Daodujour II, Day 38: Whither Liberalism?

Chapter 38: Talking About Power

“The good the truly good do,

has no end in view.

The right the very righteous do,

has an end in view.

And those who act in true obedience to law

roll up their sleeves

And make the disobedient obey.”

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

~ W. B. Yeats

A central premise of classical liberalism is that when it comes to politics, we should be neutral about the Good. You are free to define and pursue the good as you see fit in your personal life. This is one reason the word “virtue” does not appear in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. The omission was deliberate. Where virtue was central to the politics of the ancients—the purpose of law, Aristotle intoned, was to make men good—the Founders, chastened by centuries of Wars of Religion—or, more precisely, wars stemming from the conflation of politics and religion—hypothesized that the Good and the Right must be separated. The purpose of the state must be to protect the rights of individuals, not prescribe how they ought to live: what kind of people they ought to be, what goods they ought to pursue, what gods they ought to worship. The state should protect people, not promote virtue. Another way of putting this is that the modern liberal state “has no end in view.”

But today, we see the modern liberal order under siege. The movement is disparate but not diffuse. It goes by many names—Trumpism, the alt-right, Christian nationalism, national conservatism, post-liberalism and, for all intents and purposes, the Republican Party—but it is united by a conviction held with passionate intensity: classical liberalism, the political philosophy undergirding the Enlightenment and the modern state, is a failed experiment, and it must be replaced by a philosophy and practice of governance that embraces a “substantive” conception of the good. The state, in other words, should “have an end in view.”

Like all movements, this one has an intellectual wing—the think tanks like American Compass, the scholars like Notre Dame’s Patrick Dineen, the public intellectuals like Rod Dreher, the budding celebrity-cum-pols like J.D. Vance. They tack left on economics and right on culture. The foot soldiers of the movement need no introduction. They are the stuff of Trump rallies, anti-vax campaigns, and Capitol riots, the real Americans defending law and order, willing to “roll up their sleeves” and “make the disobedient obey.”

Shortly after Trump’s election, one of Mitt Romney’s policy wonks, conservative pundit Avik Roy, had a revelation: that the conservative intellectual elites had deluded themselves, inflating their own importance and misunderstanding their voters. Republican voters, he realized, never really cared about principles like limited government, states’ rights, and low taxes. All of that, he now understood, was a smokescreen, an ideology stretching a bland, unthreatening mask over the true soul and power of the GOP: what Hamilton called the “great unwashed,” the incoherent blend of white identity politics and Christian nationalism that wants power, and specifically the power to punish and purge Them. Beginning with Goldwater and Buckley, modern conservatism was a tiny group of point-headed elites believing they were standing athwart history, when in reality they were riding shotgun in a monster truck.

And they are poised to make the same mistake again. They will think they can ride the tiger of Trumpism to bring about a conservative policy revolution, patiently and prudently poking and stoking the culture war as needed. Today’s chapter also reads: “Lesser power, clinging to power, lacks true power.” To ride a tiger, you have to cling, and if you have to cling, you are not riding; you are holding on for dear life. If you fall off, the tiger will eat you. Many will try to mount the tiger of Trumpism in the troubles to come. All will be thrown off and fail. “There is only one lord of the ring. Only one. And he does not share power.” The power of the ring is the reflex to cling.

There is, however, a piece of the truth that this disturbance in the force of conservatism grasps. Classical liberalism has not so much failed as it has been revealed to be constitutionally incapable of supporting a just and sustainable society. Climate change, COVID-19, and the carnage that globalization has wrought on the American heartland have made plain that the political atomism of liberalism, which reached its apex in the last 40 years under the Reagan-Thatcher consensus and the economic mythology of Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan, is metaphysically false. It is not so much liberalism that has failed, but its late stage mutation, neoliberalism. Another way of putting this is that Aristotle was right: we are social animals by nature, and we only flourish in communities ordered around a shared conception of the good. By denying this, liberalism attempts to plug round pegs in a square holes. It pretends not to “have an end in view,” but it turns out that this pretense to neutrality is just that: a story, a myth, a noble lie crafted in order to preserve law and order. While it may be a better story than what came before, it has reached the end of its life cycle as an adequate form of governance. This is why it is losing its legitimacy. It must be transcended and included by something new. The NatCons are right to want to transcend it, but wrong in wanting to replace it tout court.

The good news is that, unbeknownst to the post-liberals on the Right, that something is ready and waiting to be woven into a new story. Call it progressive liberalism, social democracy, post-progressivism. The post-libs are throwing out the baby of liberalism out with the bathwater of classical liberalism. They fail to see that progressive liberalism was precisely a response to the deficiencies of classical liberalism: whether it is the concern for historically marginalized groups, the dangers of economic inequality, or environmental degradation, at it best, progressive liberalism embraced a substantive conception of the good intended to redress the excesses of hyper-individualism; but one that, unlike conservatism, is world-centric rather than ethno-centric. This is why Joe Biden rightly cast the 2020 election as a “battle over the soul of America.” With the notion of a neutral public space unmasked as a story we told ourselves over and over and over again until we forgot that it was a lie, what ensues is a contest between two rival conceptions of the good.

The great task, however—the great power that is needed—is to weave the three stories into one. To paraphrase Plato, until our leaders become conservative liberal socialists, or conservative liberal socialists become our leaders, there will be no end to troubles for American society. Just as he who does not want to rule is the one who should rule, only he who acts with all ends in view can truly do good.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

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