One of the big challenges faced by any student of current events is that of seeing past the turmoil of the present moment to catch the deep trends shaping events on a broader scale. It’s a little like standing on a beach, without benefit of tide tables, and trying to guess whether the tide’s coming in or going out. Waves surge, break, and flow back out to sea; the wind blows this way and that; it takes time, and close attention to subtle details, before you can be sure whether the sea is gradually climbing the beach or just as gradually retreating from it.
Over the last year or so, though, it’s become increasingly clear to me that one of the great tides of American politics has turned and is flowing out to sea. For almost precisely two hundred years, this country’s political discourse has been shaped—more powerfully, perhaps, than by any other single force—by the loose bundle of ideas, interests, and values we can call American liberalism. That’s the tide that’s turning. The most important trends shaping the political landscape of our time, to my mind, are the descent of the liberal movement into its final decadence, and the first stirrings of the postliberal politics that is already emerging in its wake.
To make sense of what American liberalism has been, what it has become, and what will happen in its aftermath, history is an essential resource. Ask a believer in a political ideology to define it, and you’ll get one set of canned talking points; ask an opponent of that ideology to do the same thing, and you’ll get another—and both of them will be shaped more by the demands of moment-by-moment politics than by any broader logic. Trace that ideology from its birth through its adolescence, maturity, and decline into senescence, and you get a much better view of what it actually means.
Let’s go back, then, to the wellsprings of the American liberal movement. Historians have argued for a good long time about the deeper roots of that movement, but its first visible upsurge can be traced to a few urban centers in the coastal Northeast in the years just after the War of 1812. Boston—nineteenth century America’s San Francisco—was the epicenter of the newborn movement, a bubbling cauldron of new social ideas to which aspiring intellectuals flocked from across the new Republic. Any of my readers who think that the naive and effervescent idealism of the 1960s was anything new need to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance; it's set in the Massachusetts counterculture of the early nineteenth century, and most of the action takes place on a commune. That’s the context in which American liberalism was born.
From the very beginning, it was a movement of the educated elite. Though it spoke movingly about uplifting the downtrodden, the downtrodden themselves were permitted very little active part in it. It was also as closely intertwined with Protestant Christianity as the movement of the 1960s was with Asian religions; ministers from the Congregationalist and Unitarian churches played a central role in the movement throughout its early years, and the major organizations of the movement—the Anti-Slavery Societies, the Temperance League, and the Non-Resistant League, the first influential American pacifist group—were closely allied with churches, and staffed and supported by clergymen. Both the elitism and the Protestant Christian orientation, as we’ll see, had a powerful influence on the way American liberalism evolved over the two centuries that followed.
Three major social issues formed the framework around which the new movement coalesced. The first was the abolition of slavery; the second was the prohibition of alcohol; the third was the improvement of the legal status of women. (The movement traversed a long and convoluted road before this latter goal took its ultimate form of legal and social equality between the genders.) There were plenty of other issues that attracted their own share of attention from the movement—dietary reform, dress reform, pacifism, and the like—but all of them shared a common theme: the redefinition of politics as an expression of values.
Let’s take a moment to unpack that last phrase. Politics at that time, and at most other periods throughout human history, was understood as a straightforward matter of interests—in the bluntest of terms, who got what benefits and who paid what costs. Then and for most of a century thereafter, for example, one of the things that happened in the wake of every Presidential election is that the winner’s party got to hand out federal jobs en masse to its supporters. It was called the “spoils system,” as in “to the victor belongs the spoils;” people flocked to campaign for this or that presidential candidate as much in the hope of getting a comfortable federal job as for anyother reason. Nobody saw anything wrong with that system, because politics was about interests.
In the same way, there’s no evidence that anybody in the Constitutional Convention agonized about the ethical dimensions of the notorious provision that defined each slave as being 3/5ths of a person. I doubt the ethical side of the matter ever crossed any of their minds, because politics was not about ethics or any other expression of values—it was about interests—and the issue was simply one of finding a compromise that allowed each state to feel that its interests would be adequately represented in Congress. Values, in the thought of the time, belonged to church and to the private conscience of the individual; politics was about interests pure and simple.
(We probably need to stop here for a moment to deal with the standard response: “Yes, but they should have known better!” This is a classic example of chronocentrism. Just as ethnocentrism privileges the beliefs, values, and interests of a particular ethnic group, chronocentrism does the same thing to the beliefs, values, and interests of a particular time. Chronocentrism is enormously common today, on all sides of the political and cultural landscape; you can see it when scientists insist that people in the Middle Ages should have known better than to believe in astrology, for example, or when Christians insist that the old Pagans should have known better than to believe in polytheist religions. In every case, it’s simply one more attempt to evade the difficult task of understanding the past.)
Newborn American liberalism, though, rejected the division between politics and values. Their opposition to slavery, for example, had nothing to do with the divergent economic interests of the industrializing northern states and the plantation economy of the South, and everything to do with a devoutly held conviction that chattel slavery was morally wrong. Their opposition to alcohol, to the laws that denied civil rights to women, to war, and to everything else on the lengthy shopping list of the movement had to do with moral values, not with interests. That’s where you see the impact of the movement’s Protestant heritage: it took values out of the church and tried to apply them to the world as a whole. At the time, that was exotic enough that the moral crusades just mentioned got about as much political traction at the time as the colorful fantasies of the 1960s did in their own day.
Both movements were saved from complete failure by the impact of war. The movement of the 1960s drew most of its influence on popular culture from its opposition to the Vietnam War, which is why it collapsed nearly without a trace when the war ended and the draft was repealed. The earlier movement had to wait a while for its war, and in the meantime it very nearly destroyed itself by leaping on board the same kind of apocalyptic fantasy that kicked the New Age movement into its current death spiral four years ago. In the late 1830s, frustrated by the failure of the perfect society to show up as quickly as they desired, a great many adherents of the new liberal movement embraced the prophecy of William Miller, a New England farmer who believed that he had worked out from the Bible the correct date of the Second Coming of Christ. When October 22, 1844 passed without incident, the same way December 21, 2012 did, the resulting “Great Disappointment” was a body blow to the movement.
By then, though, one of the moral crusades being pushed by American liberals had attracted the potent support of raw economic interest. The division between northern and southern states over the question of slavery was not primarily seen at the time as a matter of ethics; it was a matter of competing interests, like every other political question, though of course northern politicians and media were quick to capitalize on the moral rhetoric of the Abolitionists. At issue was the shape of the nation’s economic future. Was it going to be an agrarian society producing mostly raw materials for export, and fully integrated into a global economy centered on Britain—the southern model? Or was it going to go its own way, raise trade barriers against the global economy, and develop its own industrial and agricultural economy for domestic consumption—the northern model?
Such questions had immediate practical implications, because government policies that favored one model guaranteed the ruin of the other. Slavery was the linchpin of the Southern model, because the big southern plantations required a vast supply of labor at next to no cost to turn a profit, and so it became a core issue targeted by northern politicians and propagandists alike. Read detailed accounts of the struggles in Congress between northern and southern politicians, though, and you’ll find that what was under debate had as much to do with trade policy and federal expenditures. Was there to be free trade, which benefited the South, or trade barriers, which benefited the North? Was the federal budget to pay for canals and roads, which benefited northern interests by getting raw materials to factories and manufactured products to markets, but were irrelevant to southern interests, which simply needed riverboats to ship cotton and tobacco to the nearest seaport?
Even the bitter struggles over which newly admitted states were to have slave-based economies, and which were not, had an overwhelming economic context in the politics of the time. The North wanted to see the western territories turned into a patchwork of family farms, producing agricultural products for the burgeoning cities of the eastern seaboard and the Great Lakes and buying manufactured goods from northern factories; the South wanted to see those same territories made available for plantations that would raise products for export to England and the world.
Yet the ethical dimension became central to northern propaganda, as already noted, and that helped spread the liberal conviction that values as well as interests had a place in the political dialogue. By 1860, that conviction had become widespread enough that it shaped thinking south of the Mason-Dixon line. As originally written, for example, the first line of the Confederate song “The Bonny Blue Flag” ran “fighting for the property we won by honest toil”—and no one anywhere had any illusions about the identity, or skin color, of the property in question. Before long, though, it was rewritten as “fighting for our liberty, with treasure, blood and toil.” The moment that change occurred, the South had already lost; it’s entirely possible to argue for slavery on grounds of economic interest, but once the focus of the conversation changes to values such as liberty, slavery becomes indefensible.
So the Civil War raged, the Confederacy rose and fell, the Northern economic model guided American economic policy for most of a century thereafter, and the liberal movement found its feet again. With slavery abolished, the other two primary goals took center stage, and the struggle to outlaw alcohol and get voting rights for women proceeded very nearly in lockstep. The 18th Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the US, and the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, were passed in 1919 and 1920 respectively, and even though Prohibition turned out to be a total flop, the same rhetoric was redirected toward drugs (most were legal in the US until the 1930s) and continues to shape public policy today. Then came the Great Depression, and with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932—and above all with his landslide reelection victory in 1936, when the GOP carried only two states—the liberal movement became the dominant force in American political life.
Triumph after triumph followed. The legalization of unions, the establishment of a tax-funded social safety net, the forced desegregation of the South: these and a galaxy of other reforms on the liberal shopping list duly followed. The remarkable thing is that all these achievements took place while the liberal movement was fighting opponents from both sides. To the right, of course, old-fashioned conservatives still dug in their heels and fought for the interests that mattered to them, but from the 1930s on, liberals also faced constant challenge from further left. American liberalism, as already mentioned, was a movement of the educated elite; it focused on helping the downtrodden rather than including them; and that approach increasingly ran into trouble as the downtrodden turned out to have ideas of their own that didn’t necessarily square with what liberals wanted to do for them.
Starting in the 1970s, in turn, American liberalism also ended up facing a third source of challenges—a new form of conservatism that borrowed the value-centered language of liberalism but used a different set of values to rally support to its cause: the values of conservative Protestant Christianity. In some ways, the rise of the so-called “new conservatism” with its talk about “family values” represented the final, ironic triumph of the long struggle to put values at the center of political discourse. By the 1980s, every political faction in American public life, no matter how crass and venial its behavior or its goals, took care to festoon itself with some suitable collection of abstract values. That’s still the case today; nobody talks about interests, even when interests are the obvious issue.
Thus you get the standard liberal response to criticism, which is to insist that the only reason anyone might possibly object to a liberal policy is because they have hateful values.
Let’s take current US immigration policy as an example. This limits the number of legal immigrants while tacitly allowing unlimited illegal immigration. There are solid pragmatic reasons for questioning the appropriateness of that policy. The US today has the highest number of permanently unemployed people in its history, incomes and standards of living for the lower 80% of the population have been moving raggedly downward since the 1970s, and federal tax policies effectively subsidize the offshoring of jobs. That being the case, allowing in millions of illegal immigrants who have, for all practical purposes, no legal rights, and can be employed at sweatshop wages in substandard conditions, can only drive wages down further than they’ve already gone, furthering the impoverishment and immiseration of wage-earning Americans.
These are valid issues, dealing with (among other things) serious humanitarian concerns for the welfare of wage-earning Americans, and they have nothing to do with racial issues—they would be just as compelling if the immigrants were coming from Canada. Yet you can’t say any of this in the hearing of a modern American liberal. If you try, you can count on being shouted down and accused of being a racist. Why? I’d like to suggest that it’s because the affluent classes from which the leadership of the liberal movement is drawn, and which set the tone for the movement as a whole, benefit directly from the collapse in wages that has partly been caused by mass illegal immigration, since that decrease in wages has yielded lower prices for the goods and services they buy and higher profits for the companies for which many of them work, and whose stocks many of them own.
That is to say, a movement that began its history with the insistence that values had a place in politics alongside interests has ended up using talk about values to silence discussion of the ways in which its members are pursuing their own interests. That’s not a strategy with a long shelf life, because it doesn’t take long for the other side to identify, and then exploit, the gap between rhetoric and reality.
Ironies of this sort are anything but unusual in political history. It’s astonishingly common for a movement that starts off trying to overturn the status quo in the name of some idealistic abstraction or other to check its ideals at the door once it becomes the status quo. If anything, American liberalism held onto its ideals longer than most and accomplished a great deal more than many, and I think that most of us—even those who, like me, are moderate Burkean conservatives—are grateful to the liberal movement of the past for ending such obvious abuses as chattel slavery and the denial of civil rights to women, and for championing the idea that values as well as interests deserve a voice in the public sphere. It deserves the modern equivalent of a raised hat and a moment of silence, if no more, as it finally sinks into the decadence that is the ultimate fate of every successful political movement.
The current US presidential election shows, perhaps better than anything else, just how far that decadence has gone. Hillary Clinton’s campaign is floundering in the face of Trump’s challenge because so few Americans still believe that the liberal shibboleths in her campaign rhetoric mean anything at all. Even among her supporters, enthusiasm is hard to find, and her campaign rallies have had embarrassingly sparse attendance. Increasingly frantic claims that only racists, fascists, and other deplorables support Trump convince no one but true believers, and make the concealment of interests behind shopworn values increasingly transparent. Clinton may still win the election by one means or another, but the broader currents in American political life have clearly changed course.
It’s possible to be more precise. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, in stark contrast to Clinton, have evoked extraordinarily passionate reactions from the voters, precisely because they’ve offered an alternative to a status quo pervaded by the rhetoric of a moribund liberalism. In the same way, in Britain—where the liberal movement followed a somewhat different trajectory but has ended up in the same place—the success of the Brexit campaign and the wild enthusiasm with which Labour Party voters have backed the supposedly unelectable Jeremy Corbyn show that the same process is well under way there. Having turned into the captive ideology of an affluent elite, liberalism has lost the loyalty of the downtrodden that once, with admittedly mixed motives, it set out to help. That’s a loss it’s unlikely to survive.
Over the decades ahead, in other words, we can expect the emergence of a postliberal politics in the United States, England, and quite possibly some other countries as well. The shape of the political landscape in the short term is fairly easy to guess. Watch the way the professional politicians in the Republican Party have flocked to Hillary Clinton’s banner, and you can see the genesis of a party of the affluent demanding the prolongation of free trade, American intervention in the Middle East, and the rest of the waning bipartisan consensus that supports its interests. Listen to the roars of enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—or better still, talk to the not inconsiderable number of Sanders supporters who will be voting for Trump this November—and you can sense the emergence of a populist party seeking the abandonment of that consensus in defense of its very different interests.