Left and Right

From Neoreaction to Alt-Right: A Schmittian Perspective

Courtney Hodrick, Telos


In 2009, libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel wrote, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”[1] Thiel’s statement challenged the basic premise of much of Western politics: the liberal democratic consensus that treats economic freedom and political democracy as two guiding stars to be pursued in tandem.[2] In the decade since, the rise in conservative populist movements and leaders from Brexit to Bolsonaro, and particularly the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, led many scholars to conclude that the liberal democratic consensus had collapsed—or was never really a consensus to begin with.[3] The question then becomes: what will replace liberal democracy?

The German political thinker and jurist Carl Schmitt offers an important framing of this question. Schmitt posited a dichotomy between liberalism and democracy that still resonates throughout the political spectrum. In The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, Schmitt argues that liberal democracy is torn between two incompatible legitimating mechanisms. “The crisis of parliamentarianism . . . rests on the fact that democracy and liberalism could be allied to each other for a time . . . but as soon as it achieves power, liberal democracy must decide between its elements,” he writes.[4] While democracy is driven by homogeneity of opinion, liberal parliamentarianism asserts that truth is found through disagreement and debate. Schmitt refers to democratic legitimacy as the “identity of governed and governing.”[5] Liberalism, by contrast, holds in Schmitt’s view a single metaphysical grounding: “that the truth can be found through an unrestrained clash of opinion and that competition will produce harmony.”[5] Although the two forces have existed in an uneasy suspension when allied against common foes such as traditional monarchy, Schmitt warns that such a political system cannot sustain itself inevitably. Eventually, one form of legitimacy must prevail over the other.

Schmitt’s work is as essential to this political moment as it is controversial. His critiques of Weimar parliamentarianism proved tragically prescient with the rise of the Nazi Party, which he joined shortly thereafter. Recent decades of scholarship have illuminated the complexities of his relationship with Nazism, most notably the work of Joseph Bendersky. Bendersky’s argument that Schmitt chose to collaborate with the Nazi regime merely for personal advancement, despite serious philosophical misgivings, forced a paradigm shift in Schmitt scholarship.[7] Bendersky’s more recent work, focused on Schmitt’s diaries, has reinforced the image of Schmitt as a reluctant collaborator even as it has further complicated debates about the extent and nature of Schmitt’s antisemitism.[8] Today, Schmitt remains not only one of the most controversial figures in German intellectual history but also one of the most influential. His concepts resonate across the political spectrum, and his thought has had as much influence on the left as on the right. With the center fracturing and the liberal democratic compromise challenged from every direction, Schmitt’s dichotomy between liberalism and democracy is a crucial tool for scholars hoping to analyze today’s politics.


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