We are now beyond the end of the great age of the past 500 years, what has often been called the “modern age.” Its main feature was the rise of democracy—the rule of majorities and not of minorities—for perhaps the first time in the history of mankind. Consider that. Will what has begun last long? We cannot know. We live forward, but whatever we know comes from the past. That includes words and their origins. The word democracy existed in ancient Greece, but in the past 2,000 years it has been put into practice only here and there, during short episodes. More frequent and longer lasting was republic, a word of Roman origin: res publica, public matter, public rule, public business, public concern, a “common weal” in English.
Five centuries ago, most states in the world were ruled by monarchs and by many of their subservient aristocracies. Erasmus wrote in 1517 that a new, brighter age was arriving. (Now this kind of optimism hardly exists.) Four centuries ago, in some states of Europe, the function of some monarchs was changing. This was so in England, where after a civil war its king, Charles I, was tried and beheaded. His successor, Oliver Cromwell, was called Lord Protector, somewhat like the president of a republic, but soon after his death the monarchy in England was restored. In 1689 most of the aristocracy, members of Parliament, and the people themselves welcomed a new king who, and whose successors, ruled alongside a parliament, a house of commons. England and Scotland became a constitutional monarchy that has lasted even until now.
The American colonies seceded from England less than a century later. Neither in the American Constitution nor in their pronouncements did most of the founders of the United States describe their new country as a democracy; indeed, some of them said that it was not a democracy but a republic. The standard categorization of the United States as a democracy came later. Meanwhile, in much of Europe, the remaining monarchies and the retiring aristocracies accepted their limitations.
The 19th century was a time of constitutional monarchies, a balance between ruler and ruled that marked the height of the bourgeois age with all its widespread achievements. This relative order was fatefully wounded by the First World War. Yet even during the Second World War, almost all the remaining monarchs of Europe resisted Hitler, many of them (those from Holland, Norway, Yugoslavia, and Greece) repairing to England. Mussolini was deposed and arrested by the king. In Japan the emperor established the end of the war.
By that time, the United States had become the greatest power in the world. Its democracy suffered relatively little from the First World War; indeed, its intervention on the side of Britain and France helped to decide the outcome while sacrificing comparatively few American lives and costing nothing to American prosperity.
That extraordinary observer, thinker, and visionary Alexis de Tocqueville was preoccupied with democracy, not republicanism. In both volumes of Democracy in America, which appeared about six years apart, it was his consuming subject. As a result, he was a more acute and profound thinker than Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and others of their kind. Tocqueville saw during his nine months in the United States that what was happening here was more important even than the French Revolution, perhaps even more important than the whole so-called Enlightenment. The great movement of history, he realized, was the transformation from an aristocratic to a democratic age. This change was monumental and irreversible, involving more than politics, the lives of entire peoples. That was also the theme of the two books Tocqueville wrote during the last 10 years of his life. (He died relatively young, alas, at 53.) Both volumes had to do with French history, the first with the year 1848 and the second, unfinished, with the French Revolution of 1789. These books bear the marks of genius that only great thinkers and historians have—an understanding of human nature itself. Tocqueville’s view of the French Revolution, for example—sustained by his deep research in French provincial and other archives—led to his conclusion that even spectacular events were less the result of popular sentiments than of public opinion. My belief is that the history of public opinions is inseparable from the history of liberal democracy during the age now passing.
Public opinions and popular sentiments have existed throughout recorded history, but they are hard to define. They have overlapped and sometimes been indistinguishable, but opinions and sentiments are often not the same. A standard definition of public opinion is that it represents the desires and thinking of the majority of people. But this is wrong for many reasons, one of them being that public opinions have often been the opinions of minorities. Besides, popular sentiment is not necessarily sentimental and public opinion is not always rational. The evidence of what public opinion has been throughout recorded history exists in a variety of written sources; popular sentiment is less easy to ascertain, less often recorded, and thus less knowable. During the passing age of the last five centuries, public opinion gradually became more and more influential. The rise and decline of its influence seems to have occurred together with the rise and decline of liberalism, and also with the rise and decline of printed reading matter.
The term liberal became current in English during the 17th century, used with approval to describe people who were free, broad-minded, generous—a humanistic attribute. Its political meaning began to form about a century later, and by the 19th century the dialogue between conservative and liberal would describe the politics of the day. In the United States, conservative was a designation political leaders shunned for a long time, but after the Second World War, liberal also became less and less popular.
Liberalism had a long and respectable run for more than two centuries, and its achievements were many. But more telling even than the rise and fall of liberalism in the 20th century had been the appeal of populism. Whereas liberalism was largely a matter of public opinion, populism has mostly been a result of popular sentiments, and a consequence of democracy. The cult of “the people” was always important to Americans, a central aspect of labor and socialist movements after the First World War. But over the past half century, it has become a rightist, not a leftist, factor. Thinkers such as Karl Marx wrote that the greatest and deepest concerns for people were economic and social, but they were wrong. As Hitler, Mussolini, and many others realized after the First World War, people’s identities were and are more national than economic or social. Popular was a favorite word of Hitler’s. For him, popular was national and national was popular. “I was a nationalist,” he said, “but I was not a patriot.”
Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that democracy had its perils, that it might become a despotism or a tyranny of its own. A counterbalance to such a prospect would be the influence of serious Americans dedicated to the cause of protecting the liberties described in the American Constitution. For him, these people would come from the legal and judicial communities. (Jefferson, Adams, and Madison spoke of the necessity of “educated classes.”) Tocqueville seldom used liberal as a political adjective. He spoke of the “mentalities” of aristocracies and the manières or habits of the lower classes. The 19th-century liberal-conservative dialogue in America seldom applied, in part because of the American dislike of the word conservative. But after about 1950 there came a change. The last American presidents who called themselves liberal were Franklin D. Roosevelt and occasionally Harry Truman. The use of the word declined. In 1951, the Republican leader Robert Taft still called himself an “old-fashioned liberal,” but by 1960, the Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower called himself a conservative. In 1956, the official platform of the Republican Party, which had not been internationalist before this, called for “the establishment of American air and naval bases all around the world.” It had become the principal nationalist party.
Something else was coming about: the declining influence of American public opinion. In the 1920s, for example, Americans elected three Republican presidents at a time when American public opinion was more or less liberal, as represented among other things in the press. This function of public opinion continued until the Republican Party became populist in outlook, and also anti-liberal. Thereafter the importance of public opinion began to diminish, alongside the declining importance of newspapers.
In 2017, the Republican President Trump, stunned by the opposition he faced from the remnant big newspapers and the remnant intelligentsia and from other commentators, declared that he did not care about public opinion because the American people themselves stood behind him.
Five hundred years ago both the term and the importance of public opinion did not yet exist. Then, after about 200 years, they arose. The golden age of public opinion lasted about two centuries. Then began its decline, as also that of liberalism. In 2014 the prime minister of Hungary declared that his country was an illiberal (meaning anti-liberal) democracy. That was telling: democracy has survived liberalism.
These observations have limits. One is that, especially in Western Europe, the legacy and heritage of liberal democracy are still strong. Moreover, as Edmund Burke, one of the greatest conservative thinkers of the past (and a Whig), put it: “The public must never be regarded as incurable.”
One deep and enduring result of the past five centuries has been historical consciousness. It was not until the 17th century that some people began to comprehend the great divisions of history as the ancient, medieval, and modern ages. One or two centuries later, history began to be taught in schools and universities as a kind of science, at least until it was recognized by some that science is part of history and not the other way around.
But beyond the end of the modern age we face an ominous and threatening condition. The past 500 years was, among other things, an age of books. Of course, books have been preserved and revered throughout the ages. But the widespread availability of printed matter and the attendant increase in readers made for a great age of books. Then, beginning in the late 20th century, the minds of hundreds of millions of people became the recipients of images rather than of printed words. Viewing overtook the old habit of reading.
Books will never disappear, but the results of this tremendous transformation are incalculable. Among them is the weakening of attention. Words and scriptures were the elements of human knowledge for thousands of years. What will happen to human knowledge after this decline in the importance of words? We cannot know. What we ought to know is that objective and subjective are incomplete categories, that our knowledge is participant, that we cannot separate the knower from the known, that what we know of the universe is and has been a product of our own making.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.