“Caesarism and Democracy: Historical and Normative Perspectives”

Fri, Nov 15, 2019, 9:00 am to Sat, Nov 16, 2019, 5:00 pm

The experience of democracy in the modern West is inextricably linked to Caesarism. The first European republic to base itself on universal male suffrage had transformed, within a half-decade, into the Caesarist French Second Empire of Louis-Napoleon: a state-form that combined personal rule; a plebiscitary understanding of legitimacy; a centralized administration; military adventurism; an authoritarian approach to the press and civil society; and a rhetoric that appealed at once to Revolutionary, nationalistic, and democratic ideals. For many observers at the time, the Bonapartist regime not only recalled Roman history (hence “Caesarism”). Even more, it betokened what was to come in a democratic future: Caesarism appeared, as the great Liberal legal scholar Henry Maine put it, to incarnate the “very principle of democracy” itself.

Even after the collapse of Bonapartism, reflection on Caesarism remained a staple of democratic theory and the incipient social sciences through the first few decades of the twentieth century, before fading into the background of political theory and public discourse for several decades. However, recent trends – populism; the personalization of politics; the dominance of the executive over the legislature; a perceived decline in liberal and growth in authoritarian sentiments; among others – have all raised once again the question of the connection between Caesarism and democracy. This conference aims to explore the historical legacy of Caesarism with an eye toward considering these pressing present-day issues.