Over drinks in the hotel lounge in the course of a scholarly meeting a year or so ago, I mentioned to a professor of political science and philosophy that I was writing a book on democracy.  “Can you give me an example of democracy in its perfect, most complete form?” he asked.

“National socialism,” I replied.  He took it well, considering that we barely knew each other, and listened with interest—though perhaps not with conviction—while I justified my answer to him.

In the past two centuries, democracy has followed two principal courses: the socialist one in Europe, and the nationalist one in the United States.  Put the two together, and you have national socialism, as in Germany in the 1930’s—democracy brought together in one piece and made a whole, as it were.  As the historian Roland Stromberg has noted, Germany in that decade was—assuming you were descended, off in the mists of history, from the Old Reich and an Aryan—a society of equals enjoying full social and political rights.  The point is, democracy need not have a liberal foundation for its basis.  Indeed, liberals have always tried to find a way around democracy, while working to destroy monarchy, hierarchy, institutionalized religion, prescriptive rights, and traditional morality in the name of “the people” and democratic ideals.

The fact helps explain the mild reaction of the professor of political science with a couple of double scotches aboard to the seemingly outrageous equation of perfect democracy with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi-Sozi regime.  As I have mentioned previously in this space, had I been aware of the extent of the literature critical of democracy produced in the past 20 years—since about the time, in fact, when Francis Fukuyama published his much-celebrated celebration of liberal capitalist democracy, The End of History and the Last Man, in 1992—I might have abandoned the idea of adding to it myself.  Thus, in retrospect, the timing of The End of History seems ironic: a book presenting capitalist democracy as the ultimate historical ideal, whose appearance nevertheless was roughly coincidental with a renewed critical examination of that ideal by liberal and conservative writers alike.

Even so the break is not really as dramatic as I have just presented it.  The beginnings of the postwar critique of democracy (in France particularly) trace from the 1950’s and 60’s, when Western and international establishments tolerated no challenge to, and brooked no criticism of, the social, political, and economic system that had rescued the world from the murderous onslaught of the prewar totalitarian states.  Moreover, the ideas of these critics (Jouvenel, Habermas, Ellul, etc.) are like embers remaining from the intellectual fires of the prewar period, smoldering beneath the placid and assured surface of Western society.  People born after 1945 will not know, unless they make the attempt to discover, what a disparaged quiddity democracy has been among what are sometimes called thinking people throughout history, from ancient Athens down to 1938.  Furthermore, many of these people—in the 19th century especially, when democracy was asserting itself as a popular force—were political liberals.  A minority of them were aristocratic liberals (Tocqueville, Burckhardt, Bagehot) who valued civilization, responsible liberty, and property; others were artists who, although they opposed the old aristocracy of birth and the new one of wealth, believed in an aristocracy of the mind and of talent, and despised the democratic mob.  There were also the intelligent industrialists like John Bright, who opposed protectionism as that policy was represented in Great Britain by the Corn Laws and advocated the humane treatment of industrial workers by their employers, and the aristocratic politicians of the Liberal Party who supported moderate political reforms, such as a restrained expansion of the suffrage.  In the late 19th century and up until 1914—and then again after the war—a significant percentage of educated people, alienated from liberalism by its modern association with bourgeois democracy, became extreme in their opposition to democratic politics and bourgeois society and culture.  So did those European politicians who agreed with and represented them.  The result was the Bolshevik state in Russia, fascism in Italy, and the Third Reich in Germany—ironically, a perfect democracy, as I have said, but only for a carefully defined majority population who, where everyone but themselves was concerned, were both antidemocrats and antiliberals.

In democracy, therefore, classical liberalism recognized a natural enemy to itself, in particular, and a threat to (liberal) Western civilization, generally.  The tendency persisted through World War II and emerged after 1945 as an outspoken and unembarrassed form of liberal elitism, strongly critical of mass democratic culture and the mass man whose tastes it was created to reflect, and whose desires it was meant to satisfy.  The spirit of Flaubert’s assertion that “The masses, sheer numbers, are always stupid”; of Mills’ dictum that “nobody who is sure of the truth will think it sensible to leave it to an election”; of Renan’s belief that civilization is both created and preserved by an aristocracy; and of Nietzsche’s cry of “Mob above and mob below!” resonates perfectly with the bitter indictment of modern democratic culture by Richard Hofstadter, the American historian and a high priest of liberal intellectualism in the 1950’s and 60’s, a century later in Anti-Intellectualism in American History, and others of his books.  In the late 1960’s and 70’s, Western liberals justified their disillusionment with democracy by explaining that, in an act of misplaced generosity, they had entrusted their tender democratic faith to the grasping hands of the bourgeoisie; having recognized their grave historical error, they had then transferred that faith to the Western proletariat and the wretched of the earth elsewhere.  (This explanation conveniently ignored the question of why their intellectuals forebears had scorned the ignorant, violent, and generally unappealing mob in the first place.)  However, the New Left—which was really liberalism in its Marxist incarnation—was clearly unsatisfactory in strategy as well as in theory, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure of communist systems around the world was only the final proof of its dysfunctionality and futility.  Hence its replacement by so-called advanced liberalism—liberalism as it has developed steadily over the past 40 years as multiculturalism, the dominant post-Marxist ideology bent on wrecking the despised West and its liberal-democratic philosophy that defeated Marxism itself.

Multiculturalism—a formative and dominant aspect of advanced liberalism, if not exactly synonymous with it—is obviously and profoundly antidemocratic in its rejection of majoritarian rule, and entirely antirational in its vision of a cobbled-together egalitarian society of wildly dissimilar and culturally unequal minorities.  For multiculturalists and advanced liberals generally, the term majority designates a totality in the sense of an all-embracing abstract ideological commitment, substituting for an historical human society that tolerates no dissent, and that everyone subject to its oversight is compelled to recognize.  Whatever else the old liberalism is, or was, it was certainly a political concept, which multiculturalism assuredly is not.  As Kenneth Minogue has argued, multiculturalism is inherently antipolitical in its ambition to create a society whose citizens are unable even to imagine thinking differently from anyone else: indeed, to whom no thought can occur that every other person is not programmed to think, say, and act upon.  In the fully realized multicultural utopia, free thought simply could not exist.  And where free thought is nonexistent, so, too, must freedom of action be—and, consequently, free men and the political activity to which free men are necessary.  Ideology generically, and multiculturalism specifically, aim at a nonconflictual world, meaning a world devoid of politics.  Ideology could work only for a consensual world (an impossible world) that is quite unaware of having a consensus, or even of what consensus is.  It would be a world, moreover, produced as Minogue says not by “specific political conflict” but by “ubiquitous political conflict”—by the working through of a dialectic rather than as a result of political planning and action.  Multiculturalists, like all ideologues, have no interest in governing society but only in transforming it; after the fact, this transformation—the dialectic at rest and at peace with itself, so to speak—may be trusted to maintain utopia in perpetuity, a world that runs of itself.

Years ago, Joe Sobran and I often discussed—late at night at the old National Review offices at 150 East 35th Street, drinking beer and smoking cigars in the library—whether communism were on an ideological and political continuum with liberalism, or not.  (“Of course, I wouldn’t write this,” Joe would begin.)  Thirty years later, no conservative I know of has the slightest doubt regarding the matter, but the late 70’s and early 80’s were—or from the perspective of the 21st century they seem to be—an age of relative innocence.  If, however, the connection between liberalism and totalitarianism in its historic form is clear, the continuity between an advanced liberalism and the imagined totalitarianism of the future is equally apparent.  What advanced liberals have in mind for us all is beyond nationalism, of course—but also beyond socialism as Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao understood it.  The truth is, liberalism, for all its protestations, never met a democracy it trusted, liked, or didn’t want to get round and ignore, supposing it couldn’t actually destroy it.  Only yesterday, national socialism was the perfect democracy, despised by liberals principally for the reason that it practiced forms of exclusion and abuse of power it didn’t recognize or approve of.  Tomorrow, the perfect democracy will be something else.  No one can say what, but we can be pretty certain it won’t be a “liberal” something.  That doesn’t guarantee liberals won’t like it, though.