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What the Reactionary Right Gets Dead Wrong About Modern Liberal Democracy

Let’s talk about neutralism.
October 25, 2019
What the Reactionary Right Gets Dead Wrong About Modern Liberal Democracy

If the modern liberal state is a Leviathan, then the 21st century has her swimming through dark waters, wounded, sick, and slow. The list of her afflictions is familiar: growing economic precarity, pervasive racialized injustice, a hyper-partisan media, bewildering technological advances, electoral injustice, rising authoritarianism, and those ever-warming tides.

It’s a vulnerable condition by any standard, and many of our political institutions are clearly up for renewal. Today on the American right, however, we instead find a group of anti-liberals setting boldly to the task of tearing down. It’s a set that includes erudite sorts like Patrick Deneen, Michael Anton, and Sohrab Ahmari, as well as Tucker Carlson. Many of them gathered in Washington, D.C., this summer under the inauspicious banner of National Conservatism. A few weeks ago, Attorney General Bill Barr gave a speech that puts him squarely in this crowd, too.

These men certainly don’t agree on everything, but they applaud the collapse of the conservative establishment under Trump and invite the end of American liberal democracy in its post-New Deal configuration. As such, I’m comfortable referring to them collectively as reactionary conservatives, or Reocons.

Any sustained political critique should be grounded in real understanding. But a major part of the Reocons’ growing power comes from their willingness to mischaracterize liberal democracy. They get it badly wrong, using a narrow and time-worn conception of liberalism – neutrality liberalism – as a bludgeon against the entire modern constitutional order.

The neutralist rendering turns Leviathan’s noblest vulnerability – the commitment to moral tolerance and freedom – into a fatal flaw. It robs Leviathan (and her defenders) of ethical recourse, by holding everyone to an incoherent standard of impartiality, even with regards to the most essential norms. This leaves Leviathan more vulnerable than ever.

We need as much clarity as we can get about these destructive voices – about what they’re saying, whom they’re targeting, and why they’re wrong.

I. Neutrality Liberalism and the Corrosion of Ethics 

Neutrality liberalism is not the Reocons’ invention. Rather, it’s a scholarly, Anglo-American response to a question that has always been at the heart of modern liberalism: How do you limit government power, and, more specifically, separate it from overweening religious authority? The neutralist liberal, citing Ronald Dworkin, will answer that government should remain neutral with respect to “any particular conception of the good life, or of what gives value to life.” In other words, in a liberal society we don’t legislate morality.

The problem with the neutralist rendering is that it is awfully reductive. Can self-governing citizens really remain neutral about all that “gives value to life”? Are liberal laws actually divorced from all ideas – however changeable – of what is ethical, and of what is good?

Despite such concerns, and despite the fact that neutrality liberalism has been contested even among liberal theorists now for decades, the Reocons take this hollowed-out formulation as the essence of the modern liberal project.

Consider Patrick Deneen, a Notre Dame professor whose 2018 book, Why Liberalism Failed, garnered much national attention. The premise throughout Deneen’s book is that liberalism understands itself to be fully neutral. Liberalism “began with the explicit assertion that it merely describes our political, social, and private decision-making”; Leviathan “pretends to neutrality, claiming no preference and denying any intention of shaping the souls under its rule.” What she actually delivers, however, and according to Deneen, is a limitless program to expand individual freedom: in the end, neutralist liberal societies inevitably capitulate to tyrannical “liberalocratic” forces beyond their control. Aimless at best, self-destructive at worst, Leviathan is always unfit to deal with the tumult of the world.

Sohrab Ahmari also speaks alternatingly in neutralist and apocalyptic terms in his much-discussed saga with David French. Ahmari repeatedly blames French (who operates as stand-in for all movement conservatives) for his naive commitment to a wholesale political neutralism. French purportedly believes that “the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones.” Ahmari’s French even deems the spheres of culture to be “neutral and apolitical and impervious to policy.” Ahmari himself, though, has seen through the facade. All of liberalism is an illusory sham. The time has come “to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral.” After all, only the New Right cares about the Substantive Good.

Andrew Kloster at The Federalist puts the supposed lie of liberalism this way: “it purports neutrality and ecumenism while surreptitiously importing thick conceptions of the good.”

For the Reocons, a self-deceived and ethically dubious neutralism is the starting point of liberalism. With such weak foundations, liberal democracy can’t help but morph into a grab-bag of chaos and tyranny – to become, in the words of Michael Anton, “tradition-and-history-denying,” “common-good-denying,” and “anarcho-tyrannical.”

From this it follows, too, that it is incapable of anything good.

II. Denying Liberal Achievements 

Nothing good comes from neutral. On this point the Reocons show real consistency, exploiting neutralist assumptions to deny Leviathan her long legacy of achievements.

One way they do this is by doubling-down on the conservative trope that the best aspects of modernity – from human rights to movement politics – are, in truth and exclusively, the “glorious inheritance” of various pre-liberal traditions.

The suggestion that the good aspects of modern life are attributable to some earlier (usually Christian) legacy goes back at least to Tocqueville, where we find a subtle account of the ongoing social import of earlier cultural norms. Deneen calls the phenomenon “drawing down” and his claims are more sweeping: “[Liberalism’s] very apparent strengths rest upon a large number of pre-, non-, and even anti-liberal institutions and resources that it has not replenished, and in recent years has actively sought to undermine.” By Deneen’s telling, in the earliest days of liberalism, “the health and continuity of families, schools, and communities,” could just be assumed. Everything was going just great around 1700, I guess, and it’s all been downhill from there.

(Such thinking tends to omit the extent to which, say, pre-liberal schooling wasn’t very effective, or the extent to which other traditional institutions – including Christianity – have also been violently oppressive and psychologically damaging).

In addition to exaggerating tradition’s benevolence (and ignoring her every malice), the Reocons devalue goods that can’t plausibly be retrofitted to some pre-liberal legacy. If something does clearly come from liberal modernity, it must not be any good.

Deneen achieves peak denialism along these lines in a discussion of feminism that appears towards the end of his book. Rightly anticipating that, in the face of his attacks, feminists will jump to Leviathan’s defense, he preemptively retorts:

Today, we consider the paramount sign of the liberation of women to be their growing emancipation from their biology, which frees them to serve a different, disembodied body – “corporate” America – and participate in an economic order that effectively obviates any actual political liberty. Liberalism posits that freeing women from the household is tantamount to liberation, but it effectively puts women and men alike into a far more encompassing bondage.

One can recognize the excesses of capitalism and still recognize this for the nonsense that it is. With the wave of a hand, Deneen dismisses the educations, careers, achievements, and ambitions of millions of women. He sneers at our aspirations to bodily integrity. And he takes it upon himself to erase the political and civic work of generations of working women and men.

In his speech at Notre Dame, Bill Barr manages to denigrate modern values and attribute them to the Christian past in the course of a single sentence: “What we call values today is really nothing more than mere sentimentality, still drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity.”

III. Owning the Libs 

The Reocons lean hard on neutralist assumptions to deny and denigrate liberalism’s substantive achievements; they also ascribe the same dangerous neutralism they see in political life to modern individuals. Here, although we do see a clear pattern of attack against elite, technocratic conservatives, the real Reocon ire is directed further left.

The logic of neutrality liberalism is an everyday feature of anti-liberal rhetoric on the right. It’s there in every scoffing reference to “wokeness,” “virtue signaling,” “liberal outrage,” and “social justice warriors.” On the face of it these phrases allude to moral excess, but the underlying assumption – the thought that gives them their nasty edge – is that liberalism properly aims for neutral. Against such a standard of neutralist indifference, any evaluative expression whatsoever can be portrayed as unhinged. In this way, the Reocons leverage assumptions about liberal neutrality to smear their antagonists, as, alternatingly, hypocrites, tyrannical ideologues, and nihilists.

In this segment from 2018, Tucker Carlson provides a tidy example of this mode of engagement. Carlson uses disgraced Democrat Eric Schneiderman’s resignation to expound a general theory of liberal ethics: No one, Tucker explains, should be surprised by the sexual assault allegations against Schneiderman; after all, liberal conviction (“self-righteousness”) “is always a marker for secret creepiness.” He further warns that “hypocrisy isn’t just a feature of modern liberalism, it’s the heart of modern liberalism,” before concluding that: “modern liberalism is a religious movement… a replacement for the protestant theology that the left worked so hard to undermine and destroy.”

The Carlson bit also exemplifies what I take to be the rhetorical lynchpin of the Reocon attack: the way it impugns liberals as apostates to an assumed Christian heritage. Against a purported standard of neutrality, it’s easy enough to frame all emergent liberal values – however humane, however needful – not just as hypocritical, but as vaguely heretical.

We know about the effectiveness of such a maneuver from right-wing climate change denial. For decades now, groups like the Heartland Institute have characterized environmentalists as neo-pagan zealots. Such talk is clearly alienating to the majority of Americans, who identify as Christian. As climate scientist and communications expert Katharine Hayhoe explains: “framing climate change as an earth-worshiping alternative religion to Christianity is a brilliant way to get 70 percent of the U.S. to reject this issue.” And so the Federalist proclaims that “Climate Worship is Nothing More than Rebranded Paganism,” and casts Greta Thurnberg as high priestess.

With such a powerful strategy at play, today’s anti-liberals ask, why stop at environmentalism? Deneen speaks of modern universities as “high churches charged with proselytizing the modern orthodoxy of individual liberation,” and of late night television as the “special sanctuary of this liturgy.” Others devote whole books to the subject(Bill Barr appears to have read them: “The secular project has itself become a religion, pursued with religious fervor”).

Of course, the Reocons aren’t against meaning and religion per se. They are against secularism, and the substance of liberal progressivism. But instead of engaging with liberal and progressive values head-on, they dismiss the notion of a serious liberal ethics outright, reducing it all to fanatical conviction and baseless posturing. The critique puts liberals and progressives in an impossible place: if you’re not a joyless technocrat, you must be a hyperventilating fanatic; there’s no room in-between. The law of neutrality renders all secular or non-Christian affiliations and viewpoints suspect.

IV. Aspirational Liberal Democracy 

For the Reocons, liberalism pretends to neutrality, but it’s about as neutral as a black hole – indiscriminate, purposeless, and ultimately lethal. And so we come to the whale in the room: Is it true? Is Leviathan as aimless and self-destructive as they say? Are her achievements so absent, her citizens so hollow? Is she really so radically self-deceived? The answer here isn’t too complicated. It’s “No.”

I don’t expect to give a satisfying account of liberal democracy here. I expect that, by this point in 2019, readers will have their own thoughts about its value, and lots of others are doing this work. I’ll conclude instead with the thoughts that I take to be most relevant to the Reocon critique.

First, liberalism is not neutral. It is directed, and supporters of liberal democracy know this. Though some version of neutrality liberalism enjoyed ascendance in the 70s and 80s, today (thanks in part to critical theory and postmodernism) the moral temper of liberalism is acknowledged all around. From NeverTrump conservatives, to procedural incrementalists and progressive social democrats, today’s defenders of liberal democracy recognize the inanity of insisting on full neutrality, and the focus has shifted to clarifying and accounting for liberalism’s values and aspirations. What is Leviathan for? What gives her strength, direction, and, ultimately, legitimacy?

Here are some of the values that I would say constitute a basic consensus among liberal sorts past and present:

  • Civil peace and religious tolerance. Modern liberalism didn’t just emerge ex nihilo, or as a natural addendum to Christianity: It was forged in the flames of religious persecution, and on behalf of peace. Hobbes’ first law of nature is “seek peace, and follow it,” and the secular modern state was conceived first and foremost as an antidote to theological chaos and cruelty.

  • Health and well-being. Liberalism also emerged against a background of widespread poverty and suffering, as well as entrenched inequity. When Bacon writes about “the relief of man’s estate,” he’s describing a genuine need, and when Locke argues for man’s right to his own labors, it’s a radically egalitarian move. It’s possible to acknowledge the abuses of modern capitalism – its complicity in colonialism, slavery, sexism, and environmental degradation – without denying these other entangled aims.

  • Political equality, dignity, and human rights, enshrined in constitutions and the rule of law. The idea that human beings are all equal in a fundamental sense may well be part of an authentic Christian worldview, but politically speaking it’s also the collective legacy of successive waves of liberal thinkers and revolutionaries, both in “The West” and around the globe.

These are some of the basic aims, and sometimes gains, of the modern liberal project. They are not the sorts of things that serious people write-off blithely.

What is more, believers in liberal democracy recognize that peace, prosperity, and human rights do not fill up a life, or fully constitute a culture. The expectation is that citizens will sustain and create meaningful, ethical lives and communities within a basic liberal framework. Such a frame may strive for neutrality in some essential respects, but it’s hardly evacuated of meaning; the structure exists for the sake of the very real goods and freedoms that ultimately “give value” to our lives.

So how do we arbitrate when competing ends – or modes of life – come into conflict? Which values get sustained, and who gets to decide? Whereas the Reocons put their stock in orthodox answers, liberal democrats’ all-too-human response is always going to be “we do.” These decisions are bound by traditions, rights, and laws, but authority ultimately resides with the people.

Which is also to say that Leviathan’s path through today’s troubled waters remains, as yet, uncharted. She isn’t endowed with a ranked list of values, or fixed answers about “the good life,” but this doesn’t make her neutral, let alone dead or doomed. Now is the time for hard, honest, thinking about the character and scope of her aspirations. And for acts of reform and renewal. The Reocons say Leviathan’s deep-dive is fated, but they could end up lighting our way.

Laura K. Field

Laura K. Field is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and a scholar in residence at American University. Twitter: @lkatfield.