How Not to Defend Liberalism

Embracing technocracy will only fuel the populist surge.
Protesters in New York City decry the influence of the richest 1 percent on politics, March 2012 (AP Photo/John Minchillo).

Liberal democracy, we are told, is under attack. On op-ed pages and cable news panels, at university conferences and economic summits, and in politicians’ interviews and speeches, defenses of liberal democracy have proliferated in the face of threats from populist and authoritarian leaders around the world. Most of these defenses, whether they come from the center-right or the center-left, share a great deal in both their diagnosis of the crisis and their prescriptions for how to recover a liberal democratic polity that seems to be slipping away.

It is hard to deny their main premise. A movement has indeed arisen on the Right that disregards democratic norms and liberal assumptions with alarming nonchalance. It’s shown a willingness to undermine the integrity of our elections, barred discussion of certain ideas in classrooms, and even fomented a half-witted assault on the Congress itself. Meanwhile, on the other side of the political spectrum, an intolerance for dissent from progressive orthodoxy, as well as skepticism of the cultural value of free speech, have led to coercive conformity and “cancellation.”

However, the defenses of liberalism tend to dwell on, sometimes for good reason, the risks posed to liberal democracy by ordinary people and popular movements—i.e. “wokeness” and populism—while neglecting those posed by the people closer to the levers of power. These defenses also tend, implicitly or explicitly, to equate liberalism with technocracy, or rule by expertise. In the end, they suggest that we must settle for an undemocratic, technocratic form of liberalism that leaves power in the hands of the few in order to forestall the most illiberal outcomes. This line of argument threatens to exacerbate the crisis of liberalism, widen the fissures in our society, and provoke the very outcomes it seeks to prevent.


Although centrists tend to portray liberalism as besieged by both the woke Left and the populist Right, they usually acknowledge the obvious fact that the threats from the Right are much more serious and immediate, targeting political institutions and processes. The repudiation of liberal values on the Left remains for the most part limited to cultural institutions, journalism, education, and human-resources departments.

The explosion of identity politics on the woke Left is, according to George Packer’s Last Best Hope, a “rebellion from below,” driven by the youth. “Young people coming of age in the disillusioned 2000s,” Packer writes, picked up ideas from “critical theory,” which “upends the universal values of the Enlightenment.” In Liberalism and Its Discontents, Francis Fukuyama writes that the woke regard racism not as a personal or policy problem but as “a condition that is said to pervade all American institutions and consciousness.” Systemic injustice thus provides a rationale for the suspension of liberal values in reeducation programs that take cultural sensitivity to an illiberal extreme, in policy proposals that would try to distribute goods like vaccines on the basis of race, and in a culture of sanctimony, censorship, and cancellation.

Whereas the woke Left regards the establishment as a continuation of rule by straight white men, the populist Right conceives of it as a left-liberal, globalist elite that has seized power and decimated traditional white working- and middle-class communities. According to the right-wing narrative, this elite imposes its woke cultural values on everyone, unfairly distributes handouts to undeserving minority groups, and opens borders to new immigrants. In The People vs. Democracy, Yascha Mounk pins the worldwide rise of populism on “rising immigration, coupled with a deep, sustained stagnation of living standards,” along with a loss of establishment control of the means of communication. This combination provides the rationale for a suspension of liberal values that will hand the country back to its rightful heirs, who can forcibly reestablish nationalist, Christian values and bring industry back to the American interior. This kind of right-wing populism leads eventually to its own bizarre postmodern consequences: nationalist and “trad” LARPing, wild conspiracy theories, and the carnivalesque assault on the Capitol.

Centrist defenders of liberalism, such as Packer, Fukuyama, and Mounk, tend to see a common root in these two illiberal movements, despite their obvious differences. Packer writes:

In some ways Just America [Packer’s term for the woke Left] resembles Real America [his term for the populist Right] and has entered the same dubious conflict from the other side. The disillusionment with liberal capitalism that gave rise to identity politics has also produced a new authoritarianism among many young white men. Just and Real America share a skepticism, from opposing points of view, about the universal ideas of the founding documents and the promise of America as a multi-everything democracy.

In short, Packer sees both these movements against liberalism as misguided reactions to social and economic dislocation: a “new tribalism” that comes from the bottom up. Coupled with this tribalism is an assault on reason itself that started with “critical theory” and postmodernism, which, according to Fukuyama, undermined the objective, scientific standpoint intimately tied to liberalism. “Of late,” Fukuyama writes, “many of the arguments pioneered by the progressive left have drifted over to the populist right. When combined with modern communications technology, this critique lands us in a cognitive wasteland.”

They suggest that we must settle for an undemocratic, technocratic form of liberalism that leaves power in the hands of the few in order to forestall the most illiberal outcomes.

There is good reason to doubt aspects of this centrist narrative. To begin with, it doesn’t go back far enough. The history of American politics from the 1960s shows that it is not “disillusionment” but satisfaction with liberal capitalism that has underwritten the rise of the cultural politics that undergird both the woke Left and populist Right. Both standpoints arise from the culture war that has increasingly gripped American politics since the 1980s and taken over from the more materialist political conflict that dominated the immediate postwar period. Indeed, the turn toward cultural politics depended on a period of relatively widespread prosperity in the West. As Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris have argued, this broad prosperity allowed baby boomers to focus their political energies on issues that were less obviously material, such as civil rights, gender equality, and gay marriage. But according to Inglehart and Norris, this kind of cultural politics eventually helped undermine the prosperity on which it was based. As traditional left-right disputes over economic issues were left behind, a technocratic, neoliberal consensus on economic policy set in. This consensus allowed the proceeds of growth to go to an increasingly small and wealthy minority while marginalizing the left-wing economic dissent that had made the relative equality of the postwar boom possible.

Instead of class conflict, politics became a battle between two cultural factions, neither of which represented the working class. On the left side of these politics are many professionals whose concerns for equality have narrowed to involuted and essentialized conceptions of race and gender detached from the real material needs of the marginalized groups they claim to support. Meanwhile, the reactionary Right is populated by many relatively high-earning but uneducated small-business owners and tradespeople who obsess over the excesses of the Left, indulge in fear-mongering about crime and immigration, and toy with—or outright embrace—racist tropes. While this right-wing identity politics likes to invoke the downtrodden white working class and sometimes borrows from the rhetoric of mid-century labor politics, it effectively serves the interests of another set of the elite through a standard business-oriented Republican playbook. Our fervid cultural politics do not emerge, bottom-up, from a public that channels its economic anxiety in misguided, illiberal directions; it originates with those at the top of the economic system, whose privileges it obscures.

These cultural politics may appear to “politicize” absolutely everything—from sports and music to gas stoves and canned beans—but in actuality the public sphere has been effectively depoliticized, to use Jürgen Habermas’s term. In his 1962 book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas already recognized that the liberal space in which ideas about how to organize society were once debated—however exclusionary that space may have been—had given way to a largely simulated public sphere captured by advertising and other forms of manipulation. He writes:

When the laws of the market governing the sphere of commodity exchange and of social labor also pervaded the sphere reserved for private people as a public, rational-critical debate had a tendency to be replaced by consumption, and the web of public communication unraveled into acts of individuated reception, however uniform in mode.

The commercialization of media, in other words, effectively turns the public sphere into the plaything of the interests that control it. Entertainment and information are mixed together to the point that “instead of doing justice to reality,” the media tends “to present a substitute more palatable for consumption.” Radio and television tend to replace critical public debate with manipulable preferences and tastes. Finally, the public and private spheres become inextricably tangled together. On the one hand, public matters “are garbed in private dress and through personalization distorted to the point of unrecognizability.” And, on the other, private life is “pried open” to the point that not just individual lives but “the problems of life” themselves become media fodder and “political” matters.

The embrace of neoliberalism in the decades since Habermas’s book was published has only further advanced commercial control over the public sphere, including on the internet. Depoliticized culture-war content monopolizes attention, drives subscriptions, and pleases advertisers, while catalyzing anger and further confusing private and public—culture and politics—through partisan sensationalism. The political conflict that plays out in the media is not the negotiation of conflicting material interests and ideas about the common good, but a dramatized escalation of personal grievance and cultural antagonism.

It is this manipulation, far more than the adoption of little-read postmodern texts, that has placed us in a “post-truth” moment. And it is this manipulation, far more than any spontaneous discontent emerging from the youth or the hoi polloi, that has produced our illiberal, “depoliticized” politics. The tribalism that so concerns centrist liberals is not just a misguided expression of discontent, but the predictable and increasingly uncontrollable escalation of the pseudo-politics that our elites have favored for decades. As Nancy Isenberg memorably put it in her book White Trash, “When you turn an election into a three-ring circus, there’s always a chance that the dancing bear will win.”

In the face of ubiquitous culture war, we should actually be heartened by the relatively material—and, in their way, liberal—concerns of the general public. Take the line of critique that united the surprisingly popular Trump and Sanders campaigns in 2016. Both candidates emphasized a rigged economic and political system where decisions were made by an entrenched elite. Both candidates claimed, albeit with wildly different degrees of sophistication and credibility, that the costs of elite failure were borne by the middle and working classes, and that the priorities of global corporations had been allowed to take precedence over the interests and desires of the American people. But cultural politics either completely overwhelmed these critiques from the start (in the case of Trump) or were deployed against them (in the case of Sanders).

Instead of class conflict, politics became a battle between two cultural factions, neither of which represented the working class.


To their credit, many centrist liberal authors acknowledge the fact that inequality is a principal cause of our political crisis. However, their construal of the problem suggests solutions that would neither distribute economic power more evenly nor promote democracy. This starts with how they conceive of the relationship between democracy and liberalism.

Both Mounk and Fukuyama treat liberalism and democracy as completely separable categories: they may be historically intertwined but they are, according to this view, logically unrelated. As Mounk and Fukuyama rightly point out, there can be illiberal democracies—like those of the ancient world—and undemocratic liberalism—Hong Kong under British rule, for example. For Mounk, this is evidence against the claim that liberal rights and democratic sovereignty are naturally complementary; they were not always associated in the past and need not be in the future.

Mounk admits that the technocratic rule of developed nations today amounts to its own form of “undemocratic liberalism,” but he seems to find this trend inevitable—and preferable to the alternatives. Fukuyama, meanwhile, contends that “the present-day crisis of liberal democracy revolves in the first instances less around democracy strictly understood than around liberal institutions.” The implication is that we can combat the crisis in liberalism without combatting the crisis in democracy. The important thing is preserving individual rights; genuine democracy is a luxury at best and a threat to liberalism at worst.

But as Marc Plattner puts it in an article for Foreign Affairs, “overstating the disjunction between liberalism and democracy can easily lead to new misunderstanding.” The illiberality of ancient democracies—which heavily restricted voting rights—also made them, by today’s standards at least, undemocratic. Similarly, illiberal restrictions on freedom of speech in nations like Russia and Turkey put the democratic nature of their elections in serious doubt. Meanwhile, undemocratic liberalism tends—because of its restrictions on voting rights—to restrict other freedoms as well. Without access to the ballot in the United States, for example, women and Black people were also denied other basic rights. Democratization made the country more liberal, and liberalization made it more democratic.

The intertwining of liberalism and democracy is not just historical contingency, but the result of the fact that, as Plattner writes, “the political doctrine at the source of liberalism also contains a deeply egalitarian and majoritarian dimension.” Classical forms of liberalism have emphasized that, in addition to a balance of powers within government, liberal democracies require a “wide dispersion of power in both the private economy and civil society,” as Paul Starr explains in his book Freedom’s Power.

Early- and mid-twentieth-century American liberalism made advances by recognizing that, under industrial capitalism, supporting individual liberty and economic freedom required democratizing workplaces through support for unions, preventing undue concentrations of market power through antitrust lawsuits, regulating financial institutions to prevent unfair and destabilizing speculation, and maintaining a robust welfare state to provide aid to those left behind by the market. This liberalism recognized that liberty needed to be protected not just from governments or the masses, but also from an economic order that, for example, colludes to raise prices on consumers, extracts burdensome rents from small producers by monopolizing distribution, and undermines worker power by intimidation and, sometimes, coercion. As Edmund E. Jacobitti puts it, “[T]oday wealth is as powerful a threat to liberty as the masses ever were.”

Separating liberalism from democracy allows centrist liberals to sideline the egalitarian implications of liberalism and associate it with anti-democratic technocracy. While expressing some regret that deference to expert decision-making may be undemocratic, Mounk doesn’t even seem to consider the possibility that it might also be illiberal. Given the “considerable technical expertise” required to understand an “increasingly complex” world, he writes, “it seems we must choose between achieving international cooperation on key issues by a troublingly undemocratic path—and not achieving it at all.”

Fukuyama, for his part, presents a narrow account of the origins of liberalism that focuses exclusively on its protection of individual and cultural freedom. Liberalism arose, Fukuyama writes, in the religious wars following the Protestant Reformation, where various “Christian sects” sought “to impose their religious dogma on their populations.”

Classical liberalism can therefore be understood as an institutional solution to the problem of governing over diversity, or, to put it in slightly different terms, of peacefully managing diversity in pluralistic societies [my italics]. The most fundamental principle enshrined in liberalism is one of tolerance: you do not have to agree with your fellow citizens about the most important things, but only that each individual should get to decide what they are without interference from you or from the state.

Liberalism, in other words, is little more than an antidote to culture war. Its guarantees of individual rights, a private sphere of autonomy, and limited state power are emphasized at the cost of its prescriptions for how private and political power should be distributed and exercised in society. Liberal governance, meanwhile, is conceived of as a form of apolitical management that balances diverse interests according to its own calculations rather than allowing them a measure of genuine political power.

A conception of governance as a technical matter for experts, as Habermas writes in his 1970 book Toward a Rational Society, obfuscates its fundamentally value-laden nature and takes deliberation about the best way to organize society out of the hands of the citizenry. Technocracy is the natural partner of mass media’s reduction of information to entertainment, which places the real work of governance behind an emotionally charged screen. For Habermas, this system amounts to a form of domination, since the arena for rational deliberation by an informed populace is both degraded in itself and detached from the actual levers of power.

A narrow focus on individual liberty allows centrist authors to ignore these substantive threats to liberalism. The only important danger, they believe, is that one side of the culture war or the other will take control of the government and impose its beliefs on the public at large. Other dangers get short shrift. Even when these authors are critical of policies that have led to the upward redistribution of wealth and power, they tend to construe them as examples not of elite capture of the economic system, but rather of “too much” philosophical liberalism in economic policy—an error of management that requires a managerial fix, rather than the predictable result of too much concentration of political and economic power in the hands of too few people.

Fukuyama cites Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek as among the liberal thinkers who “sharply denigrated the role of the state in the economy and emphasized free markets as spurs to growth and efficient allocators of resources.” Beginning in the 1970s, neoliberal policymakers and economists freed corporations from what they regarded as counterproductive and inefficient regulation and held individuals more responsible for their well-being by cutting welfare spending.

But it is misleading to characterize neoliberalism as simply “anti-regulation” and “pro-market.” As Quinn Slobodian shows in his book Globalists, proponents of neoliberalism conceived of it from the first as a movement to develop and shape a new super-national regulatory structure for a global economy. It was not primarily an anti-government movement in favor of an unfettered market, but rather an effort to insulate the global economy from what neoliberals regarded as the irrational behavior of democratic nation-states. Hayek himself rejected the idea of a “minimal state” and made explicit that he was after a “dethronement of politics,” not of government as such. The goal, Slobodian writes, was a new form of empire with “an invisible government of the economy first, and a visible government of neutered nations second.” The government of the economy was designed not to protect individual rights, nor to constrain government per se, but to create institutions that would “override national legislation that might disrupt the global rights of capital.”

The global economic order created by neoliberals has not merely dethroned democratic politics; it has established a new kind of political power. As governments turned from containing to facilitating the excesses of big business, the lines between national governments and private banks and corporations have blurred. Our technocracy involves the alignment of private and public bureaucracies, facilitated by revolving doors between them. Consider the U.S. bank bailouts of 2008. The bailouts and favorable terms given to reckless banks—however necessary they may have been to rescue the larger economy—involved a state of exception where sovereignty itself was difficult to locate, as Adam Tooze points out in his book on financial crises, Crashed. “If this was an act of sovereignty, whose sovereignty was it? The American state’s, or that of the ‘new Wall Street’—the network personified by figures like [Henry] Paulson and [Timothy] Geithner who tied the Treasury and the Fed to America’s globalized financial sector?”

For centrist authors, part of liberalism’s role of “peacefully managing diversity” involves correcting the mistaken policies that have led to the populist surge. Here, they reflexively take on the perspective of the managers without seeming to realize that technocratic management is a significant part of the problem. Their proposed reforms leave untouched the existing private-public power structure, the tendency toward policymaking by compromised, if not outright corrupted, actors, and the insulation of economic power from democratic accountability.

Mounk, for example, proposes reforms like more progressive taxation, better job training, and expansions of the welfare state. Tellingly, he does not mention reforms to make collective bargaining easier or to enforce antitrust laws more vigorously. Nor does he have anything to say about the way neoliberals themselves dismantled liberal regulatory structures and liberal democratic institutions like trade unions. He rightly condemns the folly of extremists who would simply tear down existing liberal institutions. But not everyone who supports radical changes in pursuit of fairer economic conditions is bent on nihilistic destruction.

Liberalism, in other words, is little more than an antidote to culture war.

In lieu of such changes, centrist liberals tend to recommend cultural solutions like individual self-restraint and moderation (Fukuyama), or being “willing to criticize your own” and resist vilification of the other side (Mounk). Packer places more emphasis on the ills of corruption and concentrated economic power than Mounk and Fukuyama do. Still, because he focuses on cultural threats to liberal democracy, he also relies heavily on personal prescriptions: he asks Americans to ditch social media and spend more time with those “who don’t look or talk or think like them.” “Creating the conditions of equality requires new structures and policies,” he writes. “Acquiring the art of self-government needs something else—new ways of thinking and living.” Such platitudes gloss over the fact that our polarization and democratic incompetence are the consequence of material disempowerment. Fixing the former requires fixing the latter. Policy tweaks and cultural exhortations will not do.

Real solutions to our political crisis would reverse the concentration of power caused by neoliberal policies. Reducing inequality by technocratic means—an unlikely prospect in any case—wouldn’t be enough. Thanks in large part to pressure from the Left, the Biden administration has taken some initial steps: Biden appointees to the National Labor Relations Board have begun to enforce labor law against companies used to interfering with their employees’ right to collective bargaining; the administration’s Department of Justice has more aggressively tackled corporate concentration; and its Federal Trade Commission has proposed rules to stop unfair hiring practices and anti-competitive mergers and acquisitions.

But, as the administration’s foiling of a rail strike and its bailout of Silicon Valley Bank show, there is still a long way to go. Alternative forms of worker representation should be pursued, such as sectoral bargaining—where a federation of all the firms in a given economic sector is forced by the government to negotiate wages with representatives of that sector’s entire labor force. A comprehensive anti-corruption program, such as the one Elizabeth Warren has outlined, is needed to combat the influence of the financial industry. Absent such a program, it is difficult to see how the hyper-financialization of so much of our economy can be checked.

Finally, experiments with other, more local forms of economic and political power must be encouraged. Some contemporary authors, like Branko Milanović, have proposed programs remarkably akin to the distributism championed in the early twentieth century by Catholics writers such as G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. These would distribute capital ownership downward through cooperatives and other common ownership structures. Others, like Michael Lind, have called for a form of “democratic pluralism” that would delegate rulemaking power in particular areas to small institutions like wage boards, with mandated representation of various stakeholder groups. Without access to new forms of power like these, the resentment and cynicism that brought us Trump will continue to grow, as will interest in a “post-liberal” future.

Centrist liberal authors are rightly troubled by exponents of post-liberalism like Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule, who have argued that liberalism’s hands-off attitude toward morality deprives liberal democracies of the virtues needed to sustain a healthy political community. For Deneen, liberalism is behind a drift toward atomism that will ultimately doom the whole project to collapse, since the virtues on which liberalism depends—self-restraint, civic-mindedness, democratic competence—are systematically degraded by the logic of liberalism itself. Liberalism, on Deneen’s view, can’t help but produce technocracy and a nationalized, sensationalized politics. To the extent that the people do have a say, Deneen writes in Why Liberalism Failed, it is not surprising that an isolated, powerless electorate will opt for a strongman who claims to be capable of “reining in the power of a distant and ungovernable state and market.”

Despite their distaste for Deneen, the arguments of centrists like Mounk and Fukuyama unwittingly lend force to his critique. They propose to contain the populist threat by means of the same technocratic mechanisms that generated it. Deneen writes, “Today’s liberal critics of democracy...condemn the deformed and truncated demotic actions of a degraded citizenry that liberalism itself has created.” He is right that “their cure is the source of the ills they would redress,” but wrong to call this “liberalism.” Technocratic neoliberalism is not the rightful heir of the liberal tradition, but an anti-democratic distortion of it.

Published in the September 2023 issue: 

Alexander Stern is Commonweal’s features editor.

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