Where have all the liberals gone?
Liberalism has thus been spectacularly hypocritical – although Fukuyama, for his part, is unimpressed with the accusation, arguing that this leftist criticism “fails to show how the doctrine is fundamentally wrong”. Historian Caroline Elkins might disagree. In “Legacy of Violence,” her recent book on the British Empire, she argues that “ideological elasticity” was actually what made liberal imperialism so resilient. It shows how Britain’s vast legislative apparatus was used to legitimize the violence of its “civilizing mission”. What Fukuyama repeatedly calls the “essence” of liberalism has also, according to Elkins, represented a paradox: emancipation and oppression rolled into one.
But such tensions are of less interest to conservative critics of liberalism, who think it is rotten to the core. As Matthew Rose puts it in “A World After Liberalism,” the radical right has long deemed it “bad in principle because it destroys the foundations of social order.” The 20th century extremist thinkers he discusses in his book – including a “fascist scholar” and a “right-wing Marxist” — also mocked Christianity for an egalitarianism and compassion they simply couldn’t stand. Yet their criticisms have found echoes in the contemporary arguments of right-wing Christians like Sohrab Ahmari and Patrick Deneen, who blame liberalism for making comfort-seeking and spiritually lazy people.
Liberal decadence is not just a temptation, but a tyranny – or so you might believe reading liberalism’s most outspoken critics on the right, whose sweeping denunciations can make a liberal regime seem forces women to pursue careers and forces them to obtain abortions. It is remarkable how little proponents of liberalism have to say about sexual and reproductive rights, while conservative critics have long clung to them. Gopnik warned that if the anti-abortion movement really meant business, it should create some sort of pervasive “pregnancy police force.” He hadn’t anticipated that Texas would soon find a way to do something even more extreme by putting that power in civilian hands – a vigilante, cheap abortion ban.
There’s an old essay by feminist cultural critic Ellen Willis in which she said that “sophisticated liberals” seemed so “emotionally intimidated” by the anti-abortion movement that they weren’t quite sure how to talk about it: “Almost everything everyone I know supports legal abortion in principle, but hardly anyone takes the issue seriously. Willis wrote it in 1980, calling the anti-abortion movement “the most dangerous political force in the land”, a threat not only to sexual freedom and privacy, but also to physical autonomy and “civil liberties in general”.
Willis pointed out the weaknesses of liberalism while identifying the place it had opened up for liberation. She had gotten her start as a rock critic, a woman in a male-dominated field, always aware of the possibilities and limitations offered by the dominant culture. The late philosopher Charles Mills was also sensitive to these discrepancies. In books like “The Racial Contract” and “Black Rights/White Wrongs,” he offered scathing critiques of a “racialized liberalism” that repeatedly tried to pretend it was colorblind; Mills argued that the exclusions of liberalism were historically so vast that they were not mere anomalies but clearly fundamental.
Still, as he told The Nation at the start of 2021, “liberalism is attractive for both principled and strategic reasons”. Mills envisioned a tougher and more radical liberalism, but imbued with a certain necessary humility – a sense of its contingency. It was precisely the experience of subordination and exclusion that made him aware of what many liberals did not want to see. He finished an essay for Artforum in 2018 with a warning: “As the anti-Enlightenment descends upon us, threatening a new dark age, just remember: we told you so (and a long time ago too).”