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Leo Strauss and the "Crazies in the Basement"

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Message Donald Archer

There is no question that we are engaged in a war of ideologies, or that democracy is under siege.   But, contrary to prevalent misinformation and myth, the significant threat is within, not outside the halls of our government.

From the beginning of his presidency, George W. Bush has surrounded himself with radical neo-conservatives, with what his father, the first President Bush, called “crazies in the basement.”   They have advised him on everything from political strategy to foreign policy.   What they have in common is the warped worldview of Leo Strauss: a charismatic and influential professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago during the 1950s and 60s.

When he died in 1973, Strauss left what could be called a cult-following of obsessive acolytes, including former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, “Prince of Darkness” Richard Perle, and Republican pundit William Kristol.  


Strauss’ radical teaching pervades not only the Bush administration but many of the major conservative think-tanks as well---the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) and the American Enterprise Institute, in particular.


Becoming familiar with Strauss’ philosophy sheds light on our current political crisis and brings the challenge to focus.   Above all, Strauss had contempt for the democratic process---he was an elitist who labeled the majority of human beings ‘the vulgar-many.’    His philosophy is an odd combination of the idealism of ancient Plato and the pragmatism of modern Machiavelli.  


His ideal: the philosopher-king---The Decider, the authoritarian leader who knows what’s best for the befuddled majority.


His weapons: ‘the Noble Lie’ and perpetual war---empowered by a fearful and ignorant electorate, a deferential Congress, a lock-step Supreme Court, and a compliant media; in other words, the total breakdown of the constitutional system of checks and balances.


Leo Strauss believed that ‘mankind is intrinsically wicked’ and that it was up to the ‘wise-few,’ indeed it was their responsibility, to maintain order in an otherwise chaotic world.     


Ironically, he was an atheist who promoted the practice of religion---one of his ‘Noble Lies.’   While Strauss taught that faith could control and subdue the ‘unruly masses,’ he believed that rulers need not be bound by it.

 For Strauss, if it takes a myth, or deception, to control the masses, then, by all means, create it and use it.   A secular society, in his neo-conservative view, is most dangerous because it leads to individualism, liberalism, and relativism---traits that encourage dissent and challenge the hierarchical authoritarian society he envisioned. 

The culture of the Sixties was to Straussians the epitome of the liberal breakdown of society---for them, it was the apotheosis of individualism and relativism.    Consequently, they have been trying to put the genie back in the bottle ever since.   

You can only comprehend the rage, and the goal, of neo-conservatism if you understand their contempt for that time and culture---civil rights, free-speech, feminism, gay rights, affirmative-action, ethnic advocacy,  and much more. 

These are the devil to Strauss’ followers.    And the Straussian worldview forever needs a devil, or an ‘axis of evil,’ to coalesce the masses.    Strauss wrote that “governance can only be established…when men are united – and they can only be united against other people.”

Straussians embrace the following principles:

  1. The Few Must Rule The Many.
  2. Virtue Is Defined By The Elite.
  3. The Strong Must Rule The Weak
  4. There Is Only One Natural Right: The Right Of The Wise Few To Rule Over The Vulgar Many.
  5. “The Rule Of The Wise” Is Unquestionable, Authoritarian, Absolute and Covert.
  6. There Are Three Classes: The Wise-Few, The Vulgar-Many And The Gentlemen.
  7. Religion Is Essential In Order To Impose Moral Law On The Masses.
  8. The State Maintains Omnipotence Through Militaristic Nationalism.
  9. Order And Security Are To Be Insured By A State Of Perpetual War.
  10. The Wise Must Maintain A Culture Of Deception And Carry On A Perpetual Confusion Campaign.
  11. The Many Are Told What They Need To Know And No More.
  12. Lies Are Held To Be Necessary And Noble.

If our most powerful leaders adhere to these principles, it should come as no surprise that the will of the majority is systematically ignored, that secrecy is paramount, that confusion is rampant, that lies have become the norm, that a state of war is constant, that the separation of church and state is attacked, that our constitutional system of checks and balances is all but myth, and that an increasingly unaccountable president considers himself ‘The Decider.” 

The ideology of Leo Strauss and the neo-conservatives is the antithesis of the Enlightenment wisdom that inspired the ideal, if not the actuality, of the American Revolution and the modern constitutional democracy---a liberal society that promotes and is maintained by critical thinking, a well-informed electorate, and an open, transparent government.     This is the ideological war now being fought.

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Donald Archer is a painter, observer, and commentator living on California's Central Coast. His work may be seen at
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