We are all totalitarians now

One of the most interesting dimensions of our contemporary crisis of democracy discourse and literature is its moralism.

If you listen to the talking heads on MSNBC or read more sophisticated academic treatments of the topic, you’ll find a frequent claim that mainstream Republican leaders who are not Trump—people like McConnell or McCarthy—are cowards or careerists. Unlike the Greenes and Gaetzes of the party, goes the argument, these men are not ideologically opposed to democracy. They’re just insufficiently committed to democracy. That’s the problem.

If they were ideologically principled, if they were honorable, if they were dedicated, out of conviction, to democracy, these leaders would take on the authoritarians in their midst. In the past, the argument continues, Republican leaders did just that: Goldwater, famously, told a Watergate-addled Nixon that he didn’t have the votes in the Senate and that it was time for him to go. But today’s leaders are saddled by their interests; bound to expedients of the moment, they refuse to do what must be done. And so we swirl down the authoritarian drain.

What’s interesting about this moralistic turn is how it pushes against what once was supposed to be the genius of American politics, born of the hard-headed realism of the Framers of the Constitution. That genius was embodied, above all else, in the idea of the separation of powers. Though many liberals have come to question certain parts of the Constitution—even the Supreme Court is now an object of liberal critique—the basic constitutional framework of the separation of powers remains a source of affection and pride.

Why do people value the separation of powers? Because concentrated and undivided power is an invitation to tyranny or autocracy. But how does the separation of powers actually stop tyranny? What is the precise mechanism of its operation?

James Madison famously provided the answer in Federalist 51:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. 

The Framers’ gambit was that self-interested men, zealously pursuing and jealously defending their interests, would defend the prerogatives of their office and the powers of their institutions, thereby frustrating the designs of wannabe tyrants or autocrats in the making. Guarding freedom didn’t require high-minded guardians of freedom. It simply required men to be what they were: selfish, narrow, and small. Such men would hate to have their power taken away from them, so they’d do everything they could to hold on to it. Including opposing tyrants and autocrats. Allowing men to think small, the Constitution ensured that the whole would remain big.

If that kind of thinking sounds familiar, it should. One can find similar modes of argument in the eighteenth-century discourse of a burgeoning capitalism—private vices lead to public virtues, the invisible hand, and all that—and in the later political science of pluralist democracy. Both of those streams—free-market capitalism and pluralist democracy—would rush together in the twentieth century, producing a raging river of commentary about the Soviet Union and leftist totalitarianism. What is the great sin of the left, it was asked, from the Jacobins to the Bolsheviks? It is the left’s insistence that men and women should think and act on behalf of the collective, the whole, rather than attend to such homier virtues as private property, the family, one’s narrow circle of friends and interests.

Yet in today’s discourse of democracy, it is precisely such self-interested, small-minded men and women who are thought to be the enablers of tyranny. Precisely because they are too committed to their interests and insufficiently concerned about the needs and values of the whole. What democracy needs, it seems, are the kinds of high-minded virtuecrats that patrol the pages of Rousseau.

An entire edifice of thinking, extending from the Framers to Isaiah Berlin, has been toppled. Without anyone’s seeming to have noticed.


  1. Lawrence Houghteling July 4, 2023 at 1:04 pm | #

    Dear Corey,

    This is a canny piece, with more than a little truth to it. It is undoubtedly strange that Madison’s (and the traditional) answer on “how to check bad behavior” is now being set aside.

    Yet, at the same time, it does seem as though some line has been crossed, some new dimension of political awfulness has been entered into. I remember that in an earlier proto-fascist era, in 1954, the Senate Republicans, who were faced with the question of whether or not to vote to censure the obvious miscreant Joseph McCarthy (who had a huge and enthusiastic “base” — and knowing with certainty that the solid Democratic vote made censure inevitable — managed to craft a 22-22 tie vote among the Republicans, with a clever mixture of sending off certain senators on vague missions, and one particular liberal ally of the conservative leader voting pro-McCarthy despite despising him.

    I guess muddying the waters was easier in olden days.

  2. John Maclean July 4, 2023 at 1:48 pm | #

    Corey have you ever read Erich Auerbach? I’m getting through “Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach: Time, History, and Literature” right now. He concludes an essay called “The Idea of National Spirit” in commenting on “powerful movements” that got in the way of what he calls “hermeneutical perspectivism”. The first is trends in humanism, and the second “the revival of the old conceit of an absolute human nature.” Is Madison reviving absolutist thinking about our nature? Some of Auerbach’s phrases are hard to handle, but there seems something in his discussion of Vico, Herder, and others.

    • John Maclean July 5, 2023 at 11:03 am | #

      Auerbach uses the phrase “hermeneutical perspectivism” and paragraphs later “historical perspectivism”.

      “…Of course, historical understanding comes to a halt as soon as political enmities and corresponding forms of propaganda rear their heads.

      “I consider the discovery of historical perspectivism based on the idea of national spirit to be one of the most important events in the history of the humanities. It allowed us to enlarge our understanding of how to orient ourselves in the historical world in ways not unlike those in which Copernicus’s discovery allowed us to find our place in the astrophysical world…” He seems to see this as a positive accomplishment of Romanticism, and he concludes the paragraph entertaining the possibility of an “integrated history of the human race” not a fractured one.

      Auerbach eventually flees Nazi Germany and ends up in Istanbul.

      It seems that Marx took the concept of class struggle from Vico. Decades before Herder, and the Romantics, Vico wrote about the rebellion of the “famuli”, the slaves and servants of the Greek heroes, the founders of the nation. It’s strange to think of the revolutionary founders as Heraklean laborers.

      I’m sneaking up on “Mimesis”, Auerbach’s great work, and I have yet to read Vico’s “The New Science”. Apparently there is a new volume out there.

  3. Dene Karaus July 4, 2023 at 3:50 pm | #

    Miss-typing price for pride did not add to meaningfulness. Miss-proofed? On the main thesis, I fail to see how a government made up of small men could ever stand or do good for the governed. I don’t believe the framers thought that small-minded men would successfully build a great country.

    • Benjamin David Steele July 4, 2023 at 7:46 pm | #

      Some of the Framers would’ve thought that way. Or at least some of them pretended to believe such a view, if maybe only for the sake of seizing power.

      The nationalist Hamilton, as a supposed ‘Federalist’, was more of this cynical type who saw the world in terms of capitalist self-interest. While those like Washington hoped for a disinterested but enlightened aristocracy, that is to say a white male plutocracy of the right kind to take control of a centralized government.

      But the actual defenders of federalism, cleverly dismissed as ‘Anti-Federalists’, pushed in the opposite direction. Those like Jefferson and Paine strongly argued that only a direct and majoritarian democracy, combined with moral vigilance, would safeguard the public good.

  4. Benjamin David Steele July 4, 2023 at 7:38 pm | #

    @Corey – I keep seeing you reference what is basically an Anti-Federalist critique. Yet I don’t recall you ever having mentioned the Anti-Federalists by that name. Is there a reason for not bringing this up?

    As in some other cases, what’ve you done here is reference and quote a Federalist, without putting it in context of the larger debate among Founders that included the Anti-Federalists’ prescient warnings of what would happen.

    In doing so, you state, “The Framers’ gambit was that self-interested men.” Not entirely. That assessment is only true of some of the Framers.

    The original revolutionary debate never ended, but most Americans have almost entirely forgotten what it was, or rather they were never taught about it. What we get typically is only one side of that old debate, since the Federalists won the ideological war for power.

    And as always, the victors wrote the history books. That is why they called themselves the Federalists, even though it was actually the Anti-Federalists who were the strongest defenders of strict federalism. This is similar to right-wingers usurping the labels of ‘classical liberalism’ and ‘libertarianism’.

  5. Sandy Parker July 8, 2023 at 4:55 pm | #

    America needs more J Edgar Hoovers! /s

  6. John F August 8, 2023 at 4:52 pm | #

    Great post. The moralism (and misrecognition, or even forgetfulness) you identify among liberal commentators reminds me of Hirschman’s parenthetical on Santayana’s maxim at the end of The Passions and the Interests: if the historical specificity of an intellectual episode is forgotten, then vaguely similar circumstances may give rise to identical and identically flawed thought responses.

    Or: a defense of democracy that maintains the separation of the ‘political’ and the ‘economic’.

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