Steven B. Smith is the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University
Wednesday January 6 represented a new low in the annals of American democracy. It may not have been the worst moment in our history but it was the first time that the US Houses of Congress have been invaded by its own citizens. As we watched a witches’ brew of neo-Nazis, Confederate flag carriers, white supremacists, and anti-maskers breach the doors of the Capitol – the citadel of democracy – I was put in mind of a book written almost two millennia ago.
Saint Augustine’s City of God was written in response to the sack of Rome carried out by Visigoths from the north in 410. Augustine’s official purpose was to defend Christianity from the accusation that it had been complicit in the invasion of the city that had stood as the center of Western civilization for 500 years. The book went on to offer a severely qualified defense of the Roman empire as necessary for the maintenance of order and stability but even this was becoming beyond its reach. Augustine lived at a moment of civilizational collapse and he knew it. More importantly, the question for him was what form the new order would take. We might call this the Augustinian Moment.
The question posed by last week’s events is whether we are living at a similar moment. The siege of the Capitol does not by itself portend an end to the modern constitutional order; we have withstood challenges before. The issue is whether modern democracies have the will to defend themselves. Can democracies husband the resources – moral, intellectual, political – to defend themselves from a concerted enemy or enemies?
This question was posed most vividly by the great French political scientist – I use that phrase advisedly – Pierre Hassner in the time after 9/11. Hassner used the terms “the barbarian and the bourgeois” to distinguish the liberal, prosperous, and satisfied democracies of the West and the resentful and humiliated societies of the Middle East prepared to use terror and violence to exact revenge for perceived wrongs. Groups like Al Qaeda and Al Shabab are terrorist organizations in exactly the same way as certain nineteenth-century nihilist cults. Their goal was not the destruction of civilization as such but of one particular form of civilization, that of the modern bourgeois with its belief in human rights, international trade, and global peace.
A student of international politics, Hassner thought of the conflict between the barbarian and bourgeois as something that took place largely between states. He did not consider that the conflict was something that exists within the very liberal democracies he believed had eradicated the passions for carnage and destruction. What we are experiencing – not only in the US but in many countries throughout the world – is not so much an insurgency but a resurgence of barbarism. There is no other word for it.
Another example from the past may help. In his book A Theory of Militant Democracy: The Ethics of Combating Political Extremism, Alexander Kirshner revived the term “militant democracy” originally coined by a German émigré political scientist, Karl Loewenstein. Loewenstein saw at first-hand how democracies can collapse. A product of Weimar Germany, he saw what happened when a liberal democracy had neither the strength nor the will to defend itself from mobilized anti-democratic forces of the left and the right. His idea was that democracies did not need permission to defend themselves from concerted domestic enemies.
Are we at a similar inflection point today? Historical comparisons are always useful until, of course, they’re not. Conservative intellectuals frequently invoked Weimar to describe the anti-war protests of the 1960s and even the culture wars of the 1980s and ‘90s. The comparisons, while provocative, seemed overwrought then and may be so again today, but I would argue the fundamental social cleavages between class, race, education, and culture are greater now than they were then.
The siege of the Capitol does not portend the end of a civilization but it does indicate the fragility of democratic institutions. Puzzled media commentators and intellectuals asked, “how could this be happening?” The fact is it happens all the time, just not here. The last four years have represented a concerted challenge for the institutions of rule of law and the separation of powers and to fall back on platitudes that the system worked or that we will experience a peaceful transition of power merely paper over the challenges that liberalism must face in the wake of this assault.
To return, then, to Augustine. He understood that the old Roman pagan religion remained the religion of the elites that no longer addressed the needs of the masses. All that was needed was a push and the old order would and did crumble. There were occasional holdouts like the Emperor Julian – known to history as Julian the Apostate – who attempted a return to the old order but like all such attempts, it ended in failure.
Democracy today stands in danger of becoming like the old Roman civic religion, unable to defend itself from a mobilized visigothic army led by men wearing horned helmets and blue face paint. We live at a moment when the barbarians are not only at the gate. They have penetrated the inner sanctum of a free people. As President-elect Biden said, quoting from Lincoln’s Special Message to Congress of 1862, “we will nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.”