John Lukacs on Democracy and Populism

Hungarian John Lukacs (1924-2019) was born to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother. He studied history at the University of Budapest and fled to the United States in 1946 when it was evident that the Communist takeover of Hungary was imminent. Self described as a “reactionary conservative,” Lukacs’ typically insightful prose style is well illustrated in the following quote: “There are innumerable instances suggesting that modern intellectuals do not believe themselves, that they don’t really believe what they say, that they say certain things only in order to assure themselves that they possess opinions and ideas that are different from those that are entertained by the common herd of men.” Author of more than thirty highly regarded books on history and politics, Lukacs’ Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred (2005) is certainly among the most interesting of them as a primer for introducing a complex subject to the political novice.

Monarchies Abandoned

Lukacs begins by noting that American democracy arrives at precisely the point in world history when traditional aristocratic societies are fast fading into oblivion. There are still traces of aristocracy here and there, and even in the United States there are vestiges of aristocratic principles (the American Presidency, and the U.S. Senate, for examples, embody powers in some ways comparable to those of a king and his nobles). But the tidal wave of liberalism is very nearly complete, and monarchies (except for several nominal ones in Europe) are doomed. The death of aristocracy manages to leave behind certain high standards that will be respected for a time; at least until the time when true liberalism also fades into history, and the franchise to vote is extended to all. Inevitably, as the popular vote determines all future action, all future action is built upon what promises will garner that vote. Since the standards of the mass of mankind are generally low, political standards generally will decline so as to conform to the prevailing winds. As liberalism was the death of aristocracy, populism will over time be the death of liberalism. A ‘populist’ Lukacs defines as one who “will always be suspicious of someone who does not seem to belong to his tribe.” From this we can infer that populism is likely to be centered on race, or class, or sex, or religion, etc. To the extent that there are an indefinite number of such tribes in America, these tribes will be viewed as populisms at war with each other. Populism therefore is more divided (and divisive?) than patriotism (which advances unity within the nation) and nationalism (which intends to unite the nation against the world).

It was during the period of transition from monarchies to democracies, and from dominantly agrarian to dominantly industrial societies, that the new and commercially successful middle classes began their rise to ultimate power through the ballot box. With that rise came the enormous expansion of government agencies and bloated bureaucracies that could now be funded by rapidly expanding taxation. Increasingly, power originated from the vote, so those who were destined to rule would also spring from the lower classes and be voted into office by them, based on the politician’s promise of serving the interests of the various tribes. Populism is born … with a vengeance.

Populists Foiled

Populism, Lukacs insists, is not the same as democracy. Whereas the liberal Left advocated democracy, the conservative Right did not trust it because of the inevitably general decline of standards. Even so, the Right, as democracy advanced, had to learn the rules of the game by also promising to serve the interests of the voters. Thus began the competition between the Left and the Right to see who could offer more to whom. Neither the Left nor the Right could long retain their identity: both had become, simply … Populists … as much as possible they were all things to all people. Lenin and Mussolini and Hitler were also populists. They counted on the people (their respective tribes), whom they could adroitly manipulate, to buy into their communist/socialist/nationalist schemes. They did buy into them. Liberal populism in the form of fascist or socialist or communist nationalism, supposedly the path to freedom, ironically gave birth to the great dictators of the 20th century, and the people learned to weep.

Socialism on the March

Lukacs views the rise of socialism, first in Europe and later internationally, as an inevitable outcome of the rise of democracy. Promoted at first by Liberals and later in different ways by Conservatives, the power of the State to tax and channel the funds thereby almost inevitably promoted Progressive causes (social security, public education, universal suffrage, etc.), setting America and Europe on a path toward indefinitely expanding so-called Liberal agenda and government expansion. But even the Corporations saw their chance and took it (banks and whole industries applying for government bailouts, for example). The degree to which the governments of societies in the West have infiltrated every aspect of the people’s lives – most importantly through public education, social security, and medical care – is a sign of the success socialism has had in garnering public support at the ballot box. But not without a price. In the United States alone, since Lukacs’ Democracy and Populism was published in 2005, well more than 20 trillion dollars of national has accumulated. Socialism of this type may well collapse of its greedy appetite for debt.

Patriotism vs Nationalism

Next Lukac’s explores the confusion often found in the use of the terms “patriotism” and “nationalism.” The latter term only came into use much later. Patriotism always had a respectable connotation. It was when patriotism began to exceed itself, and to become super-patriotism, that the word nationalism was coined to distinguish the two. “Patriotism is defensive; nationalism is aggressive. Patriotism is the love of a particular land; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of ‘a people,’ justifying many things, a political and ideological substitute for religion.” Perhaps here the moral equivalent would be Nazi Germany. The Aryan tribe called Nazis aimed their wrath at the Jews most of all, partly envious of their talent for making money, but especially because of their pretense of being Germans when they were first and last Jews only. Thus arrives the triumphalism of Nazi populist tribalism, the Aryan versus the Jew, who must be expunged from the midst of Germany and later Europe altogether, a feat very nearly accomplished with the Holocaust.

National Socialism

Nationalism and Socialism were married in Nazi Germany. Hitler socialized the German people by seizing control of the industries and dedicating them to the nationalism that was to result in World War II. Hitler hated both international Communism and international Capitalism, perceiving both to be at odds with German Nationalist Socialism. The German populism that resulted was fueled by fear and hatred of the Jews in particular and non-Aryan peoples in general. While things were thus moving along in Germany, in the United States the scene was and has remained substantially different. Socialism has continuously and subtly gained ground even when that was never openly admitted by either major political party, but the two parties seem to have been divided in their loyalty; “… the Republican Party has been more nationalist than socialist, while the Democrats have been more socialist than nationalist.” This fact is simply demonstrated by the ever predictable focus of the Democrats on the Welfare State and the main focus of the Republicans on the Military-Industrial Complex.

Progressive Liberalism

In the chapter titled “Progressive Liberalism” Lukacs notes that the doctrine of the Progressives – liberal, in the modern usage – is of relatively recent vintage, in the last three centuries more or less. Almost all Liberals identify with Darwin because he is the standard-bearer for the idea that all things not only evolve, but they evolve forward. They progress. This applies most of all to the American ideal of democracy, which was to progress to the point of being the “shining city on the hill,” as the rest of the world saw its progress toward power and prosperity achieved beyond the capacity of all the nations of the world. America came to be envied as the Nation of nations, and immigrants of all other nations flocked to its shores. So it was perfectly natural that one political party would be savvy enough to claim the title of ‘progressive’ before the other one did.

That party turned out to be the liberal Democrats, who contemptuously dismissed tradition and sought to break new ground on the socio-political front. An early leader of that movement was President Woodrow Wilson (a Democrat) who promoted the League of Nations after World War I. Likewise, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s party (again the Democrats) promoted the founding of the United Nations after World War II. Seemingly, the object of founding both organizations was to stem the rising tide of Populism evolving into Nationalism that had produced such great wars of the twentieth century. Certainly an assumption to be made about their founding was that all means of diplomacy would be used to prevent future wars. Wars in Europe did end – for now – but certainly not wars elsewhere.

Populist Revolutions

Not only great wars have resulted from Populism glorified as Nationalism, but also great revolutions. The most important of the latter were the Russian Communist Revolution (1918), which was contemporary with the end of World War I, and also the Chinese Communist Revolution (1945) which was contemporary with the end of World War II. Both were the outcome of a Populism that was triumphantly Nationalistic, and both were the consequence of fear (of Capitalism) and hatred (of Capitalists). Though aspiring to become an international revolution, the Russian Revolution failed to export communism to Europe in a significant way. Only after World War II did Russia expand its borders significantly into Eastern Europe, and that by military force, not by the choice of the people. It would take another forty years until the Soviet Union would shrink back into its former self (the old Russia) under President Gorbachev, which happened only because the Empire had sunk under the wasteful cost and exhaustion of empire building, not to mention the hopeless intent to keep pace with the rapidly advancing American military-industrial complex.

Republican Nationalism vs. Democratic Socialism

Looking back, it seems that Nazi Germany was a unique blend of populist socialism and populist nationalism. The term Nazi is itself an acronym for National Socialism (Nationalsozialismus). The Nazi Party, as it turned out, was singularly monolithic and anti-democratic. Whether socialism and nationalism are natural partners in the political realm can be determined by examining the course of history. They seem to have been natural partners wherever socialism has thrived. Even the nationalist strain observed in the United States since World War I must be connected with the rise of socialist tendencies in North America that mirror, to some degree at least if not completely, socialist developments in the more advanced nations of Europe and Scandinavia. In the United States, according to Lukacs, “While the Republicans tend to be more nationalist, the Democrats tend to be more socialist than nationalist. This has been so for three generations, eighty or ninety years at least. Some time in the future this may change, but not yet.” Perhaps change will happen as both parties merge into a single party, much as opposing parties did in Nazi Germany. Such a merging, however, is not likely to be voluntary and democratic, as it was not in Russia when the Soviet Union was born, not to mention Mao’s Republic of China. In Germany, Russia, and China the merging of nationalism and socialism produced violence followed by tyrannies.

Since 1945

The second half of Lukac’s book deals with developments in the United States since 1945. Things change. After World War II, the U.S. was for some time economically the greatest superpower on earth. By 1989, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the U.S. was the only superpower left. (This would not hold for long. China would later emerge to seriously rival the American economy and challenge its military supremacy.) In 1983 the Catholic social commentator Michael Novak was able to write: “The American people are, by every test of fact, the most religious on this planet.” A superficial view was this, according to Lukacs. Indeed, within four decades church attendance was in radical decline, and a dominantly Catholic Supreme Court had voted to legitimize same-sex marriage. Even nominally Catholic colleges and universities were dominated by leftist presidents and faculties promoting anti-Catholic policies.

Thus, post-war American conservatism (what was left of it) continued its steady decline through the fifties and sixties, as anyone who was alive then can attest. By the eighties, conservatives and liberals were hardly distinguishable except in the form of play-acting. Feminism advanced and produced startling changes in the work place. As women were liberated, they were increasingly treated with the kind of disrespect never known in American history. “It was a roiling and mobile civilization marked by a steady increase in carnality, vulgarity, and brutality.” Hollywood was eager to celebrate it all. Liberals were advancing their agenda at an amazing pace, and conservatives were oddly silent as the tanks rolled on.

Rise and Decline of the State

The existence of the state as a possession of its people never came to be recognized until about the 1700s. This was because until then kings ruled with more or less absolute authority. The monarch defended his territory through the loyalty of his aristocracy, who came to his aid for military adventures and funded his military needs. But the power of the monarchs receded when a new middle class emerged which identified its own interests separate from those of the monarch and the aristocracy. In France, King Louis XIV, when confronted by this new notion of statehood as embodied in the people, replied. “L’etat c’est moi” This development produced its bloodiest event in the French Revolution, when the then-reigning monarch, Louis XVI, his wife, Marie-Antoinette, and many of the aristocracy loyal to him were executed. Power to the people came to be the new political war cry. Au contraire, the people now said, We are the state!

A parallel development had recently played out in the birth of the United States of America, and statehood now became synonymous with a collection of populist states that were self-governing and whose rights could not be denied. Even the U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment assured Americans that the federal government was in the main subordinate to the will of the states. Over time, this too would dramatically change. For obvious reasons (mainly the military/industrial complex) the cause of the nation over the state was radically advanced by the Civil War and the two great wars of the 20th century. The Great Depression also advanced the power of the nation to spread rescuing largesse when and where the states could not.

As internationalism took hold, the corporations that were under state authority soon came under federal authority. Whereas a state’s governor could not dictate trade agreements with foreign powers, the President of the United States and Congress could. The Supreme Court increasingly became involved in striking down state laws, and in effect legislating where the states could not. The F.B.I. became a national police force that more and more entered into and dominated the law enforcement activities of the individual states. Critics may say what they like against the power of the federal government opposed to the power of the states. It is apparently here to stay. Lukacs concludes, “In sum, we must not take comfort in the weakening of the state, which was a prime instrument of modern civilization.” If nationalism has become populist, Lukacs warns, its fate will come to be determined largely (as it was in Nazi Germany) by the emergence of profound fear and hatred.

Class Warfare

Chesterton’s maxim, “it is hatred that unites people” was demonstrated largely by the introduction of great waves of European immigration during the latter half of the 19th century joined, which was joined with the sudden appearance of the factory system, the rise of the labor unions, and the threat of international communism. The new aristocrats of money had come to be hated as much, or more so, than the royalty of old.

The rise of capitalism produced in the United States a kind of snobbery that had not existed before. The Founders agreed to shed the royal titles of European aristocracy. Americans were always aware of class differences, yet were not particularly snobbish about them. But from about 1870 to 1960 the case to be made by the snobs for themselves was the extent to which they had rapidly accumulated wealth simply by exploiting every opportunity in a rapidly expanding capitalist market. The new aristocracy required celebrity to market their achievements, and thus the Social Registry in the great cities of America took root until about the 1960s when this form of snobbery curiously vanished almost overnight.

Once the new aristocracy was identified as the moneyed elite, the older concept of authority began to fail. This was inevitable. Money becomes the standard for a quality life. But it becomes a standard for nothing else. The madness for money (and the celebrity that comes with it) means that the old verities must step away from their place around the high throne of values. Movie-makers will no longer reflect in their work the good life so much as the sensational life. Colleges will no longer study the liberal arts so much as the best way to pocket alumni donations and federal grants. Follow the money trail: a basketball player makes millions in one year; teachers must beg for a raise sufficient to pay their bills. Gallant men in military uniforms fall to the ground and die from their wounds; other men (in football uniforms) refuse to stand and pay tribute to them. Even the once admired existence of authority within the family is now mocked and denounced. As Lukacs remarks, “There are multiple evidences of this, ranging from the cult of youth through the increase of criminality among the young to the puerilism of so many adults.” Even the Catholic Church, the world’s longest lasting bastion of conservative values, has fallen prey to a media and an academia that mock it, fear it, and despise it.

Tyranny of the Majority

Next Lukacs addresses the problem of every democracy: that the masses tend to have lower standards often found to be “unoriginal, middling, crude.” Giving the masses only a slight majority can send a culture into a downward spiral from which it can barely escape, since the correction of mass behavior is considerably more difficult than the correction of behavior among the few. One of the instances Lukacs gives, of the heavy slowness with which public opinion changes among the masses, is the fear and hatred of Communism. Once established by capitalist leaders and defenders as a legitimate fear, Americans could not disabuse themselves of either their fear or hatred of Communism, even when the Soviet empire was falling apart in the 1980s. One does have to wonder whether, if the shoe were on the other foot (had the American masses bought into the Left’s propaganda in the 1930s and 40s) it would have been even more difficult for the masses to have disabused themselves of their fear and hatred of free market Capitalism. Today’s college faculties, overwhelmingly leftist, have seemed to produce among their students a nationwide fear and hatred of all things capitalist; even to the extent of faculties supporting – actively or passively – student demonstrations against capitalist speakers in the very classrooms where academic freedom used to flourish.

Resurging Populism

The rise of populism as opposed to democracy had its early start during the 1820s and the Presidency of Andrew Jackson. It was the popularity of Jackson that got him elected, and popularity has become in many elections the standard by which candidates are judged … their popularity, not their fitness for office. Politics in a populist culture must be founded upon public-relations advisors, not to mention pollsters who decide how popular candidates are (this can be fudged) or the press (who only report their own bias). Public opinion can be fabricated by a variety of sources including the media, academia, and even the clergy when they openly or subtly campaign for political ends. (It is no secret how evangelical Christians tend to vote. Nor is it a secret which political party the ACLU is likely to identify with.) In any event, populism as such relies upon the discreet association of smaller groups with each other to promote a candidate whose promised performance all of them can more or less abide. For example, advocates of abortion and same-sex marriage, which have no common denominator other than radical progressivism, are likely to belong to the same party and vote for the same candidate.

New communication technology has produced portable electronic devices and information networks that make possible the instant assembly of special interests groups for the purpose of peaceful demonstration or disruptive protest. Well-organized and funded populists, taking advantage of every opportunity, can garner video coverage that goes nationwide the same day, thus shaping and enlarging public consciousness and producing an electorate that will be encouraged or discouraged by the actions of populist groups. At any rate, the emotions of fear and hate are likely to ensue, thus creating a more divided nation. Late night television comedians, renowned for their shallowness, mockery, and vulgarity, will make their contribution to a nation divided against itself. If enough mass media hysteria keeps drumming in the same message, that message (whether popular or not) comes to be regarded by the masses as truth itself. Hitler was among the first to recognize this strategy for creating public opinion based on ceaselessly repeated lies in the media.

Populist Ignorance

The education of the masses now deserves its critique. George Santayana had said a hundred years ago: “Those who refuse to study history are doomed to repeat it.” More recently, Lukacs notes, the question has become, what history are we given to study, even if we do not refuse to study it? No doubt in earlier times the ability to think critically about all things political must have been hampered by the existence of so much illiteracy throughout the populace. Public schooling at one time was productive enough if one could just read and write and calculate sufficiently to know one’s finances. Anything much beyond that was reserved to the precious few who could afford it. This, however, did not prevent people from being able to think reasonably along political lines. As Thomas Jefferson commented, between a false education and no education, the choice was clear: “It is always better to have no ideas than false ones; to believe nothing than to believe what is wrong.” It is much easier to learn a hundred truths on one’s own than to unlearn a hundred lies one has been told.

Is teaching history today a corrupt business? That American history is being re-written inside the classroom few will deny. The American classroom has become a laboratory for inventing history by the Left and its academic stormtroopers. For students from kindergarten through graduate school, textbooks are now commonly written to reflect liberal agendas. Liberal school boards and school administrators, not parents, see to the selection of these texts. One college professor I know reports giving a test of simple history questions to college freshmen; the shocking revelation was that 80% of the students could not give the name of the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Some of them attributed a quote from the Declaration to Martin Luther King. The academic burial of dead white men, especially national heroes, is virtually complete. Indeed, the knee-jerk reply by many students to questions about whatever happened before they were born is: “Who cares?”

This, and much other evidence too numerous to supply here, suggests that populism, which relies upon the education and will of the people, is today rooted in ignorance of such vast proportions that it brings into doubt whether populism is really bound to produce a counterfeit form of democracy. Popularity relies heavily upon celebrity, and the mass of mankind has always been more easily seduced by celebrity than by more worthy suitors. This simple point can be established by the Left’s belief that the public will be more easily persuaded to follow the political endorsements of Hollywood actors than those of more genuine authorities on politics and values in general. The Nazis were experts at creating popular theater that seduced the public, even if it was theater of the absurd.

Fear and Hatred

Lukacs correctly points out that the terms liberal and conservative have lost much of their former meaning. Today the operative terms are Left and Right. As Lukacs remarks: “… let me state something that may be startling. One of the fundamental differences between the extreme of Right and Left is this: in most instances hatred moves the former; fear the latter.” According to Lukacs, Nationalism has displaced Patriotism. The sin of Nationalism is that it consists of disliking not only foreigners, but also regards critics of Nationalism as treasonous. Thus, as he claims, the hatred for the Left. On the other hand, the sin of the Left is that it is contemptuous of the Right; its ties are to international, rather than national, agendas (worldwide socialism, for example?) Thus it hates the power of the Right, which tends to produce fierce aggression. One proof of this is in the recent emergence on college campuses of violent demonstrations calculated to suppress the free speech of those who offer views contrary to the socialist agenda of the Left.

In another way, the Left has adopted a policy of fearing the Right; this is demonstrated by the phenomenon of those students the Right has come to call snowflakes. They demand their safe spaces on the college campus where they can retreat to, and be sure of not being exposed to, any ideas of the Right. In this respect the Right really has all the advantage. Fear now unites the Left, but hatred has come to unite the Right. The Left, in its fearful way, is united in opposing guns and the 2nd Amendment. The Right is united in defending guns and the 2nd Amendment. The extent of the hatred of the Right for the Left so far has not seen violent expression.

The question now is whether the tensions between Right and Left can be peacefully resolved, or even dissolved, in the crucible of time and compromise; or whether tensions will flare into open warfare, as they tend to do when revolution is in the wind. Lukacs’ caution that the militant advantage will be with the Right seems all the more relevant so far as anticipating future developments is concerned. Citizens in the middle, who are neither extremists of the Left nor of the Right, have to view the modern scene with some fear and trepidation, and might be inclined to utter with considerable disgust, as one of Shakespeare’s characters did, “A plague on both your houses!”

Liberalism Triumphant?

In one of the most lucid and thoughtful passages of Democracy and Populism Lukacs writes: “Here we face two, perhaps superficially contradictory, developments. One is that liberalism has, after all, triumphed: its self-imposed tasks are done. The other is the overall waning of its appeal, of the appeal it once may have had. If ‘liberalism’ means the extension of all kinds of liberties to all kinds of individuals, mostly as a consequence of the abolition of restrictions on all kinds of people, these have now been institutionalized and accomplished in formerly unexpected and even astonishing varieties of ways, and with deplorable consequences such as laws approving abortions, mercy killing, cloning, sexual freedoms, permissiveness, pornography … a list almost endless…. At the same time, political and ideological liberalism has weakened, here and there flickering out. One, but only one, evidence of this is the gradual disappearance of political parties calling themselves ‘liberal.’ Another is the decreasing number of people who designate themselves as ‘liberal.’” Indeed, the term liberal has come to be displaced by its self styled synonym, progressive.

All this may well be true, but the Left triumphs in spite of its dead liberal presumptions. It would have been unimaginable, fifty years ago, that nearly all the major television networks would have openly and brazenly aligned themselves with one political party over the other. Any pretense of fairness is abandoned. Self-consciousness of having ceased to value fairness and objectivity seems not to exist. If there ever was a true and definite set of journalistic ethics to be followed, there no longer seems to be. Yet in spite of this much vaunted power of the press to manipulate public opinion, the public votes into power, both in Congress and the Presidency, the very party the media collectively has repudiated. One is likely to be reminded by this of Lincoln’s insight, that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. As Lukacs concludes, “Part of this is due to the gradual deterioration of democracy into populism.” To the extent that democracy has devolved into small groups conspiring with each other for power and advantage, populism has triumphed over genuine democracy. It is not a happy triumph because it has been found out for what it is, the framework for the politics of both fear and hate.

Revolutions come and go. Some are violent, some are quiet. We appear to have passed unwittingly through a relatively quiet one with a most dangerous consequence: the rise of the criminal class. According to Steven Hawkins, during the thirty years between 1980-2010 the total prison population of the United States expanded from 500,000 to 2.3 million with 7.3 million on probation and parole. Criminals are generally known not for their quest of ideas, but for their quest of power. Therefore, to a certain degree at least, when political power is pursued, it is often penetrated by the criminal class. The Nazis under Hitler welcomed brutal criminals into their party and used them to further the gaining of political power. The rising tide of bullies in American classrooms requires an answer to an ominous question: are they a new generation of Nazis in the making?

The belief in the doctrine of Progress has begun to wane. Positive change is always welcome, but many of the side effects of change are not. Science has produced marvels of luxury and convenience. It has also produced the means by which humanity could annihilate itself. A.I. (artificial intelligence) has become the iconic new religion of many Progressives. But as Wendell Berry warned in 1999: “… the next great division of mankind may be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.” Then there was the ominous warning 170 years ago of the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: “The human race ceased to fear God; then came its punishment; it began to fear itself, began to cultivate the fantastic, and now it trembles before this creature of its own imagination.”

Post Script

We cannot know the extent to which the Left has contributed to all this tearing of the social fabric by the relentless assaults on religion. We know for a certainty that the Left’s attacks on traditional authority in general have left many longing for the return of some kind of authority that will restore law and order, and with it the civility that seems to have fled to parts unknown. Is there reason to hope that we have not entered a new Dark Age? Lukacs thinks so. He cites the Gospel of Luke (6:43): “The good man brings good things, out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.” But it will take an institution of vast, long-lasting, and proven power to convey this message to a world that no longer seems able or willing to hear it. Even so, Lukacs concludes, the Catholic Church is “the last, embattled and tattered but, still here and there visible – bastion and inspiration of personal integrity, decency and, yes, of liberty and of hope.”