Liberal Anti-Democracy, Chapter 4, Part 1:
The Post-War Consensus
Part 4 of 9 (Chapter 1 here, Chapter 3 here, Chapter 4 Part 2 here)
Politically, democracy means the sovereignty, not of the average man — who is a rather narrow, short-sighted, muddle-headed creature — but of a matured public opinion, a very different thing . . . In the forming of this opinion the sage has a million times the weight of the field hand. With modern facilities for mind influencing mind, democracy, at its best, substitutes the direction of the recognized moral and intellectual élite for the rule of the strong, the rich, or the privileged. — Edward Alsworth Ross, Changing America (1912)
A president whom [the public] trusts can not only lead it, but form it to his own views. — Woodrow Wilson
A class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is not knowledge at all. — John Dewey
Contrary to popular belief, Western liberal political elites have always been totally ambivalent towards democracy at best, and openly hostile towards democracy at worst. As Helena Rosenblatt explains, the men who designed our ostensibly “democratic” institutions did not believe that the masses should be allowed to influence government affairs. They had deep “apprehensions about democracy,” fearing that ordinary people had “an unhealthy predilection for authoritarian rulers and were fatally susceptible to propaganda.”
Democracy directly contradicted the vision of the new society that eighteenth-century liberal revolutionaries were seeking to create. The American Founding Fathers and the liberal European aristocrats who designed our constitutional system of government firmly believed, in the words of James Madison, that “[g]overnment is instituted to protect [private] property.” They identified democracy as “incompatible with personal security or the rights of property” and as a threat to their private fortunes and privileges.
After the American and French revolutions politicized the masses, reactionary liberal aristocrats were concerned with reducing the political impact of the working masses as much as possible. To this end, representative democracy emerged as a pragmatic option for restraining the masses’ emerging political aspirations. “The election of representatives, which we have come to regard as the most democratic way to translate popular views into public policy,” explains Yasha Mounk, was introduced not as an institution of popular rule but as “a mechanism for keeping the people at bay.”
Any rudimentary study of both the history and practice of Western liberal constitutional so-called “democracy” will uncover a profound, systematic anti-democratic bias that permeates our liberal institutions. The most comprehensive theory of representative government was formulated by the American Founding Fathers. While they were familiar with the ancient Athenian system of direct democracy, they explicitly rejected any right of the people to participate directly in politics, accepting instead James Madison’s principle that “the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.” They aimed for “the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity” by introducing a “scheme of representation” that would “moderate the influence of constituents” and guarantee the “autonomy of representatives.”
For the Founders, representative government emerged as a system for preserving elite privileges and an aristocracy of wealth in an age of mass democracy. In latter centuries this system remained, but all that changed was the way in which Americans see and perceive their liberal political institutions — what Walter Lippmann calls “a revolution in the mind.” In America, the Constitution — which was “probably not [supported by] more than one-sixth of the adult males” when it was adopted — was “rewritten . . . in spirit” – not, in fact, by Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. As Walter Lippmann explains, “[n]o great policy was altered.” All that had happened was that the
American people [learned] to regard the Constitution as an instrument of democracy . . . by looking at it through another set of stereotypes, the façade was no longer permitted to look oligarchic. The American people came to believe that their Constitution was a democratic instrument, and treated it as such . . . it is a fair guess that if everyone had always regarded the Constitution as did the authors of it, the Constitution would have been violently overthrown, because loyalty to the Constitution and loyalty to democracy would have seemed incompatible.
The idea that elected officials should obey the will of their constituents is a myth that developed during the eighteenth century, as demagogic politicians such as Andrew Jackson found electoral success by broadening their appeals to increasingly larger segments of the population. This myth had no basis in reality, however, and was not reflected by any institutional changes or reforms. Politicians still have no fiduciary duty by law to their constituents; elected representatives remain totally free and independent from their voters and suffer no consequences for breaking election promises.
The attitude of the American Founding Fathers and nineteenth-century classical liberal architects of representative government was shared by their twentieth-century descendants. They continued to identify democracy as a threat to individual liberty and to the property rights of the wealthy and powerful, particularly as popular democratic politics tended to be associated with socialism. In early twentieth-century Italy, the liberal premier Antonio Salandra, who qualified himself as an “old liberal of the Right,” stated that “I believe that liberalism in Italy would be eliminated by democracy, since liberalism and democracy are different if not altogether contrasting, as long as democracy is dominated by socialism.” His contemporary, Gaetano Mosca, reiterated, “I am not an anti-liberal; indeed, I am opposed to pure democracy precisely because I am a liberal.” But the liberal hostility towards democracy took on new dimensions in the twentieth century, as the age of the omnicompetent liberal aristocratic Member of Parliament ceded to the era of expert bureaucracies and the post-ideological scientific administrative elite. Sheldon Wolin writes:
Science, the third element in modern power, became the perfect incarnation of a conception of power that was to be generated independently of any social contract or democratic agreement. It was an ideal that had its own theological romance: power as immaculately conceived because born of the purest, most disinterested, and objective form of knowledge ever invented to mankind. For more than two centuries science was depicted mythically, not as a social institution but as the miraculous gift of solitary geniuses — a Copernicus, Galileo, or Newton. The myth of science was crucial to the new form of power for it both etherealized and sanctified the other elements of power, both of which were reducible to wills-to-power, one of the state, the other of the capitalist . . . the common feature in these elements of power is that by nature each functioned best under conditions of autonomy: the capitalist was most efficient when least regulated, the bureaucrat most expert when least trammeled by public opinion or self-serving legislators, and the scientist most productive when allowed the maximum freedom of research . . . the new ground of power being prepared by modern industrial capitalism, science, and governmental bureaucracies constituted a direct challenge to the political ideals espoused by most of the theorists of progress, and pointed to a political contradiction at the center of their thinking.
This tendency found its apotheosis in the rise of private policy institutions and think tanks, which emerged throughout the twentieth century as a result of the growing
ability of capitalists to create their own machinery of intellectual production, a power made possible by the enormous concentration of wealth during the industrial era. Following a period of rapid economic growth, businessmen were unusually well equipped to direct the form and content of policy-oriented research.
Representing a kind of privatization of knowledge and policymaking, this private “apparatus of technoscientific production . . . institutionaliz[ed] a boundary between the state, the market, and civil society.” Their progressive colonization of the public policymaking process throughout the early twentieth century progressively produced “a highly technocratic culture within the American intelligentsia,” which, in the words of Dorothy Ross, logically emerged out of the elite liberal American culture characterized by its preferences for “private over public solutions” and its “liberal values, practical bent, shallow historical vision, and technocratic confidence.” By 1944, the Wall Street Journal was commenting on “the curious phenomenon known, where it is known, as Technocracy . . . its admitted object is to turn the lives, liberties and properties of the citizens over to the complete control of a body of self-selected ‘technocrats’ to do with as they please.”
In this environment, the elitism of old liberals such as Alexander Hamilton and Saint-Simon found its apotheosis in the twentieth century in the theories of urban cosmopolite neoconservative intellectuals such as Samuel Huntington, Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Daniel Moynihan, representing an overwhelmingly technocratic think-tank culture which regarded
the mass . . . as irrational, resentful, credulous, manipulable, suspicious of all forms of superiority and difference, and highly susceptible to demagoguery. It was not unusual for intellectuals to characterize the mass as “unthinking,” hence their natural enemy, the intellect’s “other.” [To them popular democratic politics was seen] as fickle, subjective, emotional, and ignorant — the very opposite of scientific and social scientific knowledge . . . [They] shaped the idea of progress into an elitist ideology in which progress depends upon preserving the autonomy of political, corporate, and scientific elites and preventing the masses – whose incompetence has been certified by social science — from intruding their inexpert opinions into the rational decision-making processes of corporations, public bureaucracies, or scientific laboratories.
In consistence with the program initiated by the American Founding Fathers, twentieth-century liberalism was characterized by tendencies towards
the depoliticization of society, especially to discourage mass participation (except at election time) and the formulation of mass demands; and the creation of a technocratic structure whose task is to rationalize the conditions that will preserve order, promote conditions favorable to capitalist enterprise, and strengthen American military power.
The origins of modern liberalism traces to the Progressive Era political philosophy of Woodrow Wilson, who attempted to merge Hegelian historicism and the principles of the Prussian bureaucratic state with American liberalism. Wilson identified politics as inefficient in the modern, technologically-driven era of bureaucratic management. For him, public opinion represented, in his own words, a “clumsy nuisance.” Consequently, to evolve and meet the demands and conditions of a technological era, Wilson believed that the administration of the modern state could no longer be exclusively the domain of politics, but that it must instead become more “properly the province of scientific experts in the bureaucracy,” who must be “unhindered by the realm of politics” to operate effectively. Wilson consequently initiated the trend of “removing power from state legislatures and governors, and transferring that power to independent administrative boards or agencies,” like the Federal Reserve, and to supposedly apolitical and disinterested experts and scientific technicians within academia and the private sector. While Wilson coated his political philosophy with token gestures to democracy, his vision of democracy simply “amount[ed] to elite governance under a veneer of democratic rhetoric,” where the
separation of politics and administration becomes . . . a means for maintaining the democratic veneer of popular government while giving to unelected administrators the wide berth they need to manage the complex business of national progress.
For Wilson, the purpose of the democratically-elected government is not to simply obey public opinion. Rather, the democratically-elected leader is more akin to a divinely-inspired figure who alone has access to a pure form of knowledge that is inaccessible to the ignorant masses. His role is not to obey public opinion, but to prepare and to lead it. Wilson believed that the public is insufficiently capable of articulating or even of understanding its own interests. The leader is the sole figure who can “’interpret’ or read that genuine public will,” and “often reads the implicit will of the public better than the public itself does.” His role is not to obey the will of the people, but to educate “the public, in simple terms, of what it is that it truly desires.” For Wilson, the public can only truly “rule” if they are first taught their genuine interests and desires by an enlightened elite, whose responsibility “is to formulate a vision of the people’s future and to illuminate for them the path to it.” The purpose of the leader is to prepare the population for the elite transformation of society.
Woodrow Wilson’s political theory was mirrored by influential journalist and elite high society CFR member Walter Lippmann, who ghostwrote Wilson’s 14 Points alongside Isaiah Bowman, Sidney Mezes, and David Hunter Miller, and worked on Woodrow Wilson’s Committee of Public Information (CPI) with the propagandist and public relations specialist Edward Bernays to engineer popular support for American involvement in the First World War. After serving on “the most efficient engine of war propaganda which the world had ever seen” to produce a “revolutionary change” in public opinion, Lippmann went on to write several highly influential books about democracy.
Just as Woodrow Wilson, Lippmann’s “influential intellectual provenance” was “the antidemocratic skepticism of Alexander Hamilton, and the antidemocratic fears of so many of the continental-minded men who drafted and campaigned for the U.S. Constitution.” For Lippmann, democracy presupposes an ideal “omnicompetent, sovereign citizen” who can make the correct decisions with respect to public policy. And because this idea of the educated and competent citizen is a myth, Lippmann concluded that democracy is “a false . . . [and] unattainable ideal, bad . . . in the sense that it is bad for a fat man to try to be a ballet dancer.”
Lippmann’s perspective was popular with the American intelligentsia. In 1934, President of the Political Science Association Walter J. Shepard argued that democracy
must lose the halo which has surrounded it . . . The dogma of universal suffrage must be given way to a system of educational and other tests which will exclude the ignorant, the uninformed, and the anti-social elements which hitherto have so frequently controlled elections.
Lippmann’s conclusions were also corroborated by influential mass communications experts such as Bernard Berelson, Paul Lazarsfeld, and William McPhee, who supposed that
the democratic citizen is expected to be well informed about political affairs. He is supposed to know what the issues are, what their history is, what the relevant facts are, what alternatives are proposed… [and] what the likely consequences are.
But unfortunately, “actual citizens rarely meet this lofty ideal,” because the ordinary citizen “cannot be expert in all the fields of policy that are relevant to his decision.”
Because democracy is a “false ideal,” any pursuit of democracy, Lippmann feared, could only be expected to
interfere outrageously with the productive liberties of the individual. The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.
Reflecting on his career in 1955, Walter Lippmann considered his pessimism and antipathy towards public opinion vindicated because “the prevailing public opinion ha[d] been destructively wrong at the critical junctures.” For Wilson and Lippmann, public opinion represented not a sovereign power to obey, but a problem that needed to be managed. The general incompetence and lack of knowledge of the ordinary citizen requires an administrative, expert elite not only to identify the correct policy decisions on the people’s behalf, but to persuade and manipulate the population towards that preconfigured end.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the reigning conception of democracy among liberal political elites was not that of an elite that obeys the will of the people, but that of a passive public shepherded by a scientific administrative “elite of rational manipulation,” in the words of Edward Bernays, which would engineer public opinion and “manufacture consent” on behalf of the elite’s vision of the future. This characterized the attitudes of progressive-era elites such as Woodrow Wilson and Walter Lippmann to the New Deal liberals of Franklin Delano Roosevelt such as James B. Conant, Harvard President and one of the primary civilian leaders of the Manhattan Project; as well as the public intellectual Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who fought with FDR during the Second World War as “champions of democracy, which . . . meant a liberal, open society.” Rationalizing the behavior of “Franklin Roosevelt [who] repeatedly deceived the American people during the period before Pearl Harbor,” Roosevelt supporter Professor Thomas A. Bailey argued after the Second World War:
[Roosevelt] was like the physician who must tell the patient lies for the patient’s own good . . . The country was overwhelmingly noninterventionist to the very day of Pearl Harbor, and an overt attempt to lead the people into war would have resulted in certain failure and an almost certain ousting of Roosevelt in 1940, with a complete defeat of his ultimate aims . . . A president who cannot entrust the people with the truth betrays a certain lack of faith in the basic tenets of democracy. But because the masses are notoriously shortsighted and generally cannot see danger until it is at their throats, our statesmen are forced to deceive them into an awareness of their own long-run interests. This is clearly what Roosevelt had to do, and who shall say that posterity will not thank him for it?
In the early nineteenth century, the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill was one of the first liberal philosophers to articulate “with despairing concern, that a contradiction between democracy and freedom is possible [due to how] the majority could crush minorities.” However, at the time “what concerned him was not coercive law but oppressive public opinion.” His fears about how mass popular political movements might jeopardize the rights of minorities only became fully apparent after the Second World War, when the anti-democratic cynicism of New Deal liberal elites morphed into an explicitly anti-populist ideology, as the rise of fascism in Central Europe provoked a hostile elite reaction against the idea of popular political movements.
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 Helena Rosenblatt, “Liberal democracy is in crisis. But . . . do we know what it is?”, The Guardian, 2018.
 James Madison, “For the National Gazette, 27 March 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-14-02-0238. James Madison, “The Federalist Number 10, [22 November] 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-10-02-0178. Yascha Mounk, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It (Harvard University Press: 2018), 55.
 James Madison, quoted in Lawrence R. Jacobs & Robert Y. Shapiro, Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness (University of Chicago Press: 2000), 299.
 Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (Transaction Publishers: 1922), 282-284.
 Sheldon Wolin, Fugitive Democracy: And Other Essays (Princeton University Press: 2018), 354.
 Thomas Medvetz, Think Tanks in America (University of Chicago Press: 2012), 76-82, 96.
 Wolin, vii.
 Wolin, 354-356.
 Ronald J. Pestritto, Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: 2005), 230, 127, 260, 236, 25, 230.
 Pestritto, 207.
 Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public (Transaction Publishers: 1927), xiv, 29.
 Gilens, Affluence and Influence, 14. Lippmann, 145.
 R. R. Reno, Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West (Regnery Gateway: 2019), 9. Quoted in William Henry Chamberlin, “How Franklin Roosevelt Lied America Into War,” IHR.
 Quoted in Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (Yale University Press: 2018), 39.
Liberal Anti-Democracy, Chapter 6, Part 2: Conclusion
Liberal Anti-Democracy, Chapter 6, Part 1: Conclusion
Liberal Anti-Democracy, Chapter 5, Part 2: Democracy Against the People
Lord of the Fries
Liberal Anti-Democracy, Chapter 5, Part 1: Democracy Against the People
Liberal Anti-Democracy, Chapter 4, Part 2: The Post-War Consensus
Liberal Anti-Democracy, Chapter 3: The Anti-Political US Constitution
Liberal Anti-Democracy, Chapter 2: The Plutocratic Origins of Representative Government
Four chapters in, four to go. Great series so far. Does Counter-Currents still publish books? I certainly hope this gets published in book form, the word “chapter” suggests this is indeed the intention.
I agree this should absolutely be published in book form and marketed/distributed as widely as possible. It might be one of the best works of political science ever written.
I just submitted a $120 check for a one year membership to get behind the paywall barrier to part 5. How long until my access is granted?
Thanks for great work, Mr. Vinther.
Yes, modern technocracy certainly has its origins in the previous ideas of natural aristocracy, but it seems to me that Jefferson’s version of the idea of natural aristocracy differs from the standard one, since Jefferson was for the redistribution of property and universal education, as Eric Nelson points out in his “The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought” [Cambridge University Press, 2004, chapter 6: The Greek tradition and the American Founding].
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