Jewish World Review Feb. 28, 2005 /19 Adar I 5765
Liberalism: Can it survive?
Question for the day: If liberalism isn't dead, then why are autopsies performed so regularly? In the latest examination of the much-probed cadaver, the New Republic's editor-in-chief, Martin Peretz, recalls that John Kenneth Galbraith, in the early 1960s, pronounced American conservatism dead, citing as heavy evidence that conservatism was "bookless" or bereft of new ideas. Peretz writes, "It is liberalism that is now bookless and dying." Liberals, he says, are not inspired by any vision of the good society; the liberal agenda consists of wanting to spend more, while conservatives want to spend less. And the lack of new ideas and the absence of influential liberal thinkers, he says, are obvious.
Galbraith's comment contains some comfort for liberals: Conservatism revived with great intellectual ferment and a long burst of new ideas, and liberalism presumably can do the same. But there is no sign that this is happening. No real breakthrough in liberal thought and programs has occurred since the New Deal, giving liberalism its nostalgic, reactionary cast.
Worse, the cultural liberalism that emerged from the convulsions of the 1960s drove the liberal faith out of the mainstream. Its fundamental value is that society should have no fundamental values, except for a pervasive relativism that sees all values as equal. Part of the package was a militant secularism, pitched against religion, the chief source of fundamental values. Complaints about "imposing" values were also popular then, aimed at teachers and parents who worked to socialize children.
Modern liberalism, says Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, has emptied the national narrative of its civic resources, putting religion outside the public square and creating a value-neutral "procedural republic." One of the old heroes of liberalism, John Dewey, said in 1897 that the practical problem of modern society is the maintenance of the spiritual values of civilization. Not much room in liberal thought for that now, or for what another liberal icon, Walter Lippmann, called the "public philosophy." The failure to perceive the importance of community has seriously wounded liberalism and undermined its core principles. So has the strong tendency to convert moral and social questions into issues of individual rights, usually constructed and then massaged by judges to place them beyond the reach of majorities and the normal democratic process.
Bitter. Liberals have been slow to grasp the mainstream reaction to the no-values culture, chalking it up to Karl Rove, sinister fundamentalists, racism, or the stupidity of the American voter. Since November 2, the withering contempt of liberals for ordinary Americans has been astonishing. Voting for Bush gave "quite average Americans a chance to feel superior," said Andrew Hacker, a prominent liberal professor at Queens College. We are seeing the bitterness of elites who wish to lead, confronted by multitudes who do not wish to follow. Liberals might one day conclude that while most Americans value autonomy, they do not want a procedural republic in which patriotism, religion, socialization, and traditional values are politically declared out of bounds. Many Americans notice that liberalism nowadays lacks a vocabulary of right and wrong, declines to discuss virtue except in snickering terms, and seems increasingly hostile to prevailing moral sentiments.
For a stark vision of what cultural liberalism has come to, consider the breakdown of the universities, the fortresses of the 1960s cultural liberals and their progeny.
Students are taught that objective judgments are impossible. All knowledge is compromised by issues of power and bias. Therefore, there is no way to come to judgment about anything, since judgment itself rests on quicksand. This principle, however, is suspended when the United States and western culture are discussed, because the West is essentially evil and guilty of endless crimes. Better to declare a vague transnational identity and admiration for the United Nations. The campuses indulge in heavy coercion and indoctrination. A sign of the times: The University of California's academic assembly eliminated the distinction between "interested" and "disinterested" scholarship by a 45-to-3 vote. The campuses are politicized, and they don't care who knows it. Harvard is all atwitter because its president ran afoul of local orthodoxy, suggesting, ever so tentatively, that sexual differences might be a factor in careers in science.
In their bafflement over rejection of their product, liberals have been lacing speeches with religious phrases and asking mainstream Americans to vote their economic interests by rejecting Republican fat cats. It will take a bit more than that.
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