Finally, the national conversation about democracy is relatively mature and serious. Save for some TV-news anchors, just about everyone seems to understand that democracy is a tricky thing.
That skepticism was hard-earned. The last decade provided painful lessons for everyone, on both sides of the ideological aisle. Liberals, who were once naïvely optimistic about democracy promotion, turned dour when President Bush became naïvely optimistic about it. And then supporters of Bush’s freedom agenda learned a tough lesson from, among other things, the disastrous-but-democratic elections that put a terrorist junta in charge of the Gaza Strip.
Hence the irony of so many small-“d” democrats quietly celebrating the fact that Egypt is living under undemocratic martial law, rather than democratic Islamic law as interpreted by a Muslim Brotherhood caliphate.
This new consensus — that democracy is about more than mere lever-pulling on Election Day — is progress.
Democracy is essential to a liberal order, but it is less important than the rule of law, honest courts, individual rights (including property rights), and the institutions — legal and cultural — that nurture them.
George W. Bush famously proclaimed that the desire for freedom burns in every human heart. I’m sympathetic to such notions and the statecraft that drives such pronouncements. But that doesn’t get us very far. What drives the urge for liberty?
The notion that we all crave personal liberty is a fairly new one, historically. Most of the calls for freedom over the centuries have been in the context of national, not personal, liberation. The 20th century began with an atrocious war allegedly fought over something called “self-determination,” but the “self” in question wasn’t the id, ego, or super ego, or the individual soul. The “self” in “self-determination” referred to the captive nations of Europe.
Freedom fighters have generally battled for the collective right to fly a national flag, not the individual right to burn one. Conservatives loved the movie Braveheart, with all of its beautiful language about freedom, but it’s worth remembering that the freedom the Scots fought for was the freedom to replace the authoritarian traditionalism of the English with the authoritarian traditionalism of the Scots.
The great change, as Francis Fukuyama chronicled in his book The End of History and the Last Man, has been the evolution of individual self-determination. Fukuyama borrows a term, thumos, from the ancient Greeks to explain the transformation. Thumos, or “spiritedness,” encompasses the instinct for justice, respect, and integrity.
“People evaluate and assign worth to themselves in the first instance, and feel indignation on their own behalf,” Fukuyama writes. “But they are also capable of assigning worth to other people, and feeling anger on behalf of others.”
Indignation, the driving passion of all revolutions, shares a root with “dignity,” a person’s — and a people’s — sense of self-worth. A major cause of Middle Eastern political stagnation, for instance, has been that Arab and Muslim dictators have linked their peoples’ self-respect with the Palestinians’ plight.
More positively, in our own country, the Civil Rights movement and the women’s movement were, at their core, what Harvard philosopher Harvey Mansfield calls “honor-seeking movements.”
To understand the continuity between the old conception of liberty and the modern one, you need to understand that freedom in the West mostly means “free to be me.” Freedom in much of the rest of the world remains “free to be us.”
The genius of liberal democracy is that it allows both conceptions to flourish simultaneously, often in healthy tension. Far from perfect, liberal democracy offers the most people the most respect possible.
The tumult in Egypt and throughout the Middle East is a generational conflagration between different conceptions of thumos — old and modern, Muslim and nationalist, collective and individual. In the long run, I’m not too worried about liberal democracy’s prospects in the Middle East. Modernity brings prosperity, and prosperity fuels an insatiable appetite for respect, and that demand for respect is what topples tyrannies.
I’m more concerned about what is happening here. Thumos continues to evolve in Western democracies, which is not the same thing as saying it continues to improve.
Our current fiscal woes — not to mention the riot of dysfunction that often goes by the name “political correctness” and the thumos-on-the-cheap that we call the self-esteem industry — are in no small part attributable to the perversion of our sense of self-worth. For millions of Americans, it seems that respect must be paid in the form of cash tribute. How else to explain the inviolable sanctity of our aptly named “entitlement” system?
Great civilizations die when the people believe their personal dignity demands more than the society can possibly provide. Sadly, that conversation has barely begun.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.