When Walt Whitman arrived in Washington at the end of 1862 to take up residence in the city and serve as a hospital volunteer, the construction of the Capitol dome was not yet complete. In a dispatch published in the Oct. 4, 1863, edition of The New-York Times, Whitman described this “vast eggshell, built of iron and glass, this dome — a beauteous bubble” that “emerges calm and aloft from the hill, out of a dense mass of trees.” The poet recounted how a “few days ago, poking about there, eastern side” he found the yet to be hoisted Statue of Freedom that now crowns the Capitol dome “all dismembered, scattered on the ground, by the basement front.” In retrospect it’s a rather on-the-nose metaphor, this personified representation of liberty “standing in the mud” while the nation immolated itself in civil war, yet still visible to our greatest poet and prophet of democracy, perhaps signifying the incomplete task of the American project.
When the war began, Whitman was despondent, but the violence of those years seemed to strengthen and clarify his faith in democracy, a faith that would take on a transcendent dimension. For the poet, democracy wasn’t simply the least bad form of government, it wasn’t reducible to dreary policy and endless debate, but it was rather a vital, transformative and regenerative ethos. Even as the survival of what President Abraham Lincoln called the “last, best hope of earth” was in doubt, Whitman’s belief in the philosophical and political foundation of the nation flourished.
If the war against illiberalism takes place on many fronts, including the economic and the cultural, then one domain where the revanchists are clearly gaining power is in the realm of the transcendent. In the delusions of “blood and soil” there is for many the attraction of a deeper meaning. Authoritarians claim that they offer their nations (or at least a segment of the population) unity and purpose. The 20th-century German philosopher (and victim of the Nazis) Walter Benjamin warned how fascism engages an “aestheticization of politics,” where spectacle and transcendence provide a type of ecstasy for its adherents. Watch clips of fevered crowds, from today or the past, chanting against “enemies of the people”; they are malignant scenes, but ones that in no small part mimic religious revivals.
Critics of democracy often claim that it offers no similar sense of transcendence. The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche castigated democracy as a system of “quarantine mechanisms” for human desires, and as “such they are … very boring.” If the individual unit of democracy is the citizen, authoritarian societies thrill to the Übermensch, the superman promising that “I alone can fix it.” Yet I would argue that all of the hallmarks of authoritarianism — the rallies and crowds, the marching and military parades, the shouting demagogue promising his followers that they are superior — are wind and hot air. What fascism offers isn’t elevation but cheap transcendence, a counterfeit of meaning rather than the real thing.