As the author of a recent book titled “What Was Liberalism?,” I have been chided by critics for joining a chorus of doomsayers. The stock of liberalism certainly looked low in 2016, when I began my research: Donald Trump was elected president and the British decided to leave the European Union. But Mr. Trump’s approval ratings have never climbed above the mid-40s, while the British seem to be regretting their rash decision. The popularity of nativist and reactionary parties in Europe has receded from its high-water mark of two or three years ago. So many liberal Democrats have decided to run against Mr. Trump that they can’t fit in one room.
If a liberal is simply someone who agrees with the traditional Democratic platform, then it’s safe to say that the rumors of liberalism’s demise are, at the very least, premature. Nor, despite Mr. Trump’s relentless insistence that the party has surrendered its agenda to the left-wing “Squad,” have most liberals abandoned their core faith in free markets or their instinctive patriotism. The ranks of the slightly-left-of-center have, if anything, grown under Trump.
But there is an older understanding of liberalism that is deeply endangered, that will not revive on its own, that will be rescued only through conscious choices by liberals themselves.
What I have in mind is a liberalism more of means than of ends, a belief that individual and minority-group rights can be protected only in a society governed by the rule of law, neutral institutions and secular, rational debate. This broader doctrine, which encompasses both the modern left and the modern right, has a disputed genealogy. Some begin their story with John Locke, with the idea of government created by individuals for their own benefit. Others begin with Adam Smith, the first exponent of the doctrine of the free market.
I start with James Madison, who was as committed as either Locke or Smith to the supremacy of individual liberty but was acutely aware of the inherent tension between liberty and democracy. Madison recognized that “the people” can be as tyrannical as a monarch. It is not enough, he wrote in Federalist 51, “to guard the society against the oppression of the rulers”; it is equally necessary “to guard one part of the society against the oppression of the other part.” What we now call a “liberal democracy” is a state where majoritarianism is tempered by a respect for individual rights as well as the rights of political or ethnic minorities.
The opposite of liberalism is not conservatism, as we understand the term in modern America, but populism. The illiberal populism of Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orban or Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, each of whom was more or less fairly elected, entails the cynical and reckless use of the mechanisms of democracy to disenfranchise political minorities, politicize the state, stigmatize immigrants and other “outsiders,” and diminish civil liberties. Populists address an exclusionary “us.” As Mr. Trump himself once put it with rare clarity, “The only important thing is the unification of the people — because the other people don’t mean anything.” Populism is democracy without liberalism.
We suffer from a confusion of terms, and not only in regard to liberalism. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are routinely referred to as “populists,” including in this newspaper, presumably because they assail the rich. But so did Theodore Roosevelt. In his day, as in ours, the rich vacuumed up almost all the value produced by the economy. Does pointing that out make you a populist? Does denying that claim, or endorsing the virtues of gross inequality, mean that you are not a populist? The thought is absurd. None of the Democratic candidates would talk about, or treat, “the people” as Mr. Trump has done. They are not populists. Are they liberals? Bernie Sanders — who calls himself a socialist, opposes free trade and shows very little regard for the working of the free market — is not. I have my doubts about Elizabeth Warren. But they’re not populists either.
Today, paradoxically, it is not liberals but conservatives who endanger liberalism. The secular, free-market conservatives who voted for Ronald Reagan accepted the basic apparatus of a liberal society. But Mr. Reagan also welcomed into the party extremists and conservative evangelicals who thought about politics in far more absolute terms. Over time, those groups took over the host body of the Republicans, leaving us with an illiberal party that represents half the country. Today’s Republican leaders, with the vehement support of their base, have threatened the autonomy of the federal and state judiciary, treated intelligence and law-enforcement agencies as instruments of the “deep state,” attacked the press and pulled down the empire of science, reason and fact into the mire of “fake news.”
It may be that a combination of the impending impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump and a Democratic victory in 2020 will break the illiberal fever. Certainly any imaginable Democratic victor would put an end to attacks on the government and the press. But it is not, in the end, the formal rules and institutions that sustain liberal democracy. It is the widespread faith in them, what we call “norms.” Forty years of swelling illiberalism on the right — and some reciprocal illiberalism on the left — have deeply corroded that faith.
So what can a Democratic president do to restore liberal norms? The resentment that Mr. Trump has exploited is plainly rooted in decades of middle-class stagnation and rising inequality. A left-of-center candidate like Elizabeth Warren would drain the toxins with bold moves to lower the cost of public goods like education and health care and yank the billionaires down from their stratosphere.
Liberals would like to consign the whole problem to economics, the language of which is second nature to them. Reaching into the national culture runs against the grain of their policy-oriented ethos. And didn’t Barack Obama spend eight years trying to bridge the divide between red and blue America, only to find it deeper at the end than it had been at the beginning? As intellectually conscientious a president as we are ever likely to have, Mr. Obama rarely strayed from the language of reason — but he left behind a nation consumed by unreason.
Yet to abandon that effort is to accept a new version of “us” and “them,” but with the Trumpian terms reversed. Modern liberalism came into being with Franklin Roosevelt, who forged a collective language of “we” without abandoning the “I” of individual liberty to which Madison and Jefferson had devoted themselves. Polarization has persuaded growing numbers of people on the left that the national “we” is a fiction propagated by straight white men. They would challenge Mr. Trump’s white-identity politics with an “other identity” politics that emphasizes the intrinsic difference of historically marginalized groups, whether African-Americans or L.G.B.T.Q. persons, rather than their right to full membership in the national community. This is a recipe for endless cultural warfare, and it will not be easy, especially for an ideologically driven figure like Senator Warren, to resist that tidal pull.
In a rare slip that exposed his true feelings, Mr. Obama once said that “bitter” people “cling to guns or religion,” or racism, xenophobia or protectionism, “as a way to explain their frustrations.” The clear implication is that while liberal values like diversity, unlimited personal autonomy and secularism are universal, conservative values are a kind of pathology. Most liberals, at least under truth serum, would probably say the same.
A Democratic president, whatever his or her actual feelings, will have to take conservative values more seriously, as long as they share the same liberal root system. Democrats on the left hardly believe that only bitter people want to restrict free trade. They should accept that the same is true of people who want to see limits on immigration or balk at the modern politics of gender.
The poisons that now corrupt our national bloodstream will not be washed clean by a Democratic victory in 2020. That would only mark the beginning of liberal renewal.
James Traub is the author, most recently, of “What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present, and Promise of a Noble Idea.”
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