Over the past few years Americans have heard much about “our democracy.” The possessive adjective is polemical—it signifies an “us” against “them” division, on one side of which are progressives, who lay proprietary claim to democracy. Our democracy is liberal democracy, and anyone who is not a liberal democrat is illiberal or undemocratic, or both.

Conservatives on the other side of this divide are sometimes tempted to offer a dictionary defense: if they do not pledge fealty to liberal democracy that’s because America’s own Founding Fathers were critical of “democracy” and had never heard of “liberalism.” What they established, and what conservatives want to conserve, is a constitutional republic.

As the historian John Lukacs liked to say, that may be true, but it is not true enough. Alexis de Tocqueville was not wrong to write a book called Democracy in America. Every branch of government at all levels in this republic is ultimately constitutionally answerable to the people. The mass electorate does not directly choose judges or presidents, and it didn’t originally select U.S. senators, either. But the voting public did, and does, choose the choosers at the beginning of the process, starting in most cases with the state legislatures. The only feature of American government that is not ultimately derived from popular self-government—or “democracy” in the common sense—is the geographic principle whereby the people itself is organized through the states.

The social and moral aspects of democracy that Tocqueville described are also realities of American life. We have a democratic culture, and if equality is not in every respect an established fact, egalitarianism as an ideal is taken for granted. The Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal,” and most Americans believe that in one sense or another—even if only in the sense of thinking that their own views are just as good as anybody else’s.

Tocqueville was a conservative, or aristocratic, liberal. He illustrates one way in which American conservatives can be democrats: not as enthusiasts for or optimists about democracy, but as realists who recognize that democracy exists, and it exists for a reason. The conservative’s task is to make the best of it, and to preserve what can be preserved of those good things that a democratic age neglects, such as the cultural attainments of the aristocratic past and the moral hierarchy of religion that recognizes God as a king.

The twentieth-century American political theorist Willmoore Kendall indicates other ways in which conservatives may reconcile themselves to democracy—in his case, with eagerness. The Conservative Affirmation, Kendall’s essay collection of 1963, and his posthumous book (completed by George Carey) The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition root America’s order in a virtuous self-governing people whose conservatism is “in their hips.” 

At the popular level, conservative voters seem comfortable in the assumption that their side really is the people’s side, and progressives clearly recognize the genuine popular, democratic appeal of the political right—hence their terror at the threat to “our democracy” not from a military junta or aristocratic cabal but from voters who might re-elect Donald Trump and who maintain in the Senate a sufficient number of Republicans to forestall Democratic efforts to pack the Supreme Court. However averse conservative voters may be to “democracy” as a word, they are democratic enough to cause progressives to seek cover under the “liberal” half of “liberal democracy.”

In his recent book Regime Change, subtitled Toward a Postliberal Future, the Notre Dame political science professor Patrick Deneen makes a democratic conservative case against liberalism. Deneen is not simply a democrat, and he envisions his postliberal order as a sort of mixed regime, in which the few and the many—the elite and people—have distinct functions, if not a legally distinct constitutional status. But he believes the people are morally healthier than the liberal elite that holds power today, and he argues that liberals characteristically circumvent and restrict democracy in order to get their way.

The conventional understanding of “liberal democracy” bears him out: it’s democracy constrained within the limits of liberalism. Some self-identified conservatives, as well as progressive liberals and libertarian “classical” liberals, endorse liberal democracy of this kind. They have given Deneen’s book a hostile reception. Between democracy and liberalism, these conservatives choose liberalism.

But there is another way to interpret “liberal democracy” that does not involve acceptance of liberalism as an ideology. One of the deficiencies of “postliberalism” as a label and posture is that it concedes far too much to liberalism: it accords liberalism exactly the same architectonic role in American life that liberals themselves claim for it. Yet liberalism is not the foundation of our constitutional order—on the contrary, liberalism is antithetical to liberal democracy rightly understood.

Aristotle warns in Book IV of the Politics about the danger of revolution within the form, where the outward semblance of a constitution remains the same while its substance becomes something else: “the people do not easily change, but love their own ancient customs; and it is by small degrees only that one thing takes place of another; so that the ancient laws will remain, while the power will be in the hands of those who have brought about a revolution in the state.”

The reinterpretation of American history as a history of liberalism is such a revolution. Although the letter of the U.S. Constitution remains, the charter is now taught in schools as an expression of liberalism, an early and crude expression, perhaps, but a step in the long march of progress to the values and practices of today. The chief challenge to this interpretation comes not from those who view the Constitution in a pre-liberal light, but from critics who are to the left of liberalism and decry the Constitution as nothing more than an artifact of white supremacism. Confronted by that alternative, conservatives may reflexively defend the liberal ideological reading instead.

Liberal ideology itself, however, is a revolution within the form of the word “liberal.” Among liberals, this point often surfaces in conflicts between “classical liberals,” who say that the term meant one thing in the nineteenth century and should retain that older meaning today, and progressive liberals who see the liberalism of the twenty-first century as the fulfillment of what was implicit in the earlier liberalism. Both types of ideological liberal, however, downplay the earlier, non-ideological meaning of “liberal,” which related not to the politics of liberalism but to the virtue of liberality.

Liberalism is closely associated with commerce and the profit motive, but liberality is about giving, not exchange. And if it does not imply total contempt for money, liberality does mean a preference for giving it away to good purpose rather than accumulating it. Progressive liberalism is as much at odds with this virtue as market liberalism is, however: liberality, as Aristotle makes clear, requires generosity with one’s own money, not the state’s. Welfare states are not liberal. They are, in an Aristotelian light, a vicious replacement for liberality. The same might be said for much private (but equally bureaucratic) “philanthropy.”

Liberality is a mean between the extremes of prodigality and covetousness. The prodigal expends his means irresponsibly, ruining himself and perhaps others in the process. The covetous man wants to keep what wealth he has and get more—simply for the sake of getting more, and even if it means taking unjustly from others.

To be liberal, a person must have the means to support himself and his household, with enough surplus to show generosity to others. There are liberal assumptions of this kind in the economic thought of both great political factions in the early American republic. The ideal of the independent yeoman farmer in the politics of Thomas Jefferson is conducive to liberality. So, too, is the Federalist ideal of government by well-to-do burghers, the better and wealthier sort of citizen. In each case, the citizen, whether yeoman or burgher, has sufficient means to show largesse to others after his own needs and those of his family have been supplied.

What Jefferson feared was an urbanized proletariat that would be so poor, or so mean of spirit, that it could not or would not practice the virtues of the independent gentleman. The Federalists, for their part, feared mob-rule democracy, in which the covetous—including improvident and indebted farmers—would outvote the liberal. 

There is both an economic order and an ethos implied by the virtue of liberality. The economic requirement is for something resembling a prosperous middle class. A society in which there is a vast gulf between the wealthy and poor is likely to be characterized by relationships of economic dependence in which the many will not have the means to act liberally, while the few will be tempted to prodigality or mercenary expenditure, turning the recipients of generosity into subservient clients rather than (more or less) independent friends. To give with the aim of gaining power over others is the opposite of the liberal ethos. 

Liberality should also be distinguished from compassion: Aristotle emphasizes the free and spontaneous nature of liberality, which entails giving without a sense of needing to give. The pain that one feels at the plight of the poor is different from the motive behind liberality, which is a noble sense of being free from inordinate desire for money. Alms-giving can be liberal, but liberality is best characterized by giving for the sake of improvement rather than to meet anyone’s necessities. In the centuries before student loan debt, it was an archetypal act of liberality for a wealthy relation (or even non-relation) to pay for a student’s tuition. While gratitude was expected, the student did not become an employee or servant, although he might choose to work for his benefactor.

The roots of the Greek and Latin words for liberality—eleutheriotēs and liberalitas, respectively—denote the status of a free person. It’s a virtue most likely to flourish under conditions of moderate inequality: equals would be little disposed to accept gifts from one another and would benefit little by doing so; but where there is a modicum of inequality, the benefit to the recipient is meaningful, and he has reason to accept. Where there is great categorical inequality, however, a gift that is meaningful to the recipient may be trivial to the giver, signifying not his freedom from the grip of money so much as his distance from the condition of the other. Liberality is the virtue of a gentleman, not a plutocrat or a slave master.

“Liberal” democracy informed by liberality rather than liberalism is a democracy in which gentlemen of more-than-self-sufficient means exhibit generosity toward their fellow citizens, who are not a dependent class but are rather free and potentially capable of liberality themselves. This is a very different kind of democracy from that feared by many philosophers and by the American Founders, a regime in which all are covetous: the many are tempted to expropriate the wealthy few, and the few are jealous of the power with which they can protect their riches. The mitigation of the class divisions endemic to democracies in the ancient world comes about both through the cultivation of a middle class and through the liberal ethos that makes it the mark of a gentleman to be above merely pecuniary interests.

At the end of the eighteenth century, both the newborn United States and Great Britain were liberal democracies in this sense. The franchise was limited in both countries, but even in Britain the popular branch of government was effectively paramount, and the House of Commons would only gain greater power at the expense of Crown and Lords over the next two centuries. Neither country had yet to experience “liberalism” in the ideological sense, which emerged by name only in the nineteenth century. 

The characteristic nineteenth-century ideological liberal concern with free trade was not yet a permanent feature of British politics, and it would not become a fixture of American politics until far into the twentieth century. As for ideological liberal commitments to “rights,” not even Thomas Jefferson supported full free speech, and indeed not even in politics: he opposed John Adams’s federal sedition act, which criminalized criticism of the government, but he continued to support state-level laws against seditious libel. Free speech at the time meant only freedom from prior restraint. Other rights dear to today’s classical liberals and progressive liberals were also unheard of: Jefferson was no sexual liberal and prescribed capital punishment as the penalty for sodomy. (Edmund Burke, by contrast, objected to use of the pillory to punish homosexual offenses, on the grounds that the shame of the crime should be punishment enough.)

Liberalism, conservatism, and socialism all acquired their names and basic outlines in the nineteenth century, although intimations of these concepts had existed earlier. All three were responses to new conditions that none of the three had created. For one thing, liberalism did not introduce the idea of religious pluralism: it’s more correct to say that the failure to restore religious uniformity in post-Reformation Europe made pluralism of one kind or another nigh inevitable. Conservatives saw this as clearly as liberals did. 

The question that policymakers of all dispositions faced in nineteenth-century Britain was how far pluralism would go—would it mean the established state church remained paramount, or would it lead to dilution of its privileges and perhaps even disestablishment? Ireland, where the established state church had no standing in the eyes of the Catholic majority (or much of the Protestant minority, for that matter), seemed to be a crucial test case.

In America, the Puritan experiment in religious polity had died out decades before the Revolution, and many of the Founding Fathers viewed religion in utilitarian terms. Jefferson and John Adams expected the future to belong to Unitarians. They did not suspect that new evangelical forms of Christianity would bring about a second Great Awakening, in part because this popular Christianity was far outside the educated circles that had shaped Jefferson and Adams (both of whom were admirers of the deist Viscount Bolingbroke).

Mass popular Christianity was something startling, but it was of a piece with the culturally and economically revolutionary rise of the masses throughout the next two hundred years. Industrialism meant mass production, mass production demanded large workforces, and larger workforces became large consumer bases, giving rise to more demand and growth. Population boomed, with America offering the prospect of wide-open land to settle (though Indians might disagree about how wide open it truly was) as well as rapidly advancing industry. Britain, of course, led the Industrial Revolution.

The great questions of politics for the next two centuries, not only in the Anglo-American world but eventually for nearly everyone, everywhere, would revolve around how to incorporate the burgeoning masses into the fabric of society. Marxists and other radical socialists hoped that they would not be incorporated: the rise of the masses would lead to revolution. Conservatives wished to accommodate the masses while maintaining the appearance at least of the old society. This was the opposite of a gradual, insidious revolution within the form—conservatives hoped to contain a rapid revolution by channeling its energies into whatever could be salvaged of the old form.

Liberals were less devoted to the old forms than conservatives were, but they were fearful of socialist upheaval and trusted the capitalists more than the workers. In Regime Change, Deneen goes so far as to characterize liberals as anti-democratic, yet in the nineteenth and early twentieth century liberals did expand the franchise and attempt to accommodate the growing masses; they saw no alternative. The masses would get the vote; it was the task of education to make sure they did not use it to harm private property. Liberal lawmakers, so long as they could still win elections, would strike a balance between courting the masses with the franchise and keeping their economic demands at bay. This proved untenable in the long run: free-market liberals on both sides of the Atlantic ultimately needed conservatives, with their base of nationalistic and religious voters, as protection against the socialists. Less market-oriented liberals, meanwhile, found the socialists to be acceptable allies—they shared a commitment to science as a value system, progressive government, secularism, and internationalism.

Liberalism did not create modern politics; it was one of multiple intellectual currents attempting to answer the question of how the masses would be fed; employed; educated; entertained; brought to religion (or not); policed; enfranchised over time; led to war; cared for in sickness, poverty, and old age; raised to the middle class or beyond; and, in a word, civilized. How church, state, private property, taste, and learning would endure in this new commercial, cultural, and political context was the flip side of the story.

Education wound up being decisive. Before there was such a thing as liberalism, liberal education meant education that was not concerned with earning a living—just as liberality meant a concern for something nobler than accumulating money, liberal education meant education in the same spirit, in pursuit of knowledge, not gain. The liberal arts were appropriate studies for the free man, and, with the Renaissance, they increasingly came to be seen as studies appropriate for a free citizen or at least a respectable courtier. The liberal arts were useful, but their proper use was for the attainment of wisdom and virtue, including virtuous service to the res publica. 

This liberal learning made America’s Founders the statesmen that they were, and it produced similarly impressive intellectual statesmen such as Edmund Burke in the United Kingdom. Most liberally educated Americans and British subjects did not reach such heights, of course. But even those who did not could recognize the greatness of those who did, as a result of learning what greatness was.

This liberal learning was not easily translated to the new masses, despite a proliferation of innovative educational institutions—working-men’s lyceums, libraries, public schools, new colleges and universities, paperback books, educational radio and television, and more. The problem was that although these means allowed for the dissemination of liberal learning, without the spirit of liberal learning in command of these institutions they would inevitably become instruments of utilitarian or servile education instead. The public may have wanted liberal education, to the extent that it knew what liberal education was, but the mere fact of the mass public’s existence suggested other possibilities to educators, politicians, and philanthropists—the masses could be taught to work, or what to buy, or for whom to vote, or what new educational credentials to respect. These empty vessels could be filled with ideology and the spirit of getting ahead in place of liberal learning and liberality.

Yet it was not a foregone conclusion that liberalism would prevail over liberal education. This corruption required hard work and more than a dash of genius. John Stuart Mill would help to supply both.

In the beginning of the American republic, the Founders and their immediate successors understood politics as having a fundamentally moral purpose. All human beings possessed a higher and lower nature, and from time to time even the best of men felt the temptations of his lower self. Law could not, and never can, turn devils into angels or make thoroughly wicked men good. What it could and must do, however, is lend force to the higher nature in the individual and in society as a whole in the struggle against the lower side of human nature. 

This implied a wide scope for moral legislation and “police powers,” which in principle could touch on almost any aspect of public or private life—dress, diet, work, sex, public utterances, and more. The Bill of Rights restricted the power of Congress to legislate in certain areas, but did not originally apply to the states. Moral policing was a local matter, and states and localities could be vigorous in its enforcement.

The Founding Fathers were well aware of the practical limits to moral legislation—but they did not reject it. The great illiberal danger to a democratic republic like the United States was that the few and the many would corrupt each other out of covetousness: the illiberal many would desire release from their debts and might wish to take what the wealthy few were not willing to give; the few would seek power by appealing to the covetousness of the many through demagoguery. Democracies were not historically known for an ethic of liberality; democratic states and citizens were rapacious.

Correcting rapacity and other vices of desire and indiscipline was necessary if free government was to endure. Statesmen as well as citizens needed the law to watch over them in their moments of weakness. Knowing that succumbing to their lower nature could lead to legal punishment, statesmen and citizens alike had a stronger reason to follow their higher nature instead—the threat of external restraint reinforced self-restraint, which, within a system of self-government, was the most important restraint upon individuals and the public alike. 

A virtuous people would elect virtuous leaders, who in turn would maintain the virtuous laws that would fortify public and personal virtue. All this would be conducive to a society with a strong middle class, consisting of households that were self-sufficient and more: a liberal democracy. Though no one yet used that term, the relationship between liberality and the moral and economic requirements of self-government was well established. A free man and a free people had to be virtuous. 

Two things narrowed the wide scope of police powers, however. The first was that the lower self also got a vote: not every individual voter wanted to support virtue, and not every statesman did, either. The laws could help tip the balance between higher and lower nature in favor of the higher, but laws could not end the struggle. The second force that worked to mitigate the severity of virtuous laws was virtue itself. Wise and liberally educated statesmen would use prudence in drafting and applying laws. All of the great moral philosophers—from Cicero and St. Thomas Aquinas to moderns such as Burke—were generous with respect to the follies of human nature. They were liberal, not puritanical. This only made them, and those who studied them, better moral legislators.

The liberalism that John Stuart Mill promulgated in On Liberty turned the old understanding of politics upside down. Instead of a presumption in favor of a wide scope for more legislation, which would then be limited in application by prudent leaders, Mill argued for a presumption against moral legislation: laws should only be for the prevention of harm to others, not for the individual’s good. What’s more, social sanctions should follow the same principle: a moral consensus should not be upheld by default; it should rather be questioned, and those who questioned it in the name of reason should be cherished. Modern science was to be the model for such moral inquiry.

The implications of Mill’s philosophy are drawn out in the Cambridge historian Maurice Cowling’s critical study of sixty years ago, Mill and Liberalism. His conclusions are paralleled by those of Willmoore Kendall in his considerations on Mill in The Conservative Affirmation, also published in 1963. These scholars recognized Mill as the mastermind of a revolution within the form—the regime change that has replaced liberal democracy with liberalism.

Mill’s teaching is seductive: he flatters intellectuals into believing that they may ignore the moral teachings of millennia if their own stock of reason tells them such restraints are unscientific. Mill wished to be free from the moral and sexual judgments of a Christian culture. He was not alone. His disciples promulgated his liberalism through educational institutions and the press. The simplicity of his liberalism could convince the middlebrow, while the substance of what he was offering appealed to thinkers who wished to indulge more of their lower nature. 

Permission, rather than restraint, became the principle of society, and once liberalism of this sort gained a foothold, it quickly entrenched itself: a liberal elite taught and legislated permissiveness, members of the public succumbed more often to their lower selves, and they voted accordingly for politicians who would further dilute the moral character of the law. Liberal democracy now means permissiveness, except, of course, where illiberal, undemocratic, or unscientific impulses are concerned. Our democracy must be kept safe from them.

Liberalism before Mill was already a flawed ideology, and Mill himself would be appalled by much of progressive liberalism today. Nevertheless, he pioneered the strategy that revolutionized the meaning of liberal democracy. If there’s to be a counter-revolution, it must place as heavy an emphasis on education as Mill’s followers did. And it must reclaim the older sense of what it meant to be liberal.