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How Liberals Can Avoid Succumbing to the Illiberal Temptation
A review of ’Liberalism in Dark Times’
In the United States and Europe over the past two decades, we’ve seen the emergence of movements that seek to reverse the Enlightenment-era liberalism on which modern liberal democracies are founded. Populist authoritarianism is one form of anti-liberalism that readers of The UnPopulist are familiar with, but there are many others that may or may not involve populism: nationalism, nativism, statism, theocracy and so on.
These movements aren’t simply illiberal. At times, there’s a ruthlessness to them. There’s a certain ruthlessness that entices people to storm the U.S. Capitol to challenge legitimate elections. There can even be a ruthlessness in the use of our rights, such as canceling and ostracizing people when they naively, or in the callowness of youth, utter opinions that stray from current orthodoxies and mores.
Of course, these examples are not morally equivalent; moreover, the ruthlessness of our time pales in comparison to the ruthlessness of the dark times inspired by totalitarianism, fascism and Nazism in the 20th century. This is the period that Joshua Cherniss, a political theorist at Georgetown University, writes about in his insightful book Liberalism in Dark Times: The Liberal Ethos in the Twentieth Century. Cherniss draws lessons from the lives of figures like German sociologist Max Weber, French sociologist Raymond Aron, French author Albert Camus, American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and British philosopher Isaiah Berlin to address what he calls the “liberal predicament” in the face of anti-liberal ruthlessness.
The liberal predicament is a phenomenon experienced by each generation. When a new cycle of anti-liberal fervor picks up, Cherniss writes, liberals are faced with the quandary of “how to respond to the ruthlessness of anti-liberals without either abandoning liberalism’s core ethical values or allowing anti-liberals to triumph politically. They also [face] a theoretical challenge: how to justify insistence on liberal limits and scruples, and condemn anti-liberal ruthlessness, without falling into rigid, blind absolutism?”
The Liberal Temptation to Illiberalism
It is very tempting to fight fire with fire. In fact, some of the staunchest anti-liberals started out with liberal causes. They were the ones championing freedom, equality, justice and other great ideals, but eventually crossed over into anti-liberal territory.
Thus, Cherniss poses this vexing question: “How do humanitarian idealists become butchers of human beings?” Robespierre opposed the death penalty and strongly championed the rights of man. How did he end up presiding over the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution? No one is immune to crossing over from humanitarian ideals like freedom and justice into anti-liberal cruelty in an attempt to achieve those ideals. As Cherniss warns, “Anyone who feels the force of revulsion against the injustice, cruelty, and oppression of this world should be alert to this temptation; so should those who believe that they have discovered the truth about how to improve human life (whether this truth is secular or religious, and identified with the political right or left).”
It's a cautionary tale about the relevance of limits and taking them seriously. Liberalism involves institutional, normative and ethical limits like the rule of law, adherence to individual rights, tolerance of a diverse civil society, protections from the state’s overreach, and the power to criticize and challenge activities of the state.
But liberalism isn’t concerned only with limits. It is also a “magnanimous politics.” This magnanimity requires tolerance and forbearance. Those of us who work to bridge divides and foster pluralism are often confronted with the question of whether to be tolerant of intolerant people and behaviors. This is another version of the liberal predicament. Cherniss says that ultimately, the difference between a liberal and anti-liberal is political ethos. It is a stance that is formed by “patterns of disposition, perception, commitment, and response,” and it shapes how we act politically. We can think of ethos as a manner through which we apply a certain creed or belief system.
According to Cherniss, to understand the nature of the tensions between liberalism and its fiercest opponents, “We must, as Amanda Anderson has argued, move beyond blunt ideological labels, defined in terms of doctrines and programs, and attend to contrasting ‘styles and dispositions.’” He adds, “Politics should be approached, not solely through the question of ‘who does what to whom for whose benefit,’ but also through the additional question of ‘how do they (actors) do it (the action) to them?’” And we should approach the “how” not only in terms of process, but of attitudes and temperament displayed in action. Cherniss isn’t ignoring the power of doctrines, theories and arguments, but highlighting the important role of ethos in how we apply and live our ideas in practice.
A Liberal Temperance Movement
By attending to ethos, Cherniss seeks to go beyond principles and programs to a kind of liberalism that is fundamentally an ethical disposition—what he calls “tempered liberalism.” Tempered liberalism aims to “balance between (and maintain its balance against) extremes” and to achieve “a liberalism that centers on personal temperament, seeking not to advance a general theory or program of institutional design or a set of general principles, but to cultivate a particular way of thinking about and engaging in political life.” The term also indicates an opposition to ruthlessness, extremism and fanaticism. The way to deal with the liberal predicament, he argues, is to maintain the ethos of a tempered liberalism.
The 20th century thinkers Cherniss takes lessons from, such as Aron, Camus, Berlin and Niebuhr, didn’t always embody the ethos of tempered liberalism. There were times in their lives when they deviated, which Cherniss uses to illustrate how difficult it is to maintain this disposition in the face of anti-liberalism.
Niebuhr for example, was radicalized by the carnage on the battlefield of World War I and the vindictive negotiations and settlements in the aftermath of the war. They seemed imperialist to him. At home, when he visited Henry Ford’s factories and saw the labor conditions of the factory workers, he was further radicalized. He turned against market liberalism, as well as the political actions and processes that liberalism fostered. He didn’t go as far as some of the ruthless anti-liberals, but he was open to injecting an ethos of hardness, single-mindedness and fanaticism to serve the causes of democracy and justice. He was an idealist.
Eventually, “his awareness of the evils of power both fueled and modified” his radicalism. Having analyzed the psychology of domination among political leaders, he increasingly became suspicious of “reformers,” and he came to value ethical and institutional limits on political contestation. Ultimately, his experiences with communism, beginning in the 1930s, drew him back toward liberalism.
Another liberal exemplar, Raymond Aron, became frustrated during his youth with the gradualism, and at times paralysis, of democratic systems in comparison to the activity of totalitarian governments. He even entertained the idea that if France’s salvation required an authoritarian regime, he would accept it, even if he would detest it.
But he was struck by his first-hand experience with the rise of Nazism while he was studying in Cologne and Berlin. Witnessing his otherwise friendly German acquaintances become supporters and enthusiasts of Hitler’s Reich shocked him. He increasingly saw people energized by a populist fervor become ruthless in support of a regime that engaged in some of the worst atrocities the world has ever witnessed. The brutalities drove Aron toward an anti-totalitarian stance.
Aron eventually emphasized restraint and humility in political activity. He concluded that the right response to the liberal predicament might indeed involve decisiveness during emergencies like an imminent civil war, but, as Cherniss observes, “It also required the maintenance or restoration of liberal means and a liberal style and spirit of political engagement, marked by commitment to legality, respect for disagreement and plurality, and sufficient modesty to listen, and seek to genuinely respond, to the complaints of critics.”
Tempered liberalism isn’t some kind of pacifism in the face of brutality. It is a resolute application of the principles of liberty and equality, but with a sense of balance, proportion and pluralism in advancing ideas.
Another complication in seeking to cultivate a liberal ethos is developing a sense of balance between means and ends. Among Cherniss’ examples, Albert Camus’ decisions perhaps best illustrate this dilemma. Even as Camus supported the French Resistance against Nazism—a clear liberal stance—he did not support the independence movement of his native land, Algeria, as it sought to separate itself from France.
Not surprisingly, he was accused of being on the side of the colonialists. But Camus was concerned that the Algerian independence movement was less interested in advancing the lives of the poor in Algeria than it was in advancing a Moscow-sponsored pan-Arabism. Thus, while he principally supported political rights for Algerians, he remained skeptical of the independence movement’s atrocities and main objectives. He once remarked: “At this moment bombs are being planted in the trams in Algiers. My mother could be on one of those trams. If that is justice, I prefer my mother.” One important view Cherniss advances is that we cannot abandon the evaluation of means when we consider even ostensibly liberal ends, and sometimes different tempered liberals might come to different conclusions based on the values they emphasize in their ethos.
Liberal Heroism for the Future
In a January interview with Cherniss, I asked him the question that had been on my mind since reading the book: Who are the tempered liberals of our time? He didn’t find it easy to come up with names, but he highlighted a few people outside the United States. One who stood out was Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy, he said, is “not a moderate and not an intellectual, and not necessarily even the best political judge in all cases, but … does give this model of a particular kind of courage which is calmer, more humane, more moderate.”
Essentially, there isn’t one ideal ethos of tempered liberalism. It is about how we practice politics on behalf of liberal ideals. It supports a range of behaviors and practices appropriate to different situations and roles, and how we deploy them depends on our own judgment and circumstance, Cherniss believes. Indeed, he writes, “not everyone needs to exhibit or enact all of them, in all cases.” He suggests, for instance, that a politician should seek to cultivate sensitivity toward others’ moral views; a philanthropist, to harbor some skepticism and an acceptance of the limitations of an imperfect world; and a morally inspired activist, to develop a tolerance of human frailty.
Cherniss’ response to the liberal predicament may not be the most satisfying to liberals outraged by the illiberal practices and ideas that have recently emerged in America and around the world. But in a truly liberal fashion, Cherniss offers an approach that is focused on the individual. Tempered liberalism requires self-reflection and will power.
Isaiah Berlin, whom Cherniss discusses, offers a set of tendencies that an aspiring tempered liberal should be mindful of: avoiding monism (a tendency to reject all but a single value or goal), maximalism (seeking utopian results in pursuing goals), fanaticism (excessive zeal), and extremism (an all-or-nothing approach that rejects compromise). These admonitions encourage the tempered liberal to be suspicious of grand programs, to entertain fallibilism about beliefs, to embrace a sense of responsibility and to show fortitude in tolerating those with different views.
How do we foster this ethos? According to Cherniss, we need a “pedagogy of exemplification.” We need to identify those who exemplify the right ethos, emulate them and encourage others to do the same, even as we keep in mind that these exemplars might be “admirable, but not perfect.” In addition, our emulation of these exemplars should not be exact; depending on our particular roles in society, some aspects may not be replicable.
Cherniss’ approach may not be a perfect response to the liberal problem of character formation, but again, it is appropriately individualistic, and ultimately, there are no easy answers to anti-liberalism. The road to a more liberal society may not be a straight line, but robust defenders of liberalism need to consider that future generations may be grateful for the examples we set in our own time to address illiberal ruthlessness. We need to ensure that in a bid to challenge anti-liberalism, we do not ourselves become anti-liberals. And if we ask ourselves who the tempered liberals of our time are and we have a hard time identifying any, it may be a sign that we should each do more to fill the void.