Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“What is Liberal Democracy? Exploring a Problematic Term,” By Paul Gottfried

This essay was authored by Paul Gottfried for Nomocracy in Politics

As a young faculty member at Rockford College forty years ago, my divisional chairman, who was a devout Straussian, once told me that a faculty colleague did not believe in “liberal democracy.” I’ve no idea how my superior arrived at this discovery, but he was clearly incensed and felt “real enmity” for people who didn’t see any difference between “liberal democracy and other forms of government.” My superior also shared with me a text he was then working on that showed definitively that Marx “rejected liberal democracy.” The strange thing is that up until the moment I listened to these harangues, I had never encountered the term “liberal democracy” and when I first heard it used (at age thirty-one), I thought it was a reference to Democrats who had endorsed George McGovern.

I thereupon began to research the operative term and learned that it was of fairly recent origin. Clearly, Madison and Hamilton didn’t come up with it when they described the nascent American regime in The Federalist. Appeals to “democracy” by Jefferson and Jackson were to a populist spirit, not to a hallowed form of government. Lincoln may have come closer to defining a democratic commitment based on natural rights, but one has to understand the Gettysburg Address for what it was, namely as wartime rhetoric invoking what are dressed up as universal ideals. These universal egalitarian ideals and the move toward what Oakeshottians would consider a “telocratic” regime were certainly implicit in Lincoln’s view of democracy. But if one looks at the American government under Garfield or Cleveland, one might ask whether presidential control in the late nineteenth century was much more visible than it had been under Martin Van Buren or Millard Fillmore.

I fully agree with Gary Wills, Martin Luther King, and Harry Jaffa that the promise of fashioning an American regime based on the ideal of equality took generations to achieve even after it was proclaimed in Lincoln’s oratory. I also concur with the judgment that once that process began the United States turned increasingly into an ideologically driven country. Still, as early as the beginning of the last century, according to Robert Nisbet and Forrest McDonald, the major involvement of the federal government in our lives was the collection and delivery of mail. This was long after the Southern states were kept from seceding, with devastating force, and long after Lincoln had proclaimed a “new birth” for a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

A recent visit to Wikipedia left me with the impression that the concept “liberal democracy” had something to do with the Progressive Era and with the efforts of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to reconfigure American republican government to fit the needs of an urban, industrial society. In my book After Liberalism (Princeton, 1999), I refer to this temporal link as something axiomatic. All the same, I couldn’t quite trace “liberal democracy” in the United States back to the early twentieth century, and except for some fleeting references made by leftwing English Hegelian T. H. Green around 1910, I’ve still not found hymns to “liberal democracy” in the time period in which I originally looked. When I recently asked my young friend Keith Preston, who has written critically on the subject, when “liberal democracy” first became popular, I discovered that Keith had learned about it from a tract published in the 1980s, by Catholic neoconservative Michael Novak. He had also read my relevant studies and assumed that I knew when the term first came into use. Actually, I didn’t.

What I do know is that as late as April 1918 when William Tyler Page produced “The American Creed,” which Congress more or less adopted as a “National Creed” in the midst of America’s entanglement in World War I, the United States was thought to be “a democracy in a republic, a sovereign nation of many sovereign states, a perfect Union one and inseparable.” Although this mishmash of borrowings from Daniel Webster, Abraham Lincoln, and the Declaration of Independence is hardly an endorsement of limited constitutional government and is exactly what one would expect to find as an accompaniment to a military crusade for democracy, it is significant that the American Creed nowhere refers to America as a “liberal democracy.” Presumably, the origins, at least as a popular concept, of what my superior at Rockford College wished the entire world to accept as a deity must be sought at some later point in time.

One might note that the unabridged Webster Dictionary (2014) provides a definition of “liberal democracy” and six instances in which the term has been applied. The term refers to a “democratic system of representative government in which individual rights and civil liberties are officially recognized and protected, and the exercise of political power is limited by the rule of law.” Except for the adjective “democratic,” inserted into the first line, this definition could easily apply to a variety of regimes limited by law (Rechtsstaat) and by the recognition of established minorities. The question is whether the implementation of majority popular rule strengthens or weakens the other prerequisites for self-limiting constitutional government. Majoritarian government without traditional qualifications on the franchise could result in the kind of government that attacks property and other rights that are associated with privilege.

Curiously, we find no more than three references in Webster to instances of “liberal democracy” before 1930, when it was famously contrasted to Italian fascist rule in the Journal of Modern History. (Mussolini popularized the term under discussion in contrasting the efficiency and supposed incorruptibility of his post-parliamentary Italian government with what had preceded it.) Two of the six references have been produced since 1992, and the last is from the New York Review of Books in 2009, which identifies “liberal democracy” with the protection of minorities. Given the source, it is reasonable to think those groups we are urged to protect are neither fundamentalist Christians nor the Little Sisters of the Poor.

The only reference to “liberal democracy” that seems in any way noteworthy is from John Adams’s Definition of Constitutional Government in the US, in a narrative that recounts Adams’s visit to the Basque region of Spain (then known as Biskaia) in the 1780s. Adams expresses his admiration for the resolve of the native population to acquire more regional independence but complains that what appears to be “liberal democracy” in the view of Basque separatists is really “a contracted aristocracy.” Unlike the Americans, the inhabitants of Biskaia were not trying to create a fair representative government but were only interested in restoring the hereditary privileges of their landed class. Whether or not this was a fair characterization of the political aspirations of the Basques is beside the point. What stands out is Adams’s favorable reference to “liberal democracy.”

Two points need to be made with reference to this quotation. One, the writer is not delineating the features of the American federal union that was then taking shape but indicating what the Basque plan for self-rule was not. Basque autonomists were not democrats; nor did they intend to protect minorities who might have been living in their region. Two, Adams himself was hardly an unqualified fan of popular rule; and as he grew older, he surpassed even European counterrevolutionaries in his stated disdain for government by the people. In an oft-quoted letter to John Taylor in 1814, Adams states these choice opinions: “Democracy, while it lasts, is bloodier than either aristocracy or monarchy. Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” These passages would hardly encourage an American dedication to democracy as an absolute value. And they clearly have nothing in common with Allan Bloom’s exhortations to America in The Closing of the American Mind to impose “democracy and human rights” on unreceptive societies as “an educational experience,” if necessary by military force.

I would suggest the term “liberal democracy” has gained currency for two reasons. One is its vagueness: it can be made to mean what the speaker wants it to mean. Not surprisingly, one finds if one goes online numerous meanings given to “liberal democracy,” from freedom and equality combined with some kind of representative government protecting minority rights to a government that redistributes income to provide for the needs of the majority. There are also references to how democracy and liberalism fuse on the way to becoming social democracy. Sometimes “liberal democratic” government is linked to a linguistic, geographic context, as one discovers in the neoconservative press. There “liberal democracy” is made synonymous with the political practices of the Anglosphere, an appellation that designates the United States, Canada, England, and other English-speaking regions. These regions are all blessed by a shared political culture, which is called tout simple “liberal democracy.” As I state in After Liberalism, the concept we are supposed to celebrate refers to certain regions in the Western world and their cultural extensions, no matter what their political arrangements may have looked like up until a few decades ago. Fans of the Anglosphere avail themselves of the same characterization, whether they’re talking about an aristocratic oligarchy, bourgeois liberal monarchy, or a multicultural managerial state. All these distinctive ruling arrangements are routinely subsumed under the category “liberal democracy,” viewed in various stages of development toward its present advanced state.

This brings us to the second reason that “liberal democracy” has caught on. It expresses a value judgment for what certain people are praising and the implementation of which is equivalent to political salvation. No one but a fool could imagine that the term we are discussing is purely descriptive. It is a god term, on the altar of which the worshipper can never slay enough fattened calves. “Liberal democratic” has been made to serve a number of political purposes, but the key thing is its invariably polemical character.

For example, in Liberal Democracy and Political Science (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), James W. Ceaser, a Straussian professor at the University of Virginia, sets out to demonstrate the necessary conceptual bridge between liberal democracy and a “special kind of political knowledge” that can help “maintain” the ideology that Ceaser is defending (19). The Federalist and the American founders were not indifferent to the question of moral character that was essential to their enterprise, yet they focused mostly on the mechanics of government. It awaited Tocqueville, who was “the first political philosopher of liberal democracy” to fill in the blanks. Tocqueville set the requirements for the emerging democratic regime, which was to be a way of life, by stressing the need to combine “a degree of civic-mindedness which is fairly widespread among the citizenry” with a “jealous spirit of independence” (16, 143, 170). Tocqueville knew this combination might be difficult to achieve and so his other accomplishment as a “political philosopher” (please note this peculiarly Straussian usage) was to call for the “active engagement in society of a certain kind of knowledge” (23).

Ceaser stresses the value of “political moderation,” seen as “the proper arrangement of the political institutions” and “a separation of power, which forces ambitions to counteract ambition.” Such a balance among the parts of the constitutional system will “teach leaders a sense of their limits.” But even more important, he argues, is the “quality of life” that is needed to sustain liberal democracy. Although some have believed that once set into operation the desired regime will continue to function, according to Ceaser, “liberal democracy requires constant superintendence even if its political institutions have been wisely designed” (20). Supposedly Hamilton and Madison wished to establish a “liberal democracy,” even if they never chanced on this felicitous term. The union they worked to achieve was to be “complex and skillfully contrived,” and because of this complexity, their mode of government “has greater need of political science” (22).

Moreover, the regime in question “often fails to generate enthusiasm for itself as an integral whole.” That is because intellectuals are too fixed on particular aspects and fail to show sufficient respect for “the compound” that resulted from the efforts of the Founders. Finally, liberal democracy, in what may be a lapse of judgment on the part of the governed, accords its critics “status and acclaim, elevating some to the very highest positions in the intellectual world.” This we are told is a grave problem. Academics should be rising to a task they have thus far largely ignored, which is creating a “social enterprise,” “devoted to understanding the nature of democracy and bringing that knowledge to bear on its behalf” (24).

If one can get beyond the spectacle of another professionally successful Straussian complaining about his uncooperative colleagues, one is struck here by Ceaser’s recycling of an argument that Leo Strauss directed against the American Political Science association in the 1960s. In this series of attacks, which is discussed at length in Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America, Strauss is enraged by “value-free analysis” and by the failure of his colleagues to recognize that “democracy is the tacit presupposition of the data.” Particularly when democracy is under attack, it is morally irresponsible, or so argues Strauss, to have professors “teaching the equality of all values” and refusing to make clear that “there are things that are intrinsically high and others that are intrinsically low.” Ceaser’s comments about political science as a social enterprise are only a slightly modified restatement of Strauss’s indictment of political scientists for not being engaged in the appropriate struggle.

Let me point out that much of what Ceaser advocates in the last two sections of his tract is a sensible plea for limited, decentralized government. What he delineates as his preferred “liberal democratic” government, particularly the re-empowerment of localities, would please me immensely, if this reform were still possible, which I doubt is the case (173‒74). Less attractive are the tiresomely didactic character of his work, the attempt to redefine the original American design through the neologism “liberal democracy,” and the effort to transform political science into a Straussian enterprise. George W. Carey subtitled his learned study of The Federalist (University of Illinois, 1989) “Design for a Constitutional Republic.” As George indicated to me in a letter attached to a copy of the book, he was trying throughout his study “to ignore the Straussians.” Nowhere in his book does he mention a term that bothered him no less than it does me.

Another illustrative tribute to liberal democracy is in a work by Hudson Institute Fellow John Fonte, published in 2012, which made its appearance to the resounding cheers of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and other neoconservative foundations, and which centers on the supposed struggle between the forces of “sovereignty” and “submission.” Although Fonte raises a justified call to protect American sovereignty against what he calls “transnational progressivism,” the battle lines may not be as clearly demarcated as Fonte suggests. Both Fonte’s allies and their adversaries, whom he sees as located mostly in nonprofit organizations that claim a global reach, embrace the same human rights doctrines. Both consider government to be an invention intended to bring the blessings of equal rights to more and more of the human race. Where the difference comes into play is that American liberal democrats, unlike the new globalists, view the sovereign American state as a more realistic vehicle for achieving their purpose than free-floating intellectuals purporting to represent humanity. One might applaud this realistic judgment, but one should also recognize that what we are beholding on the level of political principle is mostly an intramural fight. Unlike Fonte, the transnational progressives are globalists in a hurry.

I raise these observations to underline the uniformly polemical character of “liberal democracy.” Whether we are referring to antifascists in the 1930s, Cold War liberals like Zbigniew Brzezinski writing about the “totalitarian” threat to democracy, or Straussians and neoconservatives trying to devise a pedigree for their political preferences, the practice is the same. The glorification of liberal democracy always takes place in the context of opposing something we’re supposed to be against. This tendency is carefully examined by Keith Preston in a recently published collection of essays, Attack the System, which deals frontally with the problem of political controls. Preston links the celebration of “liberal democracy” to a ruling coalition of powers, which is always on the lookout for unwanted critics. The rulers of our “democratic capitalist welfare state,” to borrow a phrase from Irving Kristol, view their power base as broad enough so that those relatively few who stand in irreconcilable opposition are turned into enemies of liberal democracy. What else could these troublemakers possibly be?

Preston makes clear that this hegemony rests on a recognizable power base consisting of multinational corporate interests; the teachers of politically correct doctrines, who dominate educational institutions and the media; and a vast administrative class. Although tensions surface among those in the power-sharing structure, the parts of the whole cooperate more often than they fight. Preston identifies liberal democracy with “democratic capitalism” and its attendant ills,

egalitarianism, consumerism, and therapeutism (as opposed to merit, responsibility, and frugality). It is considered the sacred duty of the state to provide everyone with ‘equal rights’ and not only the pursuit of happiness but happiness itself. Theoretically, this is to be done through a generalized ethos of materialism and consumption to the point of gluttony, endless psychological conditioning and a Nanny State resolved to protect everyone from falling into ‘unhappiness’ as a result of poverty, illness, racism, sexism, or drug addiction (395). 

Preston sees this dynamic working through mass democracy, “which requires the radical expansion of the state in order to satisfy the demands for state assistance from all of these groups and the creation of massive bureaucracies in order to manage the distribution of state services.”(395)

The modern constellation of powers under examination allegedly goes back to the movement from a mercantile republic, which Preston links to the original Constitution, to a “more egalitarian system of government, an increasingly diverse population base, and a broad consumer economy.” Preston views this system as veering toward “PC [politically correct] totalitarianism,” by imposing a form of thought control that has been, at most, minimally opposed. And he treats the mechanisms and content of the thought control as an American adaptation of cultural Marxism, which the ruling class has gladly accommodated:

The radicals of the sixties have gotten older, grayer, and wealthier, they have gone on to form a new kind of cultural and intellectual establishment, largely by securing their own dominance within the worlds of academia, media, and entertainment. Further, the end result of this dominance has been that this new Cultural Left Establishment has formed an alliance with the older, pre-existing political, economic, and military establishment. What the proponents of the sixties cultural revolution have, in essence, done is rather than overthrow the US empire, they have seized control of that empire and are using it for their purposes, which may or may not overlap with the interests of the older establishment. The creeping totalitarianism we see evolving today is an outgrowth of Marxism, not necessarily in the orthodox socialist sense, but in the reapplication of Marxist theory in cultural matters, where the “official victims” of western civilization replace the proletariat as the focus of a Manichean struggle for political power. (267)

Preston summarizes the “ideology of the Western, particularly American, ruling class” by enumerating its essential features: “militarism, imperialism, and empire in the guise of human rights, corporate mercantilism or state capitalism under the guise of ‘free trade,’” “totalitarian humanism” which empowers an “all-encompassing and unaccountable bureaucracy to peer into every corner of society to make sure no one anywhere, anytime ever practices ‘racism,’ sexism, smoking, ‘sex abuse,’ or other such leftist sins,” and a “police state designed to protect everyone from terrorism, crime, drugs, gangs, or some other bogeyman of the month.” Presumably any “competing institution” that stands in the way of this “liberal democratic” ruling order will have to be cut down to size or, if possible, abolished.

Certainly it is possible to question whether the “system” Preston examines functions as harmoniously or as relentlessly as he suggests. One might ask whether those who coexist as parts of the ruling class necessarily see themselves as such. Does a government enforcer of laws against sexism view herself as an ally in a broad coalition with Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, and Rupert Murdoch? Said feminist and corporate moguls may be only accidental allies in a socio-political or cultural system that the participants may not even be aware they belong to. Advocates of multicultural transformation, corporate executives, and public officials may not grasp the extent of their shared interests and could well be hostile to others in the system they shape. Only those standing outside the interrelated power structure may be able to understand how the parts fit together.

There is also no compelling reason I can find to believe that corporate executives take leftist social positions because they are deeply convinced of their truth. Far more likely, they are taking these positions to sell their products with minimal inconvenience or because they are afraid of the consequences of offending the government. As hard as this may be for some to believe, businessmen are rarely ideologically driven. Was Mitt Romney, a corporate executive who ran for president in 2008 and who went out of his way in debates with the incumbent to endorse certain advanced “women’s issues,” a committed feminist? There may be a more obvious reason why Romney took this path of accommodation. He was hoping to win a presidential election by appealing to his opponent’s base while holding on to his own. Did the executives at Coca-Cola withdraw financial contribution from the Boy Scouts of America because they were morally offended that the organization had not accepted openly homosexual scoutmasters? Or were they trying to avoid a confrontation with the social Left that might impact the sales of their teeth-rotting beverage? Going along with a particular ideology need not be interpreted as an enthusiastic expression of support. It may betoken nothing more than an instinctive avoidance of conflict.

Even more to the point, certain interests can work together, as they do in “liberal democracy,” without necessarily being in every significant way in sync. Historian Renzo di Felice cites the case of Italian fascism, which managed to bring together in loose alliance the Italian upper- and lower-middle classes. This was unprecedented in Italian politics since the unification of the country in 1871, and Mussolini managed it by appealing to all elements of the bourgeoisie as a figure of order, who would protect Italy against anarchist violence. The fascists, however, also promised social programs that attracted the lower-middle class and even some members of the working class. But, as Felice notes, there is no reason to imagine that Mussolini was really reconciling social classes. He simply marketed himself as a leader who would safeguard order while pursuing a policy of collective social responsibility.

In the coalition of forces that dominate liberal democracy in its present incarnation, one need not look for deep friendship among the constituent members. It is a coalition held together by a collection of interests that sometimes intersect and that work together in particular circumstances. Public sector employees and culturally radical journalists and academics may rail in unison against fat-cat businessmen and call for marching on Wall Street to punish malefactors of great wealth. But they certainly realize, to whatever extent they can think rationally, that their own money and influence would be endangered if the capitalists they denounce did not generate revenues and keep the public happy with consumer goodies. An active market economy is necessary for all participants in the coalition to prosper, however vehemently some elements within this coalition may vent against sexist, racist, or homophobic business types.

The business and corporate community cooperate because they have no choice. The government and the culture-education industry treat them, at least in public statements, as pariahs, and both of the major political parties shake down the rich for contributions. Although Wall Street and American corporations are full of cultural leftists earning large incomes and pursuing sybaritic lifestyles, there is no evidence that everything the Left is pushing meets the needs of the wealthy and commercially oriented. Cheap foreign labor and massive immigration do; and so conceivably does having women in the workplace generating more incomes that can be spent on consumer acquisitions. But do corporations really want the government investigating them for gender or racial discrimination, vetting the composition of their workforce, or requiring them to spend large sums on sensitivity-training classes? Are corporate executives waiting in line to make contributions to race hustlers like Jesse Jackson, who threaten to expose them as “racists” unless they cough up “antiracist” bribe money? Big business puts up with other members of its coalition the way liquor and cleaning store owners used to pay the mob to “protect” them against disaster. Occasionally the recipients of the bribes did really protect their clients, if some other group tried to muscle in.

Allow me to make one exception (and one could cite other exceptions) to this description of how the business sector relates to the rest of the ruling coalition in “liberal democracy.” Here I am speaking about the defense industries and their neoconservative promoters (Preston mentions both as leading beneficiaries of the system). These groups in particular can never lose as long as the country is planning or fighting wars, adventures that are usually carried out to promote some putatively universal goal. The neoconservatives, according to Preston, are particularly adept at pushing certain buttons. They work together to call for military intervention, whichever party happens to be in power, and enjoy what seems an irremovable lock hold on foreign policy in the Republican Party.

One reason neoconservatives do so well is because they pitch their belligerent rhetoric to whatever is a popular theme at the moment. Whether they’re talking about freedom, global democracy, or more recently, internationally recognized expressive rights for gays and the inviolate human right of half-naked exhibitionists to desecrate Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, these advocates call for confrontations with the enemies of the “West.” This all-purpose trope means what the neoconservatives and their media want it to mean. It is part of an assemblage of terms whence a politically and journalistically powerful group extracts benefit. It is furthermore the idiom of what Franco-Italian Marxist Constanzo Preve characterizes as “la théologie interventionniste des droits de l’homme,” a vocabulary trotted out to justify America’s mission to meddle internationally as an exercise in self-validating virtue. “The West,” “human rights,” and the defense of “liberal democracy” all fit into this peculiar mode of discourse—and invariably into a context of unending struggle shaped by a particular segment of the socio-political elite.

Paul Gottfried is Emeritus Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, as well as a Guggenheim recipient. His recent book, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal, is now available in paperback and for Kindles at affordable pricing.

An earlier version of this essay was presented at the recent Ciceronian Society Conference.

4 Responses to ““What is Liberal Democracy? Exploring a Problematic Term,” By Paul Gottfried”

  1. bobcheeks

    I never fail to learn from Professor Gottfried. This particular analysis explains a great deal that I missed in my relations with the PostModern Conservative website. I might ask, what is the Straussian Telos if their ‘tension of existence’ is collapsed by the abnegation of transcendence?

  2. bmr225

    You do realize that for Strauss, “democracy” as “the tacit presupposition of the data” is the problem, right? He wanted a less democratic version of liberal democracy, one in which the presupposition of equality in the institutions didn’t map completely onto society (though he would not have viewed the two (society and government) as wholly separable). He was not a partisan of liberal democracy, obvious to anyone without blinders on. He wanted it defended better because it was the best possible regime under the circumstances and also vulnerable to the utopian ambitions of communism. If he was a partisan of anything, it was the statesman’s prudence and hence no particular regime.

    • gabe


      good take on Strauss.
      in fact, if i recall correctly, he took some heat for not being sufficiently “evangelical” about the American regime!


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