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Two Forms Of Liberalism

It's been nearly a week since I backed off of the arguments I made in these two posts. And yet those arguments continue to reverberate around the Web. Here's Russell Arben Fox and Ross Douthat and Noah Millman -- and my response to Noah. And Will Wilkinson. And John Schwenkler. And Daniel Larison. And Sam Barr. I'm sure I've missed someone, but these are the posts that have most contributed to my thinking over the past several days.

For now, I'd just like to make a very simple distinction -- one that many others have made before me, but one that debates like this always seem to stumble over. We can never be reminded too often that the term "liberalism" refers to two distinct things. First, it's shorthand (in the American context) for "liberal democracy," which is a form of government, like monarchy, aristocracy, etc. The liberal form of government is quite institutionally flexible, but it usually includes most if not all of the following norms and practices: free and fair multi-party elections, the freedom of assembly and worship, a free and independent press, civilian control of the military, an independent judiciary, and the right to private property. To be a "liberal" in this sense is to favor a form of government with these institutions and to agree to play by the political rules that they establish.

But of course "liberal" is also used to describe those citizens within the liberal-democratic polity of the United States who favor a particular set of policies, and who seek to win public argument and political office through the rules of the liberal-democratic game, just like groups of citizens who favor different sets of policies (like conservatives of various stripes). 

Noah can tell me if I'm wrong, but when he calls for liberals to be more confident and humble, I think he's talking about liberals in the second sense, not the first one. If that's the case, then I fear we're talking past each other. That's because, though it might not always be as clear as it should be, my writings about "theocons," "the liberal bargain," and related topics are meant to apply to liberalism in the first sense, as a form of government (or, to speak Straussian, as a "regime").

What troubles me about the theocons is not their desire to get this or that policy enacted. It is their attempt to change our collective understanding of the liberal regime. For there is another characteristic of liberal democratic government that I failed to mention above: It strives for neutrality on metaphysical questions. America's liberal Constitution, the nation's fundamental law, aims to say as little as possible one way or the other about God or the best way of life for a human being or the content of human happiness, leaving private citizens and groups to hash out these matters for themselves, without (federal) government interference. There are no religious tests in American public life. The Constitution merely establishes rules by which we might govern ourselves and resolve our disputes short of violent conflict, regardless of our views about God and the ultimate ends of humanity.

(As I've recently argued, I believe that with Roe v. Wade liberals in the second, partisan sense went too far in grafting their metaphysical outlook onto the Constitution, violating its metaphysical neutrality and provoking a backlash that still shapes, and distorts, our politics today.) 

Again, the theocons do not simply aim to play by the liberal democratic rules to get a certain set of policies enacted. Their ultimate ambition is much bolder and broader than that. It is to persuade their fellow citizens to believe that -- or, more likely, to persuade a politician to govern as if -- the liberal regime had theological (and in particular, orthodox Catholic-Christian) foundations. And that is a problem -- one that transcends normal partisan political disputes. Why? Because normal partisan political disputes do not concern regime-level issues. On the contrary, these disputes presuppose agreement among the parties about the character of the regime as a metaphysically neutral arbiter; whichever side wins a political debate about tax policy or environmental policy or foreign policy and then wins political office to enact that policy, the character of the American liberal regime remains the same. But the theocons propose something else: to portray those on the other side of the social-conservative policy debate as defective in the eyes of God and (for that very reason) defective as American citizens.

In other words, the theocons seek to turn a normal partisan political dispute into a theological conflict about the nature of the American liberal regime itself. In the eyes of the theocons, the American Constitution and the principles upon which it is based derive from Catholic-Christian sources -- and our failure to acknowledge these sources is likely to lead to national disaster. America must be recognized as a Christian nation, and not merely in the sense that a large majority of citizens identify themselves as one kind of Christian or another. America must be recognized as a Christian nation in the sense that its form of government -- its regime, liberalism in the first sense -- is essentially, ineradicably Christian. (Our failure to do so is what led theocon Richard John Neuhaus on numerous occasions to liken our historical moment to the years just preceding the American Civil War, when the nation's citizens killed each other en masse for what was, at bottom, a dispute about the metaphysical status of black slaves.)

One of the reasons I backtracked from the argument I made last week is that, thanks in part to Ross Douthat's tough response, I came to see that I had been unfair to Andrew Bacevich in assimilating him to a theocon-like project of radical constitutional, regime-level revisionism. Still, I wonder: What about Patrick Deneen, Daniel Larison, and the other writers listed by Rod Dreher here: Do they merely wish (as Ross suggests) to engage in an extra-political project of cultural renewal? Alternately, do they hope to lead a political movement within the liberal political system? Or do they instead view their searching critique of contemporary American life as necessitating a break with the liberal regime itself? That is, are they seeking to work within the system or to overthrow the system? And if it's the latter, what alternative regime do they propose? In a word, what precisely -- concretely, politically -- does a cultural critic like Patrick Deneen want? 

UPDATE: Around the same time that this post went live, Noah Millman hit back against my whole defense of liberal metaphysical neutrality in a tour de force post of his own. It's a wonderfully cogent statement of the Aristotelian view of politics -- that is, the view of politics that liberalism (as I understand it) has sought to supplant since it first arose in the seventeenth century. (You can also find a critique of Noah's post, and a defense of your humble blogger, here.)