The Fight for True Liberalism

These are dark days for liberalism.  What Walter Lippmann defined as the exemplar of the Western nation, the "liberal democratic society," has lost its prestige among the people.

Take stock of the current situation.  In the late autumn of 2017, Donald Trump, a real estate mogul, is president of the United States.  Republicans control both houses of Congress.  The legislative priorities for the ruling party have thus far tanked.  Congressional approval ratings are on life support.  The president isn't faring any better.  Democrats just won a slew of state offices, providing a look at what's to come.

It is an uneasy time, no matter your political disposition.  One year ago, a political outsider commandeered a sclerotic party and, despite rejecting many of its key tenets, rode it straight into the White House.  Trump's "America First" platform, which harkens back to Depression-era isolationism, represents an antithesis of the liberal order, not just at home, but abroad.

Through the Cold War and the decades following the Soviet Union's collapse, there has been a bipartisan consensus on America's domineering role in world events.  Liberalism, a term that has meant different things at different times but still generally refers to an open society with equal rights and the rule of law, was the country's governing philosophy. 

Birthed from the Enlightenment, forged through debate and compromise into the Constitution, realized in potential during the Industrial Revolution, and fully institutionalized following World War II, liberalism has been the compass guiding America's course.

Until, perhaps, now. 

In a recent essay for The Hedgehog Review, James Davison Hunter takes a critical look at liberalism and how it's held up until now.  His assessment isn't favorable. 

For Hunter, the "deep structure" of American culture is in dire need of repair.  Our sense of "shared understandings and commitments" is out of whack.  Without this framework, we're listless, strangers in the same nation. 

Disagreements over a higher purpose are sine qua non for any country.  The difference is, and has always been, that some political institutions existed without question to undergird our collective debate.  This "imponderable authority," in Lippmann's words, allowed for citizens of varying opinion to meet somewhere in common. 

The liberalism of the American founding came with a congenital disease – an irreconcilable paradox.  How does a cohesive society venerate individualism?  Is there such thing as collective good where private interests and viewpoints vary?

For a time, America succeeded in institutionalizing the two opposing forces.  E pluribus unum is the philosophy behind our founding documents.  The faith of the old world and the reason of the new combined for an intellectually satisfying purpose.  Hence, America was born, with justice and equality enshrined in guaranteed rights.

The project of liberal nation creation was so successful that it took over.  Two world wars left America the strongest nation on Earth.  To keep liberalism alive, an international order based on its precepts had to be ensured.  The U.S. became its guarantor. 

For decades, our political elites kept the light of liberalism alive.  But somewhere along the line, people began to question the arrangement.  If liberalism was posited on universal human longings, communism's bloody toll put that assumption in question.  Similarly, the relaxing of trade barriers worldwide has stripped the U.S. of many of its low-skilled, manufacturing-based jobs, leaving the less educated struggling to rise out of menial jobs that pay a pittance.

Materially and philosophically, liberalism has been found wanting as of late.  "The cultural logic of the Enlightenment project has lost credibility, and the liberal – genuinely liberal – regime it inspired is collapsing," writes Hunter.

It certainly doesn't help matters that our political leadership are clueless as to the wants and needs of the public.  These elites, whom Michael Brendan Dougherty calls "American mainstreamers," act like Coriolanus, blasting the "common cry of curs" from high atop pedestals formed of their own egos.  Comfortably ensconced in multi-million-dollar condos in the NYC-D.C. nexus, they don't see that their fellow citizens have a jaded view of their governing competence.  For the average American outside the Acela corridor, liberalism has meant strange neighbors who don't speak English; crappier jobs for non-college graduates; cheap plastic goods at Walmart; and a godless, mundane existence punctuated by the occasional drug overdose.

It's easy to fall into the trap that American liberalism isn't worth salvaging, that its unmet promises make it broken beyond repair.  I've done so myself at times.  Competing ideologies find prey in the boredom brought by prosperity.  The social justice left and the ethno-nationalist right have worked in tandem to dissolve the bounds that kept the liberal tradition moored to a great conception of the good. 

"We need to save our liberal tradition from the politically correct madness that can't even affirm the male-female difference," writes R.R. Reno.  We also need to save it from the "decadent, creedal liberalism" view of free-market fundamentalists who view people as pleasure-seeking units of cells. 

That means asking hard questions.  What does America still exist for?  Can we reconcile individualism with the public good?  Is the time spent, the energy used, the blood spilt, and the cost incurred worth it to keep America the weight that grounds the rough and wild world?  Who fills the void America leaves after retreat?  Is there a shared point Americans can still rally around, when, to some, even the National Anthem is seen as toxic?

And lastly: Without liberalism, what's next?  Is two hundred years of tradition worth throwing away at this juncture?

These are dark days for liberalism.  What Walter Lippmann defined as the exemplar of the Western nation, the "liberal democratic society," has lost its prestige among the people.

Take stock of the current situation.  In the late autumn of 2017, Donald Trump, a real estate mogul, is president of the United States.  Republicans control both houses of Congress.  The legislative priorities for the ruling party have thus far tanked.  Congressional approval ratings are on life support.  The president isn't faring any better.  Democrats just won a slew of state offices, providing a look at what's to come.

It is an uneasy time, no matter your political disposition.  One year ago, a political outsider commandeered a sclerotic party and, despite rejecting many of its key tenets, rode it straight into the White House.  Trump's "America First" platform, which harkens back to Depression-era isolationism, represents an antithesis of the liberal order, not just at home, but abroad.

Through the Cold War and the decades following the Soviet Union's collapse, there has been a bipartisan consensus on America's domineering role in world events.  Liberalism, a term that has meant different things at different times but still generally refers to an open society with equal rights and the rule of law, was the country's governing philosophy. 

Birthed from the Enlightenment, forged through debate and compromise into the Constitution, realized in potential during the Industrial Revolution, and fully institutionalized following World War II, liberalism has been the compass guiding America's course.

Until, perhaps, now. 

In a recent essay for The Hedgehog Review, James Davison Hunter takes a critical look at liberalism and how it's held up until now.  His assessment isn't favorable. 

For Hunter, the "deep structure" of American culture is in dire need of repair.  Our sense of "shared understandings and commitments" is out of whack.  Without this framework, we're listless, strangers in the same nation. 

Disagreements over a higher purpose are sine qua non for any country.  The difference is, and has always been, that some political institutions existed without question to undergird our collective debate.  This "imponderable authority," in Lippmann's words, allowed for citizens of varying opinion to meet somewhere in common. 

The liberalism of the American founding came with a congenital disease – an irreconcilable paradox.  How does a cohesive society venerate individualism?  Is there such thing as collective good where private interests and viewpoints vary?

For a time, America succeeded in institutionalizing the two opposing forces.  E pluribus unum is the philosophy behind our founding documents.  The faith of the old world and the reason of the new combined for an intellectually satisfying purpose.  Hence, America was born, with justice and equality enshrined in guaranteed rights.

The project of liberal nation creation was so successful that it took over.  Two world wars left America the strongest nation on Earth.  To keep liberalism alive, an international order based on its precepts had to be ensured.  The U.S. became its guarantor. 

For decades, our political elites kept the light of liberalism alive.  But somewhere along the line, people began to question the arrangement.  If liberalism was posited on universal human longings, communism's bloody toll put that assumption in question.  Similarly, the relaxing of trade barriers worldwide has stripped the U.S. of many of its low-skilled, manufacturing-based jobs, leaving the less educated struggling to rise out of menial jobs that pay a pittance.

Materially and philosophically, liberalism has been found wanting as of late.  "The cultural logic of the Enlightenment project has lost credibility, and the liberal – genuinely liberal – regime it inspired is collapsing," writes Hunter.

It certainly doesn't help matters that our political leadership are clueless as to the wants and needs of the public.  These elites, whom Michael Brendan Dougherty calls "American mainstreamers," act like Coriolanus, blasting the "common cry of curs" from high atop pedestals formed of their own egos.  Comfortably ensconced in multi-million-dollar condos in the NYC-D.C. nexus, they don't see that their fellow citizens have a jaded view of their governing competence.  For the average American outside the Acela corridor, liberalism has meant strange neighbors who don't speak English; crappier jobs for non-college graduates; cheap plastic goods at Walmart; and a godless, mundane existence punctuated by the occasional drug overdose.

It's easy to fall into the trap that American liberalism isn't worth salvaging, that its unmet promises make it broken beyond repair.  I've done so myself at times.  Competing ideologies find prey in the boredom brought by prosperity.  The social justice left and the ethno-nationalist right have worked in tandem to dissolve the bounds that kept the liberal tradition moored to a great conception of the good. 

"We need to save our liberal tradition from the politically correct madness that can't even affirm the male-female difference," writes R.R. Reno.  We also need to save it from the "decadent, creedal liberalism" view of free-market fundamentalists who view people as pleasure-seeking units of cells. 

That means asking hard questions.  What does America still exist for?  Can we reconcile individualism with the public good?  Is the time spent, the energy used, the blood spilt, and the cost incurred worth it to keep America the weight that grounds the rough and wild world?  Who fills the void America leaves after retreat?  Is there a shared point Americans can still rally around, when, to some, even the National Anthem is seen as toxic?

And lastly: Without liberalism, what's next?  Is two hundred years of tradition worth throwing away at this juncture?