Enter scene left: House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi harangues the House while pointing to a giant styrofoam board with the pledge of allegiance emblazoned across it. Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Schiff walks the articles of impeachment from the House to the Senate with ceremony and pomp.
Enter scene right: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell craftily sets up an impeachment trial which is sure to acquit the president while Lindsey Graham wrangles with the talking heads. The audience watches on cable news as this play unfolds without referent to reality. The lines, after all, were written ahead of time. The House was always going to impeach, and the Senate was always going to acquit. One, perhaps two, political parties jockey for position through obvious power grabs that obscure the truth as the nation moans in cynicism.
Add to this the recent Billy Joel-esque torrent of headlines––Syria, Weinstein, opioids, Soleimani, Newtown, Mother Emmanuel, Charlie Gard, Charlottesville––and one begins to wonder what has happened to the land of the free.
For all of our noble talk about freedom, justice, and the liberal order, America feels increasingly less free and just. But is liberalism, supposedly the great scion of human achievement, really dead? Surely a few bumps in the road are expected. We shall endure as we have always endured.
While it is true that the West has continued to function, mere function is not the question. Some countries function quite well while lopping off the heads of dissidents. The question is whether liberalism is making good on its cherished promise—increased freedom and justice for all. Given the current status of the Western political order, it is very hard to answer this query affirmatively. What has caused this surprising ending of the ‘end of history’?
Perhaps the most prominent argument for the cause of liberalism’s demise is the advent of Donald J. Trump. This is a familiar and well-trod path. Trump, the Putin-loving populist illiberal, now has the power to inflict his idiosyncratic views on the entire nation. If left alone, President Trump could usher in a New World Order, just as we all learned about in our eleventh grade book report on 1984.
The problem with reductio ad Trump arguments is that they are too narrowly focused and insufficiently imaginative. The path for Trump was laid long before he ever left “The Apprentice.” We find it in Barack Obama’s imperial tendency to enlarge the executive Leviathan to the point of no return. And back of that, George W. Bush’s betrayal of Republican principles in favor of continued government intervention in everything from Iraq to Chrysler had a similar effect. One need only to peruse Decision Points to see that Dubya wielded only a hammer and saw a world full of nails.
We could trace this tendency further back, but the conclusion will remain. Leviathan has continued to grow under each successive administration, wielding increasing power to flatten dissent and yielding less ability to justify such action save the whims of those in power. That this has occurred in a political system poised to create more freedoms, not less, renders our situation all the more ironic. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, as the eminent philosopher Roger Daltry once sang.
But the problem runs much deeper than executive overreach. In an oft-misquoted speech, John Adams famously quipped that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Certainly many today would find this to be a curious statement at best and a microaggression at worst. Adams, not a religious man himself, was not defending religion for religion’s sake; rather, he was saying something significant about the inherent nature of liberal society. Adams is implying that liberalism has its limits. He continues that “We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by… morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition,…Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net.”
Consider this following imperfect analogy. Imagine that in a hypothetical constituency of a hundred, a simple majority vote will be held to determine whether murder will become legal. In this scenario, only fifty-one votes are required to legalize homicide. Now consider that in this constituency sixty of its members are wanted for murder. Although checks and balances and representative governments make this more complicated in the real world, the simple fact remains that liberal democracy in its basic form is based on the principle that might makes right. The law simply acts out the will of those who are most numerous—or who have the most power or the most money. The ironic risk of self-government is precisely that the self would govern.
This is why liberal societies require a transcendent standard through which they may be judged. Without one, there is no compass to guide it or rod to correct it when it errs in favor of unscrupulous self-expression. These guides include moral imperatives such as “all humans are equal, regardless of race” and “murder is wrong.” In this way, liberalism can be compared to one of Wittgenstein’s language games.
The system only works when the community playing the game agrees to the various rules of the game. Indeed, the early liberals thought that an undergirding social contract had to exist in order to give legitimacy to a liberal regime. For Adams, these contracts were derived from morality and religious devotion. Until recently, our modern version of liberalism was in possession of these guides as well.
Since the origins of antiquity, there has been a grand Western consensus regarding the reality of our values, forms of thought, and our capacity to know such things. Although many philosophers offered divergent methods of discovering these values and developing their definitions, we could always agree on what they were to some extent. Or at the very least, we had an established way to get there. Take, for example, the concept of justice. Locke begins with an empirical observation that in “the state of Nature…Adam had not, either by natural right of fatherhood or positive donation from God, any such authority over his children.”
Using an Edenic utopia as a design for the social contract, Locke proposes numerous governmental directives—including the abolition of slavery, the mandate to love others, and the right of property. The father of liberalism supplies us with both externally accessible truths concerning justice and, through his commitment to empiricism, an externally accessible method for discerning these truths. We may disagree with Locke’s conclusion or how he arrived there, but at least we can disagree on the same grounds. The message is clear: liberal societies require objective constraints in order to function.
This last contention became all the more important when Zarathustra came bounding down the mountain into the market-place of the public square. Zarathustra was Friedrich Nietzsche’s apostle of nihilism and advocate of the Übermensch. Through this figure, Nietzsche hoped to affect a Copernican revolution in morality in the West. Zarathustra turns the quest for morality on its head, seeking the good not in the objective values of Christian society but rather within the self.
For him, the down-goers—those who seek the truth within the realm of the immanent—are truly the over-goers—those who are meant to rule. Thus, that which is “right” is nothing more than reaching inside and “[pronouncing] a more grateful and exultant “yes” to its own self.”
Nietzsche’s revolution was successful, and the likes of Dewey and Rorty all followed out of the market-place and into the halls of intellectual and political power. With them came the virus that was to kill the liberal project. For in turning within for truth—incurvatus in se—we rendered truth unknowable.
As long as the West held onto some form of realism, objective truth had a fighting chance. Words meant something, values could be upheld, and political discourse could proceed. An appeal to the transcendent could settle a dispute. With the loss of this, the West could no longer govern based on objective truth but had to square with subjective self-determinations of the real. As a result, not only did unlimited self-expression become the new criterion of truth, but the metaphysical frameworks keeping such expressions in check inevitably dissolved. The resulting crisis—our crisis—is that Zarathustra has pulled the referee out of the game.
Yet Zarathustra is not done speaking. He did not destroy morality for no purpose, but rather to pave the way for his Übermensch. For those unacquainted with Nietzsche’s Superman, the concept is this: the Superman was to be the paradigm for the new humanity, a humanity in which the restraints of morality and universal truth have been jettisoned in favor of the promotion of unlimited self-expression and assertion at the expense of others. In fact, Nietzsche reveled in the idea that the Superman’s self-expression would necessarily involve the subjugation of the rights of others. With no one to ‘watch the Watchmen,’ the rise of Zarathustra’s children was the only path available. And his children are nigh—we have raised a generation of them.
We can now see our modern predicament more clearly. How can we account for the realities of liberalism’s moral decay—physician assisted suicide, fake news, abortions on demand, and hate crimes? People are choosing their own morality. How can we account for the public mindset of dominating the enemy—the fierce rhetoric and increasing polarization in our society, the prevalence of violent hate groups, and Congressional assassination attempts? The Übermensch has arrived, and subjectivism has loosened his fetters. When objectivity in the public square falters—when the oppressed lose their ability to defend themselves through rational argument—subjectivity becomes its own tyranny. In these days there are many kings in America, and everyone does what is right in their own eyes.
To be fair, modern society has agreed to a new social contract—one based on the shifting sands of postmodern critical theory. But the problem is twofold. First, large swathes of the American population have not fully agreed to this change, stirring up discontent across the continent. To them, the new contract feels arbitrary in that it lacks their consent. They therefore have elected their tribal defender using their waning political power as the only move left on the board, one that is ironically motivated by power rather than argument. Second, this new social contract is incapable of providing a workable superstructure to liberalism, for it dead ends in an incoherence which leaves power grabs as the only viable option.
The path forward for liberalism is clear. What will likely happen is what has been already happening. Lacking transcendent guides, we will simply slip further into the subjective. As we do this, those most numerous and powerful will assert their authority, and the Leviathan will grow wider while the enfranchised elite’s view of what is considered acceptable belief will grow narrower. The liberal system will continue to tip the odds in favor of those with the most power and therefore the prevailing worldview. What they construct to be right will be right, and all those opposed to their glorious vision will become further disenfranchised. The minority view will become more isolated, less important, and less powerful.
At the same time, the government of the select will continue to increase in size and power, and only those entities sufficiently large enough to influence government power will survive. We will increasingly become a world governed by large companies, the global elite, and social interest groups. This is nothing new, and we are quite satisfied with it as we are. Only in America can you stop at a roadside gas station and buy a BigMac, slurp down a Coke, fill up on Exxon gasoline and buy a magazine full of gossip about Taylor Swift’s love life. Zarathustra’s voice grows louder.
At this point we may ask with Scrooge whether “these are the shadows of the things that will be, or are the shadows of things that may be, only?” Some are more bullish in regards to liberalism’s future. Perhaps the likes of Trump, Putin, and Xi are really just blips on our march towards the end of history that will eventually be ironed out of the global order by President Elizabeth Warren in 2020.
This kind of hope is naïve, for, as Patrick Deenen notes, a stagger further leftwards into subjectivism will only exacerbate the problem beyond repair. And what of Yuval Levin’s hope that middling institutions can produce enough solidarity to form a reliable resistance to the government? This solution is more promising, yet it only kicks the problem to the next level. Groups vying for their rights using only subjective tools are no better than individuals doing the same. As even Levin recognizes, a moral standard is required. Christians may be tempted to retreat within as a way of avoiding inevitable onslaught as our piece of the public square is annihilated. While this might insulate us from terrible loss, it is hard to see how it does anything other than buy us a bit of time.
Unsurprisingly given their Marxist origin, critical race theories accurately pick up on liberalism’s internal conflict. In any given constituency of people, there will be those that will gain more power by virtue of their majority. Often this imbalance will occur explicitly, but it can also occur structurally and implicitly. With some notable exceptions, power usually concentrates with those who are the most numerous. Educational theorist Payne Hiraldo summarizes critical race theory’s skepticism of liberalism well by noting “the harm of the phrase ‘we are all created equal,’ and…that when it comes to legislation or policies, there is no such thing as neutrality in American society.”
But is this problem a function of privilege and oppression, or rather a natural result of democratic liberalism? Perhaps they are one and the same. Critical race theorists, grasping this dilemma, and end up positing a problem that therefore seems unsolvable, at least without divine intervention, a vast restructuring of society, or both. Often what solutions are provided end up having the unintended consequence of further entrenching illiberalism. For example, Deneen opines that the multicultural project currently risks failing to celebrate individual cultures equally through creating one monolithic and globalized culture to which all must adhere. This of course is not to deny that legitimate structural oppression exists in our society which requires urgent rectification, but rather to indict critical race theory’s ability to fully remediate liberalism’s ailments on its own.
But there is another way. It is to recognize the inherent limits of liberalism and adjust our expectations accordingly. And it is to agree on a tenable common vision of how to govern ourselves. The rights established in a liberal society will always be contingent upon the standards by which the game is played, for liberalism is an inherently constructivist system of government. After all, self government implies government made after our own image.
Those living in a Lockean society may find their property rights secure but the poor suffering, while those living in a utilitarian society may live efficiently but find it hard to protect the seemingly useless. In an imperfect world operating off of imperfect worldviews, we cannot perfectly guarantee the protection of all rights. This is not an excuse to give up on liberalism nor abandon it. Liberalism, with its emphasis on equal participation and governmental checks, comes the closest of all the systems to achieving universal protection under the law.
Rather, it is imperative to put proper inputs into the system. This is to say that a successfully functioning liberal order requires a telos which is accessible to all participants. It needs a common vision. To put it another way, avoiding the end of liberalism requires adopting the proper ends of liberalism.
And what are the best ends? It would be one in which something greater than man guaranteed moral truth. It would be transcendent, timeless, objective, unassailable, and beautiful. Its dictates would be accessible to all, for all would know them by heart. It would be one in which all men (and women) were equal, regardless of gender, race, or creed, because all men were created by the same hand. It would be one that seeks out the vulnerable, the marginalized, the destitute, and the least of these, because we had been given a real normative example for such a vision. It would be one that proposes a teleology to human sexuality that provided the truest freedom and greatest purpose.
The system would be one in which its citizens freely laid down their rights so that others could prosper, for we must become slaves to the good before we can become free. It would be one in which those in power punish the bad and defend the good, because they had both the power to do so and the tools to recognize right from wrong. And in meeting these ideals such a system would silence Zarathustra. Some have known this system as “slave morality.”
But others know it by a better name. How can we name that by which we can be free and “that which serves them as a solace against all the troubles of life?” Nietzsche said it best: “they call it ‘the last judgment,’ the advent of their kingdom, ‘the kingdom of God’—but meanwhile they live ‘in faith,’ ‘in love,’ ‘in hope. Enough! Enough!”
Yes, Zarathustra. It will be enough.