Samuel Moyn

Can Liberalism Save Itself?

Liberalism is under siege. It is not just a problem for America’s Democratic Party, which once again may face either losing an election to Donald Trump or claiming victory with a bare majority. Around the world, the entire outlook of political liberalism — with its commitments to limited government, personal freedom and the rule of law — is widely seen to be in trouble.

It wasn’t long ago that liberals were proclaiming the “end of history” after their Cold War victory. But for years liberalism has felt perpetually on the brink: challenged by the rise of an authoritarian China, the success of far-right populists, and a sense of blockage and stagnation.

Why do liberals find themselves in this position so routinely? Because they haven’t left the Cold War behind. It was in that era when liberals reinvented their ideology, which traces its roots to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution — and reinvented it for the worse. Cold War liberalism was preoccupied by the continuity of liberal government and the management of threats that might disrupt it, the same preoccupations liberals have today. To save themselves, they need to undo the Cold War mistakes that led them to their current impasse and rediscover the emancipatory potential in their creed.

Before the Cold War, President Franklin Roosevelt had demanded the renovation of liberalism in response to the Great Depression, emphasizing that economic turmoil was at the root of tyranny’s appeal. His administration capped more than a century in which liberalism had been promising to unshackle humanity after millenniums of hierarchy — dismantling feudal structures, creating greater opportunities for economic and social mobility (at least for men) and breaking down barriers based on religion and tradition, even if all of these achievements were haunted by racial disparities. At its most visionary, liberalism implied that government’s duty was to help people overcome oppression for the sake of a better future.

Yet just a few years later, Cold War liberalism emerged as a rejection of the optimism that flourished before the mid-20th century’s crises. Having witnessed the agonizing destruction of Germany’s brief interwar experiment with democracy, liberals saw their Communist ally in that battle against fascism converted into a fearful enemy.

They responded by reconceptualizing liberalism. Philosophers like the Oxford don Isaiah Berlin emphasized the concept of individual liberty, which was defined as the absence of interference, especially from the state. Gone was the belief that freedom is guaranteed by institutions that empower humanity. Instead of committing to make freedom more credible to more people — for example, by promising a bright future of their own — these liberals prioritized a fight against mortal enemies who might crash the system.

This was a liberalism of fear. In a way, fear was understandable: Liberalism had enemies. In the late 1940s, the Communists took over China, while Eastern Europe fell behind an Iron Curtain. But reorienting liberalism toward the preservation of liberty incurred its own risks. Anyone hostage to fear is likely to exaggerate how dangerous his foes actually are, to overreact to the looming threat they pose and to forsake better choices than fighting.

During the Cold War, concern for liberty from tyranny and self-defense against enemies sometimes led not just to the loss of the very freedom liberals were supposed to care about at home; it also prompted violent reigns of terror abroad as liberals backed authoritarians or went to war in the name of fighting Communism. Millions died in the killing fields of this brutal global conflict, many of them at the hands of America and its proxies fighting in the name of “freedom.”

Frustratingly, the Soviet Union was making the kinds of promises about freedom and progress that liberals once thought belonged to them. After all, in the 19th century, liberals had overthrown aristocrats and kings and promised a world of freedom and equality in their stead. Liberals like the French politician and traveler Alexis de Tocqueville, though concerned about possible excesses of government, imagined democracy as a form of politics that offered startling new opportunities for equal citizenship. And while such liberals placed too much faith in markets both to emancipate and to equalize, they eventually struggled to correct this mistake. Liberals like the English philosopher John Stuart Mill helped invent socialism, too.

The Cold War changed all that. It wasn’t just that socialism became a liberal swear word for decades. Liberals concluded that the ideological passions that led millions around the world to Communism meant that they should refrain from promising emancipation themselves.

The Cold War transformation of liberalism wouldn’t matter so profoundly now if liberals had seized the opportunity to rethink their creed in 1989. The haze of their geopolitical triumph made it easy to disregard their own mistakes, in spite of the long-run consequences in our time.

Instead, liberals doubled down. After several decades of endless wars against successor enemies and an increasingly “free” economy at home and around the world, American liberals have been shocked by blowback.

A great referendum on liberalism kicked off in 2016, after Mr. Trump’s blindsiding election victory. In books like Patrick Deneen’s best-selling “Why Liberalism Failed,” there was an up-or-down vote on the liberalism of the entire modern age. In frantic self-defense, liberals responded by invoking abstractions: “freedom,” “democracy” and “truth,” to which the sole alternative is tyranny, while distracting from their own errors and what it would take to correct them.

Both sides failed to recognize that, like all traditions, liberalism is not take it or leave it. The very fact that liberals transformed it so radically during the Cold War means that it can be transformed again; liberals can revive their philosophy’s promises only by recommitting to its earlier impulses.

Is that likely? Under President Biden’s watch, China and Eastern Europe — the same places where events shocked Cold War liberals into their stance in the first place — have attracted a Cold War posture. Under Mr. Biden, as under Mr. Trump before him, the rhetoric out of Washington increasingly treats China as a civilizational threat.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has once again made Eastern Europe a site of struggle between the forces of freedom and the forces of repression. Some like to claim that the war in Ukraine has reminded liberals of their true purpose.

But look closer to home and that seems more dubious. Mr. Trump is the likely 2024 Republican presidential nominee (if not the potential winner of the election). Yet liberals seem to be betting their success less on a positive vision for America’s future and more on the ability of courts to protect the nation.

The New York Times