President Biden’s Sept. 1 speech in Philadelphia on “unity” is a poignant example of the confusion surrounding the concept of democracy. Mr. Biden declared that MAGA Republicans threaten “the very foundations of our republic.” The phrase a “threat to American democracy” is so commonplace these days that it hardly carries any meaning—except that it encapsulates the reigning ideology of our time, an ideology so pervasive that it almost goes unnoticed. It is like the air we breathe.
“War is peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength” from Orwell’s “1984” comes to mind, but there is a long tradition in the West of this paradoxical interpretation of democracy. Enlightenment-era thinking, and arguably even Plato, puts forth the thought that an ahistorical ideal of justice ought to act as the primary guide to politics. Jean-Jacques Rousseau applied this idea in “The Social Contract.” The general will, Rousseau says, is what the popular will ought to be, even if it isn’t expressed by actual living people. The general will conveniently requires the translation of a wise legislator for its instantiation.
Many of the most vocal champions of democracy, from Thomas Jefferson to our own day, have been advocates of this Rousseauean inversion, using the word “democracy” as justification for what would otherwise be naked authoritarianism