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Conservatism and Mass Democracy by Gergely Egedy

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European Conservatism

Conservatism and Mass Democracy

If we sought to summarize the political trends of our century in just one key concept, then from a liberalism standpoint we would probably opt for freedom, while from a socialist (social democratic) perspective, equality would probably come to mind first. But what concept could play a similarly key role in conservative thought? Perhaps authority, or social harmony, but certainly not democracy. All the same, no opponent of conservatism today can characterize conservative political parties and movements as antidemocratic elements; the acceptance of the basic values of democracy has become an integral part of modern political conservatism.

In truth, however, the relationship between conservatism and democracy cannot be described so simply because if we approach the issue from an ideological perspective, we can see that authoritative conservative thinkers have always had reservations about involving the masses in politics. This is, of course, no accident, following as it does from several essential premises of conservative political philosophy. Expanding and examining this question in more depth is all the more justified, given that it forms the basis on which we can begin to answer the question of what kind of democracy conservatism can support— and which it cannot.

It is also necessary to raise this issue because the process of democratization in Hungary has been fraught with a number of contradictions. Although the basic institutional and legal framework for democracy has been relatively widely accepted since the fall of communism in 1989, the process of fleshing out this framework has not yet been completed. Nor, of course, can it be separated from the goals and aspirations of the largely top-down process by which institutional and political structures are built.

1. ‘The tyranny of the majority ’

The impossibility of total economic and social equality has always been a fundamental principle of conservatives, who are hardly less sceptical in their evaluation of political equality. Thus Edmund Burke, often referred to as the ‘father’ of modern conservatism, points out that equality is an unnatural state, and that even majority rule cannot be traced back to any kind of natural right. On the concept of rule by an all-powerful majority, he wrote the following in his magnum opus, Reflections on the Revolution in France: ‘It is said, that twenty-four millions ought to prevail over two hundred thousand. True, if the constitution of a kingdom be a problem of arithmetic. This sort of discourse does well enough with the lamp-post for its second: to men who may reason calmly, it is ridiculous.’

Burke, however, was a staunch supporter of the parliamentary system, and did not reject the principle of decision by majority, but ‘merely’ tried to narrow the scope of its decision-making power through the imposition of various requirements. (In his opinion, for instance, in the Britain of his day about 400,000 people formed the ‘natural representative of the nation’ selected on the basis of wealth, social standing, and literacy.) He argued that the extreme aspiration to involve everyone in governance was in fact jeopardizing the very ‘natural rights’ used to justify the aim. In his view, the real, natural rights of human beings were not those proclaimed by the French apostles of human rights, but something quite different: the right to live in a civilized and orderly society, uniform standards of justice, the security of property, and associated responsibilities.

Thus, he argues, if it is indeed possible to speak of rights derived from nature, then these are merely negative rights: the right ofthe masses to keep their distance from active involvement in politics, since such involvement would ultimately prove detrimental to them.‘Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves, and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.’

Burke’s conclusion is clear: political equality cannot be viewed as natural, whereas aristocracy can. For as it is a law of nature that the majority of people are unfit to exercise political power, so it is also part of the eternal order of things that some few are, for various reasons, able to play a leading political role. Any state that sees no need for the services of this social stratum will soon dig its own grave. (Of course, in Burke’s view one could enter this aristocracy by means other than simply right of birth.) As such, the ‘true, natural’ aristocracy does not represent some kind of ‘special interest’ within the state, but is an indispensable, integral part of it.

Although by the twentieth century conservatism had moved a long way from these positions, Burke’s critique of the derivation of democracy from natural law was not uncharacteristic of later conservative thinkers. While Burke rejected mass democracy primarily for reasons of theory and principle, and in light of the events of the French Revolution, his concerns were mirrored a generation later by a French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, who examined a truly functioning democracy: the United States of America. His conclusions are all the more remarkable because Tocqueville can in many respects be considered at least as much a liberal as a conservative thinker, but his ‘liberal conservatism’ in no way diminished the sharpness of his language, and his observations have undoubtedly become an intellectual treasure of conservatism.

Tocqueville left no room for doubt as to his deep respect for the values of democracy, but also made it clear that he knew of no sorrier political system than ‘democracy without freedom’. However, the internal mechanism by which mass democracy functioned led, in his view, towards precisely this political outcome. It was from this insight that his key concept with regard to democracy, the ‘tyranny of the majority’ sprang. In Democracy in America he wrote, ‘[i]n my opinion, the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their irresistible strength’. Over the course of his visit to the New World, he became convinced that the tyranny of the majority would ultimately prevail in all spheres of social life, and even over the spirit. ‘I know no country’ he concluded, ‘in which, generally speaking, there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.’

Is the transition from democracy to despotism irresistible, and if so, what explains this process? Tocqueville’s response is that this transformation is not an ineluctable law, but that there are very strong trends in this direction, so that a constant effort is needed to protect society’s core values. So, what are the traits that are inseparable from democracy, yet prepare the ground for its opposite?

To put it rather briefly, the first thing to highlight is that democratic systems are irresistibly tempted to centralize all power, thus undermining the pillars of autonomy, local institutions, and other groups which stand between the individual and the state. One of Tocqueville’s essential insights is that freedom is tied to particularism, thus the elimination of particular interests opens the way to despotism. ‘I perceive that we have destroyed those independent beings which were able to cope with tyranny single-handed; but it is the Government that has inherited the privileges of which families, corporations and individuals have been deprived.’ It is thus that he arrives at a conclusion which, at first glance, appears paradoxical: ‘Despotism, dangerous at all times, is therefore particularly to be feared in democratic centuries.’

The other important factor is to be found in the fact that democratic systems instinctively and relentlessly reject all special and individual traits, seeking instead to standardize and uniformize as much as possible. In such an arrangement, there is no place for privilege, no group with special status, and the conservative idea of a natural hierarchy is entirely unacceptable.

What are the consequences of this likely to be? While societies ought to strive to bring out the best in humankind, both morally and intellectually, democracy threatens not only to support mediocrity, but even to enforce it. The conscious simplification and uniformization that result from the functioning of democracy can only favour—regardless of intent—the development of despotism.

Tocqueville drew attention to one other important characteristic: that the development of mass democracy is inextricably intertwined with the spread of a materialist view of life and the world. Tocqueville, writing of his experiences in the New World, describes the inhabitant of the United States as clinging to worldly goods as if certain that he would never die, but adds that of course this kind of materialism applies not only to America, but to ‘democratic ages’ in general, and that if the masses come to the belief that the main purpose of life on earth is material prosperity, they will demand that the state satisfy their material needs first and foremost.

2. Qualitative or quantitative democracy?

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the political systems of most Western countries had become gradually more democratic and, in this context, mainstream conservative thinking had come closer to accepting democracy— without, however, giving up certain reservations arising from its principles. These were mainly concerned with the potential role of politically uneducated and thus easily manipulated masses, and the dangers inherent in the formation of a mass society.

Irving Babbit, one of the most renowned American conservative thinkers of the first half of the twentieth century, argued that the apostle of radical democracy, Rousseau, was wrong primarily because he did not anticipate the consequences of surrender to instincts and desires. Such a surrender, in Babbit’s view, ultimately leads to the dehumanization of man, and democracy becomes a threat to civilization if it assists in this process. He asks whether the result of the democratization that has taken place in the West may not ‘be a huge mass of standardized mediocrity; and whether in this country in particular we are not in danger of producing in the name of democracy one of the most trifling brands of the human species that the world has yet seen?’ Following his line of reasoning, Babbitargues that democracy is often nothing more than an attempt to sacrifice qualitative and selective principles on the altar of abstract theories of the ‘general will’. According to him, therefore, in the USA it was possible to observe the struggle between ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ conceptions of democracy, which could in large part be traced back to the differing conceptions of democracy held by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson sought to free humankind from external control and never understood what was obvious to Burke: that external control could only be diminished if it were offset by a strengthening of internal control. The conservative view of humanity is quite pessimistic in this regard.

Babbit’s contemporary and compatriot, Paul Elmer More, considered the most important question to be how, within the circumstances of a triumphant democracy, to supply the ‘aristocracy’ essential for the proper running of society. In his work, Aristocracy and Truth, he therefore emphasizes that without an aristocracy, societies drift helplessly and the direction—if there is one—is determined by fashionable theories. More, however, emphasizes that he is thinking of a ‘natural aristocracy’, thus, crucially, not the restoration of a system of inherited privilege, nor a plutocracy in which power goes to the wealthiest. In his view, some mechanism would be needed to ensure the spontaneous selection of the best members of the community, so that their word would have the greatest weight in the management of state affairs. (In his work, therefore, he attached particular importance to halting the ‘humanist-liberal’ tendencies that had been gaining ground in higher education, since otherwise ‘the educated classes may become traitors to civilization’.) Democracy can therefore provide the benefits normally expected of it only if it recognizes the special role of a ‘natural aristocracy’; an egalitarian system, like a plutocratic one, does more harm than good.

Nor did George Santayana, the Spanish- American philosopher, agree with the idea of equality, arguing instead that an artificially enforced equality of the unequal could lead only to further, still more serious inequality. Like Tocqueville, he saw the most negative consequence of the fulfilment of liberal democracy and the victory of industrial capitalism as the tyranny and fetishization of uniformity. There is no more disgusting tyranny, he argued, than vulgar, anonymous tyranny, as it pervades and contaminates everything with ‘its ubiquitous, terrifying stupidity’. In such an atmosphere, ‘[i]f you refuse to move in the prescribed direction, you are not simply different, you are arrested and perverse. The savage must not remain a savage, nor the nun a nun, and China must not keep its wall’, he stressed, in an essay entitled The Irony of Liberalism.

It is no surprise, then, sensing the dissonance within the mass society created by liberal democracy, that he asked: wasn’t life better in an age dominated by an aristocratic worldview, which focused not on freedom but on wisdom and reconciliation with our own limitations? There are always relatively few winners. In the democracy of laissez-faire capitalism, on the other hand, and murderous ‘every man for himself’ competition, no one can be truly calm and contented anymore. Thus, in the end, even liberal democracies upheld by real values can be affected by that nemesis of revolutions: in order to survive, they are forced to re-establish the tyranny they overthrew.

Santayana’s conclusions are very much in line with an analysis of the political power of the crowd written by one of the sharpest critics of mass society in the twentieth century, the Spanish thinker Ortega y Gasset. In The Revolt of the Masses, he explains: ‘Today we are witnessing the triumphs of a hyperdemocracy, in which the mass acts directly, outside the law, imposing its aspirations and its desires by means of material pressure … The mass crushes everything that is excellent, individual, qualified, and select.’ Ortega y Gasset thus emphasizes that human society has always been aristocratic, ‘to the extent that it is a society in the measure that it is aristocratic, and ceases to be such when it ceases to be aristocratic’.

Suspicion of the crowd, respect for hierarchy and authority, and a desire to protect a culture of quality also led one of the best-known representatives of English literary life, the American T. S. Eliot living in Britain, to express his serious reservations about liberal democracy in the middle of the twentieth century (and contradicting, in no small way, mainstream public intellectual thinking in Britain at that time). ‘When a term has become so universally sanctified as “democracy” now is, I begin to wonder whether it means anything’, he wrote, in The Idea of a Christian Society, a work which provoked heated intellectual debate. Might it not be that, in the name of democracy, a financial oligarchy was in fact enforcing its rule? He contrasted mass democracy, or in his terminology ‘totalitarian democracy’ with real, or ‘limited democracy’, a form that he believed to be much more compatible with a society based on Christian principles. In this political system, leadership would be reserved for an elite separated from the masses through its conscious Christian worldview and high level of education. It is important to emphasize, however, that Eliot in no way concurred with totalitarian-inspired systems of argument that called for a total rejection of democracy (as some hostile critics have tried to suggest). He was convinced that, in view of the actual malfunctioning of democracy, the correct question was not how to replace democracy, but ‘how can we, out of the materials at hand, build a new structure in which democracy can live?’

3. Authority and democracy

It is a striking fact that many representatives of today’s Western conservative philosophy, in line with two centuries of tradition, also display considerable ambivalence with regards to ‘pure democracy’. (This ambivalence is not, of course, perceptible in the manifestos and activities of conservative political parties.) In this regard we may cite Roger Scruton, one of the most celebrated British conservative thinkers of our age, who also assessed the role of modern democracy in a very nuanced way in his systematic explanation of conservative principles.

His views bear a strong resemblance to the above-mentioned authors when their opinions are summarized in this manner: in all likelihood, few conservatives see democracy as the lynchpin of their political identity, although they certainly prize that separate right with which it is often confused, namely the individual’s ability to participate in governance and to oppose arbitrary, unconstitutional power.

Scruton’s argument begins with a critique of the classic liberal thesis that legitimacy is accrued solely through contractual or contract-like agreements, and that, consequently, only a system of government which can be traced back to such foundations can be considered legitimate. That is, one that has gained power through a democratic election because the election—in this conception—establishes a kind of contractual relationship between the electorate and the elected.

This approach is unacceptable to conservatives because they believe that legitimacy should rest primarily on authority.

Authority is not synonymous with the concept of power: it is rather the prerogative on which the right to exercise power is based. If that is recognized, then so is the legitimacy of power. Scruton emphasizes that without authority, there is no personality, only conformity, just as there is no real freedom, only ‘an aimless pursuit of alternatives’. Thus, only those who accept authority and also assume all the obligations that derive not from the contracts they have entered into, but from the fact that they were born into a particular society, a civilization, can be truly autonomous citizens. If we wish to value freedom properly, we must also value its necessary precondition: social order, which is the source of duties and rights, and the basis of personal identity. Conservatives, therefore, do not consider it their primary goal to obtain as much freedom as possible; first and foremost, authority must be defended, since only thence can democracy follow.

Like Burke, Scruton acknowledges that in order to resolve conflicts, it is vital to represent the interests of citizens before sovereign power. He points out, however, that ‘[d]emocratic elections are neither a necessary nor a sufficient principle of representation … The indiscriminate democratization of all institutions with authority can lead to power falling into the hands of those who can circumvent the responsibility of exercising it.’ The conclusion is self-evident: democratic elections can thus have an opposite effect to the one intended, that is, they do not truly represent interests. The more people participate in an election, the truer this becomes. (That is why Scruton also agrees with Burke that universal suffrage cannot be considered a sine qua non of a legitimate constitutional system, and recalls that when the Tory Prime Minister Disraeli substantially extended British suffrage in 1867, he did not do so out of any deeply held principle, but in the hopes of ‘circumventing’ the Liberals.) Democracy, according to Scruton, is thus only one way of acquiring and exercising power, which, however, does not possess any a priori legitimacy that other, rival systems lack. What is more, democratic procedures only work if they are based on a continuity that they cannot themselves generate.

What, then, is the value of democracy? In embracing the political virtues that are rightly associated with democracy, ‘but which existed before democracy, and could be established elsewhere without its aid’, Scruton lists the following essential positives: 1) limited power; 2) constitutional government; 3) justification by consent; 4) autonomous institutions; 5) rule of law (‘the possibility of adjudicating every act, even when it is the act of an official—even when it is an act in the name of the sovereign power’); 6) legitimate opposition (including freedom of expression).

However, Scruton emphasizes that even the alignment of all these elements does not really add up to democracy, but rather to constitutional constraints on power. In other words, it means the separation of the state from those who exercise power through the state. In consequence, even those who exercise power can be prosecuted. The merit of democracy is its ability to sustain these six virtues, but it is likewise capable of destroying them. Why? Because ‘all of them depend on the one thing that democracy cannot provide’, that is, on authority. Why do people accept restrictions imposed by law or obligations arising from democratic elections, for example? Because of their respect for the institutions and procedures that underpin power. ‘This respect is derived from the sense that these powers, privileges, and procedures reflect something that is truly “ours”.’ (It is no coincidence that prevailing liberal and socialist theories are so determined to undermine this conviction.) And if this foundation is removed—that is, if legitimacy is separated from its natural source—then both the constitutional state and civil society will be overwhelmed. So will democracy, of course, but it is important to emphasize that this foundation was not established by democracy.

4. Democracy, but what kind?

This brief overview of the mainstream of conservative thinking also clearly shows that, despite substantial modifications and shifts in emphasis, the position of conservative theorists has unquestionably remained ambivalent in its assessment of mass democracy. However, we have still not answered the question regarding the conditions under which modern conservatism can accept and support the democratic system. What conception of democracy is in line with the spirit of conservatism?

Let us, as a starting point, repeat that conservatives do not support democracy because they begin from such ‘fundamental principles’ as ‘all people are equal, therefore …’ If they did, they would be acting like liberals. In any case, conservatives are profoundly suspicious of all deductions arrived at from sterile fundamental theses. The reason for standing by democracy is to be found elsewhere: perhaps, and seemingly paradoxically, in precisely the conservatism of conservatives. That is, in their deep aversion to unpredictable, subversive, revolutionary change.

For conservatism, democracy is currently the only form of political system that provides, on the one hand, the ability to keep the necessary changes contained within a regulated channel and, on the other hand, to continuously correct any mistakes made. The reliable operation of this mechanism is made possible by the fact that in a democratic system the relations between actors can no longer be characterized as a ‘friend–enemy’ dichotomy, but rather as ‘friend–opponent’. In other words, democracy allows citizens to express their opposition to a given power without necessarily seeing them as implacable foes. This, in turn, creates favourable conditions for changes—even profound ones—to be made with a relatively limited degree of social and political tension. However, conservatives, as we have seen above, have their own good reasons for holding certain reservations with regard to mass democracy. This idea immediately leads to the question of the conditions of support.

Our first statement hardly needs further explanation in light of what almost all conservative thinkers from Burke to Scruton have argued regarding the potential political role of the masses. This therefore leads to the conclusion that conservatives can only accept a democracy whose operation is not predicated on the principle of the untrammelled majority, but on the principle of a limited majority, with guarantees for minorities. Indeed, enforcing an extreme version of the majority principle would give virtually unlimited power to the politically volatile, easily influenced masses, and thus mere numbers would automatically triumph over all other considerations and values. In this context, Scruton stated that ‘the constitution must be outside the control of democratic change’, and certain principles must always be respected by the majority. This, however, does not in itself imply an endorsement of what Arend Lijphart calls ‘consociationalism’; that is, a version of democracy in which any substantive decision can only be made after lengthy bargaining between elite groups. In societies that are very strongly religiously and/or ethnically divided (e.g. Belgium), this may of course have some justification, but its application elsewhere (especially in countries in need of profound change, such as those in Central and Eastern Europe) it may hamper effective governance. From a conservative point of view, therefore, democracy in no way necessitates a division of power between the government and the opposition, or even co- government (as it was demanded by Hungary’s liberal opposition between 1990 and 1994); the task of the opposition is ‘only’ to monitor legality. It is worth adding that the requirement to apply the majority principle can only apply in the sphere of politics, but certainly not in other areas of social life. Efforts to ‘democratize’ these spheres as fully as possible (e.g. in school discipline or the armed forces) cannot expect conservative support.

The second essential reservation can also be deduced from the social conception of conservatism, which attaches great importance to autonomous institutions and groups occupying a space between the individual and the state. What follows from this? That the concept of modern democracy, which does not recognize intermediate structures between the individual and the state, is not in keeping with the spirit of conservatism. In classical theories of democracy, two views emerged on people’s place in politics: one, quite concisely, assumed a direct relationship between the individual and the state, while the other included intermediate groups and institutions. It goes without saying that conservatives do not accept any kind of so-called ‘Jacobin’ democracy—that is, direct democracy without intermediate representatives. Nor, however, are they sympathetic towards an approach that, while focusing on the principle of representation, does not recognize the legitimacy of intermediate structures.

Why does conservatism criticize both versions of the dualistic individual–state approach? Primarily because both are underpinned by a conception of the relationship between the individual and the larger community that is neither realistic nor desirable. What is the value of an isolated individual who is not attached to any particular institution, family, or group, other than society in general? How can one imagine a person separated from multifarious attachments (and obligations), and is it worth striving to create one?

Much closer to the conservative approach is one that also assumes intermediate structures in the relationship between the individual and the state, but in this regard it is necessary to point out the essential difference between conservative and liberal conceptions of the resulting ‘pluralism’. With this we have come to the third distinguishing feature of the conservative conception of democracy (which is clearly unacceptable to those raised in the works of liberal authors), namely that while the classical (liberal) conception of democracy emphasizes competition between groups and institutions—and, consequently, conflict— conservatives associate the affirmation of the complexity and diversity of society with the need for harmony between the parts. Conservative thinkers have always resisted the homogenization and uniformization of society, but have also, and with equal determination, rejected the necessity (or usefulness) of struggle between classes and groups. Of course, they are also aware that elements of competition and struggle cannot be completely excluded from modern societies, but the emphasis is fundamentally on cooperation. This, then, forms the radical difference between the organic pluralism of conservatism and a liberal pluralism that focuses on the competing individual.


In sum, we can say that the fundamental aim of conservative thinking has always been to limit the demands of both the state and society. Conservatives believe that it is not only against the state that fundamental rights must be defended! It is also from this perspective that we have sought to define the relationship of conservatism to democracy. That this is fundamentally different from that of the liberals or socialists is not surprising, since these latter two systems are ultimately egalitarian. Socialists demand equality in meeting material needs, and liberals demand the same with respect to political rights.

Unlike socialists, conservatives and liberals agree that the state should be limited, but have quite different views on the level of acceptable (state) coercion. Liberals assume that the use of coercive power should be avoided as far as possible and is only justified in exceptional circumstances. Furthermore, they argue that if it is institutionalized in a wide range of social relations, it will necessarily endow the political system with anti-democratic features. Conservatives, on the other hand, confronting the oft-bandied accusation of ‘anti-democratic’ views, believe that coercive power cannot be seen as prejudicial in and of itself, and that it is essential for the smooth maintenance of social coexistence. (Only the abuse of this power is to be condemned.)

In this context, we can formulate another important perspective: namely that according to value-based conservatism, the state cannot be neutral in the sense imagined by the proponents of ‘democratic pluralism’. It is the duty of the state to protect the basic institutions and moral-intellectual values which ensure social order; as a result, it cannot show the utter indifference and neutrality expected of it by liberals. That liberals argue this is already incompatible with the rules of democracy is another matter entirely, but conservatives have a deep conviction that there is no way to absolutize procedural democracy and enforce it in isolation from all other considerations. We can add that even now in the West, more and more people are recognizing the gradual depletion of these procedures and the sociological process that the discrepancy between the ‘procedural’ and ‘substantive’ sides of democracy is constantly increasing. Approached from another angle, in the words of Gábor Czakó, in the economic age, democracy ‘has come under the dominion of things’.

Fixing these problems, however, requires not more but better democracy. In intellectual- historical terms, democracy may be most organically related to the concept of the ‘person’, as developed by Christianity and foregrounded by Christian Democratic theory, since the concept of a persona, conceived as sharply distinct from both the individuum and the collectivum denies from the outset the isolation of human beings, presupposing instead their openness and receptivity to others. Conservatives, however, must not forget that democracy, in spite of its indisputable merits and benefits, can in no sense be seen as the ultimate goal, but is rather a means towards a truly worthy and human social life.

Gergely Egedy, historian and political scientist, university professor. He teaches at the newly founded National University of Public Service. He specializes in the history of political thought and British history. 

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