Recent discussion on the GAlist points to an epistemological crux: to what extent does the originary hypothesis itself depend on the success of this governmental structure, which as Adam Katz rightly points out, is not the official name of any national or other government. It should also be pointed out that it is not the unofficial name either; it is an ad hoc construction, used by me and many others, but one too ill-defined to attract much attention from political scientists. But the fact that the latter prefer to debate about categories such as liberalism, neoliberalism, conservatism, populism, etc., is an indication that these terms are insufficiently general to characterize modern polities in the manner that “liberal democracy” may be said to do: as providing a political marketplace that, regardless of details, pragmatically seeks and finds more often than not (or has until recently) a good enough solution to go forward.
We all recall Churchill’s remark that “democracy” is the worst system with the exception of all the others. The hidden implication in this boutade is that the term democracy suffices—even in a nominal monarchy such as the UK—to designate something like liberal democracy as its political system, and that any further precision would miss the point.**
In a word, the superiority of such a system depends on the very messiness, with its “checks and balances,” that avoids centralized dictatorship and allows the citizenry as a whole the best chance of profiting from its common sense in choosing among potential leaders. By putting a maximum constraint on decision making and a minimal constraint on choosing one’s representatives at all levels, liberal democracy maximizes at every stage public feedback for political actions. The result is to maximize as well the number of degrees of freedom in the system. Even the left-wing elite’s current monopolization of the MSM, including the social media, cannot prevent the public from rebelling; the Rittenhouse verdict, the Virginia election, are recent examples.
The possible alternatives within the liberal-democratic system—most commonly, parliamentarism vs a strong executive, although Israel offers a variant that puts great power in the hands of a self-perpetuating judiciary—are uncountable, but until recently the leadership of the USA reflected not only its size and natural resources but its e pluribus unum system of states whose relative independence, guaranteed by the Constitution, permits a great variety of local legal systems within a single federal nation—something that Europe with its divergent national histories could not achieve.
The alternative forms of government, “all the others” in Churchill’s phrase, are all more or less despotic, ranging from démocratures to fully totalitarian regimes. Whatever we think of China’s chances for overtaking the US in world leadership, there is little reason to persist in the optimism which flourished under Deng and his immediate successors that China was evolving toward a “capitalist” system. Nor has Russia since the demise of the USSR become notably either more democratic or more successful economically, despite Putin’s skills at geopolitical manipulation.
In a word, as the tide of immigration, legal and illegal, reflects, the USA and its liberal-democratic variants remain the “best hope” for those seeking a better life. The choices remain largely the same as at the time of WWII, save that the weaponry is now too powerful to permit an all-out war to settle the issue. This suggests we should keep our bets on the side of democracy and hope that its political system can muster the maturity to throw off its current woke tantrum and mobilize in its own defense.
Its propensity to messiness and/or undecidability was the very point of the complex multi-layer government instituted by the US Constitution. Even FDR’s depression-cum-wartime presidency was unable to profoundly modify it—such as by “packing” the Supreme Court—and the recent experience of the Biden Administration strongly suggests that the current reign of the Woke, which seeks to impose itself by its very outrageousness—calling women “menstruating persons,” capitalizing Black but not white—will soon lose all credibility. As they say, Let’s Go Brandon.
By electing Biden and Harris (and even if there was some hanky-panky, they clearly had a majority of the raw vote), the American public seemed to be trying to show the world that its system was so perfect that it could work even under the most clearly incompetent leadership pair in history. At least half the electorate felt that despite Trump’s accomplishments, he was a troublesome outlier, and that the longtime political hack Biden, nearly in his dotage, would demonstrate by his very normality the superiority of American “business as usual”—as though Trump’s victory, and his very candidacy, had not been a response to its recent decline.
Wokism in the US should be seen as the terminal triumph, and hopefully the last hurrah, of the “plantation” system described by Dinesh D’Souza (see Chronicle 637), in which the elite, today globalist rather than national, dominates electoral politics by taking the underclass as its clients in opposition to the middle class. Today’s clientele is no longer the white “ethnics” of the old city machines, but blacks and Hispanics whose upward mobility is blocked by the welfare system and the deliberate discrediting of “racist” policing and incarceration policies, extending to schools where delinquency is rife and the teachers’ unions, a powerful “plantation” constituency, make little effort to enforce discipline.
My analysis of wokeness has emphasized its derivation from the epistemology of resentment that first attained supremacy in the French Revolution, that with the progress of industrialization was further elaborated in theories of socialism, and finally exacerbated by the anxieties of the digital age, which has sent manufacturing jobs overseas, leaving few avenues for the traditional working class. Wokeness’ specific character as a “children’s crusade” (see Chronicle 711) reflects the infantilization of a self-indulgent affluent culture that increasingly takes its cue from adolescents as the only element of the population that can be accredited with “authentic” desires. The enormous success of the Harry Potter novels (see Chronicle 211)—whose billionaire author has now been denounced as a TERF—was an early sign of this. Committees of distinguished academics, such as those who removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from the fellowship I held back in the 1960s, took their cue from the young statue-destroyers out of a sense that this “unspoiled” generation had a keener moral sense than those of us who have had to compromise with reality.
Behind this sentiment lies the key element of decadent softness, the result of over 75 years of general peace, leading to the end of universal military service and two generations of squeamishness in the face of violence, which only criminals and superheroes are permitted to reject. (Think of Dirty Harry, or James Bond in a more ironic mode, as transitional figures.)
Today the power of wokeness is waning as a result of the Afghanistan fiasco and the administration’s general incompetence, but above all because such offenses to common sense cannot help but wear themselves out unless sustained by an implacable central power. Such a power emerged in Russia and Germany and China, but “the American way,” even if no longer defended by Superman, is unapt to produce it. “Critical race theory” has much in common with Nazi antisemitism, but is most unlikely to lead to extermination camps, even for the deplorables felt by many to deserve them.
We must nonetheless look with a critical eye on a political system that has allowed such an aberration. As China-watchers warn us, we cannot afford to let the pendulum swing so far for so long, relying merely on our confidence that liberal democracy always eventually corrects deviations from common sense. What is more, the ground-level solidity of the society that has permitted these deviations is increasingly uncertain. No doubt the need to reproduce the population is likely to favor those families solid enough to transmit their values to their children, in contrast to the vast numbers of young people who fail to marry and have few or no offspring when they do, but such processes take a long time.
It should be noted, however, that even this is not a definitive condemnation of our worst-except-for-the-others system. What it points to is that this system does not exist in a vacuum, and that if its positive achievements are not easily imitated by truly backward societies, this is not the case for the higher-level despotisms such as China, Russian, and Iran, which can also arm clients throughout the world.
As Girard always maintained, the jihad impulse, although in theory motivated by the desire to “save for Allah” as many souls as possible, is most strongly driven by the mimetic hatred spawned by the very attractiveness of the West. But this also implies, as 9/11 showed us, that the West’s ability to ignore it is running out. In this regard, by rejecting “forever wars” and beginning the process of seeking a “deal” with the Taliban, Trump indeed bears some of the blame for the Afghanistan disaster, having provided Biden with what he no doubt saw as a chance for one-upmanship.
Following its hesitant beginning with the late Colin Powell, the emergence of black conservatives in continually growing numbers is not only the harbinger of a new electoral breakdown, but can be hoped to be the beginning of the end of the racialist coda to the success of the civil rights movement. Biden’s revealing quip during the last election that If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black should serve as a watchword for all minority groups that see the current Democratic Party as their savior.
With the ultimate failure of black racialism, this party itself will be obliged to rid itself of the distasteful characters that are all too often its public voice. Self-styled hater-haters are not the solution to lowering the political temperature and restoring civility in disagreement. Yet common sense moves slowly; this is a time for mobilization. Hopefully a serious outbreak of violence will not be necessary to focus the mind.
A full theorization of liberal democracy would require tracing its history from its sources in Hebrew and Greek cultures through Christianity. GA is not a new version of the Hegelian dialectic, whose evolution takes place in time but is ruled by a logic inherent in the “ideas” that history incarnates. There is no substitute for painstaking research, and the aim of these Chronicles is not to replace it, but to encourage it.
It would make me more than happy to know that this “new way of thinking” might be of help in reinforcing the basic convictions of common sense now under fire from woke extremism, and above all in reconciling those not religiously inclined to the foundational nature of the sacred. The epistemology of resentment can take one only so far. Describing all of Western or world history in the Howard Zinn mode as the amoral triumph of might over right simply precludes any attempt to evaluate historical ethics in their appropriate context. In this respect, Steven Pinker’s statistical verification of the rule of thumb that the “arc of history” leads to the maximization of society’s degrees of freedom (“justice”) is a useful antidote.
Faith in the originary hypothesis, like faith in a religion, provides a tentative conviction that human history is worthwhile. With or without the “immortality of the soul,” we must accept Pascal’s pari on divine providence, whatever the ultimate source of the sacred—and whether or not seeking to define this source is a worthwhile enterprise. No theoretical model can guarantee humanity’s survival, above all now that we actually possess the means of self-destruction. Our ability to survive will test the strength of our originary gesture of deferral, and as far as we know, set an example for the universe of the success or failure of any negentropic system. Small consolation, admittedly, if we end by blowing ourselves up—which is why we must set our minds to avoid it.
**In an earlier version of this Chronicle, I had capitalism instead of democracy in Churchill’s quip. Thanks to Matthew Taylor for pointing out this error. Fortunately it does not greatly weaken the point, since “democracy” is clearly used as a generic term that includes republics and parliamentary monarchies, as opposed to Aristotle’s more restrictive definition.