The Malaise of Liberalism

by Alex Knepper

See also: The Malaise of Conservatism

There are few things clearer in contemporary politics than the need for an alternative vision to homo economicus, in both its liberal and socialist manifestations — man with neither roots nor telos but content merely with animalized comfort — and the right’s proposed flight back into the inadequate and unbelievable claims of the ancestral. It is also clear that there is no faction in American politics which can obviously serve as a vehicle for this alternative.

The right, even while holding political power, seems to understand itself today as the losers of recent history, and is resorting to tactics meant primarily to agitate, disorient, and inflame the winners; they are absolutely blinded by resentment, and no meaningful attempt at governing can be made until it is past this phase and reconciles itself to where we have arrived. So the way forward right now must come from the liberals, exhausted as they are — and despite that they are perhaps the least-inclined to recognize the gravity of the crisis. Why is liberalism once again susceptible to morphing in the direction of ideas it thought it had eliminated — socialism and nationalism? Victory in war, hot or cold, however dazzling, was clearly not sufficient to forever suppress the power of these ideas. Both promise a variety of security — economic and identity-based — against the rapid flux of things under liberal-democratic techno-capitalism, and the pace and intensity of that change has only grown faster in recent years. And a ‘globalized’ world of mass-communications is not just economically disorienting — it is spiritually disorienting, for young and old alike, the former of whom have not known a world unlike this, and the latter of whom have and are aghast at its disintegration. The greater the depths of disorientation, the greater the potential heights of reactive fanaticism. As we have said: people like Donald Trump simply do not come to power when people are not hurting, and badly.

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Liberals need to be able to answer the question: Why liberalism today? What kind of life does liberalism help to enable, and why is it desirable? There is no doubt that liberalism benefits certain small groups in large ways — the bourgeois professional class continues to thrive materially, and writers and artists will always have a special appreciation for the liberties of free speech, religion, and association, for instance. But if we believe Aristotle that good government necessitates a balance between the needs of the few and the needs of the many, liberals have to be able to provide some account of what a good life under liberalism looks like for the ordinary citizen. With ideals of religion, race, education, property, family, marriage, and sex all unusually unstable, we are in dire need of a coherent blueprint for what life under liberalism ought to look like in the 21st century. A requirement of this project would be to acknowledge and adequately address the challenges posed by Nietzsche and Marx — it need not ‘rebut’ them, but it must address them — and would itself be tantamount to a long-needed contemporary defense of liberal democracy — a defense of the idea that it is capable of providing decent and substantive lives for the many.

Of course, liberalism has been in need of such a defense for quite some time, and little has been forthcoming. Perhaps liberal democratic capitalism has lurched through the generations out of sheer inertia and material might, the beneficiaries of a historical head-start. That variants of the zombie ideologies of socialism and nationalism are coming back to torment us again suggests that the need for a recuperation and rehabilitation of liberalism has reached a fever pitch.

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The Malaise of Conservatism

by Alex Knepper

I have argued elsewhere that liberalism — from its so-called ‘classical’ roots to its modern/progressive outgrowth — is the engine that moves America, and that the role of conservatism is largely to moderate or restrain liberal excesses. In this sense, the right is almost necessarily defined by what it opposes. The great conservative (or, right-liberal) triumph of the 20th century within liberalism was the rise of Ronald Reagan, who decisively repudiated the infinite growth of the welfare state and reinvigorated the power of our civic mythology. But it only took the center-left a couple of election cycles to accept and absorb that new consensus and integrate it into its economic platform. Democrats in the 1990s embraced welfare reform, middle class tax cuts, budgetary prudence, and even American exceptionalism, thereby ensuring a bulwark against greater reaction. Obama has not overtly repudiated this approach, and has embraced a successor set to continue it. So what is the point of conservatism today? Quite simply, Reaganism’s success domestically has left the American right without a unifying cause in the post-Soviet era. Once Trump is defeated, the Republican Party will have lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections — and the one they won was a terribly narrow victory during wartime, three years after the worst attack on the country in our history.

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And why not? Who needs Republicans? The variety of conservatism offered by most of the Republican Party is fundamentally in agreement with the variety of liberalism offered by most of the Democratic Party. They both aim toward maximizing material luxury, coupled with expanded individual choice and social access (prosperity, liberty, equality). The most evocative international threat comes from a sprawling network of paramilitary operations, and Democrats have been at least as successful at confronting it as Republicans — so the idea of a new ‘fusionism’ is useless. (We should note here that ‘fusionism’ was about fusing against something, not for something!) Rates of crime, divorce, abortion, teen pregnancy, and other ‘social indicators’ are better than they have been in decades. The last Republican president has been judged to have been a supreme screw-up economically. Maybe John Kasich could have defeated Hillary Clinton this year, but the populists are right: aside from a few social issues primarily of interest to niche factions, Kasich is not actually terribly different than Clinton.

At most, there are some disagreements between party establishmentarians about how to reach the liberal goal of free and equal prosperity: how high we should aim in what period of time, which entities should oversee the administration and distribution of various goods and services, whose needs are to be prioritized first, etc. Even the nationalist/internationalist divide is something of a chimera, since everyone agrees on the overarching goal — in a vital sense, even the hardcore nationalists think liberalism is actually pretty great, but that too many Muslims and Mexicans will end up ruining it for everyone. If Democrats agreed to limit immigration and insist on assimilation, the right would be robbed of yet another argument.

But isn’t this okay, or even good? Isn’t this how it is supposed to work? The right’s skepticism toward mass immigration and so-called ‘globalism’ is not without merit, after all, and democratic governments must satisfy (or at least pacify) their right-leaning factions. If liberalism is the engine and conservatives are the moderating forces (in a historical sense, not a temperamental one!), then isn’t the theatrical bluster of election season little but noise? We must assume Trump, Brexit, and the German refugee crisis will be sufficient warning signs for ‘elites’ that something has to give. (If not, the impending right-wing reaction will be practically deserved.) But as the liberal project advances and more large-scale questions are decided, the differences in the visions between the two parties is bound to become even smaller, and the purpose of politics is bound to narrow further, and the stakes decrease. We are quite possibly rushing toward what amounts to a virtual consensus. Eventually, the need for high-stakes politics might be eliminated entirely.

What is the point of a center-right party in an era of global liberal hegemony, then, beyond opposition to excessive multiculturalism and social permissiveness? Are there possibilities for liberalism beyond the ideological consensus? Is it possible to forge a vision that goes beyond identity politics and class politics without dismissing the truths of either? The right is running out of things to oppose — it’s time to start innovating. A clever conservative might be elected president if he (or she!) can provide a compelling answer to that question — one that looks beyond merely trying to agitate against the left — and toward a loftier vision of the possibilities afforded by liberal democracy. That might get sucked into the consensus, too — but it will at least serve the noble goal of elevating it beyond mere ‘identity’ and consumption.