Will the United States remain a liberal democracy? Threats come from both left and right, with the latter the most immediate and pressing: GOP preparations to rig the 2024 election; unhinged right-wing politicians and pundits with huge followings; White supremacists openly given succor by members of Congress; wild conspiracy theories consuming one of our two major political parties; a reckless demagogue waiting in the wings. We are but one presidential election away from constitutional shipwreck.
In paying attention to the mounting danger, it is important not to lose sight of ideas that are underpinning if not driving the anti-liberal currents. The contributions of three thinkers on the right, in particular, deserve scrutiny.
Michael Anton was the spokesman for Donald Trump’s National Security Council up until John Bolton took over as national security advisor and gave him the boot. But Anton is best known for a 2016 essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” published concurrently in the Claremont Review of Books and on a pro-Trump blog called American Greatness.
According to Anton, the United States has been facing an existential crisis as a result of unbridled immigration. The “ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners,” a tidal wave of newcomers “with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty,” he writes, is inalterably changing the composition of the electorate, causing it to grow “more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.” The consequence of allowing this influx to continue unchecked is a “permanent victory” for the Left that would “forever obviate the need to pretend to respect democratic and constitutional niceties.”
To Anton, it is precisely such niceties that must themselves give way if the country is to defend itself. The title of his article, “The Flight 93 Election,” explains the dynamic. The bold action undertaken by the passengers aboard the hijacked jet that crashed into a meadow in Pennsylvania on 9/11 is what is required: “Charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway …. If you don’t try, death is certain.”
“The Flight 93 Election” was offered by Anton as a justification for voting for Trump in 2016. But with its violent metaphor, it propounds a thesis that can be employed to justify almost any sort of extreme measure. If it is always 9/11, if national survival is at stake, one must “charge the cockpit.” The mobs who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, to keep Trump in power were following the logic of Anton’s argument to a tee.
Anton is a machine-gunner-style polemicist whose measure I have taken in the Bulwark (and found it wanting). A somewhat more serious proposition is Yoram Hazony, the Israeli-American intellectual who is the lead organizer of a movement that calls itself national conservatism. He has staged a series of conferences with the purpose of bringing together those who grasp that “the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation.” Hazony asserts that the nationalism he advocates is “in stark opposition to political theories grounded in race.” But his own words belie this denial.
In his 2018 book, The Virtue of Nationalism, he maintains that homogeneity is a significant strength of an independent nation-state. The unwelcome “diversity” one finds in an agglomeration of peoples, he writes, makes it “more difficult to govern, weakening the mutual loyalties that had held it together, dissipating the attention and resources in the effort to suppress internal conflicts and violence that had previously been unknown to it.” For Hazony, a free state requires “a majority nation whose cultural dominance” is so “overwhelming” that “resistance appears to be futile.” He approvingly quotes Johann Gottfried Herder, the eighteenth-century father of German nationalism, who warns against “the wild mixing of races and nationalities under one scepter.”
Could there be any more direct challenge to both the American idea and the historical reality of the United States as a nation of immigrants? Indeed, the “mixing of races and nationalities under one scepter” is the essence of the American experiment. It is not a surprise that Hazony’s National Conservative Conferences have featured speakers who openly promote xenophobic and racist ideas.
Lately, Hazony, an Orthodox Jew, has taken to promoting the idea that America should reconceive itself as an avowedly Christian nation: “Where there is a large Christian majority,” he says, “the public life of the country has to be Christian.” William Galston, writing in these pages, has effectively taken this apart, exposing it, as with calls for greater racial homogeneity, as an affront to the American creed. Yet there is a further problem: As the Trumpified GOP seeks to mobilize Christian White America as a distinctive group, with interests putatively in opposition to those of other races and religions, Hazony’s national conservative movement is self-consciously offering a home where politicians with racially charged ideas can turn for intellectual cover, if not respectability.
Among the “post-liberal” thinkers, perhaps most remarkable of all is Patrick Deneen, professor of political science at Notre Dame, who offers an instance of right-wing illiberalism converging with left-wing extremism. For Deneen, surprisingly, echoes no one more than the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, the anti-democratic guru of the New Left.
In his widely discussed 2018 book, Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen launches a ferocious attack on American liberal democracy, locating its central problem in the individualistic ethos at its core. Thanks to individualism’s corrosive effects, he writes, neighborhood and nation, family and religion are left in “ruins.” Indeed, to Deneen, liberalism’s primary accomplishment is the realization of “new and comprehensive forms of degradation.”
Like Marcuse who decries our “totalitarian democracy,” Deneen lambasts American liberalism as a mask for tyranny—“liberalocratic despotism” is what he calls it. Representative government, supposedly a hallmark of our liberal democratic order is, to Deneen, a sham: “Our capacity for self-government has waned almost to the point of nonexistence.” What we call democracy is nothing more than “an emaciated form of spectator politics.”
To Marcuse, the exercise of political rights such as voting in elections “only strengthens the system of total administration by testifying to the existence of democratic liberties which, in reality, have changed their content and lost their effectiveness.” Deneen believes the same. Our electoral processes, he writes, are nothing more than “a Potemkin drama meant to convey the appearance of popular consent.” Liberalism claims legitimacy on the basis of consent, but what it has actually done in practice is to “arrange periodic managed elections, while instituting structures that would dissipate democratic energies, [and] encourage the creation of a fractured and fragmented public.”
While Marcuse rails against “false needs” generated by advertising amid a dehumanizing consumerism, Deneen indicts American culture for a materialism in which we “consume prepackaged, market-tested, mass-marketed consumables, often branded in commercialized symbolism that masks that culture’s evisceration.” And like Marcuse, who adumbrates a theory of false consciousness, Deneen offers the breathtakingly elitist proposition that the failures of liberalism have been “generally undetectable to the denizens of liberal regimes.” Even as we are unaware of it, our liberal democracy is careening toward what he sees as an “accumulating catastrophe.”
As we head toward 2024 and the prospect of a second Trump presidency, we could well indeed be facing an accumulating catastrophe. But it is not the “liberalocratic despotism” that Deneen believes is already in place. Rather, it may be the beginning of the end of our imperfect but invaluable liberal democracy, a liberal democracy that Deneen comprehensively slanders, insisting without evidence or qualification that “individual rights of conscience, religion, association, speech, and self-government are extensively compromised.”
To be sure, it is not necessary to sign on to Deneen’s Marcusian demolition to acknowledge the genuine discontents of our liberal democracy. Even as we face a profound challenge from the illiberal Right, we also face perils from a progressivism on the left that, as Jonathan Rauch and Peter Wehner put it, “is increasingly under the sway of a totalistic, unfalsifiable and revolutionary ideology that rejects fundamental liberal values like pluralism and free inquiry.” But there is nothing inevitable about the progress of a program that is as antithetical to the core precepts of American liberal democracy as anything on offer from the Right. Indeed, in the electoral arena the progressive agenda is a gift to Republican office seekers looking for a foil, just as in the intellectual arena it is grist for right-wing thinkers all too eager to conflate the excrescences of progressivism with the essence of liberal democracy itself. The imperative of beating back the authoritarian Left hardly means having to accept a post-liberal Right that would transform the American experiment into a blood and soil nationalism.
At a moment when American liberal democracy is exhibiting fragmentation not witnessed for decades if not a century or more, the ideas of illiberal intellectuals are only priming the path for further unraveling. Tracing the influence of ideas on the course of events is almost always an exercise in speculation, but if the 20th century taught us anything, ideas have consequences, sometimes terrible ones. In the drama of the Trump years and now in the precarious aftermath, we are seeing some pernicious ideas play out.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe