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 America. 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.

Galston writes as a friend of liberal democracy and foe of the “anti-pluralism” of his title. Yet he has stern admonitions for his fellow liberals, insisting that they moderate their ideological demands upon the American public and accommodate its rising populist spirit in reasonable ways—for example, by paying more attention to the economic needs of the middle and working classes, including by limiting immigration. “Nothing requires democratic leaders to give the same weight to outsiders’ claims as to those of their own citizens,” he writes.

In a little more than a hundred pages, Galston attempts to define liberal democracy, survey the challenges facing it in the United States and abroad, and describe the nature of the new populist or “anti-pluralist” threat. He is greatly alarmed by the rise of “illiberal democrats” like Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Law and Justice Party in Poland, who in his telling have rejected “individual rights, social diversity, and the need for reasonable compromise among competing interests.” They have changed media and educational laws to the disadvantage of their domestic opposition, as well as taking a hard line against Islamic immigration. “In both countries,” Galston writes, “about four in ten citizens hold negative views of growing diversity, and majorities believe their society is better off when composed of people from the same nationalities, religions, and cultures.”

Brexit, however, is not in Galston’s eyes a comparable phenomenon, and Britain is in little danger of falling into illiberalism. He is less sure about the United States, where he is disturbed not only by Trump but also by hardening anti-democratic attitudes among the liberal elite. “The mirror image of the populism that disfigures today’s politics in America,” he writes, “is a growing doubt, expressed more in private than in public, about the people’s capacity to govern themselves—especially when they are asked to endure short-term pain as the price of long-term gain.” He counsels compromise. If liberals want America to remain liberal, they will have to throw a sop to Cerberus, yielding to the demands of the public enough to preserve their own democratic legitimacy and paying more heed to the needs of their fellow citizens. If Galston sounds like a moderate nationalist, it is only because he understands the necessity for strategic concessions if liberalism is to survive.

As reasonable as Galston’s prescriptions may seem at first glance, all he really achieves is to disguise the nature of the conflict between liberals and their enemies. His description of liberalism is too coy by half: bloodless and schematic, liberal democracy in Galston’s telling is just a skeleton, a “republican principle” of popular sovereignty combined with majoritarian yet “inclusive” democracy, rule-of-law constitutionalism, respect for individual rights, and “commitment to economic growth and prosperity as a central aim of public policy, and to suitably regulated markets as the best way of achieving it.” These wholesome generalities are only dimly illuminated by contrast with the “principal threats to liberal democracy,” which include “exclusionary ethnic, historical, class, or religious conceptions of ‘the people.’” What is missing in Galston’s anodyne formulation is any recognition of the ideological dimension of liberalism—that liberal democracy is not just a neutral framework but, especially today, comes with substantive, value-charged, contentious demands of its own. It has a philosophy of man—or rather, of non-man, since such gendered language is now illiberal.

Deneen fills the gap here: Why Liberalism Failed is a robust argument that liberalism has a clear and contestable anthropology, and this anthropology—to which liberals demand conformity in government policy and social life—is wrong. But the attentive reader will detect in Galston’s own soothing prose a few ideological barbs. For one, there is Galston’s euphemistic use of the word “diversity,” which does not simply mean “variety.” What it means for liberals is a positive good—not a mere multiplicity of human characteristics and types, but rather a preference for certain kinds of groups over others. The preferred groups are precisely those that diminish traditional “ethnic, historical, class, or religious conceptions of ‘the people,’” at least where Europe and North America are concerned. “Diversity” never means that Algeria must accept more Frenchmen or Zimbabwe more English farmers, of course.

There is a charitable interpretation of liberal demands for diversity and an uncharitable one; probably both are true. The charitable one is that liberals truly wish to eradicate the illiberal past of their own countries, but to do so they must also eradicate the foundations upon which the old illiberalism stood: not only outright racism, but the unintended biases that arise from supermajorities sharing a faith or ethnicity or a small cluster of related faiths and ethnicities. The surest prophylactic against the return of racial or religious discrimination is to smash the old racial and religious blocs into fragments and prevent those fragments from recombining by instilling in the old sorts of Americans and Europeans a belief that unspeakable evil always arises from their particular kind of identity politics. Stated simply, if whites are racist and Christians are bigots, then our countries need proportionally fewer whites and Christians.

The glaring flaw in this thinking is that even if its premises were true, nonwhites and non-Christians would not necessarily be any less racist or bigoted than the old Western majorities. What’s more, in demolishing the foundations of the old illiberalism, one risks demolishing what was once the foundation of liberalism, too. Few non-Christian countries have a history of fostering liberal traditions.

The uncharitable interpretation of the mantra of diversity is that it serves a divide-et-impera strategy and substitutes a weaker, disorganized, more pliable underclass for the well-organized and militant working classes that troubled liberalism from the nineteenth century until the last decades of the twentieth century. Turkish guest workers in Germany and undocumented Latin American immigrants in the United States are in no legal or cultural position to demand the kind of treatment or wages that American and German citizen workers would insist upon. But even beyond such crude economic considerations, the political and social fragmentation brought about by diversity may be essential for an administrative overclass to maintain its power. If nothing else, diversity makes the rise of an alternative ruling class of either the nationalist Right or socialist Left—out of a majority that possesses a strong sense of solidarity political cohesion—highly unlikely, if not impossible.

Galston is right that liberalism’s survival depends on compromise, but by presenting a misleadingly inoffensive and nonideological picture of liberalism, he makes the first step toward compromise, an honest and open airing of differences, more difficult.

Deneen does not want liberalism to survive. Yet Why Liberalism Failed does not really advance any worldly alternative, either. The book has received generous reviews from progressives and respectful ones from conservatives, which is impressive, given that Deneen is, in straightforward terms, a Catholic Christian conservative who is highly critical of much of what the American Right holds dear, beginning with the American Founding and the market economy. He has succeeded in interesting multifarious readers, however, because he attacks each side’s idea of Satan: for the Left, the free-market Right; and for the Right, the cultural Left.

Liberalism has many meanings: for Galston, it is a bland system disguising a benevolent program of social reconstruction. For “classical” liberals of the nineteenth century, it was a system of economic freedom and political emancipation from the old medieval order. In twentieth-century America, liberalism came to be identified with the New Deal and Great Society, and later efforts to expand government to provide more benefits and services.

The liberalism at which Deneen takes aim is a grand conception that encompasses both the classical liberalism and the modern big-government variety. He argues that the philosophical-anthropological foundations of liberalism, extending back to Hobbes and Locke, lead the free market and large centralized government to work together to liberate individuals from their relationships with one another and even from their own natures. The result is a loss of virtue, endemic anxiety—especially about technology—a sense of helplessness and alienation from self-government, and a series of recent and impending financial and environmental catastrophes. These are the ways in which liberalism has failed.

Although Deneen draws upon a range of insightful social thinkers, including Alexis de Tocqueville and the sociologist Robert Nisbet, the core of his conception of liberalism comes from Leo Strauss, who goes unmentioned, however, in the pages of Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen relies upon Strauss’s interpretations of Thomas Hobbes as a liberal individualist and John Locke as a crypto-Hobbesian and atheist. (C. B. Macpherson, who shared Strauss’s view of Hobbes, does get cited.) Francis Bacon also looms large for Deneen as the prophet of technological liberation from nature. Academics have been known to joke that students in the tradition of Strauss characteristically inflate the political importance of Bacon while omitting from their considerations of liberalism actual, historical liberal figures like Benjamin Constant—and sure enough, Constant goes unmentioned in Deneen’s account of liberalism. Also unmentioned are such unimpeachable liberals of indisputable religious conviction as Lord Acton, William Gladstone and Reinhold Niebuhr.

Liberals whose works show a great concern for the social or communal dimension of life, such as L. T. Hobhouse, also disappear from the record of liberalism to be found in Deneen’s work. His major points of reference for liberalism instead consist of Hobbes, Locke, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, with Machiavelli and Bacon haunting the background. It’s a cherry-picked list, whose members’ words and ideas are cut up and put to similarly selective use.

The result could be characterized as a Frankenstein liberalism built out of mismatched parts, but there are two things to be said for the genealogy Deneen constructs. The first is that—whether or not these sources all deserve to be called liberal—they may have crucial elements in common, such as a tendency in their theorizing to weaken the traditional bases of authority and social life, promoting individualism either directly or indirectly. Second, however implausible the lineage Deneen draws up may seem in light of liberalism’s historical development, this construct does bear a certain disturbing resemblance to the thing that goes by the name of liberalism today. To say so is not to let Deneen entirely off the hook—the fact that liberalism has sometimes looked very different from how it appears now is important, in part because it may mean that the best alternative to “liberalism” is to be found not in rejecting liberalism altogether but in accepting a different kind of liberalism, perhaps an anti-Frankenstein built out of the parts that Deneen omits. Deneen himself perhaps nods in this direction by treating Edmund Burke—whose Whig credentials and views on trade make him at least as plausible a liberal as Thomas Hobbes—as a source of wisdom.

The social contract is the theoretical centerpiece of Deneen’s understanding of liberalism. (Despite the fact that John Stuart Mill, arguably the paradigmatic liberal, rejected the social contract as even a mere thought experiment.) For Hobbes and Locke, human beings begin as radically loose individuals in a state of nature, subject to no formal authority, which only arises though the self-interested act of entering a contract. Deneen argues that the purpose of social-contract theory, however, is actually to create the radically individualistic state of nature that the theory is supposedly trying to escape, and to replace earlier, more socially and politically grounded conceptions of nature, such as are found in Aristotle, with a new, self-made, unnatural “nature,” in which men and women have no preexisting commitments and are free to pursue pleasure as the highest end.

This, for Deneen, is what liberalism is fundamentally about. It fails because human pleasure-seeking can never be satisfied and must end with discontentment. Similarly, the limits of the natural world’s resources and humanity’s real, preliberal nature make endless consumerism and the accumulation of ever more power unsustainable. Deneen’s is a grand philosophical critique of a hedonistic anthropology and the technological and political ethos by which it attempts to establish itself in the world of flesh and blood. He warns of apocalyptic consequences to follow, though one is asked to take on faith the magnitude of the ecological and economic disasters to come.

This last part is more than a little unsatisfying: Deneen confidently prophesies doom, yet he rejects the scientific and social-scientific basis on which predictions about economic exhaustion and global warming are made. But Deneen isn’t writing as a scientist, just as he is not writing here as a political thinker: Deneen is a moralist, and the darkness he foresees is above all and most certainly a moral one. Its material correlative in global warming or a bank crash is beside the point for what matters most to Deneen—which is the moral condition of man under liberalism.

But one of his methodological weaknesses is that Deneen doesn’t make fair comparisons between moral ideals; he prefers to compare a preliberal moral ideal—and a whitewashed one at that—to certain tenebrous realities of liberalism. Deneen argues that ancient philosophy, chiefly as found in Aristotle, had a nobler idea of freedom than the modern world does: freedom as self-control rather than as liberation from the bounds of nature. Deneen gives liberalism a degree of credit for having been an attempt, at least at an earlier stage, to fulfill some of Western civilization’s moral intuitions that were dormant in ancient philosophy; in particular, Deneen has much that is favorable to say about equality, and in praising Aristotle he in no way excuses the Stagirite’s acceptance of slavery. But Deneen is trying to have it both ways—more work than he undertakes is needed to make Aristotle safe for modern notions of equality, and to make equality safe for Aristotelian philosophy.

The primary meaning of freedom for Aristotle and other ancient Greeks was not self-control. It was avoiding being a slave. That included not being a slave to one’s own appetites, but the control that the free man exercised was not merely over a “self”—his freedom also entailed control over his wife, his children, his slaves, his livestock and his property. His powers of command, and the responsibilities that came with them, were essential to the exercise of virtue—and the leisure that arose from other people doing the dirty work was an invaluable means to support philosophical contemplation. Aristotelian virtue was built upon inequality.

Try to reconstitute Aristotelian virtue in an environment of equality, and you get something that looks at least as much like liberalism as like classical Aristotelian virtue. In order to have leisure, suddenly you need a voluntary division of labor, producing enough surplus to support the contemplative life. Deneen, following Strauss, despises the idea of a social order built upon self-interest. But self-interest is the social principle that corresponds to equality: if you can’t simply order your slaves, serfs or tenants to work for your upkeep, you have to persuade them to do it—and an argument from self-interest is always more persuasive than mere moral exhortation.

Students of Strauss find the revolutionary beginnings of modern self-interest in Machiavelli and later Hobbes and Locke. Tocqueville, by contrast, believed that modern politics and economics had roots in Medieval Christendom, with equality beginning to become a salient feature around the twelfth century. If Tocqueville is correct, Deneen and Strauss do not go nearly deep enough. Then again, perhaps he goes too deep—into the abyss of philosophy when modern history and politics would provide him with surer answers.

The liberalism that is in decline around the world is Anglo-American. It has its roots, as Soviet Communism did, in a widespread nineteenth-century vision of the scientific secularized future. But the reality has been modeled upon the American experience and underwritten since the First World War—if not before—by American military and commercial might. What Deneen attacks can be called Americanism as justly as liberalism. While the self-described liberals of the nineteenth century were not, on the whole, believers in a social contract, Americans, on the whole, are. And America has an actual social contract: the U.S. Constitution. The nation’s founding, unlike that of any European state, includes an element of explicit Lockean philosophy as well in the Declaration of Independence.

But the consumerism and individualism that trouble Deneen are not products of Madison’s or Jefferson’s pen. They are ramifications of the way Americans have actually lived since colonial times, their life experience characterized by ceaseless growth (first across the North American continent, then through economic and demographic development of this continental-scale country, and finally through the projection of a global Americanism) and a thirst for equality (which, as Tocqueville understood, entails a culturally leveling tendency).

Deneen sketches in only the faintest of outlines what his nonliberal America would look like, relying heavily on Tocqueville’s description of the self-reliant communities he encountered during his sojourn in America, as well as on the novels of Wendell Berry. This America would be a country defined by localism and strong civil associations, in contrast to an overweening federal government and global market, both of which produce loose and sensualist individuals. Yet there is a reason this romantic vision of virtue does not exist.

Deneen treats everything as unconstrained moral choice. But the virtues that Americans found in civil association in the nineteenth century were the products, in many cases, of material constraints. They did not choose to rely on community to raise barns; they had no choice because there was no federal government or free-market barn-raising service. Once the market and the state are able to provide the things that formerly only community could provide, community’s function is vitiated. For Deneen’s dream to come true, it would not be enough for Americans to reclaim the strength of character they may or may not have had in the nineteenth century. They would actually have to be far more self-sacrificing and virtuous, to choose what nineteenth-century farmers frontiersmen were forced to accept.

The localist dream fails in strategic and economic terms. Classical history and its lessons must always be remembered alongside the rather different lessons of classical philosophy. The Founding Fathers were no admirers of the actual city-states of Greece because they were proverbial for their internecine warfare and tendency toward internal revolutions. The ancient world itself perceived the Greek political experiment—the polis—as a failure, one overtaken first by Alexander and the Hellenistic kingdoms that emerged after his empire’s collapse, and later by the supreme political form of the ancient world, the Roman Empire.

When Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson and Madison turn away from Greece and Rome in their political theory and instead embrace social contracts and self-interest, it is not because they hate the virtues of the ancient world. It is because they aspire to neither the unstable polis nor the universal Roman Empire. If the Roman Empire is out of the question—because conquering the known world and reuniting with the Catholic Church is out of the question—and if the polis was a failure in the most concrete of terms, what is left? Modern political philosophy has been an attempt to find an answer starting from an abstraction of the social conditions that already existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth century— conditions which included an already high degree of individualism, commerce and contractual relations.

The problems of the polis and the empire are real perennial problems of Western politics, not merely historical lessons. Small states, like the Greek poleis, had inadequate means to defend themselves. (Even if a Singapore were to have nuclear weapons, it would be overawed by the resources of superpowers.) The existence of local Tocquevillian communities of the sort that Deneen cherishes depends upon national power wedded to a liberal, pluralist ethos; without that power, they would be swept away into somebody else’s empire. Too many localists are characteristically American in their inability to consider the fate that awaits small, weak and only modestly wealthy states. Either they grow into larger, strong and wealthy states—or they are conquered.

Yet simply because the image of a virtuous small-town America insulated from the corrupting necessities of national power and prosperity is unrealistic does not mean that there are no alternatives to liberalism as we know it today. The political alternative is the one now being explored by leading nations of every civilization except the West: the reaffirmation of political community, specifically the nation, and a core faith. The faith of the West is not a sectarian Christianity, but a broad and pluralistic one—as is clear as soon as one looks at the beliefs of America’s own Founding Fathers.

Christianity in any form is not by itself a political force. Like a vine, it needs a support structure. This was the role that St. Augustine identified for the Roman Empire. From the end of the Middle Ages until now, the nation-state has provided the scaffolding in the West. But beginning in the twentieth century, liberalism came to be the scaffolding—with its apparatus of more-than-national institutions and aspirations of worldly universalism. Yet liberalism is a competing universalism; combined with Christianity, it does not give Christianity the worldliness and political realism that the faith otherwise lacks. On the contrary: liberalism further removes Christianity from the world. For decades, religion and liberalism were allies against Communism, implacable foe of both God and the market. Over time, however, liberalism severed Christianity’s relationship with the nation-state—even on the right, where Christian conservatives came to be enlisted in globalist crusades under George W. Bush.

Nationalism provides what religion by itself typically does not: concrete answers (which is not necessarily to say correct answers) to strategic and economic problems. Just as importantly, it provides a worldliness without which Christian ethics and the ancient virtues become too perfectionist for their own good. The irony is that liberalism itself may find salvation in the West’s return to faith and nation, in that those provided the context of security, prosperity and moral strength in which liberalism arose in the first place. But if the West is to endure, liberalism must remain an effect, not a substitute, for the cause.

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review.

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