Aesthetic Aristocracy vs. Liberal Democracy

Jeff Taylor (not to be confused with Jeff A. Taylor, or other Jeff Taylors) is one of the most interesting Jeffersonian-minded political scientists/philosophers around. His review of Joel Johnson’s Beyond Practical Virtue: A Defense of Liberal Democracy Through Literature furnishes some evidence to back up my claim. Johnson’s book pits what Taylor calls “the anti-liberal, anti-democratic leanings of Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence” against James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain, and William Dean Howells — a match-up of aesthetic aristocracy vs. liberal democracy (sort of), though I might have wished Johnson were talking about “Jeffersonian republicanism” rather than “liberal democracy” (Taylor would prefer “Jeffersonian democracy,” I think.) Actually, what I favor myself is “liberal aristocracy.” But in any case, Taylor has written a thoughtful review of an intriguing book.

In addition to his Beyond Practical Virtue review, Taylor also has another new article on-line, an interview in which he talks about America’s five-years’ war (and counting) in Iraq. And his 2006 book, Where Did the Party Go?, is well worth a look in its own right.

Postcript: I should have mentioned Taylor’s endorsement of Ron Paul, which Dylan Waco helpfully reminds me about.

After drafting this post, I googled around a bit to see if anyone else had used the phrase “liberal aristocracy,” and in particular whether anyone else associated one figure I had in mind — Jacob Burckhardt — with the phrase. Not in that order, it turns out, but reverse the terms and one of the first things that pops up in a search for “aristocratic liberalism” is … a book about Burckhardt (as well as Mill and Tocqueville). In the American context, the archetype for aristocratic liberalism probably has to be John Randolph of Roanoke.


11 thoughts on “Aesthetic Aristocracy vs. Liberal Democracy

  1. dylan waco March 21, 2008 / 4:57 am


    Thanks for posting this as it would have slipped through the cracks otherwise. Taylor is sort of a left populist version of Clyde Wilson and I don’t think I am wrong in saying that we would do well to see more of those around these days. His book was excellent and his endorsement of Congressman Paul was one of the more interesting and persuasive ones I saw.


    P.S. Have you caught the Michael Kazin article in the new World Affairs on Bush’s foreign policy heirs and the divergent strains of leftist foreign policy views over the years? It expands on a lot of the arguments Kazin has made in his books (“A Godly Hero”, “The Populist Persuasion”) and is a good companion piece to Taylor’s book.

  2. Daniel McCarthy March 21, 2008 / 5:29 am

    Thanks for reminding me about Jeff Taylor’s Ron Paul piece. I’ve now put that into the post.

    I’ll have to track down World Affairs. I just saw an ad for that journal earlier today, in fact.

  3. Brent Burk March 21, 2008 / 7:01 pm

    Interesting read on his endorsements.

    However, I thought it was Jackson who started the Democratic Party. Why does everyone consider the Democratic-Republican Party a Democratic party?

  4. Brent Burk March 21, 2008 / 7:01 pm

    Oh, and question:

    Can you give me a little preview on the new Goldwater book? You read it this past weekend, yes? What is it about/is it worth the buck?

  5. Jeff Taylor March 21, 2008 / 9:51 pm

    Brent, Jackson is sometimes credited as the most famous founder of the Democratic Party…mostly by Republicans who don’t want to link Jefferson to the modern DP. But there’s a direct link between Jefferson and Jackson (hence the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinners of the Democratic Party). Jefferson’s party was alternately called both “Democratic” and “Republican” in his day and stood in opposition to the Federalist Party of Hamilton, Adams, Marshall, and Pinckney. The Federalists died out and their membership for the most part merged with the dominant party of Jefferson by the late 1810s. That’s the “Era of Good Feelings” under Monroe. So, Adams’ son John Quincy Adams was a Democrat, as was Andrew Jackson, as were John Calhoun and William Crawford in the 1824 election. The Hamiltonian ideology of the Federalists was kept alive, though, by the “National Republican” faction of the Democratic Party. J.Q. Adams, Henry Clay, and (for a while) Calhoun were leading proponents of that faction.

    By the late 1820s, the new Whig Party mixed Hamiltonian principles with a more savvy (demagogic) approach to public relations. The Whigs were direct forerunners of the modern Republican Party of the 1850s. Bottom line: Jefferson was the most important founder of the Democratic Party although obviously he had some help in the 1790s, and Jackson was the figure around which orthodox Jeffersonians rallied by 1828 (including Martin Van Buren).

  6. Jeff Taylor March 21, 2008 / 9:52 pm

    P.S. – Thanks for your kind comments, Dan and Dylan.

  7. Daniel McCarthy March 21, 2008 / 11:33 pm

    Thanks for answering Brent’s question, Jeff. Regarding the Goldwater book, I don’t want to say too much since it’ll be a while yet before my review is published, but I can give you a simple description: Pure Goldwater is a collection of excerpts from Goldwater’s private journals together with some of his letters and a few other miscellaneous pieces of writing (or speaking, actually) by the senator himself: trial-testimony transcripts, speeches, etc. I learned several things I didn’t know about Goldwater (and I’ve read quite a lot of Goldwater literature) from the book.

    If you’re interested in Goldwater, I’d recommend picking up any one of the several excellent Goldwater biographies that are out there. Robert Alan Goldberg’s Barry Goldwater is the definitive scholarly account — it’s much more readable than calling it a “scholarly account” would suggest. I like it a lot. Lee Edwards’s Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution is also very good and comes from a conservative perspective. (Edwards was one of the Goldwater ’64 campaign’s press aides and is now historian-in-residence at the Heritage Foundation.) Goldwater’s own 1988 autobiography (co-written with Jack Casserly) is also, of course, a valuable source. Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus is a startlingly good account of the 1964 race and its significant. Even though it’s not a full biography, it’s one of the best Goldwater books out there. Any of these books is worth having. If I had to recommend just one, I think it would be Goldberg’s book, since it gives the fullest picture with the least ideological baggage.

    (You can read side-by-side comparisons of the Goldberg and Edwards books, both of which were published in 1995, in reviews from the Washington Post and National Review. The Washington Post review, which is pretty nasty, includes links to the first chapters of both books. By the way, Pure Goldwater disproves some of the claims that John Judis makes in that Washington Post review.)

  8. blackstone March 22, 2008 / 1:55 am

    Question, what is a tory anarchist?

  9. Brent Burk March 23, 2008 / 5:49 am

    “The Tory is one who is governed by sense and habit alone. He considers not what is possible, but what is real; he gives might the preference over right. He cries long life to the conqueror, and is ever strong upon the stronger side – the side of corruption and prerogative.”
    -William Hazlitt

  10. Bob Cheeks March 23, 2008 / 10:33 pm

    Here’s to John Randolph of Roanoake; a gentleman of great taste, slightly mad, and the greatest congressman in American history! We are all tertium quids now!

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