“I think that, on the whole, the faith that democratic capitalism is the Answer is one that tends to characterize the neocon project.”
That’s Mark Shea, circa 2006, summing up the “idolatry” of the neoconservative project in his latest post.
Methinks there is more to “neoconservatism” than meets the eye, or the curt dismissal of Mark Shea. For example, here is Irving Kristol, considered the “founder” of American neoconservatism:
Though the phrase “the quality of life” trips easily from so many lips these days, it tends to be one of those cliches with many trivial meanings and no large, serious one. Sometimes it merely refers to some externals as the enjoyment of cleaner air, cleaner water, cleaner streets. At other times it refers to the merely private enjoyment of music, painting and literature. Rarely does it have anything to do with the way the citizen in a democracy views himself — his obligations, his intentions, his ultimate self-definition.
Instead, what I would call the “managerial” conception of democracy is the predominant opinion among political scientists, socialogists, economists, and has, through the untiring efforts of these scholars, become the conventional journalistic opinion as well. The root idea behind this managerial conception of democracy is ‘a political system’ (as they say) which can be adequately defined in terms of — can be fully reduced to — its mechanical arrangements. Democracy is then seen as a set of rules or procedures, and nothing but a set of rules and procedures, whereby majority rule and minority rights are reconciled in a state of equilibrium. If everyone follows these rules and procedures, then democracy is in good working order. I think this is a fair description of the democratic idea that currently prevails in academia. One can now say that it is the liberal idea of democracy par excellence.
I cannot help but feel there is something ridiculous about being this kind of a democrat, and I must confess to having a sneaking sympathy for those young radicals who also find it ridiculous. The absurdity is the absurdity of idolatry — of taking the symbolic for the real, the means for the end. The purpose of democracy cannot possibly be the endless functioning of its own political machinery. The purpose of any political regime is to achieve some version of the good life and the good society. It is not at all difficult to imagine a perfectly functioning democracy which answers all questions except one — namely, why should anyone of intelligence and spirit care a fig for it?
There is, however, an older idea of democracy – one which was fairly common until the beginning of this century – for which the conception of the quality of public life is absolutely crucial. The idea starts from the proposition that democracy is a form of self-government, and that if you want it to be a meritorious policy, you have to care about what kind of people govern it. Indeed, it puts the matter more strongly and declares that if you want self-government, you are only entitled to it if that “self” is worthy of governing. There is no inherent right to self-government if it means that such government is vicious, mean, squalid, and debased. Only a dogmatist and a fanatic, an idolater of the democratic machinery, could approve of self-government under such conditions.
And because the desirability of self-government depends on the character of the people who govern, the older idea of democracy was very solicitous of the condition of this character. It was solicitous of the individual self, and felt an obligation to educate it into what used to be called “republican virtue”. And it was solicitous of that collective self which we called public opinion and which, in a democracy, governs us collectively. Perhaps in some respects it was never oversolictitous – that would not be suprising. But the main thing is that it cared, cared not merely about the machinery of democracy but about the quality of life that this machinery might generate.
Shea portrays neoconservatives as treating democracy as a panacea for troubles in the Middle East — their fault in, quoting Shea, “predicated on a sincere religious faith in a false god and that god’s power to redeem and heal”: overthrow a tyranny, put in a “managerial” form of democracy, and things will right themselves as long as the machinery of democracy is in place.
I think the quote from Kristol — a neoconservative if there ever was one — demonstrates that Kristol possesses anything but a faith in democracy as a “cure-all,” as “The Answer.” Kristol in this case (if I read him correctly) argues against such an idolization of democracy, a concern for establishing the “machinery” of democracy without taking into consideration the development of character that is essential for its very survival.
So when Shea characterizes “the Neocon project” as an idolatry of democracy, I have to wonder how much he really knows of Irving Kristol, the founder of neoconservatism?
At the same time, it was reading Mark’s post that called to mind a passage from Building the Free Society: Democracy Capitalism and Catholic Social Teaching, edited by George Weigel, Robert Royal. (Eerdmans, 1994), a great compilation of essays — not necessarily “neoconservative” — on various encyclicals and conciliar documents. This from Kenneth Grasso:
There is no single notion of democracy. Rather, there are various theories, rooted in different understandings of politics and animated by divergent conceptions of nature and destiny of man. Although similar in their institutional and procedural frameworks, the democracies created by these conflicting philosophies differ greatly in their spirit and substance. In the face of the democratic revolution that is sweeping the world today, the key question becomes: Which conception of democracy is animating this revolution?
This is no academic question. History attests that democracy is a rare and delicate form of government that has eventuated more often in anarchy or tyranny than in the regime of ordered freedom it promises. Democratic institutions, as John H. Hallowell has warned, “are a means to freedom . . . but they are not identical with freedom itself.” In the end, “it is the way in which they are conceived and the way in which they are used that will ultimately determine their efficacy as instruments of freedom.” Not all versions of democracy are equally capable of advancing the cause of the freedom and dignity of the human person, or of providing a secure foundation for a vigorous democratic polity. “The fatality that has worked against . . . modern democracies,” Maritain observed, is “the false philosophy of life” they have enshrined at the center of their public life. The direction taken by the democratic experiments of today will depend largely upon what philosophy undergirds them.
- UPDATE! Scott Carson (An Examined Life) offers some philosophical reflections on Kristol and democracy in “Freedom and Human Dignity”.