My research focuses on the interplay between politics and ideas in the modern world. A central insight informing my work is that our political world can be understood as having been, to a large extent, deliberately and intentionally created. My research starts in other words from the assumption that the political systems, norms and practices we live with today did not simply come about accidentally. Nor can they solely be seen as the product of power politics. Instead, they were to a surprisingly large degree created according to specific theoretical ideas and values. Understanding the world we live in today therefore means that we need to understand the minds and motivations of the individuals who helped to create today’s political institutions, in addition to taking account of other factors such as power politics, the influence of path-dependency, or historical accidents.
Starting from this insight, I have developed different lines of research over the past decade. I have published extensively on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberalism. A central argument of my work on this subject is that early liberalism should be understood as a strongly antidemocratic intellectual movement, especially in its continental variant. In my first book, French Political Thought from Montesquieu to Tocqueville (CUP 2008, paperback version 2012) I argue that there were pronounced antidemocratic and anti-egalitarian currents within the French liberal tradition. Investigating a wide range of sources, including pamphlets, parliamentary debates and journal articles as well as high-brow political treatises, I show that nineteenth-century French liberals were deeply influenced by Montesquieu’s idea that freedom and equality cannot coexist and that hence a liberal state needs strong anti-egalitarian component in order to be able to counter despotism. These antidemocratic views, I also show, survived much longer than one might expect: in the 1950s, they were still being defended by prominent French liberals such as Bertrand de Jouvenel. Moreover, the antidemocratic bias of many nineteenth-century liberals had a demonstrable impact on the institutional infrastructure we have inherited from the nineteenth century. Thus, the bicameral systems that still exist today in many European countries were introduced by nineteenth-century liberals in order to create an anti-egalitarian counterweight to democracy.
My current research project is a book-length intellectual history of freedom, tentatively titled Freedom: An Unruly History. Building on my earlier work on nineteenth-century liberalism, this project likewise aims to uncover the antidemocratic tendencies at the heart of modern political culture. However, in line with the recent turn toward ‘big’ intellectual history, I now employ a much broader canvas to make this point. I show that over the past two thousand five hundred years, a more or less continuous debate took place in what is commonly referred to as ‘the West’ about the nature and meaning of political freedom; a debate to which key contributions were made by Italian, Polish, Dutch, English, French, Swiss, German and American political thinkers and intellectuals. (By ‘continuous’, I mean that political thinkers of, for instance, the seventeenth century were typically aware of what their sixteenth-century predecessors had had to say about freedom; and that these seventeenth-century views can be understood as having developed at least to a certain extent in response to the writings of these earlier thinkers.) When understood against the background of this longue durée, I argue, the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries should be understood as a key turning point in the history of freedom. Before the late eighteenth-century, freedom was identified almost exclusively with democracy and popular self-government. But in the wake of the turmoil created by the American and especially the French Revolutions, freedom came to be redefined in an explicitly antidemocratic manner as entailing either the rule of law or the protection of individual rights.