Thursday, August 3, 2017

True Liberalism Will Not Save Us

In some form or another, we are all hedgehogs. We depend overwhelmingly on a handful of simple conceptual paradigms. Crude though they may be, such mental maps are the only way we can make sense of our world. The alternative to a reliance on stereotypes (rightly understood) is not "sophistication," but a useless search for "exactitude in science." Of course, we often ask these paradigms to do more work for us than they reliably can. To avoid blind spots, a variety of heuristics are necessary. None are perfect, but each commands a good deal of explanatory power.

It's useful, then,  to try giving succinct statement to some of the paradigms we most rely on. Here's one that often structures my thoughts on contemporary politics. It is an illiberal, pessimistic reaction against the impulse to blame our political present on some departure from "true liberalism." Most days of the week, I take the more aggressive diagnosis: Liberalism is to blame and liberalism is in no way part of the solution. The kind of cultural progressivism that produces a Caesarist demagogue like Trump is not a departure from America's original creed. It is the natural result of the American commitment to individual liberty and the equality of conditions. One need not be a strict historical determinist to believe that the Geist of a given people at any time is significantly more receptive to ideas that validate its shared values than to those that challenge them. This was Tocqueville's great insight: the nature of the democratic regime inclines any people that adopts it toward certain ideas, sentiments, prejudices, and mores. And the incline is steep, so steep that an attempt to climb back up by the way one came is simply not possible. 

This is not to say that it is in principle impossible to stave off the destructive dialectic of liberalism. But it remains the case that whole peoples do not really think in terms of arguments or conceptual possibilities. They migrate from sentiment to sentiment, which process, because mostly unconscious, is almost wholly governed by the regime's semi-sacred values (in our case liberty, equality, and autonomy). So while it remains theoretically possible for a democratic/liberal people to resist centralization, social atomism, and the provident state, the practical likelihood that it will happen is not high. The deck is stacked. Fisher Ames was not wholly right, but he was more right than wrong when he predicted that it was "ordained" for the American democracy that "its vice will govern it, by playing upon its folly." While I do not expect progressivism to remain in the driver's seat of history forever, I don't think the way out is the way from which we came. 

Like I said, this is a simplistic way to approach the complexities of actual political life. If relied on in excess, any paradigm obscures more than it reveals. Mono-causality in history is, in general, to be avoided. After all, a country is not a dialectic. It is not a set of ideas unfolding in history. A country is...a country. It is constituted by peoples and cultures, not premises and conclusions. A country is a great bundle of social contradictions. The role of the critic is to bring out the best of that contradictory heritage while resisting the worst of it. Still, we would all stand to benefit from a healthy dose of illiberal kulturpessimisus from time to time. And conservatives would do well to abandon their insistence that progressivism is some kind of alien pathogen attacking our otherwise pure, liberal republic.

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