As the Berlin Wall fell, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history—“the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Richard John Neuhaus wasn’t so sure. In a 1996 symposium on judicial overreach, he questioned the legitimacy and sustainability of liberal democracy in general and the “American regime” in particular.
Not only had the Supreme Court usurped legislative prerogatives, Neuhaus wrote, it had proposed a notion of liberty inimical to true freedom. By approving the killing of the unborn, it had denied the moral law and cut itself off from the source of all authority: God. People of conscience must consider options including “morally justified revolution.”
Carefully argued essays by Robert P. George, Robert Bork, Russell Hittinger, and Hadley Arkes gave weight to these conclusions. George warned that America might be turning into a “tyrant state.” Hittinger explained how this unjust regime “withdraws protection from the weak and vulnerable.” Neuhaus extended their arguments: “America is not and, please God, will never become Nazi Germany, but it is only blind hubris that denies it can happen here and, in peculiarly American ways, may be happening here.”
Neuhaus thought attachment to our liberal democracy much weaker than generally supposed. “What is happening now,” he wrote, “is a growing alienation of millions of Americans from a government they do not recognize as theirs; what is happening now is an erosion of moral adherence to this political system.” He was particularly concerned by how this would affect coming generations. “What are the consequences when many millions of children are told and come to believe that the government that rules them is morally illegitimate?”
Neuhaus’s provocation received more than two hundred responses. None was more pointed than that of Midge Decter, Neuhaus’s friend and collaborator. She challenged his radical rhetoric and dire assessment: “You threaten that millions of your fellow Americans have come to feel as alienated from this country as you claim to do. But there is in fact little or no evidence for that.”
Twenty years later, the evidence is in. Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, researchers drawing on the World Values Survey, have written a widely discussed series of articles showing that belief in democracy is indeed in decline—especially among the young and especially in America. I doubt he would be cheered by the news, but Neuhaus was right.
The decline in support for democracy is not simply the latest manifestation of youthful radicalism. It is what researchers call a “cohort” rather than an “age” effect, a sign of the difference between generations rather than a condition of youth. Twenty-four percent of young Americans now say that democracy is a “bad” or “very bad” way of running the country. In 1995, only 16 percent of young people said the same.
Thirty-two percent of young Americans say they would welcome a strongman who doesn’t have to “bother with parliament and elections” (up from a quarter in 1995). And they don’t mind if he arrives in uniform. One in six supports military rule (up from one in sixteen). The authors describe a similar, but more moderate, surge in anti-democratic sentiment in Europe.
Young people in North America and Western Europe are becoming skeptical of free speech, human rights, and free elections. Not only are they less likely to vote than young people in the past, they are less likely to attend protests, marches, and sit-ins. They are half as likely as older people to join humanitarian organizations or human rights campaigns. Robert Bellah spoke of a “civil religion” that sustains democratic faith. In terms of that faith, today’s youth are unchurched. They are increasingly alienated from democratic rituals, from democratic values, from democracy itself.
It is tempting to see this political disaffection as a symptom of end-of-history complacency. Young people who have not had to fight for the free world cannot be expected to see its advantages. But Neuhaus warned that something else is going on. Today, even those undisturbed by the fact that sixty million Americans have been aborted since 1973 should be able to see that all is not well. Real average hourly wages have not increased for fifty years. A national increase in deaths from suicide, alcohol, and drug abuse has caused overall life expectancy to decline for the first time since the AIDS epidemic.
We are told that these outcomes are simply the result of individual choice; to stop them would be an intolerable infringement on the rights of privacy and private property. This is the logic that has done so much to discredit liberal democracy. Economics is now treated as less a question of justice than a narrow and technical science. Politics is confined to policy questions rather than competing visions of right and wrong. Our regime hopes to maximize happiness by encouraging individual choice. It accepts abortion and overdose as the price for free love and free trade. It offers us every personal satisfaction, but nothing we can share. Even if our regime did maximize individual preference, that would not be enough. It is not good for man to be alone. Our good is necessarily common rather than merely personal and private.
For drawing attention to these facts, Neuhaus was shouted down. William F. Buckley defended him: “Loyalty has always got to be contingent. . . . We cannot love what is not lovely.”
Neuhaus reached his radical conclusions after reading John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, a document he pored over so closely that his heavily annotated, water-stained copy nearly fell apart. Like other witnesses against Soviet tyranny, John Paul was an acute critic of the liberal order. In economics, politics, and culture, he saw denigration of truth and praise of efficiency enabling a “war of the powerful against the weak.” Language of freedom and democracy cloaked a “culture of death.”
John Paul warned against the temptation to make democracy an absolute value. “Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality,” he wrote. “Fundamentally, democracy is a ‘system’ and as such is a means and not an end. Its ‘moral’ value is not automatic, but depends on conformity to the moral law.”
Neuhaus reprised John Paul’s argument:
A polis composed only of the state, on the one hand, and the atomized individual, on the other, is the exact formula for totalitarianism. It is little comfort that it may present itself as democratic totalitarianism. The procedural rules of democracy, when untethered from the substantive truths of democracy, result in the end of democracy.
For making such arguments, critics accused Neuhaus of being illiberal and anti-democratic.
When Neuhaus wrote an essay on the many reactions he’d received, he gave particular attention to one. Scott Moore of the University of Notre Dame wrote that Neuhaus had seen “the inadequacy of purely procedural commitments for ensuring the legitimacy of government.” Neuhaus’s critics, by contrast, had more classically liberal commitments, and so viewed his raising questions of moral legitimacy as an unmannerly violation of civil procedure. Thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas exuberantly proclaim that Christianity and liberalism are incompatible. Moore observed that Neuhaus had come to the same position, however reluctantly.
Neuhaus conceded that Moore had a point: “There is important truth in Moore’s analysis . . . and it provides an interesting angle from which to explain why the First Things initiative on judicial usurpation occasioned such a strong reaction.” Though Neuhaus was unwilling to sever his Christian faith from his liberal convictions, this was a moment when he took a stand for the sovereignty of moral truth, which transcends any political order, including a liberal one.
When John Paul II wrote Evangelium Vitae, he was able to hail “an almost universal consensus with regard to the value of democracy.” That consensus is now collapsing. A war on the weak has been conducted in the name of democracy, and whoever resists it is called “anti-democratic”—no matter how broad his electoral support. We should learn from, rather than denounce, these dissenters. Candidates as disparate as Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, and Marine Le Pen share one great thing: Against a regime that enshrines private interest, they assert, however crudely, the primacy of the common good. In doing so, they have revived the practice of democracy while challenging its ideology. We must do the same.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.