The Long View: Democracy and Populism

This is the money quote, John Reilly paraphrasing John Lukacs:

If you believe the author, the president of the United States is one of the two monarchs remaining in the world; the other is the pope. The presidency differs from the papacy in that its operation is becoming increasingly medieval. The president no longer administers a government, but is surrounded by an immense crowd of courtiers, whose interest is not so much government but the president's repute.

Don't say you weren't warned.

Democracy and Populism:
Fear & Hatred
By John Lukacs
Yale University Press, 2005
248 Pages, US$25.00
ISBN 0-300-10773-0


Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States in 1831 to study the penal system. He duly produced a report on that subject, but the chief fruit of that trip was Democracy in America, a book which sought to answer the question, “Is democracy compatible with liberty?” Somewhat surprisingly for his French readership, the answer was “yes,” at least in the American context. However, the book's qualifications and dark intimations, partly about democracy and partly about America, have kept commentators parsing the text ever since.

In Democracy and Populism, John Lukacs continues the tradition, with the emphasis on the dark intimations. The book is really a set of meditations on how terms like “conservative,” “liberal,” “national,” and “popular” have changed meaning over the past 200 years: at times, the book is an exercise in lexicography. However, there is a thesis, which is that liberal democracy in America is finally giving way to nationalist populism, a century and a half after the rise of populist nationalism began in parts of Europe. Lukacs is disenthused with President George W. Bush and such of his works as Lukacs can bring himself to mention, but he does not blame any individual or party. Rather, the devolution of democracy is a feature of the end of the modern age.

The terms Right and Left still have meaning, but we are cautioned to keep in mind that their content and their trajectories change over time. When Tocqueville was alive, there still were people who were of the traditional Right. They opposed electoral democracy and proposed to defend historical forms of society based on status. The Left they opposed was united chiefly by its belief in progress. It included Liberals, who were interested in extending personal freedoms to an ever-widening fraction of the population. It also the proponents of popular sovereignty, who were keen on advancing the economic and cultural integration of the new nation state. The Liberals and the Populists ran in tandem for many years. In the second half of the 19th century, they tended to sort themselves out into Socialists and Nationalists respectively, with the Classical Liberals gradually becoming irrelevant as their institutional reforms succeeded. During the 20th century, the Nationalists defeated the Socialists by absorbing their programs: Hitler was as much a child of the French Revolution as Stalin was.

In the early democratic period, it was the aggressive Left that hated and the Right that feared. After about 1870, the situation reversed, at least in Europe. Populist nationalism did many good things, but there was always an element in it of hatred: hatred for foreign things, certainly, but also hatred for those members of the national community who were insufficiently national. Patriotism and nationalism always overlap, but patriots had always been more concerned with concrete things they like about their country, and far less with abstractions that distinguished it from other countries. The Left, in contrast, and especially the Left in power, was driven in part by its dread of reactionaries, but chiefly by its terrified sense that it was not really well liked by the populace it claimed to represent. In Lukacs' telling, their fear was well justified. He also allows that fear is the beginning of wisdom.

In today's world, there are few Conservatives in a sense with which Lukacs can identify. In an American context, the term means a free marketeer with some optional suggestions about how other people should conduct their private lives. However, he does propose this use of the term: a Conservative is someone who believes in Truth, while a Liberal is someone who believes in Justice. It is a feature of the world at the end of the modern age, as Lukacs would have it, that quite a bit of justice is available, more than ever before. However, “all over this world hang enormous and depressing clouds of publicly propagated untruths.”

By “the modern era,” Lukacs means for the most part “the European Age,” from about 1500 to 2000. Particularly interesting, though, are his references to the “modernity within modernity,” the self-conscious “modernism” that began after the First World War and enjoyed what Lukacs holds to be a vulgar revival in the 1960s. He points out that the pre-modernist works of James Joyce, such as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, have aged pretty well, while Ulysses has become a period piece. More generally, he says that the modernist era was the last time when artists could claim, in Ezra Pound's phrase, to be the “antennae of society.” By the end of the century, art had become too sodden by commerce to cast shadows of things to come.

In this book, Lukacs continues his polemic against progress, or against what he calls “the myth of progress.” Both Communism and anti-Communism were informed by the premise that history was progressive. I find this particularly notable, since certainly there were anticommunists who believed their cause gained an added measure of nobility from the very fact that history had doomed it to ultimate failure. On the other hand, and this interests Lukacs more, anticommunism became not just a feature, but the key component of the new “Conservatism” in America in the last half of the 20th century. This Conservatism was in fact remarkably “Leftist” in the sense that Tocqville would have understood. Whatever its other concerns, it had no interest in conserving things, natural or human.

One notes how many horrible things over the past two centuries have turned out to be less formidable than was supposed at first. In the midst of a rather damning critique of Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, for instance, Lukacs observes that her prediction that totalitarian states would become more extreme with the passage of time was disconfirmed within five years of the publication of the book, when the Khrushchev Thaw began in the Soviet Union.

He proposes counterfactuals that suggest ours is far from the worst of all possible worlds. Suppose that revolutions of Lenin and Kerensky had not occurred, and the Czarist Autocracy had been one of the victors at Versailles. Yalta in 1918 might have been substantially worse than Yalta in 1943, if for no other reason than that the division of Europe might then have been sustainable.

Also, Tocqueville was correct when he astonished his contemporaries by predicting that major political revolutions would become less common in advanced countries. This is because, in a condition of popular sovereignty, there is nowhere to stand against popular sentiment, whose very ubiquity tends to slow the development of ideas. The near disappearance of persons of genuinely independent mind is one of the key features of our present situation, which Lukacs does not consider altogether happy or promising.

If you believe the author, the president of the United States is one of the two monarchs remaining in the world; the other is the pope. The presidency differs from the papacy in that its operation is becoming increasingly medieval. The president no longer administers a government, but is surrounded by an immense crowd of courtiers, whose interest is not so much government but the president's repute.

This brings us to the most recent stage in the devolution of democracy, the one that troubles Lukacs the most. It was bad enough that the conflicts over policy that characterized the 19th century became, by the middle of the 20th century, a politics of popularity. That, at least, had historical precedent. The more disturbing transition was the change from the search for popularity to the generation of celebrity. On a practical level, celebrity has even less connection with a candidate's abilities and intentions than does his popularity. However, Lukacs finds something genuinely uncanny about the phenomenon of celebrity. To him, it smacks of the glamour of Antichrist, an association he says may not, in the long run, turn out to be altogether metaphorical.

As we have noted, Democracy and Populism does not present a connected argument, but a series of meditations on the mutability of the meaning of political language. So, strictly speaking, there is nothing to refute. Still, one cannot help but notice that, in many respects, Lukacs has simply not been paying attention.

His assertion that the Bush Administration decided on war in Iraq “for the main purpose of being popular” is nonsense on stilts. The war was the implementation of the recommendations of a school of policy that goes back to his father's administration. The current president's predecessor tried to implement this course, but could not do so because he could not generate the domestic support. The policy may be right or wrong, but the choice to implement it, far from pandering to public opinion, was the sort of thing one might have expected from a Viennese Habsburg before 1848, in an age when it was still possible to conduct high policy without regard to what the public thought. That would, actually, be more consistent with Lukacs' thesis that premodern conditions will return as the modern age ends.

The author goes on at length about the overwhelming influence of the media and its ability to stifle dissent before it even begins, so much so that the regime can ignore the small independent press. Is it really possible that he does not know that the major news media and the entertainment industry promote a politics quite inconsistent with the views of the Republican Party? About the blogosphere I will not speak: the term “Internet” does not even occur in the Index. Similarly, the author takes many pages to bemoan the rise in criminality as a mark of the decline of the state. And that was true, through the 1970s and 1980s. The situation turned around in the 1990s, at least in most of the United States. The civil peace may not hold, of course, but the notion that lawlessness is an irreversible trend has been as decisively refuted as the unstoppable march of totalitarianism.

Regarding the future, the author asserts at one point: “A new barbarian feudalism is bound to come in the future: but not yet.” If you wait long enough, I suppose anything will happen, including barbarian feudalism, but there is nothing in the current state of the West, or even of the world as a whole, to suggest that Mad Max will appear on the horizon anytime soon: quite the opposite. The trend toward the integration of the human race, which goes under names like “globalization” and “Americanization,” is quite real, and in that sense progress is real, too, even if you don't like where it is going. Lukacs aspires to speak for the universal perspective of the Catholic Church, and even of the Habsburg tradition. Surely such a perspective should see the potential for more in the world of the early 21st century than for mere chaos.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site