I’d long thought this was true, that in the years immediately following the Second World War, a fairly fierce opposition to any kind of mass politics took hold among elites in the West, constraining how citizens of Western democratic states were able to act and even think of the societies they inhabited.
Thanks to this piece in Jacobin outlining the problems with comparing modern American to Weimar Germany, there’s actual evidence — as opposed to merely a sense — that this is what happened.
Karl Loewenstein and Hans Speier, militant democracy’s first and most influential theorists, best embody the transformation from liberal antifascism to elitist technocracy. At the beginning of their careers — Loewenstein as a liberal political theorist, Speier as a social-democratic sociologist — they were two of the Weimar Republic’s few good guys, powerfully defending democracy’s legitimacy against its authoritarian critics.
Not surprisingly, their agenda did not sit well with the Nazis, and Loewenstein and Speier fled Germany in 1933. From their exile in the United States, they resumed their pro-democratic campaign, but now with a crucial twist. Fascism’s triumph, they wrote, showed that democratic states had to transform into new, “militant” regimes, ready and willing to use whatever means necessary — including those used by fascists — to defeat their opponents.
Three insights founded Loewenstein and Speier’s project. First, they insisted that all free nations needed to recognize that they faced the same threat. Fascists were trying to take over not only in Berlin and Rome, but also in Amsterdam, Washington, and Rio. If successful, they would form a “Fascist International,” Loewenstein warned, “transcend[ing] national borders.”
Second, and more substantially, the two maintained that democracy’s weakness lay in the freedoms it granted its enemies. Democratic states, they noted, gave rights like free speech to every member of society, regardless of political affiliation. This naïve moralism, however, allowed antidemocratic activists to infiltrate political institutions, exploiting freedom in order to undo it.
Like some of today’s theorists, they grounded this argument in Weimar Germany. Hitler and his violent supporters, they explained, used democratic rights to undermine the republic long before coming to power. Loewenstein believed that “the mechanism of democracy” represented “the Trojan horse by which the enemy enters the city.”
Finally, and most importantly, fascism’s success demonstrated that the people could not be trusted to protect democracy. In moments of crisis, the masses succumbed to “emotionalism” and gave up their rights in favor of vague promises of future national and/or racial glory. The people’s embrace of demagogues’ blatantly unrealistic — if not outright idiotic — visions proved that ordinary folks had no real politics, just fantasies.
What Loewenstein and Speier set in motion was the capture of the state by a “small group of cool-minded technocrats” who exercise authority as responsible and rightly-guided experts. Only as experts would they be able to guide, cajole, coerce, and outright compel public opinion away from totalitarian and and worse kinds of authoritarian practices.
In this, elite power would also become highly dependent on surveillance, law enforcement, and the other tools of the emerging national security state. In crafting a state so thoroughly guided by elites to the point that there can be no such thing as mass politics, or even coherently ideological politics, the authors of the Jacobin piece noted :
The bitter irony, of course, is that the institutions that emerged from this kind of theory exacerbated, rather than mitigated, the threats they were supposed to quash. While xenophobia and racism remain critical to understanding populism’s appeal, the sense that people have no control over their own government and that too much power is concentrated in the hands of unaccountable elites also fuels popular outrage.
It is true that the managerialism so carefully crafted in the wake of V-E and V-J Days has collapsed, in large part because those who manage can no longer think coherently about the world they live in. Effective elite rule requires the elites to think from outside the system even while they inhabit it, to understand they craft the world and not just inhabit it. But that becomes a hard condition to maintain or cultivate.
An analogy works here. Richard Nixon ran two thoroughly cynical residential campaigns in 1968 and again in 1972, pandering to the kinds of voters who found George Wallace interesting. But Nixon never forgot that he ran for president to govern, and could easily separate the rhetoric of campaigning from the reality of governing.
By the 1990s, however, Republicans had been campaigning as Nixon had for so long it became how they thought, and they could no longer see above or beyond themselves to grasp the reality of who they were and what they were running for.
Western elites are now trapped in their world views, unable to rise above them and think clearly about themselves and the world. Hillary Clinton was a clear example of that complete and utter failure. The problem of populism is the West is the problem of elite collapse, combined with the demise of mass politics or properly ideological politics that now make it impossible for much of anyone to think clearly, must less conceive of politics as being able to make the world a better place.
Since I’m not a fan of progressive notions of moral evolution (no proponent of some whig version of history am I!), the question really is this: is this a temporary thing, a necessary period of chaos and instability that allows human beings to reorder themselves, to figure out meaning and purpose in political acts, or … were the 19th and 20th centuries historical complete aberrations with their mass politics and their mass ideologies, and what is to come will look more like what came in the ages before the French toppled their monarch and decided to reorder the world? I vote for the second, but we will likely never really know.
Nor will our children. Nor will theirs.