The Death of Liberalism
Liberalism is dead. Almost.
I expect there will be two primary reactions to reading “Liberalism is Dead.” One response will be something like, “ This guy’s an idiot (ad hominem). Liberalism is alive and well. Look at the #resistance. It’s so constant, so vigorous. Look at the hundreds of thousands in the streets protesting. We’re making a difference, Dammit! The Women’s March, The Berkeley Anti-Milo Protest (riot), and the anti-travel ban/executive order uprising throughout the country. This guy is just another right wing nazi (ad hominem) who dreams that liberalism is dead. He wishes it was dead. Moron (ad hominem), we’re far from dead.
Another response will likely be something akin to: “Good. It’s about damn time. These idiot snowflakes (ad hominem) have been wrecking this country for years. They and their gender-bending, take all my stuff and give it to everyone else, marxist, commie, pals (ad hominems). I PRAY liberalsim is dead. But, my friend, it doesn’t look that way to me. These guys are throwing the sink at POTUS. They won’t let him assemble a cabinet. They’re shouting folks like me down. They’re beating folks like me up. Obama’s still pulling strings within the Federal bureaucracy. You’re an idiot.”
To both of these responses I say, “your observations (save all the name-calling) are correct, but liberalism is dead.” I would argue that liberalism has been dead for a very long time. It died and we didnt even notice. Liberalism, I would also argue, was always rare. As a dominant politcal movement within the U.S. It was short lived. Perhaps, it thrived until 1826. The death of Adams and Jefferson did not kill it, but ended its status as a dominant political methodology (I’m no historian so this is based entirely upon my recalling historical trends, as well as my 20 plus years in the academy). With the death of our founders, in large part liberalism was relegated to the Universities. It enjoyed a long but quiet life there in those ivory towers for 120 years or so. But it remained very small, and liberalism was given to those who could afford it, and nearly noone apart from the idle rich or the extraordinarily bright (and not even most of them) could afford the time or money required to attend college. After WWII and through the 1970s liberalism grew. Helped largely at first, by the GI Bill’s making college affordable for the masses (or at least for many more) thousands were able to go and learn liberalism and its theoretical method that once could not. But somewhere, between, 1983, when I finished my first course of University studies, and 2000 when I began my second tour in the academy, it died. Sometime, while I was away at work, starting and raising a family, the University system replaced liberalism with a particular brand of politically-based ideology. Ths, at least, was my experience.
During my first run through University – 1977-1983 – I am certain I was unaware, or had any inkling as to how my professors might vote. There was a “Free Speech” area set aside near the Student Center, where one could often hear the most idiotic theories, as well as, some well-reasoned discourse. Extremes were celebrated, or at least tolerated. Certainly not branded as illegal or unwanted. If someone was speaking you disagreed with you were free to speak back.
By the time I made my second pass through the academy – 2000 – 2002 (M. Div.) and then later – 2006-2012 (D.Min.), I experienced things quite differently. There is little doubt that what would now be called by some, “Progressivism,”was the popular, institutionally, vocally, implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, communicated worldview by my professors and more largely, by the Seminary “in toto.” I have little doubt as to how all of my professors would have voted. Our pronouns were policed for “gender neutrality.” Gender neutral language was a policy contained within the student manual. My experience is inarguable. I realize it is a subjective interpretation and therefore could argued. I also realize this may not have been the intent of my professors and school, but I could offer many more examples of why I think this is true. However, I do not wish to debate that here; elsewhere, perhaps, but not here, not now.
At this point, some readers might be confused. You may be asking, “Why would one say liberalism is dead, when it is so vocally, and in some cases violently apparent in both the streets, and by your own admission, within the walls of its traditional home, the Academy?” The answer is quite clear. Liberalism is not synonymous with “Progressivism.” Progressivism” is a political ideology, just as is “Conservatism.” “Liberalism” has lost its meaning as a word or label, or at the very least the meaning has been radically altered. “Progressivism” is a much better label if only because it divorces itself form its connection with true liberalism. To be sure, progressivism is not dead. It continues and has values, but it is a particular well-defined political agenda. It values certain things. Sometimes these politcal agenda items intersect with liberalism, at times they do not. Liberalism, I would argue, is much less specific in its goal. I would also argue that many viewpoints are valued and that many different manifestations of political ideologies could be the end product of liberalism.
Let me pause for a moment to tell you, what I think liberalism is. Liberalism is an ideology that values the freedom of individuals — including the freedom of thought, religion, speech, press, assembly, and markets — as well as limited government. Liberalism, being this narrowly defined, is, as they say, “A very big tent.” Within this tent Jefferson – a slave owner – once dwelled side by side with Adams – an abolitionist. Also to be found therein is Ben Franklin – a libertine – and George Washington – by most accounts a pious and sober man. To bring this forward to the current milieu, I would argue that in the “Big Tent” of liberalism, an atheist and a christian could live happily together. A gun owner and a strict pacifist could be friends. A pro-life supporter and a pro-choice advocate could argue their points and end the day, perhaps changed, but still mutually respecting friends. The problems between ideologies arise only when liberalism is abandoned in favor of force. Ideologies can require force, and most often attempt to be forced upon others. Indivudual(s) force against individual(s) (as in the Berkeley riots where individuals were savaged for expressing their support of free speech and Donald Trump or in the instances of pro-life supporters barring the entrance of people into Planned Parenthood Clinics) is an example of individual force. Force can also be exerted, en masse, at the ballot box or in the courts. The examples of this sort of group force are legion. I think it unnecessary to enumerate them. Suffice to say, that anytime a particular ideology has enough adherents to a particular cause they can enact legislation, which ultimately by force, a law-enforcement agent can enforce – at gunpoint – if necessary. Methinks force, of any kind, has no place in liberalism, except to prevent force from being applied from one ideologue upon another. With liberalism there is no need to win, therefore no need for force. Liberalism does not concern itself with a particular outcome, but rather requires of its adherents a rigorous discipline of thought methodology. A the root of liberalism is thought, and words, and argument. For the liberal thought, words, and arguments are the compelling agents of change.
With liberalism there no necessity of one viewpoint winning. Neither does does liberalism regard changing one’s mind as a defeat. Indeed, I would argue, that the liberal desires and seeks to have their mind changed. They do not enter an argument with the only successful outcome being the rhetorical defeat of their opponent. I would assert that a liberal enters any exchange of ideas perceiving that leaving with their mind changed – at least somewhat, as well as having changed their opponent’s mind – somewhat – is the most desired outcome. We enter an argument hoping to change as well as, to be changed. Liberalism, as a method of thought and discourse, requires intellectual humility, enough at least, to think that others may have something to offer. John Locke, perhaps the greatest voice of liberalism said, “To pre-judge other men’s notions before we have looked into them is not to show their darkness, but to put out our own eyes.” I recently wrote elsewhere: “It is shameful to be unwilling to change one’s. Such a quality is less a testament to ‘firm priniples’ than it is to intellectual arrogance and a commitment to ignorance.” Stridency and liberalism cannot exist happily together.
Sadly, all I see around me, is either apathy or stridency. I’m not sure of which there is more. At the moment, due only to all the noise, it might appear to be stridency, but I would guess apathy is the larger portion. Apathy requires almost no intellectual effort, and people are lazy. “Whatever. I’m going to work, or the ballgame, or the movie. Screw all this yellin’ and screamin’ and fussin’ and fumin’.” This requires nothing really. People are lazy.
Stridency takes a lot of work, a lot more than apathy. To be a strident, confident ideologue requires the intellectual work of forming and defending an argument. There are talking points to be memorized. There is selective data to be considered. One must learn enough to anticipate a potential opponents arguments, data, and talking points, and be willing and able to overcome them. This isnt easy. But in nearly all cases it assumes an end. It assumes that there is “Right” argument, and once arrived at and honed, the work is done. It also assumes that the other is wrong, and that they are wrong because they are either mis-informed, under-informed or evil. Liberalism, or at least liberal thought, makes no such assumptions.
Liberalism, requires that one continue honing their argument. It has the additional requirement that at some point it might be necessary to not only hone one’s “sword of argument” but to abandon it completely in favor of a newer and better weapon. Liberalism assumes there is no “Right” answer. There may be a “Best” answer to a particular question at a particular time, but it assumes, correctly, that times and questions will be different, and thus what was “best” at a given moment, may not, will not be best for all times and situations. Liberalism requires, one being able to self-exam, and say, “Hmmm…I may have been wrong.” The liberal’s intellectual work is never complete.
This brings me back to my original proposition which is that Liberalism is dead (or nearly.) As said earlier all I see around me – friends, the media, popular culture, everywhere – is either strident ideologies or apathy. My friends that claim to be liberal are not, they are “progressive” ideologues (although they tend to use liberal and progressive interchangeably, because everyone else does as well), or they are conservative ideologues (whatever “conservative” means). At any rate, as I see it, however, as polite as they may be, however willing they may be to let others speak their mind, all, or nearly all, would in some way impose their will on others. Few, if any, are willing to “consider other men’s (sic) notions” without having pre-judged them and found them wanting. All or nearly all consider that what they think best for themselves is necessarily a best way of life for all, and would, most often through political force, cause others to live as they do. Hence, I know very few liberals. Liberalism as a movement is dead. Almost.
(There will be more to follow. I welcome any and all discussion so long as those wishing to discuss, have an earnest desire to learn something together as we discuss)