The Conservatism of Democracy

Greg Conti

Image for article: The Conservatism of Democracy
August 17, 2023
Illustration: Scott Menchin

In recent years, as opposition to the cluster of ideological shibboleths known as wokeness has become the unifying cause of the political right, negative polarization has ensured that much of the left continues to fall in line with the latest progressive cause. Nonetheless, one strain of anti-woke politics has managed to gain some influence within the Democratic coalition: so-called popularism, identified especially with the pollster/strategist David Shor and liberal pundits like Matthew Yglesias. Rather than contest woke ideology on the merits, popularists limit themselves to pointing out its unpopularity with voters outside of highly educated settings. Politicians attempting to appease the boutique activist concerns of their far-left college-educated voters, they argue, will turn off working-class voters and thereby set back the liberal agenda as a whole.

A version of this popularist line of criticism was on display in a recent New York Times column by David Brooks, an erstwhile conservative exiled to the center-left by the rise of Trump. Reflecting on his fellow meritocrats’ addiction to rapid cultural change—and to punitive measures for those who can’t keep up—Brooks remarks: “Using words like ‘problematic,’ ‘cisgender,’ ‘Latinx’ and ‘intersectional’ is a sure sign that you’ve got cultural capital coming out of your ears. Meanwhile, members of the less-educated classes have to walk on eggshells.” In their ruthless enforcement of new mores that originate in NGOs and higher education, Brooks worries, progressives will continue to play into the hands of a gleefully politically incorrect figure like Donald Trump, who promises liberation from this onerous moral oversight.

There is doubtless some truth to all this. But the popularist critique of wokeness is hampered by its limited aims, which amount to keeping Trump out of office and electing Democrats. In other words, popularists offer only a self-interested reason for liberals to temper their aggressive cultural posture—namely, that if they don’t, they will wind up elevating their enemies. But the phenomenon they identify is also politically regrettable for principled reasons. This is because there is an important connection between a vibrant and genuinely inclusive democracy and a small-c conservatism that opposes incessant elite-led cultural revolution. In other words, the core problem with wokeness isn’t that it is bad for the Democrats, but that it is bad for democracy.

This connection stems from the fact that if participation in political life is going to be extended to people with pressing material needs and without exalted educational backgrounds or time to spare for daily updates of their language, habits, and worldview, then the culture can’t be constantly changing on them. The majority of citizens have neither the interest nor the wherewithal to keep up with the shifts in norms in which a segment of active and morally-entrepreneurial knowledge-workers and bureaucrats find great meaning and satisfaction. For this reason, constant norm and culture change renders basic aspects of our shared life opaque to large portions of the citizenry, and hinders the kinds of cross-class exchanges without which democracy is an empty shell.

To adopt a phrase from the political philosopher Claude Lefort, there is no truly democratic system absent “legibility,” by which he meant that those portions of the population remote from the political-cultural apices are nevertheless “capable of understanding the political game.” The kind of well-heeled cultural progressivism which now sets the moral tone and discursive rules in many Western states, by its very nature, compromises this legibility, and widens the gap between elites and non-elites which it is the goal of a functional democracy to minimize.

It is even more inhospitable to the small-d democratic project when these cultural novelties become translated into rigorously enforced speech codes on the grounds that doing so is required to maintain “civility” or end “hate.” For one thing, doing away with hatred or enmity is not a legitimate pursuit of a liberal democracy; the latter should strive for tolerance of a range of communities and life-projects and the minimization of coercion, whereas demanding affirmation and love will require in practice an increase of intolerance and coercion. But more germane to our subject is the fact that, again, if we actually want a robust civic culture to which more than the holders of fancy degrees can contribute, then one cannot set the price of entry to public discussion at awareness of every newfangled shibboleth recently declared nonnegotiable.

We might adapt here a warning of the Victorian jurist-philosopher James Fitzjames Stephen. While opposing the democratization of the franchise in England, he captured something quintessential about the democratic ethos when writing against laws on blasphemous libel then existent, which he condemned among other reasons for their class-based impact:

If you allow coarse and vulgar people to discuss these subjects freely, they must and will discuss them coarsely … .You cannot in practice send a man to gaol for not writing like a scholar and a gentleman when he is neither one nor the other … Practically the result would be what it always has been. No such cases [against educated and affluent heretics] would ever be tried; and the result is that so long as the law is what it is, it will always afford an example of that unequal justice which is much the same as injustice. It will be a law which may now and then hit the weak, but which the strong will always evade.

A true democracy not only suffers, but encourages, “coarse and vulgar people” to enter the public arena. Indeed, it is almost the definition of the spirit of a living democracy that it does not tell “the poorly educated” (as Trump called them) that they can come back and be heard only after they’ve mastered the new catechism. (And it certainly does not accept that they might lose their jobs for lack of such mastery). Frequent, top-down cultural change will always have unequal effects, putting the many at a greater distance from public debates and making it harder for them constructively to challenge the determinations of their major institutions, let alone to enter these institutions themselves.

“The elite is more proactive about pushing for cultural change than the masses.”

It seems hardly a coincidence that the period of breakneck cultural transformation through which we have been living has coincided with a rise in economic inequality, a growing disaffection with the central institutions of state and civil society, and survey results consistently showing a loss of faith in democracy. The latter, I suspect, might best be interpreted as indicating not that citizens no longer believe in the democratic ideal, but that they hardly feel they live in real democracies any more.

Furthermore, there is the truth—not invariable, of course, but a decent empirical regularity—that the elite is more proactive about pushing for cultural change than the masses. The historical record exhibits a greater attachment to traditions and customary ways from ordinary people than from intellectuals and professionals, except in some rare moments of revolutionary fervor—but the trouble with revolutions is that, once the upheavals get going, these tend to become the very times at which genuine public opinion has the least chance of being heard.

In Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the tension between democracy and rapid cultural change was better understood. The idea that there was a consonance between democracy and a tendency toward cultural conservatism was often a lament of upper-class liberals, who saw themselves as the bearers of progress and enlightenment.

For instance, while Tocqueville is often and rightly remembered for trying to find a pacific path for French democracy out of the chaos that the Revolution had left, he also feared that such a democracy would be culturally moribund and lacking in innovation. Likewise, John Stuart Mill, the greatest liberal of the 19th century, while having strong democratic instincts in some respects, was also worried that the arrival of democracy would make popular customs and traditions almost impregnable. It was not for nothing that Mill’s most devoted disciple, the Liberal politician-intellectual John Morley, referred to On Liberty as “one of the most aristocratic books that ever was written” shortly after his hero’s death. For Mill’s deepest commitments were to individual and social improvement as the “advanced liberals” (a label he preferred) of the time saw it, not to democracy as such.

The intellectual historian John Burrow has argued that in Britain, the most powerful nation of the era and the one where democratization occurred the most gradually and thus with the greatest amount of public deliberation, liberal fears about democracy went from centering on anarchy and mob rule in the late-18th and early 19th centuries to focusing on cultural stagnation and immobility. Perhaps no one typified this latter diagnosis better than the great mid-Victorian jurist Henry Maine, who was certain that democracy would result in a penchant for the constriction of free contract and a desire for economic redistribution (which as an individualist advocate of laissez-faire he stridently decried), and a profound distrust of moral, scientific, and even aesthetic change. All of this, Maine feared, would bring British culture to a standstill, knocking his native land from the ranks of progressive states and back into the category of static or primitive peoples over which the British Empire ruled abroad.

On the more positive side, to take just one example from a few generations later, the French social-scientist and philosopher Raymond Aron thought it a virtue that democracies were “essentially conservative”; on the contrary, only “totalitarian regimes are genuinely revolutionary” because in the latter, ruling elites’ lack of accountability to the public accords them free rein to impose change from above. For the long stretch when modern democracy was coming into shape and its desirability being fought over, then, many thinkers assumed that, for better or worse, this political type would be characterized by a resistance to cultural change.

The old labor left in the West, which prevailed before the turn to “postmaterialist” considerations and identity politics that mark the neoliberal era, understood these truths intuitively. When these coalitions were capable of winning electoral victories and defending the needs of broad non-elite constituencies, their programs—whatever a few highfalutin social theorists might have wanted—didn’t entail transforming the working classes into a higher sort of being or foisting new values and traditions on them. Rather, they presented their mission predominantly as protecting the ability of working people to live according to their own values and traditions by granting them the material security, civic status, and organizational capacity to resist at once the morally and traditionally dissolvent effects of unchecked markets and the dominion of the better-resourced classes above them in the social hierarchy. It must be admitted that despite some great successes, these parties did not always prove satisfactory vessels for achieving this aim. But at least they aimed at something other than a kind of alien rule at home—something other than what political scientist Michael Lind recently referred to as a permanent cultural revolution from on high.

None of the foregoing, of course, is meant to suggest that moral progress cannot occur in a democracy. Indeed, a truly democratic state should be more likely to produce—and, even more importantly, to consolidate—such progress than any other. But this is precisely because a true democracy would not be characterized by the kind of heedless rushing from one cause to another— usually accompanied by claims of a moral emergency requiring absolute deference to the credentialed moral experts in NGOs, media, universities, and government bureaucracies—that passes for public discussion in contemporary liberal societies. Rather, cultural change in real democracies would necessarily take place far more slowly and messily than institutional progressivism could countenance. For it would be marked by a bottom-up, deliberative, non-punitive process, one that sought to appeal to the different classes and interests of society in language which they could understand and to which they could respond, and which would enforce (formally or informally) new mores only after they had clearly come to be ratified by large majorities of the people.

“A society that witnesses constant cultural churn … should be considered presumptively undemocratic.”

But this analysis is meant to suggest that a society that witnesses constant cultural churn, whether or not this churn sparks in turn the bouts of populist fury that horrify New York Times columnists, should be considered presumptively undemocratic, whatever its outward forms or prevailing rhetoric. Such a society, as is our own today, has many of the hallmarks of a polity that Marx knew well: that of a revolutionary bourgeoisie or revolutionary aristocracy; and it has few of the qualities that the considerable bulk of ordinary people seem to want: a culturally stable social democracy. The more rapidly a state declares new rights, the more aggressively it places certain cultural novelties beyond the pale of discussion, the less real, everyday democracy it contains. In this sense, being a small-d democrat goes hand-in-hand with being a small-c cultural conservative.