I find the liberalism v. illiberalism template tiresome. I am an American, which means I cherish (perhaps too much) our culture of freedom. But let’s be realistic. We’re afflicted by a liberal monoculture, not illiberalism.
For an entire generation, Democrats and Republicans have allied to pursue a double-pronged project of cultural and economic deregulation under the banner of liberalism. The left emphasizes cultural deregulation, though plenty of fusionist libertarians also endorse this agenda. The right emphasizes economic deregulation, and Clintonite neoliberals affirm its main thrusts as well.
Consider pornography. Supreme Court decisions opened the sluice gates for the raw sewage, and the Internet has vastly expanded the conduits. Meanwhile, our political establishment, left and right, has not lifted even its pinky finger. Liberal voices on right and left warn us about the slippery slope of censorship. Restrain the free speech rights of pornographers, and next thing you know the progressives will limit the free speech rights of anti-abortion counselors. But wait, they already do . . .
Consider marriage. The rich and well-educated sustain a marriage culture. Everyone else gets sucked into the whirlpool of sexual and familial dysfunction. Try to reverse that inequality, and the establishment left screams “patriarchy,” while the establishment right denounces “conservative social engineering.” Both are liberal objections to efforts to renew the social authority of marriage.
Consider religious freedom. The threats are dire, establishment Republicans tell us. But they carefully protect themselves, insisting in high liberal dudgeon that I have a “right to be wrong.” As Sohrab Ahmari observes, correctly, this kind of “leadership” will put us in the same category as the KKK.
Consider the sanctity of life. After a generation of activism and numerous pro-life Republican politicians elected to public office, even to the highest office, Roe remains the law of the land. Doubtless many good liberal principles were admirably sustained amid this ongoing effort, but the progress has been painfully slow.
By and large, establishment Republicans have conceded cultural power to progressives. This happens because they prioritize economic liberalization: de-regulation, free trade, lower taxes, relaxed immigration policies. For the most part, the establishment Democrats have signed on to this project as well. The upshot is a hyper-competitive, winner-take-all system that increasingly invades and dominates all spheres of life.
In truth, cultural deregulation is an aspect of the market-expanding ambitions of those who favor economic deregulation. Won’t our economy be more vibrant if talented women commit to careers rather than families? Achieving that end requires deconstructing sex roles, family norms, and maternal impulses. And that work has been undertaken on behalf of freedom. After all, a woman can still decide to be a stay-at-home mom. What about those commerce-impeding blue laws? Again, freedom must win! Casting them off is the obvious course. Nobody will be forced to shop on Sundays. Liberal principles are honored!
The liberal end game is easy to formulate. Ideally, we would reach a state of affairs where people would feel no loyalty to non-economic goods such as family, community, or nation. This would free them for the liberal dream of complete autonomy (the final end of cultural deregulation). It would also make them more available as mobile, productive workers and eager consumers unhindered by disciplines or compunctions that have no utility value, thus fulfilling the liberal dream of non-coercive market coordination of all aspects of life (the final end of economic deregulation).
“STOP!” I can hear friends shouting. “This is a false reductio ad absurdum. I care about our liberal tradition in America, but I’m not in favor of either extreme. I hold, as did the founders, that virtue is necessary in a self-governing people. And I strongly believe that non-economic mediating institutions are crucial for a healthy society.”
Point taken. But my aim is not to specify anyone’s position, but to illuminate a tendency. As a tradition, liberalism is and always has sought to expand and protect freedom. This has meant diminishing the public authority of older, pre-liberal traditions (expanding freedom through deregulation, cultural and economic). It has also meant clear specification of rights and principles that limit the ability of powerful forces in contemporary society to re-regulate the public square in accord with new norms (protecting freedom with rights).
Freedom often needs to be encouraged and protected. But responsible citizenship requires knowing what diseases threaten the body politic. Today, we are coming apart. Our families are fragmented. Our civic life is tattered. People distrust their leaders. Meanwhile, the reparative power of moral and religious communities has greatly diminished.
As a tradition, liberalism offers little help for thinking about and addressing these problems, for they are crises of solidarity, not freedom. Insisting on the importance of liberalism, however cautiously defined, can be worse than useless if it focuses our attention on the wrong things.
For example, the peril facing evangelical bakers in Colorado does not stem from an insufficiently refined jurisprudence on religious freedom. It arises because our society is dominated by an arrogant, morally preening elite that drips with disdain for the insufficiently “woke.” This liberal elite does not shrink from punitive measures to bring the recalcitrant into line. The fact that a baker is hauled before a civil rights commission for failing to bake a cake for a well-off gay couple that can get what it wants from any number of other shops is a failure of leadership, not one of liberal principles. It’s a sign of dysfunctional liberalism when gay couples—men “marrying” men is the wealthiest cohort—get to use state power to enforce universal affirmation of their disordered lives and satisfy their politically correct vanity.
Liberal principles are also useless for addressing the breakdown in the male-female dance. Consent is a central liberal principle, essential for any morally serious approach to intimate relations. But free consent offers no help in the blast zones of the sexual revolution.
Yesterday, Ahmari criticized “David French-ism.” He senses, like many of us, that something else is needed, something other than our liberal tradition. Rights are not going to repair marriage. Rights cannot reknit our nation. Rights will not restore a sense of the sacred. He’s frustrated, like many of us, that establishment Republicans are not helping to identify and articulate that something else—and in many cases are labeling his efforts as “illiberal,” a slur meant to discredit. No serious American statesman has imagined that liberalism is sufficient. Something else is always needed.
Faced with civic wounds far deeper than anything afflicting us today, Abraham Lincoln appealed in his Second Inaugural to the mysterious judgments of God, not the treatises of John Locke. This invocation was not “cultural,” or cordoned off in order to protect soi-disant liberal principles. It was among the most powerful political gestures in American history, which is why it’s inscribed on the north wall of the Lincoln Memorial.
We need to find our way toward the something else that’s needed in twenty-first-century America. This does not mean jettisoning everything now bundled under the heading of liberalism or its close cousin, civility. But it does mean knowing that they cannot guide us forward. Liberalism’s freedom project lacks the resources for renewing solidarity. Civility is an establishment-preserving ethos, one unhelpful when the political establishment is the source of our problems.
As Lincoln recognized, the something else every society needs to bind its wounds and renew its covenants has the aroma of the sacred. It speaks of love, loyalty, and sacrifice. This is not a liberal language. It is older and deeper, which is why the progressive left will fight it at every turn, as Ahmari rightly notes. In this fight we need resolute allies, not anxious, ambivalent ones bewitched by liberal principles that have become dogmas.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
This article was first published on First Things