Histories of liberalism have become the plat du jour. Many of these have a pronounced funereal air about them. Liberalism that was once hailed as the constitutive Western ideology has shown signs of decrepitude bordering on senility. In his new book, Liberalism and its Discontents, Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama acknowledges the many ways in which liberalism has been corrupted. Yet, as befits the author of The End of History and the Last Man, he insists that it is still the best—if not the only—game in town, but that it needs to be attentive to its own pathologies if it is to avoid eclipse by both the progressive left and the reactionary right.
Fukuyama’s book follows in a distinguished tradition of critical perspectives on liberalism. For many of us who came of age during the Cold War, our first introductions to political philosophy were often couched as critiques of the reigning liberalism. Leo Strauss, for instance, taught that liberalism had lowered the standards of the best political order as this would have been understood by either Plato or Nietzsche. By comparison, America seemed to be the place where greatness went to die. The Declaration of Independence that had proudly proclaimed the pursuit of happiness as one of our most fundamental rights was regarded as a form of materialist hedonism, or in Strauss’s phrase, “the joyless quest for joy.” Strauss offered a lukewarm defense of liberalism as based on “the low but solid” grounds of what he somewhat contemptuously referred to as comfortable self-preservation. As things would turn out, these grounds were neither quite as low nor quite as solid as Strauss believed.
There are still other diagnoses. In The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling argued that liberalism in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States was “not only the dominant but the sole intellectual tradition.” Trilling hoped that the study of literature would bring truths to liberalism that it could not see on its own. Isaiah Berlin wished to bring to liberalism an appreciation of “value pluralism” or the belief that there is no single road to achieve happiness, well-being, or the human good. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. coined the phrase “the vital center” to indicate not a tepid middle-of-the-road position between liberalism and conservatism, but the robust defense of democracy against its opponents.
Some recent histories of liberalism are pointedly accusatory in tone. From the left, critics like Charles Mills and Carol Pateman regard the entire history of liberalism as implicated in the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and gender hierarchy. From the right, critics like Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony accuse liberalism of carrying on a war against culture—an “anti-culture” it has been called—that is destructive of all forms of tradition, authority, and national identity. For a doctrine that managed to defeat both fascism and communism, it seems to be able to get nothing right.
Fukuyama accepts the force of many such critiques of liberalism offered by the left and the right, but argues that it still has the internal resources necessary to resist its critics. His starting point is that the current war on liberalism is to some degree the product of its own success. “As people get used to a peaceful life under a liberal regime,” Fukuyama writes in one of his best sentences, “they tend to take that peace and order for granted, and start longing for a politics that will direct them to higher ends.” At a symposium I organized at Yale a number of years ago on “The Future of Conservatism,” a student complained to one of the participants that he needed some reason to help him get up in the morning. Liberalism was apparently not doing the job.
Fukuyama begins with a definition of liberalism borrowed from the English philosopher John Gray that stresses four main features of the doctrine. Liberalism is individualist; it values liberty and autonomy, especially the rights to property and the rights to freedom of speech above all else. It is egalitarian; it ascribes equal human worth to all men and women. It is universalist; it values persons independent of their membership in particular tribes, states, and nations. And it is meliorist; it believes in human progress, but as something to be achieved moderately and not in wholesale revolutionary transformations.
Fukuyama provides a useful walking tour—probably the best part of the book—of the various pathologies of liberal individualism. From the right, during the 1970s a philosophy of freedom and autonomy morphed into a doctrine of “neo-liberalism” or libertarianism that stresses property rights and market liberty above all else. Neo-liberalism was the creation of economists like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, which then became something like the official ideology of Ronald Reagan’s America and Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain. It was applied with often brutal consequences in the recently liberated countries of the former Soviet empire. The result was to turn liberalism into a version of Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good.”
From the left, liberal individualism morphed into a form of identity politics. The right to equal recognition and respect owed to each individual became the rights of particular identity groups to special consideration. Since there is no such thing as an individual outside a group, like Robinson Crusoe on a desert island, liberalism must give more attention to the surrounding cultures that shape individual identity. Multiculturalism thus became a formula for dividing Americans by replacing the emphasis on individual rights with group rights, creating a kind of arms race to achieve special victim status.
Both of these, Fukuyama correctly argues, are corruptions of liberalism that need to be resisted. The most powerful contemporary alternative to liberalism is the rise of ethno-nationalism in Russia, China, India, Hungary, and the United States. Nationalism could be a called a form of right-wing identity politics because it takes national membership as a trump card of inclusion and exclusion. Nationalists begin from the commonsense supposition that the national state is the basic unit of political order that must be defended in order to ensure national security and the rule of law. But nationalism today means much more than this. It is not simply a matter of securing borders from “invasion,” but of determining who is the real American and who is not. It is a way of dividing citizens into rival and competing camps of ins and outs, who belongs and who is “other.” According to the nationalist writer Glenn Ellmers, more than half of actual Americans “are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.”
The question Fukuyama poses is whether liberalism has the resources—the inner core of strength and will—to resist nationalism and other extremist ideologies. We seem to be reaching (maybe even have reached) a kind of Weimar Moment when the institutions of liberal democracy are under assault from both the left and the right. How can democracies fight back against movements that make no pretense of being democratic or caring about constitutional rules and procedures, who prefer to win at any cost? Liberalism that deeply values such “procedural” goods as fair elections and the rule of law always seems to be fighting with one hand tied behind its back. This is a problem explored brilliantly by the German émigré political scientist, Karl Loewenstein, in his classic article “Militant Democracy and Fundamental Rights.”
In his final chapter titled “Principles for a Liberal Society” Fukuyama outlines a number of ways to defend liberalism from its enemies. First, liberal states need to find ways of embracing the market economy but also managing the effects of a debilitating inequality; second, liberalism must embrace federalism and the devolution of power, but resist the appeal to “states’ rights” and other Jim Crow-era dog whistles; third, liberalism must endorse freedom of speech without falling into “epistemic relativism”; fourth, liberalism must attribute primacy to individual autonomy without forgetting the importance of other values like cultural tradition and the need to belong. The book ends with an appeal to moderation as “the key to the revival—indeed, the survival—of liberalism itself.”
I am inclined to agree with all of the above—and that is exactly the problem. When framed in such broad terms, who wouldn’t? These are commonsense solutions designed to appeal to the political center. But how do they help in a time when the political center is deeply fractured and when a moderate consensus is increasingly difficult to achieve? The questions are how much market freedom versus how much social welfare, how much freedom of speech versus how much control over the internet, how much individualism versus how much authority? These are exactly the problems we are fighting over. Fukuyama’s list of principles is not so much a solution to the crisis of liberalism as a register of its current disabilities. It reminds me a bit of Robert Frost’s snide remark that a liberal is someone who is too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.
The best idea floated by Fukuyama is that liberalism needs to find a way to embrace patriotism. Love of country is something that deeply inspires Americans and it has been woefully ceded to the political right. This is a problem that I took up at length in my book Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes. Liberals have worried far too much about the misuses of patriotism—there are plenty—and appearing to be politically incorrect. The recent act of self-abasement by the president of the American Historical Association who had dared to call out “presentism” in his profession because this could be construed as a critique of the 1619 Project is only a case in point. Liberals need to start standing up against those in their own camp who demand ideological rectitude. Only then will they gain the moral authority to confront liberalism’s real enemies.
Liberals need to endorse a robust national narrative that appeals to key moments and figures in American history. Liberalism was born as a fighting creed. The American Founders had to contend with George III; Lincoln with the southern slavocracy; FDR with the twin threats of fascism and economic crisis; JFK with the Cold War and the space race. Liberalism today should not be about splitting differences and appealing to a kind of just milieu, but staking out its ground and affirming its beliefs. I am reminded of a joke from Woody Allen’s great film Crimes and Misdemeanors. A boxer enters the ring and his brother turns to the family priest and says, “Father, pray for him.” The priest says, “I will, but if he can punch it will help.” Liberals today need to learn how to punch.