book cover imageA conversation with Daniel J. Mahoney.

The University Bookman is pleased to present this interview with Daniel J. Mahoney, Professor of Political Science at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and author of a recent book, The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order: Defending Democracy Against Its Modern Enemies and Immoderate Friends (ISI 2011). The book traces the intellectual history of democracy, and how its success may in fact rest on non-democratic values and norms developed in the Western tradition.

Professor Mahoney, thanks for joining us. What is the book about?

As the title indicates, my book argues that liberal democracy, the liberal order, is ultimately dependant upon “extrademocratic” conservative foundations. The book challenges the idea that human relations can be understood exclusively in terms of individual autonomy and free choice, of what we voluntarily agree to. Let’s call this the ideology of contract and consent. As my friend Peter Lawler has written, in the end “human beings don’t determine for themselves who they are and what they are supposed to do.” To be sure, consent, free choice, is a bedrock of democratic liberty (there is no decent politics without respect for the “consent of the governed”). Nevertheless, this emphasis on consent becomes destructive of human freedom when it is confused with a cultural project to liberate human beings from the inheritance of the past, now thoughtlessly identified with oppression and constraint. It is a great illusion to think that liberty is identical with unencumbered choice and a reckless disregard for the wisdom of the past.

The book is a reminder that democratic liberty can only flourish when it freely acknowledges the “continuity” of civilization—the debt of liberty in the modern world to classical and Christian presuppositions that we are increasingly tempted to disregard. I am in no way an enemy of the liberal order. But I hope to make my contemporaries more aware of the dependence of what is most valuable in liberal democracy on “conservative foundations” that it doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge and sometimes actively undermines.

But I try not to explore this theme in an abstract way. I draw on philosophy, history, religion, literature, and the study of statesmanship to highlight the “conservative foundations of the liberal order.” I look at exemplary “conservative liberals” from Tocqueville and Churchill to Raymond Aron who embodied those virtues and values—civic virtue, prudent judgment, love of truth—that are negated by soft nihilism and totalitarianism alike. I examine their speeches, their writings, and their deeds to see how theymight inspire us to defend liberty in our own time.

I explore the relationship between religion and democratic liberty and challenge the claims that have been made by some contemporary political theorists that democracy depends upon dogmatic secularism, on what Mark Lilla calls the “Great Separation” of religion and politics. With the help of Solzhenitsyn, I examine the “totalitarian subversion of modernity”: why have so many intellectuals been indulgent towards totalitarianism and seen it as somehow being “more democratic” than democracy itself? I show how a tough-minded foreign policy that does not hesitate to call the enemy by its name need not entail an open-ended “war on terror” or the kind of democratic triumphalism represented by Bush’s Second Inaugural. With an eye to the “Cultural Revolution” that has overtaken the western world since the 1960s, I defend “liberty under God and the law” against the “false friends” of democracy who confuse it with what Roger Scruton has so suggestively called a “culture of repudiation.” In an analysis of therevolutionary upheavals of that year, I argue that 1968 was of more than symbolic importance. It was “the crucial turning point when modern democracy lost consciousness of civilized liberty as a precious inheritance to be preserved.” And I try to do all of that in 208 pages!

Who are some of democracy’s “immoderate friends” referenced in your title?

I should mention that the reference to democracy’s “immoderate friends” is drawn from a marvelous little book by the contemporary French political thinker Pierre Manent entitled Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy. At the end of that book, the best philosophical exploration of Tocqueville’s thought I know of, Manent sums up the deepest core of Tocqueville’s insight as follows: “to love democracy well, it is necessary to love it moderately.”

The “immoderate friends” of democracy are precisely those who don’t know how to love it moderately, who paradoxically undermine it by eroding the traditions and spiritual presuppositions that sustain human liberty and dignity. Most modern intellectuals are democracy’s “immoderate friends” in this sense. They rail against elitism, dogmatically identify religion with superstition and coercion, and in general look with suspicion on all authoritative institutions. They support an abstract “idea” of democracy, always tending toward more radical interpretations and applications, against the “common sense” of democratic peoples.

In Europe, this has taken the form of a humanitarian ideology that undermines the historic identification of democracy and nations and that expresses open contempt for the classical and Christian dimensions of the western tradition. This conception of democracy, what I call “pure democracy,” no longer defines itself in relation to the precious inheritance that is “western civilization.” It has become the unchallenged “public philosophy” of post-1968 Europe. To challenge the new consensus is to risk the opprobrium of political and media elites. Conservatives and old liberals alike find themselves consigned to the camp of “reaction.”

In America, the “immoderate” friends of democracy promote judicial heavy-handedness and an arbitrary redefinition of institutions such as marriage in light of the requirements of the new ideology of “consent.” In this sense, the democracy that is promoted by contemporary “democratic theory” has precious little to do with self-government, with the “consent of the governed,” since the majority of Americans, still indebted to the spiritual and political wisdom of the past, resists the allure of “pure democracy.” Democracy becomes the tyranny of an abstract idea. In America, I should add, there is more genuine self-government than in contemporary Europe and thus more public resistance to the undemocratic imposition of the abstract idea of democracy.

You suggest in the book that democracy must rest on some nondemocratic elements. What are those and why do you believe that’s the case?

The magnanimous statesman conscious of what is necessary to sustain a liberal order is one such non-democratic element. Statesman such as Churchill and de Gaulle were by no means opposed to democracy. But they were profoundly aware of the “problem of democracy,” of the difficulty of sustaining civic health and martial spirit in an age of radical individualism and of what Churchill called “mass effects.” Of course, modern political science does not concern itself with such men and democratic egalitarianism cum relativism makes it increasingly difficult for us to take greatness seriously. This is a dilemma that I explore in two chapters of the book.

Family bonds, religion, and patriotic attachments are powerful reminders that human beings are more than individuals and that consent must be balanced by a concern for what we human beings have in common. The best conservative wisdom is acutely aware of the mutually reinforcing character of individualism and collectivism.

Liberal education, rightly understood, frees us from preoccupation with the here and now and puts us in touch with those features of the human condition that do not change. At its best, it frees us from democratic and historicist complacency and allows us to judge “democratic man” in light of those “permanent things” without which our humanity is impoverished.

On the political level, the American tradition of statecraft and political thought, especially the thought of the Founders, is rich in theoretical and practical wisdom. It reminds us that the art of self-government is not reducible to democratic majoritarianism, or to slavish fidelity to the zeitgeist. It provides indispensable civic and intellectual resources for resisting the allure of “pure democracy.”

What’s wrong with a “pure democracy?”

“Pure democracy” forgets the crucial moral, historical, and cultural prerequisites of the liberal order. It thinks democracy can do without nations, religion, patriotic attachments, or the wisdom that has been passed down to us by our forebears. It brutally severs the liberal order from the larger “continuity” of western civilization. As I write in the opening pages of the book, “there can be no liberty without authoritative traditions and institutions, or without openness to the demands that truth makes on thoughtful and morally serious human beings.”

Moreover, what are we to do with our freedom if it has no ends and purposes outside itself? How are we to choose if there are no meaningful objects of choice? In volume II of Democracy in America Tocqueville has some haunting passages about the vertigo, the dizzying psychological and spiritual dislocations, that accompany a freedom that bows to nothing above itself. The great French political thinker-statesman feared that a view of democracy that deified the human will would paradoxically give rise to new forms of conformity and “democratic” tyranny. When we think of ourselves as gods, we are far more likely to be enslaved. Twentieth-century totalitarianism is surely the most extreme example of self-deification that is coextensive with self-enslavement. It revealed a totalitarian possibility implicit in modernity itself.

You devote a chapter to “Conservatism, Democracy, and Foreign Policy.” How does the democratic dogma affect foreign policy?

In that chapter, I argue that it was a terrible mistake to interpret the West’s victory in the Cold War as a proof of the historical inevitability of liberal democracy, evidence that the world was heading toward the universal triumph of “all-democratic bliss.” The defeat of Communism, a victory for humanity over soul-destroying ideology, was in fact a defeat for the utopian illusion that human beings can live free and dignified lives without property, religion, nations, or politics. It has nothing to do with a purported “end of history.”

In that chapter, I try to give a balanced account of post-9/11 American foreign policy, praising the determination of President Bush to forthrightly confront the challenge of Islamist terrorism but criticizing the doctrinaire emphasis on “democracy promotion” (and military interventions) that marred his foreign policy. I reject both the excesses of neoconservatism and the European and American liberal tendency to downplay the threat posed by Islamist fanaticism and to exaggerate the significance of “international law.”

Were the neoconservatives after 9/11 acting with or against the democratic dogma?

I’m a great admirer of some of the first generation of neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick. They “loved democracy moderately” and were perfectly willing to acknowledge the sheer intractability of cultures and civilization. And they were eloquent critics of the full “democratization” of political and cultural life promoted by the New Left and the “counterculture.” Both were appalled by Jimmy Carter’s use of “human rights” to undermine stalwart American allies in the Cold War.

I am much less enamored of the latest version of neoconservatism that is really a form of right-wing Wilsonianism. It is excessively doctrinaire and is too prone to support the promotion of “democratic revolution” even in places where it has insufficient social or cultural supports. The refusal of many so-called neoconservatives to distinguish between the Soviet Union, an appalling ideological despotism, and a Russia which is incompletely democratic but no enemy of the West or political civilization, distresses me. Many second-wave neoconservatives seem to think that love of liberty is a natural impulse of the human soul that has no essential cultural, spiritual, or historical prerequisites. They forget that despotism is a possibility coeval with political life. They are, for example, far more sanguine about the long-term consequences of the “rage” displayed by the Arab street than I think is sensible or warranted by the facts.

Is Burke still relevant in understanding democracy?

The great eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke is a hero of mine, as he ought to be to all conservatives. He embodied the manly and moral defense of human liberty and is rivaled only by Cicero as a statesman who lays a true claim to being a political philosopher. As Churchill wrote in his magisterial 1925 essay “Mass Effects in Modern Life,” the “Burke of Liberty” (the defender of the liberties of the Irish, Americans, and Indians) and the “Burke of Authority” (the critic of the French revolution and the “armed doctrine” on which it was founded) were finally one and the same, guided by the “same animating purpose.”

Burke remains the most penetrating critic of the revolutionary and ideological abstractions that risk subverting the achievements of modern liberty. As I argue in the book, he opposed the Jacobin revolution with the same courage and tenacity that Solzhenitsyn opposed communist totalitarianism in our time. How can we fail to admire them both? Burke’s rhetoric is incomparable and his defense of constitutional liberty will always be an inspiration to defenders of “ordered liberty.” Today, we turn to him not to find inspiration in the European old regime, the world of gentlemen and nobility, which is surely lost forever, but to find indispensable supports for a politics of prudence and for resistance to ideological fanaticism in a democratic age. I am not a “traditionalist” in the narrow sense of the term. But I have learned from Burke that there can be no liberty worthy of the name without a respect for the wisdom inherent in tradition.

At the beginning of the book, relying on Tocqueville, you say that we live in an age of “democratic dogma,” which posits the “natural equality and independence of all.”

Yet even today, the democratic nations adulate sports heroes, perhaps some financial figures, and seem comfortable with political dynasties such as the Bushes or Kennedys. How does the democratic dogma relate, if at all, to the conservative argument that there are natural hierarchies?

I am tempted to say that even democracy, as transformative as it is, is powerless before the “natural order of things.” Hierarchies are indeed natural to human life and every society is inescapably “oligarchical.” But the “heroes”—sports figures, financial tycoons, the actors or actresses du jour, the charismatic politicians who are our contemporary substitutes for statesmen—that democratic man looks up to do not shape the soul in fundamental ways. Modern society has its celebrities and “role models,” to be sure, but they do not differ in any essential respect from the people who emulate them. We are all in some sense “mass men.” Tocqueville even defined the democratic social state as one where outstanding human beings no longer truly “influence” other human beings, where they no longer set the tone for society at large by elevating the tastes and concerns of citizens. We are increasingly living in that world described or at least anticipated by Tocqueville.

The strong point of traditionalist conservative thought is its frank acknowledgment of the place of hierarchy in social and political life: its weak point is the tendency to identify the specific hierarchies of the Old Regime with “nature” itself. But there is no doubt that every society implies a hierarchy and an acknowledgement of rights and duties without which there can be no social order as such.

You spend some time talking about Raymond Aron and his importance as a political philosopher. Who was he and why should we study him?

The distinguished French political thinker Raymond Aron (1905–1983) was a remarkably prolific writer and scholar. In a series of writings culminating in The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955) he attacked the indulgence of “progressive” intellectuals toward totalitarian regimes and ideologies and dissected what he called the “myths” of the Left, Revolution, and Proletariat, respectively. As a “philosopher of history” he found a place for both human freedom and the limits and restraints that inform all human choice. He was thus the most articulate and thoughtful critic of the post-war effort to fuse the opposite extremes of Marxism and existentialism. Despite a well-deserved reputation for remarkably thoughtful and balanced political analysis, he won the unremitting enmity of Jean-Paul Sartre, who never tired of denouncing him as an “anti-Communist dog.”

Aron’s writings on political philosophy and international relations combined encyclopedic learning with humane and moderate political judgment. He played a major role in restoring Tocqueville to a central place in French intellectual and political discussions after decades or more of neglect. Aron was the most incisive critic of the revolutionary “psychodrama” that overtook France in May 1968 and the mixture of Marxist and left-anarchist sentiment that underlie it. His book on May 1968, The Elusive Revolution, is one of the great contemporaneous political and historical analyses of a major event written in modern times.

Aron was a tough-minded liberal, a conservative-minded liberal, who in the final years of his life feared that “decadent” Europe had lost the “sentiment of political existence” and had forgotten that free men were citizens with duties and not merely individuals with rights. As his student Pierre Manent has put it, Aron was that rarity in any age, an orator and civic educator, “who spoke with authority and competence and eloquence about the public thing.” He was himself not a religious believer but he had respect for “authentic faith” as opposed to the “schemes, models, and utopias” that gave rise to ideological fanaticism. As he wrote in his Memoirs published a few months before his death in 1983, “I often sympathize with the Catholics, loyal to their faith, who demonstrate a total freedom of thought in all profane matters. The horror of secular religions makes me feel some sympathy for transcendent religions.”

What is the future of the liberal order?

We can always imagine the worst outcome of the modern adventure. But since history is not written in advance nothing stops us from fortifying the best aspects of our tradition. And since “pure democracy” is finally unlivable and incapable of being sustained, I have a certain confidence in human natureand the capacity of western civilization to renew itself. Thankfully, intellectuals do not rule us. We have ample resources in our tradition to resist the abstractions they try to impose on us. At the same time, the self-radicalizing propensities of modernity show no sign of abating.  

A conversation with Daniel J. Mahoney, professor of political science at Assumption College and author of The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order, a new book that traces the intellectual history of democracy, and how its success may in fact rest on non-democratic values and norms developed in the Western tradition.