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

Reviewed by Lee Trepanier.

A new poll by the University of Virginia Center of Politics found that American voters have a mutual mistrust of the other side and are open to exploring alternatives to democracy. Fifty-two percent of Biden supporters say that those who support the Republican Party are a threat to the American way of life, and forty-seven percent of Trump supporters say the same about Democrats. Thirty-one percent of Trump supporters and twenty-four percent of Biden supporters say America should explore alternative forms of government to ensure stability and progress. Needless to say, this is troubling news about the current health and future of American democracy.

In The Ideology of Democratism, Emily B. Finley examines this anti-democratic trend in American—and more broadly western—politics by looking at the ideology of “democratism.” This ideology is the belief that “democracy is real or genuine only to the degree that it reflects an idealized conception of the popular will.” But the manifestation of the popular will is not the same as majority rule. In fact, proponents of democratism view popular majorities as threats to democracy because certain policies or institutions favored by elites are not implemented (e.g., mandatory education in transgenderism for the left or in Judeo-Christian values for the right). Thus, the paradox of this anti-democratic ideology is that it not only emerges from democracy but also legitimizes itself in the name of democracy. 

According to Finley, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the father of this ideology on account of his concept of the “general will.” Rather than the “will of all,” which is the aggregate sum of individual private preferences, the “general will” reflects a unanimous consent of society for the common good. The notion that people “reduce all their wills by plurality of voices unto one will” comes from Hobbes’s Leviathan and is later taken up by Rousseau in his Social Contract where society speaks with one voice in the “general will.” With intermediary institutions removed between the people and the state, the legislator is the embodiment of the “general will” and guides society into a new virtuous age, even if that means some citizens must be “forced to be free.”

Rousseau’s ideas have influenced both theorists and practitioners of democracy, such as Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, George W. Bush, John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, and Jacques Maritain. For Finley, the common thread in this group is belief in the ideology of democratism. For each of these figures, democracy is perceived as the ultimate end for society, akin to religious salvation, and only an elite-controlled oligarchy can represent society’s “general will.” The irony is that this oligarchy employs undemocratic means in the name of democracy to achieve its objectives. 

One aspect of democratism is a belief in “the power of reason to order politics” and reality. Jefferson believed in the self-evident principles of American democracy—the natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—because they were discernable to human reason. At the same time, those norms and values did not comport with Jefferson’s understanding that Christianity should be eliminated for the good of the people. Likewise, political opponents such as the Federalists should be obliterated because it would be irrational to oppose Jefferson’s rationalist politics. Those who opposed Jefferson’s imaginative vision of American democracy were dismissed as “self-interested, parochial, myopic, or otherwise unable to appreciate the more important goal of Democracy.”

This pattern of thinking would repeat itself again and again in subsequent thinkers and political leaders of democracy. Woodrow Wilson drew from Jefferson’s ideas to promote them on the world stage, envisioning “a new democratic age, characterized by universal peace among peoples and nations.” Like Rousseau’s legislator, Wilson claimed the mantle-bearer of democracy for the world, although in practice he restricted the civil liberties of Americans during World War I and did little to contribute to democracy in the world. Influenced by the Social Gospel movement—a progressive political theology that believed in the imminent salvation of humankind—Wilson believed that “he was tasked with nothing less than completing Christ’s work at Calvary” in making the “world safe for democracy.”

Wilson’s messianic belief in exporting democracy would reappear in the neoconservative project of exporting democracy under the George W. Bush presidency. Adopting an almost Manichaean understanding of the world as good and evil, neoconservatives argued that America had a duty to democratize other nations, even if it required the use of force. Believing in grand sweeping narratives and self-heroic accounts of America, neoconservatives failed to take into account the hard work of creating democratic institutions, cultivating civic education, and crafting an economy that functions. It is not surprising that the United States failed to transform Iraq and Afghanistan into western democracies because the actual practice of establishing the mechanisms of democracy in these countries was ignored. Instead of realizing the utopian dreams of democracy, these countries revealed the realities of the difficulties of creating democracy and its way of life. 

If the practitioners of democratism believed in the power of reason to recreate political regimes ex nihilo, then the thinkers of democratism commit the same error in their theories. Perhaps there is no better example of this than John Rawls, whose 1971 A Theory of Justice redefined the field of political theory to focus on the question of deliberative democracy. The qualifier of “deliberative” is crucial here because it indicates that democracy is only legitimate if the common good, or Rousseau’s “general will,” is realized, as opposed to a procedural or populist account of democracy where the “will of all” expresses its interests. For those deliberative democratic theorists, democracy is only fulfilled when “elites rule on behalf of the people, disregarding the people’s intentions and desires.”

Essential to Rawls’s theory of deliberative democracy is his concept of “public reason” where citizens offer public justifications for their preferences. Legitimate justifications are those that other citizens accept, even if they might later disagree with them on other reasonable grounds. This principle of reciprocity paves the path to discover an “overlapping consensus” among citizens where in essence they would reach a shared understanding of the common good.

Like Rawls, Jürgen Habermas calls for public reason (what he terms “communicative action”) so that society can reach a consensus that reveals the people’s “common will.” And like Rawls’s principle of reciprocity, Habermas requires an “intersubjective process” of reaching understanding among citizens who are rationally motivated and accept other people’s perspectives that could be considered reasonable by a majority of people. Once a consensus is reached, then citizens will determine what kind of society they want to live in, even if this means repudiating the tradition and the wisdom of one’s predecessors. 

This abstract, procedural account of democracy gives pause from those who assess this theory “from the stand point of real human practices and concerns.” Instead of citizens being engaged in self-governance in Rawls’s and Habermas’s deliberative democracy, what more likely will happen is governance by bureaucracy because the state knows what the citizens’ best interests are. By following abstract and procedural understandings of the common good, bureaucrats and other elites impose their will upon the citizenry for the good of democracy, whether it is social media censorship or offering repeated referenda because the people did not vote correctly the first time.

The final figure in Finley’s analysis is Jacques Maritain, who attempted to reconcile the theology of Christianity with the political ideology of democracy. Like Rousseau and Wilson, Maritain believes that democracy will “solve, once and for all, social and political challenges” that confront society, with the state promoting equality and material prosperity for all citizens. This position stands in stark contrast to someone like John Paul II, who did not believe it was the Church’s place to “propose economic or political systems or programs.” Perhaps more disturbing to religious believers is Maritain’s belief that temporal values like tolerance and pluralism can be the sole basis for democracy—society can eventually jettison deeply held philosophical and religious beliefs because they are no longer needed for democracy to sustain itself. Finally, Maritain’s support of global government undermines his Christian belief of original sin and human fallenness. Not only can a uniform global government do away with local power centers that cater to local needs but it would be ruled by an elite that envisioned itself infallible and ruin those who stood in its way.

From Finley’s accounts, it is evident that democratism is an ersatz religion that manifests itself in a variety of ways in both theory and practice. Unfortunately for the United States today, this religion has infected its populace with both political sides adopting anti-democratic rhetoric and practices. Underneath the political polarization that plagues this country is the ideology of democratism with each party proclaiming they represent the “general will” of the country. Emily Finley has done a great service to the country in diagnosing the illness of democratism that afflicts the political left and right of the United States. 

The alternative to democratism, according to Finley, is to reach back to a different tradition of Aristotle, Burke, John Adams, James Madison, Orestes Brownson, and Irving Babbitt. This group held more realistic beliefs about people’s capabilities to govern themselves and more modest ambitions about what politics can achieve. They “have a more historically rooted, humbler conceptions of democracy” and “do not look to a vanguard of intellectual elites to galvanize the masses to a new way of life.” The aim is not revolution or transformation but reform, for they recognize the truth that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart . . . even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an uprooted small corner of evil.

The promise of democratism is a utopia in which all citizens are free, equal, and rational. The reality, however, is the gulag for the many and privileges for the few.

Lee Trepanier is the Dean of the D’Amour College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Assumption University in Massachusetts. He is an author of numerous books and is the editor of the Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film. His handle on X (formerly Twitter) is @lee_trepanier.

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