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The Crisis of Democracy—Part 2
In Part One of “The Crisis of Democracy,” I reviewed the story told by Edward A. Purcell Jr. in his underappreciated book, The Crisis of Democratic Theory. In the early decades of the twentieth-century, the ascendant disciplines of the social sciences advanced a vision of a new regime governed by experts in the name of progress and efficiency. Leaders of the social sciences called for American’s “democratic faith” to lose its “halo” in favor of rule by a small cadre of experts whose decisions would be ground in the value-free data distilled by the various social sciences.
This vision was opposed by the likes of Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago, who proposed a renewed engagement with the classical metaphysical and natural law tradition. Without a grounding in beliefs in an unchanging human nature in a world governed by foundational law, Hutchins argued that politics would inevitably revert to a vicious struggle for power and rule by the strong. Witnessing the rise of fascism in Europe—premised upon a rejection of the classical tradition, and embracing the inegalitarian findings of modern social and natural sciences—Hutchins and a sizable number of Catholics concluded that the fate of the West rest upon a renewal of the classical tradition. One of his legacies was the “Great Books” program at Chicago, intended to educate future generations of American leaders in a tradition which, he believed, was the only legitimate basis for politics that assumed the basic dignity and equality of all human beings.
In part 2 of a projected three-part series, I explore how the partisans of the social sciences (led by John Dewey) “struck back,” now by associating their relativism as democracy, and the metaphysical objectivity of Hutchins and Catholics as “absolutist” and therefore tantamount to totalitarianism. Part 3 will explore the legacy of these developments down to the present day, with particular focus on the ways that contemporary “conservatives” have (ironically, if predictably) come to embrace what was once the Deweyan tradition of “democracy as pluralism.”
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Faced with the clear implications of their findings in the face of fascism’s undeniable barbaric realities, leading social scientists realized their current stance was indefensible, and were thus faced with a choice. The two most obvious options reflected the existing intellectual division between the social sciences as constituted, on the one hand, and the reemergent natural law tradition:
Abandon the relativism of their “scientific naturalism” in favor of a metaphysical alternative ground in certain unchanging truths about human nature, and thereby siding with equal human dignity and democracy; or,
Continue on their path of rejecting democracy as a consequence of their commitment to “following the science” and the base relativist assumptions of materialistic “scientific naturalism.”
The social science community eventually came to choose “none of the above.” Rather, in the years following World War II, leading academics and public intellectuals followed the path that had been first suggested by John Dewey: democracy could and ought to be defended as an “anti-foundational” politics, based in a rejection of “the quest for certainty” or any “theoretical absolutism.” Indeed, “absolutism” became the bête noire of the social sciences, indicating not just closed-mindedness, but the very grounds of fascism. The “authoritarianism” of the classical era (e.g., monarchy) was simply the precursor to the most recent—and most vicious—authoritarian political order that had yet arisen, fascism.
Leading social scientists and popularizers therefore sought to link a defense of relativistic materialism to democracy, reversing the earlier connection between scientific naturalism and a growing attraction to fascism. That earlier chapter in the history of the social sciences was largely forgotten, helped along by the inherent anti-historical and deeply presentist assumptions embedded in its methodology.
As Purcell sums the postwar position of mainstream social science, “it was grounded on a thorough naturalism; it required the acceptance of no specific ethical theory or philosophical system; and, best of all, it claimed that rational and religious absolutism was the real enemy of democracy. In short, the absolutist-authoritarian equation appealed to all the intellectual and emotional convictions of a great number of American scholars and at the same time allowed them to defend both the naturalism and democracy by aligning their absolutists critics with European totalitarianism.”1
Three basic commitments of this new alignment were developed in the decades following World War II.
· First, it was believed that only tentative claims, always revisable and never “absolute,” could ground democracy. Thinkers revived Oliver Wendell Holmes’s argument that the only basis of a democratic society was the complete “negation” of universal moral norms, in favor of ongoing and temporary “pragmatic” solutions.
· Second, and following the first, theoretical “absolutism” was deemed to be the cause and inherently linked to authoritarian politics, both internationally and domestically.
· Third, in place of political “absolutes” that required a priori agreement, a widespread “democratic culture” of toleration, nonjudgmentalism, and pluralism sufficed to hold such an order together. A world denuded of political agreement could rely upon “civil society” to supply sufficient glue to hold together an society otherwise based almost exclusively on a mutual agreement to disagree.2
The result was a move from defense to offense. A major effort of postwar social science was to identify and extirpate all perceived authoritarianism based in “absolutes.” A concerted effort arose linking fascism, and eventually for many, communism, with “absolutism.” But the project also took on a distinct domestic form in its turn against its erstwhile critic who had called out social science’s earlier attractions to the fascism that it now denounced: Catholicism. The natural law tradition was perceived as the main domestic competitor to relativistic materialism, since it had scored the social sciences in earlier debates. In a shrewd turn, leading social scientists now made Catholicism a central target of its encompassing critique of “absolutism.”
Ironically, while leading figures defending natural law had stood against fascism—including inclinations toward fascism by mainstream social science—now a concerted effort was undertaken to link Catholicism to “authoritarianism” in general, and to fascism, in particular.
Those who had severely criticized the naturalistic relativism of the prewar social scientists were now painted as advancing a philosophy that had laid the groundwork of all modern authoritarianisms, including fascism. Fascism’s roots lie in premodern Europe, the benighted tradition from which modern, progressive America had gloriously broken. A series of thinkers framed the rise of European fascism as a continuation of the absolutist tradition of the Middle Ages, with frequent accusations of hiearchy, anti-scientism, suppression of ideas, the Inquisition, and general atmosphere of authoritariansism. Figures such as Adler and Hutchins—who had highlighted the fascistic leanings of prewar social scientists—were now labeled as “dogmatists and obscurantists” who dangerously embraced the “medievalist tendency of both Fascists and Communists.” Deweyan pluralist Horace Kallen argued that Catholics were the most “powerful and therefore most dangerous” of the absolutists. He asserted that “their intent is a spiritual fascism, a moral and intellectual totalitarianism, which has its peers in those of the Nazis and their ilk.”3 Philosopher Sidney Hook saw the Church as among the most dangerous authoritarian institutions remaining in the modern world, labeling it “the oldest and greatest totalitarian movement in history.”4
A vast swath of leading intellectuals viewed Catholicism as a primary threat to the relativist basis of democracy—and, doubtless rightly so, if in fact democracy was only defensible on relativist grounds. Conferences and symposia were convened to explore forms of authoritarianism in the modern world, with Catholicism frequently appearing in a prominent role as a belief system ground in absolutes that needed to be “negated”(204).5 Daniel Boorstin saw a continuity from the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas to the rise of Hitler and Stalin—absolutists all—while a leading political scientist, Gabriel Almond, viewed the European tradition of authoritarianism—manifest in the twentieth century as fascism and communism—as arising originally from its roots as a Catholic civilization.6
These arguments had effect. Aimed at reversing the rising status of natural law theories, especially its increasing influence over higher education, a growing number of Catholics appeared to have internalized the linkage of “absolutism,” on the one hand, and fascism and communism, on the other, and sought to blunt the Church’s reputation as “authoritarian.” In practice, this meant soft-pedaling or falling silent about the authoritative teachings of the Church amid what was becoming the new Deweyan consensus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a leading Catholic figure who acquiesced and even embraced the new consensus was Father Theodore Hesburgh, longtime President of the University of Notre Dame.
As Purcell relates,
In 1960, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund published a special studies project on the nature of democratic government, which revealed the extent to which relativist theory had triumphed. “Experience shows that men can be equally loyal to democratic ideals even though they give different ultimate reasons for their loyalty,” the report maintained.7
Among those who signed the report was Hesburgh, who, through his endorsement, acquiesced to what would become the major narrative that would eventually justify “anti-foundational” liberal democracy into the twentieth century: the link between the “wars of religion” and the absolutisms of the 20th-century.
According to the report—in a passage endorsed by the priest-president of the most important Catholic institution of higher education—there was a direct link between the root causes over centuries-old conflicts over religion and the eventual rise of modern totalitarianism.
As the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries an the ideological purges in contemporary totalitarian societies indicate, the effort to impose unity of belief in matters of religion and ultimate philosophy, far from unifying a society, can lead to extraordinary bloodshed and brutality.8
This one claim, in particular, would come to define the idea of liberal democracy as necessarily eschewing all “comprehensive doctrines” (per Rawls) and resting on what Harvard political theorist Judith Shklar (with approval by philosopher Richard Rorty) would term “the liberalism of fear”—fear of the absolutism that originally gave rise to the wars of religion, and which had reappeared in the form of modern totalitarianism. The former link of “relativism” and fascism—so evident in early twentieth-century mainstream social science—had been successfully effaced and thrown into the “memory hole.” Its successors now lobbed the fascist accusation against those who had stood against progressive political scientists, sociologists, psychologists—that is, those had looked admiringly toward European fascism as a preferable regime.
And yet, barely below the surface, the new, apparently democratic-friendly social sciences retained many, if not most, of the core commitments of their antidemocratic precursors. They were firmly relativist, denying any unchanging metaphysical truths that undergirded the idea of human dignity. Their scientism inclined them toward belief that all material was manipulable, lacking any coherence, order, or meaning that dictated limits or constraint. They were progressivist, inherently favoring the social and even political dominance by the more enlightened, those who differentiated themselves from the mass of humanity who retained conservative beliefs due to unexamined prejudice or hostility to change. As Purcell notes, “relativist theory created a new admiration for elites, highly educated and socially prominent groups, as opposed to the psychologically discontented and poorly educated masses. Since a sophisticated relativism would most likely only be found among better educated groups, they alone could fully understand the nature of democratic politics.”9
Most remarkably, their enthusiasm for democracy in fact now rested on the very features of “the common people” that had initially led their predecessors to condemn democracy: evidence of civic apathy, ignorance, disinterest, and fickleness were all now regarded positive features and even the hallmarks of democracy. Redescribing the same phenoemena that had led previous social scientists to condemn democracy, their epigones now embraced a form of democracy in which, in effect, elites such as themselves would still be in charge. Social and political passivity, ignorance, and inconstancy were taken as “consent,” effectively sanctioning the very elite and expert approach to politics that had initially led social scientists to despair of democracy.
These core commitments also gave rise to a seeming paradox to which we have all become accustomed: various leading intellectuals, media personalities, professors, denizens of mainstream liberal institutions—today’s “power elite”—who without hesitation came to describe undesirable electoral outcomes as antidemocratic. When political outcomes are seen advancing forms of “absolutism,” then even popularly-sanctioned outcomes are labeled as “antidemocratic.” Rather than allowing the word “democracy” to be sullied or confused, the label “populist” was deployed instead as a stand-in to describe democratic outcomes that do not meet the substantive definition of democracy as a relativist and “anti-absolutist” social order.
In a suggestive phrase, Purcell describes the outcome of these positions as a form of “institutionalized relativism.”10 While appearing to endorse the individual preference of open choice—the freedom and even necessity to disagree, and what Rawls would call “the fact of pluralism”—over time, the commitment to relativist materialism became “institutionalized” in increasingly authoritative ways, leading (once again) to the paradoxical situation that is all too familiar today: the intolerance of the purportedly tolerant.
Initially, a general ethos of “live and let live” prevailed among the mid-century Deweyans.11 During the 1950s and 60s, social scientists emphasized the salutary existence of group-based “pluralism,” a leavening feature of liberal democracy that prevented the emergence of any one “absolutist” position. Thus, social scientists at this time were often tolerant of even “conservative” and religious ways of life (within bounds) that allowed different groups to live out their way of life, so long as none aspired or achieved the ability to impose “comprehensive doctrine.” Popular theories in political science stressed the success of “interest group pluralism” as a hallmark of the success of the American system.
From our perspective today, that period was an interregnum in the establishment of “institutionalized relativism.” Over time, the social sciences and intellectual leaders targeted all perceived forms of absolutism—not only those which might be expressed politically, but the “absolutism” within subcultures. In recent decades, public expressions of religious and cultural “absolutism” (in the view of intellectual elite) are increasingly out of bounds, constituting “harm” and resulting “unsafe” and “traumatic” conditions. In the name of democracy, speakers identified as absolutists are regularly shouted down or disinvited from campuses and fired from corporations.
This ethos conforms well to the materialist relativism of the modern, borderless marketplace, and the most ardent participants in rousting out any remnants of absolutism are large corporations. In the state of Indiana in 2015, corporations such as Apple, Salesforce, and Eli Lilly successfully overturned democratically legitimate legislation that sought to balance the religious liberty claims of religious believers against discrimination charges—the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that already existed as a federal statute. Pressure by corporations, succeeding in overturning the legislation, was praised by progressives as a salutary exercise of corporate power over the political process—with New York Times columnist Frank Bruni praising “the sunny side of greed.” In recent years, the outright use of political power in a variety of forms has been exercised to weaken or extirpate perceived “authoritarianism” in religious as well as cultural traditions which are deemed to contradict the core values of democratic relativism. Over time, mainly through attrition and the “soft hegemony” of liberalism, what had once been endorsed as group relativism was now deemed illegitimate in preference to individual relativism. The social, economic, and political order—whether through social approval, underwriting by policy, or even force of law—actively worked to weaken the group basis of pluralism and to replace it with an ethos of self-invention.
These increasingly aggressive efforts are everywhere undertaken in the name and for the purpose of advancing democracy—democracy understood as a substantive commitment to materialist relativism and “institutionalized relativism.” An earlier generation of social scientists condemned the “democratic faith” of an earlier American tradition which they hoped might be overthrown by the advance of a progressive, elite-driven worldview. By the mid-century, thinkers ranging from Dewey to his innumerable epigones loudly proclaimed their “democratic faith.” Not being able to prove that their core beliefs were actually consonant with a core egalitarianism, once hardheaded, data-driven social scientists who doggedly “followed the science” came to insist on democracy as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”12
This “faith” had its zealots—those who have increasingly and aggressively sought to extirpate every last vestige of perceived “absolutism” from American society. All forms of “authority” are ultimately connected to fascism, an accusation that applies to nearly every object that the heirs of Dewey regard as contradicting their “democratic faith.”
This anti-“absolutist” ethos is reflected in the core commitments of today’s social sciences (and also define the humanities as well, which has largely signed on to the same project). What had been a “faith” in the democratic outcomes of value relativism has become today its new religion, taking on precisely the features it had earlier projected onto Catholicism—top-down authoritarianism. These commitments have been described with great perspicuity by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, in another underappreciated but highly readable “tell-all” by a social science insider: The Sacred Project of American Sociology (in which one could substitute his discussion of sociology with most of today’s social sciences today, even the more “conservative” social science discipline of economics, which embraces exactly the same vision of the unencumbered self). The core faith commitments of today’s social sciences are:
The emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own favored identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures.13
Framed as the dominion of choice, this project of advancing a substantive “democratic faith” that often runs contrary to the will of the people increasingly roots out any vestige of the unchosen—any remnant of “absolutism”—if necessary, through the force of law, social sanction, and a close partnership with corporate power. We shall be forced to be free, in order to make the world safe for democracy.
In a concluding Part 3, I will explore the ways that many of today’s mainstream conservatives have internalized the Deweyan position, out of a belief that relativist pluralism was the optimal and desired settlement of the “fact of [American] pluralism,” allowing for a flourishing of religious and cultural diversity. Positions once held as central tenets of the “relativist naturalism” in the social sciences have now become main commitments of the conservative movement, whether through defenses of “religious liberty,” academic freedom, value pluralism, and cultural diversity in a political order that must be largely bereft of any “comprehensive doctrines.” Ironically, progressives today articulate a “fighting faith,” while so-called conservatives have assumed the recently abandoned positions of their opponents, mistaking it as moral high ground when, in fact, it is clearly a slippery slope. The current positioning of right-liberals leads to the peculiar, but predictable, outcome in which mainstream conservatives are today firmly aligned against the heirs of Hutchins and then-Catholic allies. More ironically still, in many cases, it is Catholics who are leading this charge against the original anti-Deweyan position. I will bring this discussion up to date in the final installment of this series aimed to be published toward the end of January.
Edward A. Purcell Jr., The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1973), 202.
Purcell, 205, 206.
Purcell, 252, 264.
That said, Dewey himself is quite clear that people he labels as “savages” - those who “conform” themselves to nature, rather than imposing their preferences upon it in an altered form - are rightly extirpated by “civilized” people. Like his intellectual comrade, John Stuart Mill, toleration is extended only to the tolerant, who themselves are more deeply committed to condition of constant change and “progress.” John Dewey, Democracy and Education, ch. 4.