Liberal Democracy

Paul Gottfried writes in this 2017 book:

* WHEN I WAS A YOUNG FACULTY MEMBER at Rockford College forty years ago, my divisional chairman, who was a devout disciple of Leo Strauss, once complained that a colleague he had just spoken to did not believe in liberal democracy. I’ve no idea how my superior came by this knowledge, but he was deeply upset that his colleague didn’t praise “liberal democracy as being better than other forms of government.” Our divisional chairman then shared with me a text he was working on that proved that Marx “rejected liberal democracy.” Up until that moment I had never encountered the term “liberal democracy,” and when I first heard it mentioned, I thought it was a reference to Democrats who endorsed Senator George McGovern.
I thereupon researched the operative term and learned that it was of fairly recent origin. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton didn’t apply it when they described the nascent American regime in The Federalist. Appeals to “democracy” by Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were to a populist spirit, not to a hallowed form of government…

* Although the United States ultimately became a more ideologically infused political society as a result of the Civil War, as late as at 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 prevented from seceding, with devastating force, and long after President Lincoln had proclaimed a “new birth” for a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”¹

* A visit to Wikipedia indicates that the concept “liberal democracy” came into vogue during the Progressive Era, with the efforts of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to reconfigure American republican government according to the needs of an urban, industrial society.² In my book After Liberalism, I undertake to examine this fateful conjuncture and offer reasons for its emergence.³ But in researching my book, I couldn’t trace any widespread usage of the term “liberal democracy” even as far back as the early twentieth century. Except for some fleeting references to it by English Hegelian Thomas Hill Green around 1910, “liberal democracy” did not make an appearance during the early twentieth century.

* By 2009 “liberal democracy” had acquired such favorable connotations that it served as a generic compliment for a regime that was agreeable to the speaker.

* …Allan Bloom’s exhortations to Americans 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.

* “Liberal democracy” as a term or concept has gained currency primarily for two reasons. One is its vagueness; it can be made to mean what the speaker wants it to signify. Not surprisingly, one finds 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 in accordance with the needs of the majority. We are further led to believe that democracy and liberalism fuse at a certain point, on the way to becoming social democracy. Sometimes “liberal democratic” government is linked to a linguistic, geographic context. It is made synonymous with the political practices of the Anglosphere, an appellation that embraces the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and other English-speaking regions. These regions are seen as blessed
with a shared political culture, which is styled “liberal democracy.”

This concept or term has geographical and ethnic reference points. It can mean the political practices that now prevail in certain regions of the Western world and in its cultural extensions elsewhere. Those who apply this term often gloss over the fact that political arrangements in England and the United States looked different hundreds of years ago from how these institutions later evolved. Fans of the Anglosphere sometimes apply the label “liberal democratic” to English-speaking peoples, no matter whether the regime being referred to was an aristocratic oligarchy, bourgeois liberal monarchy, or modern public administration. They thereby designate either our present political system or something that is thought to have led, however tortuously, in its direction.

There is a second reason that “liberal democracy” has caught on: it expresses a value judgment about what the speaker intends to praise. It suggests the political equivalent of the traditional Catholic idea of “no salvation outside the Church.” No one but a fool would imagine that the term is purely descriptive. It is a god term, on the altar of which the worshipper can never slay enough fattened calves. Although the term “liberal democratic” has been made to serve a number of political purposes, it has also, not incidentally, been raised to sacral significance. It is a concept or rallying cry that the neoconservatives bestowed on the Republican Party as they made their historic journey from the Left to become the American conservative establishment.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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