Liberalism’s Fear

By Adrian Vermeule


In honor of Prof. Ryszard Legutko and his book, The Demon in Democracy,  the Consul-General of Poland, Maciej Golubiewski, convened an event on May 9, 2018, to address the following topic: “Democratic Reformers or Illiberal Backsliders? Poland and the challenges of sovereign politics in the West.” Professor Vermeule has kindly agreed to allow us to publish the illuminating remarks that he delivered at this event. One need not think democracy is the best form of government to realize that it is not, in and of itself, liberal. Liberalism, however, needs democracy, or more precisely it needs the “periodic ceremony” of democracy.
–The Editors


I want to thank the Consul-General for arranging this event. It’s always a pleasure to have a chance to honor Prof. Legutko, whose book helped to awaken so many of us from our modernist slumbers, into the light of a new dogmatism.

The title of the panel is “Democratic Reformers or Illiberal Backsliders?” And my answer is “Both.” Let me start with a puzzle. I know, or know of, a number of U.S. and U.K. academics, journalists and other intelligentsia who spend their careers in a state that can only be described as professional hysteria, particularly directed at Poland, Hungary, and Brexit. In this state of hysteria, the meanings of words are redefined. The Polish election, although free and fair, represents a threat to “democracy”; the passage of legislation according to constitutional procedures, such as the Polish parliamentary law on the judiciary, becomes a threat to the “rule of law”; and so forth. What is the root cause of this extraordinary reaction?

Many have observed that Poland and Hungary have been experimenting with nonliberal versions of democracy. Assuming this to be true for the sake of discussion, it still does not explain the hysteria; it actually sharpens the puzzle. Why should a country like Poland be more an object of hysteria on these particular grounds than, say, Saudi Arabia or China? After all, those regimes are neither democratic nor liberal in any conventional sense. Why would a regime that is democratic but not liberal be more objectionable than a regime that is neither democratic nor liberal?

I think the key to the puzzle is liberalism’s longstanding anxiety about its uneasy relationship to democracy, indeed its somewhat parasitic relationship. Here I will draw upon Carl Schmitt’s Introduction to the 2d edition of his Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, in which Schmitt explains the polemical and political problem that liberalism has faced since its triumph in the long century between 1789 and 1918. As the doctrine of the 19th century politics of parliamentary monarchomachy — the political opposition to monarchy — liberalism made an alliance of convenience with democracy, and for immediate advantage helped to cement the pervasive and seemingly irresistible notion that the fundamental criterion of political legitimacy is democratic — something to which all regimes of any kind at least pay lip service today. When this liberal-democratic alliance somewhat unexpectedly came to power everywhere starting in the second half of the 19th century, however, the alliance — now lacking its common enemy, the monarchy — immediately started to fracture. John Stuart Mill, as of 1861, was already frightened by the possibility that democratic majorities would constrain experimental individualist projects of self-actualization by educated elites, who should therefore be given multiple votes in a representative system, among other privileges and other institutional checks on majoritarianism.

It has since become undeniable that liberalism both needs and fears democracy. It needs democracy because it needs the legitimation that democracy provides. It fears, however, that its dependence on, yet fundamental difference from, democracy will be finally and irrevocably exposed by a sustained course of nonliberal popular opinion.

In this environment, the solution of the intellectuals is always to try to idealize and redescribe democracy so that “mere majoritarianism” never turns out to count as truly democratic. Of course the majority’s views are to count on certain issues, but only within constraints so tightly drawn and under procedures so idealized that any outcomes threatening to liberalism can be dismissed as inauthentic, often by a constitutional court purporting to speak in the name of a higher form of democracy. Democracy is then reduced to a periodic ceremony of privatized voting by secret ballot for one or another essentially liberal party, safely within a cordon sanitaire. In the limit, as Schmitt put it, liberalism attempts to appeal to a “democracy of mankind” that erases nations, substantive cultures, and the particularistic solidarities that are constitutive of so many of the goods of human life. In this way, liberalism attempts to hollow out democracy from within, yet retain its outward form as a sort of legitimating costume, like the donkey who wore the lion’s skin in the fable.

We are now in position to answer our puzzle, to explain why democracies that flout liberal pieties are so much more threatening to liberalism than polities that are neither liberal nor democratic to begin with. The democratic polity that rejects liberalism offends on two counts. For one thing, the apostate is always more detested than the pagan. If the democratic but nonliberal polity seemed for a time to be a community in good standing under the liberal imperium, then its turn against liberalism represents a threatening retrogression. On its own premises, given its historicized and immanentized eschatology, liberalism may expand, but must never contract. To adapt something that the defining mind of our era, Nigel Farage, said about the European Union, liberalism has its analogue to the Brezhnev Doctrine that no nation might ever leave the Warsaw Pact.

But this is a contingent issue, depending on the nature of the status quo ante. The second and more systematically offensive thing about a democratic-but-nonliberal regime is that it threatens to expose the elite character of the liberal project. Liberalism is in many respects an enterprise created by and in the service of elites who capture most of the upside gains of ever-greater release from customary, moral, and economic constraints, and who are buffered — economically and personally — from the downside risks and losses. Liberalism’s agents know and fear that the broader demos may reject their aspirations for ever-more-satisfying forms of creativity and self-fulfillment. Liberalism’s agents know and fear that the demos may rebel when the customary norms and liturgies of the people are cleared away to make room for the restless and ever-changing liturgy of liberalism. In this sense, Judith Shklar was right to emphasize the “liberalism of fear,” but in a different way and for different reasons than she offered. The fear at the base of liberalism is that it will be left alone and visibly alone, expelled from the host within which it has fed and sheltered for so long.

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