What’s the best recipe for liberal democracy? Daniel Mahoney, a prominent scholar of democratic thought, traveled to Bowdoin before spring break to share his thoughts on the matter.
Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College, in Massachusetts. He is a leading scholar on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and modern French conservatism. His latest book, The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order, diagnoses the obstacles and adversaries of contemporary Western society.
Mahoney’s talk was sponsored by the new student club, the Eisenhower Forum, as well as the Department of Government and Legal Studies, and the John C. Donovan Lecture Fund.
According to Mahoney, modern liberal democracy suffers from an internal malady — too much democracy. While it seems paradoxical, an immoderate love of democracy erodes its most sacred tenets. An excess of liberty and equality are ills rather than cures, tending society toward an extreme democracy, consisting of “indiscriminate egalitarianism, temptation of unlimited freedom, and total relativism.”
A belief in pure democracy actually harms the liberal mission. “Liberalism properly understood presupposes the continuity of civilization,” Mahoney argued. Without certain moral and cultural restraints, society can rely too heavily on what Mahoney called “rational self-mastery and freedom to choose.”
Today, contemporary movements espousing a love of democratic principles actually work against their outward goals of individuality. According to Mahoney, ideologies like progressivism and libertarianism “forget the goods, habits, and conditions that make a effectively society cohere” and instead rely on an exclusive understanding of democracy as a construction of individual autonomy and free choice, with harmful implications.
In generations past, Mahoney argued, democrats were mindful of the “essential preconditions” of democracy. These preconditions, like a reliance on classical and Judeo-Christian thought, tempered the behavior of citizens and statesmen alike. However, he said, modern democrats have lost sight of these prerequisites. Mahoney marked the year 1968 as a turning point, when American democracy “lost consciousness of civilized liberty as a precious inheritance.”
While Mahoney’s analysis of contemporary America was critical, he offered some optimistic advice for the future. He emphasized a need for enlightened statecraft rather than pure majoritarianism, a conscious refocusing on the continuity of Western civilization, and a moderate conception of individuality without unbridled autonomy. “Liberal democracy,” Mahoney concluded, “is ultimately dependent on extra-democratic, conservative foundations.”
The lecture was well attended by students, faculty, and community members. “I found the talk pretty interesting,” said Katie Miklus ’16, a government and legal studies major. “I was especially struck by what Professor Mahoney said about the preconditions of democracy. That’s something that often goes unsaid in discussions of the American founding.”