J Edgar Hoover: a man Leo Strauss approved of.
Leo Strauss liked to describe himself as a “friend” of liberal democracy. It’s a mantra that his students and defenders often repeat. For example, in his book Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism (University of Chicago Press), Steven B. Smith, a Yale political scientist, argues that Strauss was a “friend of liberal democracy – one of the best friends democracy has ever had.” Smith also says that he does not “not regard Strauss as a conservative (neo- or otherwise) but rather as a friend of liberal democracy.”
Like all Straussian notions, the catch-phrase “friend of liberal democracy” deserves close and skeptical scrutiny. Notice that Strauss is not claiming that he’s a liberal democrat. Given his elitism and penchant of exalting the wisdom of ancient philosophers like Plato (who were of course not liberal democrats in any meaningful sense) Strauss knew that any such claim would be self-evidently absurd. As Smith admits “To describe Strauss or Plato as any kind of liberal is, of course, deeply counterintuitive. One cannot find in any of their writings an unequivocal defense of such cherished liberal principles as individual rights or human equality.” No rational person would mistake Strauss for a John Dewey or a John Rawls. But to say that Strauss was a friend of liberal democracy, that was an ambiguous claim that could have some plausibility, at least to the gullible and inattentive.
I suggest that we put Strauss’s claim to empirical testing, as vulgar as that might sound, and look at his actual political commitments.
1. National Review. A letter to Willmoore Kendall that Strauss wrote on November 19th, 1956 begins like this: “For some time I have been receiving The National Review. You will not be surprised to hear that I agree with many articles appearing in the journal, especially your own.” Strauss went on to make one substantial and lengthy criticism of National Review: he didn’t like the magazine’s anti-Zionism (an issue I discuss here here). When Strauss wrote his letter National Review was only in its first year of publication but the tenor of the magazine had been well established: it was a right-wing journal that that supported white supremacy in the south, a policy requiring the continuing disenfranchisement of the substantial African-American minority; it frequently praised right-wing dictators like Francesco Franco; and it supported Joseph McCarthy’s assault on civil liberties.
Kendall in particular was a virulent advocate of all these positions: he was America’s leading intellectual defender of McCarthyism and believed that “the Negro” suffers from a blighted “biological inheritance.” Kendall once asked this question: “Could it be we shall never do justice to the Negroes in our midst, or the Negroes to themselves, save as we all recognize that as a group they may have a lesser capacity than the rest of us for civilizational achievement?” Like many other writers for National Review, Kendall also wanted the United States to launch a preventive war against the Soviet Union, a policy that would have led to a nuclear holocaust. Strauss never once criticized National Review and Willmoore Kendall for any of these policies.
2. J. Edgar Hoover. In a syndicated newspaper column of May 1963, the conservative writer Russell Kirk recorded the following conversation with Strauss: “Among the indices to soundness or error in modern practical politics, Mr. Strauss remarked to me, are these issues: does one prefer income taxes, or excise taxes? Does one approve of, or detest Mr. J. Edgar Hoover? Does one stand for private medical practice, or state medicine? Professor Strauss is on the side of excises, Hoover, free (that is, private) medicine – and the angels.” (Kirk’s column ran in many papers; the version I saw can be found in the Post-Tribune of Jefferson City, Missouri on May 8, 1963).
Let’s leave aside taxes and health care and look at Hoover. Why did liberals detest the famed head of the FBI? Because they thought he didn’t respect civil liberties. Conservatives on the other hand idolized Hoover as a protector of law and order. Since Hoover’s death, it’s abundantly clear that even his liberal critics underestimated just how lawless Hoover had been. Here was the head of a federal police agency who kept files on the sex lives of politicians in order to blackmail them and keep his job. Hoover also spied on Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders, and used the evidence he gathered on them to try and destroy their political movement.
3. Richard Nixon. In 1972, Strauss signed a statement supporting Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. In this of course he was acting no differently than the majority of voters who gave Nixon a second term. Still, it’s worth remembering that despite the fact that Nixon had a few liberal policies and initiatives, he was a deeply illiberal president. Contemptuous of the rule of law, Nixon created a constitutional crisis that resulted in his disgrace and resignation. Strauss is often praised by his followers for his political wisdom, yet for some reason he didn’t see the ample signs available to any observer in 1972 that Nixon’s politics were fundamentally Caesarist (to echo James Burnham’s apt phrase).
National Review, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon. To borrow Strauss’s own term these are indices: surely these give us some idea of what Strauss’s real politics were. It’s amazing that a scholar who teaches at Yale University and publishes with the University of Chicago Press can get away with arguing that Strauss should be thought of not as “a conservative (neo- or otherwise) but rather as a friend of liberal democracy.”
With friends like Leo Strauss, liberal democracy needs no enemies.