Liberal Democracy


Today, we leave the realm of abstraction and look at why a new form of political organization became intelligible, attractive, and possible in the 19th century.  After all, why does liberal democracy exist anyway?

We are lucky. We, or at least most of us, (still) enjoy the blessings of living in a Liberal Democratic Nation-State.  But how did we get here?  And what should we do to maintain our good fortune?  Or if we want something else and have a concrete idea of how to implement it, would we want to bring some of liberalism’s nicest traits along with us?  I, for one, can see liberalism democracy’s flaws, but I am not confident that we can realistically pick what we like best about liberalism while rejecting what we don’t like.

This section of our course is about the making of the Liberal Democratic Nation-State.  I use the word making quite deliberately.  Everything has a history. You and I do as well; we rise and we fall, we are born and we perish.  To understand anything, we must begin with its roots. The roots of Liberal democracy and the invention of the viable institutions to put this idea into practice didn’t come from nowhere.  Like you, the advent of liberal-democratic states has concrete origins and an identifiable life story. Each state has a compelling history.

In the spirt of the video by  Steven Jay Gould (which you watched earlier), I shall argue that there was nothing inevitable about the rise of liberal politics, values, institutions, and ideas in the western world.  Nor, for that matter, is there anything inevitable about liberal-democracy’s survival.  All things must pass.  Just ask Roman emperors, medieval princes, Benito Mussolini, and Josef Stalin.

Once we have worked our way through this historical background, I will provide you with some clues for understanding the turmoil of liberal democratic politics in the US and Europe today.

While I proceed through the coming lectures, consider what Warren Buffett has to say about the “Ovarian Factor”:  READ   What does this article have to do with my arguments? Does it apply equally to all Americans?  Does it apply to you?

By the way, did you know that federal funding for prostate cancer research [per years of life lost] is nearly 12 times greater than funding for research on ovarian cancer? See here. How would Buffett explain the disparity?

5. Lecture: Monday, January 30 

Reflections on the advent of a social, political, and economic culture that was hostile to liberalism, but had everything to do with the rise of Liberalism.

Today’s Premise:  Major events in Europe between the fifth and nineteenth centuries–1) the fall of the Roman empire, 2) the birth of feudalism, and 3) the contribution of Protestant ideas to the Industrial Revolution–eventually made the institution of Modern Liberalism possible, although definitely not inevitable.

Assignment:  Print and read the following chapter (Chapter 5) by Max Weber, one of the most influential, early social scientists and a pioneer of the theory of “unintended consequences.”  As you reflect upon the essay by the Catholic priest, Martin Luther–Luther was definitely not a Protestant!–keep Weber’s theory of political and social change in mind.

We can never understand our culture, or ourselves as individuals, without recognizing that those of us who grew up in North America were all raised as “Protestants.” Yes, this is true even of those Americans who self-identify as Catholics, and for that matter, even as atheists.  To make sense of this statement, the key point is to understand what I mean by the concept of “Protestant.”

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, only chapter 5:  PRINT AND READ

I am asking you to read this chapter for two reasons. First, I am interested in having you identify the substance of his argument. Second, I would like to encourage you to develop your skill in reading a dense piece of scholarship and distilling the primary features of an argument.  There is lots of information here that you–and I–don’t know.  That’s understandable.  Concentrate on identifying the argument.

Background: Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian” SKIM  This is a long essay by an angry Catholic priest.  Just concentrate on the tone of his argument by glancing through it.  Note how skillfully Luther praises the Pope while attacking everyone around him and all of the church’s policies.

Alec Ryrie, Foreign Policy, May 23, 2017.  READ  A good description of Luther, the person. I like this phrase:  “And yet, if Luther’s and Trump’s respective dramas are strikingly familiar, it is because they are both about how long-standing political establishments fail to cope with disruptive outsiders, often hastening their own moments of reckoning.”

6. LECTURE: Wednesday, February 1:


Regrettably, I will be unable to hold office hours this week.

7.  DISCUSSION SECTION: Friday, February 3

Discussion theme:  Your discussion today will be focus on my argument about Protestantism and your own engrained attitudes about the following idea:   “America’s culture of radical individualism means that we are all Protestants?”  Please keep these questions in mind:  1) If McAdams is right, what does he mean by suggesting that even American Catholics are “Protestants”? For that matter why are even atheists Protestants?; 2)  Is the culture of radical individualism that grew out of Protestantism and is epitomized by archetypical American heroes, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger (see Pumping Iron) and Eminem (see Eight Mile), a good thing?  How Could  Buffett’s argument the “Ovarian Lottery“ complicate our expectations of American heroes?

In particular, how might Weber’s theory, McAdams’ claims, and your other readings about US history help us to account for our country’s disastrously poor response to the Coronavirus?

Robin Nelson, “How a Virus Exposed the Myth of Rugged Individualism” READ

Paragraph assignment: 

“Catholic Notre Dame has no chance of successfully combating the consequences of America’s protestantized culture of ‘rugged individualism.'”

Imagine there is an outbreak of a new, even more dangerous variant of COVID at Notre Dame in the coming months.  In this case, will this pessimistic statement about Catholic Notre Dame’s future hold true?

See this link for statistics for Notre Dame’s COVID cases between Fall 2020 and Spring 2022 on the Dashboard HERE.

Look at all five semesters to get a sense for our record over this period.

Feel free to read and ask around to find out how ND did with controlling COVID cases on campus.  Especially for those of you who arrived last fall, there was certainly a large amount of controversy along the way.  And students were unhappy with the university for very different reasons.  Some thought the university didn’t do enough. Some thought it did too much.  And, they kept switching sides!

I was surprised to learn that we stopped using the COVID Dashboard last fall. Students, faculty and staff are still getting COVID. And it’s as contagious as ever.


8.  CLASS VISIT: Monday, February 6: 

We will have a class visit with one of Notre Dame’s most distinguished graduates, Carlos Lozada (’93)

Carlos Lozada has recently joined the New York Times as an opinion columnist.  He was previously the non-fiction book critic at the Washington Post.

Carlos was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2019 and was also finalist for the award in 2018. He has also received the received the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

In preperation for Carlos’s visit, please think about these two topics:

  1.  We have been reading about Mill’s ideal conception of the conditions for public discourse in a liberal democracy.  Why are these classically liberal attitudes so difficult to apply and sustain, especially in today’s polarized America?
  2. Without a free press, it is impossible to sustain liberal democracy. How and in what way are journalists obliged to live up to this democracy-sustaining responsibility?  How can we tell when they fail to do so?

Required Readings:

Leonard Downey, “Newsrooms that move beyond objectivity can build trust:  PRINT AND READ

Carlos Lozada, “The Inside Joke that Became Trump’s Big Lie”  PRINT AND READ


Carlos Lozada,  “How to Strangle Democracy While Pretending to Engage in ItREAD

Carlos Lozada, Authoritarianism is Surging”  READ

Carlos Lozada, “This is what happened when authorities put Donald Trump under a microscope”  READ

29. LECTURE:  Wednesday, February 8.

I will talk about a meteoric development that shaped the character of Liberalism as we know it today:  the opening of the boundaries of the political realm to the participation of ever broader sectors of society.  Importantly, this development took place in different ways and in different countries.  It is still taking place around the world today, even in the United States.

Today’s Premise: The tumultuous intrusion of the “unwashed and unwanted” into the Liberal arena was unanticipated and, paradoxically, not welcomed by those elites whose decisions made it possible. In fact, if they knew it was coming, many elites would have done everything they could to prevent the “unwashed” from joining their circles.  Yet here’s the paradox: Only they had the power to make this unwanted development possible.  How do we account for this unforeseen and unforeseeable transformation? Since people in power do not intentionally make decisions that will undermine their interests, I shall argue that a hostile idea, such as Liberalism, could only have arisen as the unintended consequences of the decisions of power holders.  Weber agrees.

For one interpretation of the theory of unintended consequences, watch this instructive video: HERE

“In a democracy it’s your vote that counts. In feudalism, it’s your count that votes!” (McAdams)

Required reading:.

Roger Kingdon, America the Unusual, Chapter 4.

I prefer that you buy the book, but if you use this link, you must print it and have it available for relevant discussion sections.

Optional, but highly recommended readings:

Kingdon emphasizes the importance of the different paths taken by states that eventually became liberal democracies. The ideas behind the American Revolution and the French Revolution are examples of the consequences of these different paths, although each resulted in liberal democratic institutions. How are these differences reflected in the two founding declarations below? Look closely at what the French Declaration suggests about the role of the state. Also see what it says about the obligations of citizens (a subject that doesn’t show up in the American declaration):

The American “Declaration of Independence” PRINT AND READ

The French National Assembly, “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” PRINT AND READ

10. Discussion Section:  Friday, February 10

Theme:  Continuing our discussion of the implications America’s protestantized culture, let us enter dangerous territory. The US has some of the most lenient–and possibly the most lenient-gun-control policies of all advanced democracies.  And any time the issue of gun-control arises, one can expect the eruption of violent emotions.  For this reason, if we want  to understand the US’s particular form of liberal democracy, we should ask why American citizens are so passionate in defending their respective views on this issue.

Required Readings:

Francisco Cantu, “Our gun myths have held America hostage for too long” PRINT AND READ

Ron Blitzer, “Supreme Court gun decision shoots down NY rule that set high bar for concealed carry licenses” Fox News, June 23, 2022  READ

Clarence Thomas, author of the majority opinion, U. S. Supreme Court, June 23, 2022, regarding “NEW YORK STATE RIFLE & PISTOL ASSOCIATION, INC., ET AL. v. BRUEN, SUPERINTENDENT OF NEW YORK STATE POLICE, ET AL:

Thomas:  “New York’s proper-cause requirement violates the Fourteenth Amendment by preventing law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms in public for self-defense.”

Paragraph assignment:

Imagine that you are on a college debate team (or ND’s incredible mock trial team, which all of you should consider joining). You have been given an issue on which there are two clearly opposing sides. You have been selected to defend the side that you do not believe in; in fact, one to which you may be vehemently opposed.

Your prompt is:  On balance, it’s better for Americans to have fewer and more relaxed gun control laws than to have strict and restrictive ones.

Write a paragraph in which you disagree with your personal views on this question.  You should begin your paragraph by stating the benefits and costs of the two positions. Then, you should defend your stand (again, the one with which you don’t typically agree).  You should state explicitly why one argument is superior to the other.

Note: you should not reduce your position to simply citing one or another amendment to the US Constitution (e.g., the 2nd or 14th Amendments). These amendments can be interpreted in different ways.

The purpose of this paragraph assignment is to expose you to the challenge of making strong and persuasive arguments. The most persuasive arguments in any situation in life are those that anticipate and respond to the other side’s position.

In this case, you only have one paragraph.  For this reason, we recommend that you write your paragraph as if it is the introduction to a hypothetical, longer essay.

11. LECTURE: Monday, February 13

Reflections on the evolution of Political Parties in the West: Cadre parties, Mass parties, and Catch-all parties.

Today’s Assumption:  Political Parties have been major instruments for including disparate groups of people in the modern nation-state, both in Liberal societies and, as we shall see later, other types of societies.  Today, the catch-all party is the predominant type of party in the Liberal world.  However, the principles behind  catch-all politics have become more fragile.  The era of catch-all politics has come to an end in post-communist Russia. It is in peril in places like Hungary and Georgia.  More interesting, however, is the fact that catch-all politics is under increasing threat in advanced democracies in Europe and the US. One of the prime drivers of these developments is the appeal of populist politicians.

Assignment:  Reflect upon the role of catch-all parties in our era of intense polarization.  If election to office is dependent on the financial contributions of special interests and the manipulation of voting districts and access to the voting booth, what is the reward for politicians, on both the Left and the Right, to engage in compromise? And what is to prevent them from introducing even more restrictive policies?

If the idea of the catch-all party should fail, what type of party will replace it? Or without such parties, will liberal democracy simply fade away?


Roger Kingdon,  America the Unusual, chapter 2

Michael Kazen, “How can Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both be ‘populist’?”  READ

Cas Mudde and Cristobal Kaltwasser, Populism, Chapters 1 and 5

Could the Covid pandemic contribute to populist politics? If not Covid, what other events might fuel a “pandemic” of populist politics?

John Lichfield, “The next epidemic:  Resurgent Populism,” April 6, 2020, POLITICO:  READ

Is there a solution to the polarization that populism generates in liberal democracies.

Regardless of her party affiliation, this woman may have the answer:  “A New Voice for Winning Back Democratic Voters,”  READ

12. LECTURE: Wednesday, February 15

Today, I will lecture about one of the two most important challenges to liberal democracy in the twentieth century: Fascism.  The other major challenger, to which I will turn in a couple weeks, was Leninism.

To get a feel for the ideas and appeal of Fascism, read Benito Mussolini’s prognostications on a modern alternative to liberal democracy. Then, reflect upon the significance of the rise of extremist Right-wing movements in Europe and the US. Could Fascism be lurking in our future?  Or is this a misleading analogy?

Major Reading: Benito Mussolini, “The Doctrine of Fascism”  PRINT AND READ  Don’t worry about all the details–I don’t know all of them either–just concentrate on distilling the major features of his argument. Just as important, ask yourself why his vision was so appealing to millions of people. Indeed, why might aspects of this way of looking at politics and society even be appealing today.

Question: Is there good or bad news looming on the contemporary horizon?

Lukas Hermsmeier, “Germany has a problem” PRINT AND READ

Here’s a debate over a possible resurgence of fascism:

Timothy Snyder is worried (Guardian, October 30, 2018)  PRINT AND READ

Thomas Meaney is not as worried (New Statesman, September 12, 2018)  PRNT AND READ

Who is right? Snyder or Meaney?

Optional and fascinating:

If you like, read about the controversy surrounding Tucker Carlson’s one-hour interview of Curtis Yarvin (a.k.a. “Mencius Moldbug”) whom conservative columnist, Andrew Sullivan, has called an advocate of “twentieth-century fascism.” For the controversy over Carlson’s interview, see here.

For Carlson’s entire interview, see HERE  Based on what you find here and in your own research, do you think Carlson should have given Yarvin a platform to express his views, even if Yarvin seems to be on fairly good behavior?  What would Frank Zappa say?

Again, we return to the value of free speech in a liberal democracy.  One can argue both for and against.

13. DISCUSSION SECTION:  Friday, February 17

Discussion Topic: Are liberal democratic institutions in the United States and Europe strong enough to survive the rise of populist extremism? Indeed, now that you have read Mussolini, could the US and other advanced democracies be on the verge of embracing something similar to Fascism?

For today’s section and future lectures, read the chapters below.

Cas Mudde and Cristobal Kaltwasser, Populism, chapters 3 and 4.

Paragraph assignment:

Based upon your reading of Mussolini, whose argument about the potential threat of fascism do you find most persuasive, Snyder’s or Meaney’s?

Note: Your response to this question should take the form of an introductory paragraph to a longer, hypothetical essay.

I have two goals in making this assignment:

  1. I want you to think about the possibility that radical forms of “populism” might lead to the end of “liberal democracy.”
  2. And I want to challenge you to write a great introductory paragraph.  Introductory paragraphs should typically do the following things: 1) state the issue; 2) state both your your argument and the argument that is likely to be raised against you; and, 3) provide the reader with a sense of how you will proceed.

I am asking you to write this introductory paragraph to help you prepare for writing your first essay.  As you write it, you should imagine what the content and structure of this hypothetical essay would look like.  Writing a great introduction takes time, patience, and lots of practice.

One of my major goals in our course is to teach you how to persuade. Regardless of your field of study, if you know how to make persuasieve arguments when you leave Notre Dame, you will have an enormous advantage over people who do not have this skill (perhaps most people).  I want Notre Dame students to become persuasive leaders.

14. LECTURE: Monday, Februry 20

To one degree or another, all liberal democratic states are Welfare States.

Nevertheless, keep this in mind:  Because we live in a liberal-democratic polity, we naturally assume that the Liberal idea will be instantly appealing to all people. Liberalism‘s victory over Fascism more than a half-century ago was far from certain.  Without the West’s total victory in World War II, as well as the enormous sacrifices of the Soviet Union, fascism could have remained a powerful force in European politics, especially in Germany. Fortunately for us, Liberal Democracy won.  Yet its triumph was facilitated by the convenient conjunction of two factors:  the Allied powers’ (sometimes slight) military advantage and, as I shall suggest today the West’s acceptance of the idea of the Liberal Welfare State

During Barak Obama’s and Donald Trump’s presidencies and the presidential campaign of 2020, critics frequently equated support for the policies of the Liberal Welfare State with Socialism. Indeed, the rise of populist politicians on the Left, like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, provided critics with the opportunity to warn about the threat of radical socialism. However, the equation of all forms of socialism would be inaccurate and downright ahistorical. Sanders and AOC are certainly not National socialists, and as I know from conducting research and living in communist East Germany, they have nothing in common with the extreme forms of socialism, such as communism.  They call themselves “democratic socialists,” a stronger-state version of liberal democracy that is virtually identical to the current policies of Social Democratic and labor parties throughout Europe.  The point is simply that there are different forms of liberal-democratic welfare states.


On the subject of the Welfare State read:

Kingdon: America the Unusual, Chapter 1 and Chapter 3

I prefer that you buy the book, but if you use this link, you must print all of the relevant chapters available for this discussion section and those to come.

Pew Foundation:  “Five Ways in which Americans and Europeans are Different” READ

Comparative policies on public funding for maternity leave and child care and early childhood education: READ.

And, “Going Dutch” READ.  One person’s account of the Welfare State in action.  If you don’t think this is accurate, visit Holland or any other European country and find out if it is true.  It’s that simple. I have spent a good amount of my life in Germany, and I have consistently been amazed at the benefits of a social-democratic welfare state.

Optional:  For a more detailed analysis of welfare states and their respective policies see “Comparing Welfare States.”  HERE  This useful page will give you a sense for the diverse types of liberal welfare states and their diverse paths.

Of course, even if Americans were to vote to implement a2 European welfare-state model, we must ask whether it would be possible.  In line with out discussion about path dependency, how might our particular path to the nation-state make this impossible?

Your First Essay Assignment
15. LECTUREWednesday, February 22

Reflections on the inherently contradictory and conflict-ridden characteristics of Liberalism.

Today’s AssumptionLiberalism  can’t live up to its name unless it has certain essential features. I have already outlined four characteristics.  Yet by nature, Liberalism  is unstable. The Liberal-democratic character of our government today is not necessarily the same as it will be tomorrow; it is certainly not the same as it was yesterday (especially in the current political climate!).  Still, this capacity for change can be a very good thing.  Indeed, if such Liberal-democratic bastions as Iceland, Monaco, Slovenia, Liechtenstein, Andorra, and the U.S. didn’t change over time, they wouldn’t be Liberal  at all.

Liberal democracy is not only inherently conflictual. Regrettably, the features that make this political identity great can also be the source of its unraveling.  In certain circumstances, good causes can be transformed into ugly sources of unrest and instability.  We can see this in the U.S. and Europe today.

Reading assignments:

America is one darn complicated country

Suzy Hansen, “Unlearning the Myth of American Innocence”  READ  As you read this article, ask yourself what implications it has for our long engagement in Afghanistan and then our hasty retreat.

This article is also a good example of why you MUST: 1) master another language than your own while you are at ND; and 2) take advantage of ND’s study-abroad programs and experience what it’s like to be confronted with another culture and have no choice but to adapt to other ways of looking at the world.  In general, Americans don’t travel abroad. Or, even when they do, they visit famous cultural sites with which they are already comfortable.  This is why the US’s engagements (and wars) with other countries are frequently disastrously uninformed. The goal of our best study-abroad programs is to jettison you beyond your comfort level and then compel you to become personally transformed by the experience.

The Good…

Kingdon,  America the Unusual, ch. 5

I strongly prefer that you buy a hard copy of the book, but if you use this link, you must print the chapters and have them available for relevant discussion sections.

What does Notre Dame have to do with the ongoing project of building liberal democracy?  Read about Notre Dame students battling the Ku Klux Klan:  READ

…the Bad, and the Ugly

Optional reading (but incredibly interesting):  Richard Fausset, “A Voice of Hate in America”: HERE  This author of this article was widely criticized for supposedly humanizing fascism and extremism. It’s worth reading all the way through since it will give you a good sense for the psychology of an extremist. Do you think the criticism of the article is fair?

Consider this:  Under what circumstances would you resort to violence to protect Liberal Democracy?  Or do you think the preservation of Liberal Democracy isn’t worth the risk of violence?  If so, why?

16. Discussion Section Friday, February 24

Since you are writing your essays this week, we have decided, in an act of noble beneficence, not to hold discussion sections.  Additionally, there will be no paragraph assignment.