Liberalism Is Not Enough

In both ends of the political spectrum, it seems liberalism has become démodé. From the traditionalist right, R. R. Reno of First Things proclaims, «[w]e’re afflicted by a liberal monoculture» characterized by a «double-pronged project of cultural and economic deregulation» that has eroded the solidarity needed to hold society together. From the left, Jacobin“s Nicole Aschoff criticizes what she sees as the liberal policies of «globalization, deregulated financial markets, [and] massive tax giveaways to big business and the rich» for creating a great «chasm» of inequality between «elites» and «ordinary people.»

Central to liberalism is the notion of liberty as freedom from constraint: the freedom to act according to one’s own conception of the good without impinging on others” freedom to do the same. Accordingly, liberalism understands politics in procedural terms — as the neutral weighing of competing private interests without tipping the scales in favor of any one particular ideal. It is thus no coincidence that such distinct contemporary alternatives to liberalism as nationalism and socialism seek to fill the substantive void by emphasizing, in differing ways and to varying degrees, the importance of social cohesion over freedom of choice, the implausibility or undesirability of a morally neutral state, and the need to denounce the corrupt bargain between political and corporate elites.

What one makes of all this will depend in part on how one understands the American political tradition. Many liberals view the rejection of liberalism as an alarming threat to «liberal democracy» — and American democracy, in particular — along with the institutions and values associated with it, which include representative government, the separation of powers, free markets, and religious liberty and tolerance. Their concerns are valid, insofar as some of liberalism’s most vocal critics on the right and left indict the American political project and its founding as both misbegotten and irredeemably liberal.

Curiously, the parties to this dispute all share an implicit premise: that liberalism is, for better or worse, the heart and soul of the American political tradition. Yet in fact, our political inheritance is not reducible to any one political ideology or tradition. Rather than a totalizing force for salvation or damnation, liberalism is one — albeit a powerful — strain of thought within our idiosyncratic political experiment. If Americans today tend to project liberalism back onto the entirety of our political history, it is in part because, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, liberalism superseded other political traditions to become the dominant (though not the only) framework through which Americans understand themselves as citizens.

This is no mere academic dispute; how we construe our country’s political inheritance will determine whether and to what extent we must look beyond it to temper its worst impulses. Today, we face a political crisis not unlike the one Americans faced during the 19th century, when changing social and economic conditions raised probing questions about the basic viability of our political forms. We would do well — as 19th-century Americans would have done — not to let such concerns blind us to the virtues of our political traditions. Instead, we should remind ourselves that the American project is and always has been far richer than the liberal tradition alone, containing within it the moral resources to both embrace liberty and rein in the excesses of liberalism.

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