The Dark Side of Liberalism: Elitism vs. Democracy

The Dark Side of Liberalism: Elitism vs. Democracy

The Dark Side of Liberalism: Elitism vs. Democracy

The Dark Side of Liberalism: Elitism vs. Democracy


...traces the history of modern liberalism in philosophy, focusing on the conflict between elitism and democracy.


Both liberalism and democracy, as theories and in practice, have had long, complex, and checkered histories. The idea of liberal democracy, which I shall focus on in this work, is perhaps even more subject to complexities, since its variations have been attempts to combine elements of liberal and democratic theories and practices in a number of different ways.

Liberal democracy has not suffered from a lack of critics, including liberal democrats, who often feel that liberal democracy is not living up to its own ideals or (what is not always the same thing) is not adjusting to the demands of the day.

More fundamental criticisms of liberal democracy come from the Left and the Right. The standard objection of the Marxist and socialist writers is that liberal democracy depends too much on economic individualism, capitalism, and some version of elitism. Not all writers on the Left argue that liberal democracy or liberalism has to be abandoned. Rather, according to writers such as C. B. MacPherson, liberalism needs to be radicalized in the name of participatory democracy. According to the general left critique of liberalism, liberal democracy does not generate anything beyond what Benjamin Barber calls [thin] democracy, that is, democracy is limited to a narrow realm of life— politics—and only then to such activities as voting. On this view, liberalism, and thus liberal democracy, undermines the classical ideals of democracy (direct democracy) that is supposed to have flourished in fourth-century Athens, during the Renaissance, in New England town meetings, and which was codified by Jean Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and the New Left of the 1960s. Liberal democracy is hardly real or genuine democracy at all, on this sort of view.

The conservative Right, following Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, advocates a mixture of libertarianism and traditionalism. This unstable combination—it often breeds rampant economic individualism combined with repressive social policies and restrictions in the moral, social, and cultural spheres—is sometimes associated with populism. Populism is said to express . . .

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