“Democracy is the worst form of government,” Churchill is said to have said, “except all those other forms that have been tried.” Actually, what he excepted was “all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” with that last phrase implying that democracy is the root form, and the others mere occasional experiments. It was an odd notion, but was perhaps called for by the times in which he was speaking, the mid-nineteen-forties, when a war was won for democracy at a nearly unbearable cost. The art historian Kenneth Clark recalled appearing in those years on a popular BBC radio quiz program, “The Brains Trust,” and fumbling a question on the best form of government. The “right” answer, given by all the other panelists, was “democracy,” but this seemed to Clark “incredibly unhistorical”; he had, after all, studied the rise of Botticellian beauty in the Medici-mafia state of Florence, and of Watteau and rococo under the brute dynastic rule of France, and generally valued those despotic regimes where more great art and music got made than has ever been created under a bourgeois democracy. Wrong answer, nonetheless. He was never again trusted to be a Brain.
One doesn’t have to look far, even within the received canon of English literature, to find impatient dissent from the idea of the natural superiority of democratic government. Shakespeare found nothing good to be said for democracy or egalitarian impulses, trusting entirely to order and compassion to lubricate the joints of the state, even though he is the author, in “King Lear,” of the greatest of lines on the social perils of privilege: “Take physic, pomp, / Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.” Dr. Johnson thought that democracy was obviously silly, and Dr. Johnson, let us remember, was a prescient, 1619 kind of guy, seeing the impending American Revolution as a slaveholders’-protection enterprise. (“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”) It is not only possible to be an anti-liberal and not be reactionary but easily done.
These days, liberal, representative democracy—moribund in Russia, failing in Eastern Europe, sickened in Western Europe, and having come one marginally resolute Indiana politician away from failing here—seems in the gravest danger. Previously fringe views certainly find new forums, with monarchists speaking loudly, if a touch theatrically, but that is mostly strut and noise. What would a plausible alternative actually look like? “We’d all love to see the plan,” John Lennon sang sensibly about revolution.
And so, in search of a better blueprint for governance, we race back to Athens, the birthplace of the demos, to figure out what went wrong and how it might be set right. It’s a model that “Two Cheers for Politics” (Basic Books), by the political essayist and law professor Jedediah Purdy, keeps in sight, if in varying focus. Purdy sets out a program for fundamental change rooted in the virtues often thought to repose in the Athens of the fifth century B.C.E. Borrowing his title from E. M. Forster’s famous collection “Two Cheers for Democracy”—which included the unfortunate line about betraying one’s country before betraying one’s friends, a kind of motto on the shield of the Cambridge spies for Stalin—he has a nearly religious faith in the power of voting. Although his allusive manner makes it hard at times to distinguish the background of the argument from the point of the argument, what he has in mind would be distant from the liberal democracy we know.
At first, Purdy’s account seems a fluently erudite version of a familiar leftist critique of “procedural” liberalism. Liberals underestimate (or are fatally disingenuous about) the real role of money in bourgeois representative politics; politics in America, in particular, has been wholly “colonized” by capital. Our legislative assemblies are filled with rich people who mainly talk to other rich people. Reagan and Thatcher, or their financiers, brought about an era of plutocratic planetary rule, which hasn’t been reformed since. Blair and Clinton were mere handmaidens of the market, neoliberals making their peace with globalization and its inequality. Purdy treats the Occupy Wall Street movement with admiration, as a torch that burned too briefly. Obama was a failure who raised hopes and then defaulted on them; the first Sanders campaign was an authentic but also somehow dashed hope. Trump, significantly, is downgraded to a mere epiphenomenon, a symptom rather than a cause—a predictably decadent extension of neoliberal nihilism.
Yet Purdy does think that Trump’s campaign, like those of Obama and Sanders, signalled an appetite for democratic renewal, and a revival of “political energies that had receded far from the center of public life”:
In each case, some core of listeners felt “Yes! This is real. This is what it’s actually about.” The campaigns grew through the discovery that the listener was not alone: the political epiphany was shared. People felt freer to say things that they had kept to themselves or not quite known they believed and to take stances they had shied away from, assuming no one would join them.
The dead wasteland of a procedural liberalism managed by an élite, Purdy believes, has produced a crisis that only true politics—a popular belief in the possibilities of common purpose—can solve. For the worst form of capitalist depredation is exacted in the realm of the political imagination: “It has to do with whether we believe that we can decide the shape of our shared world.” He is angry at the élites who supervise the bureaucratic capitalist state on behalf of their overlords while keeping up an elaborate masquerade of equality of opportunity. Harvard gets hit particularly hard here: slots at Harvard College, he tells us, are bought and sold, while its Crimson meritocrats go on to staff “Democratic administrations,” the Times, and, well, The New Yorker. (Purdy was a chaired professor at Columbia Law School when he wrote the book, and, curiously, Columbia is left out of the complaint, presumably having arrived at a way of separating bold freethinkers deserving of their place from those dastardly meritocrats.)
Books of this kind, as all who write them know, invariably call up remote philosophical figures and have them hover about the text like floats at a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, to be shown off or else deflated with a peashooter. So we get the usual run of Hobbes said this and then Locke said this and then Rousseau said the opposite and now here we are with Donald Trump having been elected President. A sensitive and subtle account of Adam Smith is followed by a less subtle, and less sympathetic, account of Friedrich Hayek, two centuries later. Walter Lippmann comes on, and Tocqueville, of course, is everywhere.