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.