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Ross Douthat: Is there life after liberalism?

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Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times.

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By Ross Douthat
The New York Times

Friday, January 19, 2018

Fourteen months ago, in the first flush of power, Steve Bannon gave an interview to Michael Wolff – beginning a relationship that would prove his undoing – in which he boasted about his plan to realign our politics. His nationalist-populist movement, he argued, would transform the GOP into something truly new: a right-wing worker’s party that spent freely, “jacked up” infrastructure all over the country, and won “60 percent of the white vote” and “40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote” on its way to a 50-year majority.

“We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks,” Bannon said. “It will be as exciting as the 1930s.”

As exciting as the 1930s is not a line you hear every day, but rather than an “alt-right” dog whistle, what I heard in Bannon’s formulation was the idea that in the Trump era, as in the crisis years that gave us both FDR and Hitler, everything might be up for grabs: not just electoral coalitions, but the nature and destiny of the liberal order. Which would be a terrifying prospect but also an exciting one, since it would mean that the long “end of history” that followed the Cold War had irrevocably ended, and that it was time to imagine radical revisions to a stagnant-seeming liberal West.

Flash forward a year and a couple months, though, and Bannon’s vision seems pretty much dead: its rumpled leader sacked and ritually denounced, its bold populism subsumed into the same old, same old Republican agenda. Trump remains temperamentally authoritarian and personally vile, but the idea of Trumpism as an ideological revolution, whether akin to Roosevelt’s or Mussolini’s, has mostly evaporated.

So where does that leave the crisis of the liberal order that populism was supposed to bring upon us, both in America and Europe? One answer is that the crisis is still here, because the system of liberalism is failing, notwithstanding the ups and downs of its illiberal challengers.

That’s the bracing argument of Patrick Deneen, a Notre Dame political theorist, in a book with the boldly retrospective title, “Why Liberalism Failed.” Deneen is a student of Alexis de Tocqueville, and part of his argument is classically Tocquevillian — that the liberal-democratic-capitalist matrix we all inhabit depends for its livability and sustainability and decency upon pre-liberal forces and habits, unchosen obligations and allegiances: the communities of tribe and family, the moralism and metaphysical horizons of religion, the aristocracy of philosophy and art.

But Deneen comes as a Jeremiah to announce that Tocqueville’s fear that liberalism would eventually dissolve all these inheritances, leaving only a selfish individualism and soft bureaucratic despotism locked in a strange embrace, may now fully be upon us. Where it once delivered equality, liberalism now offers plutocracy; instead of liberty, appetitiveness regulated by a surveillance state; instead of true intellectual and religious freedom, growing conformity and mediocrity. It has reduced rich cultures to consumer products, smashed social and familial relations, and left us all the isolated and mutually suspicious inhabitants of an “anti-culture” from which many genuine human goods have fled.

Deneen’s portrait is sometimes a caricature, but like any good one it captures important things about our situation. Still, one obvious response was offered last week by my colleague David Brooks, who argued that liberalism does not have an inevitable arc: It also has the capacity to regenerate itself, to support the goods Deneen cherishes and solve the problems he identifies.

But my own response to “Why Liberalism Failed” was disappointment that its author did not go further. At the end, having delivered his indictment, Deneen declines to envision any alternate political order; instead, he rejects ideology and urges a rededication to localism and community, from which some alternative political and economic order might gradually develop.

Yet if the liberal order is increasingly oppressive and destined to get worse, why would one expect such communities and experiments to flourish, rather than simply being plowed under by the same forces he decries? Surely if there is political life after liberalism, someone will need to step forward and do what the liberal philosophers did several centuries ago – invent the new order, describe the new ideals, urge the specific transformations that future leaders might achieve.

And if this isn’t happening, if even liberalism’s sharpest internal critics shy away from imagining a truly different regime (not just a more Scandinavian one for the far left or a more Polish one for the far right) lest they seem ridiculous or nostalgic or utopian or totalitarian – well, then maybe the crisis of liberalism isn’t real, maybe people are just play-acting, as Steve Bannon turned out to be play-acting the 1930s, within a system too settled to really be moved except by inches.

Which would be good news for the West in a way ... but maybe only in a way, because sometimes you can’t renew an order, as ours clearly needs renewal, until the political imagination becomes capable of imagining and desiring something different.

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