Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Liberalism vs. Antiliberalism


Brookings Fellow and Washington Post editor-at-large Robert Kagan, has written a short but important and timely book, Rebellion: How Antiliberalism Is Tearing American Apart - Again (Knopf, 2024). Kagan does not accept the classic Luis Hartz thesis about the exclusive ubiquity of American liberalism. On the contrary, he considers liberalism (by which he means a Lockean preoccupation with individual rights) and illiberalism as having coexisted an opposed each other throughout American history. Largely an historical study, Rebellion is nevertheless focused very much on the present. Kagan considers the 2024 election "a referendum on whether the liberal democracy born out of the Revolution should continue." While he recognizes that Trump himself is probably unique, "Trump's movement is not unique." That movement is part of the ongoing competition between Lockean liberalism and what he calls illiberalism, that has dominated American history from the beginning.

Contrary to what Kagan considers "one of liberalism's great weaknesses" (namely, "the belief inits own inevitability"), he believes liberalism has been a uniquely American creation, that "grew out of a confluence of unique ideas about the nature of government, a unique interaction of political and international events, and a unique place, North America." Kagan acknowledges, even celebrates what many may regard as liberalism's greatest moral failing. His liberalism "has no teleology, no final resting place toward which it aims." Rather, it is a theory of "universal natural rights," which inhere in the individual. He recognizes the American Revolution's debt to Locke, but not to the traditional Whiggish notion of th British constitution. Nor does he acknowledge more communitarian value systems, such as civic republicanism and religion, which many would argue have played a comparably positive role in American history and even now can serve as correctives to liberalism's obsessive preoccupation with individual rights.

A majority of pre-revolutionary American colonists, Kagan acknowledges, "did not believe in universal rights," and anti-liberal traditions would therefore persist as rivals to liberalism. "Yet the revolutionary and founding generations, with their unusually intense obsession with their individual rights, ensured that the question of individual rights and how best to protect them would be the central issue of American politics for the rest of the life of the republic." I doubt anyone would disagree with that, although many might look for communitarian antidotes to the rights individualism Kagan extols.

Kagan's historical narrative does an excellent job of telling the American story in a way which honors liberal rights individualism, while never underestimating the challenges to it from illiberal currents, primarily in connection with slavery and consequently race. He is especially insightful in how "suspicion of strong government that shaped the contours of the new republic became entangled with the slaveholders' demands to limit the federal government's ability to intrude in their affairs." His account of the divisions that led to the Civil War and the political conflicts of subsequent periods in American history is an excellent summation of how we got to where we are now at our present, highly fraught political moment.

Kagan also admits that "the founding generation believed religion was an important adjunct for the maintenance of a healthy, virtuous society." He recognizes that "a surge of religious revivalism" stirred up a host of reform movements, above all, abolitionism. But he insists such religious movements were "inspired by secular liberal principles." One wonders whether it is rather the reverse, that the religiously motivated reform movements, having succeeded, have since been transformed into secular liberal principles. That said, he recognizes the illiberalism inherent in the strong anti-Catholic strain in American culture and politics throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries, and ranks "virulent anti-Catholicism" as "a close second" to slavery and racism as a challenge to the liberal ideal. And in the anti-immigrant politics of the early 20th century, he recognizes "a loss of confidence about the American powers of assimilation and absorption" that "was part of a larger loss of faith in liberalism itself." In fact, he considers the 1920s to be "a high-water mark of antiliberalism, the highest until now." He considers the 1920 election "more like the 2016 election of Trump than any other American election."

In his discussion of the New Deal, he admits that "the Catholic critique of liberal individualism temporarily meshed with popular views," and that the New Deal's "collective, government-centered" approach "was more in keeping with Catholic teachings than the 'rugged individualism' of unfettered capitalism." On the other hand, while he appreciates the fact that "the rights protection machine that the founders set in motion is destructive of many traditions, and that includes religious institutions," he seems serenely untroubled by that. Yet surely the socially catastrophic consequences of the melting of all that is solid (to employ Marx's image) cannot so cavalierly be dismissed because they are the concerns of illiberal ideologies! Kagan's seemingly single-minded focus on rights individualism as the single apparently ultimate value only highlights the inherent moral limits of rights individualism and the need to complement Lockean liberalism with traditional American antidotes, such as the tradition of civic republicanism.

That said, Kagan's analysis of our present highly polarized politics and the appeal of Donald Trump highlights the challenge our democracy faces for its very survival in the U.S. at this juncture. Some of his potential post-election scenarios may appear perhaps overly apocalyptic. But perhaps they are not! In any case, he displays a sharp understanding of the working of our political parties and of how Republicans accordingly "have a stake in the party's viability; all ultimately depend for their own viability on being roughly aligned with the party's positions; and so all had to make their peace with Trump, too."

Kagan's book is a well argued wake-up call in the cause of the preservation of a severely threatened liberalism. One only wishes he offered a morally broader and more communitarian foundation for society than Lockean liberal rights individualism. That is precisely what Manville and Ober offer in The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives (Princeton, 2023), about which I hope to write more later this week.

No comments:

Post a Comment