I’ve always wanted to explore the nature of the strained relationship between the historical development of democratic political ideology (“oughts”) and the real-world expression of this ideology, especially as it relates to the ethics of power (wirkliche Historie). After an interesting conversation, I discovered that I’d found the perfect “in” to begin research aimed at answering a research question based on these two discourses.

In the conversation I had, I received marked opprobrium for voicing an interest in the work of the late political scientist and historian Samuel P. Huntington. I was asked to explain how it was possible for “someone like [me] to support someone as ‘evil’ as Sam Huntington.” Exactly what intrinsic qualities I possess that elevate my sense of ethics above Huntington’s, I couldn’t say. In fact, if you’ve read the Westminster Confession, you know my views on the nature of humanity and our alleged “ethics.” [1] I don’t, however, support Huntington inasmuch as he has promulgated the reactionary Clash of Civilizations hypothesis. Liberal consensus has seemed to agree that it is neither historically tenable nor politically accurate in its broad generalizations and characterizations of geopolitical relationships.

Edward Said has said that the Clash of Civilizations hypothesis is, “[pure] invidious racism, a sort of parody of Hitlerian science directed today against Arabs and Muslims.” [2] Although, we must remember that Huntington closed his infamous report (for some) with these words: “This is not to advocate the desirability of conflicts between civilizations. It is to set forth descriptive hypothesis as to what the future may be like.”

With that said, I think it may be helpful to appropriate the argumentative framework contained in the 1975 Crozier, Huntington, and Watanuki report, “The Crisis of Democracy,” for the Trilateral Commission. The report claimed that the “impulse of democracy [in the political schema of 1960s America] is to make government less powerful and more active…” This seems clear enough, although I don’t support the aims of the Commission, which were concerned with maintaining and furthering the status of the U.S. as a hegemonic power. If one does not take its claims at face value and reinterprets their meaning in light of recent developments in political theory, the resulting product could facilitate pedagogical aims; thereby making the instruction of theory-as-history a realizable and testable product.

Taking a Detour: Mills, Tocqueville, Habermas, & Foucault

Most will be aware that the “modern state” has been analyzed, assessed, bemoaned, criticized, discussed, dissected, deconstructed, and developed by a virtual plethora of men and women since the mid-seventeenth century. Four of my favorite include Foucault, Habermas, Mills, and de Tocqueville—four men with different ideological and philosophical backgrounds. Durham Peter’s Courting the Abyss summarizes the similarities (and hints at the dissimilarities) between the four, though primarily discussing Foucault and Habermas.

John Stuart Mill rebelled against the social control aspect of his radical heritage; On Liberty is a relentless critique of societal surveillance, the paralyzing paranoia of always being watched by the public eye. But he kept the model of the civic soul as imbibing poison in small doses. This makes On Liberty an implicit participant in a central late-twentieth-century debate about the place of pain in the public sphere: Habermas v. Foucault. Publicity for Habermas in his important Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) is the fundamental principle of the modern constitutional state. Whereas feudal governance involved secret assemblies by the rulers, and pomp and circumstance  for the ruled, the democratic state is supposed to make its deliberations visible to the public and legitimate through reason, so that the rulers and the ruled are one. The public face of feudal power has been processions, public executions, and the court’s spectacular, personality-laden fanfare, crowned by the king’s body. The constitutional state, in contrast, reveals itself to the public’s gaze through organs of sober publicity(Hansards, the Congressional Record, public notices, public trials, and particularly but not only the newspaper press), which are supposed to nourish the public sphere and make intelligent discussion possible. Publicity—the principle of public access to governmental decisions and of general glasnost within social intercourse—is the legitimating idea of modern democracy and signifies, according to Habermas, a shift in the nature of political power: in place of the fiat of the king’s arbitrary power comes the reason of the public’s opinions. The remaining danger, as Habermas notes, is that the public sphere my be “refeudalized” by the market and the state—the organs of publicity that are supposed to dispense enlightenment may revert to being the stage managers of spectacles that keep citizens in awe instead of discussion. Habermas tells a version of the same tale as Mill: the rise of the modern public sphere (Öffentlichkeit) signifies a transformation in the nature of political power, from violence to augment, with the danger of a new creepy kind of control sneaking back in.

Foucault’s portrait of panopticism in in Discipline and Punish (1975) inverts what Habermas calls publicity. Like Habermas—and Tocqueville for that matter—Foucault features the canceling of the king’s body and rise of more ethereal kinds of sanction in his narrative of modernity. “Royal power,” he argues, showed itself via flamboyant public torture of the criminal’s body; modern (“carceral” or disciplinary) power, in contrast, rests on the (self-)surveillance of the citizen’s soul. The aim of royal power was to make one body (the king’s) visible to all; the aim of modern power is to make all bodies visible to one, as in Bentham’s Panopticon, which serves Foucault as an allegory of the gaze of the disciplines, a mode of punishment whose medium is vision instead of the lash. The inmates of the Panopticon, never knowing whether they are in fact being watched at any given moment, internalize the gaze and become wardens over their own behavior. Every citizen becomes a prison master, and every soul a panoptic gallery. For Foucault citizens who think they are participating in public are only engaging in a new kind of subtle discipline of themselves and of the social body. Visibility, in Foucault’s famous line, is a trap. Foucault’s panopticism is what Habermas might call the nightmare of “systematically distorted communication”: the inmate of the Panopticon, says Foucault, is “the object of information, never a subject in communication.” Foucault relies on a norm of violated intersubjectivity as a grounds of critique as much as Habermas. Both Foucault and Habermas learned from Hegel to hate asymmetries of recognition, and Focualt, later in life, saw Habermas a somewhat kindred student of truth games that people play par-wise. [3]

I recommend Flyvbjerg’s helpful introduction to the Foucault-Habermas debate. [4]

Connecting the Dots: The Crisis of Democracy

Earlier I wrote that I supported using The Crisis of Democracy as a framework:

“[The] impulse of democracy is to make government less powerful and more active…”

It would be my guess that, by now, one would have asked, “How are Habermas, Foucault, Tocqueville, and Mill connected to Huntington and the Trilateral Commission’s report?” It’s an excellent question… I believe the report’s framework prefigures the thought of Michel Foucault. Notice, though, I say “prefigures,” not “anticipates”—this is because the ideological backgrounds and goals of the two are quite different.

In contradistinction to Habermas’ hypothesis of discontinuity, i.e. the governmental evolution of kingly fiat into the argumentative “ought,” Foucault’s appraisal of power, especially in his work on genealogy (e.g. his contributions to critical theory; power-knowledge, dispositif, etc.) seems to convey at least some of the worries voiced in the report (i.e. Crisis), albeit in a drastically different sense of what one ultimately fears.

What follows is a reductionist assertion, but it helps to contextualize the scattered thoughts in the previous paragraph. Here are the coveted “in other words”—Huntington (à la Crisis) seems to use words that voice what happens when Foucault’s criticism of modern democracy is applied to a discursive analysis of the social norms in said society. So, we are ultimately facing two consequences that are results of “excessive democracy.” I don’t believe that Foucault would, in any meaningful way, attribute any typology of democratizing tendency to the things Huntington has:

  • Government is less powerful
  • Government is more active

If the parallel between Foucault’s ideology and Huntington’s framework is not evident, this is what I have intended to say. I have essentially discarded Huntington’s proposals for the problem of “excessive democracy,” whatever they may be. This conversation does not seek to propose a solution to the alleged problem of democracy that is excessive, but to cast theory-as-history in a more accessible light.

We know that Huntington’s “beef” with this phenomenon was that excessive democracy is responsible for the four claims outlined above. What Foucault has said about the “panopticonization” of modern democracy involves the practical consequences of a novel typology of subversive oppression wherein individuals in a democracy become their own prison wardens and are tormented by “the gaze” of others.

This desire of conformity to a specific set of social norms causes people to behave in ways that they may or may not have behaved had they not been subjected to the gaze. For all intents and purposes, this process causes the government to be less powerful. Recognizing that this interpretation is a corruption of what Huntington originally meant, it is clear that official institutions no longer need to perform public executions—displays of the government’s power in the Machiavellian sense are no longer necessary. For example, executions are carried out in private in the United States. Though I believe Habermas’ supporters would point toward the continuing debate about the validity of capital punishment and its progressive illegalization. In any case, the government is more active in facilitating public anxiety through programs and procedures (i.e. what Foucault has called discourses) that inculcate the norms that the produced submission to a majoritarian discourse of acceptability in the first place. The oppression is therefore self perpetuating.

This is the first post of what I hope to be a longer series about the relationship between theory and practice in the history of democratic institutions; and how seemingly disparate ideologies can coincide and collide at specific junctures in modernity.


  1. WCF 7.16

  2.  As quoted in Isakhan, Benjamin. “‘Oriental Despotism’ and the Democratisation of Iraq in The Australian.” Transformations, no. 16 (2008). Accessed January 2, 2015. http://www.transformationsjournal.org/journal/issue_16/article_07.shtml.

  3. Peters, John Durham. “Publicity and Pain.” In Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition, 136-41. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Accessed January 2, 2015. https://books.google.com/books?id=YYVU1Wnw5k8C.

  4. Flyvbjerg is known for shaking up the world of the social sciences in 2001 with the publication of his book, Making the Social Sciences Matterwherein he posits a greater emphasis on phronesis in sociological methodology, above and apart from episteme.