Is liberalism dead? The shadow of this troubling question overhangs much of the sweeping, profound, and timely narrative of Kim R. Holmes’s new book, The Closing of the Liberal Mind. In his acknowledgments, Holmes helpfully reflects that “the history of ideas involves a complex interaction between people’s thoughts and deeds that often remains as elusive as an evening breeze.” As elusive as this interaction can indeed often be, Holmes tracks the evening breeze remarkably closely and faithfully throughout the book.
The metaphor is particularly apt in the case of Holmes’s subject, which involves a story of “tragedy,” of “closing,” and of the symbolic extinguishing of the bright flame of liberty represented on the book’s cover. Like a few other recent works with depressing Tocquevillian twists, such as Paul Rahe’s Soft Despotism: Democracy’s Drift or Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, Holmes argues that the early promise of liberalism in its “classical” or “moderate” guise has given way to a noxious blend of individualism, subjectivism, relativism, atheism, and nihilism. The promising dawn of liberal modernity in the thought of John Locke and the American founders has run its course and turned to the dusk of its dark “postmodern” twin.
American Political Culture: The Diagnosis
Holmes’s tracing of this development is clear, concise, and accessible. It is likely to be equally interesting and illuminating to the specialist and the layman, which is a significant and difficult achievement. Holmes’s explanations of the differences between postmodernism and existentialism early in the book and his later discussion of Kant as “a bridge from the radical enlightenment to the modern world” are especially excellent and valuable. Throughout the book, Holmes interweaves abstract philosophy with history, empirical data, and concrete narrative in an exemplary and engaging manner.
Holmes successfully and thoroughly establishes his thesis: that the liberals of today have in fact turned sharply away from the liberal tradition—not only classical liberalism but also the progressive liberalism of the early twentieth century—and have followed instead the “postmodern” development of an anti-Enlightenment and illiberal strain of thought. This is the same strain of thought that gave us both communism on the left and fascism on the right. Although its manifestation in American “postmodern leftists” is unlikely to inspire the violent totalitarianism associated with these ideologies, Holmes provides numerous examples of the ways in which it has given rise to a more subtle authoritarianism.
It is difficult to quarrel with Holmes’s pessimistic diagnosis of American political culture in its embrace of postmodernism, and its accompanying rejection of the moderate liberalism that has characterized much of the American political tradition. If liberalism in the United States is not already dead, it is undoubtedly in critical condition. Holmes is right that Rome is burning, and at various points he provides crucial hints for what we non-fiddlers might do to save it.
American Political Culture: The Search for a Cure
Holmes’s analysis is strongest in its diagnosis and weakest in its prescription. While he is acutely aware of the nature of the disease, he misses the significance of the various parts of the cure that are scattered throughout his account. By putting these pieces together and reflecting on their meaning and significance, we can supplement Holmes’s assessment of our current situation with a clearer understanding of how we might succeed in bettering it.
In concluding, Holmes points to a “constitutional order” that is “open and flexible,” and that “keep[s] society in equilibrium” by balancing different values and moderating their occasional “battles.” This idea of the Constitution as a largely value-neutral umpire that provides a framework for deliberation, debate, and compromise, and that is “superimposed” over a pluralistic civil society, is profoundly at odds with the understanding that originally produced the Constitution and reaffirmed its value and significance at the time of the Civil War. It is, in fact, remarkably close to Obama’s depiction of the Constitution and its purpose of structuring and facilitating compromise in his book The Audacity of Hope.
According to the founders’ understanding of what they were doing in making and defending the Constitution, on the other hand, it was a document laden with important value commitments—especially to the idea of natural rights—and reflective of a definite understanding of “Nature” in general and human nature in particular. One need only glance through the Convention debates or Madison’s proposal for a Bill of Rights in the House of Representatives in 1789 to see clear evidence of this point. The leading founders—Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Adams, Washington, and others—disagreed on many points, but they found broad agreement in their understanding of the relevance of nature for politics. It was because they thought human nature had certain fixed characteristics of relevance for politics that they fought the Revolution; and it was for precisely the same reason that they designed the institutional structure of the Constitution.
The significance of this point was well understood by Lincoln. As devoted as Lincoln was to the constitutional order and the Union it defined, he knew that their primary significance lay in their character as reflections of important underlying truths. The Constitution was only the “frame of silver” surrounding the “apple of gold”—the idea of liberty as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. And he wanted to preserve the Union in such a way that it would be “worth the saving,” that is, as a framework giving institutional expression to the political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence.
Holmes nowhere expresses disagreement with any of these points. He does, however, de-emphasize their significance throughout the book. He gestures, for example, to “the spirit of pluralism that is at the heart of America’s liberal democracy,” and is exceedingly wary of Enlightenment expressions of “Nature” in its potential for replacing God and fueling dangerous utopian dreams. In doing so, Holmes misses the crucial significance of “Nature” for American political principles. When contrasting the Declaration of Independence with Rousseau’s idea of nature, for example, Holmes draws a corresponding contrast between the reference to the “Laws of Nature” in the first paragraph and the “real business of making the practical case for independence from Britain,” as well as between the “hortatory appeal to the rights of mankind” and “the Declaration’s main complaint” about arbitrary government and a lack of proper representation.
It is true that Rousseau’s romantic portrayal of nature possesses all of the problems and troubling consequences Holmes describes, and that this idea of nature is alien to the American founding. It is no less true, however, that the political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence, which also animates the Constitution, depends squarely on its own, largely Lockean, understanding of nature. The contest is not between a politics based on nature and one based on pluralism, pragmatism, and compromise, but rather between a politics that traces back to one understanding of nature and a politics based on an opposing understanding of nature. The “postmodern leftists” Holmes describes so well have, in fact, abandoned even the Romantic vision of nature in their politics, relying instead on unsupported assertions of rights and vague claims of dignity. Indeed, according to Holmes, these postmodernists want to “abolish” nature entirely, “making war on both nature and reality” in their desire “to force an artificial order on civilization.”
The Way Forward
In one of the many strikingly well-put statements in the book, Holmes intimates his agreement with the founders and Lincoln on the importance of human nature for politics: “By trying to break the human being into separate identities—by focusing on what makes us different and then pretending that we are all equal in our differences—we are not serving the cause of universal equality, but erasing our common humanity.” This common humanity that defines and justifies human equality is the very same human nature that exists in the Lockean “state of nature” and that inspires the founders’ commitment to the idea of natural rights. Our individual differences often make us unequal, but our sameness in nature—and, consequently, in natural rights—invariably makes us equal.
In other words, the meaning and coherence of the related ideas of equality, freedom, rights, and dignity all depend upon a very definite political philosophy, one in which nature has special political relevance in guiding and limiting our actions and policies. In order to deal effectively with the dire situation Holmes describes, we require much more than the pragmatic coalition he suggests in closing. The “postmodern leftists” are inspired by a definite political philosophy that is opposed to reason and nature; an opposition to their agenda that draws on the American political tradition should be inspired by a definite political philosophy that champions and defends reason and nature. Lincoln’s Republican Party was much more concerned with the Declaration of Independence than with its institutional outgrowth in the Constitution, and an effective opposition to modern day illiberals should embrace a similar priority.
Adam Seagrave is a political scientist and the author of The Foundations of Natural Morality: On the Compatibility of Natural Rights and the Natural Law and editor of Liberty and Equality: The American Conversation.