Ryszard Legutko has lived through communism and democracy — and is unimpressed with either. Communism is more obviously flawed, relying on naked coercion, resulting in economic and social deprivation. But aspects of modern democracy are often driven by similar motives and mechanics.
In his book “The Demon in Democracy,” Legutko compares these aspects and helps his readers understand contemporary Western politics.
Legutko calls this “Liberal Democracy.” But I usually refer to it as “the Left” or “Progressive.” In his usage, Liberal Democracy’s insidiousness is troubling. It seems both “liberal” (in the sense of freedom, choice, etc.) and “democratic” (subject to “the will of the people”). But even casual observers know that matters are more complicated.
For example, self-styled “liberals” often act in a stunningly “illiberal” manner. And economists remind us that democracy can easily be exploited by interest groups and politicians.
Aside from mere observation, it’s important to explain why communism and this perversion of democracy are so similar. To do this, Legutko divides his book into five chapters that highlight parallels between the two: their sense of “History”; a “Utopian” end of history (under their guidance); the over-arching role of “Politics”; the dominance of “Ideology” (and a subsequent intolerance toward dissent); and the threat of “Religion” (especially Christianity).
In terms of history and progress, both are “modernization projects”: “The world cannot be tolerated as it is . . . the old should be replaced with the new . . .” As such, things can quickly get illiberal: “any opposition to this process [is] extremely harmful to humanity and inconceivably stupid . . . hopelessly parochial.” And that opposition is defined as “the enemy of progress.”
Liberal Democracy has a similar utopian vision: anything other than democracy would be worse. “If Liberal Democracy is not accepted, then society will fall prey to authoritarianism, fascism and theocracy.” A clear indication of utopianism and idolatry: the remedy for democracy’s weaknesses is always to expand democracy. We see this both in terms of policy (always more government) — as well as a passion to increase the number of voters, to make voting easier and to sell voting as a civic even sacred duty.
Legutko notes both have produced intense politicization. In democracy and especially Liberal Democracy, the goal is to make life more political — by increasing the quantity and level of participation. This extends beyond politics to the culture at large — in Liberal Democracy, as evidenced by the popularity of “virtue signaling,” the emergence of “cancel culture,” and the genesis of “woke politics.” In this, Liberal Democracy is arguably more impressive than communism, since more people are willing to report and attack their fellow citizens.
Both place a great emphasis on ideology. It is a “convenient tool” in political conflicts. It allows one to discredit an opponent without substantive arguments. Analysis and argument are often inconclusive; labeling others as representing various interests is much cleaner. Moderation can be painted as compromise; enemy status becomes clearer and cleaner. Tolerance is rejected as an approach, since it is seen as condoning the unacceptable.
The ideologue “lives in a constant state of mobilization for a better world. His mouth is full of noble slogans . . . ready to sacrifice . . . an incomparable sense of moral self-confidence,” dogmatism and self-righteousness. Moreover, he is a fundamentalist who is especially prone to confirmation biases, as they “reduce everything to what they know” and never have “the slightest doubt that [they are] in possession of the entirety of the human experience.” They are “very reluctant to learn” but “all too eager to teach.”
Where communism has class distinctions, Liberal Democracy has class, race, sexuality and gender. But for both, “these obligations are non-negotiable. Others can be ignored.” And so, we’re back to idolatry and a willingness to allow the ends to justify the means. In both communism and this form of democracy, Christian faith is opposed or privatized into irrelevance. “Christianity itself is of little worth, and whatever is of value in it, it is better expressed and more forcefully implemented by Liberal Democracy.”
What can oppose these damaging forces within democracy? There can always be some hope when the flaws of an idol are so obvious. In describing communism, Legutko notes that “we were always surrounded by non-reality . . . it was a fraud.” (This reminds me of the TV show, The Good Place, as the characters recognize that they cannot possibly be in “the Good Place,” given what they’re experiencing.) As such, we see considerable pushback among (true) liberals, a range of conservatives, and the vast bulk of the decidedly non-elite who are attacked by the beliefs and practices of Liberal Democracy.
D. Eric Schansberg is professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast, adjunct scholar for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and author of “Turn Neither to the Right not Left: A Thinking Christian’s Guide to Politics and Public Policy.” An expanded version of this essay appears in the spring Indiana Policy Review. Send comments to [email protected].