Jan 15 • 43M

🎧 The Conservative Case for Philosophical Liberalism

Harvey Mansfield and Yascha Mounk discuss the state of American conservatism

Yascha Mounk
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Harvey Mansfield is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. One of the old guard of American conservative thought, he has taught at Harvard since 1962, and counts among his former students Andrew Sullivan, Francis Fukuyama, and Bill Kristol.

In this week’s conversation, Harvey Mansfield and Yascha Mounk discuss the nature of American liberalism, Donald Trump’s effect on conservatism, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s enduring relevance.

This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Yascha Mounk: How do you think conservatives should think about liberalism and liberal democracy?

Harvey Mansfield: They should hold to it. I would just make some general observations. I like our good old, tried-and-true liberalism that comes from John Locke and his [view on], on the one hand, toleration, which is good for intellectuals, and on private property, which is good for businessmen. Already you see the basis for a two party system within liberalism. And I think that's the kind of thing we should hold to. Locke protects this view of liberty with constitutionalism, and this has been worked out by the American founders. 

Liberal democracy means democracy with liberties. That means rights which are guaranteed against majority interference. The problem in a republic is not so much minority exploitation, as majority exploitation. “Faction” was the word which is used in the Federalist, or “tyranny of the majority,” in Tocqueville. I think those who best understand democracy fear its tendency to uproarious, overbearing majorities. That's the main problem, and the reason it's the main problem is that a majority tyranny looks like a majority justice, or even a majority view of the common good. Those two things need to be distinguished and made operable, and you make them operable with the usual devices of constitutionalism: separation of powers, bicameral legislature, federalism. Plus the Bill of Rights, which are amendments to the Constitution. Don't forget the Constitution itself. All those things are, I think, still valuable and we shouldn't endanger them, much less throw them away. 

The problem that the conservatives are dealing with is their sense that they are losing, that conservatives can't win. And that, in the first place, I think, is exaggerated. It’s like a remark made by Yuval Levin: the liberals think they're losing, because they're not winning the economic issue—capitalism is thriving and they care less that they're winning the cultural values question. Whereas conservatives are the opposite: They think they're losing because they're losing on the culture, and they forget that they're winning on economics, to which they attach somewhat less importance. 

So each thinks it’s losing, because it's losing what it most wants. But if you look at those two things—economics and culture—that just goes back to the two rights in Locke: economics, private property; and culture, toleration. I think we're still within the liberal mantra. And we should hold to it and, I think, perhaps we would a little more if we understood it better.

Mounk: Why do you think that the American conservative movement, which was always different from the European right-wing and especially European far-right wing movements because of its commitment to liberalism, is now starting to doubt that commitment, both in the intellectual sphere by people like Patrick Deneen, but also—I would argue, and I'm intrigued to hear whether you agree—in the political sphere by people like Donald Trump?

Mansfield: Trump is maybe a special case. Trump I consider to be a demagogue. So I don't think that he's essentially a man of conviction, but a man with a desire to be loved. The classic definition of a demagogue is a person who wants to be loved. And he doesn't care by whom: as long as you love him, he loves you back. If you don't, then he doesn't like you, or even hates you. And so this is sort of politically neutral. I think that's the case with Trump; he just saw the opportunity to hijack the Republican Party, but it could have been the Democratic Party. So, attributing to him a set of beliefs is finding permanence in something that's pretty contingent.

Mounk: When people worried that Trump was playing “three-dimensional chess,” Garry Kasparov angrily responded, “He plays checkers!” You seem to be suggesting that to honor Trump with being an opponent of liberalism is to impute too much coherence of ideology to him.

Mansfield: Yeah, he's a vulgar man. That's what I think essentially defines him. And he reminds us of just how vulgar democracy is. Democracy isn't on its own refined, or cultivated—that's what comes from liberalism, or the opportunity that democracy offers to give scope to intelligent and artistic and economic individuals who can achieve. Trump is really a vivid reminder of popular vulgarity. And we should not hesitate to use that word “vulgar.” Because it bites it. Trump is therefore in a way more democratic than we are. He's more authoritarian, which means sort of arbitrary or whimsical, changes his view and insists on it. He's more authoritarian, but that's just what democracy is, when it isn't made moderate and deliberate by constitutions. So he's the underside of our system. And he's the very kind of enemy that we were warned against at the very beginning. 

He isn't really that new, I would say. For one, he got this opportunity because of primaries. That's why, if we chose our candidates for president in conventions and smoke-filled rooms, as we used to, they wouldn't have come up with Donald Trump. He's a kind of consequence, if you want to say, of the increasing democratization of our country, and this is something that I think one can really worry about: increasing democratization, which means forgetting that there is such a thing as tyranny of the majority.

Mounk: I am sympathetic to the argument that primaries as they are run in the United States are a very flawed system. With primaries, we're in a very dangerous in-between world, where it’s the most highly motivated participants—who are the most politically extreme—who end up winning out. But there's nevertheless something paradoxical about what you're saying, because you're worrying about too much democracy at the moment when a lot of people—I would argue for good reason—are worried about the way in which Trump can constitute an attack on liberal democracy and the Constitution. 

Is the problem that too much democracy leads to an assault on liberalism, or is it that too much democracy, when it goes far enough, can actually undermine the preconditions of its own existence?

Mansfield: Too much democracy undermines democracy. Democracy works well when it is limited or when democratic power is forced to slow down and think and argue and deliberate, lets a certain amount of time pass, then makes a decision. Rule of the people requires that the power of the people be limited, spread out, and qualified, and argued out. This is the danger of democratization. And Trump is a danger because he attacks our norms and conventions and goes directly to the people—that's what he does with his tweets, his rallies and with the way he conducted his presidency, forcing everyone to discuss him every day and see him every day. 

He wore out his welcome. That's for sure. And he lost. When he lost, that was the one thing that he couldn't stand. He attacked John McCain for being a loser. And here he himself ends up as a loser, and that he can't stand. He didn't know how to lose. And the worst thing that he did came after he lost the election, which was to incite the January 6 riot, or insurrection—whatever you want to call it. I'm a Republican, so I didn't have all the dislike that liberals had of policies that Trump followed. But I was fearful that something like what happened on January 6 would occur during his term, when the result would be worse. It didn't happen. The Democrats did their best to impeach him and to resist him. But he outlasted them until he lost the election, so I think that was a verdict on him. However, his supporters seem to be very hard to convince otherwise.

Mounk: Why is this distrust of, or turn against, philosophical liberalism gaining currency within conservative intellectual circles?

Mansfield: Well, Trump was an explosion among conservatives. They didn't know how to handle him. My former students go from Never Trumpers like Bill Kristol to Trumpistas like Charles Kesler at Claremont. So I try to keep in touch with everybody, like a mother hen, but I have plenty of wayward types. I don't know what to do myself. I think there are many different possible reactions to Trump and it pains me that people with different reactions get so angry at each other, instead of at the cause of it—in Trump—and also the beneficiaries of it—in the Democrats. Democrats have not shown themselves to be so great ever since Biden got elected, to put it mildly.

Trump is a real trouble and a real threat. He seems to be as much against conservatism as in favor of it. As I said, he's against conventions. He's against morality, and propriety—I’ll use that word. The one thing he totally lacks is a sense of propriety, what is appropriate. And conservatives live by that, by propriety, by wearing neckties and so on, and trying to behave, and in trying to maintain one’s dignity. I think that's the way in which conservatives express their support for liberty.

Mounk: I hadn't thought about dignity in those terms. Dignity is a term that has a kind of left wing currency in history. Various forms of capitalism are supposedly against the dignity of individuals; there are attempts to use the term “dignity” in order to justify aspects of the welfare state, and so on. Then as you're saying, obviously, there's a more conservative concept, which is rooted in Christianity, which also includes a set of norms and expectations about how people act. What's fascinating about Trump is that he attacks dignity in both of those forms.

Mansfield: That's right. The forms and formalities. That's a theme of Tocqueville's and it's very important. It is true that our country, America, is always a can-do country, which means that it always wants to find the shortcut. But we're also a due process country, which means you have to do it the right way. Trump’s totally lacking in a sense of due process. And that’s a kind of dignity. Due process is giving legal form to your rights. To have rights is to be dignified. So in that way, the Democrats are right that there's a kind of inherent dignity to a human being. Their [idea of] inclusiveness features this importance of dignity.

Mounk: Is there any advice you would give to Democrats for how they can win over new voters or keep those they have?

Mansfield: Well, they need to be more skeptical of the progressives within their own party. And they can remain progressives, irrational as that might be, as long as they don't think that they have a permanent hold on the people whom they appeal to. Progressivism has a defect: that it can't abide a reverse; [it holds] that progress means that it's irreversible. I use the example of Obama introducing the Affordable Care Act. He said, “I’m not the first president to have taken up the question of health care, but I want to be the last.” The progressives have within them this kind of gradual narrowing of politics, whereby one issue after another gets settled, and that's called progress. That means that you can’t tolerate going back, or reaction. That's why I think progressives are less tolerant than conservatives. Conservatives know that they will never defeat the progressives, that there will always be people who are attracted by that point of view, however unreasonable it may seem. 

Nonetheless, people aren't totally reasonable, and especially those who claim to be acting solely on behalf of reason. So the Democrats should stay with a progress that's open to being reversed or turned around. You try to make more and more issues decided by the Constitution, and therefore by the Supreme Court, in order to keep them from being questioned, debated, or discussed after they’re first passed. I think they would profit from a greater sense of open mindedness, or liberty of belief, or confidence that the American people will choose pretty well over time.

Mounk: I'm glad that you mentioned Alexis de Tocqueville because you're one of the world's most renowned interpreters and translators of Tocqueville. It seems to me that Democracy in America is a text which Americans love to quote, refer to, and put on their bookshelves, but often haven't read. 

What ideas in Tocqueville do you think can help us make sense of the country we live in?

Mansfield: You're right. Tocqueville ought to be the Bible of American democracy. As I like to say, it's the best book on America and the best book on democracy, and it's about democracy in America. Some of it is about the nature of democracy—its theory, how it is in any situation—and some of it is about its special place in America. So it's not just a formal or theoretical picture, but it's also a view of it as it's practiced. 

We can start with a tyranny of the majority—here Tocqueville agrees with the American founders. But he's worried that this extends to the mind. So he says that America is a country with very little freedom of the mind. This is a terrible defect and risk. And it comes about because democracy focuses people on what is present and immediate and also, therefore, on what is material. But to build something of lasting value, you need to be able to control yourself, put your personality aside. Look at those cathedrals that are built in Europe, built over centuries. Could we build such a thing? Will we be able to repair the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, will we have the patience, and the power to do something that takes a long time? Sometimes you see this in American democracy, but a good deal of the time, you don't. Materialism is a main intellectual risk of democracy. And it takes a lot of thought to look further and beyond what's right ahead. 

And that means that intellectuals have become a kind of danger to democracy. Democratic intellectuals don't believe in the mind, or the power of the mind. But they believe in grandiose theories of material motions, movements, large-scale causes which overcome individual accomplishments or thoughts or philosophy. So, philosophy gets democratized. And this goes together with the further attack on the mind. We see this wonderful paradox today that democratic intellectuals want more democracy than the American people—who are not intellectuals—want. They speak for the people and ask for reforms that the people themselves haven't thought of or aren't demanding or wouldn't care about really but for their intellectuals, who impose on them. This means that the intermediate associations between the government, or the intellectuals, and the people, get hollowed out and weakened, such that a democratic people runs the danger of what Tocqueville called individualism, which is falling back on your own devices, and your intimate friends and your family, in the belief that there's nothing you can do to affect society or politics as a whole. 

So politics loses its sense of accomplishment, achievement, and potential power. And this means that you settle into a kind of centralized bureaucracy, where the government does everything: it takes over from you the pain of living, Tocqueville says. It lives things for you. This is aided by modern technology: for example, toilets that flush themselves. Even this elementary duty of disposing of your effluvia is taken over from you. We see this with the great advance of bureaucracy in the universities and, during COVID, all the ways in which our lives are planned for us, and we are given experts who mainly show us how, not why, to obey different rules, and not how to act on your own. 

Mounk: But I wonder whether the relationship between intellectuals, bureaucracy, and the people has shifted. If you go to the very beginning of democracy—and I learned about the beginning of democracy in part by taking your class, so I'm very aware of talking at you about things that you know very well—the basic problems seem to be the intellectuals feeling threatened by the democratic impulse. The intellectuals in ancient Athens felt that their ability to reflect on the world was under threat from the equalizing instinct of the ordinary citizen. And so for a long time, especially for conservatives, the fear was that in a democracy, the people are going to use the bureaucracy in order to punish or kill the intellectuals, and we have to find ways of preserving their freedom of thought.

It strikes me that when I look at the United States today, the situation seems to be a little bit different. Intellectuals who come from a higher social class tended to be conservative in the past. But today, the more educated people are, and the higher the social class, the more they tend to be on the left, and they tend to staff the bureaucracy with people with those ideas. Wouldn't you say that we have a kind of inverse situation today?

Mansfield: Yes, in ancient Athens you had philosophers who were content to let the gentlemen rule, with some powers given to the people as well. But that whole way of thinking about philosophy was replaced by the notion that philosophy should have an agenda, and seek to enlighten the common people. And that's the period called the Enlightenment. 

I don't think it's anything new that intellectuals are on the left. That's, I think, the picture of modernity. If the left means standing for progress, and progress means progress in liberty and in science, that's for the most part, on the left. Locke’s combination of economic liberalism and intellectual liberalism came to be attacked. So the intellectuals were no longer allies or friends of businessmen and became enemies. This happens with Rousseau. The whole idea of keeping together these two social currents of liberalism—namely, private property and toleration—gets lost. What we have today are mostly progressive intellectuals. There are a few conservative intellectuals who react against the progressives, and also want to enlighten the people, in their way. 

It's striking that the range of argument in the universities is so much more narrow than in American society as a whole. That, I think, is a great danger, more for the universities than for American society. The universities are the source of our experts and, it should be, of our open mindedness. But they've stopped being open-minded. That is a real problem, and that is getting worse and worse. I would say this “wokeism” characterizes the recent decade or so. There's been a real change even in the last ten years, I would say, toward aggressive intolerance in the universities.

Mounk: Do you mean that universities will fail to live up to their mission in the grander sense, or do you mean that it will actually undermine their basis of financial and social support?

Mansfield: I would say it’s both; it's bad for the university because they stopped pursuing the truth and started indoctrinating. And it's a danger to them because they're taking a crazy risk—totally unnecessary, in my view—by being so partisan. I'm at Harvard. Harvard is now a byword for intolerance and for crazy liberalism.

Harvard behaves publicly as if it were an instrument of the Democratic Party—its commencement, the people that it invites, the professors that it hires. It is attracting mockery and hostility just for not being able to look a little bit more nonpartisan. In order to make the university open minded, you don't need equal numbers of liberals and conservatives—just a few conservatives. Harvard hasn't hired a conservative professor… I don't know, in the last decade for sure, across all fields. So that I think is an unnecessary provocation that hurts in both ways, both intellectually and politically.

Mounk: You were taught in part by Leo Strauss, and there's a way of thinking about texts and of interpreting texts in the Straussian tradition, which when I was in grad school, I don't think I entirely understood. I'm not sure I had a lot of sympathy for it, and simplifying, grossly (and you will put me right, if I get too wrong) the idea is that you have to assume if somebody had something worth saying in the past, what they were saying was likely to be very unpopular during that time. And so you have to read texts with a lot of care and a little bit against the grain in order to discover what people were actually saying and thinking. 

How would you recommend to readers of this transcript to read texts in a way that may help them discover surprising insights?

Mansfield: Philosophy asks questions. Politics requires answers. If philosophy asks questions, the most difficult and often the most interesting questions are those which are subversive. That is, which question the cherished beliefs of the people among whom those philosophers live. So philosophy has to be understood as something inherently and necessarily subversive. It wants to unsettle the questions which most people and which societies require to be settled. So it's a dangerous occupation. And philosophers have faced this difficulty by addressing other philosophers in a guarded fashion and addressing the people among whom they live in a more ironic fashion. 

Take Socrates, who tries to defend his philosophizing from accusations that it corrupts the people and corrupts the young, and keeps people from believing in the gods that they hold. Socrates tries to explain what he does, his questioning, by saying that he consulted the Delphic Oracle. And the Delphic Oracle told him he was the wisest of all men, and he didn't believe this. So he went around, asking questions to find out whether anyone else was wiser, and he didn't find anyone who was wiser. It's really hard to believe that he really thought that the Delphic Oracle said this. This is a kind of pretense: he needed to give a divine aura to his philosophizing. So, it isn't that he is against the gods, because it was a god who told him that he had to go around and question things. That would be a kind of paradigmatic example of the way philosophers tell lies—to put it honestly, or strongly—in order to protect themselves and in order to teach people. 

Leo Strauss was a German Jewish refugee who came to America to escape Hitler. And he discovered that philosophers before the 19th century had to make a practice of that kind of speech, doublespeech, a kind of a protective covering of the essential—not so much truths, as questions—which lie underneath. And he was able to show, I think, with a lot of his studies that this was characteristic of the ancients, the medievals, and of the moderns, up to a certain point in the 19th century, when history came to the fore and people began to think that every statement by a philosopher was a reflection of the history of his time, rather than a reflection in the sense of questioning of the thought of his time. 

So all philosophers are subversive, and they all tell lies, up to the 19th century. One approaches a text with this expectation. People who follow Strauss are often accused of perverse ingenuity, because they're always looking at what lies underneath. That is a characteristic fault of those, like myself, who are called Straussians. So it doesn't result in an -ism, so much as a point of view or an approach.

Mounk: We've talked about the present and we've talked about the past, so I suppose it only remains for us to talk about the future. What do you think the future of American conservatism will look like, in particular, as a political movement? Do you think that its current divergence from—or, if you see Trump as a demagogue—indifference towards philosophical liberalism will become permanent?

Mansfield: I don't know. I'm not a predictor. These are chancy things. All I can say is that there is a basis for both a continuation of Trumpism—if it is an -ism—or Trumpish behavior, and for putting it aside or putting it to sleep. I think one hopeful sign was the recent election in Virginia of Governor Youngkin, the Republican candidate that I think made a good job of keeping Trump at arm's length, not making his voters hostile, but also making it clear that he was not an extension or believer in Trump. If the Republicans follow that example, I think they’d be much better off than if they don't, but I'm not sure they will. And we also don't know what Trump himself is going to do, which might greatly affect things or might not. He might just fade. And he might find that his appeal is much less than it used to be. But so far, I don't think there's any clear answer to that.


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