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Liberalism’s Real Narrative Fight Isn’t What Josh Earnest Thinks It Is


By now, the Internet has had its way with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest’s latest tone-deaf talking point on the stubborn Islamic State. As attacks and bombings unfolded from Minnesota to New Jersey, Earnest’s mission was to hurry over to CNN and focus attention on the “narrative fight.”

ISIS leaders, he explained, “want to project that they are an organization that is representing Islam in a fight, in a war against the West, in a war against the United States. That is a bankrupt, false narrative,” he insisted. “It’s a mythology. And we have made progress in debunking that mythology.”

Despite a certain kernel of truth, however, this is also a bankrupt, false narrative. The truth is that we’re much better at raining death onto ISIS than breathing life into liberal democracy, which, at the close of President Obama’s two terms, is absolutely reeling in headlong retreat.

Tell Us A True Narrative For Once

The important thing about our conceptual conflict with illiberalism—Right and Left, white and brown, at home and abroad—is that we are losing, and losing badly. Precisely with narrative our narrative-mongers, inside the White House or not, are failing, and floundering where they have not yet failed. With sharp limits on their willingness to lean harder on warfighting—not that the American people any longer trust them to do so—there is no Plan B.

Of course, it’s not only fruitless to cross arms and mock the administration’s toothless telling of liberal tales. With Donald Trump fueling a foolishly reactionary mythos of his own, it’s unseemly. A free society needs liberal sensibilities, habits, and practices, and a leadership capable of articulating the bare rudiments of why.

To be sure, the liberal life is a far more complex and subtle thing to come to grips with than it first appears, paradoxically, in part, because it tempts us to give up the hard work of telling true stories and reduce it to a formula, an ideology, an abstract comprehensive doctrine. Unless our narrative of “liberalism” reveals it is genuinely not an “-ism” at all, we will keep right on losing, and keep agonizing in our paralysis over why.

This is a lot of work in a little time. But ours is a propitious moment for a swift conceptual course correction. It lacks the pronounced risk involved in taking similarly drastic measures around politics and governance.

Desperate Measures Sometimes Exacerbate Desperate Times

Ironically, the proof is in the now-notorious “Flight 93 Election” essay. There, the pseudonymous author warns our republic is so close to slipping away forever that the American people must rush the figurative cockpit in a do-or-die (and maybe just die) effort to wrest it back.

The most prudential or practical way to de-escalate this rhetoric is to rephrase it in terms familiar to military and business people: when no clear strategies present themselves for attaining your core objectives, sometimes the best you can do is to go out and shake the tree—disrupting the impasse, at least creating some possibilities where before there was only a dead end.

For many conservatives in the time of Trump, that approach creates too great a possibility of illiberal politics. But for Western illiberals themselves, the Flight 93 attitude is just that—a superficially radical recourse in service of all-too-liberal ends. At the neoreactionary site Social Matter, P.T. Carlo puts it bluntly: “The conservative has convinced himself that there is actually no conflict between his values and those of the classical liberal tradition he so admires. This is what separates him from the reactionary. This illusion of harmonization is made possible by the belief that liberalism’s internal logic has no necessity to it—that it isn’t bound to follow its own premises to their logical conclusions.”

What unites the revolutionary reactionary and the reigning liberal, however, is their strangely harmonious certainty that the liberal life emanated from an –ism, rather than the other way around. Their superficially competing mythologies arise from a shared, misbegotten fantasy— the fantasy of a science of the liberal, which reigning philosophers of liberality from John Stuart Mill to John Rawls have doggedly pursued.

For what? To “prove” to themselves and others that the liberal life is more durable, more justified, and more real than a mere historical accumulation of habits, mores, and patterns of thinking particular to a set of peoples. In fact, this fatal faith in science—scientism?—created an illusion, liberalism, proven to put the liberal life at dire risk. When liberal practices and liberal lifeworlds come under blinding, visceral attack, liberal leaders run. If not always literally for “A Theory of Justice” and the “Logic of the Moral Sciences,” then they reliably run for the pseudo-scientific historicist fables spun through them and around them. Although they run, they cannot hide.

Real Liberalism Lies in Virtue

However understandable (given the tremendous assault on practical liberal culture carried out by the twentieth century’s schooled and unschooled scientists of mass power), presenting liberalism as an elaborate, systematic outworking of abstract logical principles, and nothing else besides, has been a tragic, monumental error. It has masked the manner in which “liberalism” is better understood, better protected, and even better advanced as the particular set of practices of a particular culture.

To be sure, that culture is still, relative to others, unprecedented in its ecumenical openness, curiosity, and forbearance. But these features were not grown in a lab or discovered through rational will. They arose among people whose shared cultural circumstances—and origins—made it possible for these features to arise in the course of lived experience. Think of how the Declaration of Independence, with its boldly spoken truths, could only have been uttered successfully among a community of people who had been prepared, over centuries, to possess the ears to hear such things.

This awareness of the real liberal narrative seems somehow inaccessible to the president and his liberal narrative-spinners. However powerful, they are just a handful of liberals today far too lost in their own laboratories and labyrinths of rationalistic mythmaking.