The importance we place on neutrality in our institutions is actually somewhat new. It grew out of what the intellectual historian Edward Purcell, in the title of an influential 1973 book, called the “crisis of democratic theory,” which gripped American intellectual culture in the 1920s and ’30s. In that era, worldwide depression and a backlash against the idealism of World War I undermined the grounds for believing that democracy was necessarily the best form of government. Because philosophers and social scientists had come to embrace empiricism over rationalism—arguing that our knowledge came from experience, not reason—many intellectuals had lost their confidence in the older philosophical principles that had once seemed absolute. A relativistic outlook seeped into American culture, even affecting how people thought about democracy.
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