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.”