Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Western-style liberalism “dead” and “no longer tenable.” Donald Trump seemed eager to agree, though maybe because he thought that the reference was to left-wingers on the West Coast. What are ordinary Americans to think, after years of being urged to use the word “Liberal” as an all-purpose invective, like “coward” or ”traitor?” Can we finally do away with those pests who are always taxing us and nagging about the rights of others?
What is liberalism anyway? It was that emphasis on the individual that led to our nation’s founding, for one thing. The emerging world view was no longer exclusively top-down. Just as ordinary human beings could now investigate the workings of the Universe, the Divine Right of Kings gave way to “the consent of the governed.” The principles that Americans proudly boast about defending today are the liberal values — freedom of speech and religion, equality under the law, We’ve had them for so long that conservatives regard themselves as the inventors, but it’s not so: Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” is a seminal liberal document, envisioning an economy controlled not by an aristocracy but by the actions of individuals.
This initial up-ending of the old order, two and a half centuries ago, did not meet with complete consensus. Many expected that a “natural” social hierarchy would persist. The gradual inclusion of women and minorities has been a shock to some. The work of liberalism in the 20th Century — extending promised rights to those who had been left out at the beginning, preventing exploitation — was unpopular with many who hoped to hold on to old privileges.
The features of liberalism that Putin holds up as problematic — a weakening of the old social order, the cost of providing fairness, the difficulty of controlling the actions of those who may seem to be a threat — have become popular targets here in the United States as well. They’re being used in many parts of the world to argue for authoritarianism. But it’s a mistake to think that you can get rid of the thorns and keep the roses. No aspect of real democracy is useful to the autocrat. Freedom of the press is often the first to go. We are becoming friendly with regimes that are not shy about murdering journalists. An industry has grown up devoted to making sure that facts are less powerful than fiction. There are concerted efforts to keep segments of the population from being represented. Governmental power is being used to advance a particular party. The judiciary is not immune.
Some may imagine that the end of liberal democracy means the end of big government, but the result won’t be a Libertarian paradise, just a ruler with fewer, richer people to answer to. Others may expect that the new repression will be a particular kind that they themselves favor; but they forget that their own ideologies may not always be in fashion.
Even as we pay tribute to the heroes of D-Day, seventy-five years ago, world leaders are again toying with the language and symbolism of Fascism. That’s what a modern world, free of liberal ideals, is going to look like.
Scott C. McKee July 4, 2019