Has Liberalism Failed?

For quite a while, I called myself an “18th Century liberal,” because I considered myself a genuine conservative, a term I defined as a fiscal conservative who believed in conserving the libertarian principle developed during the Enlightenment.

The meaning of “liberalism” (at least until Rush Limbaugh et al appropriated the term for use as an expletive) was–as Fareed Zakaria recently noted in a New York Times book review–

the tradition of liberty and democracy and, by extension, the open, rules-based international economic and political system that has characterized the Western world since 1945, and many more parts of the globe since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

A couple of weeks ago, in the Sunday New York Times, Zakaria reviewed a book by Edward Luce, titled “The Retreat of Western Liberalism.” Luce was surveying the economic and political decay of the United States and European democracies, and he was less than sanguine about the future of Enlightenment liberalism, to put it mildly.  I haven’t read the book, but judging from Zakaria’s response, Luce places much blame for the current assault on liberty and democratic norms on the “elites” that it has become so fashionable to bash (and so rare to define).

Zakaria points out that recent European elections–with the exception of Brexit–have actually been cause for celebration by those who are rooting for the success of the European Union and the stability of liberal democratic regimes.

Instead of viewing the entire West as being overwhelmed by a tsunami of right-wing populism, we might step back and study countries separately. Those that have had strong safety nets as well as programs to help people move up the economic ladder, like Northern Europe, do not have as much of a problem as others. There, immigration rather than economics is the key driver, but that will wane in importance since immigration flows are dwindling. In my view, Germany seemed vulnerable to right-wing nationalism in the form of the Alternative für Deutschland only after Merkel’s extraordinary decision to take in a million refugees, but as that fades into the background, so has the AfD. In France, Macron is articulating a defense of Western democracy against Russian interference in much stronger terms than is the American president.

Zakaria began his review by focusing upon a recent speech by Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister. The speech was widely reported in the U.S., because Freeland essentially suggested that Canada–along with other democracies–needed to step up its defense of the liberal international order to compensate for the “situation” in the United States. (Although she never mentioned Trump, it was pretty clear what “situation” she was referring to.) Zakaria returned to Canada in his final observation.

In many ways, the one Western country that has seemed immune from any of this populism has been Chrystia Freeland’s Canada. That is not because Canadians are genetically immune to populism but rather because for the last 20 years, they have pursued good public policy. Canada’s economics, health care, banking and immigration policies have been inclusive and successful. One sign of the strength of Western liberalism would be if the United States could recognize that there are now other countries with a deep commitment to these ideas and values that might even be approaching them more successfully than is Washington. The West, in other words, we now live in is a post-American West.

Social science research confirms Zakaria’s reference to “good public policy.” Countries with strong social safety nets, like Canada’s, are more stable and less violence-prone; their populations exhibit fewer socially undesirable behaviors (everything from crime rates to out-of-wedlock births, divorce, drug abuse, etc.)

Paul Ryan and his cohort can insist that taking away access to health care and reducing other social supports is “pro freedom,” but people aren’t free when their waking hours are consumed by efforts to put food on the table, and their nightmares are of an accident or illness that plunges them into bankruptcy.

Eighteenth Century liberalism promised personal autonomy; your right to live your life in accordance with your own values and beliefs, so long as you were willing to accord an equal liberty to others. That’s a concept of liberty that is not only consistent with a social safety net–these days, as a practical matter, it requires one.


  1. I just may check into the process required to move to Canada. I have heard that Vancouver is a friendly and beautiful city.

    It is a constant aggravation to hear Ryan and others like him preach about ending the social supports for individuals, while forcing the same individuals to provide welfare to wealthy corporations in the forms of tax subsidies and deductions.

  2. Yes, it twists my guts. Would like to stop them from using the word “entitlements”? If they don’t want to use the safety net, then DON’T, but quit depriving the needy, quit forcing sacrifice on all but yourselves.
    I have never used it yet but who knows?

  3. “Liberalism” takes care of the least of society. “Neoliberalism” takes care of itself and to hell with everyone else.

  4. OMG; their use of “entitlements” is simply projection on their part. There is also that old saying, “The best defense is a good offense.” Their “offense” isn’t good on any level but they are in charge at this time; it will take a strong internal rebellion from the Republican Congress to end this nightmare and it seems a long time coming.

    Liberalism to me means simply having an open mind, willing to listen and willing to change if we find facts to support the need for change. The Republican’s offensive defense during President Obama’s administration caused rather than resolved problems by stopping progress on many levels. They are still doing little but cause continuing problems, stopping progress and liberally allowing their mentally unbalanced leader to distract us from imminent nuclear war. I can only hope the MSNBC banner stating the White House (meaning Trump) is considering bombing the Philipines to get to ISIS is an “alternative fact”.

    Our nightmare continues unabated!

  5. After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre’s classic book on the unresolved issues of the Enlightenment, will cast a long shadow on the flaws in the premises of the project, as he describes it. At its core, the issue is one of specific, practical knowledge versus generalities. The great mistake was substituting abstractions for data, and opinions for truth. Those weaknesses have not yet been addressed in a substantial way, so we are left with a culture of ’emotivism,’ where every argument is given equal disregard. It opened the door for someone like Trump and it has few practical resources for defending against him or those like him.

    Almost everyone agreed that MacIntyre’s diagnosis, like Nietzsche’s in Section 335 of the Gay Science, is valid. Almost no one agrees on the solution. What I believe is missing is a full explanation of the notion of rights (it’s a sloppy shorthand of generalities that is easily corrupted), all the way down to the reasoning about why it is correct or wrong to treat people in a certain way, an explanation of every tradition and political practice in terms of its contribution to human welfare, and a practical guide for addressing errors and omissions. Our principles got us into this situation. They are not much use in getting us out.

  6. My Daddy used to tell me: Remember YOUR rights go as far as your neighbor’s nose…
    Liberalism is a misnomer now-a-day. In reality it is basically a system played from both sides of the table by those with economic power and connection. There is no Democracy for it there was – we wouldn’t be in the condition we are in now. Liberalism is based upon an educated and innovative society – we in truth are neither. And I do not foresee us climbing out of this morass even if the fascist minded are tossed from our halls of power. We are now a post-Democratic society ruled by an Oligarchic hierarchy of church-bank-military-commercial – MORASS.

  7. “Eighteenth Century liberalism promised personal autonomy; your right to live your life in accordance with your own values and beliefs, so long as you were willing to accord an equal liberty to others.” What a great definition.

    Authoritarians who have become libralism’s enemy have been created by their media through hate and fear to only ask what’s in it for me. They have no commitment to a great country, only to a comfortable them.

    That simply isn’t compatible with progress, order and certainly not freedom. In fact it’s all about power, the absence of freedoms.

    I was brought up to honor our families great good fortune to be American, whether we got here like my grandparents as young steerage passengers or were even luckier to be born here. One thing that we’ve given away are inspirational leaders to remind us of how lucky we are.

    I personally can’t believe that liberalism has failed as much as been stolen by the Ministry of Truth in every living room, pocket, and purse operating under make more money regardless of the impact on others and fed by oligarchs.

  8. I think as long as the system of capitalism rules the states, liberalism will lose out because there is no profit in being kind and charitable to your neighbor.

  9. Liberalism has been tagged by the Rabid right as an enemy. The Right has tried rather successfully to tar and feather Liberalism by the use of their simple minded equation from the days of the Iron Curtain.


    Social programs that seek to add stability to our society are attacked as “entitlements”. Social programs in the form of clean air, clean water, regulations on financial institutions are attacked as “onerous regulations”.

  10. Just a thought about the failure of “Liberalism” in the U.S. FWIW.

    I don’t think “Liberalism” has failed in this Country. It has been systematically destroyed.

    “What If Games” are meaningless; I know. But what if John Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated? What if Robert Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated? What if Martin Luther King hadn’t been assassinated? What if the 2000 Presidential election hadn’t been stolen from Al Gore?

    I don’t know if any of those men, leaders of what constituted the non-right wing, non-conservative political spectrum in this Country in their times, qualify as being “Liberal,” or true “Liberals” (although the likes of Rush Limbaugh Fox News would surely label each of them that). But I can’t help but think this Country would be a far different place, and on a much different path, if each of them had not been almost systematically removed, whether by some cosmic happenstance, or by some concerted sinister covert plan (for the “conspiracy theorists” out there) .

    Consider only Al Gore.

    Number 1: If Gore had become the President, the U.S. almost certainly wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. Sure, if we hadn’t invaded Iraq, the Mideast would probably still be a mess, and we would still likely be dealing with terrorism from extremist, radical Muslims. Nonetheless, the loss and destruction of the lives of so many brave U.S. soldiers, and the squandering of billions and billions of U.S. dollars would also likely not have happened and still be happening.

    Number 2: If Gore had become President, the U.S. would undoubtedly have been leading the world in trying to deal with Climate Change.

    That’s just the tip of the iceberg, if the likes of “W,” Chaney, and Rumsfeld had never been in charge.

    And you can go from there playing the “What If Game” about why Liberalism in the U.S. has seemingly failed. Whatever the “why” may be unfortunately changes nothing about the current existential threat to our Republic. At this point, I would be happy (not really) to have “W,” Chaney, and Rumsfeld back instead of the cabal of the so-called Trump Presidency.

  11. David F: And if a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his – – -. Oh, how I wish that none of those horrible things had happened. It would be a much better world. Meanwhile, climate change edges forward and there’s no turning back. On a much brighter note, the WaPo today says that Trump’s base is officially crumbling. We knew it would…someday soon. We hope sooner rather than later. But, there stands Pence, mouth watering, just waiting….

    Reminder! Get your Lifetime Senior Pass (62-0lder) to the National Parks at any national park/monument before August 28, 2017. In person at the visitor center, you pay $10 (one time for a lifetime). Online it’s $10 plus $10 processing. Still a bargain. On August 28, 2017, the price soars to $80 for the same pass. Yes, eighty dollars! While you’re at the visitor center, pick up the little booklet called Passport to the National Parks. Get it date-stamped at the ranger’s desk while you’re there. Buy the page of stickers that accompanies the booklet. Keep the booklet with you when you visit other national parks/monuments. Get it date-stamped each time. The booklet provides a great record of your travels!

  12. I spent the major part of my life believing I was a Liberal, perhaps adhering to a now antiquated definition of Liberalism, what some may call ‘Classical Liberalism’ and what Pete @11:34 spoke about today, “Eighteenth Century liberalism promised personal autonomy; your right to live your life in accordance with your own values and beliefs, so long as you were willing to accord an equal liberty to others.”

    On a personal note, I occasionally feel that my old friend, Liberalism, at least LIberalism in the classical sense of 18th Century Enlightenment, has been highjacked by a group of strange folks who are more intent on ‘regulating’ my behaviors to align with their determined wishes than on trusting that each of us can live peacefully together while maintaining the integrity of our actions, our personal beliefs so long as our actions, our beliefs do not infringe on others’ beliefs and actions.

  13. Every definition of liberalism that I read fails to get it right, as does this one:

    “Eighteenth Century liberalism promised personal autonomy; your right to live your life in accordance with your own values and beliefs, so long as you were willing to accord an equal liberty to others.”

    That definition can only be true if a handful of people, absent any effort to organize or cooperate, live separate lives in a paradise in which not even nature offers a threat to the group. That definition is blatantly false in organized societies; immensely more untrue in direct proportion to the density of the population.

    Liberalism gains its true meaning in organized societies in which members struggle to come to terms with just how much individual freedom must be sacrificed in order to achieve cooperation within the group. And that cooperation which liberalism supports is meant to drive the result that with smart cooperation the group’s prosperity and security will become greater than the sum of its parts.

    Such liberalism, and the social safety net that derives from it, is not then moralistic, religious or born of empathetic ethics. It is purely practical. It is what gets the best results. It is what makes the group stronger.

    Opponents of liberalism are opponents of cooperation. They hate teamwork. They do not care if the group is strong. They are not willing to sacrifice anything for the good of the group. They have no understanding of results that are greater than the sum of their parts.

    Make no mistake: some liberals are opponents of cooperation also. They see liberalism as a way to game the system for their individual benefit. And they provide conservative opponents with an armory of data to game their arguments against liberalism.

    Some liberals make the mistake of supporting their liberal contentions with moral, ethical and religious arguments. They have forgotten the practical foundation of liberalism, its roots of cooperation and its promise of a greater, stronger society. They then are destined to lose the argument with conservatives. Worse, they fail to convince fellow liberals of the true purpose of liberalism, and as a result, cooperation dies.

    Liberalism encourages wisely selected individual sacrifice and cooperation meant to benefit the group in some important way. Liberalism relies on facts, honest evaluations and wisdom, rather than principle, dogma and morality. Liberalism is synonymous with wise government.

  14. @Larry, if there is no agreed upon definition of Liberalism, then how do you expect to draw adherents? How do you plan to broaden a base of people without an agreed upon common denominator?

  15. We liberals have been victimized by the likes of Limbaugh and others of that ilk who are nothing more than McCarthyites who have substituted liberalism for communism. It’s Lakoffian framing at its best and our defense of fact and truth does not address the framing meisters’ diversionary attacks which have little to do with fact and truth and a lot to do with attacking the motivation for our findings of truth and fact. Instead of continuing to allow them to out-frame us, liberals who are smarter than I am (and they are legion) should develop counterframing with a view toward undermining the right’s currently unchallenged propaganda. As to defining characteristics of a “liberal,” it’s akin to porn; I know it when I see and hear it.

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