Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred

By Blanchette, Jude | Independent Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred


Blanchette, Jude, Independent Review


Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred By John Lukacs New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005. Pp. 256. $25.00 cloth.

I don't know if historian John Lukacs watches television. If he does, one hopes that he wasn't watching the June 8, 2005, broadcast of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight. Interviewing Time columnist Joe Klein, Dobbs asked, "What's wrong with 'populist'? It's all about the people, isn't it?" In Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred.., Lukacs answers that question with a resounding "No!"

Dobbs's belief in "the people" is not uncommon. In fact, it is increasingly the identifying feature of America's political right. In today's red state-blue state landscape, conservatives have effectively branded themselves as the party of the common man-embattled dissidents fighting the entrenched, elitist, and hegemonic left. Despite controlling the federal government and vast swaths of the media, conservatives have mastered the message of the underdog. lust as Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the Great Depression and World War II to solidify his power, conservatives have expanded their reach under the banner of eradicating terrorists-to protect "the homeland" and "the people." Thus, except for a few who still retain some Tory sensibilities, conservatives tend to agree with Dobbs's sentiment.

Fortunately, Lukacs is not such a conservative. A native of Hungary, he emigrated to the United States in 1946 and soon afterward accepted a position teaching history at Chestnut Hill College in Pennsylvania, a position he held until his retirement in 1994. During his almost fifty-nine years as a historian, Lukacs has written more than twenty-four books and attracted a small band of conservative followers. Because his conservatism has a more elitist and European flavor, however, few people today openly admit to being his disciples.

Democracy and Populism was written primarily as a broadside against the modern "conservative" movement. "The 'Right,' for a long time, was not populist. But now it often is-which is perhaps the main argument of this book" (p. 18). For Lukacs, populism is not simply a benign devotion to "the people." Populists are ultimately nationalists, and in nationalism Lukacs finds the root of many of the twentieth century's most terrifying events.

Lukacs begins, as many others have, with Tocqueville. As the young French aristocrat wandered the American countryside, "[Tocqueville] believed in the few benefits of remaining nondemocratic institutions, restraining total and untrammeled democracy" (p. 10). Much as Tocqueville did, Lukacs now surveys the American political scene and sees total democratization. "Democracy," he writes, "has become unlimited, untrammeled, universal" (p. 11).

The democratic impulse, which for so long was the driving force of the left, is now equally identifiable with the conservative movement. One example is the right's complete acceptance of George W. Bush's doctrine of democratic revolution. One wonders how conservatives would greet the French Revolution if it were to occur today. Would they still agree with the conclusions Edmund Burke reached? Can they conclude as James Madison did in the Federalist Papers that democracies "have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths"?

Unfortunately, they cannot. Although one might be tempted to equate modern conservatism with an infatuation with democracy, Lukacs argues that the matter is not so simple. Certainly the right is comfortable speaking the language of democracy. More insidiously, however, it is not just "the people" that animates the right, but "the nation."

Conservatives now believe they have sole possession of patriotism. They support the government, wear American flag lapel pins, and "buy American." Lukacs sees their patriotism in a different light. …

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