Is liberalism bankrupt?

I do not mean by liberalism the big-government welfare-state-ist sense that the term acquired in the plush days of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. I mean the classical, Enlightenment liberalism of Locke, Montesquieu, Beccaria, and the Founders: the liberalism that dismissed artificial hierarchies in political and social life, sharply divided the public and the religious (lest the energies of the latter overwhelm the openness of the former), and minimized the role of government to little more than the groundskeeper of the level, meritocratic playing field (whether that field was economics, politics, or social relations). That liberalism placed the individual at the center of its imagination, and it armed individual men and women with a plethora of natural rights with which they could fend off any future attempts to restore hierarchy or hierarchy’s power. In the eighteenth century, it made the American republic and its Constitution. In the nineteenth century, it gradually neutered monarchy and erased slavery around the world. In the twentieth century, it stopped fascism, of both the left (Bolshevik) and right (Nazi) varieties, and on the verge of the twenty-first, it was declared to be “the end of history.”

The problem with it was that it was also dull.

Liberalism was about laws, and it thought culture would be whatever free people made of it under the rule of those laws. Make the laws right, and the people could be good or bad, coarse or refined, noble or ignoble as suited each one. Liberalism was not hostile to religion, but it did cultivate indifference to religion’s claims to authority. And it lacked religion’s passion: no one ever attended a revival meeting where men and women spoke in tongues about natural rights. Again: liberalism believed, as Dr. Johnson said, that one could scarcely devote oneself to anything more innocent than making money. But economies in liberal regimes did not necessarily get and spend innocently. Even when they did, they were accused of being fat, dumb, and deaf to the sufferings of those who failed to prosper. Once Darwin rid intellectuals’ horizons of natural rights, then liberalism became merely a mechanical and reductive utilitarianism (the form it assumed with John Stuart Mill), and just one more stop-over on the eternal evolutionary road leading nowhere. In fact, once rid of natural rights, governments no longer had any reason to restrain themselves from righting all the assumed deficiencies of liberalism, and recreating feudal caretaker systems whose only basic difference from the old feudalism was the substitution of credentialed bureaucrats for ancestral aristocracies.

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Those who defended liberalism against the prissy, smiling, threatening tide of bureaucrats were called—are called—conservatives, which makes for no end of terminological confusion. Nevertheless, liberalism was what people who wanted to conserve the old constitutional order were defending when they called themselves conservative.

This lexical mess worsened when these conservatives found themselves shoulder-to-shoulder against the progressive caretakers with a very different version of conservative—whether it was called “agrarian” or “Burkean” or “nationalist” or even “populist”—that was just as critical of liberalism as the progressives. The agrarian or Burkean conservatives disliked liberalism and progressivism in equal measure. Indeed, they blamed the failures of the first for the rise of the second. By evacuating public life of religion and virtue, they argued, liberalism had made it possible for government to arrogate to itself divine authority. By exaggerating economics, it commodified everything. By placing the individual at the center, it displaced family, church, neighborhood, and country, and it left the individual alone, shivering, lost, and vulnerable, with legal codes his only protection.

The agrarians might have had a stronger appeal if they had not also had, arguing against them, the voices of Madison, Jefferson, and Lincoln. But their appeal has been strong enough anyway, and never more so than in the last twenty years, when progressive bureaucracy has not only wiped out religious authority in public life, but has threatened to wipe the religious themselves (and any invocation of ethics) from the public square, and when the divinization of diversity and globalism has embarrassed any sense of American identity, much less American exceptionalism. Equality fundamentalism has little use for virtue, apart from regarding itself as the only virtue. In any case, the surrender of the modern university to that fundamentalism has almost blotted out the traditional venues of the humanities, where the inculcation of virtue once reigned as the necessary prerequisite for liberal leadership.

The measure of the agrarian (or populist, or whatever) appeal is the respect afforded Alasdair Macintyre’s critique of liberalism in After Virtue (1981), and the popular forms this critique has taken in Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (2017) and Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (2018). That critique now grows, and grows more thoughtful, with R. R. Reno’s The Return of the Strong Gods and Rich Lowry’s The Case for Nationalism.

Reno and Lowry are forces to be reckoned with. They are arresting, eloquent, and important, not only for what they say, but for the fact that they stand at the editorial helms of two of the weightiest of American conservative periodicals, First Things and National Review. For decades, both periodicals struggled to make as much peace as possible between the two uncongenial streams of conservative thinking and praxis that I have described. That their editors have now planted their feet decisively in one of those streams marks a moment in the history of American conservatism.

Lowry’s The Case for Nationalism has its specific roots in resistance to the cult of multiculturalism; it is concerned instead with asserting a distinctive nationalism that Americans can embrace with confidence, and much of the book is devoted to tracing the historical lineaments of that nationalism. Reno’s Return of the Strong Gods is the more philosophical work, arguing that the nightmare tyrannies of the twentieth century stampeded Western elites into the fear that strong beliefs and powerful loyalties—whether religious, patriotic, or ideological—should be abjured, lest they reawaken those nightmares. For both Reno and Lowry, classical liberalism, with its reverence for the atomized individual and the individual’s rights, has acted as an acid to those loyalties, and all too often stood as an ally with disenchantment and deconstruction in reducing philosophy to therapy, history to shaming, and architecture to play.

For these arguments to succeed, especially with other American conservatives, Reno and Lowry have to convince us of three things:

  • That the American republic was not, as Tom Paine claimed, a project that “began the world over again”; that we were instead an evolution of English norms, culture, and language, so that the Revolution (in Lowry’s words) “sought to protect the traditional rights of Englishmen”; and that the invocation of the Declaration of Independence’s preamble, with its universalistic appeal to natural rights shared equally by all humanity, has been exaggerated.
  • That (in Reno’s words now) “the free market promises spontaneous order” but in actuality promotes a self-satisfied swamp of “dissolution, disintegration, and deconsolidation,” and then calls these “openness”; that the liberal interest in economic deregulation is in fact the mirror image of the progressives’ cultural deregulation; and that capitalism and technology have reduced society to a collection of “little worlds” that imagine they have no need for virtue.
  • That no polity can live by the bread of “rights” alone, but requires love—love of country, of family, of truth, of transcendence (these are what Reno, following Durkheim, describes as the “strong gods”); that nations cannot be merely accumulations of self-interested parties; and that there is a “common interest” in the life of the nation that (as Lowry puts it) “is deeper than any specific power struggle” and which “makes possible the social trust that lubricates everyday life.”

These are no small concerns, and they are fed in many hearts by the sneers of a thin-souled and contemptuous cosmopolitanism, by educational systems that aspire feebly to little more than “critical thinking,” and by immigration policies that cannot seem to distinguish between huddled masses yearning to breathe free and outright colonization. Indeed, there were many moments in reading both books when I resonated with the losses they so tellingly itemize.

Yet their arguments must also come to terms with the reminder, on the back of every one-dollar bill, that the American republic is a novus ordo seclorum, a decisive break with national pasts, justified by natural rights. The American Constitution has no organic link to common law (we had to Americanize Blackstone in a hurry after 1787), no ethnicity, no language, no religion, not even a national holiday. It is as liberal a governing instrument as ever was written, and it endorses no cultural construction, giving (in our first president’s words) “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” and requiring “only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

Not that we haven’t had our fling with virtue ideologies that critiqued capitalism as atomistic and liberalism as unloving. The trouble is that the home of those ideologies was the plantation, and its avatars were John Calhoun and Jefferson Davis. And while I trust the virtue of Reno and Lowry, there are more than a few moments in our times when virtue has been a thin plank to walk on, unsupported by law. True, liberalism seems to plant the individual in a clearing with no living thing growing around—no god, no family, no belonging. On the other hand, I have known families that were dysfunctional, congregations that rotted with envy and malice, and demagogues who overflowed with promises of meaning and transcendence but who ended with servings of Kool-Aid. “It is men who make the city, not walls,” wrote Thucydides, and neither liberalism nor nationalism is proof against the malevolent imagination.

It will help us if we remember that there really was a time when liberalism was at full flood in our national life, while at the same moment witnessing an efflorescence of exactly the subsidiary life that now seems a vagrant. That efflorescence was chronicled by Alexis de Tocqueville, who saw as clearly as Reno and Lowry that a liberal democracy could be a very empty and minimalistic space, but who also saw citizens stride into that space and “associate for the goals of public security, of commerce and industry, of morality and religion.” It is not liberalism that banished the strong gods of love and family and church. It was progressive government, invading those spaces and, in the name of efficiency, establishing itself as the emperor with no clothes.

It will also help us if we remember that liberalism and love are not entirely as unmixable as oil and water. When Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg in 1863, he spoke of America as a nation, but one “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” This is surely as liberal a description of the American polity as any Lockean could have devised. As he uttered those words, though, he was looking over a cemetery filled with 3,500 Union dead, fully a third of them unknowns. They were clerks and farm boys, blacksmiths and lawyers, deckhands and bricklayers, Boston Brahmins from the 20th Massachusetts, and Irish Catholics from the 69th New York. They were not like the Duke of Wellington’s “scum of the earth” at Waterloo, who had taken their shilling and their chance, and died. They had volunteered. They had fought for an idea, an idea that was their country, an idea that was their family, and one that they—yes—loved.

Is America a creed or a culture? Reno and Lowry’s books are both healthy reminders that Americans do, in fact, need to have a culture, that the culture needs to have heroes, and that historians need to delineate them for us, or else they stand as nothing more than spavined Machiavellian cynics. The irony, though, is that our creed is our culture.

In 1916, Elias Lieberman, an English teacher in the New York public schools who had emigrated from Tsarist Russia at age seven, wrote a free-verse poem, “I Am an American.” Although almost forgotten now, it was popular enough to be anthologized in my mother’s literature schoolbook, which is where I first encountered it eons ago. The poem spoke with two voices, one a descendant of the American Revolution, the other an immigrant whose “ancestors died in the mines of Siberia.” To the “Great White Tsar,” the immigrant’s “father was an atom of dust,” his “mother a straw in the wind.” But

In the light of the Liberty torch
The atom of dust became a man
And the straw in the wind became a woman
For the first time.
“See,” said my father, pointing to the flag that fluttered near, “That flag of stars and stripes is yours;
It is the emblem of the promised land,
It means, my son, the hope of humanity.
Live for it—die for it!”

Those words were Lieberman’s testament of love; they still sing in me.