We’ve sadly entered a period in which some of the most basic principles underlying the American experiment are coming under attack. In the leadup to and aftermath of January 6th, it’s deeply troubling to see how many Americans and elected officials, mostly on the right, are willing say or do anything to undermine an election.
In this context, historian Joshua Tait has written an essay in The Bulwark detailing historical examples of anti-democratic thought in American conservatism. As you might expect, the writings of conservative icon William F. Buckley are featured prominently in the essay:
“Now let me say that I, for one, would not willingly die for ‘democracy.’” So wrote William F. Buckley, the patron saint of American conservatism, in 1959. “Democracy is nothing more than a procedural device aimed at institutionalizing political liberty,” he continued. “It has no program. It cannot say to its supporters: do thus, and ye shall arrive at the promised land.” Buckley’s skepticism toward democracy manifested throughout his career, from his earliest writings to his last years as a political commentator.
Tait makes a strong case that “focusing on just the twentieth century and after, it is clear that there is a strong undercurrent of anti-democratic thought in American conservatism. And when the politics have been convenient, many conservatives have used their critiques of democracy to justify authoritarian regimes or deny citizens the vote on racial grounds in the United States and abroad.”
Tait offers many examples, but Buckley’s justification of the denial of the vote to African Americans in the segregated South stand out:
“The central question,” Buckley argued, was not merely one of rights. It was whether “the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes.” Through high-minded and principled-sounding language, Buckley insisted that white southerners could suppress the black vote on white-supremacist grounds. “If the majority wills what is socially atavistic,” he wrote, “then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened.” To be perfectly clear, Buckley added “national review believes that the South’s premises are correct.” For stability and for “civilization,” the conservative argument ran, whites could deny the constitutional right to vote to Black citizens.
To provide further context, The Bulwark was founded by anti-Trump conservatives who are appalled by recent events and the willingness of many former conservative allies to embrace anti-democratic tactics.
This intellectual divide will define the conservative movement going forward, and may well affect the extent to which democracy continues to thrive in the United States.
As Tait points out, there are many legitimate critiques of democracy. No political system is perfect. Democracy is often in conflict with individual liberty, and anyone who has read the Federalist Papers or studied basic American history understands the concerns of the Founders in addressing these conflicts.
But many conservative intellectuals have embraced anti-democratic thought throughout our history. These notions were widely rejected in our recent past . . . the question remains as to how we will react now.