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Fight Progressivism. Be Liberal.

November 3rd, 2022 | 17 min read

By Paul D. Miller

In 2017 and 2018, Notre Dame political philosopher Patrick Deneen argued that classical liberalism and progressivism are indistinguishable. Pick your metaphor: Progressivism is the fruit of liberalism’s poisoned tree. The liberal seed led inexorably to the progressive flowering. Or, liberalism is the Trojan Horse through which progressivism was smuggled into the body politic. Liberalism was what came before, and it somehow inevitably led to the progressive present. “The logic of liberalism,” Deneen wrote, “will inexorably continue to unfold, impelling the ship toward the inevitable iceberg.” Deneen likens this “inner logic” to the organic processes of living things, arguing that the “fabric of beliefs” that underly the American experiment may be “approaching the end of the natural cycle of corruption and decay that limits the lifespan of all human creations.” In short, “Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself.”

Deneen’s argument has swiftly become received truth among the postliberal right. Go to the National Conservatism conference or read American Greatness, the American Affairs Journal, the Claremont Review, The American Mind, or any other of the dozens of glorified opinion blogs that have popped up since 2015 and you’ll read that defenders of classical liberalism are “regime philosophers” engaging in little more than propaganda for a supposed globalist cabal of liberal-progressive elites. We classical liberals give intellectual justification for why we should do nothing in the face of the ceaseless progressive takeover of institution after institution. We are farmers sowing the seed of liberalism, swearing the fruit will be different this time; or, worse, salesman knowingly hawking the Trojan Horse. Energized by their newfound apostasy from the dead dogma of classical liberalism, postliberal thinkers have summoned the courage to question a wide range of old liberal ideas, including the disestablishment of religion, the boundaries of free speech, the constitutional doctrine of viewpoint neutrality, the “originalist” school of jurisprudence, and the idea of limited government with circumscribed jurisdiction.

But the supposed equation of liberalism with progressivism has been asserted more than demonstrated. Deneen’s argument depends on observing a rhetorical similarity: both ideologies appeal to human freedom and equality. But there are many versions of liberalism, and while Deneen blames them all for the excesses of their worst representative, a closer look demonstrates some versions of liberalism escape his critique.

In fact, Progressivism and this kind of classical liberalism are, in fact, increasingly contradictory ideas. More damningly, even a cursory familiarity with the intellectual history of progressivism shows that it was founded and articulated in explicit opposition to classical liberalism. Early progressive thinkers, including Herbert Croly, John Dewey, and Woodrow Wilson, disagreed with the natural rights tradition of the Declaration of Independence, disliked the Constitution’s checks and balances, and wanted to dismantle the intellectual edifice of republicanism to make way for rule by progressive vanguard embodied in the technocratic elite. In progressivism’s original self-understanding, it was in opposition to, not an evolution of, classical liberalism. Postliberals may be correct in their critique of modern progressivism, but that says nothing at all about the merits of old-style classical liberalism. Classical liberalism, far from birthing progressivism, is among the best tools for opposing it. Postliberalism, meanwhile, has yet to offer a credible, historically-informed, practical alternative.

Patrick Deneen

Patrick Deneen lays a very long list of sins at the feet of liberalism, including “loose connection,” among selves that are “insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.” Liberalism is to blame for hyper-individualism, the growth of the all-powerful administrative state, cultural erosion, the loss of tradition and localism, environmental decay, sexual license, and more. It might seem outlandish to blame the Summer of Love on John Locke, but recall Deneen’s argument that liberalism failed “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself.” Liberalism unfolded according to its “inner logic,” which allowed it to “become more fully itself.”

Liberalism’s earliest founders and advocates neither anticipated nor wanted such consequences, but, according to Deneen, they laid the necessary foundations. Locke didn’t argue for unrestricted sexual license, but his philosophy evolved into a movement for “expressive individualism” and personal autonomy—which, translated into cultural practice, gave us the soaring rates of sexually transmitted disease, divorce, and out-of-wedlock births. By the same train of reasoning, Deneen argues that liberalism’s “inner logic” evolved from the staid classical liberalism of the American Founders to the progressive liberalism of 21st Century social justice warriors and, simultaneously, to libertarianism and unrestricted global capitalism. He views today’s conservatives and progressives as merely different manifestations of a single, underlying liberalism. While, in principle, he recognizes that there are differences among flavors and kinds of liberalism, he thinks they are united by fatally flawed underlying premises.

Deneen’s view about the relationship between progressivism and liberalism depends on ideas having agency, self-generated motion, or an organic life-cycle. Ideas are not fixed, static, unchanging things to him; they evolve over time and—this is perhaps the unstated linchpin of Deneen’s argument—how they eventually evolve is implicit in their original form. The original form (classical liberalism) is responsible for the later evolution (progressivism) and all its implications. Liberalism naturally unfolded and evolved into progressivism because of premises implicit in its founding.

If Deneen is implicitly resting on a Hegelian notion about the unfolding of ideas through history, I’d like to borrow Jeremy Bentham for my reply: this is not only nonsense, it is nonsense upon stilts. Ideas do not have agency. They do not have motion. They do not formulate themselves, express themselves, or modify themselves. They do not evolve or grow or develop. Analogies to natural processes, organic lifecycles, or to “inner logic” do not work because ideas are neither living things nor mathematical problems. Ideas depend on thinkers to think them, and thinkers are not compelled by the nature of ideas to think novel things about them. Of course, liberalism has evolved and changed: not because of its own inner nature, but because specific thinkers deliberately and explicitly waged a campaign to change it. The change from liberalism to progressivism was planned, not organic; contested, not inevitable. And far from being logically necessary, it was highly dubious.

Deneen rightly cites progressive thinkers like John Dewey and Herbert Croly as key in creating a “new liberalism” in the early 20th century. They believed that, in Deneen’s words, “only by overcoming classical liberalism can true liberalism” — that is, progressivism — “emerge,” which suggests a deliberate break with the liberal past, not a continuation of it. At the time, progressive thinkers (especially Croly) were explicit about their hostility to liberal norms like individual rights, the separation of powers, and limited government. Only in later years did they mount a successful propaganda coup, stealing much of the rhetoric of liberalism to borrow its moral authority while hollowing out its concepts.

Deneen seems to grasp this dynamic, but once again blames all of liberalism for the sins of progressives. He argues that liberalism succeeded by “redefining shared words and concepts” and “colonizing existing institutions with fundamentally different anthropological assumptions.” That is exactly what progressivism did to liberalism, not what liberalism did to the pre-liberal world. Deneen is accepting at face value progressive propaganda: that they are the inheritors of the liberal mantle, the heirs of Locke and Jefferson and Mill, that progressivism is the logical and natural extension of liberalism. It seems odd, but the postliberal right has the distinction of agreeing with today’s progressivism’s claim to be the fulfillment of American ideals. One suspects that Locke, Jefferson, and Mill would have something to say about that.

Herbert Croly

For that matter, early progressives wouldn’t agree with Deneen either. They repeatedly, explicitly rejected classical liberalism and insisted it had to be rejected and replaced for America to find its true potential. Herbert Croly, the founding editor of The New Republic and the intellectual godfather of progressivism, argued at length in his seminal 1909 work, The Promise of American Life, about the need to reject the liberal past in favor of the progressive future.

For example, democracy traditionally meant equality under the law, elections, majority rule, and representative institutions. If this is democracy, Croly argued it was useful only as a means to an end. It was legitimized by the achievements it produces: “This economic and political system [of democracy] must be made to secure results of moral and social value.” If democracy failed to secure the correct moral and social values, it failed and was, in fact, not truly “democratic” in Croly’s redefinition of the term. In Croly’s usage, “democracy” was redefined to include his preferred moral and social values; it did not refer to the process of majoritarian decision-making. “It is the seeking of such results which converts democracy from a political system into a constructive social ideal,” he says.

Croly’s idea of “democracy” as a “constructive social ideal” had little to do with majority rule and popular representation. Rather, “The aim of democracy is a better quality of human nature effected by a higher type of human association.” He expresses his hope that, “human nature can be raised to a higher level by an improvement in institutions and laws.” This is a remarkable statement, one that put progressivism far closer to a religion than to public policy. The goal of progressive politics is to engineer better humans — measured according to the progressives’ notion of what a better sort of human looks like.

In Croly’s day, this meant literacy, a more equitable standard of living, and racial purity achieved through segregation, eugenics, and sterilization of the “unfit.” But regardless of the particular agenda, the quest for “a better quality of human nature” is a classic wish of unconstrained political visions and a defining trait of revolutionary political religions. Croly acknowledges in his closing pages the difficulty of achieving a better human nature, but then doubled down. “Democracy must stand or fall on a platform of possible human perfectibility,” he wrote, “What a democratic nation must do is not to accept human nature as it is, but to move in the direction of its improvement.”

Croly cloaked his rejection of traditional American democracy, with its messy checks and balances, as an act of reclamation of a purer, truer, more direct version of democracy. “Every popular government should…possess the power of taking any action, which, in the opinion of a decisive majority of the people, is demanded by the public welfare.” The belief that the government should have power to “take any action” captures well the unconstrained nature of progressivism. The Bill of Rights is precisely a list of actions the government may not take, regardless of how great a majority wants to do them. Yet Croly argued “the fulfillment of a justifiable democratic purpose may demand the limitation of certain rights, to which the Constitution affords such absolute guarantees.” More forthrightly, Croly asserted that anyone who rejects royal and aristocratic government must affirm “a theory of unlimited popular powers” as the basis of government. Later, in the course of criticizing the abolitionists for their fanaticism, he argues, “of all perverted conceptions of democracy, one of the most perverted and dangerous is that which identifies it exclusively with a system of natural rights,” because an excessive protection for rights “loosens the social and national bond.”

Achieving the democratic consummation, Croly confessed, required an “abandonment” of some aspects of the “traditional American point of view” including some “highly cherished political theories.” Namely, fulfilling the Promise of American Life required the “necessity of subordinating the satisfaction of individual desires to the fulfillment of national purpose.” Croly dismissed as an “insidious tradition of conformity” Americans’ devotion to “the formulas consecrated in the sacred American writings,” especially the principle of equal rights. He wanted us, rather, to question “whether the principle of equal rights in its actual embodiment in American institutional and political practice has not been partly responsible for some of the existing abuses,” and “whether its continued proclamation as the fundamental political principle of a democracy will help or hinder the higher democratic consummation.”

Put simply, “Individual freedom is important, but more important still is the freedom of a whole people to dispose of its own destiny.” Ushering in the future with its improved humanity is more important than the rights and lives of actual people here and now. Making equal rights the foundation of our political system is destructive: “Belief in the principle of equal rights does not bind, heal, and unify public opinion,” since it “encourages mutual suspicion and disloyalty.” Croly argues that few Americans recognize “how thoroughly Jeffersonian individualism must be abandoned.” Armed with this redefinition of democracy, Croly calls the old-fashioned definition the “enemy of the American national advance,” and “the great enemy of the real interests of democracy.” Those who believe in equal rights, individualism, natural law, constraints on government, or other traditional elements of the American Founding are, according to Croly, un-American enemies of progress and “true” democracy. His vision, by contrast, is “in truth equivalent to a new Declaration of Independence,” meant to supersede the old. In this way, progressives co-opt and redefine the language of liberalism to mean the opposite of what it originally meant.

Differences Today

If there is a germ of truth anywhere in the postliberal critique, it is that the concept of “liberty” has evolved over time and the early modern Enlightenment philosophers played a key role in its evolution from ancient to contemporary meanings. As Deneen notes, liberty in the ancient and Medieval world meant self-mastery, freedom from enslavement to one’s passions, and the ability to participate as a free rational (male) adult in the public square. From Hobbes onwards, liberty increasingly means the absence of legal constraint on one’s conscience, will, and choices.

But two things are worth noting. First, the early modern evolution was both good and necessary. Postliberals seem to forget the problem that classical liberalism helped solve. The earlier notion of freedom depended on a specific vision of the good life established and backed by the state, which could and often did become authoritarian in practice. Using the state to compel virtue rarely worked in practice. Deneen praises the model of the ancient polis for training its citizens in virtue and blames liberalism for training us to lower our expectations of politics. But this was one of the triumphs of liberalism, not downfalls; a feature, not a bug. The ancient polis was noble in theory, nearly totalitarian in practice. The ancient polis combined the powers of church, state, and civil society in one authority and recognized no boundaries on its jurisdiction. The Athenian democratic assembly could and did vote to expel, disenfranchise, dispossess, and execute its own citizens — including, most famously, Socrates — hardly a model we would wish to follow. The postliberal critique is often surprisingly ignorant of, or naïve about, the history of pre-liberal regimes.

Second, the early modern evolution of liberty is distinct from and did not inevitably lead to progressivism. Croly’s work is just one example, but he illustrates the broader trend: progressivism was founded as a self-conscious replacement, not fulfillment, of classical liberalism. Early progressives rejected natural rights to advocate for segregation, eugenics, and sterilization. They rejected inefficient checks and balances in favor of the (hoped for) efficiency of the New Deal administrative state. Philosophically, they rejected human fallibility and “superstitious” notions like original sin, instead embracing an astonishing optimism about their ability to achieve social and political perfection. They rejected limits on government, the integrity of process, the sanctity of the individual in favor of unfettered rule by a progressive vanguard for the good of the collective. Classical liberalism, by contrast, holds to natural rights, checks and balances, limited government, human fallibility, the importance of process, and more.

That casts doubt on Deneen’s claim that classical liberalism led through some mysterious “inner logic” to progressivism. For example, John Locke believed in natural rights; Herbert Croly rejected them. There is no “inner logic” to the doctrine of natural rights that would lead to their rejection. Believing in natural rights and rejecting natural rights are opposites, not synonyms; they are definitionally opposed, not versions of each other along a spectrum of evolution. Locke did not evolve into Croly; Croly rejected Locke and intended to replace him. The best way to stand against Croly is to reaffirm, not reject, the kind of classical liberalism that Croly rightly believed was an obstacle to his program. The same is true of our beliefs about human perfectibility and about the jurisdiction and purpose of government. Classical liberal beliefs about these things are still conceptually possible and, far from leading to progressivism, directly contradict it.

Some examples help illustrate the differences. Today, the differences between classical liberalism, postliberalism, and progressivism are stark and growing on a range of issues — and, ironically, the differences reveal a disturbing parallel between progressivism and, not liberalism, but postliberalism itself. For example, Progressivism invented the culture of political correctness, spent a decade creating campus speech codes, advocates for bans on “hate speech,” and unleashed the wave of ideological extortion called cancel culture in which people lose their livelihoods for saying un-progressive things. The postliberal right wants to fight fire with fire, compelling tech companies to moderate content in line with postliberal preference rather than progressive ones, turning big tech into the censorship arm of big brother. Similarly, the move to heavily regulate public school textbooks and make them mirror a specific vision of American history and American civics tend to come from progressives in one direction and postliberals in the opposite direction. Classical liberals, meanwhile, believe in free speech — including the right of people to say offensive things and the right of private firms not to platform them.

Similarly, progressivism has been at the forefront of a decades-long attempt to circumscribe religious freedom and religious association in the name of LGTBQ rights. They have failed thanks to the conservative legal movement and the classically liberal school of originalism, which have successfully entrenched religious liberty in American constitutional law more deeply than ever before in American history through a string of stunning legal victories over the past two decades. In the face of the overt clash between progressives and classical liberals over religious freedom, the postliberals’ assertion that the two movements are indistinguishable can only be seen as a form of bearing false witness. More: it is a bald-faced libel against the classical liberals who have spent decades successfully defending the principle of religious freedom for which the postliberals show so little gratitude.

The principle is not enough, apparently, for the postliberal right, some of which no longer advocates for religious freedom, but for religious supremacy. “Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision,” according to the National Conservatism conference website, “which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private.” Like progressivism, the postliberal right no longer believes in viewpoint neutrality and wants to use the government to privilege its version of orthodoxy. Classical liberals, in contrast to both, believe in religious freedom, disestablishment, and, where possible, viewpoint neutrality. Other people have a right to live wrong.

Progressivism also practices identity politics, organizing ever-more-niche groups defined by a fractally-expanding constellation of identities, grievances, and past oppressions. To give coherence and enforcement to its multiplying claims, it has birthed an awesomely powerful Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) bureaucracy that embraces essentialism in race and denies it in gender, reducing human personality to the interaction between the two and demanding recognition, affirmative action, and possibly reparations for each oppressed group. Far from opposing identity politics, the postliberal and nationalist right has joined the movement. A cult of masculinity has grown up in and around postliberal and far right circles in recent years, and, as I have argued elsewhere, American nationalism is little more than identity politics for White Christians. Classical liberals, on balance, affirm the that both sides are more or less right insofar as every individual deserves recognition. It cautions, however, against the clear potential for racism, sexism, and discrimination inherent to recognizing people as members of groups rather than as people — whether practiced by majority groups or minority ones.

Conclusion

Deneen might respond that the positions I describe as liberal are not what he means by “liberalism.” He claims, for example, that liberalism is all about “anthropological individualism” and human opposition to nature, in which case the argument has deteriorated into nothing more than a debate about definitions with no real substantive content. Deneen writes that “Liberalism is thus not merely, as is often portrayed, a narrowly political project of constitutional government and juridical defense of rights. Rather, it seeks to transform all of human life and the world.” I can only respond by saying, “No, it doesn’t,” and by repeating, yet again, that Deneen’s claims about liberalism are actually true of progressivism and the two are not the same thing. And, unlike Deneen, I can support my argument by appealing to what classical liberal and progressive thinkers actually wrote, said, and practiced, which bears little relation to what Deneen claims about them. Progressivism is a totalistic political religion that seeks to transform all of human life, as Croly openly admitted, and it sought to overthrow and replace the classical liberal project of “mere” constitutionalism and proceduralism. They are different things, and the one did not lead to the other. It would have been simpler if Deneen had simply titled his book Everything I Don’t Like is Liberalism.

And postliberals have not yet answered the question: If not liberalism, then what? The postliberal right can be maddeningly vague about what it actually wants. Sometimes their agenda can sound alarmingly illiberal; but for the most part, it sounds quite a lot like the same agenda of the socially conservative right since the late 1960s: law and order, better schools, support for families and for parents’ rights, an end to progressive cultural excess, a sense of public decency, and unembarrassed patriotism.

None of this is new, and none of it requires throwing out classical liberalism. Why the insistent, even belligerent, break with the past? Why risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater? When it comes down to it, one of the chief differences between classical liberals and postliberals is attitudinal. Postliberals are an ornery lot, full of pugilistic snark and ready with some quip about how David French is to blame for whatever cultural decay annoys them that day. Postliberals are old-fashioned social conservatives who have run out of patience. They are simply tired of losing.

Except we are not always losing. It is true that progressives have been successful, electorally and administratively, working their interpretations of American ideals into law, constitutional doctrine, and bureaucratic regulation. That is because, after the Wilson administration, the Democratic Party enjoyed mostly unified control of the federal government for almost half a century. Elections have consequences, and postliberals haven’t won any. But classical liberals have, and even though they only had unified control over government for a fraction of the years that progressives did, they managed to turn their victories into a history-changing legal movement that, to repeat, has been strongly successful on religious freedom, federalism, and other issues. It is a strange time to doubt the vigor and strength of old-fashioned conservatism when, after 50 years, it finally succeeded in getting Roe vs. Wade overturned.

Perhaps it is the 50-year wait that upset postliberals: Look at all the evil that was accomplished in the meantime. But again, what exactly is the alternative, and how much potential evil might it carry? Imagine that President Reagan announced a ban on abortion by fiat upon taking office in 1981. The Supreme Court would, obviously, rule that a president has no such authority. Yet imagine that Reagan and a militant Republican Party believed that the issue was of such overwhelming importance that it would be immoral to wait 50 years for the machinery of our messy mixed democratic-republican system to work. Perhaps they field a force of volunteers to enforce the ban. As the years go by Reagan subsidizes the volunteers with compensation for their time, making them effectively into a federal police force, the enforcement arm of the religious right. That would have the effect of validating Reagan’s power grab, empowering future presidents to do the same. The thought experiment is ludicrous, of course, which only illustrates that postliberals have no real alternative to the 50-year wait. But the experiment also serves another purpose. It takes little imagination to think of how such unchecked presidential powers would be abused by a progressive president in service of LGTBQ rights, the Green New Deal, the DEI industry, reparations, hate speech, and more. How does that stack up against the 50-year wait?

What postliberals malign as proceduralism is a form of ordered liberty. Stable rules, legal predictability, and precedent protect us against arbitrary power. Postliberals often complain that classical liberals do not fight hard enough; that we roll over and compromise with prevailing progressive cultural mores without resistance (apparently to curry favor with elites or some such groundless smear). It’s not clear what postliberals think “fighting harder” means, or if they are aware of what actual democratic contestation involves. One does not win elections or legislative victories by tweeting harder. One wins by mastering the mundane details of policy, the boring procedures of legislative action, and the art of public persuasion — none of which have been in evidence in postliberal discourse yet. Indeed, perhaps one reason they lose so consistently may be because they focus more on rhetorical pugilism than on the hard work of campaigning, legislating, and public administration. Their disdain for “mere proceduralism” is ill-suited to winning actual victories that requires mastery of process and patience for minutiae. Old-fashioned conservatives, meanwhile, have been hard at work in the trenches of democratic process for decades.

Of course, old-style conservatives’ and classical liberals’ record is not perfect, and they could improve their own practice of campaigning and legislating. But one obstacle to doing better is that we share a country with many Americans who are not conservatives. Un-conservative Americans also vote, and often win, and then go on to pass laws that are not conservative. Accepting their victories — or working to overturn them through the same process — is the price we pay for living in a constitutional republic. In the absence of agreement about justice, we have basic ground rules to govern our attempt at a shared political project.

One gets the sense that postliberals resent having to share the country and no longer want to accept the ground rules. But if we throw them out, there is no guarantee the alternative will be better and a high likelihood it will be worse because our side may not come out any more powerful than it is now. If the postliberal alternative involves changing the machinery of government to be more efficient and responsive, they are, again, far closer to the progressive left than to any kind of conservatism. And they will also have to grapple with the likelihood that a more efficient government will be more efficiently progressive.

If the postliberal alternative involves a more efficient government plus a monopoly on power for themselves, we are in foreign territory indeed. Either the Constitution is legitimate, or it is not. Deneen, for his part, condemns the Constitution as “the embodiment of a set of modern principles that sought to overturn ancient teachings and shape a distinctly different modern human,” or, in other words, progressivism in embryo. Other postliberals may not be ready to go that far. If postliberals accept constitutionalism, they have to accept its inefficiencies, its proceduralism, and the legitimacy of the other side’s victories. That is what happens in a country where we transfer power peacefully in line with electoral results. But, of course, we’ve seen that some elements on the right are no longer willing to do that either. Postliberals need to decide if that is the road they want to travel down or not.

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