The Power of Mass Democracy: Why there is no such thing as a ‘Successor Ideology’
An anti-hierarchical, radically egalitarian movement is entrenching itself in American political and social life. This movement is provoking a crisis of public order, destroying trust in liberal institutions, and denigrating excellence in the name of equality. Some have called the tenets of this egalitarian movement a ‘successor ideology’, as if familiar political principles had died off and bizarre new ideas had risen up in their place. In fact, what we are enduring is the latest iteration of a two-hundred-year-old tendency: mass democracy.
The propensity of democracies to invite chaos, tear down institutions, and suppress hierarchies has been demonstrated repeatedly. The French Revolution began with an upwelling of republicanism seeking to peacefully restructure a troubled monarchy, then veered off into a sacrificial slaughter of aristocrats, priests, and the monarch himself, finally degenerating into naked terror. A similar cycle unfolded in 1848, 1871, 1917, 1968, and 2020. Always under a different guise, but always the same phenomenon.
In the United States, radical democracy’s advance divides into two phases: a political phase from the Civil War until the 1960s, and a social phase from the 1960s to the present. The post-Civil War and progressive era constitutional reforms transformed the American government on democratic lines. An interstate compact arranged on a liberal and republican foundation was remade into a structure for extending political rights to previously excluded groups and redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. However, a less democratic civil society, rooted in the particularist local traditions of highly distinct American regions, persisted for roughly a century after the Civil War.
This arrangement contained a contradiction: the problem of equal rights juxtaposed with unequal means to take real action. The institutions of the liberal state were established primarily to safeguard the interests of a broad but relatively prestigious class of citizens who by virtue of their personal merit were able to acquire property, seek political power, and so on. Those who lacked merit or social standing found themselves unable to exercise their own rights with the same reach and extent as those atop the social hierarchy.
The contradiction between rights and means finally erupted in the 1960s, when the democratic movement shifted from seeking expanded economic benefits and political rights to pursuing recognition in society for groups considered disadvantaged. Thus, democracy turned from politics to culture. In this case, culture was downstream of politics, insofar as the democratic movement advanced by using the political structures established over the previous century to carry the revolution deeper into society. Forced integration of workplaces and public accommodations, expansion of immigration, and liberalization of public morality were achieved with support from older bureaucratic structures and friendly court precedents laid down over previous decades.
Americans of earlier generations believed that the intermediary social institutions of the liberal system — schools and universities, workplaces, media publications, philanthropic organizations, reformed churches — would exercise a tutelary function on the new classes entering the political system and incorporate them over time as responsible members of a liberal political community. Yet as the democratic revolution has advanced deeper into social life, we have seen the emergence of strongly negative attitudes towards the tutelary social institutions anchoring the liberal state. Respect for formerly sacrosanct government-level institutions like the courts and the military is also waning.
The collapse in public support for liberal institutions originated with actions taken by the democratic movement, and has been exacerbated by a reaction among believers in the old liberal values. Adherents of the democratic movement first began attacking and chipping away at those institutions in the 1960s, on the basis of their hierarchical and exclusionary nature. Liberal institutions responded by modifying or even radically transforming their missions to accommodate democratic priorities. Meanwhile, those who still adhere to the older liberal values have been forced to recognize that the institutions they once revered are no longer capable of serving their originally intended purpose. A feedback loop has essentially destroyed public support for those institutions, calling into question whether liberal values can survive at all.
Today there is no elite; there are only elite positions, staffed by democratic men and women. The liberal order’s largest remaining base of support today — the white middle class — is increasingly turning against the liberal social and political institutions which have escaped from them. Labels like ‘populism’, ‘nationalism’ (with ‘white’ or ‘Christian’ appended as qualifiers), or even ‘fascism’ are being used to describe these protests against the final absorption of the old liberal hierarchy into the democratic mass. Fundamentally, the white middle class has responded to its loss of social status and support from liberal institutions by using democratic arguments and methods as a self-protective measure, in the absence of other politically acceptable alternatives.
Herein lies the paradox of liberalism when confronted with democratic demands. Faced with a choice between preserving liberal institutions and radically transforming those institutions to promote equality, liberalism will elect to erase itself. Liberal institutions cannot convince the democratic mass to accept hierarchy based on merit. All those institutions can do is teach the democratic mass methods of social and political action that the liberal system is too weak to oppose. Violating liberal norms in order to promote equality is justified, because those norms themselves exist to advance liberal values, and the most basic liberal value is equality.
In the name of equality, the democratic mass demands the suppression of liberal ideas like freedom of speech, outsourcing the enforcement of speech codes to private parties like social media companies and employers. They attack the liberal idea of education as identifying, cultivating, and promoting individual talent, transforming education into a program of indoctrination into egalitarian sentiments. Even politics itself is denigrated as source of inequality. Removal of counter-majoritarian legislative procedures, promotion of clearly unqualified candidates into elected office, and paralyzation of the political process with media circuses and court battles are all symptoms of democracy’s advance.
Just as liberalism was faced with internal contradictions that it could not overcome, mass democracy also contains contradictions that one day may lead to its demise. The central contradiction is the persistence of a small minority of individuals of merit, and their ineradicable urge to excel. Liberal democracy constrained this contradiction by promoting the most meritorious men to positions of social and political prestige. But democracy’s advance has created conditions whereby the meritorious are now being actively denied prestige in order to further the advance of equality. Not coincidentally, these excluded men are also those with the greatest interest in resisting democratic rule, and indeed with the greatest ability to do so.
Although we face a future drained of higher values as long as democracy continues its advance, we can also consider the possibility that democratic presumptions will not prevail, and a nobler type of politics will once again reassert itself. Serious political thinkers are already being forced to confront the contradictions between a moribund liberalism and a still-advancing democracy. As that confrontation unfolds, we see that liberalism was merely a phase of ideological development in a broader, two-century-long upswell in democratic sentiment. Although we do not yet have a vantage point from which to see the end of history, we can see that liberalism is being left behind. And with the necessity of moving past liberalism, we may also gain a foothold from which to move past democracy as well.