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  • Kant, Democracy, and History
  • Kurt Taylor Gaubatz (bio)

In his essay “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent” (1784), Immanuel Kant predicted that republican forms of government would eventually dominate the world. This, he wrote, was part of nature’s “secret plan”: The “cosmopolitan goal” of history was the general enlightenment of humanity and the universalization of republicanism as the basis of social organization. 1 Kant’s prediction was a bold one. At the time, the number of democracies in the world could be counted twice on the fingers of one hand. His views have proved influential as well as prescient. Many of his ideas about the nature and causes of republican expansion have since been incorporated into the basic liberal creed. And while general enlightenment may still seem elusive, some scholars have suggested that we are currently in the midst of an extraordinary global movement toward democracy. 2

Controversy remains, however, about both the scope and the sustainability of this so-called democratic revolution. Consider, for example, the contrast between two recent musings on the subject: Francis Fukuyama sees in the events of the past decade the harbingers of the “end of history”—the inevitable and conclusive victory of mass democracy as the dominant form of governance. Paul Kennedy, on the other hand, having examined population dynamics and historical cycles, foresees a gloomy and increasingly antidemocratic future for the world. 3 At this moment of extreme uncertainty—or perhaps competing certainties—about the future of worldwide democratization, we would do well to reflect carefully on the dynamics of democratization that have brought us to this point.

This essay surveys the past two hundred years to provide an [End Page 136] empirical assessment of Kant’s forecasts. More than simply an exercise in explicating Kant, it is an attempt to put into perspective the most recent wave of global democratic expansion and efforts to make the promotion of democracy a cornerstone of the foreign policy of democratic nations. From this broader historical point of view, worldwide democratization appears less inexorable than recent trends have led many to suppose, and the practical advantages of democratic governance that have frequently been touted in the post-Cold War era are less apparent.

Clearly, there are many different conceptions of democracy. Kant makes a distinction between republicanism, in which legislative and executive powers are separated, and pure democracy, which Kant feared might lead to despotism, with an executive claiming to represent the popular will. Whatever the label, Kant’s argument that the true “civil state” requires representative institutions, the protection of individual rights, and the separation of legislative and executive powers clearly evokes the modern Western ideal of liberal democracy. 4 In this essay, the terms “republican,” “liberal,” and “democratic” are used interchangeably to refer to political systems in which power is vested in representative institutions and individual rights are sufficiently protected to make those institutions effective. My classification of regimes as “democracies” draws on the work of Michael Doyle and on Freedom House’s identification of “free” regimes in its annual “Comparative Survey of Freedom.” 5

Kant’s Three Arguments

Kant’s prediction of the expansion of republicanism relies on three different arguments: an argument from nature, an argument from practicality, and an argument from morality. The mechanisms of democratic expansion that these arguments outline have resurfaced in many contemporary accounts of the current global trend toward democracy.

The argument from nature. Kant maintains that humankind must regard its own development as one of nature’s objectives. History, in his view, is governed initially by providence and then, with growing self-awareness, by humans themselves. Self-conscious management of human affairs is a necessary condition of humanity’s moral growth. Such self-consciousness can be achieved only when people are free to govern themselves both individually and collectively. Collective self-government requires effective representative institutions. If the natural destiny of humankind is to be fulfilled, then, republicanism is a necessary feature of historical progress.

There is considerable debate about the degree of determinism implied in Kant’s notion of a plan of nature. A minimum position is that Kant [End Page 137] holds that natural progress in human events cannot be...

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