The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order: Defending Democracy Against Its Modern Enemies and Immoderate Friends, by Daniel J. Mahoney (ISI Books, 208 pp., $26.95)
Across the political spectrum, the recent popular uprisings in the Arab world have inspired hymns to democratic freedom. Whether liberals who once scorned President Bush’s “freedom agenda,” or neoconservatives asserting its vindication, many are celebrating history’s apparent progress toward its destined political fulfillment in democracy and freedom, even in the recalcitrant Middle East.
Such uncritical optimism on the part of democracy’s “immoderate friends,” as French political philosopher Pierre Manent calls them, is one of the themes of The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order, Daniel Mahoney’s important new book. A professor of political science at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, Mahoney is among our most insightful political thinkers. He has written widely on the thought of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Bertrand de Jouvenal, and Raymond Aron, and on various contemporary issues, combining a deep historical understanding of political theory with a broad knowledge of contemporary political philosophers—particularly Continental writers not well known in America. In his latest book, he brings intellectual rigor and clarity to our often simplistic conversation about liberal democracy.
Mahoney focuses on the modern understanding of “pure democracy” that disconnects it “from those goods that gave it [freedom] substance and moral and spiritual depth.” By “pure democracy,” he means a “vague and empty affirmation of equality and individual and collective autonomy,” which ignores the “crucial historical, political, spiritual and cultural prerequisites of the liberal order.” Recognizing no limits to the self and its desires beyond the question of consent, proponents of pure democracy risk destroying “religion, patriotism, philosophical reflection, family ties or bonds, prudent statesmanship,” all of which “enrich human existence and give meaning and purpose to human freedom.” Preserving the liberal order, Mahoney believes, depends on something outside its own theory: “metaphysical” claims “about liberty, human nature, and natural justice,” the roots of which lie in the Christian and Classical traditions—those “authoritative institutions, and spiritual presuppositions that allow human beings to live free, civilized, and decent lives.”
In nine essays, Mahoney weaves together the thinking of classical political thinkers like Tocqueville and Edmund Burke with that of contemporary writers such as Aron and Solzhenitsyn. He relates their ideas to the dilemmas afflicting our political order today, from the role of religion in a liberal democracy to the qualities that make great statesmen. He illuminates both the “prerequisites of the liberal order” and the existing threats to this order’s “conservative foundations.”
In his essay “1968 and the Meaning of Democracy,” Mahoney provides critical context for understanding the political, intellectual, and academic transformations of the last 40 years. The uprisings of that year initiated “a bold cultural project to subvert or ‘deconstruct’ authoritative cultural, political, and religious traditions in the name of liberation and autonomy.” The spirit of ’68 institutionalized in education and culture the reduction of democratic politics to consent and radical autonomy: “It  is that crucial turning point when modern democracy lost consciousness of civilized liberty as a precious inheritance to be preserved.”
The “ideology of liberation” of the soixante-huitards (’68ers) informs much of the political and cultural discourse in the West today—in France most of all, but also in America. We see it, for example, in the revolutionary sentimentalism that elevates any thug, no matter how illiberal or murderous, into a heroic icon as long as he is the enemy of “bourgeois” authority. More important, the ideology of ’68 hastened the “radicalization of democracy” that has severed ordered liberty from its sustaining traditions, thus undercutting “the moral and intellectual continuity of Western civilization.”
One consequence of the West’s severing of these roots is an “absolute relativism that denies the very idea of universal moral judgments and a universal human nature”—best exemplified by the ideology of multiculturalism. The default orthodoxy of popular culture and academia alike, multiculturalism incoherently combines claims to universal human rights and equality—whose origins lie in the West’s disparaged classical and Christian inheritance—with a rejection of universal values and of the civilization that has articulated and defended these values.
Radical cultural relativism has hamstrung our intellectual response to the jihadist challenge by rejecting any honest assessment of Islam’s dysfunctions. Yet democracy’s “immoderate friends” have also hampered the West’s efforts. Mahoney’s chapter on “Conservatism, Democracy, and Foreign Policy” illustrates this point with a balanced overview of President George W. Bush’s idealistic foreign policy, especially as articulated in his second inaugural address.
Dismissing the canard that Bush was an intellectual hostage of neoconservative intellectuals drunk on Leo Strauss and Zionism, Mahoney nonetheless finds fault with Bush’s somewhat progressive faith in the self-evident goodness of electoral democracy. This belief raises problems in pursuing foreign policy goals, as it creates “misplaced pressures to confront nontotalitarian regimes [like Russia] with demands for ‘liberalization’ that do not serve our national interests.” In addition, Mahoney argues, belief in the power of democracy tends to downplay cultural differences inimical to political freedom: “The spirited resistance to tyranny that was the hallmark of Bush administration rhetoric since 9/11 should have been moderated and complemented by a greater awareness of local conditions and a greater modesty about America’s capacity to judge—and dictate—the appropriate conditions for self-government abroad.”
Questioning Bush’s assumption that all humanity is destined to live under political freedom, Mahoney points out how the president’s soaring rhetoric about “the global appeal of liberty” does not distinguish between “support for liberty and the promotion of a rather ill-defined ‘democracy.’” Indeed, people everywhere desire freedom, but freedom is only one of many goods and can serve many aims. There is no reason to believe, Mahoney cautions, that “love of liberty is the predominant, even the overarching motive of the human soul,” given the “complex passions, interests, and motives that move human beings.” Finally, Bush’s promotion of a carelessly defined concept of freedom “left the administration and country vulnerable to those on the Left who identify democracy with a project to emancipate human beings from traditional cultural, moral, and even political restraints.” Such a project reduces political freedom to mere license—precisely the view of democracy held by Islamists from Ayatollah Khomeini to Ayman Zawahiri.
In confronting Islamist jihadism, our challenge lies not so much in deciding on particular policies as in articulating the ideals of human rights and ordered liberty in a way that respects their complexity and costs. We cannot ignore or downplay the genuine cultural differences that conflict with freedom and human rights. At the same time, we must avoid the radical relativism that keeps us from speaking honestly about the dysfunctions of Islamic culture or the virtues of our own. Finally, as Daniel Mahoney shows us in these perceptive essays, we must be honest as well about democracy’s “immoderate friends”—who would sever us from the sustaining “conservative foundations” without which a liberal order cannot survive.