Historian and former Chestnut Hill University professor John Lukacs — widely known for his self-described reactionary conservatism and criticism of the Republican party — said he is concerned about American democracy devolving into populism, at a talk in Luce Hall on Thursday.
Speaking to about 60 audience members, Lukacs, who taught history at Chestnut Hill from 1947-1994, delivered a speech called “Popular Tides and the Ship of State,” discussing how public opinion has shaped the American political landscape since World War I. Quoting from Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmund Burke and La Roche Foucault, he described the populist movements and challenges U.S. leaders faced during the 1930s and the early 1950s.
“The height and the mass of the popular and populist tide in 1934 were a tremendous obstacle for any American leader who would have wished to change the course of the American ship of state,” Lukacs said.
Lukacs said 1930s populism can be traced back to revisionist views of history. He said the American pacifism of the 1930s was mainly retrospective, and conceptions of the American role in World War I had evolved amidst an emerging rejection of all war and interventions. But World War II reversed these beliefs, he said, turning popular opinion in the late 1940s toward aggressive anti-Communism.
“By 1947, isolationists who had been against intervention in Germany had become those most for intervention in Russia,” Lukacs said.
Lukacs quoted de Tocqueville, describing democratic states as resistant to the quick movement of ideas, and he said popular opinions experience a “time lag” after trickling down from educated thinkers. Because of this “slowness of momentum with which ideas move and appear on the political surface”, Lukacs said, there have been missed opportunities for democratization throughout history — such as in Soviet Russia following the death of Joseph Stalin.
“Ideological obtuseness … compromised the course of the American ship of state,” Lukacs said, criticizing the international community for rejecting the strategies of Winston Churchill and George F. Kennan during the first years of the Cold War.
Lukacs said that while his study of the World Wars “is not relevant at all to current American policy,” he is disappointed that the Republican Party today has come to embrace populism as central to its platform.
“There has been another devolution … leading not to contests of popularity but to contests of publicity,” Lukacs said.
Audience members said they appreciated Lukacs’ clarity and perspective as a historian.
“He was very articulate and sophisticated, with great respect for facts of history rather than superimposing his beliefs on these historical facts,” sociology professor Ivan Szeleny said. “He was ready to acknowledge the contradictions to his arguments.”
“I thought he was terrific,” local high school history teacher Cate Horton said. “It’s wonderful to hear an established historian’s perspective.”
But other audience members said Lukacs’ analysis of international history assumed too much.
“My view of the talk was that it was highly speculative,” retired University of Connecticut professor Morton Tenzer said. “One of the main thrusts of his talk was the lost opportunities after the death of Stalin, but knowing what we know now about people like [Nikita] Khrushchev, in retrospect it seems highly unlikely to me that it would have been possible.”
Lukacs’ talk was this year’s installment of the George Herbet Walker, Jr. Lecture in International Studies. George Herbert Walker III ’53, a cousin of President George W. Bush ’68, established the lecture series in 1986 and attended yesterday’s event.