Totalitarian Democracy Revisited

“Not many of you should become teachers. As you know, we teachers will be judged with greater strictness than others.” (James 3:1)

What happens in our country’s college classrooms matters. It matters, of course, to the students themselves. It matters to their professors. And it matters, greatly, to the country, whose reins of leadership will be seized tomorrow by today’s students. Without proper formation, these students will have blinded eyes and blighted minds, agents of “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), among the masses ignorantly enthralled at the likelihood of imminent totalitarian democracy. 

I tremble at the prospect.

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When, about seventy years ago, J.L. Talmon (1916-1980) wrote about “totalitarian democracy,” he was referring to a political society in which collective ideological consensus legally becomes the driving force and, indeed, the central aspiration of the nation. The masses mindlessly, but corporately, pursue the chimera of government-imposed freedom. It is an oxymoron, of course; but it is the liberal watchword of the day, and no one is allowed to stray from its smothering idolatry. 

In such a society, competing metanarratives are dismissed—indeed, deplored—as contrary to the principal purpose of the collective, to which loyalty is prized and expected because of the all-encompassing and redemptive aims of that collective. It is an ersatz religion. Indeed, another term for this ideological fervor is “messianic democracy” (cf. CCC 675). In a totalitarian democracy, as Talmon famously put it, “You cannot be a citizen and a Christian at the same time, for the loyalties clash.” 

Talmon’s admonition is very well worth remembering at a time in which self-styled Christians call themselves, simultaneously, Marxists. This is a kind of religious dissociative identity disorder. Talmon thought that religion and classical education would come to be regarded as enemies of the state. In fact, religion and classical education have now atrophied to such an extent that they pose little or no problem to those whose purpose amounts to totalitarian democracy (cf. Hosea 4:1, Isaiah 59:14-15, and Jeremiah 7:28). Traditional values and verities altogether too easily morph into socially utilitarian (and erroneous or corrupted) notions about climate, medical exigency, or even sexual differentiation. Everyone is courteously invited—no, brutally compelled—to join in. But it is all for your good; don’t you see that? 

Democracy thus becomes ochlocracy, mob rule. There is no one to say, however, that the “democratic” leadership is naked; there is no one to say it because no one sees it. We have been blinded by degrees, like the proverbial frog slowly boiling in the beaker. Not only can we no longer see; we do not know that we can no longer see. And “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18; cf. Hosea 4:6).

Both “the sublime and the ridiculous” teach this. In the 1968 song MacArthur Park there were these lyrics: “Someone left the cake out in the rain. I don’t think that I can take it, ‘cause it took so long to bake it, and I’ll never have that recipe again.” Talmon told us that the decline of traditional belief and behavior would be a hallmark of the rise of messianic democracy. 

Who, today, will pass along the admonitory baton against this madness? Who will teach us that unless we rediscover the natural moral law (see CCC 1954-1960)—and teach it—democracy will have become a hollow, not hallowed, word; and the adjective totalitarian will, indeed, invariably precede it? “Barbarism,” Ortega y Gasset wrote in The Revolt of the Masses, “is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made.” What we have now, though, is the plebeian “standard” of guts and gonads, of what “feels good,” of what permits carnal pleasure or moral dissolution (cf. CCC 2526). This is antinomianism on steroids.

“The Masses” will replace “the People,” as Pope Pius XII prophesied in his Christmas Address of 1944. The Holy Father warned us that the masses are “the capital enemy of true democracy” (27). Ortega y Gasset was similarly prophetic: “A homogenous mass weighs on public authority and crushes down, annihilates every opposing group. The mass. . .does not wish to share life with those who are not of it. It has a deadly hatred of all that is not itself.” 

“Where God is denied and people live as though he did not exist, or his commandments are not taken into account, the dignity of the human person and the inviolability of human life also end up being rejected or compromised.” Thus wrote St. John Paul II (in Evangelium Vitae, 96), where he makes a plea for recognition of the vital link between freedom and truth. Who, today, will teach these manifestly unpopular ideas? On which campuses may we expect these ideas, and their champions, to flourish? How will we avert “mass man” and the final destruction of the true, the good, and the beautiful? 

Millions of students who would be competing for places on college campuses cannot do so. They are dead, murdered in their mothers’ wombs. Colleges’ finances are thus imperiled: enrollments must be kept up, regardless of the concomitant sacrifice of academic integrity. Many, far too many, college professors are insecure and intimidated. Their jobs are on the line unless they maintain, not high standards (which, to the masses, may smack of fascism, racism, or academic intransigence), but their popularity.  

Using the “correct” pronouns to refer to students is only a minor symptom of an academic pathology which, naturally and predictably, follows the course of the parent society. Today’s professors are confronted, as perhaps never before, with emphases on teacher evaluations (which had better be superior), on FTEs (meaning full-time equivalents, or heavily subscribed courses), and on supervision and observation by administrators ever ready to tabulate numbers with regard to classes, but perhaps much less competent and eager about discerning enhanced student knowledge. 

The professor who, yesterday, demanded substantial and demanding reading; required the accomplishment of serious and extensive writing; offered intellectually provocative and well-prepared lectures (not movies, jokes, and snacks) complemented, as practicable, by germane student discussion in allied seminars; administered challenging examinations (perhaps even with regular quizzes); and regarded the grades of A and B as signs of excellence (not as indications that the student who earned such grades was still breathing)—that professor, today, will likely be censured by students (as hopelessly outdated and not a little given to the whip), by colleagues (as perhaps driving students [FTEs] away from the department), and by the “Administration” (as demonstrably insufficiently progressive and inadequately popular). Tomorrow that professor will be seeking a position in another field unrelated to classroom teaching. 

Does this kind of college atmosphere—the abolition of standards—lead to a society even more barbarous than the one we have now—one in which sixty million children have been butchered in the name of “women’s health.” For sixty years, we have watched the erosion, then the demolition, of academic standards, including ubiquitous “grade inflation” and the widespread elimination of honor codes, often regarded as anachronistic in our progressive time. (By the way, one can only imagine the reaction of college classes required today to read Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses.)

Almost fifty years ago, Steven M. Cahn wrote a small, forty-five-page pamphlet entitled The Eclipse of Excellence, clearly, concisely, and cogently making the case for examinations and grades. It is still available (having now reached fifty-four pages). A beginning college teacher not studying this incisive pamphlet is akin, I think, to a beginning preacher not studying Pope Benedict XV’s 1917 encyclical Humani Generis Redemptionem (about presenting sermons). Were I a dean, I would ensure that Cahn’s pamphlet would be a gift to the faculty. 

In 1964, I was told at freshman orientation (as were most college matriculants of that time): “Look to your left and to your right. Those students will not be here at graduation; they will have departed or flunked out.” (Of course, the students to my left and right were looking at me!) Ten years later, Steven Cahn was writing (in the pamphlet alluded to earlier): “The day may not be far off when a high-school student’s acceptance to college ensures his college diploma.” Some of these graduates will become doctors, lawyers, accountants, civil servants, and teachers. (You may have a medical appointment this very afternoon.) They will all be citizens of the republic. Do you see now why I tremble at the prospect of their graduation?

As lack of exercise contributes to muscular atrophy, so does lack of intellectual and academic rigor contribute to personal and societal deformation. One is reminded of the judgment of Hannah Arendt, whom D.C. Schindler quotes in the epigraph to his new (and demanding) book, The Politics of the Real: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” Schindler does not refer to Talmon or to Ortega y Gasset, but he makes well the argument that “it is impossible for a thing to pursue its own good without pursuing God” (211) and, in league with Hannah Arendt, that the “transcendence of the end is what keeps a proper political community from becoming ‘totalitarian’” (231).

Every political catastrophe is, first, a profound metaphysical error. We are bewildered and benighted bioethically, legally, and politically because we are metaphysically lost. We do not know who we are because we do not know Whose we are (1 Corinthians 6:19, 7:23). 

If we do not rediscover and redeploy the superior moral standards espoused by Ortega y Gasset and others, we will continue to be personally disoriented, and our society politically disordered, by and in the nihilism of our time. Knowing, loving, and serving God means recognition of, and fidelity to, Truth in (and outside) the classroom, with professors teaching “the distinction between fact and fiction. . .[and] between true and false.” 

Schindler teaches that “A ‘post-truth’ civilization is well-nigh a totalitarian one.” Who, besides Schindler, is teaching that? Where? How? If we cannot again find and follow what Russell Kirk called “the permanent things,” our personal lives will be wretched and our political life will be debauched. (I should mention my awareness that not a few Crisis Magazine writers are, in fact, professors teaching conscientiously and competently. “The wise teachers will shine with all the brightness of the sky. And those who have taught many people to do what is right will shine like the stars forever” [Daniel 12:3].) 

It was Pope Leo XIII who pointed out that “if human society is to be healed now, in no other way can it be healed save by a return to Christian life and Christian institutions. When a society is perishing, the wholesome advice to give to those who would restore it is to call it to the principles from which it sprang; for the purpose and perfection of an association is to aim at and to attain that for which it is formed, and its efforts should be put in motion and inspired by the end and object which originally gave it being. Hence, to fall away from its primal constitution implies disease; to go back to it, recovery” (Rerum Novarum, 27; cf. Jeremiah 6:16).

“Good morning, class! Now that you’ve read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, we can together explore his judgment that “to be a competent student of what is right and just, and of politics generally, one must first have received a proper upbringing in moral conduct.” A light shines in the darkness! Deo gratias!

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]


  • Deacon James H. Toner

    Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte.

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