Patrick Deneen on (Purposefully) Ignorant Democracy

Patrick Deneen excerpts a decent-sized section of a recently published article of his entitled Democracy Wrongly Understood. It is so brilliant I’m tempted to just cut and paste the whole thing. Read it all. Link here.

Deneen’s basic point is that the US Federalist system (as in Federal power not he states rights’ understanding of Federalism) is of course a republic not a democracy. Madison, the main architect of The Constitution, feared the agglomeration of factionalism within the country. He argued for a powerful federal government that would be filled by disinterested parties who would rightly guide the nation. In that regard, that a whole mess of Americans can’t find the US on a map (“our adults isn’t learning” apparently) shouldn’t surprise us as the US republic is predicated on divide and dissipate dissent–it is built to create a fairly uneducated populace in other words.

For all of the differences between the Progressives and the Framers – and the differences are manifold, as many scholars eagerly point out (e.g., Pestritto, 2005) – there nevertheless exists this striking continuity: both the Founding and the Progressive Eras are dominated by thinkers who praise the rule of the electorate even as they seek to promote systemic governmental features that will minimize electoral influence in the name of good policy outcomes.

As Sanford Levinson has argued for a long time the US constitution is not democratic.

Deneen again:

What requires more reflection are the deeper presuppositions of what constitutes “good policy” [of the sort consistently called upon by social scientists who study civic competence]. Good policy for the Founders and Progressives alike were policies that promoted the economic and political strength of the American republic and the attendant expansion of power in its private and public forms. For all their differences, what is strikingly similar about the thinkers of the Founding era and leading thinkers of the Progressive era were similar efforts to increase the “orbit” or scope of the national government concomitant with increases in the scale of the American economic order.

These patterns of similarity between The Progressives and The Founders (as well as Cold War Liberals and Conservatives) helps undercut arguments that the liberal (or progressive) are entirely foreign constructs. Particularly once Lincoln’s understanding of the republic/constitutional order becomes normative–over say a Calhoun’s.

I have to do some further thinking on this, but one thought that occurs to me is that a serious bug in Madison’s design was the assumption that there were ever dis-interested individuals. Charles Beard I think put that argument to bed in US history. The “corrosive political economics” of our age maybe attributable to this bug. The republican order does play off the intrinsic factionalism at the local level but among other things, with the failure of the Legislative Branch to be anything other than an attempt to get into The Executive these days and the politicization (on both sides liberal and conservative) of SCOTUS, we have a real problem. No one exists to check the factionalism at the federal level.

I think Deneen’s contribution is that (if I’m riffing correctly here) that this is not some European transplant from the left in the 20th century (a la Jonah Goldberg) but is there (at least in germinal form) from the get go.

Deneen’s analysis dovetails nicely with the book I’m currently reading Bounding Power: republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village by Daniel Deudney. I’ve mentioned the book before, and I plan to do so more posts just on it, but a core argument of the text is that republican (little ‘r’) security theory goes through a series of emergent stages of development which are intertwined with material/technological contexts (i.e. it wasn’t just Marx would came up with this insight).

republics exist, for Deudney, between or perhaps bypassing the extremes of anarchy and hierarchy. [Hierarchy understood as domination not natural hierarchies, e.g. physiosphere to biosphere to noosphere].

The early republics–e.g. Sparta–were martial because they were fragile and vulnerable to attack. They either became too successful in war in which case they became imperial–see the shift of Greece from the Persian War to Alexander the Great’s Conquests or the evolution of the Roman republic to the Roman Empire–or they were unsuccessful and destroyed.

Madison feared democracy and (as Deneen points out) saw them as small scale state-level republics. See the failure of The Articles of Confederation. The creation of a federal republic which pushed up a complexified level of the “sphere of sovereignty” was a major achievement.

Deneen in the rest of his article argues for an alternate, localized, Aristotelian, more communitarian type notion of citizenship. That has its place to be sure I think, so long as we recall that (following Deudney’s insight) that frame was connected in part with technological-material constructs. We do not live in the plow and horse (or human chattel slavery) age. [Well sadly many do, but not in the contexts generally of people reading this blog]. In this technology age, any such micro-communities, need to be linked to each other through the internet, so the local and the global are not really particularly separate. In that sense, I wonder what education for republican order in a global age might look like? Deudney makes an argument for republican security theory applied to world setting (not a world government mind you) but I wonder what that would entail for those who are not part of that power holding class? De facto Deneenism? I need to think more on that one.

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