Seldom has a newspaper opinion piece elicited as many thoughtful responses as Ezra Klein’s New York Times essay “The People Who Hate Liberalism Are Teaching Us What It Is.”
Klein, a Vox co-founder, podcaster, blogger, policy analyst, and now a Times opinion columnist is not easy to pin down politically. A self-described progressive, he’s a public policy wonk, a pragmatist, and a contrarian, who wants to bring clarity and an analytical edge to public debates, political arguments, and social trends.
But in this opinion column, he comes across, somewhat unexpectedly, as a champion of liberalism at a time when liberalism in its multiple dimensions – liberal democracy, liberal internationalism, the world liberal order, liberal democracy, capitalism, economic liberalism, liberal individualism – faces relentless challenges from the left and the right.
Klein’s overarching argument is that at a time when liberalism “has been battered by financial crises, the climate crisis, checkered pandemic responses, right-wing populists and a rising China…. Ukraine’s refusal to bend the knee to Vladimir Putin has reminded the West that … life under liberalism is worth fighting for.”
Klein devotes much of his essay’s attention to Matthew Rose’s study of philosophers of the radical right, A World After Liberalism. These were figures like Oswald Spengler who rejected liberal ideas about human equality, minority rights, religious toleration, and cultural pluralism. Rose’s book draws on these rightwing critics both to expose liberalism’s deficiencies and to rediscover, in Klein’s words, “core radicalism”: A belief that “human beings [are] capable of new forms of social organization,” can untether themselves “from hierarchies so embedded in our societies that they were deeply thought to represent a natural, or even divine, order,” and engage in acts of “collective betterment… a mission as grand as any offered by antiquity.”
Klein is certainly right when he insists that liberalism in the United States seems “exhausted, ground down, defined by the contradictions and broken promises,” and that it needs to be revived and reinvigorated.
In fact, much of the popular discussion about liberalism is colored by a belief that liberalism is in crisis.
- There is the crisis of liberal democracy: How, in a time of intense polarization, to balance majoritarianism and minority interests and federal, state, and local authority.
- There is the crisis of the liberal state, which seems stymied in addressing today’s problems of housing, transportation, and environmental sustainability in an affordable or timely manner.
- There is the crisis of liberal society, as direct participation in mediating institutions like churches or civic organizations erodes.
- There is the crisis of liberal internationalism: what role the United States should play in upholding international order, combating global problems and human rights violations, expanding rights and freedoms internationally.
- There’s the crisis of liberal values: How to amend for past injustices, balance equity with other considerations, and regulate the economy without losing its dynamism.
Liberalism isn’t readily defined. As Adam Gopnik argued in A Thousand Small Sanities, liberalism is an intellectual tradition, a political ideology, a set of policy prescriptions and proposals, a partisan identity, and a temperament. It’s also a collection of assumptions about human nature, societal change, history’s direction, and a theory of justice and ethics, and a commitment to reform, working within the system, and a meliorist, an incrementalist, a pragmatic, and a proceduralist, not A perfectionist or utopian, approach to social change that tends to lack a sense of moral urgency.
To its defenders, liberalism is all that’s good: It’s a commitment to pluralism, toleration, universalism, personal autonomy, free speech, fairness, democracy, open inquiry, rule of law, the rights of the individual, consent of the governed, and equality before the law.
To its critics on the left, like Domenico Losurdo, liberalism was, historically, bound up with illiberal practices and ideas, including slavery (Locke was the last major philosopher to defend slavery), colonialism, and eugenics, and in the twentieth century, aligned with corporate capitalism, market-produced inequalities, foreign interventionism, and conceptions of meritocracy that disguised systemic biases. Liberalism, its left-wing critics believe, is best understood as the ideology of free markets. Not only does it lack a sufficient critique of power inequalities, but its vaunted democratic processes and institutions, including the courts, serve as a cover for the exploitation of some group by others.
To its critics on the right and to some communitarians (like Charles Taylor), liberalism’s weaknesses include its purported overemphasis on individualism, its refusal to make moral judgments, its romantic sentimentalization of human nature, its lack of concern about the erosion of traditions and community ties, and, to libertarians, its prioritization of state action.
Then there are the more pragmatic criticisms: The failure to successfully address the problems of homelessness, healthcare, housing, college affordability, environmental destruction, inequalities of income and wealth, corporate abuse, and sexism and racism.
What, then, is liberalism? Definitions abound.
- A political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free markets.
- A value system that not only accepts but respects differences in behavior and opinion.
- A political doctrine that regards the central political problem as how to enhance the freedom and well-being of each individual.
- A political ideology that advocates civil liberties under the rule of law with an emphasis on limited government, economic freedom, and political self-determination.
- A commitment to the free movement on goods and capital, a hostility toward privileges rooted in birth or class, and support for democratic self-government and universal self-determination.
- A political philosophy that esteems the individual who is held to possess rights against the government, including rights of due under the law, freedom of expression and action, and freedom from religious and ideological constraint.
Why do I think it would be valuable for undergraduates to study liberalism and its critics from multidisciplinary perspectives?
- Because there are few, if any, better vehicles for studying intellectual history, political philosophy, and the development of modern political and civic institutions since the 17thcentury.
- Because the United States’s political culture is, to a large extent, rooted in liberal republican ideas.
- Because the shift from classical liberalism to social liberalism, with its commitment to the use of state power to advance the public good, represents one of the fundamental political developments of the past century and a half.
- Because liberalism’s critics advance arguments that every educated person needs to take seriously.
- Because students need to learn that a liberal democratic society isn’t simply a matter of elections or written laws and constitutions, but depends on a vibrant civic life independent of government.
Above all, students need to understand how central liberal ideas are to key facets of our society. To the importance of our colleges and universities attach to liberal education. To the ways that liberal internationalism continues to inform this nation’s approach to international relations and foreign affairs. And perhaps most important of all, how liberalism shapes public discourse.
The so-called consensus school of historians that dominated the history profession during the two decades following World War II, was often accused of downplaying the profundity of the conflicts and the depth of the inequalities within American society. In fact, many of the most prominent consensus historians were anything but blind to this society’s divisions and conflicts, but argued that these controversies and struggles largely took place within the broad contours of a dominant liberal ideology.
This guide attached extraordinary emphasis upon freedom, personal and economic, and individual rights, including the sanctity of property rights, and tolerated exceedingly high levels of inequality even as the society professed a belief in a kind of democratic egalitarianism in which all citizens were endowed with certain inalienable rights.
Some of the most policy consensus historians, like Louis Hartz, were, to a certain extent, inattentive to opposing systems of values: Not just the white Slave South’s paternalistic honor culture, but those values held by religious Fundamentalists and Pentecostals and traditionalist Catholics, and by the 19th century communitarians, utopians, and labor and sex radicals, and their 20th century successors.
Intermediate, certain liberal values were in fact ideologically hegemonic, and the nation’s liberal political culture continues to possess highly effective mechanisms to neutralize, channel, and defuse dissent. Liberalism may be battered, but as a philosophy and a system of language and values, it remains dominant.
I, for one, am struck by how today much of today’s cultural debate takes place within the confines of liberal discourse. The most forceful critics of “woke” ideas almost invariably draw on the language of equity of liberalism: that their adversaries do not tolerate free speech and diversity of opinion, that their emphasis on diversity and diversity is at odds with equality before the law, and that their desire to use the administrative state to advance their agenda violates individual rights and threatens the freedom of civic institutions.
If the humanities are not only to persist but to thrive, these humanities disciplines must speak more forthrightly to the issues of our time – yet with the breadth of perspective that history, philosophy, and political theory offer.
A multidisciplinary approach to liberalism and its critics is truly essential today, when we do need to do more to examine how this nation’s political and legal institutions actually function, to understand how social change takes place, and to find ways to instill the civic values and Forms of conduct that make democratic self-government possible, including tolerance, civility, respect for nuance, complexity, and perspective, and a willingness to engage in respectful dialogue.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.