“DEMOCRACY DIES IN DARKNESS” is the motto of the Washington Post. The editors of the Post belong to the honorable group of which Norman Podhoretz once confessed himself a member—Idolaters of Democracy. They idolize Big Government also, that implacable enemy of democracy, or so democrats believed before the 1930’s. No doubt the editors could demonstrate to their own satisfaction and that of their loyal readers how the two things are really compatible. They would have a harder job explaining why democratic government is imperiled by the lack of the “transparency” liberals demand in every part of its machinery and every nook and cranny of its being. To conservatives, always skeptical of governments of inordinate scale, more and evermore transparency should be good news, while for perspicacious liberals it should seem a danger. Yet for conservatives, who fear anarchy as much as tyranny, the possible paralysis of government functions should be a matter for concern.
“Nolite Confidere in Principibus”—“Put Not Your Trust in Princes”—is the motto of The Rockford Institute, the publisher of this magazine. Chronicles has held as a guiding principle for decades that social and cultural problems do not have political solutions. Nevertheless, politics can cause social and cultural problems, exaggerate them, and hinder and prevent the development of solutions for these problems. Further, a dysfunctional political system is itself a social problem whose roots are frequently cultural and social. Yes, one ought not to trust in princes, but one can and should and must use them, curb them, and, occasionally, dethrone them. That kind of action necessarily entails imagining and implementing political means, and embracing political activity. The need for counterpolitical activity (“reactionary” politics, as liberals understand it when liberal institutions are dominant in society) implies a previous defeat for the traditional cultures conservatives defend, just as a hyperpoliticized world represents a triumph for modern postliberal culture. Since the French Revolution, the left has been winning its war of 228 years against the right by elevating politics as the principal activity of modern Western societies, ahead even of commerce and professional sports, through the politicization of all human relationships, and thus of society itself. (The paradoxical truth that when everything is political, nothing is, is either small comfort to antiliberals or else irrelevant.) This politicization of society obviously demands a political strategy to reverse it: another paradox or contradiction and an equally unfortunate one, the vast majority of people being temperamentally unsuited to politicized existence, as the history of societies ruled by ideological tyrannies shows. Advanced liberalism, entirely incompatible with the fixed human nature it denies, confronts mounting resistance in the 21st century by roughly 50 percent of the Western populations subject to the liberal regime. Under liberalism’s sway, cultural resistance is deliberately discouraged or simply outlawed by liberal governments, so the Resistance is inevitably a political movement. Government of the right kind, the proper size, and the appropriate limits is as necessary to the reestablishment and maintenance of traditional societies as government of the wrong sort is to the continuation of liberal democracy. The idea that government is a necessary human institution is, of course, a truism, but one that bears repetition in the context of the claims of some contemporary conservatives that cultural renewal can be accomplished only at the local level by institutions such as the town council, the churches, and the family, without reform of national politics and the federal government and even perhaps without giving them much consideration.
No one disputes the fact that both an open society and public government—government proceeding substantially under the public gaze and in response to the will of the voting citizenry—are equally necessary to democracy; indeed, they are democracy. But government conducted openly in its broader operations is not the same thing as government conducted in the omnipresent glare of publicity and the media’s piercing LED torch lights that penetrate everywhere by means of digital technology and whose discoveries are instantly disseminated far and wide and discussed and debated by journalists and other people in the hyperpartisan and hyperemotional political atmosphere for which the extreme ideological divides in Western countries, the United States especially, are only partly responsible, the rest of it attributable to unceasing reports of political and administrative minutia that partisans hope will ruin the electoral prospects of the political opposition. Politicians of the right and left praise transparency and encourage more of it when it helps them and their side, or cause, and denounce it and demand that it be thickened in the name of national security or whatnot when it compromises themselves. But democracy is endangered as much by the light that blinds as it is by impenetrable darkness. And the first of these things—not the second—threatens democracy in the digitalized 21st century.
As MacBeth murdered sleep and the French Jacobins murdered politics in their day, the digital revolution has murdered public peace, public security, and—perhaps foremost—public certainty about anything at all. While the Washington Post frets about the onset of a new Dark Age bereft of democracy, the New York Times still prides itself after a century and a half on reporting “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” But today readers, even of the once-august Times, cannot be sure what is fit for print and what isn’t, and one suspects that the paper’s reporters can’t really be sure either. Some item or another is excitedly reported and produces a brief and transient flurry of national (and even international) attention before it is superseded and eclipsed in the public mind by another, very likely contradictory, something, or somethings. Transparency (or what gets passed off as the result of transparency) and the media glare endanger democratic society almost as much as they do democratic government. “Knowing” too much about too many things is far more subversive of democracy than knowing too little; the evil combination of transparency and digitalized communication is destroying the public understanding of what is going on in the public realm as surely as it is destroying the public peace. John Lukacs has described in this magazine how what used to be called “public opinion” (the considered opinion of the educated elite) has disappeared almost entirely and been replaced by “popular sentiment” (the unconsidered, unstable, ever mutable, and highly excitable feeling of the general public). Transparency is the creature of digital distraction and self-immersion in trivia shared by its dispensers as well as its consumers, public figures “in the know” and private individuals who never shook their congressman’s hand. Democracy is—or is said to be, or supposed to be—government for, by, and of the people, but a people obsessed with fluff and their own emotional responses to negligible and false bits of “information,” dishonestly as well as mistakenly disseminated (but who can tell the difference?), cannot be expected to participate responsibly or intelligently in the business of self-government.
Limitless “transparency,” like limitless popular involvement, in government is a functional impossibility, as antidemocratic political theorists and philosophers and practicing politicians, to say nothing of professional diplomats, have recognized for millennia. As an ideal whose realization is promised by a new generation of democratic officeholders and public servants, transparency (reinforced as a virtue by the threat of ever more intrusive technology) has the dangerous effect of making citizens progressively distrustful of their elected and appointed public men and women insofar as they suspect they might not be keeping them informed of everything they have come to believe they have the right to be told about the workings of government and the public service, and thus increasingly frustrated, resentful, and unhappy with what they can manage to learn of public life. On the other side, transparency has encouraged honest politicians who fear they cannot effectively perform their legitimate duties in the harsh light of omnipresent scrutiny to become increasingly devious—or simply dishonest, or more dishonest—at work; behavior which, when finally disclosed, further undermines popular confidence in politicians, civil servants, and democratic politics and institutions themselves.
Underlying it all—extreme partisanship, scientific technique, and instant mass communication through personal devices as well as the mass media, their 24-hour news cycle and their insatiable hunger for hot stories and dramatic revelations, most of them ultimately trivial but always damaging to someone—lies the existential discontent and suspicion liberalism has instilled in the American and other Western publics with regard to their governments, their societies, and their condition in life. Westerners have learned to view contentment either as culpably reactionary or simply the lazy disposition of chumps who are willing to pretend they are not being had by “the system” while knowing that they really are. Liberal society is the first in history to mobilize itself on behalf of an agenda for solving “problems” instead of patiently coping with the conditions with which all human societies have always had to contend or adapt themselves to. Liberals understand society as a project to be realized at some infinitely receding point in the future, not the natural result of historical growth that they have neither the patience to understand nor the wisdom to respect. It is entirely to liberals’ advantage to advance their program by encouraging people to form desires that cannot possibly be realized in this world (and in many cases shouldn’t be in the next) and ask government to fulfill them directly, or face the consequences at the polls—or in the streets, a pre-technological mode of protest that has nevertheless become wildly popular since the election and inauguration of Donald Trump. The mass march, too, has to do with transparency, but transparency in reverse, from the ruled toward the rulers rather than in the opposite direction. Even here, transparency avails government and society little, as the spectacle of a couple of million raucous and sloppy fat women enhancing the obscene spectacle of their outward physical persons with the scandal of their dress—pink pussy hats and vaginal front-pieces—communicates precisely nothing beyond the fact that two million raucous and sloppy fat women, etc., etc., are unhappy with the way the world is, with the regard it has for them, and probably also with themselves. If that is transparency, so is a funhouse mirror at a carnival reflecting loads of bussed-in freaks enjoying an outing from their institution.
What the Post calls “democracy” dies under many conditions. One of these is the condition of ignorance concerning what democracy is, and what it isn’t.
The French writer Pierre Manent, in an essay entitled “The Tragedy of the Republic” (First Things, May), reminds us that republican government in its true form is not, as moderns like to think, democratic but rather aristocratic. (Montesquieu described 17th- and 18th-century England as “a republic disguised under the form of monarchy.”) Manent views the republic as “the regime that allows and encourages the most action.” Following the line of argument he developed in a book of a few years ago, Democracy Without Nations?, he asserts that “Today we expect from a republic the opposite of a republic. We demand from it the least possible action, or what we call ‘freedom.’ For us, freedom is a world without command or obedience. It is a world in which public action can neither begin nor commend anything.” This is so because democrats demand that their representatives and governments act as totally disinterested agents in their work of governance. No one who “serves” should take anything away from his service, they believe. But, Manent objects,
Service to the republic cannot be disinterested, because it is paid for by what is most precious in the eyes of ambitious citizens, that is, the honors granted by the republic, which boil down to public esteem. It is not disinterestedness that we should be asking of those who govern us, but rather ambition. It has been too long since we had the rare benefit of being governed by truly ambitious statesmen. The conviction has taken hold that our regime would be more republican if it ignored political rule still more. Political leaders are to serve our interests rather than commend our collective actions. The reigning social philosophy postulates the power and self-sufficiency of a spontaneous social form that would bring together order and freedom without the mediation of political rule. This is to abandon society to its inertia, that is, its corruption.
When one opens the polls to decide who will have the honor of not acting, rivalries can be lively and passions virulent, but the men and women who fear ruling all look alike. Paralysis and stasis are taking hold and sinking roots, with the fervent help of citizens who demand action—and protest at the first sign of it.In Manent’s insight we find at once the meaning of, and the explanation for, the passion of the democratic left for “transparency” in government, an obsession compounded of the popular jealousy and resentment of people in high places who stand to take something from their service while finding personal enjoyment and fulfillment in the exercise of the powers legally and constitutionally granted to them by the electorate. And when the people elected to “power” are as violently disliked by the political opposition as they are today, the jealousy and the resentment become literally uncontrollable. Trump, in the short run at least, stands to lose, not gain, financially from his four-year term as the nation’s chief executive, a fact that makes the Democratic representation of his connections and actions as “conflicts of interest” a hypocritical sideshow. Yet even in the absence of the President’s hostility toward Democratic “core values” and liberal “ideals,” it is likely that whoever was elected to replace Barack Obama would have been challenged (as Obama himself was, though mildly) by the organized ideological advocates of Transparentism, which might be defined, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, as the sick feeling that someone, somewhere in government is exercising public power to accomplish something necessary and important, and receiving his just reward for doing so.
Originally Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture May 5, 2017