A Center That Can Hold

Jason Willick

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"It is the deluge time, the time of the breaking of nations." So wrote Peter Viereck, "twenty-three years of age, unemployed, short of cash," in the Atlantic Monthly's April 1940 issue. Soon, the Harvard history graduate would find himself in North Africa analyzing Axis-powers propaganda for the U.S. Army's psychological-warfare branch. But for now, he watched in horror from New England as lethal, state-worshipping ideologies on the left and right laid waste to consent-based political orders from Moscow to Lisbon.

"I write from the point of view of millions of ordinary young college graduates trying sincerely to answer two questions," Viereck wrote. "What values are enduring enough to survive all these crashing panaceas? What means must we use to save these precious values?"

Viereck's essay — which generated a flurry of intense if short-lived discussion in the U.S. — was an impassioned brief for a "conservative" democracy resilient enough to withstand the centrifugal forces tearing apart peaceful Western states. "Society as I would conserve it," he wrote, "would rest on five great self-disciplines: rule of reason in the individual, Christian ethics between individuals, Law in the state, free parliamentary negotiation among political parties, peace by negotiation among nations." Such principles placed Viereck significantly to the right of most of his contemporaries in the American intellectual class, where until not long before the Soviet model of anti-fascism and social "reform" had enjoyed broad appeal. 

The Atlantic piece was the opening argument in a distinguished intellectual career in which Viereck, who in 1948 became a professor at Mount Holyoke College, made the case for a rigorously grounded political center that had a chance of holding amid the upheavals of contemporary Western life. In Metapolitics (1941), Conservatism Revisited (1949), Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals (1953), Conservative Thinkers (1956), and his essay contribution to Daniel Bell's 1962 Radical Right anthology, Viereck highlighted the convergence between left and right models of illiberal politics and groped his way toward a distinctive political formula — conservative democracy. His theory of where liberty came from and how it might realistically coexist with human beings' natural tendencies toward tribalism and romantic irrationality is more urgently relevant today than at any time since he emerged onto the public square.

A fiercely independent thinker, Viereck (who died in 2006 at age 89) was mostly without a political home. He insisted he was a conservative, but never voted for a Republican presidential candidate, and often feuded with the preeminent conservative intellectuals of his time — not only the combative and ideological William F. Buckley, Jr., but also the more reflective and moderate Russell Kirk. In an introduction to a re-issue of Viereck's Conservatism Revisited, the political scientist Claes Ryn speculated that his long-running shame about his father — Sylvester Viereck, an American fascist agitator who was imprisoned for several years on racketeering charges — led him to give the American right a wider-than-necessary berth.

Viereck was ruthlessly critical of left-wing intellectuals who downplayed the menace of Stalinism abroad and of communist agitation in the United States; he was equally critical of McCarthyite tactics on the right and of the authoritarian John Birch Society that would emerge soon after the Wisconsin senator's downfall. Perhaps because there is no constituency that is eager to claim him today as its own, Viereck's formidable intellectual achievements have been relegated to study in political-theory graduate courses rather than employed by intellectuals grasping for a framework to understand the "crashing panaceas" of 2018.

It is past time, therefore, to resuscitate key Viereckian insights — insights developed as a newly vital model of American liberalism was finding its footing — and to apply them to a time when it seems like our fragile consensus is coming apart once again.


Viereck took ideas seriously as instigators of political change. He was fond of the John Maynard Keynes quote that "madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back," and he disparaged materialist theories of history, whether Marxist or capitalist. The three ideological entities that were the subject of his attention from the 1940s through the 1960s were Jacobin leftists, ultra-reactionary rightists, and idealistic "liberal democrats" who watched with bemusement as their institutions and procedures were rattled or sometimes leveled outright by mobs and strongmen. (Late in the 1960s, as Tom Reiss noted in the New Yorker, Viereck would largely retire from political theorizing and devote all of his energies to Russian history and poetry, for which he had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1949.)

The crisis of political legitimacy in the West today features a trio of ideological protagonists similar to the ones that Viereck described in mid-century. The first actor is an increasingly strident identitarian left with roots in the academic postmodernism of the second half of the 20th century. Damir Marusic described the phenomenon like this in the American Interest:

Since it got its start as a radical form of literary criticism, postmodernism is a philosophy of competing "narratives" that sees dominant ones violently suppressing weaker "others" as part of an endless zero-sum competition that leaves no room for meaningful political compromise. The struggle ends up being not between ideas, but between groups that have to varying degrees been repressed, each with its own set of contingent "truths."

This anti-Enlightenment philosophy, Marusic wrote, is "ultimately incompatible" with a politics of consent rather than of force.

Postmodernism originated among academics, but thanks in part to new media has found a foothold in parts of the American left that are self-consciously dispensing with core liberal ideas of free inquiry, the primacy of reason over identity, and the legitimacy of the nation-state itself. This left encourages campus-speech mobs; it forces the firing of workers who question gender orthodoxies; it deliberately highlights ethnic divisions and flings accusations of "white supremacy" with abandon. A moral system of privilege, power, and identity replaces rational deliberation and equality under law.

If the new left-wing challenge to the politics of law and consent is postmodern, the right-wing challenge is premodern. Western modernity, Viereck wrote, was "compounded of three separate heritages: rationalism, classicism, Christianity." In the alt-right, white nationalism, and paranoid populism, we have a rejection of these principles in favor of might over right, tribal hierarchy over Christian dignity, and fantasy and superstition over empiricism (to modify Viereck's account of Nazism). This new right proclaims that President Obama was born in Africa; it wishes (and sometimes delivers) death upon peaceful anti-racist protesters; it revels in a deluge of nihilistic and dehumanizing political content that stokes the rage and insecurities of young, socially isolated white men.  

Viereck wrote in 1962 of the modern far right's predecessors: "In the name of free speech and intellectual gadflyism," he wrote, "some American new conservatives" feel "justified in expounding the indiscriminate anti-liberalism of hothouse Bourbons and czarist serf-floggers." They have more in common, he said, with "czardom, Junkerdom, Maistrean ultra-royalism," than with America's moderate conservative tradition. The inheritors of mid-century America's right-wing authoritarianism still represent an extremist fringe in American political life, but their platform and reach have grown in ways subtle and overt.

Finally, the third ideological category of significance in today's West is liberal idealism: the dominant view among most intellectuals, especially on the center left. Liberal idealism opposes both forms of sectarianism that are nipping at its heels but finds them difficult to shake off. That's because it presumes that liberalism is the natural state of things, and that democratic government can be sustained by rules and procedures alone. Viereck called this "abstract liberty-in-quotes, betrayed by messianic sloganizing." You can see elements of this viewpoint in the cottage industry of "democracy in peril" literature that has been published since the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, such as Yascha Mounk's The People vs. Democracy, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's How Democracies Die, David Frum's Trumpocracy, and Madeleine Albright's Fascism: A Warning (even as this genre of work has developed some important insights).

Preserving a politics based on consent isn't just a matter of clucking with disapproval at movements that challenge it. "Without the chaos-chaining, the id-chaining heritage of rooted values," Viereck wrote, "what is to keep man from becoming Eichmann or Nechayev — what is to save freedom from 'freedom'?" Neither "savage direct democracy" nor the soft despotism of technocrats will suffice. And yet many of today's intellectuals offer a confused mix of the two — alternately dismissing populist movements as illegitimate and backward, while proclaiming that the answer to them is "more democracy."

Viereck saw the left-illiberalism of communism and the right-illiberalism of McCarthyism and the John Birch Society as mirror images of one another. But neither one "is strong enough to destroy freedom by itself. Freedom is destroyed when both attack at the same time," wrote Viereck. A dialectic of spiraling left-right extremism is what ultimately wears down the habits of deliberation and consent. "Lenin was able to seize power in November, 1917, only because the new Duma government had been weakened by right-wing authoritarians, the John Birchers of Russia, who slandered it as 'red' and who had undermined it by the Kornilov Putsch in September." In Germany, he continued, "Hitler was able to seize power in 1933 only because the Weimar Republic and been weakened by Communist authoritarians, who slandered it as 'social fascist' and who had undermined it by postwar Putsches."

In American politics for at least the last three presidential administrations, it has been common for partisans to declare that it is midnight for American democracy, and that liberty as we know it is on the brink of being obliterated. This rhetoric has been particularly prominent during the Trump administration, for the understandable reason that the current president has shown unusually overt ignorance of the workings of American democracy. But if liberalism in America is at risk, it is not from "populism," as many democracy evangelists contend. Rather, as in parliamentary Russia or Weimar Germany, it is from mutually reinforcing radicalisms that amplify one another. This process gradually corrodes the legitimacy of the existing regime and opens the door to a genuine authoritarianism somewhere down the line.

Between a far right that denigrates Western values of pluralism and equality before the law and a far left that denounces Western civilization as a white-supremacist construction, between multicultural identitarians and white identitarians, between thought controllers of various stripes, the space for a rooted liberalism is shrinking. "'Right' and 'Left' are mere fluctuating pretexts, mere fluid surfaces for the deeper anti-individualism (anti-aristocracy) of the mass man," Viereck wrote.

Just as the liberal revolts of 1848 in Europe drove nobles farther into the arms of despots, and just as McCarthyism drove Western leftists farther into the arms of international communists, today the existence and growing ferocity of right-wing revolts against Western modernity strengthen their left-wing counterparts (and vice versa), as the ideas of an impersonal rule of law and representative politics are discredited. "The backing of one such extreme only nourishes the growth of the other extreme," wrote Viereck, "until this polarization ends the meaningful choice between freely voting conservative or freely voting liberal and forces a country into the meaningless Scylla-or-Charybdis choice of being enslaved by reactionary or radical terrorists."

Such is our predicament, and the one Viereck concerned himself with: What can answer the potency of romantic anti-Western ideas on the left and right, especially when blended together?


The difference between a Viereckian defense of free institutions and the superficial type offered in much of today's literature starts with Viereck's understanding of how such institutions are constructed.

Modern liberty did not emerge from slogans and sentimentalism. Nor did it emerge in a full-spectrum revolt against older, organic social systems. To the contrary, it grew out of those systems in a long and iterative process. "According to conservative historians, parliamentary and civil liberties were created not by modern liberal democracy but by medieval feudalism, not by equality but by privilege," Viereck wrote in Conservative Thinkers. Specific historical processes condition societies, over time, for the practice of liberty. As he put it:

Magna Cartas, constitutions, Wittens, Dumas and parliaments were originally founded and bled for by medieval noblemen, fighting selfishly and magnificently for their historic rights against both kinds of tyranny, the tyranny of kings and the tyranny of the conformist masses. Modern democracy merely inherited from feudalism that sacredness of individual liberty and mass-produced it.

It follows that "aristocratic non-conformist individualism" is more conducive to liberty than a "leveling, democratic egalitarianism," that stands to deliver a lower-quality product even as it produces it in bulk.

The original liberal institutions — private property, due process under law, representation in deliberative bodies, the right to dissent politically — began as personalistic, self-interested agreements between groups of elites seeking protection against looting from above or mob violence from below. Eventually, these rights were formalized and extended outward. But they were never truly universal rights that existed independently of customs and traditions. In Conservatism Revisited, Viereck approvingly traced Clemens von Metternich's idea of the "evolutionary growth" of liberty:

[Metternich] stressed that "man cannot make a constitution, properly speaking," only "time."..."Just as little is a Charta a constitution as the marriage contract is the marriage;" both must be consummated...."The English constitution is the work of centuries" rather than the work of a single revolution or a single document or decree. This is why the liberal revolts and liberal decrees failed to strike root in Italy and Spain and were not true to the spirit of the free English institutions that they professed to admire.

Today's liberal idealists, who see liberty as a floating abstraction rather than a rooted product of tradition, struggle to offer a meaningful answer to the challenges from the left and right. Right-wing populists rail against corrupt elites, seeking to remove the intermediary between "the people" and the power of the state, supposedly making everyone more equal (because hierarchies are destroyed) and more free (because they are no longer under the power of said elites). Left-identitarians, for their part, want to destroy icons and flout existing laws and institutions they see as irredeemably polluted with noxious white male privilege. If certain liberties were initially foreclosed to non-landholding white males, is that not a sign of the underlying malevolence of the entire project?

A convincing answer to such passionate claims requires a recognition that what we now call liberal democracy originated as an intra-elite project, developing from the "slow accumulation of civilized habits that separates us from the cave." To prevent those habits from being denatured, we must acknowledge the crucial importance of "tiny, heroic natural aristocracies and the majesty — beyond mob majorities — of moral law." This is a paternalistic vocabulary that modern liberalism has lost.

Some conservative thinkers, mostly on the Catholic right, have argued that modern democratic liberalism is a sectarian ideology that is ultimately no more respectful of human dignity than its radical or reactionary challengers — that it is hardwired to stamp out dissidents, to reject the legitimacy of romantic aspirations, and to subordinate everything and everyone to a secular-utilitarian tyranny. Viereck was alert to this danger, and his "conservative democracy" — as opposed to the exhausted, rearguard version that prevails today — made crucial allowances against it.

First, his vision for consensual politics did not mean extricating non-liberal ideas and impulses from society; any such effort would hollow out the roots of liberty and destroy the guardrails against totalitarian takeover. As he wrote of the post-Cold War and reunified German government (in the introduction to a reissue of Metapolitics, his 1940s book on Nazi Germany): "The Bonn experiment in freedom needs something more than the present philistine prosperity; needs a deeper appeal than Weimar ever had to the unconscious and emotional levels of German culture yet without surrendering to those levels."

The end-of-history period in Europe lasted a generation after reunification, but today Viereck's unheeded prescriptions for Germany and the broader European elite look prescient. The challenge was, he wrote,

not to reject or ignore the inherent romantic heritage but to "sublimate" its valuable creative potential within the undaemonic limits of the Christian-Judaic ethics, in the same way that England's romantic impulse was ethically canalized by the Burke-Coleridge-Disraeli-Churchill kind of parliamentary, freedom-revering conservatism.

Having bent over backward to purge themselves of such heritages, European leaders are now watching those mystical forces of identity and nationality come roaring back in unpredictable and sometimes-destructive ways.

Viereck urged democratic societies to find ways to reintroduce a sense of collective meaning into politics not provided by the sterile liberalism of markets and voting machines. The West should "abjure the joyless utilitarianism and Puritanism of Bentham and Veblen and...cherish the few feudal relics it still has left," he wrote. "The modern urban or suburban, poor or rich, is emotionally starved for 'the unperturbed and courtly images' of custom, ceremony, and stately calm." If we forget that the fragile system of liberty is itself an outgrowth of organic human institutions and rooted tradition, it will always be "more romantic and intoxicating to shout 'Not Christ but Barabbas' and to feel the mass-meeting enthusiasm generated by tyrants and revolutionists" than to participate in a politics of reason and consent.

The political center in the state needed to be complimented by a religious center in the social world. "What falls more deliciously on advanced ears than the ridicule of religion?" he asked. "How emancipated it sounds to dismiss in a movement's epigram an institution of nineteen hundred years! Thereby you prove to the smart world that you are marching in the front ranks of progress." But such a push was ultimately suicidal in that it released religious energies into the political system and created a romantic mythos around the state.

Viereck warned progressive secularists: "The march, unfortunately, is into that flood of pagan totalitarianism which has drowned the liberals of central and Eastern Europe." In trying to dismantle hierarchies and supposedly vestigial, pre-liberal sources of energy, "they had undermined their own best protection: the dikes of religious ethics which guard both liberal and conservative democracy against amoral statism." Viereck was not a clericalist, and he did not see the Church as the ultimate social authority. Rather, it was a mediating institution that both conditioned men for ethical participation in public affairs and provided an outlet for yearnings that politics of the liberal sort could never satisfy. 

Even though Viereck's work was defined by his exhortation to a common Western front against lynch-mob government — "parliamentary conservatives and parliamentary liberals must cooperate against an advancing and unappeasable police state that would exterminate both" — he was not calling for conformity or anything like it. America needed and would always need radicalism and heterodoxy to expose lazy assumptions and highlight moral failings. But such radicalism couldn't simply reflect a self-interested will to power — what Metternich called "get out so I can get in." Rather, he wrote in Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals, what America needs more of is "the inspiring moral radicalism of the great utopian socialists and Christian socialists, the great individualists of philosophical anarchism, the Thoreaus and Tolstoys, the incorruptible honest Orwells."

Moreover, Viereck's vital center would itself contain a multitude of wildly divergent ways of doing politics and organizing society. "Nourished over the centuries by the teachings of Christ and Saint Paul, by Socrates and Pericles, by Aristotle and Erasmus, the European heritage is built on reverence for the precious uniqueness of the individual soul," he wrote. "This heritage, which has absorbed so many social and political changes, is compatible with democratic capitalism or with democratic socialism or with democratic nationalism."

Of significance was not, first and foremost, the orientation of the economy or the openness of borders, but the subordination of man to law and culture to civilization. At the core of this subordination is the primacy of process over outcome, of means over ends. "The lynching of the guilty is a subtler but no less deadly blow to civilization than the lynching of the innocent," Viereck wrote. The immediate threat to the Western system is not so much left-wing identitarianism or right-wing populism in and of themselves, but the way they are tag-teaming an assault on the accumulated classical Christian Enlightenment structures of law and liberty so that lynching of the guilty becomes acceptable once again.


By what process are liberals and conservatives of the parliamentary variety dissolved into the anti-ethical politics of force and authoritarianism? Viereck was not naïve to the underlying flaws in the ideologies he championed; he well understood the way the underlying premises of Millian progressive optimism and Burkean reverence of tradition could each morph smoothly into something darker.

For conservatives, justified fear of progressive change could produce a reaction that would end up steamrolling the underlying values that they sought to conserve. Joseph de Maistre was horrified by the French Terror's trampling on life and liberty. Jacobinism, he believed, was an inevitable outcome of the revolutionaries' efforts to derive rights from reason — an arrogant and impossible project. And so there was a necessity for monarchy to guard organic social order against Enlightenment-engineered restructuring. From there, Viereck wrote, Maistre "became a slave to his own infallible logic." If monarchy was divinely mandated, then surely there was an imperative of total submission.

Far-right ideas don't require magical thinking, at least at first. "Maistre reached his glorification of unreason and of divine authority not by ecstatic religious mysticism, not by intuition," according to Viereck, "but by using his own mind independently, rationally, and with the steps of deductive logic." The seeds of a wise and well-developed insight — that intoxicating mass movements are enemies of liberty — grew into the fanatical support of absolutist domination of the society from above rather than below.

Liberals, for their part, are vulnerable to a kind of inverse version of this dialectic — a process beginning with sound assumptions and ending in a police state. "What worries the conservative is not so much the liberal," Viereck wrote, "as his grandson." The liberal "hacks away at what he calls aristocratic values," which are in many cases outmoded and oppressive. After taking a number of swings, he ultimately concludes that all of the dominant "standards and morals and traditions are relative, merely reflecting self-interest and economics."

The liberal's son, for his part, "denies not merely aristocratic values now but values." And the last generation "has no tradition of moral restraint to guide him," so the only solid thing left standing is the machinery of the state. "And so, in three irresponsible generations, three thousand years of civilization perish to the music of radio lies and clanking chains." Just as the right-winger's jealous guardianship of his privileges can end up destroying them, the left-winger's pursuit of egalitarianism can level the structure on which that egalitarianism rests.

But there was a fundamental asymmetry between the way that Western elites processed left and right iterations of authoritarianism, an asymmetry for which Viereck rigorously and repeatedly held them to account. Because right-wing terrorism was open about its ends, Western liberals rose to the challenge. "The monster Hitler, by openly glorifying war and persecution, said he was a monster." Its left-wing counterpart cloaked its equivalent evil in a farrago of slogans and sympathetic gestures. "By playing the Avuncular Joe of social reform, the monster Stalin can deceive and kill more human beings than if he openly proclaimed, in Mein Kampf fashion, his hate of human beings." This was the "shame and glory of the intellectuals" that Viereck expounded upon in a book of that name, and it is fair to say that it is a legacy that has not been fully processed by contemporary liberal idealists.

Today this dynamic is most pronounced in issues of identity: America's ostensible liberal center tolerated and encouraged an increasingly sectarian politics of identity to its left while furiously condemning corresponding manifestations to the right. The Viereckian approach, of course, is not to back the rightist manifestations of romantic self-definition — he established at great length the process by which that would produce snowballing illiberalism on both sides — but to insist that politics abide by the rules of "interracial Christian brotherhood," ethical universalism, and impersonal rule of law.

"Nationalist demagogy," he wrote of Birchers and McCarthyists in 1962, "would never have become such a nuisance if liberal intellectuals and New Dealers had earlier made themselves the controlling spearhead of American anti-Communism with the same fervor they showed when spearheading anti-fascism." It's not so hard to apply that insight with respect to today's liberal intellectuals and right-wing populists.

Such failings matter because, in Viereckian conservative democracy, ideas matter — and that means that intellectuals have a sacred obligation to the public they serve. "If I did not have so high a view of the intellectual's function, I would not bother being so distressed and angry about the treason of the literary fellow-travelers," he wrote. "Nobody expects some miserable yellow press columnist or some idiotic, intellectual-baiting backwards reactionary to know better."

That is why inheritors of Viereck's conservative legacy — as horrified as they might be by the nationalistic right — should also be clear-eyed about the failures of our governing class, which has failed in particular to sustain the foundations of liberty against competing but ultimately interchangeable forms of radicalism. Criticism of the elite is not the same as delegitimization of it. "On the contrary," he wrote, "to scrape the barnacles off an excellent but aging boat is never considered an attack on it. Except by the barnacles."

Viereck's intellectual achievements offer an alternative to the "barnacles" of liberal democracy, which are clinging to the ship with all their might. His conservative democracy is based on the acknowledgment that "neither reactionary repression nor radical revolution can end the duel," and that superficial liberal idealists are an ineffectual referee. The cause of liberty and representative government is "the cause of the second best against the worst; while the best exists only in an imaginary Rousseauistic society without a past and without political Original Sin."

Intellectuals today would do well to pare back their idealism and work to build the foundations for the "second-best" political order. That is, a rooted liberalism, cognizant of its own fragility and limitations; not the center that we might like to construct in the abstract, but a center that can hold.

Jason Willick is an assistant editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal and a 2017-2018 Robert Novak journalism fellow.


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