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  • Democracy without Nations?
  • Pierre Manent (bio)

If we try to characterize the contemporary political world, our first observation will no doubt be the victory of democracy, with 1945 and 1989 marking the dates of the collapse (in quite different ways) of the two most terrible enemies that democracy faced in our century. This does not mean that democracy is everywhere peacefully established, nor that where it is established it may not encounter considerable difficulties. It means, rather, that the democratic principle of legitimacy no longer has a politically credible rival anywhere in the world. Even the upheavals associated with “Islamic fundamentalism” do not, in my view, undermine the general validity of this appraisal. Be that as it may, I will consider here only the Western world.

The democratic principle of legitimacy is the principle of consent: a law or obligation is not legitimate, nor am I bound to obey it or fulfill it, unless I previously have consented to this law or obligation through myself or my representatives. A democratic regime, therefore, is that regime which, in principle, is willed by each individual. This is because a democracy defines itself as, and seeks to be, that regime which is willed by each individual. With this starting point in mind, how could anyone want anything but democracy? It is quite striking to observe that totalitarian regimes, even during the period of their greatest strength, officially deferred to the principle of consent by organizing elections. This is also what the Islamic Republic of Iran does today. [End Page 92]

In other words, once the principle of consent has been brought to light, even its most resolute adversaries spare no effort in extorting from their populations formal signs of the most unanimous possible consent. In a certain sense, an opponent of the principle of consent is always in self-contradiction: by choosing a principle of action different from consent, he in effect wills not to will. We see here the intrinsic and invincible superiority of democracy over all its competitors. Democracy finds a supporter, indeed an accomplice, in the will of each man as man. The moral prestige and irresistible political strength of democracy derive from its “universalism”: man’s humanity is the sole “hypothesis” of a democratic regime, and this hypothesis is always verified by us as human beings—unless, of course, we deny outright the humanity of certain people. This is exactly what the totalitarian regimes did, explicitly in the case of Nazism, implicitly or “dialectically” in the case of communism. Nazism subjected or exterminated the “naturally” inferior races; communism subjected or exterminated the “historically” condemned classes.

But how can one fail to see the humanity of another human being? How can it be denied in this terrible way? How could the totalitarian denial of the unity of the human race seem plausible to so many otherwise intelligent people, not all of whom were deliberately evil? I believe that it is because this project was based on certain aspects of being human that are also constitutive of our humanity, on differences that define man as much—or almost as much—as his universal humanity. I speak of the two great differences of nation and class.

Indeed, the contemporary victory of democracy coincides with the weakening in the West of these two differences of nation and class, a weakening due partly to the discredit totalitarianism cast upon them. Today universal humanity tends to overwhelm difference so much that it sometimes seems that between the individual and the world (“we are the world”) nothing intrudes—except maybe a void where various ethnic, religious, and sexual “identities” float, each demanding “respect.”

It thus seems to me that our feeling about the present situation combines—in different proportions depending on the time, place, and person—satisfaction at the triumph of the democratic principle and anxiety about the disappearance or at least the weakening of all forms of the political articulation of the world, in particular of the nation-state. This last subject will be the focus of the remainder of this essay.

The Rebirth of the Nation

A historian might say that Europe had already found itself in an analogous situation, one characterized by homogenization...

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pp. 92-102
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