Daniel J. Mahoney has an insightful essay in the Intercollegiate Review: “The Healthy Boundaries of Democracy.” A selection:
“Progressive” thought is defined by the view that liberty and equality are unproblematic, and that the great task before democratic peoples is to maximize them, to make the world ever more “democratic” and egalitarian. The solution to the problems of democracy is said to be more democracy, as the philosopher John Dewey famously proclaimed at the beginning of the twentieth century. 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.
What could possibly be wrong with such an uncompromising commitment to the “democratic” ideal? To begin with, progressivism (and extreme libertarianism) forgets the goods, habits, and traditions that make a free society cohere. Elsewhere I have called them the “conservative foundations of the liberal order.” These goods—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—were largely taken for granted by the Founders of the American republic. As the philosopher Michael Polyani put it in the 1960s, the best of the liberal tradition, including the American Founding, presupposed an “authoritative traditional framework” that could protect, nourish, and inform “the new self-determination of man.” Liberalism, properly understood, presupposes the continuity of civilization. It undermines itself if it demands “liberation” from all moral restraints.
At its best, liberalism must include a self-consciously conservative dimension. Rational self-mastery and the freedom to choose, goods cherished by liberals and conservatives alike, do not mean that individuals are radically independent, that they are completely sovereign over themselves and the world. Progressivism is that crucial moment when liberalism succumbs to an ethic of absolute autonomy, when it liberates human beings from an order of nature or justice above the human will. It is that moment when liberalism subverts itself by negating the goods that truly allow it to flourish.
I considered myself a classical liberal as a teenager, but I began to reject the Anglo-American liberal tradition during my first month at college. While I value certain aspects of liberalism, I cannot see how one may have the tempered liberalism that Anglosphere “conservatives” frequently champion as the best political arrangement. Liberal regimes appear to unfold according to their basic principles, which esteem human equality and liberty and deny the existence and/or the intelligibility of the (natural) human good. Because such principles conflict with reality, liberal regimes are inherently unstable. So, the mixed regimes of nineteenth century Britain and America that the English speaking Right holds up as exemplars of strong societies were not balanced, constitutional orders but rather a stage of social decay with many admirable but fleeting qualities. History appears to confirm this insight of political theory in that there has always been a significant presence of radicals in the modern English speaking world. Consider the Unitarians of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the multitude of sects and communes in the nineteenth century, the rhetoric and ideals put forth by abolitionists and suffragettes—indeed, there is nothing new under the Daily Kos sun. The glaring exception appears to be “homosexual ‘marriage,’” as I cannot find any precedent for it before the last century. Yet, the revolutionaries have been attacking traditional Christian marriage since the misnamed Enlightenment. In every way, it seems that the wackydoodle fringes just have to wait for the larger society to “catch up” with their progressive stance. Indeed, their positions are progressive—because their features characterize a more advanced stage in liberal evolution. Leftists mistake this particular evolution for the general advance of human civilization (the existence of which I seriously doubt), but they are correct in judging the “correct side” of liberal history.
Thus, I doubt that conservatives can salvage liberalism or its pantheon, including the chief among its gods, democracy. Abandon the trap; reject the bait—hook, line, and sinker. Let us rather orient ourselves according to what sage men call perennial wisdom and swim in the currents of the ages.