The Ideology of Democratism
By Emily B. Finley.
Oxford University Press, 2022.
Hardcover, 232 pages, $54.00.

Reviewed by James M. Patterson.

On February 17, 2017, The Washington Post unveiled its new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” as the newspaper took an oppositional posture to the newly inaugurated president Donald J. Trump. The choice of slogan generated some prominent criticism as being too melodramatic or too dark. The slogan was certainly odd, as Trump had won the election democratically. Four years later, after the January 6 rally descended on the Capitol Building, perhaps the slogan seemed prescient, but this event followed several states closing down large parts of their public life in response to COVID-19 even as largely progressive leaders reserved to themselves the right to eat at French Laundry or attend birthday parties. This was all while permitting large, often destructive mobs to attack their cities in protest of police violence against black Americans. The lesson many Americans learned was that democracy dies when conservatives win but lives on when progressives win; for conservatives, then, democracy was what progressives did to them.

In 2022, Emily B. Finley published a study of this strange “heads I win; tales you lose” approach to democracy in her book The Ideology of Democratism. Finley argues that advocates of “democratism” have always argued for democracy not as a regime of popular government but as a set of political norms of enlightened public sharing commitments to further liberation from traditional bonds. She posits the origins of democratism in the works of political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who oddly combines the Christian ideals of love with gnostic appeals to the prophetic visionary. For Finley, Rousseau jettisons Christianity altogether but reserves its vision of the common good. He rests the common good in a civil religion promoting unanimity and raising the political visionary as a prophet for how to liberate the common good from priestcraft and enshrine it in the regime itself. Hence, democracy itself becomes the source of inspiration for leaders, and departures from the civil religion supporting it is akin to apostasy deserving the harshest judgment.

In more modern terms, democratism has several features that she details in her introduction. First, it is “a comprehensive framework for understanding life and politics.” This framework functions at the level of the imagination as intuitions about morality, good and evil, human nature, the limits and possibilities of political programs, and other fundamental beliefs. The trouble with implementing these beliefs is that they never quite result in the outcome democratists hope for, hence “’true’ democracy is always just around the corner, following the widespread observance of a new political program.” To usher in the coming democratic age requires a “subtle new social and political hierarchy based not on birth, wealth, or religion but on conformity to the new understanding of democracy.” This hierarchy serves an educational role, one in which the “new leadership class” emerges to “open the eyes of the people to the true or rational course of action, which should be self-evident but is not always readily apparent.” Their education and exhortation will guide a democratic people to the uplands of individual liberation.

Advocates of democratism always seem to flounder on the same dilemma, however. On the one hand, democratists believe that human beings are fundamentally good but misguided; on the other hand, there are those who know what democratists want and still reject it. The result is the conspiratorial ethos that creeps up among democratists. As Finley says, “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.” For civic republicans, disagreement was built into public life, meaning that the solution should be fair procedures for deliberation and consensus. Democratists have no patience for these because their view is a millennial one. For them, to disagree with their democratic vision is to impede the coming parousia of humankind. Hence, democratists must root them out at the source, which is another task that falls to the enlightened class of democratist visionaries. 

Much of what Finley says at the outset is very true, although not entirely original. Finley herself indicates this in her frequent references to thinkers like Irving Babbitt, Carl Schmitt, and Claes Ryn. Her contribution is to chart how democratism has wormed its way into a series of self-appointed visionaries seeking to impose democratism. Unfortunately, in so doing, she becomes a mirror image of the democratists she hopes to expose, charting them as public officials, institutions, and other sinister forces opposed to what is good and right in the world. 

The issue with the development of democratism does not appear in the earlier cases she studies. She carefully indicates how democratism is what separates much of Thomas Jefferson’s political thought from the civic republicanism of other founders like James Madison and John Adams. Jefferson adopted a democratist persona that was fulfilled in his 1800 election, but his democratist vision of the nation entailed a hostile policy toward Native Americans. This hostility was born from his vision of an Empire of Liberty. As Finley explains:

Jefferson’s theory comes into conflict with its practice—that expanding the territory of the United States did imply the classic notion of empire and that this action had direct repercussions for the liberty and self-determination of other peoples—illustrates the distance between the democratist theory and equality from its actual practice (emphasis in original).

She pairs this critique with that of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson hoped that American participation in the First World War would usher in a democratic age. She cites a damning quotation of a man who favored the most undemocratic means to democratic ends:

Force, Force to the utmost, Force without stint or limit, the righteous and triumphant Force shall make Right the law of the world, and cast every selfish dominion down into the dust…[T]he majesty and might of our concerned power shall fill the thought and utterly defeat the force of those who flout and misprize what we honor and hold dear (77).

Wilson saw the future of democracy as won on the battlefields of France, exporting the American Empire of Liberty abroad.

Throughout both chapters, Finley engages in some theoretical free association to link Jefferson and Wilson to Rousseau. Jefferson certainly seems sympathetic to at least some of Rousseau’s thinking, but we are not treated to anything other than suggestions to this effect. Finley shows no real connection between Rousseau and Wilson, either. The precise mechanism for the democratist influence is left unclear. Certainly, Jefferson and Wilson appeared to share a faith in democracy like that of Rousseau’s, but the lack of a clear method for establishing the linkage between them becomes a problem when Finley wades into less intuitive cases in her study.

These are Jacques Maritain, John Rawls, and the neoconservative school of foreign policy. Indeed, for most readers, these three figures seem to have nothing in common. Maritain was a Catholic personalist opposed to totalitarian ideologies of all stripes. Rawls was the preeminent analytical political philosopher of liberalism during the twentieth century. Neoconservatives mostly had little to say about Maritain, deplored Rawls, and despised Rousseau. What they have in common for Finley is their commitment to democratism, but to prove the commonalities requires making concessions and leaps in reasoning. 

Maritain, for example, expressly disliked Rousseau. His 1928 Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau contains a sustained critique of Rousseau’s naturalism as ultimately concluding in a selfish, lonely, paranoid dead-beat dad. Rousseau’s civil religion, moreover, is depicted as one wherein the person attempts to absorb God into individuals and finds God represented in the state. Maritain regards Rousseau as the completion of the process of “reform” — from Christendom to a self-absorbed individual subject to the brutal tyrannies they plot against one another. Maritain seems hardly deluded by the promise of democratism. 

To rescue her case, Finley attempts to show how Maritain endorsed democratism in his hope for international cooperation through institutions like the United Nations. Maritain, for Finley, must be a democratist because he attempts to theorize how one might establish greater international cooperation among nations and hopes that a pluralist group of leaders might find some common ground for deliberation. This much, for Finley, is the globalist democratism she fears, and she concludes from this that Maritain is merging Christianity and democratism in a way that she simply does not prove from Maritain’s claim, but rather from the assertion that his language “gives the impression” of this. Because Maritain supports international cooperation, Finley believes we cannot take seriously the many, many times he endorsed subsidiarity, civil society, and local communities. The strongest conclusion Finley can reach with her arguments is that Maritain had unresolved tensions in his work. But who can blame Maritain for attempting to theorize anew about Christian democracy in the wake of two devastating world wars driven by totalitarian ideologies?

The chapter on Rawls similarly relies on innuendo. Finley finds no explicit endorsement of Rousseau in Rawls’s work. Just because Rawls and Rousseau agree on internal deliberation to reach democratic conclusions does not make Rawls a democratist in the same way Rousseau was. Her evidence of this does not come from Rawls but from Benjamin Barber, Amy Gutmann, and Dennis Thompson. Finley even seems to combine these authors with Jürgen Habermas, as if all four of them argue the same thing as Rawls. Perhaps broadly, they have the same political regime, but each has his or her own ideas independent from and often contradictory to each other. What Finley seems to ignore entirely is how much the deliberative democracy school is really indebted not to Rousseau but to Kant — meaning that there is some linkage, in that Kant responded to Rousseau, but this linkage is not to be found in the chapter.

The final chapter is about the neoconservatives behind the Bush foreign policy. Finley opens the chapter by admitting her ambition is not only to link neoconservatism to democratism but all liberal internationalism to it by way of neoconservatism. But Finley elides important distinctions between schools of international relations. Finley correctly identifies the role Leo Strauss played in tutoring many of those who would become major neoconservative thinkers and statesmen, but she misapprehends Strauss’s view of Rousseau. She sees Strauss’s interpretation of Plato’s Republic as reaching the same conclusion as Rousseau’s, as both Strauss and Rousseau hope to look to the ancients to recover something missing in the present, and that education is important to the city. Yet Strauss regarded Rousseau’s efforts as not just a failure but also the inauguration of the second wave of modernity that ushered in all kinds of philosophical errors and political disasters. One can find as much in his work such as “The Intention of Rousseau” and his chapter in Natural Right and History, as well as in the 1962 Rousseau seminar transcript produced by the Leo Strauss Center. In these works, one finds how Strauss saw Rousseau’s effort as a failure because Rousseau remained attached to the Hobbesian concept of human asociality to gain wisdom from the ancients. If anything, Rousseau is Strauss’s warning to philosophers to recognize one’s own attachments when in contemplation.

Furthermore, she aims to produce a kind of consensus among Straussian students where one rarely existed. Indeed, the infighting among Straussians is legendary, from the infamous, generational division between West Coast and East Coast Straussians, to the effort at reconciliation among Midwest Straussians. 

The particular neoconservative idea at work is American exceptionalism as expressed by Robert Kagan and implemented under the George W. Bush administration after 9/11. She calls the strategy of implementation “war democratism.” War democratism is the successor ideology to the war communism of the Soviet Union. Hence, she equates the two in method and aim: to subdue non-Western peoples by force and impose an educational mission to remake the world. The primary method for ushering in liberal democracy was the education of women and providing women with greater economic independence in predominantly traditional Muslim cultures. About this Finley says: 

Liberating women is a revolutionary tactic expected to set in motion the historic dialectic, whether toward democracy or communism.… Releasing women from their historic role in Islamic society would permit ‘nature’ to take its course and the desired political regime to unfold.

She concludes this chapter with an extended polemic against American interventionism as rooted in an anger that traditional peoples would choose something other than liberal democracy. This observation reminded me of the men and women desperately attempting to board the remaining American planes departing Kabul Air Force Base in Afghanistan during the August 2021 withdrawal of forces. 

Finally, Finley does not sufficiently argue that Rousseau really influenced any of the thinkers she examines. She admits that it does not matter “[w]hether or not Jefferson or Wilson or Maritain read Rousseau” because his influence “can be discerned in the works and imagination of thinkers of various partisan affiliations across time and space.” She even notes that Wilson and Strauss disliked Rousseau’s work, but she dismisses Wilson’s repudiation of Rousseau because “his writings and actions nevertheless suggest a deep kinship between the two.” And for Strauss, “many of his underlying assumptions about human nature and epistemology suggest meaningful similarity between the two.” The introduction to the book does indicate that she would not argue for the direct influence of Rousseau on these thinkers. Wherever she notices a similarity, she concludes there is an agreement. Hence her reliance on words like “discern” and “suggest” over textual evidence. 

As much as I found myself sympathizing with her objective early in the book, the reliance on speculative innuendo undermines much of the work after her chapter on Wilson. Rousseau simply cannot explain all of what ails modern liberal democracies or American foreign policy. The argument might have been better if Finley had jettisoned the preoccupation with Rousseau in favor of looking at each case on its own terms, or if she had opted only to examine democratism as it is presently taught and practiced. 

James M. Patterson is associate professor of politics and chair of the politics department at Ave Maria University, a research fellow at the Center for Religion, Democracy, and Culture, and president of the Ciceronian Society.

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