Idolizing Democracy Has Caused Many of America's Problems

1 ¾ min

Homo Americanus, by Zbigniew Janowski (St. Augustine’s Press; 250 pp., $24.00).

Polish American political thinker Zbigniew Janowski examines the reasons that modern American democracy has taken a totalitarian turn. Contrary to the happy talk coming from establishment conservatives about the need to spread America’s so-called liberal democratic values everywhere, Janowski paints a dark but compelling picture of where America’s once strong constitutional institutions have gone. He depicts a country oscillating between moral arrogance and ritualized self-abasement, which can never quite decide whether it’s the salvation or bane of humanity, and which remains fixated on equality as the highest ideal.

Like his close friend Ryszard Legutko, who wrote the afterword to this volume and the insightful book The Demon in Democracy, Janowski does not worship at the altar of democratic equality. Moreover, he sees many of the cultural and social problems that beset present-day American society as having been affected by this democratic idolatry. Equality in democracy, argues Janowski, leads to a homogenizing process that destroys the individuality that democracy claims to defend, and which makes war on traditional hierarchically-based communities.

“1989 was not a moment of liberation but the moment when one collectivist ideology (communism) was replaced by another collectivist ideology (democracy),” Janowski writes. Both these egalitarian ideologies are the “children of the Enlightenment.” The question that Janowski addresses in the last chapter is:

[W]hether one can limit democracy’s expansion—which is equality’s engine—in a way that is consistent with the idea of democracy at the same time? To put it differently, can one limit equality to preserve democracy?

Since Janowski leaves his heuristic queries open, this reviewer feels free to note that the egalitarian democracy he so graphically describes represents a falling away from something much better. It is a denaturing of the constitutional republic upholding federalism and ordered liberty that marked America’s earlier phase. The United States was not always the quasi-tyranny it is now becoming. It started with a well-conceived political order, one that some Americans wish to return to.


Image Credit: 

Flickr-Old White Truck, CC BY-SA 2.0

Paul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.

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Thank you for this review of Janowski's book, Professor Gottfried. His thesis (as I thus far simplistically understand it) is fascinating and I must admit not one that I had ever previously considered consciously, although upon reflection, it tentatively makes perfect sense (despite my not having yet read the book). I myself have always, however, considered our classic American regard for the 'enduring' sanctity of our particular model of democracy to be sophormoric; particularly since America has only existed as a nation for a few hundred years, and the numerous cracks in the socio-economic masonry of our national edifice are by now both numerous and painfully apparent to anyone who keeps an open (and inquisitive) mind. Might I suggest that an excellent preface for better understanding of Janowski's narrative (it has been described as a somewhat challenging and 'serious' read...not for the intellectually faint of heart) would be Ken Andersen's superb 2017 work titled 'FANTASYLAND', in which he explores the origins of America's mythic fantasy of 'exceptionalism' (that has over a period of roughly 5 centuries been steadily transmogrified into a progressive substitution of 'fantasy' for 'reality')?