Only liberals can save liberalism. They do not seem up to the task, and their failure leaves liberalism languishing in decadence.
Political liberalism — broadly understood in terms of representative government, individual rights, and personal autonomy — should be an easy sell in an era of prosperity, technological marvels, and comparative peace, especially after the totalitarian horrors of the last century. But, from the ballot box to academia, liberals are struggling to respond to rivals and critics who contend that liberalism has not lived up to its promises.
For example, consider writer Gabriel Schoenfeld’s recent essay in The American Interest attacking critics of liberalism, particularly Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen and his book “Why Liberalism Failed.” Schoenfeld makes two significant critiques of Deneen and his fellow travelers. The first is that their condemnations of modern liberalism do not account for historical context—today has flaws, but yesterday did, too, often worse. The second is that Deneen and his allies do not offer reasonable alternatives to liberalism; they tend to either dodge the question or else indulge in flights of fancy, such as theories of Catholic integralism.
These criticisms have some merit, and Schoenfeld avoids conflating technological progress with moral progress, making his one of the better responses to Deneen. He also deserves credit for recognizing the illiberalism of many on the left, including President Obama’s efforts to force nuns to fund and facilitate the distribution of birth control and the obsession with compelling nonconformist, devoutly religious wedding vendors to celebrate same-sex marriage ceremonies.
But Schoenfeld does not address the fundamental failures of modern liberalism because he believes there are none. He believes that although everything may not be awesome yet, overall life is better than it used to be. He is right that many current complainers are ignorant of the past and its problems, but he falls into the opposite error and seems oblivious to the worst evils of modern liberalism. What in today’s liberalism might compare with the atrocities of earlier eras? In his view: nothing.
Our Age Embraces Atrocities, Too
He thus ignores the tens of millions dismembered in utero to secure the personal sexual autonomy that today’s liberalism cherishes above all else. Abortion is a veiled brutality that enables the modern liberal way of life. It gives the lie to Schoenfeld’s conclusion that “even if a gap persists between our ideals and practices, in any fair appraisal it has narrowed significantly from 100 or 200 years ago.”
In modern liberal regimes, the mother who marvels at an ultrasound revealing the movements of her child in the eighth week of pregnancy also has an absolute sovereign right to order that child’s death. But Schoenfeld declares ours to be “the most humane socio-political order ever to grace the face of the earth.” If human persons in utero have moral worth, then these paeans to liberalism’s moral progress are sung from the hymnbooks of Hell.
Just as a liberalism that endorsed slavery could not endure, so too a degenerate liberalism that embraces abortion deserves to be consigned to the ash heap of history. Abortion illuminates this moral blind spot in modern liberalism, but the problem extends throughout liberal theorizing about family and community, which has denigrated and dissolved familial and community bonds since at least John Locke.
The Problem with Children and Family
Children and family have always been a problem for liberal political theory, which is centered on autonomous adults. Children are not born free and rational, but dependent and irrational, and liberal political theory has long struggled to address human development and dependence.
In particular, the developing human person’s specific dependence on the mother is an insoluble problem for modern liberalism. Human life in the womb can only exist and develop by imposing upon the mother’s body, regardless of her consent. Modern liberalism will not accept this loss of bodily autonomy (even if it usually arises as a natural and predictable result of consensual sex) and has chosen to secure the mother’s rights under the liberal regime by negating the child’s right to life.
Liberalism cannot keep all of its promises. Thus, a political philosophy that began by claiming to defend rights and liberty for all ends, has started denying the rights of the most vulnerable, in an ironic twist. As a political theory for rational, autonomous adults, liberalism has no place for the dependent and disabled, against whom Western liberal nations are engaged in a quiet genocide.
The failure to adequately address human dependence and vulnerability has left liberalism in a moral morass. Liberal apologists on both the left and the right may not care. Many of them even approve. GOP elites, for instance, are more socially liberal than the rank-and-file, hence their constant efforts to marginalize social conservatives. But they should not be mystified that those who value nascent human life doubt that today’s abortion-dependent liberalism is “the most humane socio-political order ever to grace the face of the earth.”
Liberalism’s disdain for the dependent is the inevitable product of its contempt for all constraints on adult autonomy. Liberalism sees the ties of family, community, and church as bonds to be overcome (often by state intervention) in the cause of autonomous individualism. In practice, as well as in philosophy, it has become decadent because it scorned obligations to its progeny and dissolved the sources from which it could be renewed.
This civilizational exhaustion is exemplified by the liberal West facing demographic disaster. In a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity, many people refuse to have children. Decadence is evident throughout the cultural and political elites of Western liberal nations. Examples of ineptitude, arrogance, insularity, and self-indulgence abound, and they are increasingly illiberal in their efforts to defend a desiccated and exhausted liberalism.
Populists Sense the Decadence of Liberalism
The populist backlash throughout the West is a symptom of this decadence, not its cause. Although populists often lack the theoretical acumen of a scholar like Deneen or the moral clarity of pro-life activists, they sense the decadence permeating the liberal order. They see it in the dissolution of national, as well as familial, bonds. It is evident in the casual acceptance, even celebration, of the destruction of local economies and communities in the service of globalization.
This is why criticism of the follies and rough edges of populist leaders rarely dissuade their supporters. If the status quo and those perpetuating it are unacceptable, then many traits of the alternatives may be forgiven. Emphasizing President Trump’s many flaws will not persuade those who are convinced of the general decadence of our political and cultural order.
Although there are sycophants, fools, and hacks who, for example, burble about how “godly” Trump is, many who acknowledge the president’s sins still have come to support him as the best available option. This support is reinforced every time that those with platforms and power refuse to hold themselves and their class accountable, and instead berate ordinary voters who have little political power or cultural cache. It is amusing to watch politicians and pundits who are veterans of a hundred moral compromises declare themselves the last principled men in Washington.
Scolding and shaming populist outbursts against the liberal order will not save liberalism. Scholarly critics of liberalism will not be lectured into submission. Liberalism will survive and prosper only if liberals are able to address the critiques of philosophers and the concerns of populists.
There may be hope for revitalized liberalism. There are strands of liberal theory and practice that can be rewoven to account for human dependence and the non-voluntary ties at the heart of human existence. But this cultural and political renewal will only arise if liberalism’s current defenders take its critics seriously and (harder still) repent of their wrongs. If they try to hold their positions and defend decadent liberalism, they will either lose or, worse still, become illiberal and despotic in their victory.