Italian political scientist Gaetano Mosca theorized in The Ruling Class (1896) that democracy’s much-vaunted ’consent of the governed’ was impossible. In support of his theory, Mosca pointed out a mundane but often-overlooked historical fact: well-organized minorities have always and everywhere wound up ruling over disorganized majorities. There has never been an exception in any complex society, whether one is speaking of aristocracies, monarchies, theocracies, oligarchies, ancient democracies and republics, or modern liberal democracies. A hardworking, ambitious, well-connected political class distinct from the populace always emerges, perpetuates itself, and exercises power for its own benefit under a variety of excuses and pretexts, whether ‘noble heritage,’ ‘divine right,’ ‘mandate of the voters,’ or lately, ‘Because we went to Harvard.’
In many instances, minority rule turns out just fine, according to Mosca, as long as the political class evinces a circulation of fresh blood into and out of the elite ranks, along with genuine cleavages among groups of themselves. Such ‘separation of powers’ pits factions of the political class against one another and retards the uniformity of ideas and consolidation of power that breeds tyranny.
But today, elite circulation and cleavages among the political class are just what the United States does not have. American liberal democracy has devolved from its origins as a fractious philosophical system into a uniform and uptight political religion. Americans are left with what amounts to a theocracy of ossified leaders propped up by a managerial ‘priesthood’, the whole lot bare of fresh ideas or insight into their majority constituency. An explosive schism now threatens the longstanding complacency of America’s ruling class, along with the political religion they helped foster, and this schism forebodes a turbulent future for the United States.
RISE OF THE CHURCH OF ‘DEMOCRACY ITSELF’
It’s hardly a new or earthshaking proposition to say that democracy has transmuted into a political religion. American political philosopher James Burnham suggested such a transmutation in his book The Machiavellians back in 1943. Three years later, George Orwell observed that democracy had slid from an intellectual philosophy into a moral high ground rife with semantic inflation. Orwell wrote that “It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it; consequently, the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.” The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea—among the most repressive regimes in world history—nicely illustrates Orwell’s point.
Liberal-democratic governments exist in this conception not to keep domestic order or resist foreign aggression but to fix the human condition itself through social engineering…
More recently, Political scientist Peter Mair reinforced this idea when he wrote in Ruling the Void that the term ‘democracy’ has developed, by his count, more than 500 different denotations among experts and academics—a profusion reminiscent of religious arguments about angels dancing on pinheads. T.S. Eliot may have said it best (as poets so often do): “When a term has become so universally sanctified as ‘democracy’ now is, I begin to wonder whether it means anything, in meaning too many things” [italics added]. We might call this modern American political religion ‘Democracy Itself,’ after the vacuous phrase lately repeated by the chattering class ad absurdum.
The catechism and mythology of Democracy Itself will be familiar to most readers given this wearisome repetition. As it stands today, orthodox believers hold liberal democracy to be the unassailable zenith of political evolution and the firm endpoint of History (in the Hegelian sense). The state on earth (rather than the Church in heaven) has become the organ for realizing dreams of a peaceful, bounteous, socially just, and everlasting Kingdom for all global humanity.
Liberal-democratic governments exist in this conception not to keep domestic order or resist foreign aggression but to fix the human condition itself through social engineering—technocratic state manipulation of the masses for their own good. The mandate to fix society extends not just to the four corners of the United States but the four corners of the globe and is carried out by highly credentialed and enlightened missionaries armed with pallets of nonprofit money or rifles, depending on the occasion. Like militant Christianity, militant Islam, or the political religions of communism and Nazism, Democracy Itself is not just a faith but a universalist faith, good for everyone, everywhere… even if they don’t know it yet.
During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Democracy Itself’s fundamentalist universalism helped drive the United States into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before that, it led the United States to high-road and meddle in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, dictating what that country—a former peer and superpower—should and should not do with itself as it attempted to adapt to the free-market world order. Scholars Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes explain how that turned out:
“Russia’s interference in the American Presidential elections of 2016 … was understood by its organizers and perpetrators as an attempt to duplicate what the Kremlin considered the West’s unwarranted incursions into Russia’s own political life [in the past]. The explicit purpose was less to elect a Kremlin-friendly candidate than to teach Americans what foreign interference in a country’s politics looks and feels like.”
In other words, Democracy Itself idealism in a succession of liberal and neo-conservative American administrations resulted in dumb and unimaginably costly mistakes—mistakes that have eroded the United States’ moral credit with large sections of the world.
Predictably, the fanaticism has finally boomeranged onto America’s own citizenry, as liberal journalist and free-speech advocate Glenn Greenwald describes in his incendiary article “The New Domestic War on Terror is Coming“:
“The last two weeks have ushered in a wave of new domestic police powers and rhetoric in the name of fighting ‘terrorism’ that are carbon copies of many of the worst excesses of the first War on Terror that began nearly twenty years ago. This trend shows no sign of receding as we move farther from the January 6 Capitol riot … We have witnessed an orgy of censorship from Silicon Valley monopolies with calls for far more aggressive speech policing, a visibly militarized Washington, D.C. featuring a non-ironically named ‘Green Zone,’ vows from the incoming president and his key allies for a new anti-domestic terrorism bill, and frequent accusations of ‘sedition,’ ‘treason,’ and ‘terrorism’ against members of Congress and citizens … It is accompanied by viral-on-social-media pleas that one work with the FBI to turn in one’s fellow citizens (See Something, Say Something!) and demands for a new system of domestic surveillance.”
DONALD TRUMP: LESS HITLER, MORE LUTHER
The Protestant-Catholic analogy of the Irish Troubles runs deeper than it might first appear, and helps to untangle a snarl of meaning born of the deliberate indeterminacy of words like ‘democracy,’ ‘conservative,’ and ‘liberal.’ Americans all used to be ‘Catholics,’ in a sense. That is, during most of the last century, conservatives and liberals were like Benedictines and Franciscans during the Middle Ages—two orders of ‘one true Church.’ They adduced differences and idiosyncrasies, but both wings uncritically accepted that period’s understanding of Democracy Itself, one that evinced more circulation of fresh blood and genuine opposition among political elites than we see today. They managed to work through policy differences without savage sectarian rhetoric or physical violence.
These new Trumpist conservatives decided that the runaway liberalism in liberal democracy had gone too far. They wanted old-school philosophical democracy again…
But at some point in the five years preceding the election of Donald Trump, tens of millions of conservatives changed. To say what exactly changed and why is the work of a detailed book, but suffice it to say, half of America flipped from ‘Benedictines’ to ‘Protestants.’ These new Trumpist conservatives decided that the runaway liberalism in liberal democracy had gone too far. They wanted old-school philosophical democracy again, not Democracy Itself’s latter-day corruption and reality-defying antics, such as the economic dislocations of state-sponsored globalism and its related illegal immigration; institutional affirmative discrimination in favor of racial and sexual minorities (now-established sacred cows in the faith of Democracy Itself); the ever-increasing power of unelected bureaucrats (the ‘Deep State’); and the sacrifice of their sons, daughters, and tax dollars to crusades flogging liberal democracy worldwide.
Former President Donald Trump has been compared to all manner of historical figures (most unfavorable). The comparison most apt is probably Martin Luther, the Protestant leader who struck a match to the Reformation and opened the door for half of Europe to embrace Protestantism within a few decades. Trump’s statements and actions weren’t particularly radical in a political sense, and in that way, he was a lot like Luther, who never suggested anything like communal wives or the abolition of private property (as later religious revolutionaries did). But Trump’s attack on the authority of Democracy Itself guaranteed his status as the worst of heretics—or to use the synonym in vogue, a ‘fascist.’
Trump did not create the conditions leading to his improbable election and its explosive consequences. The corruption of Democracy Itself had festered for years. The political class made much of Democracy Itself’s superiority over ‘so-called democracies’ overseen by dictators, criminal oligarchs, theocrats, strongmen, and other baddies of ill repute, but it was starting to look like a distinction without a difference. Liberal democracies were less morally superior than subtle about disregarding their citizen’s will and welfare, and more cagey about neutering traditional civil rights using legal legerdemain instead of secret police. But as Greenwald suggests, the secret police don’t seem to be far off.
THE POLITICAL CLASS ‘RESISTANCE’ TO REFORMATION
It’s common knowledge (among conservatives, at least) that higher education, the legacy media, the entertainment business, Silicon Valley, the legal profession, the administrative state—in short, most institutions of America’s managerial ruling class—are overwhelmingly staffed with true believers in Democracy Itself. What’s equally clear on closer examination is that politicians themselves, including those labeled ‘Republican’ or ‘conservative,’ must barter and bend to the managerial class for the elite money, media apparatus, managerial expertise, and party machinery without which election to public office is impossible.
The Reformation of Democracy Itself is just getting started.
Before the schism of Democracy Itself, this composition of America’s elites presented few intractable problems. Americans at large were content to live in comfortable denial when it came to their impotence in the face of the wealthy, well-organized, and fundamentalist minority who governed them (per Mosca). Any given American was either a Democracy-Itself fundamentalist, or he could rationalize his defeat and rule by them, secure in the knowledge that ‘at the end of the day, we are all good people.’ But no longer: after the schism, the preponderance of Democracy Itself-ers among elites means the United States resembles a country in which a mostly Catholic political class governs a populace divided evenly between Catholics and Protestants—in short, a powderkeg wrapped in a catastrophe, if history is any guide whatsoever. The potential for bitterness, low-intensity conflict, and resentment over favoritism (real or perceived) is impossible to overstate. Political disagreements may be rationalized away; religious disagreements may not.
The Reformation of Democracy Itself is just getting started. Former President Donald Trump still may have a part to play, or he may not. But it doesn’t matter. The Counter-Reformation and neo-feudalism declared by the political class all but guarantees a series of future conflicts in the United States, stretching from trench lawfare in the courts to yet more loosely organized fighting in the streets between groups of citizens and law enforcement. These modern wars of political religion likely will prove messy and low-intensity, quite different from the crisply delineated European religious wars of the past, and nothing like the much-talked-about ‘New American Civil War’ with which columnists presently titillate their readership.
The populace senses something on the horizon and is showing unequivocal signs of anxiety for their domestic tranquility, even as America’s elite political class pretends that the Biden administration has restored balance to the kingdom. Niccolò Machiavelli would not have been surprised, writing as he did that, “Not without good reason is the voice of the populace likened to that of God; for public opinion is remarkably accurate in its prognostications, so much so that it seems as if the populace by some hidden power discerned the evil and the good that was to befall it.”