The Dark Side of Liberalism: Elitism vs. Democracy

By Robert Hollinger | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
Liberalism and Elitism in Perspective

This brief chapter sums up the argument so far, to prepare the way for a more systematic and thematic discussion of liberalism in this part and to set the stage for a survey of some contemporary issues in part 4. The main thesis of the book is not new. It is that modern liberalism systematically undermines participatory democracy by limiting [democracy] to the political sphere and by construing political democracy to mean little more than voting for representatives who come from one or another ruling elite. Benjamin Barber, Alan Wolfe, C. B. MacPherson, Andrew Levine, S. Bowles and H. Gintis, Thomas Spragens, and others have made this argument. Barber's formulation is representative. He says this:

We suffer, …not from too much but too little democracy.…From the time of de
Tocqueville, it has been said that an excess of democracy can undo liberal
institutions.…[Rather] an excess of liberalism has undone democratic
institutions: for what little democracy we have had in the West has been repeatedly
compromised by the liberal institutions with which it has been undergirded and the
liberal philosophy from which its theory and practice have been derived.1

My investigation of modern liberalism has not focused on the conflict between democracy and capitalism or the connections between the latter and liberalism. Instead, I have tried to uncover the basic philosophical and sociological roots of the tension between liberalism and democracy by exploring the key assumptions and aspirations of modern liberalism, in its three ideal-typical forms: Millian liberalism, Weberian (romantic) liberalism, and Durkheimian (corporate) liberalism.

The focus of my argument is on the ways in which liberalism in philosophy, the social sciences, theories of culture and education, and American political theory undermines participatory democracy by defending what Barber calls [thin democracy.] Democracy becomes either a morally neutral functional

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