The University Bookman


Winter 2018

The Problem with Liberalism

book cover imageThe Retreat of Western Liberalism
by Edward Luce.
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 226 pages, $24.

Ted McAllister

Can liberals save liberalism “from itself?” Edward Luce offers this question in his new book The Retreat of Western Liberalism, but situates it as part of an even more sweeping problem. “Whether the Western way of life, and our liberal democratic systems can survive this dramatic shift in global power [to China mainly] is the question of this book.” So, is the problem internal—liberalism itself—or global and structural—the rise of a non-liberal global power? Luce is insightful, even brilliantly so, at times. He is also profoundly confused about fundamentals. The key to understanding the real crisis of liberalism is found in Luce’s conceptual confusion.

One of the biggest threats to liberalism is progressivism. Luce, however, doesn’t use the label and therefore his analysis of liberalism involves conflating many things that ought to made distinct. Anglo-American liberalism and conservatism share a common philosophical lineage and both are epistemologically skeptical, cautious about claims to certain knowledge. Because of this fallibilism liberals and conservatives accept that humans must live and act without the security of an ideology and with a full awareness that all our choices are made in a world of profound contingency. The most distinguishing feature (though not the only one) between America’s two great intellectual traditions concerns their understanding of authority. Conservatives recognize the need for authority, of some final law imbedded in reality that is higher than the laws and powers found in the flux of historical existence. Liberals remain skeptical even about authority. The problem with liberalism—and the one that Luce cannot see—is the problem of authority.

Progressivism, meanwhile, is about power and moral certitude. Progressives deploy a tendentious “arc of history” meme to streamline the act of making moral judgments and to justify the power necessary to “bend” that arc. They have embraced the most extreme forms of identity politics, have staked our future on economic globalization, and have lost sight of the experiences, hopes, fears, and anxieties of broad swaths of American workers, both blue and white collar. Working-class Americans have been losing power and security for decades, but recent developments in our global economy are leading to middle-class stagnation and a corresponding alienation. Progressives, bent on transforming Americans rather than reflecting and refining their norms, have come to see the world from their protected silos in journalism, academia, and Silicon Valley, among other institutions. They have lost contact with the experiences of American citizens because their moral certainty makes empirical knowledge of those who are different from them, who disagree with them, irrelevant.

Despite his failure to distinguish progressives and liberals, Luce understands and is sharply critical of all these progressive tendencies. Luce’s critiques of the progressive abuse of history, their deeper ignorance of the past and the lessons we might reasonably draw from that past, and of their strange embrace of neo-liberal economics, all hit their target. Luce recognizes that we cannot be led by stateless elites or by those doyens of progress (think, for instance, of Silicon Valley) whose narrow intellectual focus makes them believe that individual libertinism abetted by rapid technological progress produces a happy society. Yet Luce’s critique of the unlabeled progressives has the character of a diagnosis of the flaws, the excesses, of one’s side. He does not recognize that this is part of a crisis of liberalism, which lacks the resources to maintain its fallibilism in an age where the crisis of authority makes us vulnerable to the seduction of ideology.

Luce’s departure point is the strange eddy in history following 1989 when too many liberals believed that we had reached the end of history. The forms of these arguments varied, but they shared a predictable teleological element and some view of human nature that made it all so predictable. Things look different after 2016. We are not looking at the same future espied a decade or two ago. We have a different future than we expected because we told ourselves the wrong histories.

These wrong histories produced a dangerous set of assumptions for the elite of both parties. One assumption, about the natural attraction of democracy and representative government, drove foreign policies across several administrations, Republican and Democratic. This faith in ineluctable attraction to democratic freedom survived 9/11 and it provided the philosophical grounding for the wars in response to that attack. It was no more clearly expressed than in Bush’s Second Inaugural Address, a right-wing version of this abstract ideology.

Not only did Washington act militarily based on an erroneous historical determinism but this same belief served as a philosophical foundation for the economic globalization that brought new technological progress and enormous profits. If the military adventures in defense of universalist democratization harmed our “brand” with a great many people outside the West, as Luce argues, the “success” of globalization harmed it within the West. The bedrock of liberal democracy is the middle class. No liberal democracy can survive extensive proletarianization of the working class or the alienation of a shrinking middle class, both of which have resulted from globalization.

On the subject of economic globalization, particularly, Luce traces the outline of what is, in my view, an excellent and pressing point. It is, in effect, the failure of the ruling class. Liberal elites (the ones that I prefer to distinguish as something non-liberal, “progressive”) have failed liberalism, Luce asserts. They have failed because their beliefs about historical arcs and universalist assumptions have taken us to wars that have hurt ourselves and others. They have failed because our elites obsess over identity issues while ignoring the plight of a growing class of globalization’s losers. They have failed because their stark moralism has caused them to attack as racists those very people who have been hurt by their policies. The failure of these elites to understand the importance of nationhood and collective identity has caused them to miscalculate about the emerging evidence of nationalism. Luce doesn’t offer a detailed argument about the proper role of elites in a liberal democracy, but contempt for the majority is hardly a winning strategy. A successful elite must somehow reflect the norms of the majority even if their leadership refines and provides meaningful policy expressions of those norms. An elite that seeks to “fundamentally transform” a nation cannot be said to love that nation.

Two specters hang over this book. One is China, an authoritarian species of global capitalism that disproves the universalistic assumptions of Western elites. China’s economic success is not only a direct threat to the economic hegemony of the U.S. and Europe, but it offers a compelling example that other nations, ruled by authoritarians, can adopt without having to swallow rights, democracy, or obeisance to a moralist America.

The second specter is Trump. Luce wants to understand, if not exactly love, Trump voters, but he has only contempt for the man himself. Making Trump into an “unabashed autocrat” serves Luce’s argument beautifully—and for this reason we ought to recognize that Luce needs Trump to be authoritarian, rash, and dangerous. Trump is a foil in this story.

Trump is a product of the failure of the ruling class. His victory proves that American elites have failed the working and middle classes. The limited moral vision of these elites, who rush to attack the racism of Trump supporters, has led American liberalism to the brink, fostering a backlash that threatens to undo the liberal project. Here, as elsewhere, Luce offers sweeping statements, buttressed by some research and a keen eye for patterns. He relies on broad terms like populism and nationalism to stand in for a more useful and differentiated vocabulary. As a result the reader is more or less captive to Luce’s declarations about Trump, most of which are greatly exaggerated.

Having an “unabashed autocrat” as president (because of the failure of liberals) places the world in a very dangerous position. Luce—correctly, I think—downplays the prospect of China overtaking the West because of the many structural challenges that nation faces. His real fear is of a war between the U.S. and China caused by the natural tension of a rising superpower challenging a threatened and fearful declining power. Trump is an existential threat to the U.S. He lacks prudence, knowledge, curiosity. His failure to understand China or any number of complicating nuances about geopolitics will lead, in all likelihood, to the kind of miscalculation that comes with profound cultural ignorance of an opponent. In the strangest and most uninteresting part of the book, Luce tells us how a war in 2020 is likely to unfold.

And so there we have it—liberals have misunderstood the causes for the rise of Trump and so helped make it happen. But now we face a crisis precipitated by a lawless and ignorant president (Luce doesn’t seem to have problems with Obama’s lawlessness). The crisis of Western and American liberalism is now a global crisis of a different and more dangerous sort.

For all of the author’s finger-wagging at those who misuse and reify history, Luce’s argument is ultimately rooted in his own assumptions about the lessons from the past (which he conflates with history). The biggest problem with his argument is that he both neglects the history of the “crisis of liberalism” and fails to penetrate to the core of that problem. A short history lesson might help.

The problem with liberalism has been a serious concern in the United States since at least the early Progressive era and then a matter of profound debate in the Atlantic community of nations since 1914. Liberalism as a set of ideas about individual rights, liberties, representative and limited government, became truly problematic in Europe as Communism, Fascism and Nazism rose quickly to power in places thought to be on the road to liberal democracy—or places that had already tasted liberalism’s fruit.

Walter Lippmann, perhaps more than any other public intellectual, sought to solve the problem of liberalism in America. From his 1922 classic Public Opinion to his last effort to solve the problem in 1955 with Essays in the Public Philosophy, Lippmann recognized that the underlying problem for liberalism was about authority. Liberalism rests on choices, preferences, on the freedom to work out one’s own happiness, to use one’s own property, to live on one’s own terms. The citizen of such liberal societies could make his life on his own terms. Trusted to govern his own life, how does a citizen participate in governing where his knowledge is far too limited to understand the complex issues facing a national government?

Liberal society, it turns out, depends heavily on a social order in which, by strong consensus, the citizens accept certain moral claims based on some authority. A widespread Christian social order—especially one that emerged from dissenting Protestants—solves the authority problem with a cultural order that expresses and reinforces norms. And a profound localism solves the knowledge problem because people not only live in a knowable world for social and commercial life but can engage in political deliberations with a stock of experiences to guide them.

But if that social order weakens and the norms and governing assumptions are contested, then the question of authority becomes, suddenly, pressing. Intellectual currents in America after about 1880 created a growing rift between large groups of citizens and influential members of an intellectual elite who were no longer tethered to the theological and ontological assumptions of previous generations. If a society has too many gods or too many challenges to the gods then where do they go to find a consensus? And without a consensus about first principles how can a democratic republic function? Without agreement on authority a society gravitates toward power.

Similarly, the knowable world of village or small city lost its importance as people now moved in an increasingly abstract world, a world in which regional markets gave way to global ones; local cultural forms were swapped for national versions. Suddenly the question of knowledge becomes keenly important. We no longer have direct knowledge of the sources of our food supply (how did that cellophane-wrapped steak get to my kitchen?). We interact with more and more people for work and play without knowing who they are or to what families they belong. Our world becomes more abstract and as political questions turn to national issues requiring plebiscites on subjects beyond the experiences of any voter, we have no choice but to think and speak in sweeping generalizations that we cannot support with knowledge or experience—vouched only by either ideology or the power of public opinion.

By the 1950s, keen liberals had become fully aware of this crisis of authority. Lippmann struggled, in his last effort at offering a public philosophy that would provide the authority necessary for a healthy society, to craft a modern version of Natural Law. But what is Natural Law without a god as its author? And for the most influential intellectual elites of the second half of the twentieth century God had become at best a private belief, and at worst a meddlesome fiction.

What is true about liberalism today is that it can offer no promise of order, no organizing belief that draws us to the beauty of its authority. Without authority the currents of power dance capriciously around us. The desire for order invites new claims to certainty and a promise to tame and direct capricious power toward collective purposes.

We live in disordered times. More serious still, over the last two centuries the most persistent and profound experiences of our civilization are of disruption, change, and malleability. And if that which is solid, as Marx put it, “melts into air,” then we turn from reality to existence, from forms to transformation, from order to creation. Today, human power exceeds anything imagination might have conjured before the nineteenth century, and if we have prepared the means of our own mass destruction we also can look with the eyes of Prometheus at a world made new in our own constantly shifting images.

Our hope is to be found in reality. The creative play of existence never escapes the fixedness of reality. One of the conditions for civilization is that it recognize the ordering principles embedded in reality and cultivates among its members the intellectual and spiritual tools of discerning these principles. Luce detects the disorder we face. He describes very important trends, including the failure of our elites to understand the limits of their own transformative power. But the author cannot see that the crisis of liberalism is part a profound civilizational question about authority. If we do not penetrate to the ordering presence found in reality we are destined to be seduced by our own power and to brought low by our more profound ignorance. The problem of liberalism is the problem of human nature: our yearning to be free can only be answered when we understand and accept the governing authority of our existence. 

Ted McAllister holds the Edward L. Gaylord Chair and is an associate professor at the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University.

Posted: December 31, 2017

Did you see this one?

To Renew and Rebuild Civilization
James E. Person Jr.
Volume 47, Number 1 (Winter 2010)

The ... conservative is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.

Russell Kirk


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