With the gift for epigram that highlights historical truth, Bertrand Russell dubbed Rousseau “the inventor of the political philosophy of pseudo-democratic dictatorship.”
Ever since his time (Russell wrote), those who considered themselves reformers have been divided into two groups, those who followed him and those who followed Locke. Sometimes they cooperated, and many individuals saw no incompatibility. But gradually the incompatibility has become increasingly evident.
Russell added dryly that in our time Hitler was the outcome of Rousseau, while Roosevelt and Churchill were the heirs of Locke. The argument is not new. Yet, in democratic theory, and even more in-populist rhetoric, the legacies of Locke and Rousseau remain so tangled that each generation must puzzle out the difference as it applies to their political mind and social evolution. Many who do not see the problem, or those hearts belong to Rousseau, press ever more impatiently for government by mass reflex, for what might be described as the democracy of the stadium, moved in obedience to a supposedly self-revealing and self-validating “general will.” In the United States, Rousseau’s general will finds a pale double in what is represented as public opinion, as that illusive spector is invoked to guide and sanction political decision.
Those who resist such a theory of governance are deprecated as “elitist” and “authoritarian,” or, at best are dismissed as liberals of faint heart who do not trust democracy. Rules of procedure, constitutional restraints, and separations and divisions of powers are impatiently dismissed as undemocratic barriers erected to defeat the popular will.
“Participatory democracy” of (recent vintage, with its non-negotiable demands and cries for immediate action, is offered as democracy at its purest. With the development of electronic technology and techniques for the rapid measurement of public opinion (or for what is presented as public opinion), some bold spirits suggest government by telecommunication. Let the nation sit as a parliament of the whole, registering its decisions by pressing a button on every television set. The democratic ideal is understood to mean direct judgment by the people, who without resort to legislative hearings or extensive deliberation, mystically carry the powers of governance within them.
American democracy is not likely to reach this extreme. But the disposition it represents and developments in that direction are harmful to free government.
But why should we prefer Locke to Rousseau? There would appear to be little argument that purely in terms of etymology and popular interpretation the word “democracy” means what Rousseau takes it to mean. His conception of the sovereignity of the “general will” makes an obvious and immediate claim. The framer of the American system recognized this face and shunned the word if not the concept. In the Federalist Papers, Madison takes great pains to distinguish the American representative system from democracy, which he understood as direct government by all free citizens acting as a whole. Like his colleagues in the Constitutional Convention, Madison feared government by direct popular will and sought to forestall it by means of a fundamentally different conception of government by the people. It is not an overstatement to say that the entire American experiment of limited, representative government has been a systematic effort to prevent the rise and sovereignity of a general will. Liberals and conservatives have shared this conviction and at critical moments have collaborated to uphold the Constitutional order of indirect, limited government.