Liberal Anti-Democracy, Chapter 4, Part 2:
The Post-War Consensus
Whereas liberal elites had always harbored a cynical and technocratic rejection of the fundamental premises of popular government, after the Second World War “the highly educated [also began] to deplore working-class movements for their bigotry, their refusal of modernity,” and their apparent instinctual tendency towards nationalism and authoritarian leaders. They became openly and dogmatically hostile towards all forms of “collectivism” and solidaristic political movements because they identified popular social organization as fundamentally incompatible with liberalism’s hallowed individual rights and liberties. Post-war elites embraced anti-fascism and anti-populism as two necessary tenets of contemporary liberalism. Elite liberal culture came to be characterized by a series of influential post-war Jewish deconstructionist intellectual movements that amounted to an openly anti-democratic form of liberalism characterized by hostility towards all forms of collective social organization, attitudes which came to be exemplified by the philosophy of Karl Popper.
In his highly influential The Open Society, Popper famously rejected the Greco-Roman philosophical foundations of Western European civilization, which he claimed was morally bankrupt for its apparent tendency toward totalitarianism. To Popper, the Greek subordination of the private life of the individual to the collective and political life of the polis, as exemplified in works such as Plato’s Republic and The Laws, was little more than “anti-humanitarian propaganda.” Whereas Aristotle believed that “man is a political animal” and that “the main concern of politics is to engender a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions” (i.e. to cultivate pro-social attitudes in its citizens that make self-government and cooperative collective action possible), Popper saw in the Classics only a misanthropic “hat[r]ed [of] the individual and his freedom . . . [alongside the] hat[r]ed [of] the varying particular experiences, the variety of the changing world of sensible things.”
For Popper, the Greco-Roman foundations of Western civilization were the hallmark of an illiberal “closed society,” a socially regressive form of organization based on primitive things such as “kinship, living together, sharing common efforts, common dangers, common joys and common distress.” Its irrational and “magical tribal institutions,” ideas, and taboos, presumably including everything from racial distinctions and collective identity to national borders and social standards, strangle the natural diversity of life and stifle the individual’s absolute autonomy.
Popper supposedly wrote The Open Society as a defense of democracy against totalitarian European political movements such as Nazism, though Popper’s worldview itself amounts to little more than a meaningless liberal appropriation of the word. For Popper, democracy was not to be found in the coherent and homogeneous social organization that characterized the ancient Greek polis, and for him “the value of democracy did not reside in the fact that the people are sovereign.” Just as tribal social organisms were to Popper fictional social constructs, so too were concepts such as popular rule and the voice of the people — vox populei — which Popper characterized as a “classical myth.” The people cannot rule because the people are a fictional entity. “We are democrats,” wrote Popper, “not because the majority is always right, but because democratic traditions are the least evil ones of which we know,” referring not to mass participation in politics but instead to the Anglo-liberal parliamentary tradition’s constitutional mechanisms for inducing pluralism and safeguarding minority rights.
For Popper, within the ideal open society the state does not exist to fulfill the “general will,” to enact the will of “the people,” or to protect and serve the good of the nation; rather, much as Locke, Montesquieu, and the classical liberal constitutional theorists, Popper believes that the state exists instead for “the protection of that freedom which does not harm other citizens.” Democracy does not mean collective participation in politics or self-government; divorced from any concept of transcendent national goals and visions, collective life, or concept of belonging to a community with a shared history and destiny, democracy only means the “open society,” which implies the emancipation of the individual from these collective obligations. Democracy is reduced to a hollow shell. No longer a collective enterprise, democratic politics is reduced to a solipsistic menagerie of private and consumptive experiences. And because the state in Popper’s “open society” is essentially reduced to a guardian of private experiences, politics is no longer a collective enterprise of organized peoples and of nations, but can instead essentially be reduced to a utilitarian equation or scientific formula. Politics no longer depends on collective participation, but instead envisions a technocratic formulation of the state to be entrusted to an enlightened liberal elite of scientific managers and institutional technicians who will impartially manage the administration of individual rights. Remarking on the implicitly technocratic bent of Popper’s liberal democratic vision, Sheldon Wolin observes that
Popper was concerned primarily to justify a new form of politics – social engineering – by appealing to scientific methods; that is, a politics in which social policies would be treated experimentally was recommended because it was ‘like’ the logic of science.
This attitude came to exemplify the attitudes of the post-war liberal elite in the American political establishment, just as the anti-democratic skepticism of the New Deal liberals had presaged Popper’s own technocratic conclusions. The outcome was a tendency towards the depoliticization of society in favor of “discarding political ideologies and using the new social sciences to craft effective policies . . . based on scientific rather than political principles.”
Popper envisioned an essentially apolitical form of anti-politics that seeks specifically to insulate and protect private life against supposedly totalitarian collective social organizations. And so ironically, even though it was conceived as a defense against totalitarianism, Popper’s philosophical framework has been criticized for itself containing the seeds of a technocratic form of anti-democratic liberal totalitarianism that undermines the democratic premises of a free and democratic society based on popular participation. Like Karl Lowenstein’s concept of “militant democracy,” a justification for denying democratic political rights to the opponents or critics of democracy that was developed as a response to Nazism in Germany, Karl Popper proposed the “paradox of tolerance.” Concerned that “if a society is tolerant without limit, [then] its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant,” Popper established what has become the operating paradigm for contemporary liberal elites:
We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.
Karl Popper’s “open society” has very little to do with democracy at all. Instead, Popper’s philosophy simply amounts to a liberal appropriation of the word. In fact, appropriating the word democracy to describe socially liberal causes became the hallmark of the era, followed by other influential social theorists such as the social democrat Eduard Bernstein, who described social democracy as “organized liberalism,” and the Frankfurt School. Disenchanted Marxists who abandoned revolutionary proletarian politics to pursue social critique, the scholars of the Frankfurt School established the influential intellectual tradition of critical theory, a sociological school aimed at critiquing social institutions that constrain the freedom of the individual. In the words of Frankfurt School theoretician Max Horkheimer, the purpose of critical theory was “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” For Herbert Marcuse, the “Father of the New left,” the “purpose” of the New School was to pursue “liberation . . . [from] all social constraints.”
The Frankfurt School’s theories were tremendously popular with post-war American elites in the social sciences, academia, and institutions of the American government such as the CIA. Their ideas provided an intellectual foundation for much of contemporary liberal ideology, which — in the words of the critical theorist Erich Fromm — supposes that “[p]rogress for democracy lies in enhancing the actual freedom, initiative, and spontaneity of the individual.” Similar to Karl Popper’s liberal philosophy, the Frankfurt School essentially replaced the idea of democracy as the sovereignty of the people with democracy as uninhibited individualism. In doing so, they laid the foundations for the influential contemporary intellectual traditions of postmodernism and feminist/queer theory, and anticipated the French deconstructionists such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, for whom
the passion of deconstruction is deeply political . . . [as] a relentless, if sometimes indirect, discourse on democracy, on a democracy to come. Derrida’s democracy is a radically pluralistic polity that resists the terror of an organic, ethnic, spiritual unity, of the natural, native bonds of the nation, which grind to dust everything that is not a kin of the ruling kind and genus. He dreams of a nation without nationalist or nativist closure, of a community without identity, of a non-identical community that cannot say I or we, for, after all, the very idea of a community is to fortify ourselves in common against the other.
The most influential work of the Frankfurt School was the Authoritarian Personality study, a psychological investigation that claimed to have “identif[ied] authoritarianism and anti-Semitism as a personality disorder.” Funded by the American Jewish Committee and conducted by Jewish refugees and psychoanalysts, the purpose of the study, in the words of Max Horkheimer, was to present “scientific proof of antisemitism [as] being a symptom of deep hostility against democracy” and a threat “to democratic civilization,” in the hopes that the results of the study might “arouse the [Roosevelt] administration and all liberal forces of the country, particularly the educators of this nation,” against the fascist and National Socialist movements in Europe. Research leader Horkheimer expressed with glee how the study was an opportunity for social scientific research “to transform itself directly into propaganda.” The study was heavily promoted and became massively influential in the American social sciences. In the 1950s it was reported that “no volume published since the war in the field of social psychology has had a greater impact on the direction of the actual empirical work being carried on in the universities today.” As Roger Brown writes:
The study called The Authoritarian Personality has affected American life: the theory of prejudice if propounded has become a part of popular culture and a force against racial discrimination. Cool objectivity has not been the hallmark of this tradition. Most of those who have participated have cared deeply about the social issues involved.
As anti-fascist liberal political propaganda cloaking itself in pretensions regarding the empirical sciences’ value-neutral objectivity, the obvious technocratic implications of the Authoritarian Personality study and its massive influence on establishment liberal ideology has been noted by social critics. Paul Gottfried notes that in the post-war era, “[t]he Authoritarian Personality became an ideological weapon against historical American populist movements, especially McCarthyism.” The populist critic Christopher Lasch famously noted that
[f]rom the beginning, this was social science with a political agenda: “By identifying the ‘liberal personality’ as the antithesis of the authoritarian personality, they equated mental health with an approved political position. They defended liberalism . . . on the grounds that other positions had their roots in personal pathology. . . . The purpose and design of Studies in Prejudice dictated the conclusion that prejudice, a psychological disorder rooted in ‘authoritarian’ personality structure, could be eradicated only by subjecting the American people to what amounted to collective psychotherapy — by treating them as inmates of an insane asylum.”
The long-term consequences of this reverberating influence on the American social sciences reflected the growing attitudes amongst American political elites that Western society was rife with “potential fascists” possessing a natural proclivity towards “antidemocratic [i.e., illiberal] thought,” which nurtured a tendency in establishment elites to become deeply suspicious and hostile towards democratic politics. Christopher Lasch notes the obvious anti-democratic implications:
[T]he people as a whole had little understanding of liberal democracy . . . [According to the Frankfurt School,] important questions of public policy [sh]ould be decided by educated elites, not submitted to popular vote.
This liberal elitism was also exhibited by the New York Intellectuals. Another highly influential post-war intellectual tradition that has been described as “a leftist elitism — a leftist conservatism, we might say — that slowly evolved into . . . neoconservatism,” the New York school built itself on top of the anti-democratic legacy of American liberal constitutional theorists such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, and their descendants, such as Woodrow Wilson and Walter Lippmann. As Jumonville writes,
the elitism in their outlook was not a socioeconomic sort dependent on upper-class privileges, of course, but rather an intellectual elitism — a Jeffersonian aristocracy of talent, ability, intelligence, and critical acuity. They were worried about maintaining the intellectual vocation and its values. Further, they were the elite in the sense of being elect or chosen. But all these types of elitism had some connection: they were ways of conserving power for one group, and they resulted in a patronizing condescension towards the lower orders of society.
Just as Karl Popper and the Frankfurt School critical theorists, the proto-neocon New York Intellectuals harbored a profound distrust of rural and working-class Americans and a deep antipathy towards popular political movements, which they associated with
nativism, anti-Semitism, nationalism, and fascism as well as with anti-intellectualism and provincialism . . . The New York Intellectuals simply began with the assumption that the rural — with which they associated much of American tradition and most of the territory beyond New York — had little to contribute to a cosmopolitan culture . . . By interpreting cultural and political issues through the urban-rural lens, writers could even mask assertions of superiority and expressions of anti-democratic sentiments as the judgements of an objective expertise.
These attitudes were also shared by highly influential public intellectuals and historians tangentially associated with the New York Intellectuals such as Richard Hofstadter, Oscar Handlin, Max Lerner, Daniel Bell, Earl Raab, and Seymour Martin Lipset. As Peter Novick writes, the anti-populist tendency of many of these intellectuals could be attributed to their Jewish identities. As the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, “they were one generation removed from the Eastern European shtetl, where insurgent gentile peasants meant pogrom.” Populism was anathema, because it was associated with bigotry and support for “restrictionist immigration policies.” These intellectuals consequently exhibited a general “distrust of institutions that intervene between the people and their direct exercise of power,” dismissed populist politics “as an undercurrent of provincial resentment, popular and ‘democratic’ rebelliousness and suspiciousness, and nativism,” and generally approved of “The Authoritarian Personality as a way of understanding right-wing political attitudes and behavior.” They concurred with Daniel Bell, who reaffirmed the American Founding Fathers’ belief that “representative government . . . [was needed as] a check on the tyrannical ‘popular’ majority.”
Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform, which has been described as “the most influential book ever published on the history of twentieth-century America,” has been regarded as promoting a “querulous view of popular movements, which seem to threaten the leadership of an urbanized, often academic, intelligentsia or elite, and the use of concepts that originated in the behavorial sciences.” Pejoratively dismissing populist politics as a form of irrational “status anxiety,” Hofstadter’s work was criticized by Christopher Lasch for exhibiting an overwhelming “cultural prejudice” against the lower classes. According to Lasch, the book was largely responsible for turning populism “back into a term of top-down abuse” alongside the works of other influential historians such as Seymour Martin Lipset. Eulogized as “one of the most influential social scientists of the past half century” by the New York Times, Lipset envisioned the heart of American democracy not as majoritarianism or mass popular political participation, but rather as pluralism, which he
conceptualize[d] . . . as implying multiple centers of power without domination by any one group — a view in which the self-interest of ethnic groups in retaining and expanding their power is conceptualized as fundamentally anti-democratic. Attempts by majorities to resist the increase in the power and influence of other groups are therefore contrary to “the fixed spiritual center of the democratic political process.”
For Lipset and his colleague, Earl Raab, “tolerance of cultural and ethnic pluralism is a defining feature of democracy, . . . [which means that] groups that oppose cultural and ethnic pluralism are by definition extremist and anti-democratic.” “[E]xtremism is anti-pluralism,” argue Lipset and Raab, “and the operational heart of extremism is the repression of difference.” Their liberal reframing of democracy carried with it the implication that
government is to be the province of morally and intellectually superior elites who have no commitment to the ethnic interests of the European majority; and in an Orwellian turn, democracy is defined as guaranteeing that majorities will not resist the expansion of power of minorities even if that means a decline in their own power.
Karl Popper, the Frankfurt School, the New York Intellectuals: These intellectual currents reflected what the historian Thomas Frank describes as the prevailing “anti-populist” ideology of the post-war American liberal elite, who overwhelmingly rejected democracy because they recognized the democratic self-assertion of the masses as incompatible with their liberal cosmopolitan vision for society. And in the second half of the twentieth century, this Leftist anti-populist intellectual tradition found a complement in the modern conservative movement as articulated by the founder of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley, for whom “the understanding and practice of American democracy” simply meant economic individualism, and for which politics was simply a tool for realizing “the ideals of freedom and pluralism.”
The major inspiration for Buckley’s post-war, free market-focused American conservatism was Friedrich August von Hayek. Considered the Father of Neoliberalism, Hayek was one of the primary theorists, alongside Milton Freidman, responsible for reconstructing the post-war West around free-market principles, and his brand of Right-wing, free-market conservatism greatly complemented the Left’s post-war vision. Hayek nurtured a friendship with Karl Popper, and his most influential work, The Road to Serfdom, was published only one year before Karl Popper’s The Open Society. Motivated by the same anti-authoritarian imperative, The Road to Serfdom was characterized by a similar obsessive antipathy towards collectivism. Fearing that individual freedom might be restricted by the state, the book nurtured a similar distrust of organic mass popular political movements among the American Right. Hayek continued to warn that “liberalism is incompatible with unlimited democracy,” which he described as “totalitarian democracy” or “the dictatorship of plebiscites.” As opposed to an organized majoritarian democratic state that seemed to threaten individual spontaneity, he expressed a preference instead for the technocratic rule of a liberal market elite. Émigré Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises of the libertarian school of economics similarly waxed poetic:
Grave injury has been done to the concept of democracy by those who, exaggerating the natural law notion of sovereignty, conceived it as limitless rule of the volonté Générale [the general will] . . . It is a small confusion of ideas, but a confusion with profound consequences, when [the ruler] takes his formal freedom to be a material one and believes himself to be above the natural conditions of social life. The conflicts which arise out of this misconception show that only within the framework of Liberalism does democracy fulfill a social function. Democracy without liberalism is a hollow form.
The “economic freedom and market deregulation” promoted by Hayek and Buckley complemented the “moral freedom and cultural deregulation” promoted by Karl Popper, the Frankfurt School, and the New York Intellectuals. Buttressed by a hostility towards mass popular political movements, which were regarded as incompatible with the American liberal establishment’s vision for the future, these ideologies represent the ideology of the American elites in the second half of the twentieth century. This Left/Right spectrum — what R. R. Reno calls the “postwar consensus” — is what liberal intellectuals mean when they say “democracy.”
This system would be more accurately described as a system of liberal anti-democracy, however, because it is one where collective political action and the democratic self-assertion of the majority is harshly restricted by a technocratic liberal elite. This liberal elite is not committed to the well-being or sovereignty of the people. It does not represent the people or any political entity whatsoever. Instead, it has abdicated its fiduciary duty to the people to impose its small-minded and solipsistic liberal conception of the universe onto the hapless masses, who are not allowed to participate in the country’s political conversation and are not even recognized as an existing political entity. What we have been left with is this anti-democratic simulacrum of democracy: a democracy in name, but not in substance. As Robert McChesney remarks, “the very term democracy has been turned on its head so its very absence in substance is now seen as what constitutes its defining essence,” leaving us with what Robert Entman calls a “democracy without citizens.” In the words of Sheldon Wolin, Western liberal “democracy” is a system that “professes to be the opposite of what, in fact, it is.”
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 Thomas Frank, The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism (Henry Holt and Company: 2020), 147.
 Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton University Press: 1945), 99.
 Popper, 164-165.
 Popper, 105; Wolin, Fugitive Democracy, 150.
 Reno, Return of the Strong Gods, 12.
 Quoted in Kevin MacDonald, The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements (California State University: 2002), 203.
 Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance (MIT Press: 1994), 361;
MacDonald, 158, 166, 167.
 Quoted in MacDonald, 168-169; Reno, 16.
 Quoted in MacDonald, 216-217.
 Quoted in MacDonald, 217.
 Quoted in MacDonald, 197, 151.
 Quoted in MacDonald, 197, 158.
 Reno, 27, 30.
 Reno, xi.
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