Reflecting on the ghosts of the Weimar republic, Leo Strauss abhorred liberal democracy. He associated it with the Weimar republic whose constitution was drafted at the end of World War 1. Germany had no liberal precepts built into its habitus and no referent collective historical precepts of democratic traditions to fall back on, and the Weimar republic was crippled from the start by critics on every side of the political spectrum who had no use for parliamentary government.
Conservatives preferred the monarchical and bureaucratic system of the Kaiserreich; nationalists such as Hitler had no use for parliamentary government and his party was opposed to the Weimar constitution because they claimed that it was too divisive, that it led to the fragmentation of the body politic, and that a dictatorship alone can accomplish the necessary social change to promote the national interest; Communists saw parliamentary politics as a bourgeois institution that should be superseded by the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Weimar was therefore threatened on all sides from its very inception. Both the communists and the National Socialists made great electoral gains, but by 1932 Hitler’s party had the greatest number of seats in the Reichstag. By 1933, Hitler had become chancellor as well as the leader of the majority party. Within a year he had abolished all the power of the state governments and brought all of German life under Nazi control.
Strauss’s experience in Germany confirmed the political teaching of his beloved Plato. A great enemy of democracy, Plato described it as the second worse form of government and was convinced that it inevitably leads to tyranny. For Strauss, as for Plato, democracy is a licentious state of affairs in which a multiplicity of conflicting and irreconcilable appetites compete for dominance. Plato described a society torn apart by insatiable and conflicting appetites, and he surmised that in this state of disorder, one master passion was bound to become supreme and rule despotically over all others. The scenario described by Plato, whereby democracy gives way to tyranny mirrors the scenario where Weimar sets the licentious stage of Hitler to emerge victoriously.
The comparison of American liberalism to Weimar is not original to Strauss. It is expressed by German refugees such as Theodor Adorno who believed that America was a duplication of Nazi Germany – the only thing missing is the brutality of the police. Instead of leading him to question the legitimacy of the comparison, the absence of coercion only succeeds in making Adorno marvel at the extent, sagacity, subtlety, and near invisibility of American style domination. This phenomenon is immortalized in a film with Rod Steiger called The Pawnbroker (for which he won an Academy Award).
For a critical description of Leo Strauss, I recommend: Leo Strauss and the American Right by Shadia B. Drury