The Degradation of Modern Democracy

"The Degradation of Modern Democracy," review of The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life, by Kenneth Minogue, Claremont Review of Books, 3 January 2011.


Nowadays it is conservatives rather than liberals who stand up for liberty. Liberals have given themselves over to the advance of democracy, knowing not where it leads, and caring little for what might happen to liberty along the way of progress. Kenneth Minogue, professor emeritus of political science at the London School of Economics, stands up for liberty but refrains from adopting the conservative cause, preferring to pick and choose rather than to join up. He makes his own points, sets his own example, and saves himself the trouble of defending or correcting embarrassing companions in the struggle. He is nonetheless the author of a conservative classic, The Liberal Mind (1963), which as the title of his latest book, having abandoned irony and referring to the same thing, he now calls The Servile Mind.

This book is an update, including rethinking and reformulations, that absorbs the experience and legacy of the late ’60s. Readers of the earlier work would not have been as surprised as most people were by that event, but they will now find its author somewhat less libertarian and more conservative. In The Servile Mind his targets are not cited by name, but they do not need to be. His expounding of the diverse items in the servile mind does more justice to them, and runs deeper, than do the statements of their exponents-the intellectual elite behind a new kind of democratic politics. Minogue has written a polemic without harsh words, striking blows without wounding feelings.

The book’s title puts us in mind of Tocqueville’s new “democratic despotism,” a “sort of mild, regulated, and peaceful servitude,” recently identified in Paul Rahe’s Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift (2009) as the long-term trend of politics in Europe. But as distinct from Tocqueville and many conservative American counselors today, Minogue does not make a point of the contrast between European servility and American freedom. From his supra-partisan stance he sees no relief by looking at America; he presents the problem as common to “Europe,” which means the West.

The problem for Minogue is in the mind and in what he calls the “politico-moral,” which is a politics directed by a new morality rather than a politics directing morality. A politics directing morality would be a democratic politics fashioning our thoughts and sentiments; but the danger comes from a super-democratic morality that desires more democracy than the people want on their own, which is more democracy than is possible or feasible, and above all, compatible with freedom. Minogue defends democracy in the name of freedom, and as what it is, versus the servility, already abundantly in evidence, that our intellectual elite has in store for it.