Liberalism and Conservatism

Bloom Briefing 55: Response to American Purpose's Symposium on the Future of Liberalism, Part 1

Over the last half-decade, the viewpoint diversity of the constituency of people that votes for Democrats has gotten much broader.  Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2016 brought the previously-ignored ideas of a number of leftist activist groups into public discourse among Democrats.  And the rise of Trump both pushed some liberal democracy-believing conservatives out of the Republican Party and (by being cartoon-villain-level awful) enabled more Democrats to push for more progressive policies without fear of backlash.  The nationalization of polarized politics as well as an increasing number of uncompetitive congressional districts further expanded the gulf between the Democrats beholden to moderates for electoral victories and those whose districts will never vote Republican.  For all these reasons and more, the ideas inhabiting space on the “counter-right” have become broader and more diverse. 

What unites all of us on the “counter-right” is a belief in liberal democracy.  Liberal here simply means a belief in individual autonomy—that I ought to be able to make personal choices about my life free from coercion.  And democracy means the idea that the people decide who governs and the processes for choosing governments and governing are fair and reciprocal.  In the wake of the insurrection and the right’s basic denial that it was problematic, the threat posed to liberal democracy has rarely been higher in recent American history. 

In response to this trying moment, American Purpose published a symposium on liberalism’s future. The symposium consists of 10 responses from across the ideological spectrum to Francis Fukuyama’s essay from October, 2020: Liberalism and its Discontents.

Fukuyama’s essay observes a number of important features of the historical emergence of liberalism, and it tries to explicate and take seriously both the conservative and leftist critiques of liberalism.  Today’s piece will discuss the conservative critique of liberalism.  Next week, I’ll discuss the leftist critique of liberalism. 

Conservative Critique of Liberalism

As Fukuyama notes, liberalism emerged as a response to bloody conflict in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

This was a period in which the adherents of forbidden sects were persecuted—heretics were regularly tortured, hanged, or burned at the stake—and their clergy hunted. The founders of modern liberalism like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke sought to lower the aspirations of politics, not to promote a good life as defined by religion, but rather to preserve life itself, since diverse populations could not agree on what the good life was.

Liberalism suggests that in the face of unresolvable conflict about what to believe, the political solution is to allow diversity of beliefs.  This is why pluralism—the notion that there are incommensurable goods—and liberalism go so well together.  If we cannot even measure and evaluate different forms of the good against one another, then consensus is impossible, so individuals must be left to decide for themselves what goods to pursue.  Pluralism naturally leads to liberalism and its concomitant autonomy. 

The best conservative critique of liberalism is based on liberalism’s founding premise.  Conservatives argue that liberalism’s abstention from discussion over what is good (other than liberalism itself) leaves people feeling a sense of thinness to life.  In societies where religion is pervasive, we can seamlessly divide out systems of governance and ethics: liberalism can govern society and religion can teach us how to thrive.  But what about in a secular society? 

In a deeper sense, because religion is inherently illiberal—it posits a single form of the good—liberalism (at least Fukuyama’s construction of it) and religion have always been in conflict.  Is it possible to sustain religious conviction in a governmental structure that proactively denies the existence of a single form of the good?  Wouldn’t liberalism, in that sense, inherently lead to secularism?  If liberalism formed in highly religious societies, how must it adapt and change to accommodate secular ones?  If religion cannot be relied upon to help people figure out ethical questions—how to lead good lives—and liberal society produces the conditions for religion’s downfall, conservatives have a strong critique of liberalism indeed. 

What the Conservative Critique of Liberalism Gets Right

I would make one concession to the conservative critique of liberalism.  Early liberals wrote from a position of marginalization (to use an anachronistic term).  They were advocating something new and different.  At the time that the seeds of liberalism sprouted in Europe, the continent’s citizens had been ruled by religious polities for over a millennium.  But today, liberalism is the dominant ideology.  Virtually everyone in the “counter-right” and even a good number of people on the right are political liberals (i.e., they believe in individual autonomy within a very broad area).  This probably means that liberals need to make more concessions to the illiberalities of religious groups (within their remits and still with adequate protections for minority rights) today than in earlier periods. 

What does “more concessions to the illiberalities of religious groups” mean?  Well, first, it means very much not the French laïcité that forbids all sorts of Muslim religious iconography in public places like schools and government buildings.  The latest French assault on Islam is banning any minors from wearing hijabs.  This is unnecessarily antagonistic toward religion. 

Here in the US, it probably means things like not requiring religious conservatives to make cakes for gay weddings.  There are lots of places to buy a wedding cake.  Compelling someone to violate their deeply held conviction that marriage between a man and a woman is a form of the good is not characteristic of a liberal society where most people believe that gay marriage is a perfectly normal thing to be celebrated. 

Requiring employers providing health insurance plans for employees to cover contraceptive care is a trickier scenario.  This could simply be solved by government health insurance (which should cover such care), but in the absence of Medicare for All, a cutoff based on employer size probably makes sense (large employers have to provide contraceptive care; small employers don’t).  A policy like this would ensure that the vast majority of people get access to such care, while a small number who work for specifically religious organizations do not.  Hobby Lobby should be required to provide such coverage.  Your local 10-person religious non-profit should not.  We could even design a governmental backstop to ensure that employees at exempt institutions could still access such care if they so desired. 

Even these sorts of concessions to the illiberalities of religion, however, are unlikely to stem the tide of secularism (see chart below for our current historic low of church/synagogue/mosque attendance) unless religion modernizes and adapts.  As a lifelong non-religious person, I’m probably not particularly well-positioned to suggest what religion should do to gain more adherents, but a clear starting point would seem to be jettisoning some of its more illiberal ideas (like, say, that only marriage between a man and a woman is a form of the good).  Doing more to help people navigate the critical ethical questions of our time and orientating away from a set of rules which, if followed, lead to salvation would seem like another.

Why Liberals and Leftists Ought to Take Conservatives’ Critique Seriously

The thing the conservative critique of liberalism has to offer liberalism today is a warning.  Liberalism gone too far can become illiberal if it denies religious folks their freedom to pursue their vision of the good life.  With liberalism ubiquitous, and religious faith waning, it’s time to reassess the relationship between the two given the changed balance of power.  As Joseph E. Capizzi notes about this dynamic in one of the responses to Fukuyama:

No wonder so many religious folks worry, like Popes Benedict and Francis, about the totalitarian impulses of liberal secularism. They don’t believe liberal society intends them no harm. (Remember: according to Fukuyama, religious communities are by definition illiberal. They are “other,” and to be treated as such.)

Secular people ought to be concerned about the possibility that secular liberalism might be making religious faith harder.  The Left has subjectified truth (e.g., “speak your truth”), torn down traditional conceptions of beauty (they objectify women), and (because it is liberal) is agnostic about the good.  Nor has it produced some alternative infrastructure to help people evaluate and pursue different goods.  For all these reasons, it is essential that organized religion persist. 

Given that liberals now hold the power, we must be receptive to the notion that something we are doing with this power is bringing about the decline of religion.  Religion’s decline may simply be organic, but if empowered liberalism is bringing about religion’s decline as some religious conservatives attest, we ought to take a moment to consider whether that might, in fact, be the case.  Humility—even about the tenets we hold most dear—is a key requirement of democratic citizenship. 

Of course, there are myriad illiberalities that conservative leaders desire to realize politically which no good liberal should ever accept: a religious litmus test for refugees; various means of transphobia, including preventing trans people from accessing medical treatments, participating in sports, or using certain public restrooms; banning abortion; etc. 

But it’s important here not to conflate warranted resistance to enshrining these illiberal goals as policy with unwarranted prevention of religious institutions and their members from believing and acting upon these values.  The fact that many religious conservatives have become political fascists doesn’t give liberals the right to meddle with conservatives’ religion (though, of course, we can wholly reject their politics).

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Additional Reading:

If you read one thing this week make it Allison P. Davis’s article in The Cut about the “Permit Karen” of Montclair, NJ.  It is a fascinating deep dive into one local racist incident and how it impacted the various people involved.  In the context of last week’s piece on accountability culture, it’s a fascinating example of some overzealous folks suggesting incommensurately punitive things, none of which come to pass.

In the New Yorker, Andrew Solomon writes about the future of multi-person marriages (both polygamy and polyamory).  It’s an excellent companion piece to today’s discussion of liberalism and conservatism. 

For Vox, Fabiola Cineas writes about the compounding trauma that ensues from repeated images of violence done to Black people.