Politics & Media
Jun 24, 2024, 03:20PM

The Revival of Liberalism

And the revival of its problems.

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There are various reasons that liberalism, the compendious political philosophy originating in the 18th century, and “liberalism,” one of the vaguest and most ambiguous terms in the political lexicon, are now endangered in reality and in revival intellectually. Both have lately given rise to dozens of meditations, or “think pieces.” The practically-oriented ones focus on the challenges to liberalism by “right-wing populism,” for example Giorgia Meloni's victory in Italy in 2022 and the rise of right-wing parties this year in Germany and particularly in France as it prepares for an election next week. The theoretical considerations are largely driven by three recent books: Daniel Chandler's Free and Equal, Alexandre Lefebvre’s Liberalism as a Way of Life, and Samuel Moyn's Liberalism Against Itself.

One question that crosses the divide between theoretical and practical is whether liberalism is a sufficiently specific, profound, and satisfying political philosophy to compete, for example, with Marxist communism or Trump-style populism/neo-fascism in the arena of public opinion and party loyalty. This suddenly looks like an acute practical problem, not only to Chandler and Moyn, but to Biden and Macron. And it really is a problem: liberalism defines itself, in part, by its rationality and rejection of demagoguery. This puts it in a bad position at various moments in its competition with demagogues.

Just as many of these people have remarked, liberalism has a sales problem. But I don't think it can be solved directly without betraying the whole project. Liberalism isn’t suited to inspire. Its moment of inspiration—the late-18th century—when it was the great alternative to centuries of monarchy, the moment when it helped shape the American and French revolutions—ran its course 200 years ago. Liberalism led to the fall of hereditary aristocracy, which it once conceived as its main task. After it succeeded, it became a lot less urgent.

In an article of the sort I’m now writing, one should pause to say what “liberalism” means, and all I have done so far is say “compendious.” (I did take a bit of a shot in a previous piece.) But let's characterize liberalism as the political philosophy of John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls (Rawls is the hero of the recent books). As Chandler's title makes clear, it arises in large measure from an attempt to balance freedom with equality, and also with political authority. It advocates equal individual rights, especially free expression and free exchange, and political authority consisting of a government with limited powers, under a rule of law.

It’s a rational political philosophy, which is emphatically not to say that the arguments in its favor invariably work out or should carry the day (it has devastating problems, which I’m not pausing to rehearse here). But it was developed by extremely sophisticated political thinkers. It de-emphasizes emotional appeals in favor of giving strong reasons, from Locke's social contract theory to Mill's utilitarianism to Rawls's difference principle: the remarkable and plausible idea that inequality can’t be justified unless it benefits those lowest down. It’s balanced in its appeals, and universal. It's not, according to itself, aimed primarily at a certain nation or a certain economic class, a certain race or gender; it claims to be best for everyone.

So, everyone should rally behind liberalism to stop Le Pen and Trump. But, just as all these anxious liberals worry is the case, there are a number of reasons that liberalism, even if it’s true, isn’t liable to make the heart soar. Liberalism isn't the best political philosophy for the barricades.

The lack of inspiration is endemic. First, so far as we have characterized it, liberalism is compatible with many different sorts of politics. Endorsement of the overall principles—individual equal rights and the rule of law, for example—describes the avowed positions of both major American political parties before the advent of Trump. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, often termed “neoliberals,” endorsed these positions, but so did their domestic opponents. As a general sketch, it doesn't distinguish McGovern from Nixon or Obama from Romney, or any of them from Ayn Rand fan Paul Ryan or Ryan and his ilk from the Clintons or the Bidens.

It leaves lots of the specifics open, that is. You can be a liberal leftist in this sense, or a liberal rightist. Rawls is a liberal, but so is his great opponent Robert Nozick. Rawls endorsed an aggressive welfare state and many other legal restrictions and supports, whereas Nozick advocated only a minimum "night-watchman" government that prevents people from violating one another's rights. They both worked from liberal premises. Milton Friedman is a liberal, and Bernie Sanders too. If it's not specific enough to distinguish Reagan from Paul Wellstone, let's say, it's not suited to motivate support for one or the other very effectively. As stated so far, it's compatible with democratic socialism and with free-market capitalism. Many of the most familiar arguments for either are liberal arguments.

And liberalism is, as I say, a matter of creating and preserving various sorts of balance, from a multi-branch government to coordination among various social groups, all of whose demands are presumed provisionally to be valid. Calling for balanced and reasonable and rule-governed procedures just doesn't seem to have the same oomph as "Build A Beautiful Wall" or "La France Über Alles." Liberalism's aesthetic of balance and harmony, by contrast, is relatively mild. In the best case it might yield a quiet satisfaction rather than a sudden influx of urgent motivation.

The revolutionary fervor of the far left, meanwhile—versions of which we have seen in recent years in Black Lives Matter and the movement for peace in Palestine—yields a sense of definite purpose, clarity, and motivation. It tries to tell you exactly where you are in history and how to help drive us all somewhere else. Maybe the energy sputters out after awhile, but until then it really does get you up off your chair. Liberalism, under most circumstances, is just too mild to make such things happen.

The problem’s intrinsic. Fascism, communism and anarchism have definite PR advantages, much catchier slogans. And I don’t account myself a liberal, but rather an anarchist. However, it seems obvious that politics that moves people to ecstasy or tears is very dangerous, and I'm in a mood right now where I don't necessarily want beautiful poetry from my politics. I don't want a cult of personality, the most inspiring flag the world has ever known, the world's most vilifying negative ad ("is it dishonesty or dementia?"), or a revolutionary overturning of all that exists. Maybe if you have a set of practical proposals that could make things somewhat better, that would be enough motivation.

I think Chandler, Lefebvre, Moyn, and the think-piece workers to whom they have given rise, need to resign themselves to this and work with it. We don't need a liberal Trump, and that doesn't make sense anyway. You'll have to find other strategies than imitating your enemies; they’re better at this stuff than you are, and their positions are better-suited to these forms of expression.

Admittedly, this is liable to leave liberals losing elections, and will seem unacceptable. But they're liable to lose elections either way, and the challenge now is to come up with a useful sales strategy that doesn’t betray their basic positions, a way to sell what they are that doesn't destroy what they are.

What is this elusive strategy? Not my job, man! 

Follow Crispin Sartwell at X: @CrispinSartwell

  • Oddly missing from this article is the term “conservative.” It seems to suggest that there is only a dichotomy between liberalism and fascism/communism and….Trumpism! Associating the latter with the former is preposterous. There is no evidence, no history, no manifesto to make this connection. The real problem for liberalism is that it has been abandoned by those who formerly were self-described “liberals.” Most have degenerated into progressives, and their devotion to liberal constitutional principles is virtually non-existent, be it attacking judges they don’t approve of, trying to pack the court, declaring the constitution obsolete, using prosecutorial power to go after political enemies, etc. etc. They have most effectively been called out by the remaining true liberals. It is the progressives who are off the rails far more than the populists. But what about the conservative-liberal dichotomy? I have argued they are not mutually exclusive and a good argument could be made that the locus of true liberalism remains at National Review, the former bible of conservatism.

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