Americans on both sides of the Kulturkampf no longer pray to the same God, but all appeal to liberty. Yet, as Sam Goldman writes, liberty is confusing and complicated. Liberalism has brought the West seemingly great goods—an end to religious wars, authoritarian government and bad -isms on race and sex. Goldman’s essay could force us to confront unpleasant questions: Is there an alternative to liberalism? Is our liberal settlement collapsing into something worse?
It is difficult to diagnose an ongoing political situation. Partisan considerations skew our perceptions. Short-term problems can obscure long-term trends. The move from texts and theory to practice is precarious. Yet we must ask: Where are we? How did we get here? How are things trending?
Goldman seems to describe how we got where we are. His description of our present discontents is of the “neither-this-nor-that” variety.
Conservatives have opposed “mounting administration in personal life” without recognizing that people want administration for “protection from risks.” Such popular desire abets a “growth of administrative coercion” and has given rise to “a new generation of moralizing busybodies, the experts and planners, the bullies and fanatics who always know better than you.” We are left to wonder: Is administration good, popular and necessary or bad and tyrannical?
Conservatives embraced free market economics after the New Deal to support prosperity, the virtues of thrift and industriousness, and (until of late) fiscal responsibility, but free market methods may no longer promote those goals. But then again, maybe they do. It is not clear to Goldman whether “the results of the libertarian-inflected policy have been so disastrous as sometimes [is] claimed.” Are free markets good or bad?
Things are getting better and worse! Some emphasize the decline of our country and its political system, while others see that things are getting better. Declinism and optimism are both problematic: one leading to despair, while the other leading to unjustified confidence in the future. Is the country on the way up or on the way down?
People criticize our liberties. From the Left, liberty seems to be a mere cover for “exploitation and oppression.” From the right, Goldman seems to think that some oppose free trade and open borders in the name of an ethno-nationalist, autarkic future. Who is right? Is a country a good thing or not?
What of the academy? On one hand, “the most dramatic excesses of speech policing and public shaming still do not define academia as a whole.” That’s good. On the other hand, he writes, “an intrusive style of administrative oversight and suffocating moralism has migrated from academia to social media, the press, the non-profit complex and big business.” That’s bad. The triumph of woke ideology is “easy to imagine” but saying we all live on campus now (or that campuses are thoroughly bad) is an exaggeration. Are universities redeemable or not?
Goldman answers “yes” to all these questions, or at least “it depends.” And it does depend. There are ditches on both sides of these roads. Statesmen and political scientists must be wary of the ditches while correcting a particular political community’s drift. Goldman’s analysis of the American situation ignores the chief question, where are things actually trending?
Take the third theme I note above, a philosophical one borrowed from the now-deceased Peter Lawler: things are getting better and worse at the same time. True enough. But also not universally true. The idea of mixed blessings has some limits. If all die in a nuclear holocaust, no one would chime in and say, “things are getting better and worse at the same time.” No one looks on the bright side of Chernobyl! Lawler’s dictum can only be applied with great discernment—as an invitation to thought. Does the idea that things are getting better and worse at the same time respect borders, for example? Things could be getting worse for America while things are getting better for, say, China or Iran. How do the goods and bads apply to the nation’s interests?
Taking our Bearings on the American Disease
As Goldman suggests, we cannot properly diagnose America’s situation by comparing today with some mythic past. Nor can we diagnose it by simply comparing America to other Western European countries. Nothing stops America from being the least sick man of mostly European descent. We must get our bearings.
The promotion of the American way of life and the maintenance of our regime or political form are the principal concerns of our politics. Free markets make for prosperous countries. Most citizens live longer and with less pain. Most have access to economic opportunity and education. These goods are not nothing.
Yet none of them speak to the deep human need for political community. Political health requires a public consensus that the laws are fairly made and deserve obedience. People must believe the lawmaking processes to be legitimate and aiming at the public good. Healthy political communities also generally require a majority—even a great majority—to believe this political settlement serves their interest. Herein lies the rub.
America is rich, well-fed, and healthy. Americans can (still!) worship and homeschool. Yet many Americans consider our political settlement tenuous or illegitimate. Trust in major institutions has cratered over the past generations, for example. Factions within our political settlement have arisen that consider its foundational principles to hide racial animus and other mendacities. There are also serious clashes about who should be honored and about whose idea of justice will win out. Such sources of conflict can be more rancorous than conflicts about the allocation of goods and services. People may be rich, but feel unhappier. The country remains wealthy, but has become rent by faction.
What is happening in America is, at least, a threatened regime change, afoot for generations, where our fundamental ideas of justice and the legitimacy of our institutions are on the table.
We are two generations into this challenge. Alliances between the anti-discrimination woke ideologues, Big Media, corporate capital, and the administrative state, fledgling at first, are being cemented. The first point gained for this regime change was securing constitutional and corporate approval for affirmative action. This came in the period between Bakke and the Reagan administration, which could not muster business support for rolling back race-specific hiring practices. A second point gained was the triumph in the same-sex marriage debate, where nearly the entire Fortune 500 establishment, aligned with our courts, flexed its muscle against Christian Middle America and our constitutional order. Many seemingly smaller revolutions—destruction of college core curricula and our elite climate change hysteria, for example—abet these political changes by building a class, insulated from market forces, whose interests are connected to the revolution.
Flood gates for regime change have opened since Obergefell and with the resistance to President Trump’s election. America’s ruling class has handled the coronavirus through the institutions of unelected, unaccountable administrative agencies that run roughshod over citizens’ judgments of acceptable risk. The Black Lives Matter riots have marked the triumph of identity politics—together with their fundamental dismissal of the American way of life as systematically racist. Tech giants, operating through censorship of conservative opinion here and there, exercised control over the flow of information and access to advertising in ways that no one would have thought legitimate—or even possible—a generation ago.
Many see this. Those who peddle woke morality think of themselves as putting an end to the American tradition of personal liberty, republican government, and equality before law. Those who oppose it, rallying behind the president and the flag, think a victorious woke ideology, enforced by corporations and administrative agencies, would represent a new regime hostile to the American way of life.
I might be wrong. Claims that America will never have another free election are not uncommon among those who think the regime change is complete. Some think that woke ideology is just a cover for an expanding, greedy, increasingly narrow global oligarchy. Perhaps. I am a simple country boy who sees the truth of things on the surface. Our tech oligarchs seem to be slaves to conventional academic opinion, rather than masterminds of a global conspiracy to concentrate wealth. This new economic and governmental elite seems to be rejecting their country and hoping to remake it in the image of woke ideology. They grasp public honor and occupy the moral high ground in our politics through this ideology.
There is still broad opposition to this regime change. The case must prosecuted with vigor and courage. It is a fight worth having. President Trump got a lot of votes: His supporters think that the stakes are indeed very high. Someone will seize the political opportunity for sustaining and adding to this new coalition.
The 2020 election did not decide once and for all the future of liberty in America. All that has happened in the last four years has brought clarity for those willing to look.