California Literary Review

Democracy and Populism : Fear and Hatred by John Lukacs

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April 11th, 2007 at 11:29 am

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Democracy and Populism : Fear and Hatred
by John Lukacs
Yale University Press, 256 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

FEAR CAME UPON ME, AND TREMBLING
The Book of Job; 4:14

“For the Christian view of history,” historian Christopher Dawson wrote over fifty years ago, “is not merely a belief in the direction of history by divine providence, it is a belief in the intervention by God in the life of mankind by direct action at certain definite points in time and place.”

Contemporary historian, John Lukacs, may very well accept this Christian view of history; he is, after all a reactionary of the first order, and one suspects a closet Christian Monarchist! He is also an avowed seeker of the truth, eschewing the intellectual company of contemporary “liberals” and “conservatives” alike; he does not suffer fools gladly. His biting criticisms of modernity’s cultural, political, and moral failures have left him a maverick, a lone wolf, a voice “crying out in the wilderness.”

You may not like what he says, you may not agree with his conclusions, but his thinking and his writing are so broad, rich, and in-depth that all but the most iconoclastic, the most radicalized, is forced to consider his perspectives.

In his latest book, Democracy and Populism : Fear and Hatred, Lukacs defines, what he considers, the deleterious effects of our devolution from a democracy (republicanism has been extirpated since Lincoln) to a populist regime. Here Lukacs posits a telling appraisal that reflects the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville, “Majority rule is tempered by the legal assurance of the rights of the minorities, and of individual men and women. And when the temperance is weak, or unenforced, or unpopular, then democracy is nothing more (or else) than populism. More precisely: then it is nationalist populism.” And it was classical liberalism that was that tempering force.

Lukacs explains that the decline of liberalism was predicated on the rejection of the French Revolution that had become intellectually “irrelevant” by the end of World War II, “because of its mechanical and rationalist philosophy of human nature.” And later, of course, liberalism became the handmaiden of socialism, which in the end the masses have found unworkable and harmful (more or less).

Liberalism’s demise was directly related to its success because its primary cause, “popular sovereignty” had been accepted by the masses (conservatives included, for the most part). This occurred sometime after 1870 and the direct result was an obfuscation of the differences between liberals and conservatives who were inherently strong supporters of “religion, monarchy, classes, traditions, (and) land.” It had also achieved certain social reforms and imbued the pernicious idea of “progress” in the conscience of the masses. Historically there was no Hegelian synthesis between liberalism and conservatism, rather a rise in the West of nationalism and socialism. “And of these two,” Lukacs writes, “nationalism proved to be the most powerful and enduring.”

In the end, the United States became a social democracy and continues to this day as one but Lukacs has observed an evolution (devolution) in modernity, a profound shift toward nationalism and populism fueled by fear and hatred. The author defines nationalism as “modern and populist…it is the love of the myth of a ‘people’ justifying many things…a political and ideological substitute for religion.” He explains that patriotism is the “love of a particular land, with its particular traditions…” Tellingly, Adolph Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “I was a nationalist, and not a patriot.” Lukacs accurately describes him as a national (rather than international) socialist, “with emphasis on the latter rather than the former.”

In his description of contemporary political parties, Lukacs’ writes, “…generally speaking, in the United States the Republican Party has been more nationalistic than socialistic, while the Democrats have been more socialistic than nationalistic-the latter being perhaps the main cause of their relative decline during the last fifty years.”

He locates the beginnings of the American decline with the rise of “progressive liberalism” (while citing Richard Gambles erudite work, The War for Righteousness) which culminated in Woodrow Wilson’s insane participation in the “war to end wars,” in his mad effort to “Christianize Europe,” and bring about a “new world order.” But Wilson’s shibboleth’s aside, his ideas, and the ideas of those amazingly stupid progressive liberals have deeply infected the executive branch because nearly every president since, Democrat or Republican, expresses his allegiance to American exceptionalism, and the aggressive (nationalistic) notion that America must export “democracy” overseas, regardless of the price in blood and treasure.

In his chapter, the decline of the state, Lukacs argues that conservatives suffer from the malaise of “split-mindedness.” That is, while they oppose “Big Government,” and see it as a menace to freedom and liberty, they support defense spending, space programs, and increased police powers. He interprets this “split-mindedness” as a threat to governmental institutions, which in turn threaten or weaken our civilization. On this point Lukacs may be in error. Many conservatives understand that the first obligation of government is to protect the nation, not subsidize certain social or corporate sectors, or empower the bureaucracy. However, there is little doubt that there is significant misuse of tax dollars in defense spending, as well as the potential threat to liberty in ratcheting up the state’s police powers.

Lukacs’ chapters, Tyranny of the majority, Decline of privacy, Rise of publicity, Publicity and Celebrity, Changes in the recording and knowledge of history, are a series of brilliant exegetical exercises designed to provide the reader with a broad understanding of the negative influences affecting the body politic. The author finishes his disquisition by describing the deleterious effects of “fear and hatred,” as they apply to contemporary political institutions as well as the citizenry. Lukacs writes, “One of the fundamental differences between extremes of Right and Left is this: in most instances hatred moves the former; fear the latter.”

Lukacs argues that conservatives and the Republican Party have succeeded in binding our “classless” society together via popular nationalism best illustrated through President Bush’s war with Iraq, following the 9/11 massacres. The professor states categorically that Bush “and his advisors chose to provoke a war in Iraq well before the election of 2004, for the main purpose of being popular.” Maybe. But this statement ignores the fact that American presidents have been eager to “bring democracy to ____(the reader may fill in the country) since Woodrow Wilson-I would argue President McKinley’s Spanish/American War- and if so, then President Bush was exercising an established (though erroneous) stratagem of American foreign policy that has been in effect for a century. One might take note that the “invasion of Iraq” has lured hundreds if not thousands of Mujahadeen to fight in Iraq; the down side is that the administration, instead of taking the opportunity to destroy these fighters and their supports, have chosen to engage them with precision strikes, designed to avoid “collateral damage,” that have resulted in unnecessary American casualties. George Bush has his faults, however, I don’t believe his decision to engage Saddam Hussein was predicated, at least primarily, on his desire for popularity.

Also, I would take issue with Professor Lukacs’ co-joining of conservatism with the Republican Party. As Paleoconservative Chilton Williamson wrote in his recent book, The Conservative Bookshelf, “Unless we choose to equate conservatism with capitalism and imperialism, it is hard to make the case for the Republican Party being at any time in its history the party of conservatism.” It is yet to be determined how many conservatives will abandon the neoconservative (liberal) dominated Republican Party in future elections. “Fear and hatred” of liberals, such as Senator John F. Kerry, has its limits.

But, Lukacs genius is predicated on his indefatigable faith and in the wisdom it has produced, “This is a sad but inevitable element of the human condition: the attraction of evil in human hearts which is never purely physical but spiritual-the curse of the human condition, the ever-present condition of original sin.” He then offers the hope of a “saving grace” on the distaff side, that regardless of the rising conflicts and devolutions within society there still exists the idea of “love,” and not just a self love, rather the “love” for another, best illustrated by a mother’s inclination to protect “those who fear.”

For Lukacs, “That is the saving grace of mankind. Now much, very much depends on what will happen to women (and how they will regard themselves)-even more in the near than in the distant future. Will they represent-more: will they incarnate-that saving grace?”

John Lukacs’ Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred, is an avuncular “jeremiad,” a wonderfully crafted historical, cultural, religious and philosophical polemic presented at a time when we are moving beyond “the Modern Age,” to an era, Lukacs warns, that may have already given birth to a “new barbarism.” And while Professor Lukacs informs us “history is unpredictable,” I am reminded that there are 366 Biblical admonitions to “fear not!”

  • anonymous

    It is always worthwhile to pay the utmost regard to John Lukacs, a great historian and Christian gentleman. An intellectual for our times.

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