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Liberalism Is at a Crossroads, Not a Dead End

Some leftist thinkers are too pessimistic about the fate of liberal values in the age of Trump.

Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

This summer was a useful study in contrasts for American politics. The American left spent the last few months debating the merits of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and other policy initiatives that could improve the lives of Americans. The American right spent the summer debating whether they should abandon liberalism entirely so as to reverse their recent culture-war defeats and quash existential threats to Western civilization like the Drag Queen Story Hour.

“Liberalism,” in this sense, is not a byword for either left-of-center politics or the Democratic Party, both of which the right obviously opposes. Rather, it refers to liberalism as a political philosophy, which places democracy, egalitarianism, and individual liberty as its highest values. The rise of Trumpism at home and in far-right parties abroad has challenged its status as the dominant political ethos on the planet. In intellectual circles, there’s also a rising tide of academics and writers who openly question the principles of liberalism itself, and whether those should be set aside in pursuit of other goals.

These eruptions have been met with no small amount of alarm by liberals, who have lately taken to writing that their peers are not sufficiently defending liberalism from its attackers. “[Liberalism] needs to be saved from itself,” Yale University law Professor Samuel Moyn recently wrote. “[Its] adherents should be open to reimagining their tradition for a new era.” Vox’s Zack Beauchamp agrees. “The defenses from America’s liberal intellectual elite have been weak at best,” he wrote earlier this week. “If liberalism is to endure, liberals have to join the fight.”

Except they already have. Liberalism is not so much falling apart as it is being undermined and dismantled by those who stand to gain from its absence. There’s no denying that the anti-liberal moment is worth our attention. Nor can we ignore the intellectual underpinnings that currently animate it. But that shouldn’t come at the cost of ignoring the backlash to those forces—an anti-anti-liberal movement of sorts that’s charting the way forward for liberalism, even if it doesn’t consciously realize it.

Beauchamp’s work provides the best overview of the current intellectual debate surrounding liberalism. In a lengthy article on Monday, he described many of the actors involved in this debate, most of the arguments they raise, and the underlying philosophical currents they navigate. His narrative began with Carl Schmitt, a German political thinker who sharply criticized not just the Weimar Republic, but also the basic tenets of liberal democracy and parliamentary government. Schmitt, unsurprisingly, later embraced the Third Reich.

“Unlike Schmitt and Putin, the intellectual critics of liberalism opponents do not typically challenge democracy itself,” he wrote. “But they are united in believing that American liberalism as currently constituted is past its expiration date, that it is buckling under the weight of its contradictions. Their arguments tap into a deep sense of discontent among the voting public, a collapse of trust in the political establishment, and a growing sense that institutions like Congress aren’t delivering what the public needs.”

Beauchamp identifies two broad groups of challengers to the liberal order, each of which has its own internal divisions. On the left, he points to growing discontent with liberal capitalism and the dearth of checks on the free market’s flaws. The bulk of his attention, however, is focused on liberalism’s critics from the right, and for good reason. “Conservative anti-liberals question not only freedom in the economic sphere, but the value of pluralistic democracy itself,” he wrote. Unlike his left-leaning examples, right-wing anti-liberals also happen to be in power across the world, from Washington and Brasilia to Budapest and New Delhi.

Liberalism’s defenders are also found lacking in Beauchamp’s eyes. “They lean on old arguments persuasive largely to other liberals, doing little to counteract the narrative of crisis from which the new illiberalism gets its force,” he wrote.” It feels like the liberalism we have is musty, grown soft from its Cold War victory and unwilling to grapple with an opposition very different from what came before it.” Whether by falling back on liberalism’s past glories or hyper-focusing on the supposed threat of identity politics on college campuses, he makes a convincing case that some liberals have lost the plot. But Beauchamp’s analysis still falls short in three distinct ways.

For starters, his framing of the anti-liberal moment cedes too much intellectual ground to the anti-liberals. Critics of liberalism aren’t mere observers; they’re also usually working to accelerate its decline. Even before the Nazis took power, Schmitt advocated for dictatorship and took part in court cases that advanced it. Beauchamp also notes that Russian President Vladimir Putin once remarked that “the liberal idea has become obsolete.” Left unsaid was his personal role in undermining it, whether by crushing political opposition in Russia, by bankrolling nationalist parties in Hungary, Italy, and France, or by illegally aiding Trump’s presidential bid in 2016.

The same can be said about contemporary American challengers. My colleague Osita Nwanevu recently recapped the debate between New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari and National Review writer David French, who have become proxies of sorts for the liberal/anti-liberal skirmish in conservative circles. Ahmari isn’t criticizing liberalism from nowhere; he believes that only by dismantling it can he and other social conservatives achieve their political goals. Some conservatives are less aggressive. Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher argue that their values can best be defended and nourished at a local, community-based level. Others would go even further. Harvard University law Professor Adrian Vermeule recently proposed co-opting liberal institutions and harnessing them to impose Catholic social and political doctrines upon everyone else.

What they all understand—and what liberals like Beauchamp elide—is that this is really about power. They believe that the conservative movement can no longer achieve its ends within a liberal framework. Rather than abandoning these goals, or engaging in the hard work of democracy to persuade others to accept them, they have opted to quit that framework entirely. This sense of persecution may seem bizarre given that social conservatives currently control the White House, the Senate, and the Supreme Court. But they seem to implicitly understand that they now owe their power to illiberal flaws in the system rather than any sort of genuine democratic mandate.

Secondly, while Beauchamp gives too much credence to conservative critiques, he also inflates the threat posed by leftists. In a way, he concedes as much himself. “For all their anti-liberal rhetoric, virtually none of today’s serious left critics of liberalism are Stalinists or Maoists—that is, opponents of democracy itself,” Beauchamp notes. “They believe in liberal rights like freedom of expression, and pursue their revolutionary agenda through social organizing and democratic elections.” He goes on to note that many of these leftists “do not frame themselves as opponents of liberal democratic ideals. Rather, they argue that they’re the only people who can vindicate liberalism’s best promises.”

According to Beauchamp, where these leftists actually run afoul of liberalism is when it comes to the free market. Leftward threats to the liberal order are better understood as threats to neoliberalism, an amorphous term that, within leftist circles, refers to the overbearing influence of capitalist forces in everyday life. It would be a mistake to describe this as wholly outside the liberal tradition. Liberalism, after all, prizes individual liberty and personal autonomy above all else. What is freedom to a diabetic who can’t afford insulin, or a middle-class family bankrupted by an emergency room visit?

Finally, Beauchamp’s critique of other liberals’ answer to these challenges is off-base. According to his thesis, liberals aren’t doing enough to confront their ideological foes and make an affirmative case for the liberal order. If by “liberals,” one means “liberal writers and academics,” then he has a point: It’s true that the next John Rawls has yet to emerge in this Trumpian moment. It’s also true that some liberal writers have spent too much time complaining about campus safe spaces and not enough time warning about partisan gerrymandering.

But if by “liberals,” however, one means “people who believe in liberal values and ideals,” then Beauchamp is flat-out wrong. The evidence for this can be seen at home and overseas. Americans resoundingly voted last fall to give Democrats control of the House of Representatives and impose checks on Trump’s far-right populism. Trump himself may yet win reelection next year, but his historic levels of unpopularity suggest that he likely won’t. More recently, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson lost his majority in Parliament and united his fractured opponents by trying to yank the U.K. out of the European Union by undemocratic means. Far-right governments in Italy, Austria, and some (but not all) other European countries are also struggling to achieve their goals.

In the world’s major authoritarian states, things are also unwell. Russian opposition groups staged their largest demonstrations in almost a decade across the country this summer, even successfully pressuring the government to release opposition figure Alexei Navalny after a bogus arrest. Pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong have spent months protesting the mainland’s efforts to curtail the city-state’s liberal and quasi-democratic system. The unrest there has even raised rare internal questions about Xi Jinping’s leadership. Neither Beijing nor Moscow are in danger of immediate collapse, of course. But the protests serve as a valuable reminder that the stability promised by illiberal figures is more myth than substance.

Toward the end of his piece, Beauchamp does glancingly cite bursts of grassroots energy that have cut against these anti-liberal trends: the Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives, and #MeToo movements, as well as the Women’s Marches and the student rallies against climate change. But to these, he gives short shrift. These forces are the very things that will keep liberal democracy intact, not intellectual salons or op-ed columns. And as long as citizens work to build a world where they can peacefully coexist with each other without force or coercion, the “anti-liberal moment” will remain just that: a moment.