The word liberal was one of the many casualties of the Vietnam era.
A generation before, Americans competed to own the term. Anti–New Deal Republicans like Senator Robert Taft claimed that they, not their opponents, were the “true liberals.” Former President Herbert Hoover preferred the term historical liberal.
The social turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s ripped away liberal’s positive associations and, in so doing, helped redeem conservatism from the discredit it incurred during the Great Depression. In 1985, Jonathan Rieder, then a sociologist at Yale, vividly described the political evolution of a middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood in which he had lived:
Since 1960, the Jews and Italians of Canarsie have embellished and modified the meaning of liberalism, associating it with profligacy, spinelessness, malevolence, masochism, elitism, fantasy, anarchy, idealism, softness, irresponsibility, and sanctimoniousness. The term conservative acquired connotations of pragmatism, character, reciprocity, truthfulness, stoicism, manliness, realism, hardness, vengeance, strictness, and responsibility.
In 1994, Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, lost his last election to a Republican who devastatingly attacked him as “too liberal, too long.”
In defensive reaction, left-of-center Democrats sought to rebrand themselves as something other than liberal. The label that eventually prevailed was progressive. The Congressional Progressive Caucus now numbers 78; it is the largest bloc on the Democratic side of the House of Representatives. There is no “liberal caucus.”
But a curious thing happens when you banish liberalism from your vocabulary. You rehabilitate illiberalism. As politics devolves into what President Barack Obama recently described as “a hostile competition between tribes and races and religions,” illiberalism seems to be spreading—and not only on the nationalist right, but also on the intersectional left.
The hopeful world of the very late 20th century—the world of nafta and an expanding nato; of the World Wide Web 1.0 and liberal interventionism; of the global spread of democracy under leaders such as Václav Havel and Nelson Mandela—now looks battered and delusive. The triumphalist mood of that bygone world was best distilled by Francis Fukuyama in his 1989 essay “The End of History,” in which he proclaimed liberal democracy the end state of human affairs.
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Earlier this year, Fukuyama published an update confessing that his thesis had not aged well. Liberal democracy, he said, is not ascending. The world seems to be reverting to “a political spectrum organized increasingly around identity issues, many of which are defined more by culture than by economics.”
We got here through a series of harrowing experiences. The 9/11 attacks reminded us that religious violence is as modern as jet aircraft. The Iraq War discredited the governments that waged it and the elites who urged it, as I did. The financial crisis of 2008 called into question the stability of market economies; the lopsided recovery cast doubt on their fairness.
The euro currency crisis of 2010 revived European nationalism. China’s rise and Russia’s revanchism offered new hope to illiberal rulers worldwide. Mass immigration brought different ethnicities into closer contact, and sparked greater friction. New populist movements targeted the free press and independent judiciaries as enemies. Intellectuals claiming to speak for marginalized minorities rejected free speech and cultural exchange.
In this grim new world, former antagonists discovered much in common. Is Julian Assange right-wing or left-wing? Who knows? And does it matter? Is Brexit right-wing or left-wing? Is it right-wing or left-wing to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, nafta, and nato? To distrust vaccines? Across the democratic world, these positions unite the far edges of the political spectrum. Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, share more or less the same opinions about Ukraine and Syria. The hard right and hard left share darkly similar views about Jews.
The extremes agree at a deeper philosophical level as well. Both dismiss the ideal of neutral principles and impersonal processes as illusions, even lies. Both insist that law only masks power, that truth is subordinate to ideology, that politics is war.
But what of those who do not see the world this way?
If the Trump years have achieved anything positive, it is to jolt a new generation into appreciating the value of the institutional legacies now under attack: Free trade. International partnerships. Honest courts and accountable leaders. Civil rights and civil liberties. Private space for faith but public policy informed by science. A social-insurance system that cushions failure and a market economy that incentivizes success.
Surely these things still command the assent of enough of us that we can continue our usual political disagreements—about health care, about taxes, about how to govern schools and fund roads—without demolishing the shared foundations of the constitutional order.
Earlier this year, Patrick J. Deneen of Notre Dame University published a short, fierce polemic titled Why Liberalism Failed. The book, which gained respectful attention across the political spectrum, argued that liberalism had not delivered on its central promises:
The liberal state expands to control nearly every aspect of life while citizens regard government as a distant and uncontrollable power … relentlessly advancing the project of “globalization.” The only rights that seem secure today belong to those with sufficient wealth and position to protect them … The economy favors a new “meritocracy” that perpetuates its advantages through generational succession … A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.
You can read those words, appreciate why somebody might believe them—and still categorically reject them as false and dangerous. The advanced democracies have built the freest, most just, and best societies in human history. Those societies demand many improvements, for sure—incremental, practical reforms, with careful attention to unintended consequences. But not revolution. Not the burn-it-all-down fantasies of the new populists.
“What is conservatism?” asked Abraham Lincoln, in 1860, of those who sought the breakup of the existing government of the United States. “Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?” Today we find ourselves in the awkward linguistic predicament of the “old and tried” being advocated by people who call themselves liberals—while those pushing for the “new and untried” call themselves conservatives. “America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad,” prophesied the famous pro-Trump “Flight 93 Election” essay of September 2016, which argued that only desperate measures could hope to save the country. The author, Michael Anton (who would go on to work in the Trump administration), compared voting for Trump to playing Russian roulette: putting a bullet in a revolver, spinning the chamber, pressing the muzzle to the temple, and pulling the trigger. And he meant this as a recommendation!
To protect what was achieved in the wake of World War II and following the Cold War requires beating back the populist enemies of liberal democracy, radical and reactionary alike. For those of us on the right-hand side of the political spectrum, this beating-back will oblige us to face some painful truths about our political home. The Republican Party has disgracefully submitted itself to Trumpism. Recovering will not be easy. But so long as the U.S. retains the Electoral College, the country will have a two-party system. Rehabilitating a tainted party is less daunting than building a new one. To this end, Republicans would do well to relearn what Robert Taft and Herbert Hoover knew about the liberal basis of the American constitutional order.
Some right-leaning thinkers and writers are already reappraising the word liberal. The rightist podcasting star Ben Shapiro has favorably invoked “classical liberal values.” Jordan B. Peterson, the left-skeptical psychologist who has recently developed a following among young men, calls himself a “classical liberal,” not a conservative. So does Dave Rubin, the host of one of the most popular YouTube talk shows—he even markets a classical liberal T-shirt. The Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has said of himself, “I really call myself a classical liberal more than a conservative.”
So far, though, this designation seems more a way to avoid political negatives—Libertarianism minus Ron Paul’s crankiness! Conservatism without Donald Trump’s brutishness!—than a positive vision. Some of these self-described classical liberals make sensible points about the excesses of left-wing identity politics. But as to preserving competition in the health-care industry in the age of Obamacare, spurring wage growth in a globalized economy, and regaining respect from allies and partners repelled by Trump, fruitful conversations have scarcely begun among right-leaning Americans.
Such conversations might start with the following insights. First, the Trump presidency has exposed great weaknesses in American government and society. Just as Watergate was followed by half a decade of clean-government and market-deregulating reforms, so new policies are needed to ensure that nothing like this shameful presidency recurs. These policies must attend not only to neglected ethical norms but also to neglected social troubles. Extreme class and ethnic divisions enable demagogues on both the left and the right.
Second, America and its closest allies are not as globally dominant as they were in the 1990s. China’s economy has overtaken Japan’s as the world’s second-largest, and continues to grow; the Indian economy will soon surpass that of the United Kingdom. In the 21st century, even more than in the 20th, the United States will need allies and partners. America First is America alone; America alone is America defeated.
Finally, the United States has borrowed from the future by spending more than it receives from taxes and by releasing more climate-changing gases than it absorbs. Both of these binges must cease if this generation intends to keep faith with the Constitution’s promise to secure the blessings of liberty for posterity.
The Republican Party is losing its ability to prevail in democratic competition. One solution to that dilemma, the Trump solution, is to weaken democracy so that a minority can dominate a disunited majority. The 2018 midterm elections will offer a referendum on whether that method can work. If Republicans avoid too-severe losses, the party will likely continue on its present antidemocratic path. But if the losses are significant, the party might be forced to find its way to a more inclusive politics, one that is less plutocratic, less theocratic, less racially chauvinist. Such an evolution will not be easy, but it can be achieved, if moderate Republicans are willing to fight for it.
The liberal Republicans of the 1960s and ’70s faded into irrelevance because they would not go toe-to-toe for their principles. As Mark Schmitt of New America has written, “They were not ideologues, but the opposite. They put loyalty to party, right or wrong, over their other commitments.” His unfriendly valedictory points to a useful lesson: A political faction need not be huge to exert influence over a party, provided it leverages its power by threatening to leave when its core priorities are in jeopardy.
In a 2015 debate among Republican presidential hopefuls, Fox News’s Bret Baier asked each candidate whether he or she would pledge to support the ticket regardless of the winner. Only one refused: Donald Trump. After the debate, then–Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus scurried to gain Trump’s signature on a pledge form. Why did no organized group of Republicans serve Trump and his backers a taste of their own medicine? If Trump wins, we leave. In politics, it’s very often the people nearest the exits who claim the most attention.
A liberal Republicanism should demand reforms that forbid the corrupt practices of the Trump presidency. It should accept that expanded health coverage is here to stay—about time!—and then work to increase competition, incentives, and fair pricing within a universal system, so as to combat the wasteful American habit of spending more health dollars than any other developed country, for worse health outcomes. It should seek fiscal and environmental balance, by cutting spending, by taxing greenhouse-gas emissions, and by taxing consumption more and investment less.
As increasing numbers of Democrats shift leftward on economic issues, even to the point of identifying as socialists, their party is becoming more statist and more redistributive. Many Americans will reject this approach, and they will need a party to champion their beliefs. At a time when populists muse about nationalizing Google’s data and regulating Facebook as a public utility, liberal Republicans should harken to Theodore Roosevelt’s tradition of restraining monopoly abuse yet upholding free enterprise and private property.
While the Democratic Party adapts to America’s new multiethnic demographics by focusing more on group identity and less on individual opportunity, liberal Republicans should oppose both racial preferences and racial prejudice. The next Republican president should as joyously wish Americans a happy Diwali as a merry Christmas. At the same time, the country’s immigration intake should be adjusted to stabilize the foreign-born percentage of the population. Diversity may be an American strength, but so too is unity and cohesion.
In reaction to the Iraq War and the Great Recession, America has turned inward, even as the world has continued to need U.S. leadership. Internationalism, free trade, and alliances should be principles of both parties. Donald Trump has persuaded conservative Republicans to reject them, but liberal Republicans should champion them.
For two political generations, Republicans have proclaimed the purity of their conservatism. But in a democratic society, conservatism and liberalism are not really opposites. They are different facets of the common democratic creed. What conservatives are conserving, after all, is a liberal order. That truth has been easy to overlook in the friction of partisan politics. It must be reaffirmed now, in this hour of liberal peril.
This article appears in the November 2018 print edition with the headline “The Case for Liberal Republicanism.”