An Autopsy: Why Liberalism Failed

June 14, 2018 Topic: Politics Region: North America Tags: PoliticsAmericaLiberalismTrump

An Autopsy: Why Liberalism Failed

To hear a number of liberals themselves tell it, the United States has already abandoned liberalism—at least until the 2020 election returns history to its right path. 

Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven and London: Yale University, 2018), 248 pp., $30.00.

William A. Galston, Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy (New Haven and London: Yale University, 2018), 176 pp., $30.00.

Today, liberalism appears to be dying in much the same way that Soviet Communism did a generation ago. It is collapsing on its periphery, shedding its colonies and facing a crisis of faith at home. History has gone into reverse in the realm of the old Warsaw Pact, first with Russia, now Hungary, Poland and the former East Germany rejecting liberalism—just as they did Marxism three decades ago. The exotic American orchid of liberal democracy, having taken root in such unlikely climes as postwar Germany and Japan, has failed to flower where the Iron Curtain once cast its shadow.

The story is the same elsewhere: a new sort of decolonization is taking place from the Eastern Mediterranean to South Asia. States that until recently aspired to Western-style modernity on their own terms now find little need for the secular models of liberalism or socialism. They have taken up instead the old cause of faith and nation.

Bitter rivals though they may have been, liberalism and Communism sprang from a common nineteenth-century vision of human destiny: of a future that was secularizing, scientific, materially prosperous, progressive, universal and inevitable. This, for all its variations, was the vision of Vladimir Lenin and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, David Ben-Gurion and Jawaharlal Nehru, Woodrow Wilson and the architects of the European Union. The decline of liberalism is not a surprise twist to history, seen in this light. It is only a continuation of what destroyed the Soviet order—a long awakening from the utopian reverie of scientific truth wedded to power.

At the turn of this century, Turkey was supposed to be a model for how a Muslim-majority country could become Western and democratic. Now, Turkey is illiberal, however democratic it remains: less secular, more nationalistic than before and less Western-oriented. The last hope for Turkish liberalism may have lain not with democracy but with military guardianship—a prospect to which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has put paid. His successful fusion of assertive nationalism and religious populism bears a striking resemblance to the formula that brought Narendra Modi to power in India. Even in Israel, the present and future of politics belong not to the dead dream of Labour Zionism but to an alliance of the nationalist Right and ultra-Orthodox.

The pattern is too distinctive to miss: whether the civilization is Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or Orthodox Christian—there are even signs of it in the Buddhist world and beyond—the nation-state has been reaffirmed as the expression of distinct peoples with distinct interests and rivalrous gods, as against the universal order of rationalistic liberalism. And where America has tried to promote liberal democracy by force, the results are no better: nearly twenty years of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan has failed to defeat the Taliban. In fact, American efforts have not so much as made a start at ending tribal customs that involve the rape of young boys. At this point, many of the Afghans who continue to fight the Americans and U.S.-backed government in Kabul were not even born when George W. Bush launched “Operation Enduring Freedom”—which has certainly been an enduring operation, if not much good for freedom.

This little survey, which could be easily extended, leads to an obvious question: what about the fate of liberalism in its own civilizational core, the once Protestant and Catholic European West, including the Americas? To hear a number of liberals themselves tell it, the United States has already abandoned liberalism—at least until the 2020 election returns history to its right path. Here, as seemingly everywhere, nationalists and fundamentalists have made common cause: they elected Donald Trump, and President Trump is dismantling the liberal and democratic “norms” that seemingly matter more than such fine points of the U.S. Constitution as the Electoral College and the Second Amendment. Liberalism in Western Europe clings to power, despite the insurgences of the Front National in France and Alternative für Deutschland in Germany. But Britain’s popular vote to exit the European Union, followed by Donald Trump’s sweep into the White House, has called the future of Anglo-American liberalism very much into question.

What conventional pundits and partisans have to say about that question is entirely predictable. But Yale University Press has made an effort to provide more serious answers through a new series of books overseen by James Davison Hunter and John M. Owen IV—two professors affiliated with the University of Virginia’s Institute for the Advanced Study of Culture (IASC). Hunter, a sociologist, is the IASC’s founder and lays a claim to fame for having coined the term “culture war” with his 1991 book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define Americ a. For their Politics and Culture series with Yale, Hunter and Owen (whose field is international relations) have commissioned brief but searching works from scholars with a knack for influencing political discourse. The latest volume is Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy , by William A. Galston, a former advisor to Bill Clinton and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal . Galston’s work arrives in the shadow, however, of the extraordinary success of the series’ previous volume, released in January: Why Liberalism Failed , by the Notre Dame political science professor Patrick Deneen.

Galston and Deneen write with very different purposes, yet they have something in common. Both have dabbled in government, as well as popular journalism. (Deneen worked for the U.S. Information Agency during the Clinton era.) Both owe deep debts to Leo Strauss, with whom Galston studied at the University of Chicago and whom Deneen came to admire in part through the influence of Wilson Carey McWilliams—not himself a “Straussian” but a self-described “fellow traveler”—at Rutgers University, where Deneen earned his undergraduate and doctoral degrees. Their background with Strauss serves both men well by giving them a wider sense of politics and political psychology than is often to be found among social scientists.