“E avanti a lui, tremava tutta Roma!”
—Victorien Sardou, Luigi Illica, and Guiseppe Giacosa, Tosca
At the time of its publication in 1984, John Lukacs’s Outgrowing Democracy: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century was recognized by discerning critics as a highly significant work combining a fresh originality, at once topical and historical, with the elements of truth and understanding from which an interpretive classic is made. Now reissued in revised edition 20 years later, the book carries a new title—owing, the author tells us, to his dissatisfaction with the original one. “What my [present] title attempts to suggest,” Lukacs explains,
is that during the twentieth century (and perhaps especially during its second half) profound, grave—and often not too well recognized—changes have occurred in the conditions of the American state and of American life, on many different levels. These mutations have been less obvious, and less visible and less spectacular, than the great changes during the nineteenth century (the westward movement of the American state and of the American people; the Civil War; and mass immigration from Europe and Russia), but their consequences may have been at least as important and as enduring as those of the century before last.
All are related, in one way or another, to the passing of the Anglo-American Age from world history; the end of the bourgeois era in the history of the West; transformations in American thought and morals; the replacement of republican politics by those of an elective monarchy; the passage from a democratic order to a bureaucratic state; the acquisition by Americans of many of the worst habits of the European peoples; the decrystallization of the American national character by mass immigration from the Third World; and the Americanization of the globe (which, ironically, Lukacs expects will persist beyond the decline of America’s material prosperity and of her political and military power). In a final chapter, comprising the only fresh material written for the new edition, Lukacs contemplates a nation that, over the past 20 years, has wholly repudiated Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’ warning, in 1821, that, should America “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” she would succeed only in involving herself, “beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars and interests and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” In the course of his narrative history of the United States since the 1880’s, and of the interpretive account that succeeds it, Lukacs has managed to work in most of the grand themes of his long career: the end of the Modern Age; the spiritualization (or dematerialization) of matter, amounting to “the mental intrusion in the structure of events” (e.g., the atom bomb) and leading to abstraction, inflation, and unreality, even to the point of madness; the difference between what people believe and what they think they believe; the outdatedness of 19th-century materialism, of 20th-century progressivism, of the direction of American “progress” (indeed, of the notion of “progress” itself); and the possibility that the Democratic Age—no more than a brief interlude in the history of mankind—may be rapidly approaching its end.
As John Lukacs understands the course of American history, it was during the outwardly bland 1950’s (“about 1955-56”) that the most profound and enduring changes, subjective as well as objective, in the national life of the United States occurred. In these years, the Eisenhower administration’s refusal to support the Hungarian revolutionaries against the Soviet Union signaled the beginning of America’s decline from her position as sole superpower, while Washington’s part in forcing the British out of Suez at once advanced the dissolution of the British Empire and destroyed Churchill’s grand strategy for an Anglo-American union. Also in the mid-50’s, American manufacturing began its long competitive slide, coincident with the transfer of the economy from a productive to a service, administrative, and bureaucratic one. In 1956, inflation became entrenched—the same year that the outflow of gold began, until, by 1970, half of the nation’s gold stock had been drained away. Simultaneously, the national infrastructure—notably, public transportation—began to erode. The mass-communications network grew ever more pervasive and ever more corruptive, as personal and family contacts withered, coincidentally with the weakening of the family and social structures and a decline in civilized morality. Yet, the fact of America’s decline went largely unnoticed—not only by Americans themselves but by the rest of the world, much of which, impressed, intrigued, and tempted by the American example, aped her institutions and manners to the point where, as Lukacs puts it, Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America no longer referred to a unique historical situation.”
The operative word here is aped—as opposed to conformed or yielded to. As Lukacs notes, “In the history of the world the twentieth century was already the American Century: but much of the Americanization of the world was not dictated by the United States.” Another generation in American politics was yet lacking before the change came, but, as early as the 1920’s, the portents were discernible. In 1920, The Americanization of Edward W. Bok appeared—a semifictional “autobiography” by the well-known immigrant millionaire and public figure who was later to call the United States “the only first-rate civilization in the world.” And it was during the 20’s, Lukacs suggests, that “‘Americanism’ . . . gradually changed its connotation from an ideology of becoming into an ideology of being. The transformation of an older patriotism to a newer nationalism was completed.” Did this mean that the American people now wished to lead, or even to rule, the world? Not exactly, Lukacs believes. Here was yet another indication of the duality in the American national mind. “In one way they wanted to rule the world; in another they did not.” At issue was the endemic conflict between notions of American exceptionalism and American universalism, between the isolationist ideal and the nationalist imperative; a conflict that had reached its climactic anticlimax in the year 1917, “the greatest turning point in the history of the Republic since the Civil War—indeed, in some ways since 1776, in some ways since Jamestown and Christopher Columbus.”
It is at this point in the discussion that the added final chapter of A New Republic (“The Third Century,” coterminous with Part III, “Dictatress of the World?”) overlaps directly with John Lu-kacs’s latest book, Democracy and Populism, of which it stands essentially as an outline, or redaction, or summary while providing the book-length treatment with many of its secondary themes, ideas, and mental grace notes—most of them marshalled in consideration of what Lukacs perceives as “a resurgent nationalism among the American people . . . [which] most of them [are] mentally, and spiritually, comfortable with.”
“Hitler and Stalin are gone,” John Lukacs notes on the penultimate page, “and George W. Bush will soon be gone, too.” This makes for a startling conclusion to a fascinating book, whose general tone is nevertheless rather different. Insofar as Democracy and Populism has a main thesis overriding its marvelous thematic complexity, it appears to be as follows:
The “Left” has been losing its appeal, almost everywhere. It may be that in the future the true divisions will be between not Right and Left but between two kinds of Right: between people on the Right whose binding belief is their contempt for Leftists, who hate liberals more than they love their 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.
The reasons for liberalism’s slow fade, Lukacs suggests, include, chiefly, its accomplishment by and large of the agenda it set itself in the 18th and 19th centuries. A second is the marked decline of liberal and parliamentary democracy in Western countries, as the liberal understanding of democracy degrades toward populism and the unquestioned—or anyway unresisted—tyranny of the majority.
The history of the 20th century was not (Lukacs insists) the story of communism but of nationalism, taken neat or blended, in the United States as in Europe. Historically, the Republican Party has been more nationalist than socialist, and the Democratic Party, more socialist than nationalist—its nationalism both diluted and compromised by internationalist sympathies. It is their nationalist tendencies that have turned the Republicans into populists—since populism, very often, is the equivalent of national socialism. Hitler was no reactionary, no counterrevolutionist, but “a true revolutionary of the radical Right.” Does this make the populist nationalism promoted by George W. Bush a type of “extremist” politics? In no way, Lukacs would insist. As liberal democracy devolved toward populism, popular nationalism served as the binding agent capable of holding classless societies together. “This, for instance, has now become the principal creed, as well as the principal asset, of ‘conservatives’ and of the Republican Party in the United States, confident as they are in reaping large political and electoral benefits from ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘liberal’ characteristics of their political opponents.”
As for these “conservatives,” who are they really? First and foremost, there are the Republican nationalists, taken as a party, or at least a substantial and influential wing of it. Secondly, there are the Bushite nationalists who staff the present administration, representing the crystallization of the GOP’s most pronounced nationalist tendencies. Thirdly, there are the neoconservatives: mainly Jewish intellectuals from left-liberal backgrounds turned aggressive nationalists and “fellow-travelers . . . on the Right: people whose former fears become transmuted in the pleasurable feeling that they are admitted to the company of nationalists and haters.” Finally, there are the American people themselves, who have made the Republicans the leading political party in this country since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. During the two Reagan administrations, Lukacs writes,
A great mutation had occurred in American sentiments, opinions, ideas, beliefs, something that was unprecedented in the history of the United States, something that had finally crystallized at the time of Reagan’s assumption of power. For the first time in their national history more Americans chose to identify themselves as “conservatives,” many more than as “liberals.”
A difficulty here, of course, is the preciseness, trustworthiness—even the truthfulness—of self-identifications. Another is the question of whether Americans know enough of history to have formed any accurate notion of what true conservatism is, and what it is not. Is the “militarization of the American presidency” (in Lukacs’s formulation) a “conservative” development? The despoliation of nature by industrial corporations and suburban sprawl? The worship of technological and mechanical “progress” at the expense of tradition? A belief in “private enterprise” but not in privacy? A perfervid “Americanism” that crowds out an interest in, and knowledge of, other peoples? During the past 20 years, the divorce rate, the number of households managed by a single person, and the number of abortions performed has not decreased. (Incidentally: How can a public that makes Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Julia Roberts multimillionaires and defended the grossly adulterous Bill Clinton against impeachment—“It’s only sex!”—be reckoned as “conservative” at all?)
The United States was created at the very middle of the Modern Age—a circumstance that, for a time, was a very great advantage to her. Increasingly, however, it proved a handicap, as Lukacs cannily observes:
That handicap was the absence of intellectual traditions older than those of the so-called Enlightenment—together with the persistence of the most dangerous idea and illusion of the Enlightenment, whether Parisian or Scottish: the limitless belief in Progress, resting on a shallow and mistaken view of human nature, the “homme machine” of the eighteenth century, with its jaunty and unthinking denial of its complexity and sinfulness.
If mankind is not to suffer a catastrophic fate, Lukacs believes, the American people must liberate themselves from the hubristic—indeed, blasphemous—idea that the United States represents, as Lincoln said, “the last, best hope of earth.” If Americans are to enjoy a future that is in any sense of the word civilized, their public men must solve correctly “dreadful dilemmas: whether to prohibit or not the further and further applications of technology, whether or not to turn their backs on a diabolical notion of ‘Progress.’” In order to do this, of course, they must be able to rethink the meaning of Progress, which means thinking about thinking itself. “That, and nothing else, means America being ‘the ruler of its own spirit.’”
[A New Republic: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century, by John Lukacs (New Haven: Yale University Press) 457 pp., $19.95]
[Democracy and Populism: Fear & Hatred, by John Lukacs (New Haven: Yale University Press) 248 pp., $25.00]