Article - Summer 2018

The End of Liberalism

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What happens when public opinion is diminished and popular sentiment is aroused

By John Lukacs | June 4, 2018
Jacques-Louis David, <em>Le Serment du Jeu de Paume</em>, 1791 (Wikimedia Commons)
Jacques-Louis David, Le Serment du Jeu de Paume, 1791 (Wikimedia Commons)

We are now beyond the end of the great age of the past 500 years, what has often been called the “modern age.” Its main feature was the rise of democracy—the rule of majorities and not of minorities—for perhaps the first time in the history of mankind. Consider that. Will what has begun last long? We cannot know. We live forward, but whatever we know comes from the past. That includes words and their origins. The word democracy existed in ancient Greece, but in the past 2,000 years it has been put into practice only here and there, during short episodes. More frequent and longer lasting was republic, a word of Roman origin: res publica, public matter, public rule, public business, public concern, a “common weal” in English.

Five centuries ago, most states in the world were ruled by monarchs and by many of their subservient aristocracies. Erasmus wrote in 1517 that a new, brighter age was arriving. (Now this kind of optimism hardly exists.) Four centuries ago, in some states of Europe, the function of some monarchs was changing. This was so in England, where after a civil war its king, Charles I, was tried and beheaded. His successor, Oliver Cromwell, was called Lord Protector, somewhat like the president of a republic, but soon after his death the monarchy in England was restored. In 1689 most of the aristocracy, members of Parliament, and the people themselves welcomed a new king who, and whose successors, ruled alongside a parliament, a house of commons. England and Scotland became a constitutional monarchy that has lasted even until now.

The American colonies seceded from England less than a century later. Neither in the American Constitution nor in their pronouncements did most of the founders of the United States describe their new country as a democracy; indeed, some of them said that it was not a democracy but a republic. The standard categorization of the United States as a democracy came later. Meanwhile, in much of Europe, the remaining monarchies and the retiring aristocracies accepted their limitations.

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