Americans’ misuse of language is a major contributor to our broken politics. Over the years, terms that originally conveyed a more-or-less specific meaning have been emptied of content and turned into labels and epithets.
Take “liberal.” I used to define my own political orientation as that of an “18th Century liberal” –someone whose political philosophy was shaped by the libertarian premise underlying the Constitution and Bill of Rights–in order to distinguish myself from post-FDR liberals who favored a more activist state.
That political philosophy led me to be a Republican, because “18th-Century liberalism” was then a definition of conservatism. The GOP certainly had “fringe” folks who were racist and anti-Semitic, but the mainstream of the party defined conservatism as limited government. (To quote Barry Goldwater, Republicans believed that government didn’t belong in either your boardroom or your bedroom.)
As Danielle Allen explained on a recent podcast, there have always been varieties of liberalisms.
But you have to start, of course, from the core: the commitment to basic human rights. And then, for me, the question is which categories of rights are at the focus of any given liberalism. You have your liberalisms that really focus on things like freedom of expression, or freedom of contract and free market participation. Philosophers will call those the “negative freedoms”—freedom from interference. Then you have varieties of liberalism that focus on the right to participate, to vote, to run for office, to help shape your community. Philosophers call those the “positive liberties.”
As I have grown older, and watched the effects of Neoliberalism–a radical form of 18th-Cantury liberalism focused on minimizing the influence of government through deregulation, privatization and austerity- -I’ve come to appreciate the importance of government in protecting those positive liberties.
As Professor Allen explained, in ancient times, the right to participation was considered a part of the human good.
The actual experience of empowerment is a component of human flourishing. I am making the case that we need to recover that idea. Absent that idea, our politics is paternalistic and technocratic…. I think precisely because it’s paternalistic and technocratic, it works incredibly well for elites. But for those who have been subject to oppression and domination over time, the point to be made—and it doesn’t matter if it’s David Walker, Frederick Douglass or WEB Dubois—is that we will own and direct and steer our own lives. That requires empowerment at a collective level and it’s not just instrumental. It’s not just about self-protection. It’s about full human dignity…
It is really important to recognize that today’s GOP is “none of the above.” Principled conservatives–a/k/a 18th Century liberals–have fled the party, which is now a chaotic alt-right amalgam of racists, conspiracy-theorists and authoritarians, unimpeded by the few remaining, spineless remnants of the party’s former establishment.
The alt-right, too ,has a “philosophy.” It draws inspiration from little known figures on the fringes of history. There was Oswald Spengler, for example, an intellectual who celebrated the “heroic” culture of the West.
Spengler asserted that culture was in danger of being overwhelmed from within by lack of confidence and loss of a sense of identity–and from without by the “downtrodden races of the outer ring,” who had begun to move from the periphery to the center, armed with the technologies shared with them by the West owing to what Spengler characterized as misguided liberal values.
Julius Evola celebrated “tradition, hierarchy, inequality, the superiority of the master class” and the natural state of community that liberalism, democracy, and socialism had destroyed with their glorification of reason, which drained the world of meaning. For Evola, race was destiny.
Francis Yockey, a virulent anti-Semite, argued that world domination is the essential drive of western culture, and the people of the West must live up to that destiny or witness their culture lose its “vitality.”
Alain de Benoist of France inspired the Great Replacement Theory, which holds that immigration represents an “existential threat” to the white community and is part of a conspiracy to water down and eventually replace the white race as the dominant race in western societies.
Samuel Francis was obsessed with the idea that “the civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people, nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted to a different people.”
Most MAGA Republicans, of course, are unaware of the current party’s “intellectual” roots. They are neither liberal nor conservative–just fearful, angry and destructive.
It’s unfair to conservatives to call today’s GOP “conservative.” It is anything but.