The War over Liberal Democracy

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February 11, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: WarDemocracyConservativeLiberalCivilization

The War over Liberal Democracy

The Catholic medieval project, for all its achievements, ultimately failed to uphold one of the most transformative ideas of the Jewish and Christian traditions: the freedom and dignity of every human soul.

Yet their theorizing seems grossly disconnected from the concrete advances in the defense of human freedom and dignity made possible by political liberalism—what one reviewer for The Weekly Standard calls “a crime against memory.” There is, indeed, an absence of gratitude: a flippant indifference to the courageous and hard-fought battles of earlier generations to advance the cause of freedom. Lacking a deep sense of the historical challenges to sustaining a just society, the naysayers are prepared to curse the entire liberal democratic endeavor.

In this, they seem to have joined the ranks of the aggrieved utopians who typically populate the cultural left. “If the American right wants to copy all the flaws of the New Left, I guess the republic will survive,” writes Alan Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston College, for Commonweal Magazine. “But it sure would be nice to have a conservatism that takes reality seriously.” The conservative fatalism of Deneen, Dreher and company provides yet another example of why sustained attention to our civilization’s achievements, as well as its shortcomings, is the first requirement of responsible citizenship.

America’s Jewish community bears witness to that history. Nowhere outside of Israel have the Jewish people found a more welcoming political community. The reason, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, can be found in the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Sacks explains that these truths “are anything but self-evident. They would have been unintelligible to Plato, to Aristotle, or to every hierarchical society the world has ever known. They are self-evident only to people, to Jews and Christians, who have internalized the Hebrew Bible.”

The modern crisis of liberalism is real enough, but its critics seem too embittered to offer a realistic path forward. Their disillusionment is not unlike that of a century ago, in the aftermath of the First World War. Book titles published in the 1920s and 1930s tell the tale: The End of the World; The Decay of Capitalist Civilization; The Twilight of the White Races; The Ordeal of This Generation; Modern Civilization on Trial; The Problem of Decadence; and Spengler’s The Decline of the West, to name just a few. For many authors and intellectuals, the problem was liberal democracy itself. Socialists, communists and fascists seized upon this disillusionment, and we know the rest of the story: the only forces that stood between civilization and barbarism were the defenders of the liberal democratic order.

This salient historical fact helps to define our own situation: an age of failed states, radical Islamic jihad and authoritarian aggression. The fiercest critics of the liberal project—from either the political left or right—typically have little personal experience with societies that lack democratic norms. They seem unable to imagine what the international order would look like absent the powerful influence of the Western conception of natural rights and human equality. They enjoy the prosperity and stability of the West, even as they excoriate the ideals that produced it. James Madison, in “Advice to My Country,” published posthumously in 1834, warned against a posture of self-flagellation:

The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated. Let the open enemy of it be regarded as a Pandora with her box opened; and the disguised one, as the Serpent creeping with his deadly wiles into Paradise.

America’s transparent enemies—the purveyors of relativism, materialism, tribalism and statism—present dangers enough to the republic. No other serpents are required. Conservatives who traffic in cynicism about the entire liberal project may fancy themselves doing the Lord’s work. But their condemnation of the democratic ideals of freedom and equality as inherently perverse seems quite at home in the devil’s playground. Unchecked, they would rob us of the sources of our democratic strength. They must be resisted.

Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at The King’s College in New York City and the author of God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West. His most recent book is the New York Times bestseller A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. He is at work on a documentary film based on the book, and the film trailer can be found at

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