Did the Founders Fail?
After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy, by Chilton Williamson Jr. (ISI, 288 pp., $27.95)


Chilton Williamson Jr. has written a historically rich, erudite, and serious critique of what he calls contemporary “democracy” (and what others might label “advanced liberalism”). After Tocqueville is an intellectual-history feast, in which one meets the major thoughtful and humane critics of modern democracy, from Chesterton, Belloc, Maine, and Bagehot to Orestes Brownson, Ortega y Gasset, and Jacques Ellul. Williamson, a novelist felicitous in his use of the English language, is a senior editor at Chronicles and a long-time exemplar of literary conservatism (à la Russell Kirk) as opposed to political conservatism. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was the literary editor of National Review.

The many strands of American conservatism could, at one level, be reduced to two: the Whig optimist and the Tory pessimist. Williamson’s book is a classic example of conservative cultural pessimism (with a good dash of determinism) of the type that conservative optimist Arthur Herman decried in his 1997 book The Idea of Decline in Western History.

Like Tocqueville, Williamson characterizes democracy as a “social state,” an encompassing cultural and social regime and way of life, not simply a political system. With this in mind, Williamson has, as a primary purpose of this book, to refute Francis Fukuyama’s claim that we have arrived at the “end of history” with the ideological triumph of liberal democracy. Drawing on theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian eschatology, Williamson sees Fukuyama’s thesis as yet another in the age-old list of efforts by secular-liberal philosophers to depict history as a “redemptive process.” This historical progressivism, Williamson rightly suggests, fails to recognize the very real and perennial problem of evil in the world and the different forms that it might take. For Niebuhr (and Williamson), core historical problems are never completely resolved but lead instead to new dilemmas and new evils. The belief that man can resolve his problems through history is the old sin of pride, the sin of Adam.

Williamson is at his best in diagnosing the pathologies of advanced liberalism. From Robespierre through Gramsci to their 21st-century philosophical epigones, the Left has been on a “long march through the institutions.” Moreover, this long march “has succeeded, or nearly, in accomplishing what the international revolution of the proletariat failed to do.” In this particular analysis Williamson is spot on. I remember that, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the worldwide advance of market capitalism and political democracy, and even a Democratic president declaring that “the era of big government is over,” many conservatives were triumphantly announcing “We’ve won.”

Yet, at the same time, multiculturalism and political correctness were gaining a stranglehold on America’s universities and public schools. The new and much more insidious concept of “diversity” replaced the older view of affirmative action. Whereas affirmative action was theoretically, although not in practice, an attempt to remedy past discrimination, diversity means equality of result for groups as an end in itself, irrespective of past discrimination.

Meanwhile, America’s government, legal, academic, and media elites wielded cultural-Marxist tools, artificially dividing ethnic, racial, gender, and linguistic groups into essentially two categories: dominant and marginalized. Any laws that had a negative “disparate impact” on a “protected class” (a “marginalized” group) were ipso facto discriminatory. The goal of New Class elites is to fundamentally transform the United States, culturally, socially, and intellectually as well as politically.

Williamson notes that, across the West, the entire civilizational edifice of mores, manners, customs, institutions, traditions, and beliefs has been under attack and, in large part, has been undermined. This cultural revolution has accomplished what the old Bolsheviks were unable to do. It has greatly weakened Christianity, the family, constitutional law, the idea of the nation-state, authentic patriotism, and genuine self-government.

Williamson argues that this modern democracy is a “false religion.” While the liberal project ostensibly favors human rights, in fact it is essentially a means by which the “upper strata of society” attempt to “escape from the authority of religion” while “establishing a secular church to which the lower orders are made subservient.”

From the 1920s to the 1960s, Marxism had a strong appeal to the Western intellectuals who promoted the advance of the Left. Since then, multiculturalism has replaced it as the central ideology of the Western intelligentsia. Quoting the prominent philosopher Kenneth Minogue, Williamson points out that while multiculturalism is not necessarily antagonistic to religion per se, it is united with Marxism in a hatred of Christianity specifically.

March 25, 2013    |     Volume LXV, No. 5

Books, Arts & Manners
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .