- Democracy’s Triumph, Philosophy’s Peril
Liberal democracy has never had much use for philosophy. Tocqueville opens Volume II of Democracy in America by remarking: “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States” (II, 3). For its part, philosophy tends to be suspicious of liberal democracy and liberal capitalism, even while grudgingly (and only exoterically) admitting that it might be the most harmless regime as far as safety of life and limb is concerned. A perilous enterprise at the best of times, philosophy draws its legitimacy, demands its freedom, and affirms its dignity from the belief in a distinction between popular opinion (frequently, an expression of parochial interest) and true or deep knowledge (resulting from the meditation of independent thinkers who, while remaining loyal citizens, aim at reflection devoid of commitment and bias). In democracies, though, citizenship—that is, partisanship—is paramount.
A civic community, ruling itself, does not need coercion to silence dissent and, as Tocqueville has shown, its instruments for enforcing conformity (“being-of-one-mind”) are spiritual rather than physical. It is here especially that liberal democracy is a competitor to philosophy in the latter’s very realm.
“In any constitutional state in Europe every sort of religious and political theory may be freely preached and disseminated; for there is no country in Europe so subdued by any single authority as not to protect the man who raises his voice in the cause of truth from the [End Page 103] consequences of his hardihood,” Tocqueville tells us. “But in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organized like those of the United States, there is but one authority, one element of strength and success, with nothing beyond it”—to wit, the people (I, 263). “The smallest reproach irritates its sensibility, and the slightest joke that has any foundation in truth renders it [that is, American public opinion] indignant; . . . everything must be made the subject of encomium. . . . The majority lives in the perpetual utterance of self-applause” (I, 265). 1
This state of affairs has now spread to the rest of the world. Anticapitalist or antidemocratic theories are not suppressed, but silenced through indifference, mockery, and marginalization; a debate is never seriously engaged with them. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Werner Sombart dedicated a whole book to the puzzle of why there is no socialism in the United States; Tocqueville, unbeknownst to him, had already answered that question. Rousseau would have been horrified to see that the general will could become informed almost exclusively by bourgeois opinion.
The most disturbing feature of this, for philosophers, is that opinion is thought as well. The undaunted, independent spirit looked down on the raw force and vulgar ignorance that burned books and writers at the stake. But contemporary democratic opinion evinces only merry contempt for the philosophers’ “cloud-cuckoo-land,” and has got ideas (often quite intelligent ideas) of its own.
Learned elites, with their weird morals and commitments other than usefully civic ones, have always been repugnant to democracy. Yet in the past these elites at least regarded themselves as something more than self-seeking subcultures, and believed they were representing something “higher.” In today’s globally triumphant liberal democracies, the pretension of devotion to “higher things” smacks of tyrannical tastes. The liberal democracies of the near future may become as aphilosophical as ancient Egypt or pre-Columbian America, their liberty empirical and wordless, or expressed in terms of the uncritical “self-applause” foreseen by Tocqueville.
Leo Strauss tells us, in his famous essay “The Three Waves of Modernity”:
[J]ust as the second wave of modernity is related to Rousseau, the third wave is related to Nietzsche. Rousseau confronts us with the antinomy of nature on the one hand, and of civil society, reason, morality, history on the other, in such a way that the fundamental phenomenon is the beatific sense of existence—of union and communion with nature—which belongs altogether on the side of nature as distinguished from reason and society. The third wave may be described as being constituted by a new understanding of the sentiment of...