The Persistence of History, by P. Bracy Bersnak

Twenty years ago, as the Cold War ended with the triumph of the West over Communism, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “end of history,” by which he meant that human political community had reached its final and best stage of development in the form of liberal democracy. Samuel Huntington spoke of a third great wave of democracy sweeping through eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. But many of the new democracies were short lived, pulled down in an authoritarian undertow. History had a future after all.

Whether or not they agree with the specifics of Fukuyama’s claims, political scientists, policy analysts, and policy makers share his fundamental assumptions. They disagree chiefly over the means by which liberal democracy should be spread throughout the world. Though the experiences of the last decade have chastened advocates of promoting democracy around the world, support for liberal democracy remains the default position for U.S. foreign policy. Even when support for democracy undermines allies and facilitates the rise to power of anti-Western parties—that is, even when it seems to work contrary to the national interest—American administrations tend to stay faithful to promoting democracy.

That may be why Chilton Williamson, Jr. inclines toward defining democracy as a kind of religion. Williamson is a former literary editor of National Review, currently senior editor of Chronicles, and the author of several novels. He says that there is no generally accepted definition of democracy, and does not try to formulate one of his own, but seems to settle on characterizing it as a false religion that believes that the popular will should always prevail in government (pp. 73–74). If Williamson is right, his definition would go some way toward explaining why so many are blind to the weaknesses of contemporary democracy and the possibility of its demise: the inevitability and permanence of democracy is an article of faith.

The first part of Williamson’s book traces the history of modern democracy from American independence up to the present, focusing on the U.S. and Britain. He believes that democracies have best flourished in periods during which they were imperfectly democratic. Both American and British democracy experienced their golden ages when the franchise was broad but not universal, and when educated men of property played the leading roles in political life. By the late nineteenth century, this “aristocratic balance” was lost. During World War I governments mobilized their entire populations to fight and extended democracy more broadly than ever before. The war discredited European liberalism, which was blamed for the war and the weaknesses of multiethnic regimes that emerged from it. But the war did not discredit the democratic principle, which was pressed into the service of nationalism and socialism. It was only after World War II and the defeat of totalitarian National Socialism that liberal democracy was wholeheartedly embraced by peoples and governments. Until then, intellectuals were for the most part opposed to democracy. Men of letters as various as Stendahl, Matthew Arnold, Albert Camus, and T. S. Eliot expressed deep skepticism toward democracy. As Wyndham Lewis said, “No artist can ever love democracy.”

Williamson admires what Alfred Kahan called the aristocratic liberalism of Alexis de Tocqueville and others because they believed in popular government but were aware of its potential to threaten individual liberty, intellectual excellence, and the social bodies that make up civil society. While progressives of various stripes have sought to extend the principles of democracy from the political realm into civil society, conservatives have opposed this extension, believing with Tocqueville that nondemocratic social bodies in civil society counteracted dangerous tendencies in democratic politics. Williamson says that “it was in his fears, perhaps even more than in his hopes, that the author of Democracy in America proved himself to be a man of deep intuition and a true prophet of history” (p. 40). But Tocqueville is more a point of departure than an interlocutor for Williamson because democracy has changed so much from his day to ours.

Read the complete article in The University Bookman

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