From all outward signs, liberal democracy is in retreat around the world. Populist and nationalist movements, often explicitly xenophobic, are on the rise in Europe. Americans have elected a president who openly admires authoritarians Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Opinion columns bear such dour headlines as “How Democracies Perish.” A crop of recent books, including Yascha Mounk’s “The People vs. Democracy,” Jonah Goldberg’s “Suicide of the West,” and Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed,” explore similarly grim themes.
Yet the issue isn’t that liberal democracy has failed. It’s that liberalism — not necessarily the left-of-center American kind, but the broader set of values that includes freedom, equality, democracy, individual rights, secularism, market economics, and internationalism — has been a rousing success.
After rebuilding Europe after 1945 and triumphing at the end of the Cold War, the liberal order has an amazing track record of promoting human well-being. But like every other system, it has its own internal contradictions. Democratic majority rule often conflicts with individualism; liberty, with equality; religious freedom, with personal liberation; and internationalist openness, with civic nationalism. Liberalism’s very successes often heighten these tensions, which have always been simmering in the background.
Now, several such conflicts are coming to a boil at once.
Take immigration. The safety and affluence of liberal democratic societies makes them magnets for people from less fortunate parts of the world fleeing the poverty and violence that were inescapable for most of human history. Both humanitarianism and freedom of movement are essential liberal values; the recognition of the equal human worth of all persons regardless of race or ethnicity is one of modern liberalism’s proudest achievements. Liberal democracy in the United States in particular is built on the idea of America as a nation built by migrants, a home for seekers of freedom and opportunity from all over the world.
And yet one need not be a racist fearmonger to think that under some circumstances, immigration — especially, as in Germany in 2015, a massive influx of migrants who may not easily adapt to the host country’s social and cultural norms — can have disruptive effects and cause dangerous social tensions that are not due simply to nativist prejudices. Especially in Europe, debates on migration often pit citizens who believe they should to have a say in policies that affect their lives against elites who believe human rights take precedence over popular will. This leads to what Mounk calls “undemocratic liberalism,” and to a predictable backlash that has empowered populists — champions of what Hungarian President Victor Orban calls “illiberal democracy” — across the continent.
In the United States, the fault lines often involve the role of religion and the pace of social change. Some of President Trump’s strongest support comes from evangelicals who believe their rights are under assault in modern American culture.
One can scoff at some of their complaints as a right-wing version of victimhood politics. Being told “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas” is not exactly religious persecution. At the same time, reproductive freedom for women, marriage rights for gays and lesbians, and civil rights for transgender people — all areas in which liberalism has made admirable gains — can raise genuinely difficult issues of religious freedom for those who follow traditional beliefs about sexuality and gender.
It’s one thing to insist that government issue marriage licenses to heterosexual and gay couples alike. But should Christian bakers and florists have to provide services for same-sex weddings? Should religious business owners subsidize birth control coverage, including forms of birth control that they believe destroys life post-conception? Should Christian campus groups that reject same-sex marriage and regard extramarital sex as sinful be able to exclude openly gay and sexually active men and women from leadership positions?
Conservatives such as Commentary senior writer Sohrab Ahmari argue that modern American progressivism is making it difficult for traditional Christians to embrace “compatibilism” — that is, the view that orthodox Christianity is compatible with the liberal order — because it is increasingly intolerant of even private spaces in which traditionalists can live out the principles of their faith. Others, such as Deneen in “Why Liberalism Failed,” explicitly argue for abandoning the rights-based liberalism that was the foundational philosophy of the United States, since they believe it inevitably leads to radical individualism and social anarchy.
Meanwhile, on the left, liberalism’s internal conflicts have escalated into the identity wars and what Ahmari calls “illiberal liberalism.” One of the great achievements of 20th-century Western liberalism was to extend the promise of civil and social equality to previously excluded groups: women, racial minorities, and eventually gay people. In recent years, partly because of discontent with lagging cultural change, the push for equality has turned into what critics say is its opposite: a social justice movement that defines people solely by their identity and promotes a reverse hierarchy in which status depends on “oppression points.”
With its focus on changing attitudes and eradicating subtle prejudices, this movement has also clashed with one of liberalism’s most fundamental values: freedom of speech. Today’s progressives increasingly argue that First Amendment protections for expression deemed demeaning to marginalized people perpetuate oppression and harm the vulnerable. Long-cherished liberal values such as artistic freedom are being jettisoned for concerns about misogyny or cultural imperialism.
The backlash against “political correctness” and anxieties about infringements on religious freedom both contributed to Trump’s election. And there certainly are other factors that have led to the current crisis — from catastrophic foreign policy failures to the social media revolution.
Together, all these factors contribute to a creeping cynicism about a liberal system that, despite its unresolved tensions, has served Western nations well. From Hungary to the Rust Belt, conservatives are increasingly embracing a vision of society based on birthright rather than shared values. Meanwhile, many progressives in the “social justice” camp argue that traditional liberalism is hopelessly tainted by racism and other oppressions. These aren’t signs that liberal democracy is a failure, only that too many people are discarding norms that are still essential to a good society.
This is not the first time some have sounded liberal democracy’s death knell. “Democracy may, after all, have turned out to be a historical accident, a brief parenthesis that is closing before our eyes,” warned French public intellectual Jean-Francois Revel in the book “How Democracies Perish,” published in 1983. At the time, the threat was what he saw as democracy’s inability to resist Communist expansion effectively. Eight years later, the Soviet Union was dead.
Perhaps, in another quarter century, the current panic over liberalism in peril will look overblown. But to weather the crisis, we need to confront liberalism’s self-defeating tendencies, curb its hubris, and rediscover the virtues of humility and genuine pluralism.
Cathy Young is a columnist at Newsday and a contributing editor at Reason. Follow her on Twitter @CathyYoung63.