The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

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Democracy without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe (part 1)
Pierre Manent - 04/16/08

With an unequaled comprehensiveness and precision, Tocqueville described how democracy recomposes all human relations, including the self’s relationship to itself. This process of recomposition, however, took place within the context of the nation-state. Tocqueville did not seriously envisage the substantial transformation, much less the disappearance, of this particular political form. As a statesman his sole concern, his sole horizon, was “France” itself. He raised questions about the power or sovereignty of the people. Today one has to inquire about the people’s very existence. While America recently went to war and sacrificed a good deal of its standing in world opinion for the sake of “national defense” as it understands it, Europeans find themselves in a very different situation. They are caught between their old nations and the new European Union and are perplexed as to which way to go. Europeans ask themselves: What sort of common life do we want?

Thus, we enter into a third circle, one in which the political form that is the condition of democracy is either being further developed or is on the road to being lost. The reader should imagine three concentric circles arranged on a temporal axis. The first circle is that of the social question, its diameter running from 1848 to 1968; the second circle concerns the sovereignty of the people, with its diameter joining 1776 and 2001; finally there is the third circle, that of the sovereign nation-state. Its diameter runs from approximately 1651­—the year Hobbes published Leviathan and sketched the architectural plan of the modern state—to a date we cannot as yet give. But that date will become apparent when the nation-state gives way to another political form—if indeed that moment ever comes.

The following remarks are an effort to grasp the mainspring of the sovereign state as clearly as possible. This effort is quite urgently needed due to the differing evolution of the European nations, where this spring is ever weaker, from that of the United States, where it was recently strongly activated.


Philippe Raynaud has recently underscored the following important point: the original understanding on which the modern state was founded strongly linked individual rights and public authority or power. [2] Today, however, rights have invaded every field of reflection and even every aspect of consciousness. They have broken their alliance with power and have even become its implacable enemy. From an alliance between rights and power we have moved to the demand for an empowerment of rights. The well-known phenomenon of the sovereign “power of judges” claiming to act in the name of human rights is the most visible manifestation of this trend. This elevation of rights at the expense of power—I speak here of legitimate political authority—certainly constitutes an increasingly decisive and debilitating factor at work in the political life of the European nations.

The protection, and first of all the recognition, of equal human rights was strongly tied to the construction of the sovereign state. Strongly tied—with rights serving as the moral end and the sovereign state as the political means. Put another way: the sovereign state is the necessary condition of the equality of conditions. “Sovereign” means that the state’s legitimacy is qualitatively, instrinsically, unconditionally superior to any and all authorities found in society. The state is essentially superior to all social authorities, whether based on birth or wealth or on intellectual or spiritual competence. In short, the sovereign state brings equality into being; it produces the plane of equality—the equality of conditions, the equality implied in the human condition—without which we simply cannot conceive of a decent common life, despite our many differences and differences of opinion.

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