The Myth of Liberal Democracy

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, most Americans felt themselves to be part of a grand historical myth whose central theme was the triumph of liberal democracy over the forces of bigotry and repression. 

The period of greatest faith in this myth fell between about 1950 and 1965, when it seemed indisputable that the most important events of the past fifty years had all involved the flowering of democratic institutions and the demonstration of their economic and military superiority over fascism and communism.  Those events fitted neatly into a single coherent narrative, which in hindsight might even be taken as inevitable, and there was no apparent reason why this theme of democratic progress should not extend indefinitely far into the future.

Although nearly everyone in America agreed on the same basic story, there was certainly room for differences in interpretation.  Liberals were more interested in rights, conservatives in freedoms.  Left-wingers tended to take the New Deal as their model and emphasize the need for further reforms, such as ending segregation, rooting out political corruption, or attacking the blight of poverty.  Right-wingers were more inclined to look back to World War II and dream of a victory over communism as final and definitive as the earlier victory over fascism.   But such disagreements were mainly a matter of emphasis, and the country was more united than it has been at any time since.

However, even during the 1950-65 period there were anomalies, disturbing episodes which didn't fit smoothly into the consensus narrative.  The McCarthyite witch-hunts were one such.  There were also recurring doubts about American foreign policy, which never seemed to be as fully committed to democracy as America's view of itself suggested it ought to be.  And then there was the shock of the Kennedy assassination, which raised the spectre that the most fundamental of democratic processes -- the popular election of a president -- could be nullified in an instant by a small and secretive cabal of disrupters.  If the Warren Commission pressed the lone nut theory as hard as it did, it may have been more to preserve the public's faith in democracy than for any darker reasons.

In any case, the myth did manage to hold firm for a few more years.  It powered Lyndon Johnson's civil rights legislation and war on poverty.  But a rapid succession of events after 1965 -- the escalation of the Vietnam War, the government's attempts through programs like Cointelpro to spy on and repress its own people, the abuses of the Nixon administration -- would strain Americans' faith in the myth of liberal democracy almost to the breaking point. 

The resulting period of disillusionment and alienation was simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating, offering a hope of new possibilities even as it destroyed old verities.  By the time the Watergate scandal started to unwind, it seemed possible that the entire society might be ready to wake up and start the work of building a real democracy in place of the mere facade of democracy we had formerly known.

But that never happened.  Nixon resigned and was immediately pardoned, the country congratulated itself on how well the system had worked, and everybody went back to sleep -- or out disco dancing, which was much the same thing.

Ultimately, Watergate has to be considered a failure of the democratic dream every bit as acute as the Kennedy assassination.  In both cases, the fate of our nation was determined largely by covert forces arm-wrestling for control behind the scenes, and the people had no real say in the matter.  And despite some promising reforms, like the Freedom of Information Act, the anti-democratic elements which Nixon had represented were regrouping and establishing new areas of influence within just a few years.

In the three decades since 1974, almost every aspect of our society has grown weaker rather than stronger, and the myth of liberal democracy has been damaged beyond repair.  The left has achieved no further social reforms comparable to those enacted under Kennedy and Johnson.  The right had its one moment of satisfaction when the Soviet Union fell in 1989 and has accomplished nothing positive since.  Americans are both poorer and less free than they were, the labor unions are crippled, the social fabric is fraying, and our sense of community and mutual support has all but evaporated.

Worse yet, it is becoming impossible to avoid the suspicion that our nation is in the hands of people who have no real use for democracy:  large corporations, religious fundamentalists, government officials with an attachment to secrecy for its own sake, and ideologues who see the two-party system not as a partnership but as a war, in which any sort of trick or deception is justified and the only goal is to destroy the enemy.

As the right has grown narrower and more vicious, left-wing politicians have become weak and ineffectual.  They still cling to the dying myth of liberal democracy, but it no longer provides them with an empowering vision of the future.  It increasingly seems that the only way we will ever get out of the bind in which we find ourselves is by creating a new myth for new times -- one which does not deny the great achievements of the early twentieth century, but incorporates them into a broader and more expansive narrative.

In the years just after 1965, when the myth of liberal democracy was first starting to falter, there was one serious attempt to offer an alternative vision.  However, that alternative was not so much a replacement for the existing social myth as it was a flat denial of its relevance.  The hippies, occultists, anti-war activists, and exponents of feminism and gay rights who emerged in the late Sixties had very little interest in ordinary politics or economics.  Instead, they sought answers to the dilemmas of the time and their personal needs in philosophy and psychology.

The Sixties counterculture grew out of a view of the cosmos as fundamentally absurd and irrational, and it cheerfully endorsed John Lennon's sarcastic advice, "Nothing is real, nothing to get hung about."  It regarded all social norms as artificial and dehumanizing, and its best advice was to turn on, tune in, and drop out.  It defined the conflicts of the time in terms of the Freudian distinction between eros and thanatos, and its prescription was to make love, not war.  The various sexual liberation movements enthusiastically went along with that recommendation, while assuring us that it wasn't really a cop-out because the personal was the political.

In short, the answer of the counterculture to the failure of the myth of liberal democracy was, "Society doesn't matter.  It isn't real.  It will only cripple you.  Stop worrying about it and tune in to the universe.  All you need is love."  And while that sort of advice may have made a certain amount of sense in the world turned upside-down of 1968, there was no way it could provide a long-term solution to the looming crisis of democracy.

As we stand on the threshold of the twenty-first century, it is becoming clear that social problems have to be answered with social solutions, and that the only effective response to our ongoing national catastrophe must be a completely new set of social ideals.  But to achieve that, we will need a new myth, one that will both value the accomplishments of the past and look to the potentials of the future.

Cory Panshin
July 2004, revised December 2004

Next:  The Paths to Democracy

Home:  The Secret History of the Twentieth Century

Return to Trogholm

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.>

Background courtesy of Eos Development