A half-century ago, a politically ambitious intellectual celebrity named Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., defined liberalism’s role as that of offering solutions to problems and solving them. Even in the heyday of the Vital Center, that was far from a complete representation of liberalism’s self-perceived task. Today, when “advanced liberalism” (the phrase is James Kalb’s) is rampant in the Western world and elsewhere, it is positively a ludicrous one. Modern liberals do not wish simply to tinker with the world their ideological forebears created; they are determined to transform that world, and reality itself. Even in day-to-day liberal politics, the idea of business as usual is unheard of. All new liberal governments, including the so-called conservative ones, feel duty-bound to offer new promises at the start—“change we can believe in.” These promises are usually dramatic ones, as radical as the market will bear: concluding a war of several years’ duration with the stroke of a pen and bringing the troops home within months, reinventing Social Security and healthcare, calling Wall Street to heel, and so forth. Underlying these fairly quotidian changes, however, is an agenda of millennial proportions.
Over the past two centuries, liberalism has moved far, far beyond the traditional understanding that government ought to reflect the structure and makeup of a society and its institutions. Today, liberals accept as axiomatic the idea that the role of government is to transform these things. Chesterton was objecting to this view when he referred to the obligation the living owe to the vast constituency of the dead in their countless generations. But there is, in addition to the deceased and “those who happen merely to be walking around,” a constituency of the future that also deserves consideration. Liberal and “conservative” politicians alike will evoke, when it suits them, generations of unborn citizens—“our children and grandchildren”—who stand to be saddled with a crushing financial obligation if the national debt is not paid down. But the liberal project to reconstruct humanity and transcend history entails legacies far more serious than indebtedness. If liberalism has its way, a mere three or four generations at the helm of “proactive” government (some officeholders by election, the vast majority by appointment) will have succeeded in transforming America and the world, in their broadest features and most minute details. Human life and society, at the national and international level, will have been taken apart and reassembled according to radically new patterns—or, rather, a single universal pattern. Nations will have been divested of their traditional structures and institutions, and of their characters. So will peoples, and families. The human intellect and sensibility will have been reconfigured, and morality tortured to fit the needs of a totally rationalized secular liberal world. Religion will have been driven back to the catacombs, or conformed to New Age ethical pieties. Our descendants will have inherited a hideously deformed world—a botched abortion of a world—created by human beings driven by the satanic and inhuman ambition to transcend humanity.
What would a religion in which liberal skeptics could believe look like? James Kalb and J. Budziszewski, in two first-rate new books—The Tyranny of Liberalism (ISI) and The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction (ISI), respectively—think it would look exactly like liberalism itself. Indeed, they argue, liberalism is a religion, though unconfessed as such by liberals. “It is in the nature of religions,” Budziszew-ski suggests,
to propose certain commitments as supreme and unconditional. Whatever proposes such commitments is (in the relevant sense) a religion. The sole fact that liberalism is against what it recognizes as religious need not prevent it from being a religion—provided that it does not perceive what it is.
That is sensible. It takes religion to recognize religion, and liberalism, which despises religion and the religious impulse, is the greatest enemy religion has today, or ever has had. In Kalb’s estimation, the new religion, “a system of moral absolutes based on a denial that moral truth is knowable, consists in nothing less than the deification of man.” It is, then, not simply a religion but a patently false religion, with liberal man as its idol. This calls into question the nature of another contemporary idol, often equated or conflated with liberalism—democracy. “I am an idolater of democracy,” Norman Podhoretz, one of the high priests of Global Democracy, boasted 20 years or more ago.
Are liberalism and democracy one and the same thing? The current consensus seems to be that they are today but were not always, as classical liberalism evolved toward the advanced liberalism of the present. Let us assume that, in the postmodern context at least, democracy equals liberalism. But, if Kalb and Budziszewski are correct, liberalism is a religion. Thus we are left with the logical conclusion that democracy is a religion. That is a hard saying for our relentlessly secular era. But isn’t it a true one?
Orestes Brownson argued that the U.S. Constitution, by placing all the numerous Protestant sects on the same level of acceptance and respect, encouraged indifference on the part of Americans to all of them, and that the American people have thus tended to set politics above religion in their public and private lives. Brownson was writing in 1856. The War Between the States came five years after, and the defeat of the Confederacy was followed by the meteoric rise of an aggressive democratic nationalism unmatched in Europe before the Great War, accompanied by a decline, among the upper classes especially, of orthodox Christian belief. In the United States, democratism as progressive ideology ruled for generations before evolving into an evangelical religion in the 1980’s, when Washington’s interventionist tendencies developed into an aggressive globalist imperialism that fits nicely with the ruling elite’s multicultural agenda at home, as the congruence of American foreign and immigration policies demonstrates. While the American public, after a flurry of patriotic show and support, has been quickly disillusioned by its leaders’ serial military adventures overseas, it holds to the unshakable conviction that the United States is the Land of the Free, the best and greatest country on earth—still God’s Country, now as in the past—and that democracy has made it so.
What no one considers is whether freedom and democracy are one and the same thing, as democracy and liberalism are thought to be.
Before the passage of the First Reform Act in 1832, Great Britain was a free country, a country of laws and of the rights of freeborn Englishmen—freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press (qualified), the right to private property, the principle that a man’s home is his castle, the right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers, habeas corpus, and so forth. But was she a democracy? Of course not. She was a constitutional monarchy, undergirded by a titled and landed aristocracy. Suffrage was in those days restricted to the wealthy and the upper-middle classes, the electorate miniscule compared with that of the present day. Does it follow that Great Britain was therefore a less “free” country than the United States, though patently less democratic? As for today, is John Bull, who has enjoyed the right to vote for more than a century but cannot, in the era of advanced liberalism, speak his mind in public on Islam or immigration without the threat of a jail sentence, and who is a helpless subject of confiscatory tax rates and the British national healthcare system, a freer man than his 19th-century ancestor before the reform?
There is a marvelous volume, out last year, called The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb, an English scholar and biographer whose subjects are French literature and history. Robb describes with great skill and a poet’s instinct and literary art the consolidation of France—politically, administratively, culturally, linguistically, and geographically—between 1789 and World War I. This process was the agenda of liberalism, of the French Republic, of the French national state. Mr. Robb’s narrative describes a feudal society pushed toward democracy or, at least, modernity, a traditional world being transformed into a rationalist bureaucratic one. Tocqueville would have admired this book, but he would have been appalled to learn how closely his direst prophecies regarding the centralizing French state have been realized. Though Robb is too much an artist to frame it in crass sociopolitical terms, his story is that of the liberation of a people—actually, a congeries of peoples collectively but inaccurately called “the French”—from the legal, social, and geographical restraints of past millennia. It is the story of millions of people attaining “freedom.” But—freedom from what? That is the question that modern democratic people never ask, because it does not occur to them to do so. Freedom from your family? Freedom from your town, and from your land? From your pays, and from your province? Freedom from your parish church, and from your guild? Freedom from rural peace and the strangling reach of cities? Freedom from a limited yet healthy diet? Freedom from the habits and manners—the moeurs—of your ancestors? And, above all, freedom into what—the modern bureaucratized behemoth that demands (as Kalb says) “a particular human type” for its own success, and for the individual contentment of its citizens? Modern democracy is a hard bargain involving terrible concessions, not a certificate of unconditional liberation unqualified by blocks of fine print. And democracy, as a religion, is a bargain offered by the Devil, and the Devil could not—even if he wished to, which he doesn’t—grant us freedom of any sort; any sort, that is, that counts, or is real rather than illusory.
If democracy is a religion, then it must be a false religion, a tissue of errors and misconceptions, misrepresentations and lies, bungled logic and historical ignorance, coupled with ignorance of the human heart. How could the Good Society be built on such a foundation? And even if it were possible to do so, how could such a society possibly sustain itself in the long run?
Modern democracy is what anthropologists call culture-specific, a product of the civilization a portion of whose historic ideals it partially reflects and in the context of which it matured. Democracy’s fatal tendency is to undermine and finally destroy the civilization that invented democracy, by discouraging civilized values and encouraging uncivilized ones, as the iron logic of liberalism demands. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Pitirim Sorokin recognized that what he called the sensate culture goes through the motions of creating great works of art and of the intellect characteristic of the West’s ideational and idealistic ages, while producing only commercialized and ideologized travesties of them. Liberalism, James Kalb asserts, kills thought. That is far from being all that it kills. Can parricide democracy destroy the father that gave it life, and survive the deed? That is the paramount question for the 21st century, and the postmodern age.