When Democracy Defeats Democracy

Here is a very thought provoking piece by Patrick Deneen about what you might call the "Achilles heel" of democracy - that the private / material obsessions and anxieties of a free people would ultimately transform them into consumers not citizens. Deneen's piece is based on the ever-prescient observations of Alexis de Tocqueville.


Tocqueville relates that this is one of the central consequences of democracy. Democracy’s relentless drive to equalize our station in fact makes democratic humans extraordinarily fretful about their station. Having rejected the arbitrary inheritance of birthright and rank of aristocratic ages, democracies inflate especially differences of attainment in the material realm. Democratic citizens become obsessed with material markers of success—not only what one might need to lead a good and decent life, but how one’s attainments compare to others. We become driven especially to measure our worth in monetary terms, and economics and business (note the word—”busyness”) becomes the most important activity of our society.

For this reason as well, Tocqueville observed that democratic peoples would have little patience for “theory,” instead demonstrating a preference for practice. They would regard the classics as generally old and superceded opinion, instead preferring what “works.” While he never devoted a chapter to education, particularly university education, based on everything he writes elsewhere, one is justified in concluding that he would have predicted that increasingly “democratic” universities would become more elitist and “meritocratic” (though, ironically, “merit” would tend to be clustered among children of the rich), and that one could expect a growing demand for “relevant” and “practical” training in preference to study in the “theoretical” areas of humanities, arts, literature, or even theoretical sciences.

Ironically, democracy would increasingly produce workers and consumers, not citizens. Their concerns and obsessions would run almost entirely to the private realm, and the thoughts they might spare for public life would be driven by these same private concerns—what is government doing to pump up economic growth, how much of my earnings does it demand, is it supporting “upward mobility”?

Read the entire piece here.