Without much overstatement, one can describe the history of modern political philosophy as the search for a suitable replacement for Christianity. Progress replaces providence, humanitarianism replaces charity, and mind (or reason) replaces God himself. Into the void left behind by Christianity have rushed all sorts of ideologies—that is, comprehensive systems of belief that purport to explain the whole of human thought, action, and purpose.
Americans are well aware of this totalizing tendency among our least favorite ideologies, communism and fascism; however, democracy itself is likewise prone to become just such an ideology. Pepperdine University’s Emily Finley calls this the “ideology of democratism,” and her 2022 book by the same name aims to highlight some of the metaphysical and religious aspects of contemporary democracy. She contends that democracy, or democratism, has become “perhaps the dominant political belief system in modern Western society.” In other words, democracy has become more than a regime type; it has become a secular religion, complete with its own dogmas, practices, clerics, and eschatology.
Democracy vs. Democratism
The relationship between democracy and democratism can perhaps best be understood in parallel with the relationship between science and scientism—the former being a concrete and practical method whereas the latter is merely a comprehensive (and, one might add, dubious) belief system that goes well beyond the method. Similarly, whereas democracy is the political rule of the people, democratism is, as Finley puts it, “a hypothetical or ideal conception of democracy that is only tenuously connected to the actual, historical desires of real popular majorities.” According to Finley, the prominent characteristics of democratism are (1) the belief that true democracy lies above and beyond the actual wishes of actual people, (2) that an elite legislator or vanguard is necessary to call forth the idealized will of the people, (3) that coercion and propaganda are suitable means of instantiating the popular will, and (4) that all individuals, were they stripped of their historical and contingent particularities, would be little democrats. In short, whereas democracy is the process whereby one ascertains and implements the will of the majority, democratism is an abstract conception of what the people as a whole should ideally will for themselves.
Finley rightly identifies Rousseau as the original prophet of democratism. His notion of “the general will” is the necessary philosophical prerequisite for the present division between the actual wills of the people (plural) and an idealized will of the people (singular). Indeed, Rousseau develops something like a set of procedures for setting aside individual wills in order to comprehend the general will: for example, citizens should not communicate with one another to avoid bias, and they should be “sufficiently informed.” (The parallel between Rousseau’s procedures and John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” is perhaps too obvious to mention.) If these procedures are followed, all laws will theoretically be simple, equal, generally applicable, and therefore just.
One need not be a skeptic to think this set of circumstances is unlikely to obtain under most conditions. Enter Rousseau’s deus ex machina—a quasi-divine legislator who can ensure the people choose rightly. Rousseau’s legislator will “persuade without convincing”—calling forth from the diverse interests of the people the true general will. Finley sees this divorce between actual and idealized wills as leading inevitably to a divorce between the people and their democratist leaders. Any version of this line of thinking, whether it be Rousseau’s or Rawls’s, will detach politics from individuals’ actual concerns and open space for powerful parties to cloak their own interests in the guise of something universal.
In one of the most interesting sections of the book, Finley shows how the notion of the “general will” was historically associated with Christian theology and still assumes some of that original framework: after all, discerning a singular, all-encompassing will requires a “God’s eye” view. Whether such an idea still makes sense in the absence of that original framework is an open question. Finley says, “For Rousseau, . . . the general will retains its original theological connotation of wholeness and perfection, but instead of being attributed to an infinite and omniscient God, it becomes a rational and ahistorical ideal. Rousseau and others substitute for the will of God an abstract will of humanity universally accessible through reason.”
In other words, the general will used to be situated in the mind of God, and fully accessible only to him; however, we hubristic moderns seem to think we too are omniscient (perhaps by virtue of our sheer number and our chronological superiority—call it “democratic omniscience”). Rousseau’s general will is certainly a major break from a Christian framework, but it is not nearly so profound as Rousseau’s total redefinition of human nature—a revolution at which Finley only hints. Rousseau plainly admits that his whole system of thought rests atop one fundamental doctrine: the natural goodness of man. If this is true, then perhaps it is Rousseau’s faith in our innate goodness that is the true foundation not only of the general will and democratism, but of political modernity itself. We have yet to fully understand how many social and political revolutions owe their existence to this fundamental shift in anthropology. Even Tocqueville points us in this direction when he notes that “the perfectibility of man” is the deepest dogma of democratic ages.
Nevertheless, there is great value in looking at democracy as an ideology. In fact, Finley helps us understand one curious fact about contemporary politics—namely, the incessant refrain of elites who blame “the people” for subverting, or perverting, true democracy. It is now commonplace to hear our moral and political elites utter—with no sense of irony—that our democracy is threatened by the will of the people (or at least the will of a certain class of people they find morally and politically repugnant). Indeed, between the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, one need not strain too hard to find examples of elites who were positively apoplectic over the result of free democratic choice. Even more recently, American progressives bemoaned the fact that abortion, as a matter of public policy, was returned to the state level (which is to say, would be resolved democratically rather than by judicial fiat).
Time and time again, we hear that democracy (the procedure) threatens to undermine democracy itself (ideological democracy), with the added irony that this typically comes from the mouths of Democrats. These mental contortions are possible because we have imported many other notions into democracy, and we are unable to disambiguate democracy as a procedure from democracy the ideology or belief system. Moreover, in one of the great virtues of the book, Finley helps us realize that we import into democracy a full-blown eschatology—the expectation of a “new age of peace and equality.” Few books have such keen vision of the religious aspects of modern democracy.
The subsequent chapters of Finley’s book are a series of investigations into how democratism explains the actions and ideas of various influential thinkers, including Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Jacques Maritain, John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, George W. Bush, and the neoconservatives in general. All of these people or groups believed, in some fashion or another, that true democracy was “just around the corner”—simply in need of a good shove. For all democratists, the success or failure of democracy rests on two factors—leadership and education—both of which should “refine” the will of the people and shape it into what it ought to be. Unlike the Founders, who contented themselves with the modest achievement of a system of compromises between interest groups, these various figures were bewitched by what Finley calls the “idyllic imagination”—a dream of a future utopia in which individual interest could be sublimated and transcended.
Some of the figures Finley critiques, such as Woodrow Wilson, won’t come as a surprise to most readers. In Finley’s poignant words, “Wilson believed that he was tasked with nothing less than completing Christ’s work on Calvary. If the world would but heed his counsel, he could help to bestow on humanity ‘the full right to live and realize the purposes that God had meant them to realize.’” While this sort of secularized theology, or civic religion, is not terribly surprising from Wilson, Finley sees the same sort of heresy on the part of Catholic political philosopher Jacques Maritain. Her chapter on Maritain makes it clear that democratism tempts individuals whether they happen to be secular or religious. Finley, who is herself a sincere Catholic, reserves some of her harshest criticisms for Maritain (as one is typically justified in criticizing most fervently those nearest to oneself).
According to Finley, Maritain’s “Christian” or “Personalist” democracy owes more to Rousseau than to the Apostle Paul, and his central social and political ideas—“the brotherhood of men,” “universal community,” “the whole human family,” etc.—emerge from a sentimental humanitarianism rather than genuine Christian charity. Harsh words, but probably justified. Moreover, while Maritain is remembered for his criticism of the atheistic and materialistic underpinnings of Marxism, Finley sees Maritain’s political philosophy as only superficially different from Marx. Here, Finley can speak for herself:
Maritain’s vision of earthly renewal founded in a new brotherhood of humanity resembles Marx’s broad outline of the same idea. Are the differences between the two visions of these major points substantive or merely rhetorical? Maritain articulates a vision of international brotherhood, freedom, and equality that is to be accomplished through major socioeconomic reorganization at the hands of a knowing vanguard, aided by what is nothing other than a secular political faith—the “democratic creed.” . . . Such a focus on the material and political . . . at times spiritualizes the political—a charge Maritain laid on Marxism. Under the auspices of Christian “democracy,” Maritain seems to be a major contributor to a new political ideology not so different from the one he repudiates.
These and similar denunciations can be found on nearly every page of Finley’s book, and they are in equal parts interesting and convincing. She reminds us that democracy, at least in its democratist form, shares many of the same assumptions as communism and fascism, lest we be too enamored of our own preferred political presuppositions. She is not the first to make these claims; they are a version of Eric Voegelin’s idea of political gnosticism. However, Finley’s contributions are still valuable: one cannot be told too often that even democracy is not immune to delusional utopianism.
On the topic of delusional utopianism, much more could be said about Finley’s other chapters on “deliberative democratism” (featuring Rawls and Habermas) and “war democratism” (featuring George W. Bush and neoconservatism), but some things are better left for the reader to explore themselves. Individuals of every political persuasion will be challenged by Finley’s account, and, best of all, one cannot level the charge of partisanship against Finley, for some of her harshest criticisms are reserved for Republicans, like President Bush, who took up the democratist mantle of Wilson. Democratism, whether right or left, represents a profound departure from the Founders.
If one is to criticize Finley’s book, one could begin by suggesting perhaps that it is not merely democracy, but progress, that is modernity’s reigning ideology. In truth, democracy worships at the altar of progress, which is why the democratists wait in expectation of a future blessed estate (rather than look backward to a rosy past). Perhaps not Rousseau, but Francis Bacon, is the principal founder of modernity. However, the truth is that modernity is probably a marriage of Bacon and Rousseau—a sentimental naturalism wedded to techno-utopianism. Maybe this nightmarish combination is what really constitutes Finley’s “democratism.”
Democracy, like many good things, is destroyed if it is elevated above all else. Democracy is valuable to the extent that it is placed in its proper position and context—bounded and balanced by other elements. As Edmund Burke wisely noted, one does not obtain liberty, equality, and self-government by merely letting go of the reins; these things require a complex system of incentives, punishments, and checks and balances that parallel the complexities of human nature. Our Founders understood this far better than do the democratists.
Finley’s book ultimately demonstrates how we have been bewitched by a simplistic and false notion of human nature that is prone to delusional optimism, and she makes a compelling case for returning to the wise foundations of our country. Overall, Finley’s critique of democratism is a service to our understanding of modern politics and a cautionary tale against making democracy into a comprehensive worldview. I recommend to you The Ideology of Democratism, even if I maintain that the book should have been called The Religion of Democracy because that better encapsulates the sacred, if not sacrosanct, nature of democracy in contemporary society. In the final analysis, Finley shows us that democracy is ineradicably religious; the question that remains is whether religion can bolster democracy without being swallowed up by it.