Confessions of a Comatose Son of Liberalism

Even the healthiest patriotism does not address whether America’s political regime ought to re-main basically neutral about whether its citizens flourish. If what our politics can give us is fair procedures for resolving disputes, and protections for speech and property, and a broad enough distribution of power that tyranny has difficulty taking hold, that is remarkable and we should be grateful. That still isn’t living well.

In his review of Francis Fukuyama’s Liberalism and Its Discontents for Public Discourse last month, Steven B. Smith urges his fellow liberals to quit being shy about their ideals and achievements. He writes that “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.” To illustrate the need for more liberal pride, Smith recounts that some years ago a student confessed to a panel at Yale on “The Future of Conservatism” that liberalism wasn’t exciting enough to get him out of bed in the morning. That bit of chutzpah came from me, and if I’m not mistaken, William Kristol (whose co-panelists were James Ceaser and Ross Douthat) replied that politics cannot solve one’s existential crises, but that for over two centuries American soldiers have thought liberal democracy worth fighting and dying for.

Fair enough. Liberal states have made their citizens safe, prosperous, and in many ways free. But there are still other tests of political societies and their animating principles. Do they orient citizens toward higher common goods? Or, if that’s too ambitious–do they make enough room for institutions and smaller communities that cultivate the fruitful use of life and liberty and wealth?

My basic point to the panel was that America’s safe and affluent and free society, a liberal achievement if ever there were one, has left too many of its citizens jaded, aimless, lonely, and, well, tired. Americans are well off, it’s true, but too many aren’t living well. As Smith himself wrote in his book Modernity and Its Discontents: “The regime officially dedicated to the pursuit of happiness has found the attainment of happiness an increasingly elusive object of desire.” America is a political miracle. We have a great Declaration of Independence, a brilliant Constitution, a robust Bill of Rights, and a history of advancing the ideals embedded in all three. Many nations have imitated us with good results. I am proud to claim these accomplishments as my civic patrimony. My question is whether American liberalism can preserve these great works while ameliorating America’s terrible sickness. For as much as America’s triumphs are cause for liberal pride, America’s cultural maladies are cause for liberal shame. Both because a regime under which the people don’t live well is simply failing at a main duty, and because there is reason to think that what will make America well is not the advance of liberal principles but their retreat.


I think liberalism’s main currents are: letting individuals have the final say about their life conditions (that is, autonomy), a basic tolerance toward others’ deeply held values so long as no one gets hurt, and a basic skepticism toward authority. Liberalism also opposes discrimination due to language, culture, nationality, faith, sex, and so on. It is strongly biased in favor of equality.

We should begin with gratitude. Liberalism united people in America and elsewhere against the worst forms of political domination: fascism, communism, slavery, and the arbitrary power of kings. “Liberalism was born as a fighting creed,” Smith writes–it won the American Revolution, the American Civil War, two World Wars, and the Cold War (I’d add that it’s done well in the war on terrorism). Liberal ideas tranquilized and enriched Europe and North America and much of Asia. Liberalism gave American women and blacks the vocabulary to win the equality due to them. And liberalism has fixed the terms in which even many non-liberals defend their own political programs–see the near universality of rights language and constitutions in anti-liberal states purporting to guarantee basic freedoms. Liberalism has had a helluva run.

But the most successfully liberal states are right now suffering from serious ennui. Birthrates, a fine measure of national hope, are beneath replacement rates in every Western liberal democracy but one (and more on that country below). American teenage depression and suicide rates are way up and so are so-called deaths of despair among working-class men. Our drug epidemic is heartbreaking. The legalization of marijuana and probably other drugs in the future will probably make it worse, while relieving drug use of the censure that goes with its being illegal. The kids are not all right. Too much time on screens, too little interest in friendship and romance, too much absorbing and transmitting deranged notions about gender. Fewer people (especially men) are working and getting married. Mainline churches and synagogues are emptying out. America isn’t bowling alone, since it can’t even be bothered to get off the couch and drive to the alley. Our society reminds me of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, who after winning back his girl looks ahead to a life of nothing in particular.

I detect some themes here. Constant striving for private gratification. Reluctance to dedicate oneself to communities. Disdain for institutions and traditions that don’t derive their powers from the continuous consent of those they govern. Contempt for the differences between adults and children and between males and females. Now let me just ask: If you converted liberal political ideas into the tests of everything in a culture, civil society, and families, what else would you have a right to expect?

Liberalism arms us to resist regimes that treat human suffering as so much collateral damage in–or, worse, as the fuel necessary for–the creation of some new order. But what if the goal is a culture in which marriage, religion, civil society, and other forms of solidarity and meaning can flourish? Here the strong liberal preferences for autonomy and self-expression and the liberal suspicion of authority and tradition can do serious harm. For you simply cannot have a family unless mother and father govern their children and remain faithful to one another when the romance is gone. You cannot have any sort of school unless teachers impart and students absorb. You cannot have a church or a synagogue or a mosque without sacred texts, doctrines, and practices that don’t depend on majority vote. You cannot run a business, an army, a bowling league, or any other institution unless some rule and others are ruled and people stick with it even when things don’t go their way. The institutions that bind people together and give their lives meaning require authority and differentiation, deference to existing practice, rules that don’t change just because whims do, and so on.

I do not blame liberals themselves for the decline in sacrifice, compromise, generosity, and obedience that have left fewer and fewer willing to join in what used to be called civil society. But neither do I think that what ails our culture is too little individuality, too much stability and tradition, too few freedoms, too much sacrifice. On the contrary, the principles that make our political institutions fair seem to have conquered and disabled the smaller communities of shared loves that make life under any regime decent, meaningful, and worth living.

Identity politics is (for now at least) the worst example of what I’m talking about, and here I respectfully dissent from Smith’s diagnosis. Smith writes that “the right to equal recognition and respect owed to each individual became the rights of particular identity groups to special consideration.” I’d suggest instead that identity politics is a highly individualist, anti-social movement. Race, class, and whatever one likes from this week’s alphabet soup special of gender and sexuality are repurposed to construct “an inner thing, a homunculus that needs tending to,” in the words of Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal. “Almost all the ideas or beliefs or feelings that once muted the perennial American demand for individual autonomy have evaporated. Personal choice. Individual rights. Self-definition. . . . it’s hard for us to think or talk about any subject except in these self-regarding terms.” Persons are reduced to their own fluid understanding of what is owed to someone with their particular intersection of traits. Any burden–subjectively-defined–placed on you due to your identifying qualities violently offends your very self. The resulting nonstop search for micro-aggressions stunts the virtues required by any community with more than one member. No society can thrive on suspicion.

These critiques of culture under liberalism are not new, as Smith and Fukuyma are of course aware. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that great equality meant great alienation from one’s countrymen. The discerning Frenchman is worth quoting at some length:

“As conditions are equalized,” Tocqueville writes in Democracy in America (he’s referring to economic wealth and political rights), “one finds a great number of individuals who . . . owe nothing to anyone, they expect nothing from anyone; they are in the habit of always considering themselves in isolation, and they willingly fancy that their whole destiny is in their hands.” The more we are alike, the less we think that others have something to give to us or that we have something to give to them. And so the less we seek out partners for fruitful common life.

Tocqueville thought that America’s many associations–the groups, committees, unions, and clubs that Americans founded to advance numerous projects–helped citizens to avoid isolation. But Tocqueville also warned that the “idea of secondary powers” interposing between a government and a people “is naturally absent from the minds of men in centuries of equality; it can only be introduced artificially then, and it is retained with difficulty; whereas they conceive, so to speak without thinking about it, the idea of a lone central power that leads all citizens by itself.” The less political and economic conditions distinguish people from their fellows, the less people will tolerate other institutions that do distinguish them: newbie from graybeard, layman from priest, student from teacher, writer from editor, husband from wife. Tocqueville thought that egalitarians naturally preferred a single, impersonal government that treats each individual the same as any other. Civil society is thus flattened in favor of a vast, centralized state hostile to the differences and, yes, the inequalities in civil society that enable so many to flourish. It seems that this great flattening of civil society has simply relocated our innate desire to be special and distinguished–which is to say not equal in all things–from social life to the private fiefdom of each person’s inner self. That this retreat inward in fact has serious consequences for our public life is apparent to anyone who reads the news.


What is to be done about all this–and can liberals do it? Smith suggests that we newly venerate our political institutions, founding documents, and great national moments–that proud Americans left and right form a political religion for this 21st-century nation, to adapt a phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois in 1838. Anyone interested in such a project should give Smith’s book Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes a close read.

But even the healthiest patriotism is not quite an answer to the question I’m asking, which is whether America’s political regime ought to remain basically neutral about whether its citizens flourish. If what our politics can give us is fair procedures for resolving disputes, and protections for speech and property, and a broad enough distribution of power that tyranny has difficulty taking hold, that is remarkable and we should be grateful. That still isn’t living well. No humane regime can be indifferent to whether people start families or stay lonely, remain faithful to their spouses or cheat on them, get high or stay sober, worship God or false idols, produce or merely consume, fondle their insatiable grievances or sacrifice for higher things. These are the decisions of which decent lives are made–and they mostly don’t involve the physical harms to others that are almost the only harms many liberals think government should counter. If liberals want our politics to take a side on these dilemmas, they should say so, though their liberal credentials may not survive them saying so. If they think our politics shouldn’t take sides in these dilemmas, then they should not be surprised when the beneficiaries of political liberalism look to non-liberal solutions for our current cultural ills–especially when what ails us looks suspiciously like the destructive work of liberal ideas outside their proper, regime-level confines.

The Israelis seem to do a good job of maintaining liberal political institutions without the pathologies afflicting other liberal societies. (If anything there is a lack of solitude in Israeli life.) Birthrates are comparatively high: Israel is the only Western democracy with an average higher than the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. Crime is relatively low, and the country is pervaded by hopeful energy.

But here are some other features of Israeli life: a military draft and national service laws that join the country’s youth in sacrifice. Immigration laws heavily biased in favor of Jews. A strong and growing religious culture supported by state-funded yeshivas and seminaries, youth groups, and four- and five- and six-child families. Recognizable norms of masculinity and femininity. And a fierce nationalism that sees the state’s success as a theological or at least a historical imperative. The unabashed pro-natalism of even many anti-religious Israelis is a strange thing for an American like me to encounter. A very secular Israeli acquaintance of mine once told her children that to have more kids was their Zionist duty; for if they didn’t reproduce, then Orthodox Israelis, with their religious commitments to marriage and very large families, would turn the country into a theocracy. Say what you will about this sentiment–can you imagine a secular American liberal making a similarly patriotic case for fertility?


I’m not proposing that America or other liberal societies just copy the Israelis, though it wouldn’t hurt anyone to learn a little Hebrew on the side. I will not be joining the breakaway minyan of Catholic integralists praying for a new Rome. I love our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, and our political traditions, and I feel I have a right to claim them as though I were blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men and women who made them.

It also seems to me that much of what’s wrong with American society is liberal principles taken way—but I mean way–too far into private and semi-private life. My worry is that our political order and our pluralistic public philosophy as we understand them cannot survive what our culture needs to heal–that liberalism will either eat away entirely the institutions that make life under a humane political regime worth living, or it will be altogether discarded. I sincerely hope that American liberals can learn (or relearn) the vocabulary of sacrifice, order, authority, and fidelity necessary for families, churches, synagogues, schools, businesses, and civil society to thrive. If they cannot, then they have poor standing to blame their heirs for endorsing a politics that, by enthusiastically taking sides between vice and virtue, loneliness and communion, chaos and order, ennui and meaning, helps its citizens to live lives that are virtuous, communal, orderly, and meaningful.

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