Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred, by John Lukacs. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. 248 pp.
There are few scholars whose intellectual achievements are so respected that their intuitions are as highly regarded as their more formal scholarship. John Lukacs is one of these rare individuals. He brings to his work a lifetime of devotion to first-rate thinking about central historical problems faced by Western civilization. He weaves together detailed historical description, original analysis, and intuitive insight. His books integrate history and philosophy but they do not form a systematic philosophy of history.
In Democracy and Populism, Lukacs comments on intellectual and political developments in the West that were first identified by Tocqueville. With the benefit of knowing what transpired in the twentieth century, he re-evaluates key aspects of Tocqueville’s insights about democracy. He identifies populism and nationalism as the central ideological characteristics of the modern age which in turn have provided the foundation for the postmodern age. As is the case with his work generally, Lukacs aims to correct misconceptions about history, to clarify the meaning of culturally salient words (e.g., snob, freedom, fear, hate, modern), and to provide insight about the current state of Western civilization. He also casts doubt on the notion that underlies global democracy, i.e., that America is the last best hope for mankind. It is because American democracy is declining into nationalist populism with its corresponding fears and hatreds that he strikes a cautionary note about spreading American political forms, thinking, and popular culture. In the end, Lukacs’ book is not the work of a nationalist but of a patriot, who, like Tocqueville, recognizes both the dangers and the promises of American democracy.
In one sense, Democracy and Populism is a book about modern political ideologies in the West. The book traces the development of these ideologies and comments on their meaning and historical significance. In particular, Lukacs is engaged in an attempt to clarify the meaning and historical significance not only of democracy and populism but also of totalitarianism, nationalism, national socialism, Communism, anti-Communism, liberalism, conservatism, and postmodernism. He urges care in how historical events, movements, and figures are classified into ideological categories.
From a perspective of critical distance, he notes that modern democratic sensibilities tend to obscure our understanding of non-democratic ideologies. For example, he questions the common and scholarly use of the word “totalitarian” to refer to historical regimes like those in Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, or Communist Russia. Hannah Arendt and George Orwell are examples of individuals who exaggerate and misunderstand the historical reality of totalitarianism because their work lacks philosophical depth and historical sense. Given the human condition, total control of every aspect of life is simply not possible and was never achieved by Mussolini, Hitler, or Stalin.
Moreover, Lukacs adds that “what matters is the purpose of a dictatorial government.” In other words, the focus in analyzing regimes should be not simply on the quantity of power but on what animates and gives direction to the exercise of power. Taking this standard into account, totalitarianism has been infused with both nationalism and populism, ideological sentiments that were not characteristic of earlier tyrannies. Hitler was a populist and a nationalist. Stalin was much more of a nationalist than a Communist. The exaggerated sense of totalitarian power is itself the product of ideological thinking. Motivated by fear or hatred, conservatives tend to exaggerate the evils of Communism, as liberals dwell on the evils of Nazism.
Lukacs also clarifies the meaning of American conservatism. He calls “conservative” a “much abused and perverted word.” He identifies a split in twentiethcentury American political thinking that has resulted in the Republicans’ transformation from isolationism to a brand of nationalism that presses for interventionism. At the same time, Democrats have become more socialist than nationalist and less inclined than their predecessors to support American military intervention in the world. Sorting out American political thinking is essential to understanding what Lukacs calls the “Americanization of the world.” In light of their country’s expanding power during the twentieth century, Americans have tended to inflate their sense of historical importance. The consequences include a trend toward American cultural imperialism and American political imperialism. American Exceptionalism has been present since the formation of the United States, but during the twentieth century, increasing American power has for the first time allowed political leaders (from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush) to conduct foreign policy in accordance with it.
Lukacs contends that “the old categories of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ have become almost entirely outdated.” Advocates of both ideologies now share the same nationalist and populist tendencies. Consequently, the future divisions in American politics will not be between liberal and conservative but between two competing types of conservatism:
…between people on the Right whose binding belief is their contempt for Leftists, who hate liberals more than they love liberty, and others who love liberty more than they fear liberals; between nationalists and patriots; between those who believe that America’s destiny is to rule the world and others who do not believe that; between those who trust technology and machines and others who trust tradition and old human decencies; between those who support “development” and others who wish to protect the conservation of land—in sum, between those who do not question Progress and others who do.
Lukacs has an unconventional but historically informed view of democracy. He possesses what many contemporary commentators lack, an ability to think historically, philosophically, and critically about democracy. His view of democracy is as refreshing as it is accurate. He includes in his understanding of democracy the populist tendency to see the masses as the source of progress and civilization (vox populi, vox dei). This tendency that gives meaning to populist notions of popular sovereignty prevails despite the emptiness of the very notion of “the people” and the ability of demagogues and others to manufacture public opinion.
Unlike Francis Fukuyama and others, Lukacs, like Tocqueville and Brownson before him, sees two sides to American democracy—including the potential for majority tyranny. On balance, democracy’s influence on Western civilization has been destructive to the mores, customs, and traditions that cultivate civilization itself. This is why he is often critical of conservatives who promote populist democracy at home and global democracy abroad without reservation; their view of democracy is void of historical or philosophical sense. They lack an understanding of the underlying spiritual and cultural foundations for democracy. How can populist democracy be consistent with the preservation of traditional ways of life if the former has undermined the latter? Because many conservatives have gained power and notoriety as a result of the ascendancy of populist democracy, they tend merely to dismiss critics of democracy like Lukacs with ideological epithets such as “isolationist” or “anti-democrat.”
In Lukacs’ view, democracy is not entering a golden age; rather, it is on the cusp of old age. He suggests that “sooner or later the very political structure of democracy may undergo a deep-going and at least for a while irreversible transformation, including mutations that may have already begun.” Political institutions that were formed in the American Framers’ cultural milieu cannot withstand the force of democratic populism for long. The quality of character that makes constitutional democracy possible must be nurtured by families, churches, and communities that foster the very quality of order that engendered the American republic. A populist democracy is, rather, the product of American mass culture and its cultivation of impetuous desire for ephemeral things.
Lukacs asserts that a “new world is coming about,” by which he means “a new historic age,” distinct from the one that Tocqueville noted in the nineteenth century. Lukacs believes it will be an age of nationalist populism in which liberal and parliamentary democracy give way to mass democracy. Like Plato he sees populist democracy as a prelude to tyranny, and like Plato he has a way of explaining his meaning by way of contrast. Implicit throughout the book is a distinction between two types of democracy. There is the constitutional democracy of the American Framers, and then there is the populist democracy that has been emerging over the past two centuries. Populist democracy is the product of nationalism whereas constitutional democracy is the product of patriotism. According to Lukacs, nationalism began to displace patriotism in the late nineteenth century.
The distinction between patriotism and nationalism also forms part of Lukacs’ analysis of Communism and anti-Communism. He writes about Communism that, “We have seen that seventy years after Marx’s Communist Manifesto the working classes in the capitalist states of the world were largely immune to Communism.” Communism was not as great a threat as nationalism and populism. In fact, he thinks that much anti-Communism was misguided. He calls anti-Communism “the popular substitute for patriotism” and suggests that it was caused by “an outburst of nationalism.” Anti-Communism “was marked by a misreading of the world after 1945. The—well-justified—American concern should have been with Russian power, not with Communist ideology.” Eastern Europe had Communist governments in the wake of World War II “not because of the popular appeal of Communism but because Russian armed presence had imposed them.” This point is given credibility by the unraveling of Communism’s empire at the end of the twentieth century. According to Lukacs, the “Soviet Union was in retreat even well before 1956,” yet this went largely unnoticed in the West where “throughout the Cold War the American—governmental as well as popular—view of the world was not pragmatic but ideological.” Among the consequences was that American conservatism became inextricably linked with anti-Communism—and Ronald Reagan came to power. He adds that there was during the Cold War,
…(and still is) so much in American “conservatism” that was (and is) not conservative at all. Plainly, the United States was not a conservative influence in the world during the past sixty years. Well before the revolutionary…1960s there was nothing conservative in American mass entertainments, in American art, in American literature (well, save for a few eccentric and valuable exceptions), in the American cult of youth, in American rock music, in American films, in American manners, in American behavior, in the sexual and radical changes that actually preceded 1960, during what thoughtless historians and political scientists still describe as the “stuffy” Eisenhower decade.
Democracy and Populism is part of a growing body of literature that aims to follow Tocqueville’s lead and warn of democracy’s dangers. Lukacs ends on a hopeful note, with the reminder that history is complex and unpredictable. While the democratic age seems to be degenerating into an age of nationalist populism in which the standards of civility and civilization have been lost, resistance to democratic disorder is evident in the appearance of Democracy and Populism (and its publication by a leading academic press) and in Lukacs’ work generally. In that sense he can write with the hope that his readers will understand the nature of the current Western and American crisis and heed the call to restore Western civilization by rejecting fear and hatred and embracing a quality of love and friendship advocated by authentic Christianity.
This essay originally appeared in Modern Age (Winter 2006) and is republished here by permission.
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