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Decorum and Democracy

The SCOTUS confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, and the decline in decorum that they showcase, are signs of much deeper ills afflicting the West.

Much ado is made throughout the West of the recent decline in decorum in the political arena. Politicians who could once meet one another despite all disagreements in a spirit of calm and rational dialogue seem now not to be able to abide even the look of one another, and do not hesitate to hurl the most amazing accusations against each other, or to use all the means at their disposal, including manifestly unfair and devious ones, to have the better of their opponents. Far from presupposing good will in each other, they regard one another as the worst of pirates, ready each to overturn the ship of state and feed like sharks on the wreckage; and thus they pretend as though they were obliged by decency itself to do whatever they can to stop such madmen from having their way.

‘On the street’, meanwhile, matters have degenerated even further. A shroud of silence has fallen over political matters in families or between friends or in the workplace, and it is thought better to keep mum and to keep the peace, than to open one’s mouth and to risk turning a cold war hot. That is precarious enough; worse yet, however, these differences smoulder beneath veil, threatening at every moment to set it aflame. For despite this tacitly agreed upon silence, one knows more or less what one’s neighbour believes – and one suspects or even despises him for it. And so the protests and counter-protests which occur with ever increasing frequency in our public places threaten as never before to plummet into violence, as men who no longer know how to debate one another resort to the single means of resolving their dispute, when discourse has failed them.

Democracy, as has been known since antiquity, is in fact the war of all against all.

For a number of characteristic reasons, all of this has taken a somewhat more theatrical turn in the United States than in Europe. Yet, whether Europe likes it or not, the United States still today stands as the herald and groundbreaker in contemporary political trends, and, most unhappily, has for the past hundred years if not more led the entirety of the West downward. In the United States, one attempts to explain the growing discord and lack of cordiality between the two major political parties as the fault of one or the other of them: one seeks, in short, a scapegoat, and by far the likeliest of these has been Donald Trump with his admittedly vulgar and crude antics, or the ‘populism’ which he is said to represent. One thus treats the decline in civility and decorum as if it were merely a change in manners brought about by this or that incidental cause; one speaks of ‘divisiveness’, as if the political stances which broadly characterize the political parties in our moment had simply drifted, or been pressed, distant to one another, and could, with similar but contrary effort, be brought back again toward some more hospitable centre, where it would be possible once more to ‘work together’, ‘like brothers’, toward a ‘common end’.

And as always, such superficial diagnosis of an entrenched disease does nothing but aggravate it: one applies ointment to the rash – and drives the infection toward the heart.

All of this has recently shown forth most strikingly in the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court of the United States. To anyone who watched these proceedings from an impartial position (supposing such a thing is even possible any more for the better part of our pundits and commentators), it is clear enough that both sides have to some extent abused the good faith of the people, the one taking unfair advantage of its strong position to avoid many established historical protocols, the other making full use of insinuation, slander and a largely favourable press to paint a rotten picture of a man who is despite all of extremely high calibre. Viewed from such a higher position, it becomes clear that what we are witnessing here is not a ‘democratic proceeding’ in the idealistic sense that word is generally used, meaning the peaceable procedure of an elected or semi-elected body politic toward the end of establishing, protecting or furthering the law; rather, this is a kind of bloodless warfare in which either side will do whatever is necessary to have its way, without any more respect for the law of the land than it is compelled to publicly manifest.

For that reason, however, we are constrained to call this precisely a democratic proceeding, in the true and full sense of the term: for democracy, as has been known since antiquity, is in fact the war of all against all.

American ‘Democracy’

The statesemen who founded the American state took a famously dark view of democracy, though not half so dark as that taken by the Ancients. With the notable exception of Jefferson and his qualified concept of the agrarian democracy,1 the American founders spoke of it in the pejorative with a consistency which is liable to offend or confuse modern sensibilities. Everywhere they mention democracy, it seems to be in the discussions of its vices, and how these vices might be limited and constrained. They almost to a one considered the American state to be, not a democracy, but a constitutional republic. I provide but a sampling:

Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as Aristocracy or Monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either.

[…]

Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.

— John Adams, Letter to John Taylor, 17 December

Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.

— Publius (James Madison), The Federalist Papers, Number 10

It has been observed by an honorable gentleman, that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved, that no position in politics is more false than this. The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.

— Alexander Hamilton, Speech of 21 June 1788, New York Ratifying Convention

The ‘American model’, with its conscious rejection of pure democracy, was subsequently adopted in the majority of European countries, particularly in the post-war period. Even in such countries which remain formally distant to constitutional republicanism (as for instance England, with its parliamentary monarchy) the same kinds of tendencies and trends can be seen, the same spirit supervises its work. And most notably, counter to the structure of these states and in many cases the will of their founders, the same transformation has lately arisen in all the nations of the West, perhaps without exception: this older ‘American model’ is increasingly showing the traits of unbridled democracy. This transformation, for reasons we cannot consider here, is a natural tendency contained within republicanism as such, and one which can be halted or delimited only for so long before it finally gains the upper hand, utterly supplanting republican mores and institutions with rigorously democratic ones, and thus preparing its own rapid ruin. Though our language confuses us here (for we are liable to speak today of ‘American democracy’, for instance, as if it were a thing that has existed since the Revolution), we are in fact living precisely in that time of transition.

The specific difference between democracy and republicanism lies in the respective loci of their power. Republicanism diffuses power, dividing it between many different counterbalanced centres so as to avoid its consolidation and abuse; hence the celebrated ‘separation of powers’ and ‘checks and balances’. Democracy, on the other hand, locates power unequivocally and directly in the mass of voting citizens, which mass it attempts to enlarge to include as many individuals as possible. Republicanism constrains the body politic and the social order to the rule of law, and enshrines that law in a set of determinate legal precedents (as in the English system) or in a written constitution (as in the American, the Italian, the French, etc.); in pure democracy the only limit to the law is the limitless ‘will of the people’.

The concept of the ‘will of the people’, of which we hear so much prattle, is essentially empty. It presupposes a unitary ‘will’ where there is in fact a plurality of often fundamentally conflicting ‘wills’, and a singular people where in fact there is only an undifferentiated or heterogeneous mass. The concept of a people in the proper sense depends on natural unity of ethnicity, custom, religion, language, mores etc. Supposing a true people as the underpinning of a democracy, it is even possible for democracies to be fairly effective or long-lived; democracies are thus most functional either at the local level, or else in small and homogeneous countries like Iceland and erstwhile Sweden, or else in the very early decades of the transition from a hierarchical regime to a democratic one, in which the forms, institutions and ‘philosophy’ of the state become increasingly democratic, while the voting citizenry still owes its worldview and native ways of being to the older order. Many of the examples which are brought forth to demonstrate the value of democracy in fact depend on these exceedingly special conditions.

But these conditions, far from being normal to democracy, are indeed exceptional to it: the essential drama of democracy is that it strongly tends to fragment the citizenry and to transform the unified people into a divisive mass. By insisting on human equality2 and the sacred rights of the individual, not to speak of the horrid travesty known as the secular state which dissolves all higher bonds on the average man, the ‘citizens’ of democracy begin to think, no longer in terms of the whole and the heights, but exclusively in terms of their own low and private and selfish interests. And since the average individual is by himself as impotent in democracy as in any other regime, it is only natural for each individual to gravitate toward others with like interests in order to augment their influence, thus forming opposed and conflicting aggregates within an increasingly fragmentary and unstable whole. From a relatively unitary human group with relatively unitary aims and desires, the multi-headed hydra of faction emerges.

The conflict between rich and poor can be bridged through right institutions; never can the chasm between a Muslim and an atheist be.

Faction is the great nemesis of democracy, as was clearly recognized (among others) by the American Founding Fathers.3 By naturally tending to give birth to factions, democracy produces or fertilizes the seeds of its own destruction. Democracy is a self-consuming monster, a waypoint from one regime to another; it is not long for this world save in exceedingly special conditions, but inevitably gives rise to another and non-democratic regime. And on account of the downward pull and the entire force and motion of its development, that regime tends to be, as the Ancients already well understood, the worst of all regimes: unbridled tyranny.

Faction and Democracy

The great limitation in the analysis of democracy of the Ameircan founding fathers, and perhaps also in the Ancients themselves, is to be found in their understanding of what the founders called ‘faction’. The founders rightly believed that factions represented the interests of different portions of society – the rich, the poor, the nobility, the bourgeois, the Catholics, the Protestants, etc. – but they understood these interests primarily in materialistic terms: they understood them as financial interests, economic interests, interests pertaining to the distribution and use of powers, rights and privileges etc.:

 [T]he most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.

— Publius (James Madison), The Federalist Papers, Number 10

The founders therefore conceived the possibility of effecting a compromise between conflicting interests by separating them into their constituent spheres and granting to each the possibility of representation in the new state that they were engineering. This division occurs at several different levels. In terms of regimes, the republic is a mixed regime, with elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, each carefully embroidered into the tapestry of the state’s written or unwritten constitution; that is one kind of ‘separation of powers’, one kind of ‘representative government’. Then, because in the time of the Founders the bloodiest conflicts in the European theatre had mostly been religious in nature, it was seen fit to separate the church and the state, so as to eliminate the political manifestations of these internecine disputes; religion was relegated to the private sphere, and the argument between various sects was consigned to oversight by secular law.4

So much for the formal division of powers. On a more quotidian level, the interests of the wealthy are to be found in the capitalist aspect of the state, those of the worker in the labour unions, those of special concerns in the lobbies, those of private citizens in the power to vote for their representatives or for public referenda etc. Each of these groups seeks its own interest to the exclusion of every other; each is thus put into direct competition and conflict with every other. But since none can gain simple superiority, each is forced to compromise with the others. And insofar as each of these groups really is interested in nothing but its material well-being and betterment, compromise can indeed generally be effected. In the conflict between a capitalist who wants the greatest share of profits possible and the worker who wants a decent wage and standard of living, there is certainly a tension; but it is a tension which is easily enough resolved through parliamentary debates.

What we are witnessing today, however, is the undermining of those proceedings on account of what appears at first glance to be the uncompromising stubbornness of the various parts. This is the same lack of decency, the same partisanship, which is so frequently denounced by all sides of the great political divide, as if it were simply a question of comportment and attitude. The fundamental problem is that today, in the form of contemporary democracy,5 we are seeing the emergence of factions which are not opposed in their mere materialistic interests, which thanks to modern science and capitalism have largely been guaranteed, but in what we might call their ideological claims, their root vision of the world. This makes for an antagonism which the division of powers is incapable of addressing. The conflict between rich and poor can be bridged through right institutions; never can the chasm between a Muslim and an atheist, an authoritarian and a liberal, a globalist and a nationalist be so spanned. The former demands a simple redistribution of resources or a reformulation of specific laws, a searching out of the correct balance of the goals and gifts of the state; the latter treats instead of irreconcilable worldviews, one of which must be sacrificed wholesale if any other is to be realized.

The fundamental flaw in the original American analysis of factions is that it presupposed the homogeneity of its people. Part of this was conscious on the part of the Founders: they knew, for instance, the blessings afforded their country by its ethnic and social and even religious unity. They presupposed more thoughtlessly however that homogeneity which extended also into the ideological realm. This was possible in the early republic, when ‘We the People’ were literally constituted by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and everyone looked to those documents as the final and irrevocable word on the nature and purpose of their country. But in democracy, each individual is given the freedom to embrace the ideology he pleases, and the Constitution be damned. Democracy is a veritable breeding ground of ideologies; and sooner or later these ideologies, insofar as they would survive and see themselves realized in this world, must come to blows with other incompatible ideologies. What then can remain of decorum, when the parties to the opposing sides recognize that their opponents do not represent merely differing visions on how many taxes to raise or at what age a person should be able to retire, but on the very manner in which the state should be structured, the very principles which should be embodied in and should embody society, the very standards by which right and wrong government must be judged in the first place?

These are differences, not on policy, but on principle; they are differences on the fundamental things. In the face of their dignity, Robert’s Rules of Order seem a thing of wholly tertiary concern.

Conclusion

In an impassioned and (from the American classical conservative perspective) quite respectable plea, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska recently took the Senate to task in stern language for failing its constitutional duties and refusing to tackle the messy business of hashing out differences of opinion.6 He accused his colleagues of ‘avoiding responsibility for unpopular decisions’, which in turn has made of the Supreme Court the nexus of the purely political conflict which the people can no longer delegate to a deliberately impotent and complacent legislature. He noted, and not without reason, that when the people begin to protest before the Supreme Court rather than before the Congress, this reveals a fundamental disequilibrium in the state. The poor Senator believes he is living in the same America that was founded a quarter millennium ago, and that all that has changed in the meantime is the attitude and dealings of its politicos.7

To speak of decorum and decency in the midst of ideological warfare is like to asking gentleness and respite from the hurricane.

But in point of fact Senator Sasse’s concern touches but the surface of the trouble. We are witness, not to a change in attitude, but to a change in the very regimes under which we live: our republics have transformed into democracies. In a constitutional republic of any type, the binding and insuperable perimeters of political things are inscribed by the law of the land. Compromise is possible, is desirable, is mandatory precisely because there are limits drawn around the possible points of dispute. Democracy abolishes those borders, first slowly eroding them and gnawing them away as a rat to the corn, and then all at once smashing through them, in a kind of releasing of the ideological floods. The constitutional republic deliberately and in many cases expressly forbids the establishment of any number of regimes which contradict its principles and which would render its law nugatory or void; but in democracy, every regime is possible, is nascent, awaits merely the summons of the vox popoli. Democracy is, from the ideological point of view, almost not a regime at all; it is in point of fact but a natural interregnum,8 a natural halt and haitus between regimes, which soon must be overcome. In democracy, the entire cosmology of human governments suddenly become possible once again, and the disputes standing between citizens no longer show the character of rational disagreements on means, but of vital divisions on ends and principles. Not varying degrees of compromise between two more or less consonant viewpoints, but the total war between mutually exclusive worldviews, becomes the dominant theme of democratic discourse. And to speak of decorum and decency in the midst of ideological warfare is like to asking gentleness and respite from the hurricane.

This is the true and underlying reason for the increasing ‘divisiveness’ of the American Supreme Court hearings, as was seen also in the case of the right honourable Neil Gorsuch not two years ago. These men, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, are in no way inadequate to the position to which they have been nominated; practically no one disputes their professional and mental calibre. But the question is not their viability, but their beliefs. Attempts are made to defend them by saying that they take a neutral position, that they would simply obey the Constitution, rather than their own personal opinions; no one realizes that this is the speech and reasoning, not of democracy, but of republicanism, which is already far in its twilight. Despite all the fine rhetoric of our elected representatives, ‘obedience to the Constitution’ is no longer the default position of the citizenry and the elected representatives, but merely one unprivileged ideology amidst a growing crowd. The Constitution has become but a weapon in the hands of this or that ‘belief system’.

And as in America, so in Europe: the old ‘spirit of the laws’ which is one of the finest of our European legacies is on the brink of being exorcised by the spirit of the whim of the people. And when the globalists, the various ethnic interests of our ‘multicultural societies’, the Muslims, the Marxists of all stripes, the ‘interest groups’ and the various other factions we have fomented come to blows, we will finally learn that our cherished constitutions, save as they are written upon our very spirits, are but scraps of paper that can rot or burn as well as not.

Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are sometimes, most interestingly, accused of ‘radical conservatism’; more interestingly yet, they are strenuously defended from these charges by their own champions. As if radical conservatism precisely were not the prerequisite for any man who would be the defender of a Constitution! But in point of fact, long past is the day that one could hope to preserve the republican orders of these our Western nations; the conservatives, in whom this sacred task has always been vested, have utterly failed their duty. Nor could they have succeeded, for constitutionalism, republicanism, is naught but a stopgap against the rising democratic flood, and will leak out until it bursts. And when the deluge finally arrives, as indeed is befalling our fateful epoch, the decline in decorum and ‘the increase in partisanship’ will be the least of the troubles to follow from its chaotic churning. For democracy does not bring with it peaceable institutions and the stable rule of law, as our indoctrinated generation so naively believes, but rather the iron reality of a godless and valueless anarchy, in which every kind of action is suddenly justified, because every kind of political order is suddenly possible.

Footnotes

1Here, as elsewhere, the Monticellan is a riddle. It is indisputable at least that Jefferson considered majority rule to be the fundamental condition of fair government, and that he believed right majority rule in turn to hinge decisively on the education of the average citizen. To that extent – and that is already much indeed – he was certainly a good democrat. Nonetheless, I will not be the first to note the native aristocratism inherent, not to Jefferson’s ideas, but to his deportment and his spirit. He was a man, one is tempted to say, who was in his soul superior to his notions.

2At least a high degree of legal equality is the minimum necessary presupposition of any democracy. But universal equality before the law cannot help but degenerate sooner or later into equality pure and simple, for the inescapable practical reason that it locates a fundamental value in the common man, who is emboldened by this to agitate for his own interests, and who is generally incapable of perceiving the subtle difference between legal equality and equality as such. On a deeper level: legal equality cannot easily be disentangled from the insidious notion of ‘equality of opportunity’; and this equality of opportunity will inevitably struggle with the insuperable problem of inequalities of birth, which will lead it continually to more and more invasive interventions. The moment one begins to attempt to provide human beings a ‘level playing field’, is the moment that one has swallowed the bait of egalitarianism whole.

3See in particular The Federalist Papers, especially 9 & 10.

4Needless to say, no notice was made of the fact that this was essentially an atheistic determination. If the law of man is to reign supreme over the law of the gods in this world below, one must already fundamentally doubt the validity of the law of the gods. And to doubt the validity of the law of the gods is to live by another law than the divine; it is to live quite literally without the gods, a-theistically.

5Contra all those who, judging by the discrepancy between their imaginary model and the hard reality, claim that we are not living in ‘true democracies’, it must be asserted that contemporary democracy is in fact the purest form of democracy ever realized in history. It is a materialistic error to conflate ‘pure democracy’ with ‘direct democracy’, as the American founders did; modern democracy is the most democratic of all historical democracies in the spiritual and metaphysical sense. It fails of course in innumerable ways to see to the best interests of the people; it is manipulable and manipulated by innumerable secret powers; it is host to manifold corruptions: but we can only respond that this precisely is democracy, the only kind and form of democracy the world has ever known, save in the fantasies of the ideologues, or in the very special circumstances already outlined. To object to these shortcomings in our contemporary democracy, is therefore to object to democracy itself, whether one likes it or no.

6The relevant portions of his speech can be seen here.

7Even if the problem limited itself to that, of course, this would already be dire commentary on the feasibility of republicanism, for it would indicate an institutional flaw depending no longer on the abuses of power, which might indeed be channelled or manipulated to favour of the commonwealth, but rather on the deliberate avoidance of responsibility, which no manipulation save that of the gods can correct.

8It is not for nothing that Arktos has named its official podcast Interregnum; nor are we alone in perceiving that the political ‘systems’ which presently stand over us cannot continue, but must sooner or later be substituted with regimes better fit, not to mere consumers and democrats, but to full human beings.

This Post Has 2 Comments
    1. I could not agree more, and I think that your observation is pregnant with implications; to my mind, you have encapsulated the problem standing before us.

      The most obvious inference I would draw from your formulation is that we are presently living, not in organic orders, but artificial ones, based not on nature, but on human techne and human science alone. This is surely the entire bent of modernity itself, and it represents a deeply dangerous, destructive, and even potentially catastrophic state of affairs. The urgent question becomes then how to return to the organic order.

      An organic order is one which initially springs spontaneously from the fertile ground of specific groups of higher human beings, their enigmatic situation between beast and god. After such an order has sprouted and rooted, it might be tended or cultivated by men of virtue or wisdom, as was the case here in Europe for centuries before the fires of Modernity burned that priceless heritage to the ground. Once the tree of the organic order has been felled, one cannot simply replant it and expect it immediately to flourish as before; such a hope represents, not nature, but techne once again. The transition back to the organic order therefore cannot be attained in the arc of a mere few years: it will require a multi-generational endeavour marked by rare constancy and determination, which dedicates itself as much to producing higher men as to producing a higher politics. I believe we must assume that our sacred task at present is merely to lay the foundations upon which an organic order might one day be realized, inuring ourselves to the fact that we are likely never to see its actual existence, embracing our hard destiny as the middling men of history. If it should rise against all odds in the course of our lives, so much the better: but that possibility cannot be the precondition or the motive of our work.

      Such foundationwork demands, among many other things, clarity regarding the ways in which the present state of affairs, the regimes under which we live, and we ourselves can be prepared for some future transfiguration, which requires in turn clear-sighted analysis of what must be changed and what must be preserved, the whole present moment and its effect on our souls. Yet you are entirely right: if we do not at the same time hold before us an equally clear idea of the end, the kind of order we would see rise this world, we will surely lose our way in the vastness of our task.

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