Reading up for a book on the fate of democracy since Tocqueville published Democracy in America in 1835, I recently came across an excellent study, Aristocratic Liberalism: The Social and Political Thought of Jacob Burckhardt, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville, by Alan S. Kahan. Professor Kahan includes these men in a group of what he calls “aristocratic liberals,” together with Walter Bagehot, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, and others. Aristocratic humanism, according to Kahan, extended the modern humanism of the 18th century by adding to the established conception of negative liberties a notion of positive ones, and by endowing the new humanist thought with a teleological dimension that reflected the liberal aristocrats’ conviction that liberty, individuality, and diversity are essential to human thought and action, to the possibility of progress through change, and to the mental and moral benefits of education, which they regarded as an acceptable and effective substitution for the classical notion of virtue. But aristocratic liberalism’s interests were fundamentally conservative. While recognizing what seemed to it a universal demand for democratic equality, aristocratic liberalism wished above everything to protect and defend liberty against the forces that threatened liberty in its own name. “I have,” Tocqueville wrote, “one passion, the love of liberty and human dignity.” Aristocratic liberalism sought a society that would be free, ordered, and, in the classic European sense of the word, civilized.
In the context even of their age, the aristocratic liberals were liberal without being democratic, and certainly not revolutionary. They wanted constitutional government, limited suffrage, decentralization, and active local governments. And they advocated a political education for the electorate that was basically aristocratic in outline. Mill argued that the chief role of government should be to act as an educative agency; Burckhardt devoted his career to the attempt to preserve the old, humane, liberal-aristocratic ideal. Yet there was neither popular acceptance of such an ideal among the peoples of Europe nor the human material through which to realize it. Tocqueville and his sort were not historical pessimists, but they viewed the possible displacement of the new democracies by despotism as a perennial threat. Especially, they felt that time was not on their side. They were right. Compared with popular and influential liberals between 1830 and 1870 they were considerably less optimistic, had a more restrictive view of the state, and worried more about class antagonisms, and they could not overcome their innate distaste for the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie. Tocqueville’s books were read and respected by educated and highly influential people, on the Continent and in England, yet their practical influence, in Professor Kahan’s estimation, was minimal. “Aristocratic liberalism,” he concludes, “was condemned to the sidelines because it refused to link its particular elitism to any of the elite or the aspiring elite groups that might have given it power, refused to make it the bearer of its values.” Reading these words, I was instantly reminded of Samuel Francis’s criticism of what he called the “beautiful losers” of the Old American Right in the post-World War II era, who lost their bid for political influence and power “because there existed in American society and political culture no significant set of interests to which its ideas could attach themselves.”
Sam Francis has been dead these five years, almost to the day as I write, and so it is possible that his newspaper columns, essays, and books—perhaps even his name—are unknown to the latest generation of American conservatives, including those who have followed the rise of the Tea Party movement over the past year and witnessed the unprecedented descent of the late Edward Kennedy’s seat in the U.S. Senate to a hitherto unknown Republican state senator named Scott Brown. Readers of Francis, whether friend or enemy, will be familiar with his powerful exegesis of the political thought of James Burnham, his careful studies of what he called “the Soviet strategy of terror,” and his unflagging resistance, throughout his too-short career, to mass immigration to the United States and Europe. Yet Francis’s name is associated most distinctly with his advocacy of a “revolution from the middle” led by what he and sociologist Donald Warren (also deceased) called “Middle American Radicals,” or MARs—plus a wise and elegant volume, Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism, first published in 1993. In Beautiful Losers Francis makes an extensive and considered case for the inadequacy and ineffectiveness of the Old Right and for the need of a Middle American political strategy based on the recognition that the old republican establishment the Old Right attempted to defend has collapsed, leaving the vast American middle classes below it to confront the managerial and bureaucratic class that deposed the Old Establishment in the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s.
Briefly sketched, Francis’s argument runs as follows. Liberalism is the ideology of a class invested with multiple self-seeking interests, not a coherent political philosophy. Even so, the problem the United States confronts today is the dominance of the managerial establishment itself, not of the liberal clichés and facile slogans it promotes. The managerial elite, usually called by neoconservatives the “New Class,” having displaced and partly destroyed the Old Establishment (WASP in religion, regionally oriented, entrepreneurial by nature, and traditionally minded), oppresses the scorned American middle and lower-middle classes, while favoring the interests of elites above them and catering to the demands of the underclass below. Unlike the Old Right, which lacked the requisite social base, the energized New Right, with the Middle American Radicals for its demographic foundation and the Sunbelt states as its regional redoubt, is now positioned to oppose, and finally to overthrow, the decadent managerial class that stifles, overregulates, pillages, and despises it in the name of equality, minority rights, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, internationalism, postmodern culture, and post-Christian morality. The New Right is nationalist rather than anticommunist, favors the restoration of intermediary institutions between the federal state and the American people, and looks to a strong, populist presidency as the means to cut through the existing oligarchies that would oppose any such restoration. The New Right, though it detests the New Class establishment, is suspicious also of the Old Establishment that preceded it: Indeed, it is suspicious of all establishments. The New Right, then, is not conservative, not even in terms of backward-leap-frog conservatism. It therefore, Francis argues, has need of “a new ideology, formula, or political theory that can win the loyalties and represent the interests of its social base and rationalize its quest for social and political power.”
It is unlikely that anyone familiar with Sam Francis’s writings has not had occasion over the past year—and most especially in January, when Scott Brown defeated Martha Coakley, attorney general of Massachusetts, in the special Senate race—to wonder whether the Tea Party movement in particular, and the altered state of public opinion that got Brown elected generally, might not represent an early stage in the fulfillment of Francis’s grand political design.
Massachusetts could scarcely be located farther from the Sunbelt, where Francis expected his MARs revolution to take shape. All the better, one might say: The events in Massachusetts this winter suggest that the New Right has advanced further, under cover, than anyone, the politicians and the media included, had expected. But if that is indeed the case, how then did Barack Obama manage to carry Massachusetts by 26 percentage points in 2008? The notion that MARs sprang up in their legions out of the Bay State’s stony soil over a period of 14 months in sufficient numbers to equal 52 percent of those who turned out to vote is hardly a convincing one. A more coherent explanation is that the Massachusetts voters are themselves incoherent, reflecting the political incoherence of the wider American political system at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century. Nearly 50 years ago, the English philosopher Kenneth Minogue wrote that, from the moment when the germ of liberalism enters and infects a society, that society is, sooner or later, doomed. He was right, and a half-century later Professor Minogue’s liberalism has evolved into what James Kalb, in The Tyranny of Liberalism, calls advanced liberalism. How could the citizens of a country with no racial, ethnic, or cultural identity, no agreed-upon history, no generally accepted system of morality and a confusion between the sexes, no sense of national values beyond abstracted, ahistorical principles, no consensus regarding either the limits of the law or the nature of law itself, no notion of regional or national obligation, no knowledge of or feeling for the past and only a shallow ideological view of the future—how could such a people possibly think and act, politically, in anything like a coherent manner? Americans are currently suffering from an epidemic of mass mental confusion produced by a supposedly rational political theory that is at best only a pseudophilosophy.
This is no more than to say that the 52 percent of voters in the special election in Massachusetts were not all Tea Party voters, which no one, of course, has claimed. Tea Party has expanded in its first year to the proportions of a national movement, of which its Massachusetts, even its New England, component is doubtless a small percentage. At this writing, the National Tea Party Convention has just met in Nashville, where, as with all gatherings of “conservatives,” real or bogus (CINOs, one might say), the various eccentric factions appeared to experience difficulties in reconciling their many differences. Still, the general Tea Party platform demanding smaller government, lower taxes, a recognition of states’ rights under the Tenth Amendment, and enhanced national security are consistent enough with Francis’s insistence that “The strategic objective of the New Right must be the localization, privatization, and decentralization of the managerial apparatus of power.” So next we may ask what, if anything, might make Tea Party a more politically potent and significant phenomenon than previous populist movements proved to be, including the Populist Party of William Jennings Bryan, George Wallace’s third-party presidential bid, and Pat Buchanan’s pitchfork campaign and Ross Perot’s Reform Party in the 1990’s. Populism has a relatively long history in the United States, but that history has been one of co-optation, disappointment, and disaster.
No one, not even in our era of ideological anti-elitism, has ever denied the plain fact that the U.S. government was the creation of a tiny elite—the elitist elite, indeed, in American history. Sam Francis viewed his MARs as a subelite, which, he predicted, would in time become the dominant elite, replacing the degenerate ruling one. He claimed, I think, too much for them. Certainly the Tea Party movement, whose current heroine, Sarah Palin, and her family are really only trailer trash from the trashiest state in the Union, has nothing elitist about it, drawn as it so observably is from the wide ranks of the middle-middle and lower-middle classes. There is an ambiguity in Francis’s theory that, so far as I know, he never attempted to resolve, and that is how the MARs, even granting them status as a subelite, could possibly establish themselves as the country’s ruling political and—still more difficult to achieve—social elite. That is to say, Francis never explains, except in the most general terms, how the MARs masses might be inspired and organized to accomplish so great a victory. Would they, for instance, require political organizers, such as the Bolsheviks provided to the Russian people? If so, who would these people be? Samuel Todd Francis, Ph.D. (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), and a direct descendant of the family of Mary Todd Lincoln, and his colleagues? But MARs have no affinity or liking for scholars of British history and scions of the upper classes: That is precisely one of those characteristics that identifies them as MARs in the first place. Or, would they jump-start and organize themselves—as, one might argue, the Tea Party people are doing today? But, if they are to become the nation’s dominant elite, MARs must start thinking like an elite, a feat comparable to that of a newly elected British Labour M.P. from the Transportation Union who somehow succeeded in assuming the class consciousness of the duke of Gloucester. The fact is, a true elite never establishes itself by force or at the electoral booth: It is developed historically and trained up over a substantial period of time to exercise its privileges and assume its proper responsibilities. Sarah Palin, a blue-collar girl reared in Wasilla, is not prepared to govern anything more civilized than the state of Alaska.
Indeed, the ruling liberal-managerial elite’s greatest fault is its own inability to think like an elite instead of as members of a dominant meritocracy. The complaint against our present ruling class should be less that it is an ill-founded and decadent elite than that it is an antitraditional and revolutionary one, dedicated to destroying everything that a genuine elite—an aristocracy—is keen to preserve, beginning with the welfare of the people and the future of the nation with which it was entrusted. According to Flannery O’Connor’s murderous Misfit, in raising the dead, Christ “thrown everything off balance.” As The Misfit thought Christ had done, so an anti-establishment establishment has thrown the United States and the rest of the Western world off balance, very likely with fatal consequences. Western political theory is simply unable to accommodate the fact of an elite that is revolutionary and destructive rather than traditional and conservative. The ages-old theory of mixed government is fundamentally incompatible with so hideous and unnatural a thing.
The awful truth is that the present establishment—the managerial state, the New Class, the liberal establishment, call it what you will—exists for the very good reason that it was created by, and reflects, the social and political arrangements underlying modernity, which is to say of the modern scientific and technological world. (The fact says even more about modernity than it does about liberalism.) Elites never create societies; societies, rather, give rise to elites. It is a valid question why our Western elite should be a liberal, rather than a conservative, one. Modern China, for example, is ruled by conservatives—conservative in a certain sense, anyway. And here is where liberalism comes into the story: liberalism, the dominant pseudophilosophy in the West, beginning in the late Middle Ages. And after it, advanced liberalism, which may well have developed at an earlier stage in history than Mr. Kalb suggests in his wonderful book. Advanced liberalism is the result of the managerial elite’s discovery that, for it, liberalism is (in Sam Francis’s words) “a useful and indeed indispensable formula for rationalizing its existence and power.” Unfortunately, the sort of interests, knowledge, and skills that the liberal establishment possesses and that the Middle American Radicals, as we know them today, lack are necessary to providing the overwhelming mass of the American public with what it wants, or thinks it wants, or has been reeducated into thinking it ought to want. Liberalism, as Kalb suggests, must ultimately collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, thus revealing its philosophical and political pretensions for the frauds they are. In that case, the end of the liberal establishment will have been systemic rather than political, as, indeed, were most if not all of history’s great earthquakes—very much including the sweeping social-democratic revolution that the aristocratic liberals foresaw, but were unable to prevent.
This article first appeared in the April 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.