desires of real popular majorities.

* Democratism can perhaps best be summed up as the belief that democracy is real or genuine only to the degree that it reflects an idealized conception of the popular will. The president of Freedom House was oriented by this democratist conception of democracy when he declared popular majorities a “threat” to democracy.

* The original idea for this book was sparked by an observation that the vast majority of democratic scholarship in recent decades is oriented by a shared normative assumption about democracy, namely the belief that real democracies are more or less legitimate as they conform to an ideal of democracy. This assumption is rarely spelled out, but it underlies almost all normative questions about democracy in political science and public discussion. Furthermore, because a democratic ideal is held to be normative, it is assumed that all countries of the globe must be striving toward it, even if it is not apparent that they are doing so. The assumption is that in undemocratic countries most of the people, if they were able to think rationally and clearly about their interests, would choose something like Western-style democracy, and specifically “democracy” as the elite representatives of this ideology conceive of it.

* This book argues that the modern Western world is enchanted with an imaginative vision of democracy that at times is almost indistinguishable from religious belief. And like religious belief, it has its apostles, who define the democratic orthodoxy, and also its heretics, who must be managed and censored.

* It is routine to hear about this or that policy or action being urgently needed in order to “save democracy,” for example. Yet increasingly, it seems, democracy must be rescued from itself. It must be saved even from popular majorities. The term “populist,” paradoxically, is now often used to indicate those who allegedly wish to destroy democracy. “Populists” are often derided as “authoritarians” or “fascists.” The democratist ideology has created the framework for this otherwise perplexing phenomenon, equating populism with what would seem to be its opposite: authoritarianism.

* Democratism’s belief that the people are generally good leads to the idea that the people must only be awakened through some form of enlightenment to their true and rational interests. Then, it is assumed, they will elect leaders representing the policies that correspond with those interests. It is always assumed that the people’s best interests align with those valued by democratism. Politics is a matter of correct reasoning and judgment rather than a moral-ethical challenge, as it was for classical republicans.

* democratism tends to hold with Rousseau that man’s destructive passions “have alien causes,” and once those external sources of evil (bad institutions and traditions) are eliminated, a harmonious equilibrium can be restored. Peace and amity are the norm, disrupted by corrupt institutions and bad actors.

* Because democratism assumes that the people are inherently good, it must account for the perpetual deviations from the state of freedom and equality that it claims should be the norm. So public officials, institutions, and other sinister forces are blamed.

* Democratists identified in this book, such as Woodrow Wilson, Jacques Maritain, and George W. Bush, adopt the Christian language of good and evil, light and darkness, and the providence of God to describe what they interpret as a world-historic battle for democracy. But the democratic philosophy of history need not take on overtly religious or millenarian language to describe what is essentially the same belief. Rousseau’s confidence in the existence of a General Will, Jefferson’s faith in the people, and John Rawls’s belief that through a “veil of ignorance” people will almost invariably arrive at some form of liberal democracy as politically normative, all evince an underlying faith in democracy as historically inevitable given the right conditions—which democratism proposes to facilitate. The language of “waves” of democracy and democratic “backsliding” indicate that for many, democracy is the norm and other political and social forms are outmoded, awaiting evolution. In ways more or less subtle, much of modern democratic theory rests on this philosophy of history.

* Among democratism’s foreign policy consequences is a tendency toward expansion and democratic imperialism. This comes into special focus in the chapters on Jefferson, Wilson, and war democratism. Oriented by the twin beliefs that politics can be ordered according to reason and that we are approaching the dawn of a new global democratic age, many democratists have called for the liberation of oppressed peoples in distant lands.

* These so-called democrats are reluctant to admit openly that they do not wish to translate the popular will into legislation and instead hope to find ways for their own beliefs to become instituted.

* Democratism does not conform to a single set of rules. Sometimes it manifests as a foreign policy of idealism abroad and sometimes it is more subtle. Deliberative democracy is one example of a powerful yet understated expression of democratism. Deliberative democracy has been described as an “ideal in which people come together, on the basis of equal status and mutual respect,” to discuss and decide political issues. 1 It would seem to be a much-needed democratic corrective to democratism’s typical reliance on an enlightened leadership class to “represent” the people. This approach to democracy, however, tends to incline toward the same paradoxical embrace of “the people’s” will as democratism, and it overlaps considerably with Rousseau’s philosophy of democracy. 2 Indeed, many deliberative democracy theorists self-consciously draw on Rousseau’s political ideals. 3 The editors of the recent Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy (2018) bemoan the global ascendancy of “post-truth” politics and the rise of populist leaders. These deliberative democrats and others assume that if the people were better educated and more informed, they would naturally reject the populist leaders whom they had once supported. The corrective for this failure of democracy, according to deliberative democracy, is deliberation “to help the citizens to understand better the issues, their own interests, and the interests and perceptions of others.” Where agreement is not possible, the deliberative democracy framework is supposed to help “structure and clarify the questions behind the conflict” before the issues are finally put to a vote.

* The news media often announce the need for “national conversations” about the controversies or incidents making headlines. In 2016, the anchor of World News Tonight , David Muir, moderated a “town hall” with President Barack Obama called “The President and the People: A National Conversation.” The Woodrow Wilson Center and National Public Radio coproduce “The National Conversation,” a “forum for deep dialogue and informed discussion . . . of the most significant problems facing the nation and the world.” 6 Lofty appeals to the need for a national conversation are so frequent and so abstract that they hardly mean anything, yet they testify to the core idea of deliberation that is at the heart of deliberative democracy, as if the nation’s “deliberating” would clarify issues and render political decisions more legitimate. This language and way of thinking reflects the same belief of deliberative democracy that public discourse ought to be normative, even central, in political decision-making. Unreflectively, many would likely agree with this notion. However, it must be asked how such deliberation would clarify issues. If a bunch of uninformed people get together in a forum, what is to say that their discussing issues will improve their thinking? Implicit in deliberative democracy’s assumption (as well as that of Muir and other hosts of “national conversations”) is that the discussion will be carefully moderated by enlightened experts of some sort.

* The belief that rational inquiry and dialogue can act as disinterested forces in the search for truth and justice is quintessential of Enlightenment thinking and informed its progressive philosophy of history. As citizens become more educated in scientific and rational principles, they will naturally discern what is right and moral. These ideas helped to give life to a new sensibility and ethic that held that morality is not a result of habit and struggle with self, as the older classical and Christian traditions held, but a function of right reasoning. Deliberative democracy follows this Enlightenment tradition, believing that the major obstacle to a thriving democracy is not moral-spiritual but rational and educational.
Deliberative democracy’s first principle is the belief that reason is autonomous and that, through it, we can arrive at shared conceptions of the good, regardless of our personal beliefs.

* Historical circumstance and personal experience, identity, and worldview are not only unnecessary in determining what is politically just but cloud that determination. The procedures and methods of proper deliberation are to guide citizens toward the type of thinking that deliberative democracy believes is “objectively reasonable.” That such thinking must be cultivated suggests that it is not as natural as deliberative democracy would initially have us believe.
Deliberative democracy’s belief that abstract reason ought to guide discussion places quite a burden on citizens. They must practice “conversational restraint,” listening to and engaging with other speakers on equal terms. A citizen is not permitted to “respond by appealing to (his understanding of) the moral truth; he must instead be prepared, in principle, to engage in a restrained dialogic effort to locate normative premises that both sides find reasonable,” Ackerman says. 39 Using one’s own experience or philosophical views as justifications for an argument is not acceptable. Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson expect “citizens and officials to espouse their moral positions independently of the circumstances in which they speak. This is consistency in speech and is a sign of political sincerity: it indicates that a person holds the position because it is a moral position, not for reasons of political advantage.” 40 While deliberative democracy poses this as an ideal, it might be argued that such an ideal is incompatible with human psychology.

* Democratism in general holds the view of deliberative democracy that reason is an impartial force capable of discerning general political truth. It contends that a majority of the people, when brought together, can give form to their general will.

* Deliberative democracy’s reliance on procedures at times amounts to the type of coercion it seeks to avoid in deliberation. To demand citizens suppress the expression of thoughts and ideas which arise from particular considerations does not encourage the “frank and free flow of ideas” that it purports to seek. 48 Is it fair to say that citizens whose moral positions derive from their particular circumstances are acting with a view to “political advantage”? It is not clear that citizens attempting to suppress “whatever moral principles they hold privately” in favor of the common good is possible or desirable. 49 Personal moral convictions may be as conducive to the common good as not; it is not possible to determine in the abstract. The demand that citizens act, or more importantly think in this way inclines dangerously toward a type of thought-policing that deliberative democracy would no doubt wish to avoid.
One of the major sources of tension within deliberative democracy and also a source of its kinship with democratism is its assumptions about human psychology and what ultimately motivates human beings. Prescribing rules to change the nature of civic debate does not, on its own, bring about the desired changes. Power to restrain must be exercised internally or externally on the part of citizens.

* Rawls’s modern, Enlightenment understanding of persons as free, equal, and rational itself constitutes a comprehensive doctrine about human nature, epistemology, and political society.

* Pre-Enlightenment understandings of freedom, equality, and rationality, following Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and classical and Christian traditions, for example, hold that persons are not autonomous individuals, and, for good or ill, hierarchy and leadership are natural.

* Deliberative democracy’s abstract and procedural understanding of justice and democracy lend themselves to governance by bureaucracy, in which the particularities and experiences of individual persons and communities are unimportant, even hindrances to the system. Administered and overseen by experts, deliberative democracy is “democratic” in the sense that other democratist theories are. Hiding behind an apparent rationalism and objectivity and orienting it is a comprehensive and imaginative vision. Engaging in extensive and elaborate reasoning, deliberative democracy fundamentally reimagines political possibilities. It wishes for us to drain our consciousness of experiential reality and known cause and effect. Its use of logic confirms something that has already happened at an imaginative level. Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” relies primarily on the power of imagination. He does not try to demonstrate that humans are epistemically disposed to the type of abstract rationalizing to which he enjoins us. Whether or not we are capable of divorcing our identities and experiences from our beliefs about what is normative is not a question on which Rawls and other deliberative democrats dwell. They take for granted that not only are we capable of this, but also that it is the moral thing to do.

* According to deliberative democracy, politics is largely a matter of reprogramming the citizenry according to rational rules.

* Like other democratist theories, deliberative democracy requires us first to believe. Thompson has admitted as much: “The general conclusion of surveys of the empirical research so far is . . . mixed or inconclusive.”

* Favoring the ideal over the historical and empirical as a heuristic is one of the central features of democratism and animates many of its beliefs.

* The extent to which deliberative democracy itself relies on an unreal vision—“ideals”—to support its reasoning suggests that some other, imaginative capacity holds sway over our beliefs and ultimately worldview. Is it reasonable to envision a new way of conducting politics that has never happened before? If the imagination, perceptions, and emotional longing influence opinion-formation and, more important, action, then to what extent will citizens behave according to what is “rational” or “reasonable”? And to what extent will citizens agree and conform to deliberative democracy’s rules for deliberation? If, in general, citizens cannot be expected to follow deliberative democracy’s regulations, then should only the few, “true” democrats govern? Do those who defect from the deliberative democracy framework, as Patrick Deneen observes, “forfeit the right to be considered full-blown members of the democracy”?

* In a 2020 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter defended their companies’ rights to “moderate” conversations on their social media platforms, citing the preservation of democracy as a reason. “We are required to help increase the health of the public conversation while at the same time ensuring that as many people as possible can participate,” Dorsey said. Zuckerberg stressed the importance of “the role internet platforms play in supporting democracy, keeping people safe and upholding fundamental values like free expression.” 104 Yet their “moderation” amounted to plain censorship of ideas. Their justifications for this censorship in the name of democracy mirror the type of logic that deliberative democracy uses to justify its “parameters” for discussion. Public conversation, proponents of such thinking believe, must be moderated in such a way that “extreme” or “misinformed” views are excluded. The assumption is that the “moderators” are rational and enlightened, and it is appropriate for them to be the arbiters of truth. Ordinary citizens, on the other hand, may need to be “deplatformed” or have their public postings removed, paradoxically, to protect “the health of our democracy.”

* Over the past twenty years, armed intervention in the name of democracy and humanitarian ideals has become second nature as a response to threats to freedom around the world. Guided by the belief that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” U.S. foreign policy is not restrained by actual threats to national security or national interests. Considerations of territorial integrity, national sovereignty, and maintaining a balance of power—concrete goals which historically guided questions of foreign policy prior to the turn of the twentieth century—are second (or third) to grandiose aspirations such as “ending tyranny in our world.”

* The influence of Strauss specifically on many of the decision-makers in the Bush administration has been well-documented and is discussed in this chapter. But Rousseau’s influence can also be detected in Bush’s thought and actions insofar as he was inclined toward the same type of thinking about a general will toward democracy written on the heart, a disinclination to take seriously the effects of a society’s historical evolution on its present constitution, and the belief that, upon the ruin of the old society, a new egalitarian society can be legislated into existence. Bush need not have been familiar with the specific arguments or even general philosophy behind the strategy that he found himself pursuing, ad hoc or ill informed as it may have been.

* Donald Trump tried to buck the trend of foreign intervention and succeeded in bringing some troops home, as he had promised to do, but even Trump, who campaigned for a more restrained foreign policy, faced an uphill battle extricating America from its various entanglements around the globe, demonstrating the grip of “liberal hegemony” on the Washington foreign policy establishment. Joe Biden’s pullout from Afghanistan, fraught as it was, may signal a turn in U.S. foreign policy, at least for now, away from armed intervention in the name of democracy. But his vow to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack illustrates that the United States has not abandoned its commitment to “protect democracy” around the globe. Afghanistan may soon be replaced by other interventions that we will be told are crucial to making the world safe for democracy or saving a particular nation from “authoritarianism” or “tyranny.”

* [Leo] Strauss is a famous critic of modernity and the Enlightenment and, to a lesser extent, of Rousseau, but his political philosophy represents a fundamental ahistoricism and corresponding conception of abstract right that is fundamentally in keeping with Enlightenment modes of thought and also with Rousseau’s philosophy. It is perhaps not as paradoxical as it might seem that Strauss’s skepticism of democracy, even disdain for it, represents a quintessential tenet of democratism. Strauss contends that the proper ordering of politics depends on knowledge of the ahistorical truths of natural right. This itself presupposes a “legislator” or lawgiver figure who establishes a polis (as opposed to a historical understanding of the organic development of a polis). Existing customs and institutions that do not reflect universal truth are inherently unjust and illegitimate, according to the philosophy of natural right. Modernity is in crisis, Strauss argues, because it has turned away from the insights of classical thinkers like Plato, whose doctrine of the Forms exemplifies the notion of right by nature. According to Strauss, modernity’s descent into moral relativism and nihilism can be traced to the philosophy of historicism—the belief that human existence is historical—supplanting natural right. Not unlike Rousseau, Strauss claims to have the insight needed to restore what he takes to be the natural order.

* …Strauss’s philosophy is not compatible with democracy in the ordinary sense. His reading of the classics and his belief that the classical natural right doctrine “is identical with the doctrine of the best regime” assumes an inherent conflict between right and the popular will. 20 Although Strauss states that “the fundamentals of justice are, in principle, accessible to man as man,” he agrees with Plato and Rousseau that only a few possess the virtue necessary to prefer the general over the particular. The political philosopher, who is concerned with the question of “the best political order as such,” must act as “umpire” in all questions of political controversy…

* neoconservatives hold that the United States originated as a compact based on the universal principles of freedom and equality. 24 This reading of American history supports the belief that America is based on an “idea” and did not form organically and historically as did other nations. According to this narrative, America is unique and has a special role in the world. “Most nationalisms are rooted in blood and soil, in the culture and history of a particular territory. But in the case of the United States, the Declaration of Independence and the Revolution produced a different kind of nationalism, different from that of other nations,” Kagan asserts. 25 Americans freely came together in Philadelphia and rationally decided the course of their government. The Constitutional Convention was not, according to this interpretation, the result of historical process and the colonists’ attempt to recover their historical English rights from the tyrannical King George III. Rather, the American founders transcended their heritage and broke radically, even metaphysically with the past. The American represents a “new man.” 26 Quoting Hans Kohn’s 1957 essay, “American Nationalism,” Kagan contends that Americans escaped the “confines of historical-territorial limitation.” 27 Citing Jefferson and Paine, neoconservatives argue that the American founders were the first to assert their natural rights and to found a nation based on universal principles. In the words of Charles Krauthammer, America is “uniquely built not on blood, race or consanguinity, but on a proposition.”

* Rereading American history as a sort of rational social contract, such as Rousseau and Jefferson envisioned, neoconservatives imagine that the Constitutional Convention was a “moment” that gave birth to America. 32 This country is not the result of an organic and historical process, like other nations.

* This retelling of American history as a social contract has helped to inform the neoconservative logic of regime change. America is a testament, according to this interpretation, to the idea that a political order can be rationally decided upon and codified. Replacing or reeducating the ruling class with one versed in “universal principles” can bring a state closer to the democratic ideal, at home or abroad. Neoconservatism does not dwell on the historical and cultural conditions of a society because, it assumes, inherited practices are largely arbitrary and irrelevant to the new order. Consideration of a people’s ancestral practices, rooted in the “meaningless process” of history, in the words of Strauss, should not be a major factor in questions of politics. 33 Political order has its source in “nature” and “universal principles,” which are taken to be identical with the American regime.

* In 2017, at the end of the sixteenth year of the war in Afghanistan, McChrystal argues for “staying the course” and expanding the war in Pakistan. In a piece in Foreign Affairs , he and his co-author Kosh Sadat look to none other than the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin for guidance in Afghanistan: “In 1902, Vladimir Lenin published a now famous pamphlet titled What Is to Be Done? , in which he prescribed a strategy for what later became the Bolsheviks’ successful takeover of Russia’s 1917 revolution. Lenin argued that Russia’s working classes required the leadership of dedicated cadres before they would become sufficiently politicized to demand change in tsarist Russia.” 78 McChrystal and Sadat laud Lenin’s “clear-eyed assessment of reality” and conclude, “[T]he same is needed for Afghanistan now.”

* Removing the old elite by military force and consolidating military gains with cultural and institutional programs are, like its communist antecedent, at the heart of its program. War democratism is similarly premised on the belief that the military can provide a jump-start for democracy in countries under the rule of dictators. Clearing away the old and backward norms, neoconservatives and many other liberal internationalists assume, will open the way for the people’s natural desire for liberal democracy to come to fruition: “[T]he force of American ideals and the influence of the international economic system, both of which are upheld by American power and influence,” will inevitably erode the inherited ways of undemocratic nations. 81 Through regime change, America can accelerate the historical process of modernization and democratization (which are held to be synonymous). This should happen, according to Kristol and Kagan, across the globe, “in Baghdad and Belgrade, in Pyongyang and Beijing,” and “wherever tyrannical governments acquire the military power to threaten their neighbors, our allies and the United States itself.”

* In a 1999 paean to Senator John McCain, Brooks laments that Americans “no longer aggressively push hard-edged creeds” and would rather “enjoy their sport-utility vehicles, their Jewel CDs, and their organic lawn care products.” In other words, Americans prefer the business of ordinary living to the frenetic desire to remake the world that drives Washington elites such as Brooks. Brooks reveals the yawning chasm that separates elites such as himself from the rest of Americans, telling his readers, “If you drive around the country, looking into the cultural institutions of the middle class . . . you see a nation that is good-hearted and bourgeois” but “tranquil to a fault.” Brooks is of the opposite opinion of G. K. Chesterton, that “the most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.” For Brooks, the life of most Americans may be quaint, but it is morally uninspiring. Instead of attending to a spirit of “patriotism” and a higher calling, Americans preoccupy themselves with their own daily concerns: “When a people turn toward the easy comforts of private life, they inadvertently lose connection with higher, more demanding principles and virtues.” Brooks does not have in mind the worship of God, whom many Americans would have identified as that “higher calling,” but a civil religion of “muscular progressivism.” He imagines the American people finding new life and spirit in a “public philosophy” of “patriotic sentiment, an emotional style and a set of rituals.” The end of this patriotism is not simply worship of the nation-state but the inspiration for a new foreign policy fitting of America’s greatness. In the dénouement of Brooks’s piece, he writes, “America’s moral destiny is wrapped up in its status as a superpower. If America ceases to assert itself as the democratic superpower, promoting self-government around the world, it will cease to be the America we love.” 87
The neoconservative belief that Brooks expresses, that democratizing other nations constitutes “more demanding principles and virtues” than the “small-scale morality” of day-to-day life, exemplifies the democratist ethic. Concern with the local and domestic is often derided by democratists as unimportant compared to grand, national missions.

* Brooks as well as Rousseau are of the democratist belief that virtue consists in abstract and romantic longing for a national (perhaps ultimately international) togetherness and feelings of equality and camaraderie—the general will or public interest.
Brooks’s article augured the foreign policy that would dominate the Washington consensus after 9/11, yet it does not seem to have made America any better off by the metrics of American domestic peace and prosperity, national security, national unity, or international reputation. On all of these counts, America is decidedly worse off than in the 1990s.

* It is characteristic of democratism to lament that the nation is not united behind a great international (or domestic) cause that would not simply alter the status quo but fundamentally change human existence as we know it. That democratists often look to the supporting institutions of a civil religion is not surprising. Democracy, in the ideology of democratism, is the Christian eschaton. Just as Christ’s coming is expected to usher in a new age, the global democratic revolution is expected to utterly transform life and politics.

* In Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film, Full Metal Jacket , the colonel tells a discontented subordinate that America is “here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out.” This was of course a criticism of the type of foreign adventurism that has been analyzed in this chapter, yet over thirty years later the colonel’s statement appears to be the genuinely held belief of many so-called experts in U.S. foreign policy. Despite political setbacks (some might say failures) and the suspicion that with its magazine the Weekly Standard and its Washington-based think-tank Project for the New American Century, neoconservatism might be dead, its philosophy continues to animate Washington politics. Trump, who campaigned promising to restrain American foreign policy and otherwise limit commitments abroad, still could not help but refer to America’s “righteous mission” in his State of the Union address in 2018. 115 The idea of American exceptionalism construed in terms of a “righteous mission” has become so ingrained in the American imagination that passing references to it are hardly noticed.

* Stephen Walt analyzes the reasons that liberal hegemony has “remained the default strategy” among the foreign policy elite despite being “sharply at odds with the preferences of most Americans.” 117 While the factors Walt mentions, such as political and financial gains for those invested in the status quo, are undoubtedly factors in its perpetuation, this chapter has tried to broaden the picture and show that an interventionist foreign policy in the name of democracy is the practical culmination of the democratist ideology. Liberal hegemony has been a grand strategy in the making in the West since the sentimental humanitarianism of Rousseau became the ethic informing Western politics. Rousseau’s philosophy prepared the way for this type of foreign policy thinking among the elites, who, as Walt demonstrates, benefit most from it. Walt’s conclusion that the elites have entrenched interests in “[o]pen-ended efforts to remake the world” reflects one of the general findings of this book, that the democratist ideology has served primarily the interests of the powerful, who draw on the ideology’s deep rhetorical reserves of language about “freedom” and “equality” to pursue goals that often lead to oppression, greater discrepancies in wealth, sharper political divisions, and devastating wars.

* President of Freedom House Michael J. Abramowitz laments that “right-wing populists gained votes and parliamentary seats in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria during 2017.” “While they were kept out of government in all but Austria,” Abramowitz says, “their success at the polls helped to weaken established parties on both the right and left.” These “right-wing populists,” according to Freedom House, are a source of the global democratic “crisis.” 11 For those who support the democratist interpretation of democracy, such as Abramowitz, it is entirely consistent to treat the results of popular elections as undemocratic.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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