The American Founders did not romanticize democracy. They were liberal democrats, which means they were liberals first and democrats second. They thought that liberal principles such as the rights to life and liberty and the freedom of thought and speech were more fundamental than democratic principles such as elections and majority rule. In our time, the specter of Donald Trump—a demagogue mesmerizing the mob with lies, stoking its resentment, and inciting violence—should lead us to admire the Founders for trying to avoid autocracy on one hand and mob rule on the other.
This is a balancing act, because democracy is necessary to prevent autocratic rulers from taking away the rights and liberties of the people. Nevertheless, the Founders were suspicious that democracy could lead to the tyranny of the majority, which robs eccentric individuals and minorities of their rights. Their solution was to create a democratic polity in which the power of the majority is constrained. For example, the Bill of Rights set limits on the legislative branch; the Electoral College prevented the presidency from being a popularity contest; Senators were not directly elected by the people until 1914; and all judges were appointed—and at the federal level and the Supreme Court, they still are.
Nevertheless, in the history of the United States, democracy has not always been regarded with suspicion. Another tradition was brewing. While the liberal democratic tradition is rooted in John Locke and John Stuart Mill, the republican democratic tradition has its foundations in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract and Machiavelli’s Discourses. In that tradition, democracy requires the active participation of individuals in making laws and shaping their society. The republican tradition defines liberty as the submission to laws that one has created in partnership with others. Republican government is government of the people and by the people. This public engagement accounts for republican freedom. The republican tradition makes political engagement constitutive of liberty—not simply a means to that end. So, it is no wonder that in his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln associated government of the people and by the people with liberty.
No one has expressed the romance of this democratic republicanism more eloquently than the iconic American philosopher John Dewey. He did not deny that the nuts and bolts of democracy were universal suffrage, elections, and responsible government. But for him, these are just the means to a deeper, more important end, which is the cultivation of the democratic personality. In his view, democracy is essential for the moral and intellectual development of citizens who can transcend naked self-interest in favor of a shared conception of the common good. For Dewey, democratic participation cultivates citizens who are tolerant, unassuming, anti-autocratic, and capable of consensus and compromise.
Even if we agree with Dewey that participation in democratic politics allows us to set aside private interest, there is no reason to believe that democratic participation leads to the capacity for compromise and consensus. Even citizens of good will are bound to have disagreements about the common good. And when folks stand on principle, they tend to be self-righteous, intransigent, and averse to compromise.
This democratic idealism has been intensified by Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish émigré who has a cult following in the United States. Arendt thought that participation in the “public realm” was critical to being fully human. In her Origins of Totalitarianism, she suggests that the Jews of Europe were easily exterminated because they lived primarily private lives, and as a result had no reality, because the latter is socially and politically constituted. She insists that privacy has its roots in privation; therefore, living a private life was not fully human. These were outrageous claims that amounted to blaming the victims for the Nazi Holocaust.
Jewish intellectuals naturally objected, but her republican admirers in the United States loved the idea that engagement in the public realm was simply a matter of life and death! They rightly understood her to be denigrating the liberal view of government as providing the conditions in which citizens could pursue their private happiness. Arendt’s American followers agreed that the American Revolution was fought in the name of happiness that can only be found in the public realm. In my view, this makes politics akin to a love affair—it shapes and completes you in ways that you cannot anticipate before the fact.
What led Arendt to this democratic romanticism? No doubt it had something to do with the inter-subjectivism of Martin Heidegger, who regarded truth as a social construction. It also had something to do with her admiration for Aristotle’s view of human beings as political animals who love dialogue and debate as integral to self-actualization. But her most important inspiration was the Holocaust. She was struck by the heroic rescue of the Danish Jews, who were smuggled out of the country when the Nazis invaded Denmark. This was made possible by the collaboration of a vast network of citizens acting together in concert, hiding the Jews and leading them to safety in unoccupied Sweden—not unlike the escape of black Americans from slavery via the Underground Railroad. In both cases, the operation required personal risk, trust, and collaboration. For Arendt, acting together in concert became her definition of political power or people power, which she distinguished from the state’s monopoly over force. Her idea evolved into the centrality of “trust” as a measure of political health or “social capital,” which has become a staple of American social science.
I worry that all this enthusiasm for the public realm conceals a subtle repudiation of liberal individualism. It behooves us to keep in mind that criminal gangs and terrorists also act together in concert. The key is acting nobly, which is a function of a trustworthiness rooted in the character of individuals—something that has been lost in the clamor over identity.