Professor Ralph Wood, the gifted writer and teacher, works his craft at Baylor University. Ralph recommended that I read The Demon in Democracy. I’m glad he did, though it was not a comforting read.
Legutko’s big idea is that the liberal democracy of our day shares many of the same features as communism. There are commonalities such as a penchant for utopianism. There is also an undying belief that one’s system of thought is perfect and so should be immune from critique.
Most of us simply accept that everything about liberal democracies is wonderful so questioning any part of it would be un-American. Actually, the opposite is true. Serious questioning of political institutions is at the heart and founding of our history, something most of us have forgotten.
Legutko teaches philosophy in his homeland of Poland. He is not opposed to progress per se, but finds a troubling hubris at the heart of many modern notions of progress.
More than once I put a marginal note of “no dissent allowed” to characterize the lack of scrutiny most Americans give to the modern notion of liberal democracy. And it is the modern notion, not the older versions of liberal democracy, that is in the author’s crosshairs.
If you want to know more about why serious thinking and free speech (on both the left and right) has gone the way of the Dodo bird, this book has much to offer.
Yuval Levin writes wise, thoughtful, and accessible books. His previous book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, was terrific. And as I said in its review, it is not just for “political junkies.”
The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism can stand on its own, but I would recommend reading The Great Debate as well.
The Fractured Republic is refreshing. Levin is a conservative, but that does not keep him from correcting his conservative kin, especially on fueling an expressive individualism that is just as toxic as those on the Left. Levin believes that conservatives who appreciate the importance of “mediating institutions” like families, communities, and religious groups, is where promise for a better political climate moving forward resides.
Levin rightly sees both conservatives and liberals falling prey to nostalgia, a longing for a bygone era where things were so much better than the present. Both sides need to disabuse themselves of nostalgia in order to see their way forward in making wise decisions in a culture that is different from the past.
Scholars are rarely prophets and prophets are rarely scholars. I was reminded of this in reading the much debated, The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher.
Rod Dreher, journalist and outspoken Christian, is decidedly on the prophetic side of the scholar-prophet spectrum. This, however, does not mean that he is incapable of helping us better understand the far-reaching and practical ramifications of something as arcane as nominalism.
We must say right out of the blocks that Dreher’s book is not a jeremiad screed to head for the hills. Rather, Dreher advocates for “exile in place.” The preposition is key. We are to cultivate faithfulness with other like-minded folks not simply to hunker down in our religious enclaves. We should form these counter-cultural communities to strengthen our capacity to engage, not escape, our world. This is a clarion call by a gifted writer to let the church be the church.
I have my disagreements with some of Dreher’s analysis and antidotes. With respect to the former, Dreher is insufficiently aware of what the Protestant Reformers meant by sola Scriptura. As Keith Mathison memorably puts it, sola Scpritura does not mean solo Scriptura. Among other things, leaning on the thesis in Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation made for a potted history. Dreher would have been greatly helped if he had availed himself of the work of either Mathison or D.H. Williams, especially his Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: a Primer of Suspicious Protestants.
As to antidotes, I don’t share Dreher’s sweeping denunciation of public schools. For the record, our two sons attended Christian schools, had a few years of homeschooling, and went to public high schools. All three have their strengths and weaknesses. Sure, public schools can be a mess. I saw incompetent teachers and weak administrators, but I also saw bogus rules, unprincipled administrators and mean teachers at the Christian school. My experience, it needs to be noted, was both as a parent and a part-time teacher.
Dreher is rightly concerned about the corrosive effects of “moralistic, therapeutic, Deism.” I share his concerns. I also share Dreher’s conviction that “losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul.” As many have said, the church seems the most vital (and prophetic) when it works from the margins of power. Notwithstanding its shortcomings, Dreher’s book is a good reminder of that reality.
The modern notion of “politics” is much narrower than the ancient one. The modern idea thinks mainly of things like voting, lobbying for favorite causes, and those who govern.
Levin shows us in his terrific book that there is much more to politics. For example, one’s understanding of human nature and history dramatically affect how one understands political change. So-called progressives and so-called conservatives are given much to think about in this fine work.
Since I am late to the party in reviewing this book, let me close with one massive implication that came to me in reading this book and it deals with Christian theology. For those of us Christians who gladly hold to more conservative or orthodox (small o) theology, there is something terribly important we can learn from Edmund Burke. Burke believed that the best of tradition is true, but to convince more radical types like Paine, it was crucial to also show the beauty of tradition. If I were to grade us conservative Christians on how well we do in showing the beauty of truth, I would give us a very low grade. Carefully crafted doctrine is essential, but it needs to shine forth as beautiful.
The short answer to my subject line is “yes.” The longer, but still short answer of “yes” resides in this tract for our times. I heard someone say that On Tyranny reminded them of Tom Paine’s Common Sense, a short, but powerful rallying cry for all Americans. The comparison seems apt.
Before you write off the author as some conspiratorial loon, keep in mind that Snyder is an eminent scholar of Eastern European studies. And it is the study of Eastern Europe that gives credibility to this work. Most importantly, is the fact that Eastern Europeans appreciate that things can go terribly wrong. Believing that a “new day in America” means “an even better day” is naive and shows that we are ignorant of history. Many of us, including our Western European friends, were stunned by the election of Donald Trump. Eastern Europeans weren’t.
I have two quibbles with On Tyranny. Neither are that significant. In the book and in a few lectures I’ve heard, Professor Snyder uses “the end of history” without defining it. Some of us are very familiar with the idea popularized by Francis Fukuyama, but others could be helped by some unpacking of the idea. My other minor reservation revolves around a sentence that closes out Professor Snyder’s third action step. Here’s the sentence: “We can be sure that the elections of 2018, assuming they take place, will be a test of American traditions.” I think it is safe to say we are already being tested, but not having elections in 2018? That strikes me, even as a pretty grizzled “no Trumpster” as incautious.
Like I say those are quibbles. I am glad to see this book getting such a wide hearing.
The word “pagan” is used in various ways. There are popular and scholarly definitions. Here, we get one that makes sense to me from Andrew Sullivan (HT: John Fea’s Blog, The Way of Improvement):
Trump is not an atheist, confident yet humble in the search for a God-free morality. He is not an agnostic, genuinely doubtful as to the meaning of existence but always open to revelation should it arrive. He is not even a wayward Christian, as he sometimes claims to be, beset by doubt and failing to live up to ideals he nonetheless holds. The ideals he holds are, in fact, the antithesis of Christianity — and his life proves it. He is neither religious nor irreligious. He is pre-religious. He is a pagan. He makes much more sense as a character in Game of Thrones, a medieval world bereft of the legacy of Jesus of Nazareth, than as a president of a modern, Western country.
Every pillar of Trump’s essential character is a cardinal sin for Christians: lust, gluttony, greed, envy, anger, and pride. We are all guilty of these, of course, but there is in Trump a centrality to them, a shame-free celebration of them, that is close to unique in the history of the American presidency. I will never understand how more than half of white Catholics could vote for such a man, or how the leadership of the church could be so terribly silent when such a monster stalks the earth.