The religion of democracy: from Tocqueville to Tienanmen

A new paperback edition of my Tyranny of the Majority was published yesterday.

As Alexis de Tocqueville already observed, the idea of popular sovereignty hovered over the entire political system of the United States, or, in other words, the people ruled its political world as God ruled the universe. Tocqueville, however, knew very well that this popular deity was not the “people” itself but its current majority, and there was no good answer to the question why such a constantly changing, temporary phenomenon as the will of the majority should be taken as an objective fact. The “omnipotence” of the majority, its benevolence, and the infallibility of its decisions are nevertheless treated as dogmas in democratic thought: even if the majority sometimes seems to err, it is always the fault of bad advisors, and not of the sovereign itself. Let us remark as well that such divine attributes (omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, etc.) are not “religious” concepts, but the concepts of Christian and certain other monotheist theologies, even if this theistic framework is so obviously synonymous with “religious” for Tocqueville as it was for all other authors mentioned earlier.

The Tocqueville castle in 2019.

Tocqueville’s critique of democratic theology (though he never used the term as such) established a long tradition in Western thought. John Stuart Mill’s Considerations on Representative Government in 1859 spoke of the “false creed” of American democracy, by which he meant the unprovable dogma of the people’s equality, especially with regard to voting rights. Herbert Spencer’s The Man versus the State in 1884 also criticized the representative system as a the expression of popular will: “The great political superstition of the past was the divine right of kings. The great political superstition of the present is the divine right of parliaments. The oil of anointing seems unawares to have dripped from the head of the one on to the heads of the many, and given sacredness to them also and to their decrees.”

Gaetano Mosca‘s 1896 Elementi di scienza politica drew a similar analogy between monarchies and representative democratic governments:

“A conscious observer would be obliged to confess that, if no one has ever seen the authentic document by which the Lord empowered certain privileged persons or families to rule his people on his behalf, neither can it be maintained that a popular election, however liberal the suffrage may be, is ordinarily the expression of the will of the people, or even of the will of the majority of the people.”

Vilfredo Pareto’s Trattato di sociologia generale of 1916 also spoke of a “democratic religion” which emerged very much in the same way as the Christian religion had in the first centuries of our era: “The two phenomena present many profoundly significant analogies.” The analogy is thus once again between Christianity and democratic thought, which has its own dogmatic structure inherited from Rousseau, but also notably different from the original direct democratic ideal: “This game is all to the liking of Rousseau’s admirers, and they go on playing at it. Still again X is modified, and once the opinion of the majority (?) of the electors, it now becomes the opinion of the majority of those elected. Such the evolution of one of the sublimest dogmas of the democratic religion.”

The main problem with representative democracy, however, is not that it distorts the “will of the people”, but that there is nothing to represent strictly speaking:

“We must not be led astray by the term ‘people,’ which seems to designate a concrete thing. Of course the sum of the inhabitants of a country might be called a ‘people,’ and a ‘people’ in such a case is a real, concrete thing. But only in virtue of an abstraction wholly foreign to reality can such an aggregate be regarded as a person possessing a will and the power to express it.”

Speaking of democratic religion or faith has remained regular until the mid-twentieth century. Ralph Henry Gabriel’s 1940 The Course of American Democratic Thought stated that “The persistence of the democratic faith in an age of science is a phenomenon of significance. The essence of the formula is faith. Not one of its doctrines can be proved in any scientific sense.” While the non-scientific character of democratic faith means that its free, rational, and basically good individuals are just as different from empirical human beings as Rousseau’s, Marx’s, or Hitler’s people, Gabriel kept on using terms like “social faith” or “culture religion”, suggesting that democratic faith was something secular, as compared to real – in this case, once again Christian – belief. Others like Crane Brinton also compared the non-scientific character of democratic faith to that of Christian theology:

“Democracy, in short, is in part a system of judgments inconsistent with what scientists hold to be true. This inconsistency would not create difficulties – or at least would not create some of the difficulties it now creates – were the democratic able to say that his kingdom is not of this world, able to say that his truth is not the kind that is in the least tested by the scientist, any more than the truth of the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist is tested by the chemical analysis of the bread and wine. Such a solution of the democrat’s intellectual quandary is not a happy one, but it is not altogether inconceivable. Democracy may become a genuinely transcendental faith, in which belief is not weakened by lack of correspondence between the propositions it lays down and the facts of life on this earth. (…) In short, democracy may be able to take its promised heaven out of this world, and put it in the world of ritual performed, of transcendental belief, or vicarious satisfactions of human wants, may keep it an ideal not too much sullied by the contrast with the spotted reality.”

Brinton mentions the same divine attributes of the democratic people as Gabriel (freedom, rationality, and goodness), and even derives “democratic faith” from the “Enlightenment faith,” which he, however, also describes as one that “admits no supernatural above the natural”, despite the fact that its beliefs can never be proven scientifically.

In 1974, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Leftism also detected an analogy between the dogmas, rituals, and institutions of Christianity (or, more precisely, Catholicism, so once again not of religion in general) and those of democracy, which, however, did not prevent him from calling the latter a Religionsersatz, again without explaining what the distinctive features of real and ersatz religions would be . Since then, it has become perhaps less fashionable to criticize democracy as a theological or religious system, but there are books like Patrick Deneen’s 2005 Democratic Faith, which realize that the deification of democracy (a striking example of which is the statue of the Goddess of Democracy on Peking’s Tienanmen Square in 1989) has nothing to do with existing democracies, only with an idea of democracy that today’s democratic societies can never really grow up to. As for the idealized people of democracy, this is also a product of imagination in both deliberative and agonistic models of democracy, which may be approached, but will never become exactly the same as the currently existent sum of citizens. A full democracy is only achievable with a fully rational or ab ovo democratic citizenship, but the advent of such a people is an article of faith, and not something that has been proven by anyone.

The advantage of using bad words

As it has by now become clear, words like “political theology”, “political religion”, and “secular religion” are all problematic in one way or another. (And I could name a few more.) The whole conceptual chaos surrounding such terms is no accident, however. It all follows from the authors’ inability to define religion, and thereby their similar inability to say what secular is. This is why almost everyone relies on their own favorite formula, and then go into long and complicated explanations on how something that’s religious is at the same time secular, and vice versa.

There are nevertheless two advantages of this mishmash. The first is that it calls attention to the irreparable vagueness of the concept of religion. (With which I will deal later.) The second is that it teaches something important about modern ideologies. Namely, that there is always some absolute at the heart of all ideologies. I would not call it “religious”, of course. “Religious”, as I said many times, obfuscates more than it clarifies. But I would be happy to see ideologues embarrassed by their own inability to tell the difference between “religious” and “secular” absolutes.

Political theology or political theologies?

Another problem with political theology stems from Carl Schmitt’s own classification of political ideologies. If the conceptual analogy between theological and political concepts is indeed so complete as he suggests, it becomes extremely difficult to make a distinction between “genuine” theology, and merely “secular” or “political” theologies.

Schmitt’s own examples are also of little help in this regard. Continental conservatism can hardly be called secular, since it preserves the idea of a divinely appointed sovereign, and the “conservative authors of the counterrevolution” were definitely “theists” (Schmitt 1985, 37). It remains therefore unclear why this sort of political theology is not genuinely, only analogically “religious”.

On the other hand, the problem with liberalism is that it lacks the concept of personal sovereignty (Schmitt 1985, 60), and since Schmitt’s concept of sovereignty is evidently personal, it is hard to tell why an ideology which lacks this central concept should be called theological even in a “secular” sense.

In the case of socialism, Schmitt’s own terminology becomes a source of confusion. If socialism is the political analogy of atheism (Schmitt 1985, 63), then it does not only lack the aforementioned concept of sovereignty, but could also be called “secularized atheism”, which would sound almost senseless – an atheist atheism, in contrast to religious atheism – if Schmitt admitted that this was the case.

All in all, the very existence of different ideologies and not just one “modern theory of the state” raises enormous difficulties for the original Schmittian version of political theology already.

Two concepts of political theology

One of the most confusing things about political theology is that it’s used in at least two senses. One is the Schmittian sense of “political concepts as secularized theological concepts.” This stands fairly close to the idea of political ideologies as secular religions. The other sense is “theology with a political purpose or meaning,” which is something else altogether. In the first case, we start with political ideologies and arrive at their hidden theological presuppositions. We “unveil” them, so to speak, in order reveal their real nature. In the second case we follow the opposite route. We start with explicit theological principles, and arrive at political ones. You might also say that Schmitt’s “political theology A” is about politicians playing the priest without knowing it. “Political theology B”, on the other hand, is about priests playing the politician.

The only thing left to understand is why most handbooks, thematic journals and conferences mix up these two.