Democracy is Dead

Democracy is dead.

I say so not because I have ceased to believe in it. I retain a half guilty affection for that worst of all forms of government, except for most of the rest. I say so because everyone else has ceased to believe in it.

Yesterday I asked my students what comes first to their minds when I say that some country is a democracy. Immediately they turned to two things. One was the machinery of elections. In a democracy, you get to vote. The other was freedom of speech, defined in a libertarian way, without regard to truth or to the good of any community. In a democracy, you get to spit venom.

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So I asked them to turn to Chesterton’s discussion of democracy, in Orthodoxy. For Chesterton, democracy is not a system, and not the intellectual product of experts in political science. It is rather a deep human feeling, inchoate even in children. Its first principle is that “the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately.” In other words, what is essential about me is that I am a human being and a man, that I had a mother and father, that I eat and drink and breathe, that I talk and sometimes hold my peace, that I like a good laugh, that I am a husband and father, that I grew up in a place that still commands my affection, and that I bend my knees in prayer. It is not that I am a professor of literature, that I read nine or ten languages, or that I can recite large blocks of Paradise Lost by heart. The miracle is man himself, any man and each man. The true democrat looks with wonder upon that fine rarity called the common man.

Armed with this healthy wonder, the democrat can acknowledge excellence where he finds it, without servility. He can also be a farmer laughing merrily at the clumsy Lord Corpulent trying to boost himself up to the saddle, or a carpenter laughing merrily at the professor of architecture who cannot hammer together a simple box. The democrat can bow to Lord Corpulent, not taking him entirely seriously, and can smile and roll his eyes at Professor Rhomboid, not taking him seriously either. And in matters that affect everyone, he need not duck and scrape to any lord or professor or self-styled expert at all.

Chesterton’s second principle is that “the political instinct or desire is one of those things which [men] hold in common.” In other words, it is also natural in us to come together to seek the common good: “The democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves—the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.”

I then asked my students to imagine a small community. Call it Summerville. The people of Summerville want their children to know how to read good books, write clear English, and perform with ease those arithmetical operations we all have to perform. They want them to know the history of their country, honoring it without sentimentality, criticizing it without ingratitude or cynicism. They want them to know things about the natural world. They want them to know about other nations past and present. So they are going to build a school, decide upon a course of study, order books, and hire teachers. The question then is simple. Will you let them do that?

The students were uncomfortable. What if the parents disagreed? What if they were not expert in a certain area? I noted that I was not spinning a fabulous tale. I was not describing a new thing in the world. This is what the people of Summervilles have always done; until Professor Dewey and his “science” of education and the machinery of bureaucracy took their authority away from them. Dewey pretended to love democracy, and perhaps he believed his pretense. But it was not democracy that made him Dewey-eyed. It was control.

If you wish to impose a single set of “assessments” upon a hundred thousand schools in the country, or upon thousands of schools in a state, you may be wise, you may be foolish; you are probably ambitious and arrogant; but what you cannot be is a democrat. If you believe that a school board should at all costs be packed with “professionals,” lest ordinary people disrupt the smooth functioning of the educational machine, you may be a fine engineer, but you cannot be a democrat.

If that is true of education, it must be true many times over with regard to raising children. The policeman who arrests teenage boys for offering to shovel their neighbors’ snow for money may be following the letter of an ordinance; but neither he nor those who insist upon the ordinance can be called democratic. The avenging harpies of Child Protective Services, descending upon an ordinary mother and father who allow their children to play outside without constant surveillance, or who allow them to proceed home from school by that time-tested method known as walking, may have sheaves of statistics to warrant their intrusion. They cannot have one word of democratic poetry.

The health of a democracy is not to be measured by how much your representatives meddle with, but by how much they need not or dare not meddle with; just as the health of a limb is known by how little you have to attend to it; or the health of a marriage by how many daily things are done as effortlessly as breathing. The healthy man strides along with a happy indifference to the weather; it is the sickly man or the hypochondriac who has to glower about the clouds. England was at her healthiest when her rulers played polo more often than politics. P. G. Wodehouse is the sanest of writers because he delights in the glorious unimportance of lordship and ladyship, and in the more glorious wonder of the lord, the lady, the groom, and the butler.

In the land of the kilt and the chieftain, every newborn baby will now be assigned a government mentor, a walking surveillance camera. Roll your r’s when you say “Big Brother.” It remains to be seen whether the proud Scots, who long resisted their English overlords and held so manfully to their ways, will look to the professors and astrologers of Edinburgh to determine for them when they shall eat and how they shall move their bowels. It was for this that William Wallace died. Beware the tartan: it is bar-coded.

Several years ago the Swedish government abducted a small boy from his family as they were about to fly to the mother’s ancestral home in India. They had disobeyed the unwritten law: Thou shalt not teach thy children at home. The boy has not been returned. The mother has suffered nervous breakdowns; the father has gone into Eurodebt, in more ways than one. Yet Stockholm still stands, as impregnable as the fortress of the most overbearing of feudal lords. Not all serfs till the soil.

Which brings me to the final point. Chesterton went on to say that he never saw the connection between democracy and a hatred of tradition. For tradition was simply the democratic principle extended over time: it was “the democracy of the dead.”

“Democracy,” he says, “tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.” We might view the matter from the other end, thus. Tradition is the greatest source of an ordinary man’s grasp of truth. It is the distilled and ordered wisdom of the ages, and it is available to everyone. To trust in it is like trusting in common sense. When it goes wrong, it does not go far wrong; it is never monomaniacal, as innovators often are. If a democracy is real, rather than a fiction confirmed by electoral machinery, it must honor tradition.

If you despise tradition, if you assume that most men have gone badly wrong throughout all of history, and on those things nearest their hearts and minds, then you may be a genius, you are certainly an imbecile, but you cannot on any account be a democrat.

If you believe that only a social “scientist” can pronounce definitively upon marriage, or family, or education, or the relations of the sexes, or work, or play, you may be a megalomaniac, you may be merely deceived, but you cannot be a democrat. If you call your lawyer to ask whether your child should go to bed, or your federal judges to ask whether a child should be born at all, or whether a boy is a boy or a girl, or whether your valedictorian can say “God” without a sneer, you may need psychiatric care, you certainly need to clear your mind of cobwebs, but you cannot be a democrat. If you believe that you must defer to the cultural predilections and the immense wisdom of nine lawyers, and not to the sane whimsy of your grandmother, you cannot be a democrat.

The democrat does not trouble his head about what the bureaucrats in Brussels will say. He takes an ax to the bureau. The democrat does not place his hopes in a sane decision from the archons of a court royal. He may for strategy’s sake file an amicus curiae brief, but he is inimicus curiae.

But I am an owl among ruins, a pelican in the wilderness.

Democracy is dead.


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