Shortly after its post-World War I creation, the foundations of Germany’s Weimar Republic began to quake. In 1923, Hitler staged an abortive coup attempt in Bavaria, the so-called Beer Hall Putsch — a failure that nonetheless turned Hitler into a reactionary celebrity, a sign of German discontent with the post-war political order.
One contemporary observer, a legal theorist in his mid-30s named Carl Schmitt, found the seeds of the crisis within the idea of liberalism itself. Liberal institutions like representative democracy, and the liberal ideal that all a nation’s citizens can be treated as political equals, were in his view a sham. Politics at its core is not about compromise between equal individuals but instead conflict between groups.
“Even if Bolshevism is suppressed and Fascism held at bay, the crisis of contemporary parliamentarism would not be overcome in the least,” he wrote in 1926. ”It is, in its depths, the inescapable contradiction of liberal individualism and democratic homogeneity.”
Schmitt’s critique of liberalism proved terrifyingly accurate. The struggle between the Nazis and their opponents could not be resolved through parliamentary compromise; the Weimar Republic fell to fascism and took the rest of the continent down with it.
I’ve been thinking about Schmitt a lot lately. Not about his dark fate — he became an enthusiastic Nazi — but instead about his prescience. Schmitt saw something in German politics, deep flaws in its liberal order, before they became obvious to other political observers and ordinary citizens. His philosophical critique predicted political reality.
Schmitt haunts our political moment because we are seeing a flowering of criticism of American liberalism. In recent years, serious thinkers on both the left and right have launched a sustained assault on the United States’ founding intellectual credo.
These criticisms do not arise in a vacuum. They stem from real-world crises, most notably the 2008 Great Recession and the rise of far-right populists like Donald Trump to power. These shocks to the system show, in the eyes of liberalism’s contemporary critics, that something is profoundly wrong with the fundamental ideas that define our politics. It is a belief that “the liberal idea has become obsolete,” as Russian President Vladimir Putin recently declared.
Unlike Schmitt and Putin, the intellectual critics of liberalism opponents do not typically challenge democracy itself. 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.
On the right, the anti-liberals locate the root of the problem in liberalism’s social doctrines, its emphasis on secularism and individual rights. In their view, these ideas are solvents breaking down America’s communities and, ultimately, dissolving the very social fabric the country needs to prosper.
Liberalism “constantly disrupts deeply cherished traditions among its subject populations, stirring unrest, animosity, and eventually political reaction and backlash,” Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule, one of the most prominent of the reactionary anti-liberals, said in a May speech.
Left anti-liberals, by contrast, pinpoint liberal economic doctrine as the source of our current woes. Liberalism’s vision of the economy as a zone of individual freedom, in their view, has given rise to a deep system of exploitation that makes a mockery of liberal claims to be democratic — an oppressive system referred to as “neoliberalism.”
“Neoliberalism in any guise is not the solution but the problem,” Nancy Fraser, a professor at the New School, writes. “The sort of change we require can only come from elsewhere, from a project that is at the very least anti-neoliberal, if not anti-capitalist.”
The defenses from America’s liberal intellectual elite have been weak at best. The most prominent defenses of liberalism today are either laundry lists of its past glories or misplaced attacks on “identity politics” and “political correctness,” neither of which are adequate to the challenge presented by liberalism’s newly vital critics on the reactionary right or socialist left.
If liberalism is to endure, liberals have to join the fight. And that starts with understanding why liberalism is in trouble — and just what, exactly, it’s up against.
A very brief account of liberalism, and why it’s in crisis
For a word that’s so omnipresent, liberalism is notoriously difficult to define.
In the context of political philosophy, liberalism refers to a school of thought that takes freedom, consent, and autonomy as foundational moral values. Liberals agree that it is generally wrong to coerce people, to seize control of their bodies or force them to act against their will (though they disagree among themselves on many, many whys and hows of the matter).
Given that people will always disagree about politics, liberalism’s core aim is to create a generally acceptable mechanism for settling political disputes without undue coercion — to give everyone a say in government through fair procedures, so that citizens consent to the state’s authority even when they disagree with its decisions.
This foundational liberal vision is typically associated with a group of European and American thinkers — from John Locke in the 17th century to John Rawls in the 20th — and thus often treated as a Western political inheritance. But seeing liberalism as a product of a particular cultural tradition is a mistake.
As Amartya Sen argued in a brilliant 1997 essay, many of the core principles we identify with liberalism today — religious toleration, popular sovereignty, equal freedom for all citizens — can be found in writings from pre-modern Europe, the ancient Buddhist tradition, and a 16th-century Indian king, among a range of sources. Liberalism has taken root in diverse societies across the globe today, from Japan to Uruguay to Namibia.
Sen’s paper suggests that instead of defining liberalism by books written by dead white men, it makes more sense to treat it as a set of parts: a grouping of principles and animating ideas that, when combined, add up to an overarching framework for understanding political life.
Of these components, at least four political principles are common to the various species of liberalism (all of which relate to its core moral premise about freedom). They are familiar to most citizens in liberal regimes: democracy, the rule of law, individual rights, and equality.
These ideas — the minimalist core of liberalism — are so foundational to political life in advanced democracies that they’re simply taken for granted, with debates about public policy taking place inside liberalism’s parameters.
Bush-era American conservatism was a right-wing species of liberalism; what Americans call “liberalism” is a relatively modest form of left-liberalism. Germany’s Christian Democrats, India’s Congress, Cape Verde’s PAICV, and Argentina’s Republican Proposal are politically diverse parties, some more conservative by their country’s standards and others more left-leaning, but they’re all broadly liberal.
To challenge liberalism is thus to not merely engage in ordinary political argumentation. It is to call into question the entire operating system that defines the world’s democracies. It is, by its nature, a radical claim.
But these are radical times. Several trends and shock events have combined to create a sense of rolling crisis. This certainly traces back to the Great Recession; arguably, it began as far back as the 9/11 attacks. But what’s clear is that liberalism’s peril became acute in 2016, when the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump proved that illiberal right-wing populism had emerged as a serious challenge to liberal hegemony.
By one count, illiberal right-wing populists controlled the governments of least 11 different countries in 2018; in 1990, they controlled none. Trump is the most famous example, but he has peers in countries as influential as Brazil and India. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has openly described his political vision as “illiberal,” essentially dismantled Hungarian liberal democracy; Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party is well on the way to doing the same. Combine these outright victories with the rising popularity of far-right parties in many other European countries, and it looks like liberalism is at risk of being overthrown by the voters that it’s supposed to be serving.
The rise of such a challenge to liberalism has highlighted how the liberal status quo has failed to deliver, particularly in the wealthy West. Across the OECD, the top 10 percent makes over nine times per year as much as the bottom 10 percent. Metrics of trust in a range of governmental institutions — legislatures, courts, civil service — are falling across advanced democracies. In the United States specifically, deaths from alcohol abuse, drug overdose, and suicide have reached all-time highs.
These are just a few of the doleful indicators, numbers that paint a gloomy picture of the political status quo in liberalism’s strongholds and especially the United States. If life under liberalism is getting worse for a lot of people, is it possible that the idea really has outlasted its usefulness?
The left’s challenge to liberalism
Modern anti-liberals, both on the right and the left, take the notion that the status quo is broken as their starting point.
Those on the left argue that liberalism’s failures were eminently predictable, the inevitable product of contradictions within liberalism long identified by critics in the Marxist tradition — that between the liberal commitment to egalitarian democracy and a vision of the market as a zone of individual freedom.
The Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra captured this argument particularly well in an interview with the LA Review of Books:
Liberal capitalism was supposed to foster a universal middle class and encourage bourgeois values of sobriety and prudence and democratic virtues of accountability. It achieved the opposite: the creation of a precariat with no clear long-term prospects, dangerously vulnerable to demagogues promising them the moon. Uncontrolled liberalism, in other words, prepares the grounds for its own demise.
The core concepts of the leftist narrative have been worked out for decades by Marx-influenced scholars like the University of Pennsylvania’s Adolph Reed Jr., the New School’s Nancy Fraser, and the City University of New York’s David Harvey. It’s become prominent thanks to the emergence of vibrant leftist magazines like Jacobin and its adoption by prominent public intellectuals like Mishra.
The current crisis of liberalism, according to this narrative, dates to (roughly) the 1970s. Around then, governments across the Western world began deregulating their economies, selling off state-owned industries, and privatizing core government services. This turn towards economic “neoliberalism,” as leftists termed it, was not just a matter of economic policy, but rather a comprehensive ideological and philosophical project.
Under neoliberalism, the logic of the market becomes “an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide to all human action, and substituting for all previously held ethical beliefs,” Harvey writes in his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism. “It has pervasive effects on ways of thought to the point where it has become incorporated into the common-sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world.”
Neoliberalism, in this line of thinking, became dominant on both sides of the political aisle. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were neoliberals; so too were Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Their agenda of tax cuts, “welfare reform,” and deregulation created the rapid increase in inequality since the 1970s, giving rise to a political and economic model rigged in favor of the rich.
The critique of neoliberalism is not new, but it has gained currency in the last decade or so. The Great Recession can be blamed on neoliberal financial deregulation, the Eurozone crisis on neoliberal austerity, and the rise of Trump and right-wing extremists as a backlash to neoliberal free trade agreements and neoliberal indifference to rising inequality.
“Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously,” leftist author Naomi Klein writes in the Guardian. “Donald Trump speaks directly to that pain. The Brexit campaign spoke to that pain. So do all of the rising far-right parties in Europe.”
Now, it’s possible to oppose “neoliberalism” without opposing “liberalism” per se. But liberalism’s left-wing critics disagree; they claim that neoliberalism is not a distortion of liberalism, but rather its true face.
Liberalism’s core error, in this view, comes from a mistake in its vision of democracy. Liberals support democracy as a matter of principle, believing that individuals have a right to shape decisions that affect their lives in deep and important ways. But liberals curiously excludes parts of economic life from this zone of collective self-determination, seeing the market as a place where people have individual but not collective rights. Liberalism sees nothing wrong with the heads of Amazon and Facebook making decisions that have implications for the entire economy.
So long as capitalists are free from democratic constraint, leftists argue, liberal democracy is on dangerous footing. The super-rich use the power their accumulated wealth provides to influence political life, rearranging policy to protect and expand their fortunes. The rise of neoliberalism is, per the socialist writer Peter Frase, this process in action: proof that capitalism will invariably corrupt liberalism’s promise of freedom and equality.
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. They believe in liberal rights like freedom of expression, and pursue their revolutionary agenda through social organizing and democratic elections.
They champion Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, despite the fact that the policies he advocates stop well short of democratizing the workplace or abolishing capitalism. That’s because they see the electoral victory of an avowed “democratic socialist” and policies like Medicare for All as the beginning of a long process, necessary steps for replacing eventually capitalism with something better.
Many of the sharpest left-wing critics of liberalism 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.
“In describing my own political trajectory, I often talk about my parents’ liberal politics, and my own journey of discovery, through which I concluded that their liberal ideals couldn’t be achieved by liberal means, but required something more radical, and more Marxist,” Frase writes. “That’s what I’d call socialism, or even communism, which for me is the ultimate horizon.”
The right’s challenge to liberalism
The right’s attack on liberalism is even more sweeping than the left’s.
Conservative anti-liberals question not only freedom in the economic sphere, but the value of pluralistic democracy itself — arguing that core liberal ideals about tolerance and equality actually produce an insidious form of tyranny that destroys communities and deadens the human spirit.
The key proponents of this view are heavily (though not exclusively) Catholic; many draw from their faith’s long tradition of anti-liberal thought. They have a small presence in the academy — Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen and Harvard legal scholar Adrian Vermeule, for example — but are much less visible in the professoriate than socialists.
The right-leaning anti-liberals are more often found in the punditry, conservative think tanks, and even in the ranks of actual political parties (particularly in Europe). The Christian publication First Things is a particular hub of media activity for these anti-liberals, as is the American Conservative magazine. Sympathetic writers can be found at outlets ranging from the New York Times to National Review to the New York Post. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) is a conservative anti-liberal; on the far right, anti-liberals include Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Polish European Parliament member Ryzard Legutko.
The right’s starting point is the same as the left’s: our society is in dire straits, and liberalism is to blame. Like the left, they see the untrammeled market as part of the problem, a decisive break with the libertarianism or “classical liberalism” favored by traditional American movement conservatives and European right-wingers in the mold of Margaret Thatcher. The economic split has produced more than a little infighting in conservative ranks.
But conservative anti-liberals are not content with rubbishing libertarianism and other liberal economic doctrines. The real error, in their view, goes even further back — all the way down to liberalism’s core ideas about individual freedom and choice.
Liberalism’s foundational premise is that the government must defend liberty: that people should be free to choose their paths in life, and that the state’s role should first and foremost be protecting and enabling the exercise of this freedom. Conservative critics believe this basic liberal picture is rooted in a false, impoverished view of human life — there is not, and never has been, such a thing as freely choosing, autonomous individuals.
Actual people are embedded inside social relations and identities — most notably, family, faith, and community — without which they lack meaning and purpose. Liberalism elevates the will of the individual at the expense of these pre-political bonds.
“For decades now our politics and culture have been dominated by a particular philosophy of freedom,” Hawley writes in an essay published by Christianity Today. “It is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition, of escape from God and community, a philosophy of self-creation and unrestricted, unfettered free choice.”
The pursuit of profit erodes social ties, creating incentives for people to pursue their self-interest rather than build families or embed themselves in communities. Young people leave their small towns in search of career and meaning in anonymous big cities, destroying the communal ethos that allowed people to feel happy and secure. Rising inequality chips away at the bonds of social solidarity, hollowing out the middle class and placing deep barriers between citizens.
Liberals use the state to try and address the market’s failures, providing services like welfare payments and health care. But such efforts, conservatives argue, usurp functions that used to belong to community and church — further weakening those key sources of meaning and identity.
“The political project of liberalism is shaping us into...increasingly separate, autonomous, non-relational selves replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone,” Deneen, probably the sharpest of these conservative anti-liberals, writes in his book Why Liberalism Failed.
This destruction of community, conservative anti-liberals believe, can be seen in the big-picture numbers. Across liberal societies, religious attendance has fallen, social clubs like the Elk Lodge are declining, divorce rates have risen, and birth rates are shrinking. Liberalism’s separation of individual from community and security leaves its subjects angry and alone, turning to demagogues because no one else is channeling their rage at a failing status quo.
But what has really set off reactionary anti-liberals has been the state enforcement of liberal social mores.
They believe that liberalism’s vaunted neutrality — its claim to respect all citizens’ freedom to follow their own paths in life — is a sham. Liberalism can only truly tolerate belief systems that cohere with its vision of freedom, and will actively attempt to stamp out worldviews that it concludes are hostile to that ideal. In the right anti-liberal imaginary, liberal tolerance is fundamentally intolerant.
Hence attempts to force Hobby Lobby’s insurance to cover birth control and Christian bakers to make cakes for gay weddings. Hence the rise of “political correctness” and the LGBT movement’s attempts to challenge the allegedly foundational concept of the gender binary. Eventually, these conservatives believe, liberalism’s quest to make everyone free could culminate in wiping out traditional Christianity and conservative society altogether.
“The need for building a liberal-democratic society ... implies the withdrawal of the guarantee of freedom for those whose actions and interests are said to be hostile to [liberalism],” Legutko, the Polish member of European Parliament, writes in his influential book The Demon in Democracy.
So if liberalism is a mortal threat to the West, what’s the right-wing alternative?
There are, broadly speaking, two schools of thought: localism and nationalism.
The localist view, advocated by Deneen and the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, suggests that national politics should not be the focus of anti-liberals’ energy (at the moment, at least). They advocate instead focusing on engaging in small-scale experiments and community building that can restore what liberalism has destroyed, providing islands of stability for traditional Christians amid the secular storm raging nationwide.
“Such communities of practice will increasingly be seen as lighthouses and field hospitals to those who might have once regarded them as peculiar and suspect,” Deneen writes. “From the work and example of alternative forms of community, ultimately a different experience of political life might arise.”
The nationalist view, by contrast, argues for recapturing the state and remaking it on avowedly illiberal lines — constructing a state that rebuilds national communities by opposing international capital and secular liberalism alike.
The Orbán government in Hungary is an example of this agenda in action. Hungary’s leader has banned the teaching of “gender ideology” in universities, cracked down on non-European immigration, passed financial incentives aimed at getting Hungarian women to have more babies, and redefined Hungary’s regime as both as a “Christian democracy” and an “illiberal democracy.”
An even more radical version, advocated most prominently by Harvard’s Vermeule, is something called “integralism” — an obscure Catholic doctrine that essentially amounts to the abolition of the church/state distinction and the replacement of liberal democracy with an avowedly Catholic regime.
These integralists reject the label of “theocracy” for their ideal government. But they do hope the current system can be transformed from within, the ultimate aim being a state that promotes a religiously defined “Highest Good” rather than liberal autonomy.
Vermeule specifically “hopes for eventual integration effected from within institutions,” starting by influencing of “executive-type bureaucracies” rather than through outright winning elections. It’s a way of shaping the future, of laying the groundwork for a Catholic world after “liberalism’s eventual disappearance.”
The inadequacy of the liberal response (so far)
Despite all of its problems, I still believe in liberalism. Its core philosophical doctrines are correct: The aim of politics should be ensuring individuals are free to live according to their “plan of life” (a term taken from John Rawls, the liberal philosophical giant of the 20th century). Core liberal institutions, like an expansive slate of individual rights and a social democratic mixed economy, are vital to human flourishing.
But despite my deep faith in liberalism, I’ve recently found myself more frustrated by reading fellow liberals than the illiberals attacking us.
Many modern liberals, including some brilliant and well-regarded thinkers, do not seem up to the task of defending liberalism from its newest wave of critics. 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. 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.
The first of these unsatisfying arguments, which I associate most closely with Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, is that the narrative of a world in crisis is simply wrong. On every conceivable metric, the world is getting better — extreme poverty is declining, life expectancy is going up, deaths from war and violence are on the decline. If things are generally doing well, where’s the need for radical change?
I happen to find the data behind this view persuasive, and indeed have argued that it’s a compelling case for cautious optimism about humanity’s future. It’s not, however, a particularly good defense of liberalism at the moment.
Most of the current global improvement is happening in the developing world; the biggest recent jumps in global life expectancy largely come from these countries, including authoritarian states like China. By contrast, conditions in richer liberal democracies are getting worse on a bevy of different metrics. The data on global improvement is hardly making the case for liberalism in its historical bastions.
Even if you buy that liberalism is responsible for improvements for people living in the developing economies, it’s not clear if it can keep this progress going. The damage done by our new demagogues and the looming threat of climate change could end up reversing worldwide progress against untimely death and poverty.
But most fundamentally, liberalism’s defenders need to meet people where they are. And Pinker’s metrics notwithstanding, a lot of people really feel like the political status quo is failing them. The illiberals are explaining why that is; liberals are trying to talk them out of it. This won’t work, no matter how many statistics on infant mortality in sub-Saharan Africa liberals marshal.
The second unsatisfying liberal argument is that liberalism may not be perfect, but it has a long history of repairing itself. This is one of the central arguments in Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities, the New Yorker correspondent’s book-length defense of his liberalism.
“The liberation of women, the emancipation of slaves and then of the racially oppressed, the recognition of the rights of sexual minorities — these are all the unique achievements of liberal states, engineered by liberal activists, all things that have never happened before in history,” Gopnik writes.
But saying that liberalism can repair itself isn’t the same thing as explaining how it can do so right now. The victory of the suffragettes is cold comfort for women fighting for equal pay; claiming that liberalism abolished Jim Crow does nothing to tell us how it will fix the new Jim Crow. Gopnik’s argument is more of a testament of faith in liberalism rather than an effort to chart a way through the current crisis.
The third and final unsatisfying liberal response, the one that frustrates me the most, is lashing out at the wrong enemies.
One of the most common genres in modern American punditry is the attack on “identity politics” and “political correctness.” Liberalism’s defenders on both the center-left and center-right frequently pinpoint today’s young people and college kids, with their “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” and gender-neutral pronouns, as being a looming threat to free speech and core liberal values — the tip of a spear aimed at the multicultural left.
Books like The Once and Future Liberal, Columbia professor Mark Lilla’s post-Trump opus, argue for a need to move beyond “identity liberalism”; liberal essayists warn that practitioners of “identity politics” are corroding the soul of American liberalism.
“The modern far left has borrowed the Marxist critique of liberalism and substituted race and gender identities for economic ones,” Jonathan Chait wrote in a 2015 New York magazine feature. “While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed.”
But there is scant persuasive evidence that America’s young left-wing activists are turning against free speech or other core liberal values. The argument also betrays a misunderstanding of the relationship between identity politics and Marxism, as well as an underestimation of the degree to which right-wing anti-liberalism has become a part of the modern Republican Party.
Most importantly, the liberal war on identity politics is a mistake philosophically. It misunderstands the rising energy surrounding identity issues as a threat to liberalism when it’s actually sowing the seeds of liberal renewal.
One of liberalism’s historical sources of strength is seeing the world for what it is, adapting its doctrines to fit changing realities rather than trying to make the world fit an older version of liberalism. Modern liberals need to do the same with the problems raised by its current critics. They — we — need to recognize that there are serious flaws in liberalism as it exists. Leftists are correct that neoliberal faith in the market was far too devout; conservatives are right that liberals have been too inattentive to the importance of community.
But liberal adaptation to change is not merely a process of self-flagellation. It also involves identifying what new ideas are bubbling up that can be adapted to strengthen liberalism, pinpointing the raw materials for generating enthusiastic new liberal movements and visions. The obsessive focus on a handful of overeager college organizers and professors is a mistake; it obscures the undeniable fact that organization around group identity has helped create a number of vital political movements that are defending liberalism’s central component parts.
Think about the Movement for Black Lives, dedicated to liberal ideals of equal citizenship and non-coercion. Think about the fact that roughly 4 million Americans around the country turned out for the 2017 Women’s Marches, using a call for women’s equality as means of organizing against Trump’s threat to American democracy more broadly.
Think about the #MeToo movement’s role in fighting back against a pervasive source of unfreedom and inequality. Think about the backlash to Trump’s travel ban and family separations, how young people around the world are using their generational identity to mobilize around climate change, and how laws aimed at repressing minority voters have become a rallying cry for the defense of free and fair elections.
The people doing the work to defend equality, freedom, and democracy today base their activism on the experiences of specific identity groups. They tend to use specific oppressions as a jumping-off point, weaving together different groups’ experiences into a tapestry of solidarity. Particularism is not isolating, but rather a means of generating a broad-based critique of social inequalities that can improve democracy for all.
Liberals will not succeed by tut-tutting activists who care about the oppression of their own communities. They succeed by developing a vision of liberalism that harnesses activists’ energy and sense of injustice.
The defense of liberalism begins by recognizing that there is a crisis, that anti-liberals are once again asserting themselves intellectually in ways that should worry liberalism’s defenders. It will triumph by seeing the world for what it is, and changing liberalism to meet it — not by insisting on arguments well past their expiration date.