On all side of contemporary political debate, one key shibboleth is both widely conceded and little examined: that we now decisively have entered a post-liberal phase of American political life. This belief, like all ideological maxims, gets wide assent because of the interests it advances and the ways it serves to strategically narrow debate.
But this glib consensus allow us to sidestep a key definitional question, without which it makes little sensse to discuss such legacies at all:
What, exactly, do we mean by the American liberal tradition in the first place?
The constellation of ideas associated with this tradition in its original setting – individual rights, limited government, local self-determination – count for little in a polity that promotes rampant dependence on state initiatives and remote federal policymaking.
At its peak of influence, this liberal tradition stood pretty much at odds with everything that now goes by the name of modern liberalism: Where we now look to top-down state interventions to secure our liberties, 19th Century liberalism held that we were best preoccupied with cementing local safeguards to protect basic individual rights, such as property, speech, freedom of political assembly and worship. We then sought, in other words, for the state to shield pre-existing goods in our political life; today we look to the state to define those goods for us and to secure them by force of its own prerogatives.
This near-fatal weakening of our liberal heritage was brought home to me dramatically during a Republican primary debate held this February. When a news commentator asked presidential hopeful George W. Bush, a designated critic of big government, how he would encourage more learning in schools, he responded that kids would have to learn during his presidency because the Department of Education would enforce standards.
His conservative opponent Alan Keyes turned toward Bush and explained, in his habitual periodic sentences, that kids should learn out of respect for their parents. Moreover, in any case none of this was the business of federal bureaucrats. Bush, who looked puzzled, did not seem to have any idea of the point that Keyes was making: namely, that in the kind of liberal republic set up by the American founders, responsibility for education resided with parents and not in the national capital.
Even those who run around, as Bush does, complaining about federal overreach can no longer grasp this point. Because of a successful theft, however, the waning of liberalism is not widely perceived as a problem. In fact liberalism has ceased to be identified with the society or with most of the principles that prevailed during its heyday. It was the worldview, or at least mindset, of the 19th-Century bourgeoisie, which survived into the next century in a diminished form, particularly after the coming of universal suffrage and the welfare state.
American liberalism’s connection to mass democracy was always a troubled proposition – ranging from the outright hostility expressed by some 19th-Century liberals, to the desperate hope voiced by other ones that the populace could be made to respect property and the rule of law.
In other words, attempts to understand liberalism by reference to a few rules or phrases overlooks the context from whence it came. This oversight is by now predictable, extending from the Village Voice to the Cato Institute and including most political commentators situated in between. On the collectivist left, it has been customary since John Dewey and the Progressive era to distinguish between Old and New Liberalisms, the new being supposedly better because it discards concerns about property and stresses scientific public administration. Individual development is turned here from a family or communal task into one assigned to socializing experts.
On the libertarian side, meanwhile, classical liberalism is now associated with certain exercises of individual will, often involving the use of mind-altering drugs.
The point to be kept in mind here is that bourgeois liberals (in whose world liberalism was defined and practiced) were neither self-actualizing yuppies nor wanna-be social engineers. They belonged to a stratified and mannered society, created nuclear families, and typically professed some form of Christian (most often Protestant) doctrine. It is not sufficient for locating liberal ideas to forget about the world that liberals inhabited.
Nor is it reasonable to imagine that one is faithful to such people by pulling out a useful tag from their writings that can be fitted into a transitory policy paper. What they did and said pertained to a class and culture that today exists only vestigially. Moreover, the disintegration of that nonegalitarian world built by liberals owed much to revolutionaries who also called themselves liberals.
Those who like the new model have a right to their preferences, but not one to misrepresent what they are describing: An obvious difference exists between the Parthenon and some house recently constructed with Dorian columns. While the second may have better plumbing, it is by no means an improved version of the first. One can understand neither ancient nor contemporary architecture by viewing Doric structures as imperfect approximations of modern neoclassical homes.
A similar misunderstanding occurs by attaching liberal to political schemes that are less and less related to what that term once meant. Having the federal government enforce multiculturalism or help reconstruct gender relations is not a liberal project; it is, rather a post-liberal one. It is hard to stop this practice because of accumulated mislabeling, going back to liberal social planners in the early 20thCentury and to the players of other related word-games: e.g.,those who shifted the meaning of democracy from vigorous self-government, necessarily at the local level, to being administered by professionals, made more sensitive, or indoctrinated in democratic values.
All of this may seem like a semantic exercise or nostalgia (a far graver lapse, in today’s ceaseless romance with the idea of progress). But this is only because the issues raised have been successfully muddied. And that is because the 20th-Century’s most monumental political success, centralized administration, and those who talk it up, hide the true extent of their work.
To get the descendents of once proud Englishmen to surrender most of their earnings to the central state, which now polices insensitive speech and will soon criminalize the same when uttered in the home, is a testimony to social engineering. But it is one made possible by dressing up revolution in reassuring cliche and by holding on to an ornamental monarchy.
Those who submit to this political lobotomization appreciate the appearance of continuity, however little substance remains behind it. Media-approved governmental encroachments on traditional social practices or on property rights are now by definition liberal. Only a fascist – or a noncompetitive presidential candidate – would disagree.
Paul Gottfried is professor of history at Elizabethtown College.