Daniel J. Mahoney and the Progressive Apocalypse
Below you will find a link to an article written by Daniel J. Mahoney, once a colleague of mine at Assumption College, in which he argues that, yes, we should “love” democracy but only “moderately” so. And it is essential to our own well-being that we so “love” democracy because only in that way can our democracy be consistent with our “famil[ies], churches, the armed forces, and … universities,” institutions that “should not be endlessly democratized or subjected to social engineering. Democracy needs ‘extra-democratic’ institutions to flourish.”
This is the crux of Mahoneyism, as some call it, “that the ‘conservative foundations of the liberal order,’. . .[namely], healthy family life, a moral code rooted in religion and natural law, prudent and far-seeing statesmanship, the rule of law, a respect for legitimate institutions, love of truth” are essential if we are to avoid a kind of “hubris” that makes we democrats think we are like the gods.
It is difficult to wonder why anyone would want to dispute Mahoney given that doing so seems to put one on the side of those who want to do away with a “healthy family life, a moral code rooted in religion and natural law, prudent and far-seeing statesmanship, the rule of law, a respect for legitimate institutions, love of truth. . . .” But, apparently, at least as Mahoney understands them, this is precisely what the progressives want to do. As he summarizes progressive thought: “True democracy must move to the left, becoming ever more inclusive, tolerant, egalitarian, and relativistic. To realize the democratic ideal, we must reject antiquated truths and insist on extreme equality and unlimited personal choice (think “the right to choose” or the self-reinvention central to “gender theory”). In this view, there is no such thing as loving democracy (or liberty and equality) too much.”
But while I find Mahoney’s formulation of this debate humorous, even frivolous, and therefore not worth much attention, I have to ask two questions. First, where are these values, composing an “authoritative traditional framework,” to come from? From tradition? Well, that seems to be quite a weak link on which to hang the worth of our democracy. As Mahoney notices, the “Founders” themselves merely “presupposed” – that is, did nothing to provide for – such a “framework.” But what Mahoney apparently does not notice is that this “oversight” by the “Framers” was a result of their distrust of tradition as reflected by Hamilton’s rejection of ancient political thought and practice early on in the Federalist. The “Founders” claimed to embrace “a new science of politics,” one that made, I am convinced, traditional kinds of virtues, such as religious piety, seem unnecessary. And as Madison noted in a letter to Jefferson, defending the proposed Constitution, this was all to the good because religion had never, in Madison’s telling, proved to be a deterrent to tyranny, majority or otherwise.
The second question is this: Supposing we find a source for these values that makes them real, who in our pantheon of politicians will embrace them? Mahoney suggests that those who support “the millennial-old institution of marriage” will embrace them. But aren’t these the same politicians who are embracing American hegemony, and an hegemony based upon the idea that we can construct a military that can see everywhere, defend everywhere, and kill everywhere so that we can impose our will on the world? That is, Mahoney’s only example of the hubris he claims to be concerned with is those who would “rewrite the millennial-old institution of marriage by judicial fiat, ignoring nature, tradition, and biology, not to mention the sacred traditions of the West….” He ignores, completely, the hubris of those who, like our two Bush presidents, thought they could, by means of an overwhelmingly powerful military, create “a new world order.” He also ignores those who, like Dick Cheney, who said we would have to go to “the dark side” in order to create this new world order. But then perhaps “going to the dark side” is part of that “authoritative traditional framework” Mahoney is so enamored with.
Generally speaking, Mahoney doesn’t mention here – or elsewhere that I am aware of – a view of his hero Tocqueville according to which modern democracy is condemned, that it is the wave of the future, a virtual tsunami that will wipe away, gradually but certainly, the best of our humanity. This is Tocqueville “going to the dark side.” We can hope that if this is the best interpretation of Tocqueville, that he, Tocqueville, was wrong. But however that might be, it is certain that a debate about these “two Tocquevilles” and about their different takes on modern democracy would be far more worthwhile than “the debate” Mahoney would have us engage in.