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Anti-Democratic Conservatism Isn’t New

Conservatives’ theoretical arguments against democracy have long provided ammunition for opponents of reform.
May 28, 2021
Anti-Democratic Conservatism Isn’t New
National Review editor William F. Buckley, Jr. in 1958. (Bettmann / Getty)

“Now let me say that I, for one, would not willingly die for ‘democracy.’” So wrote William F. Buckley, the patron saint of American conservatism, in 1959. “Democracy is nothing more than a procedural device aimed at institutionalizing political liberty,” he continued. “It has no program. It cannot say to its supporters: do thus, and ye shall arrive at the promised land.” Buckley’s skepticism toward democracy manifested throughout his career, from his earliest writings to his last years as a political commentator.

The conservative political movement Buckley championed shared his ambivalence about democracy. The refrain “the United States is a republic, not a democracy” is part of this tradition. A few scholars have tried, following the example of the conservative political philosopher Martin Diamond, to popularize the term “democratic republic” for the American system—one in which the people participate and elect their representatives, who ultimately make decisions—but the term never really caught on outside of conservative circles, maybe because it is too confusing, or maybe because “democratic republic” perversely sounds too much like the name of a dictatorship, like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or the old German Democratic Republic.

A comprehensive history of the attitudes of American conservatives toward democracy would excavate source material at least as far back as the Founding and the American response to the French Revolution. But for present purposes, focusing on just the twentieth century and after, it is clear that there is a strong undercurrent of anti-democratic thought in American conservatism. And when the politics have been convenient, many conservatives have used their critiques of democracy to justify authoritarian regimes or deny citizens the vote on racial grounds in the United States and abroad. Which is to say that the democracy-denying beliefs and actions of today’s conservative Republican party—rejecting the results of the 2020 presidential election and seeking to manipulate voting laws nationwide in a cynical assault on the democratic process—have plentiful precedent in conservative history.

Buckley himself imbibed his skepticism of democracy from many sources. The caustic writers of the pre-WWII Old Right—such as H.L. Mencken and Buckley mentor Albert Jay Nock—dismissed everyday voters and the prospects of democracy. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset critiqued “mass man” and “hyperdemocracy” in Revolt of the Masses, about which Buckley one day intended to write a “big book.” Buckley’s childhood summers in South Carolina too meant long exposure to a one-party state predicated on denying African Americans their right to vote.

Each of the writers who joined Buckley at the foundational conservative magazine National Review—men like Russell Kirk, James Jackson Kilpatrick, James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall—were in their own ways skeptical of democracy. None were more so than Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, an Austrian aristocrat, libertarian, and monarchist who wrote for National Review for 35 years. In 1952, Kuehnelt-Leddihn authored Liberty or Equality, a summation of the conservative critique of democracy, and one that shaped Buckley’s thinking on the subject.

Kuehnelt-Leddihn put the libertarian anti-democratic argument clearly. He asked “whether the two principles of democracy—egalitarianism and majority rule—are actually and teleologically compatible with freedom.” His answer was no. Kuehnelt-Leddihn thought freedom was guaranteed by classical liberal legal structures. Democracy, on the other hand, fostered illiberalism and a metastasizing state, since centralization “alone is able to foster uniformity and egalitarianism, and to ensure swift execution of governmental orders.” At the heart of Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s argument is the belief that “only certain élites have a real stake in the liberty of self-expression.” Democratic revolutions necessarily threatened liberty. Living under the recent shadow of Nazism and the threat of the Soviet Union, in the European context, Kuehnelt-Leddihn preferred monarchy to the democracy he saw as a path to totalitarianism.

As a European and a monarchist, Kuehnelt-Leddihn was never one of National Review’s more popular writers. But Buckley was certainly impressed by Liberty or Equality’s arguments. They reinforced his skepticism toward democracy. And in 1957 Buckley wrote one of National Review’s most infamous editorials and bluntest anti-democratic statements on the question of black voting rights in the South.

“The central question,” Buckley argued, was not merely one of rights. It was whether “the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes.” Through high-minded and principled-sounding language, Buckley insisted that white southerners could suppress the black vote on white-supremacist grounds. “If the majority wills what is socially atavistic,” he wrote, “then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened.” To be perfectly clear, Buckley added “national review believes that the South’s premises are correct.” For stability and for “civilization,” the conservative argument ran, whites could deny the constitutional right to vote to Black citizens.

Underscoring just how much the National Review circle looked sideways at democracy, Buckley’s brother-in-law Brent Bozell Jr. (grandfather of the Brent Bozell IV indicted for participating in the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol) took issue with the editorial, but noted that had the question turned on universal suffrage, he would hold his peace. In response, Buckley affirmed the “right of the few to preserve, against the wishes of the many, a social order superior that that which the many, given their way, might promulgate.” Such was the situation in the South, he argued. But, he added, the South should deny the vote to “marginal” voters of both races so as to live “up to the spirit of the Constitution, and the letter of the Fifteenth Amendment.”

In a piece about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a National Review writer, James Jackson Kilpatrick, wondered “Must We Repeal the Constitution to Give the Negro the Vote?” Despite recognizing some historic grievances, he remarked that “the great bulk of Southern Negroes have been genuinely unqualified for the franchise,” having “remained for generations, metaphorically, under the age of twenty-one.” Ultimately, nothing justified “Congress in rushing into the enactment of bad law to attack a limited evil.” A year later, in a column, Buckley mocked the image of illiterate black voters in Alabama as an “institutional debauchery” and “symbol of democracy making fun of itself.”

The line between criticizing democracy at a philosophical level to actively justifying unconstitutional—and racist—repression is one that key thinkers in the conservative movement have straddled before.

Buckley complained that liberals’ commitment to democracy was “obsessive, even fetishistic.” On the one hand, conservatives accused liberals of a misguided allegiance to an idealized concept. In 1960, the traditional conservative journal Modern Age called democracy “one of the most vague and imprecise words in our vocabulary.” On the other, however, some conservative philosophers linked democracy with what they saw as the threat of progressive liberalism.

The conservative arsenal of anti-democracy is well stocked, and often effective. It challenges democracy from multiple angles, from critiquing democracy as empty proceduralism to attacking its effect on the polity and individual. There can be merit, of course, in a critical analysis of democracy; such philosophical critiques go back at least to Socrates. Even in the American context, it is possible to critique democracy—both the theory and the practice—in constructive ways. But the conservative arguments against democracy are often hyperbolic. And as we have seen, what starts as theory can become a pretext for denying political rights to marginalized groups.

Conservative thinkers challenged the foundational assumptions of democracy. For example, Buckley argued in Up from Liberalism that democracy fetishism was the upshot of the nineteenth-century fallacy of man’s essential and irrepressible goodness and ultimately perfectibility. Betraying no familiarity with Reinhold Niebuhr’s argument that the fallibility of mankind necessitates democracy, Buckley claimed that liberals assume “it followed naturally that the best government is that most sensitively reflecting the developing refinements in man . . . culminating in the grotesquerie of the State of Georgia, which voted in 1943 to give the vote to every 18-year-old.” (It was only the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, adopted in 1971 in response to the draft, that reduced the national voting age to 18.)

Likewise, the conservative thinker and historian Russell Kirk, citing Edmund Burke, asserted “Majority rule is no more a natural right than is equality.” Intelligent democrats, Kirk wrote, justify democracy “not in a natural law of equality, but in expediency.”

Having rejected democracy on the grounds of equality, mid-century conservative thinkers argued that it also debased mankind, or in some cases was a political system for debased men. For instance, in a collection of foundational conservative writings edited by Buckley, the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott charts the history of modern democracy as the triumph of “mass man.” Oakeshott’s mass man is a failed individual who wanted government to relieve “him from the burden of ‘self-determination.’” To Oakeshott, mass man derived power from sheer numbers. In plebiscitary democracy, where complex issues are reduced to binary choices, the “‘mass man’ achieved final release from the burden of individuality: he was told emphatically what to choose.” In doing so, mass man overrode the rights of true individuals.

Linked with the idea of “mass man,” conservatives further critiqued democracy as formalized moral relativism. In a 1963 essay, the philosopher Leo Strauss connected the alleged value-neutrality of modern political science with democratic problems. Democracy, like modern political science, sees truth only in data. Strauss blurred the lines between critiquing democracy and modern political science. But he held that “by teaching the equality of all values, by denying that there are things which are intrinsically high and others which are intrinsically low as well as by denying that there is an essential difference between men and brutes, it unwittingly contributes to the victory of the gutter.” For the German-American Strauss, democracy’s singular failure was producing—or failing to prevent—Hitler. Buckley reprinted Strauss’s essay in his compendium of conservative thought. In fact, Buckley had already argued intellectuals treated “democracy as an extension of the scientific method,” creating malleable truths for a relativist era.

Some have taken this argument further, perceiving in democracy the potential—or reality—of a democratic despotism. “A democratic despotism is like a theocracy,” wrote the nineteenth-century British statesman Walter Bagehot, in a passage quoted by Kuehnelt-Leddihn. “It assumes its own correctness.” In his thinking on democracy, James Burnham, another figure immensely influential on the National Review crowd, noted that modern tyrannies were popular ones. Rather than contradicting democracy, he argued, they were “the logical end-term, the fulfillment, of democracy, if democracy is understood in terms of a monolithic doctrine of the general will.” Or as Buckley put it, “in the last analysis, political freedom guarantees freedom only to the collectivity, within which the individual may be enslaved.” Like many political thinkers, from Aristotle to Alexis de Tocqueville and the Founders, conservative intellectuals have been powerfully convinced by the threat of the tyranny of the majority.

More than that, men like Oakeshott, Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Burnham and Kendall believed contemporary democratic trends led to centralization and dictatorship. “Most critics of democracy had declared that political equalitarianism must end in anarchy—or, barring that, tyranny,” wrote Russell Kirk. James Burnham was firmly in the democratic tyranny corner. According to Burnham, “democratism entails the conclusion that all ‘intermediary institutions’ . . . are perversions of the general will.” The logic of “the Divine Right of Demos” demands these obstacles be shorn away by the democratic state—led by a democratic Caesar. With less catastrophizing, Oakeshott called democratic centralization a “planners’ society.” Not an aristocracy, though, because the “privileges and individuality which aristocracy cherishes have been eradicated to make way for a monotonous equality which the managers of society share.”

Having challenged the premises of democracy and made dire predictions about its fruit, some conservative arguments are directed against the expected outcome of a given election. Conservatives frequently defended autocratic strongmen who formed a bulwark against communism. In other instances, conservatives simply opposed the type of voters. Oakeshott dismissed mass man. Buckley wrote witheringly about illiterate black voters and the “marginal Negro.” Kilpatrick, National Review’s Southern expert and critic of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, could at the same time write for another magazine that in general “the Negro” “is still carrying the hod. He is still digging the ditch. He is down at the gin mill shooting craps. He is lying limp in the middle of the sidewalk, yelling he is equal.” Conservative language about the “purity of the vote” is as much a legacy of Southern white efforts to overturn the “corrupt” Reconstruction era and to institute Jim Crow as it derives from opposition to urban machine politics.

In the colonial context, National Review published apologia for white-supremacist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia. Regarding Kenya, Buckley wrote “your people, sir, are not ready to rule themselves. Democracy, to be successful, must be practiced by politically mature people among whom there is a consensus on the meaning of life within their society.” Buckley usually added a need to bring voters up to the appropriate level, or at least not hold them back, to these condemnations. But the immediate conclusion was almost always a denial of democratic rights.

Most of today’s middle- and high-brow anti-democratic arguments are variations of these themes. Historically speaking, many of these arguments originate in the efforts by elite classes—landed gentry, industrial capitalists, senior civil bureaucrats, and the institutional church—to circumscribe democratic reformers in the nineteenth century. For some of the conservative intellectuals, like Kuehnelt-Leddihn and Strauss, mass democracy was a recent and catastrophic phenomenon that produced world wars and totalitarian parties. Others, like Kirk and Buckley were enamored of the arguments and read them into the American setting and their own politics—just as they are still read into conservatism today.

Reduced to its essence and stripped of much of its context, the conservative complaint against democracy is that democracy is in tension with liberty. Liberty is an eternal desideratum; democracy is simply “50 per cent plus one.” “I see no fixed correlation between the democratic society and the just society,” Buckley wrote.

To reduce democracy to a mere procedure, though, ignores a rich and sophisticated history of democratic thought.

In the mammoth Toward Democracy, Harvard’s James T. Kloppenberg argues that democracy is not a set of institutions so much as an ethical idea. Kloppenberg describes democracy as centered around three contested principles: popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality. These principles are in constant negotiation, he explains, but democrats remain committed to all three. In turn, democracy rests on three premises: that deliberation produces more than the sum of individual desires; that a pluralistic society is possible; and that an ethic of reciprocity governs relations between citizens. Kloppenberg shows over 300 years of history that there is a link between a democratic society and a just one. Alert to democracy’s tensions and flaws, Kloppenberg presents it in a tempered, sometimes tragic way, yet he remains committed to its core ethic.

With some exceptions, conservative intellectuals have been only halfhearted anti-democrats. In a 1970 speech articulating new interpretations of conservative values, Buckley acknowledged that democracy “was never considered by conservatives as a principal responsibility of ours.” The stability of the American democracy, Buckley intoned, had turned conservatives into its defenders.

For all the rhetoric about the United States as a republic, conservatives generally recognize it as a democracy. There is a concurrent, even dominant, populist streak in conservatism that seeks to harness mass impulses of a Silent Majority for right-wing gains. Buckley famously remarked he “would sooner be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone book than by the faculty of Harvard” (ultimately more a dig at liberal elites than a celebration of the common voter, but still).

Can these two seemingly contradictory conservative strains—Buckley’s “phonebook” populism and the longstanding skepticism of democracy—be reconciled? It is best not to even try, nor indeed to grant much coherence to the practice of right-wing politics. Ultimately, the American right shifts between populist and anti-democratic arguments depending on which is appropriate to achieve its political goals. Too often, it has meant populism for whites, anti-democratic checks on blacks.

You might argue that theoretical critiques of a political system are academic and irrelevant. But at a certain point discourse ends and action begins. Conservatives’ anti-democratic arguments are on standby: pre-reasoned, microwavable arguments ready for pundits to draw on when needed for active issues. In other words, the conservative anti-democratic tradition created—and continues to create—a permission structure for supporting or tolerating political repression.

Consider National Review’s coverage of South Africa under the Apartheid regime. “The whites are entitled, we believe, to pre-eminence in South Africa,” ran one editorial following the Sharpsville Massacre in 1960. Machine-gun-bearing South African authorities understood themselves “to be firing in the defense of the homeland.” Or National Review’s links to Pinochet’s Chile that included junkets in Chile followed by apologia in NR and Buckley’s syndicated column. The conservative right’s support for anti-Communist authoritarians in places like Nicaragua, Spain, Portugal, and Taiwan could always be bolstered by democracy-skeptical arguments.

Domestically, the conservative anti-democratic tradition provided ammunition and moral support for opposition to reforms and expanded civil rights. Conservatives used anti-democratic arguments to undermine civil rights claims in the South, treating states’ rights claims uncritically as a republican bulwark against tyranny. “It’s a republic, not a democracy” has become a catch-all defense for criticisms of an electoral system weighted in Republicans’ favor and a pre-loaded response to suggested reforms.

A generalized sense of antipathy toward democracy alongside intense negative partisanship has led conservatives to tolerate partisan gerrymandering and legislative obstacles to voting and voter registration that are not present in other advanced democracies and amounts to voter suppression. In a very real sense, the Republican party has in the era of Donald Trump forsaken its commitment to democracy, and there is a conservative intellectual tradition to lend it intellectual legitimacy.

Here’s the rub: Conservatives may be uneven democrats, but democracy is stronger when it has constructive conservative parties. Harvard political scientist Daniel Ziblatt has shown the importance conservative political parties to developing democracies. Strong, well-organized and fundamentally competitive center-right parties that are confident enough to accept the “‘open-endedness’ or ‘uncertainty’ of inclusive political competition” are a key deciding factor in the success or failure of nascent democracies. Poorly organized right-wing elements that rely on “contracting out” political activism, manipulating the machinery of state, or putting in place countermajoritarian institutional protections to maintain power are prone to radical right-wing takeovers and disruptive to democracy. It doesn’t take much imagination to see this process playing out even in advanced democracies like the United States.

As Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky note in How Democracies Die,

Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions must be defended—by political parties and organized citizens, but also by democratic norms.

The norms most important to sustaining democracy are the acceptance of opposing political parties as legitimate rivals and an institutional forbearance—that is, not wielding the powers of state for partisan gain, a version of Kloppenberg’s reciprocity. The Republican party is openly undermining these norms. And the GOP’s enablers within the conservative movement have decades of arguments to draw on to justify its anti-democratic turn.

Joshua Tait

Joshua Tait is a historian of American conservatism. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Twitter: @Joshua_A_Tait.