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There Is No Good Alternative to Liberal Democracy
The right's preferred regimes will lead to oppression and worse, not cohesion
Wikipedia Commons; Photo credit Anthony Quintano
Many people on the religious and nationalistic right have turned sour on liberal democracy because, they claim, it offers no glue or vision for unifying and ordering society. So two pivotal questions arise: Can liberalism survive? Should it?
We must hope so, because all the alternatives are far worse.
To begin, let’s be clear about what’s at stake. The antonym of “liberal” is not “conservative,” but rather “total.” Liberal democracy is limited democracy. There is a zone of human affairs within which no government, including government by the majority, can legitimately operate. We can argue about how this zone is defined and about the location of its perimeter, but liberalism stands or falls with its existence. Otherwise put, liberalism distinguishes between the public and the private.
By design, then, liberalism cannot satisfy the desire for harmony. The nonpublic zone contains — and protects — discordant views and practices, including those that reject liberalism. Some critics charge that there is a “spiritual void” at the heart of liberalism, and in a sense, they’re right. Liberalism leaves room for multiple sources of spiritual completeness but does not offer, let alone endorse, any of them. Most liberals believe that no form of politics can satisfy the soul’s ultimate longing, and that politics can go dangerously wrong when it tries to do so. As the late British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once remarked, “If people want a sense of purpose, they should get it from their archbishop. They should certainly not get it from their politicians.”
This is not to deny that at certain moments, such as defending one’s country against aggression, citizens can experience a sense of unity and exaltation. The London Blitz was one such moment; the heroism of the Ukrainians another. But such moments are rare and cannot offer a standard for politics. The desire for the solidarity of battle during times of peace always leads individuals and peoples astray; there is no “moral equivalent of war.”
Because liberalism rightly understood does not use state power to foster a single community of meaning, it must minimize its intrusion into the nonpublic realm, which houses a multiplicity of such communities. Religious liberty is the core of a broader conception of associational liberty, which protects the rights of individuals to form illiberal groups. Although the moral equality of human beings is a governing norm in the public sphere, private associations — religious and secular — may organize themselves on nonegalitarian premises. Similarly, private associations need not accept public gender norms.
Liberal governments do have the right and obligation to enforce basic laws, especially against use of force, in the private sphere, however. Freedom of religion does not mean tolerating human sacrifice. It does mean allowing individuals to leave private associations, including religious groups, and to enter others as they choose. Liberal governments must defend this right of exit against violations by oppressive groups and charismatic leaders. Beyond this, liberalism restrains the use of public power in the nonpublic sphere. When well-intentioned liberals act ultra vires to impose public norms on private individuals and groups, they violate their principles and undermine their legitimacy.
The distinction between public and private is one reflection of the deep truth on which liberalism rests: Despite our shared humanity — the basis of moral equality — we differ from one another in talents, character, inclination and opinion. Political institutions face a choice between attempting to suppress these differences and allowing them to manifest themselves. Although living with deep differences is always challenging and often dispiriting, liberals believe that deploying state power against them is worse than the putative ills of diversity.
Liberalism begins with the effort to craft articles of peaceful coexistence, a modus vivendi, among individuals and groups with diverse and often clashing views. It need not end there, however. Liberals believe that a healthy society not only removes obstacles to the exercise of diverse talents, but also facilitates their development. This is why liberals typically believe that government has a duty to offer equal educational opportunities to all children, regardless of their families’ economic status. Whether the government should provide as well as fund education is a dispute within liberalism. This conception of a society that facilitates the development and free exercise of diverse talents and gifts has a quiet nobility different from, but not inferior to, communities of battle and of faith.
Although the liberal conception of equality is expansive, it is not unlimited. Liberals believe in the moral equality of all human beings and in their equal possession of basic rights. They believe in the civic equality of all citizens — and that every citizen is entitled to security and opportunity. That we are equal in these important respects is not to say that we are equal in all respects. Individuals with outstanding talents in business, sports, medicine, academia — in every sphere of human endeavor — will tend to do better than others in institutions that value superior performance.
Fostering equal opportunity is a legitimate use of state power as liberals understand it, but imposing equality of results is not. Alexis de Tocqueville, the astute 19th century French observer of America, was not wrong to fear that the passion for equality might impel citizens to compromise their liberty. The same is true for efforts to impose homogeneity of opinion and repress dissent that some regard as obnoxious.
I offer this modest account of the liberal creed as a contribution to political realism — and also to political responsibility. Today, the critics of liberalism, whose ranks are increasing, compare it to idealized conceptions of spiritual harmony and communal solidarity. To this end, some argue that Western polities should abandon their commitment to religious liberty and improve the moral tone of “corrupted” liberal societies by returning to the establishment of religion.
Images of perfection can help guide our choices, but they are not an option that we can choose. Political responsibility requires us to compare like with like and to make our choices from the options that are available to us. Today, there are four realistic alternatives to liberalism — illiberal majoritarianism, autocracy, panoptic totalitarianism and theocracy. Liberalism is imperfect and incomplete — which form of human governance is not? — but its superiority to these challengers is not hard to establish.
Above all, political responsibility requires us to offer realistic alternatives to the arrangements we reject. Toward the end of “What Is Political Philosophy?,” Leo Strauss, the German-Jewish political philosopher who came to the United States in 1937, offers a telling critique of Nietzsche:
He used much of his unsurpassable and inexhaustible power of passionate and fascinating speech for making his readers loathe, not only socialism and communism, but conservatism, nationalism and democracy as well. After having taken upon himself this great political responsibility, he could not show his readers a way toward political responsibility. He left them no choice except that between irresponsible indifference to politics and irresponsible political options.
Today’s critics of liberalism run the risk of repeating Nietzsche’s error, with equally disastrous results.
Has liberalism failed?
Compared to what?
Does it have a future? It had better, because every realistic alternative is worse, and perfection is a dream.
This essay has been adapted from remarks that the author made at a recent conference, Liberalism and Its Discontents, organized by Michigan State University’s LeFrak Forum on Science, Reason, and Modern Democracy.