A Post-Liberal America

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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 20th
Century 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.

June
17, 2000

Paul
Gottfried is professor of history at Elizabethtown College.

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