“The ‘Idolaters of Democracy’: Neoconservatives as Democracy-Teleocrats

Among the replacement religions for a weakened Christianity in the West, the most insidious may be the worship of “democracy.“  What makes this form of idolatry (note the neoconservative journalist Norman Podhoretz once described himself as an “idolater of democracy”) particularly hard to stop is that it rages among supposed spokesmen for the Right. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan spoke frequently in public about their devotion to what they thought were universally exportable democratic ideals. Indeed President Reagan, in a widely publicized address before the English Parliament on June 8, 1982, declared it the sacred duty of the two leading democracies to “assist in the campaign for democracy” worldwide. There was no middle path or third way to be taken in this mission. On one side stood the record of a “bloody century plagued by totalitarianism” and on the other, the “democracies,” which had to rescue the world with “democratic ideals.”

President Reagan also took the initiative in creating a National Endowment for Democracy, an American quasi-governmental agency that works to assist in the spread of democracy and which seems to be modeled on the Soviet Comintern. Not surprisingly, many of those involved in running this instrument for world conversion came out of the socialist Left, such as Carl Gerschman, Ben Wattenberg and Joshua Muravchik. The missionary progressive spirit behind the campaign for what by the 1980s came to be called “global democratic initiatives” bore a close resemblance rhetorically and in other ways to the Marxist Leninism, which at least initially the NED was intended to counter.

The religious spirit of this crusade, however, has continued to burn in American political culture, particularly in the Republican Party and among establishment conservative foundations and publications. Like medieval monarchs and churchmen who distinguished between themselves and heathens or infidels, democracy-boosters see themselves as the righteous true faith. The establishment conservative journalist Victor Davis Hanson divides up the world between “the civilized, democratic” parts and the “gangsters.” Presumably, there is nothing else that a decent country would want to be, except an imitation of contemporary America—as opposed to someone who supports or runs an undemocratic regime. The Republican presidential standard bearer in 2012 Mitt Romney had a book on foreign affairs ghost-written for him, which proposed that his country creates democracy inspectors for different parts of the world. By so doing, Romney’s government would have been able to provide itself with “windows” into the political souls of peoples and their leaders.

In the US and to some extent in England, democracy-boosters are associated with the free-enterprise Right. But there is nothing about their creed that is not radically leftist. It is intended as a global scheme of governance that contributes to secularism, equality, and the dissolution of traditional hierarchical relations. These are all parts of the democratic package that our “conservatives” hope to export to peoples who yearning to be liberated from the past.

What democratists wish to impose on others is far more than procedures for electing and replacing governments. They are pushing a program of modernization, and it is one that unfolds in such a way that what in the past would have counted as “democracy,” has become reactionary by present minimal democratic standards. Obviously, past popular regimes, although these restrictions would now offend, that did not grant women the franchise, restricted the vote to white males or members of an established church, or strictly limited eligibility for citizenship were not democratic by current definitions.  Inclusiveness, understood as expansive immigration, easy access to voting rights, and letting anyone who shows up at the polls vote, may now be requirements for getting into the democracy club. So are other, even more, advanced demands for getting good grades as a democracy, such as legalizing gay marriage, permitting gay pride parades in one’s capital city, and providing instruction on gay alternatives to heterosexual relations in publicly funded education.

Our GOP-“conservative” media have no reservations, however, when it comes to excoriating the governments of Russia, Serbia, Hungary and now Croatia for not being “democratic.” Apparently these deficiently democratic countries refuse to recognize gay marriage or to allow gay groups to organize parades that showcase their gayness. But the denial of a right to dissent is rarely brought up as an issue by our media, right or left when traditionalists and nationalists are silenced or treated as hate-mongers in progressive Western European democracies.  The reason is clear. Such people do not belong to our “democratic civilization,” which is a process that should carry us away from an oppressive past toward a more perfectly egalitarian future.

Pace the Wall Street Journal and other sister neoconservative publications, democracy does not merely provide the only “civilized” government. It is a step by step process for abolishing all hierarchies and national particularities inherited from an earlier time. The term “democratic capitalism,” popularized by the neoconservative Catholic theologian Michael Novak, is an equally misleading phrase. Democratic economics are redistributionist and increasingly monitored by a vast administrative state. This is not an accidental development but the inevitable result of a universal, non-discriminatory suffrage and the empowerment of “democratic” governments to redistribute earnings as an expression of fairness and social justice. It is also not fortuitous that democratic regimes create social policies that are intended to root out “prejudice.”  Democracy is about equality, not aristocratic honor, as Tocqueville presciently pointed out in the 1830s. Fighting discrimination by reconstructing social relations, starting with the family, is not incidental to modern democracy. It is a practice that defines the democratic essence, or as Aristotle puts in The Politics, the “ethos” of a regime, including that of our peculiarly intrusive, ultramodern “democratic civilization.”

One persistent misconception is that the current brand of democracy is an updated version of older forms of government that happily evolved into their present universalized, sensitized variant. The political theorist Leo Strauss and his influential disciples, to whom I have devoted a recent monograph, treat the American government and all other countries that we can bring up to speed, as realizations of the liberal democratic blueprint of the American founders.  Whatever was reactionary in the constitutional or political practices of earlier generations were removable defects in a system that was brought to a higher state of perfection with Abraham Lincoln’s re-founding of the American Republic. This “bloody sacrament” of civil war, as one Straussian, Harry Jaffa, has described our War Between the States, was the necessary price for making the commitment to universal equality central to our political life. We moved toward this goal by liberating slaves and making them full citizens. Presumably, the American civil rights movement and the later victories of the feminists seeking an end to gender discrimination were steps in the same salutary direction.

The problem with this tendentious argument is that it assumes a fit between the eighteenth-century liberal document that brought the American union into existence and later attempts to impose greater and greater equality by means of a centralized administrative state.  The bridge between the two, we are made to think, is provided by an expanding body of “human rights.” Whatever progressive changes modern democracy has brought about can be anchored in rhetorical abstractions, which are supposedly inherent in what the American Founders intended but never quite finished. The late Southern historian and professed reactionary Melvin E. Bradford was always bringing up the social context in which eighteenth century Americans gave themselves a ruling document. The political elites, who were mostly landowners and wealthy merchants, some of whom owned slaves, were not modern egalitarians. Nor is there any reason to assume that they’d be jubilating over what the US has become.

These early American leaders were mostly influenced by the English Whigs and distrusted the “Court” or what they deemed to be an overly centralized state. But this eighteenth century political liberals or transplanted English Whigs expressed no wish to invite the rest of the world in as their fellow-citizens or, any more than Aristotle, to encourage women and slaves to vote (regardless of how we view these issues—especially the latter two— today). Even late-eighteenth century Federalist centralizers, like Alexander Hamilton, who hoped to create a powerful nation state, were no more egalitarian than Wellington or Bismarck. A strong union, from this Federalist point of view, was needed to advance national commerce and furnish a military force that could keep foreign governments from encroaching on the newly formed United States.  None of the late eighteenth-century American nationalists, however, could conceivably have believed that they were establishing a centralized federal government in order to remove racial, gender, and other human inequalities. A major moral justification for modern democracy was conspicuously absent from their exertions.

Another prevalent misconception about our present form of democracy is the belief that it carries in its train the best of past human accomplishments. Modern democracy has allegedly preserved the legacies of Classical Greece, medieval theology and architecture, the poetry of Elizabethan England, the artistic masterpieces of Renaissance Italy, the philosophical and musical brilliance  of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Germany, the Russian novelists of the nineteenth century, etc., etc.  Our democratic culture has given enhanced meaning to all these products of haute culture by putting them into a truly civilized context.  Because of democracy, we now have it all, feminism, civil rights, anti-discrimination laws, everyone getting the vote, together with a general appreciation of the glories of the past.  There is, of course, some limited truth in these claims. In modern democratic societies, one finds a level of material prosperity that allows greater access to museums, concerts, and libraries than was possible in the past. The present widespread minimal literacy should also permit the recipients of mass education to read, with varying degrees of comprehension, literary classics. The question is whether these modern conditions have led to an enhancement of civilization or in a different direction, namely, toward a general dumbing down of cultural standards.

Arguably the forces of egalitarian democracy and life in a consumer society have produced a culture industry that caters to the lowest denominator. There is no reason to assume these developments have raised the general appreciation of the finest cultural products of the Western past. Nor is there reason to believe that without our present democratic government these products would be lost or buried under a tidal wave of barbarism. Moreover, the advances in technology that have made cultural products available to a broader and broader mass of people began in a pre-democratic society, as did capitalism and constitutional government. Certainly modern democracy did not produce these beneficial developments in Western countries that go back many centuries. The most that can be said about modern democracy in this regard is that it has allowed beneficial developments that were already underway to continue. It remains to be seen how much longer this will be the case as democracy undergoes further radicalization.

This brings me to the heart of my critical remarks, which is examining a lecture, “Why Democracy Will Last,” delivered at the Carleton Club in central London by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in November 1984. This oration is noteworthy because it is a profoundly flawed speech given by a courageous prime minister who undoubtedly believed every word of what she said. Fortunately, Mrs. Thatcher was much better at governing in a time of crisis than she was as a historian of modern democracy. In her speech, which ends with the hortatory passage, “Democracy does work and will endure. And we will defend it with our political lives,” every significant step in England’s journey toward constitutional government leads happily toward contemporary democracy. “Magna Carta 1215, Simon de Montfort’s Parliament in 1265, Habeas Corpus in 1679, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, leading to universal suffrage,” all of these were “landmarks” in the evolution of democratic government.  Taking the long view of England since the thirteenth century, Thatcher notes with hindsight: “And even if we look at the kind of representative democracy which we practice in Britain today, we realize how long has been the road from Runnymede.”  This self-enhancing process seems to have culminated in a reform that took place during Thatcher’s lifetime, “votes for women under thirty.” “It was as late as 1950—by which time university seats had been abolished—that the first election was held, based on the principle of one person, one vote. 1950.”

This process from Runnymede on, according to Thatcher, incorporated all the high points in English history, the teachings of the Old and New Testaments, and the belief that “rights are God-given, and not State-given.” Thatcher feels it necessary to point to all those achievements for the reason that democracy is now under attack from its enemies: “the economic enemies of democracy are those who would impose on people systems of production and distribution based on compulsion, not people’s choice.” She is also concerned about willful minorities, presumably the trade union leaders whom she was then opposing, who wish to “rob us of our economic freedoms.” These powerbrokers were acting against the democratic majority and supposedly against the principle of freedom, which, according to Thatcher, undergirds democracy.

This political stem-winder begs a number of questions that need to be asked about what Thatcher describes as “one of the rarer forms of government.” Why does Mrs. Thatcher insist that democracy and economic freedom go inseparably together? One could argue far more plausibly that democracy leads to socialism, indeed that the wider the democratic suffrage the more likely it will be that voters support a state that promises greater economic equality and an expanding variety of social programs.  Devices for limiting government in a modern democracy are what Bertrand de Jouvenel in Du Pouvoir characterizes as a “makeweight,” countervailing institutions and practices that are left over from a pre-democratic and even medieval past.

Equally questionable is the extravagant version of what Herbert Butterfield styled “the Whig Theory of History” which Thatcher puts at the center of her presentation. She evokes an extravagant narrative of Progress that conveniently ends where she wants, namely, with the extension of the franchise to women under thirty and the abolition of corporate seats for universities. Why couldn’t this development have ended somewhere else, perhaps where Thomas Babbington Macauley put it, with the English Reform Act of 1832—and not one step beyond?  Indeed, lots of first-rate thinkers like G.W. F. Hegel, Walter Bagehot, and Francois Guizot, were convinced that the most advanced stage of freedom had been reached in their age, and these theorists made cases for their interpretations that were at least as sophisticated as Thatcher’s glorification of the age of universal suffrage.  Nineteenth-century liberals and conservatives, with some warrant, believed that universalizing the vote would open governments to radical changes that would weaken or abolish historic, prescriptive freedoms. They would not have been all that surprised to discover they were right, as they observed the redistributionist and social engineering policies and more recently, the PC restrictions on speech and thought that democratic reforms have brought into existence.

Finally, Thatcher seems to underestimate the radical thrust of modern liberal democracies, which show less and less evidence of their old liberal or conservative makeweights. The lines of continuity that Thatcher imagines go from Runnymede (she quotes Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Reeds of Runnymede” with great enthusiasm) to present-day democracy have become noticeably blurred. And this is understandable. The inhabitants of Britain have moved from a feudal society in which an ethnic nation was taking the form to a vast administrative government preaching multiculturalism and social equality.  If we are supposed to be witnessing what Burke described as “the stupendous wisdom,” of a contract binding together the living, the dead, and the yet unborn, I’m afraid that I don’t see any sign of it. And I doubt that Burke would.

Pardon me for believing that American neoconservatives, some of them associated with our National Endowment for Democracy, grasp the real trajectory of democracy over the last century. These democracy-worshippers are not looking at nineteenth-century Whig historians whose progressivism they are trying to bring up to date.  Like Ben Wattenberg, they are looking at an America which they hope will lead “the global community” “perhaps as a top cop but surely as a powerful global organizer.” In that capacity, the American government can play a “visionary” role by “spreading democratic and American values around the world.” Ledeen, who was a Reagan advisor on foreign affairs, pooh-poohs the idea that American democracy seeks to preserve the past. As he explained in a book on combatting terrorism in 2002, “Creative destruction is our middle name both within our own society and abroad.”

One can find hundreds of similar quotations from democracy-boosters who enjoyed national prominence during the decade of Reagan and Thatcher. These idolaters dwell appropriately on the explosive, leveling and (dare one say?) aggressive force that democracy has become, particularly when linked to an ideologically driven superpower.  A question that Mrs. Thatcher never bothers to ask because it is inconsistent with her view is this: Will democracy as it modernizes her country and the US unleash more “creative destruction” at home or abroad. The jury is still out on that question.

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