This website has always been at the forefront of this debate.
Over the past two years though, I have developed a more nuanced position on the liberty question as I have refined my analysis. Instead of a blanket condemnation of liberalism, I now see modernism as the greater problem. We’re arguing over an aesthetic that has become conflated with progressive liberalism and which is polarizing the country along a traditionalist/cosmopolitan axis.
“The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of government,” George Washington said, “are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” Not long ago, virtually all American conservatives would have applauded those words—and described themselves as protectors of that limited-government ideal.
These days, the first president’s words would be controversial among the growing ranks of national conservatives. They are so disgusted with the nation’s cultural trends that they no longer want to bother with preserving that sacred fire. They echo an Old World approach. In Europe, conservatives rarely focus on preservation of liberty, but on using government to promote the religious and cultural traditions of their respective nations.
That’s a far cry from our founders, who expressed the ideals defined in the Declaration of Independence—”that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Governments, they wrote, derived “their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Because conservatives here tried to conserve our nation’s traditions, conservatism has long been associated, at least rhetorically, with these ideals. Following the Trump-induced emergence of right-wing populism, however, many American conservatives no longer see the government as a referee that protects individual rights – but as something that should intervene aggressively to assert a set of collective values and goals. …”
Allow me to explain.
This has nothing to do with George Washington or the Founding Fathers. The problem did not even originate in this country. It arrived via steamship in the 1910s.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, liberalism as an ideology was concerned with civil rights and liberties and economics. The federal government was tiny compared to what it is today. Aside from tariffs, the economy was almost completely deregulated compared to what it is today. And yet, American and British culture was far more cohesive and was far healthier in the Victorian era than it is today. Americans had a shared national identity and common morality well into the 20th century.
In the 20th century, this relationship was reversed. It was culture which became loose and degenerate while the size of government expanded and the economy became much more regulated. The changes in American culture that are despised by nationalists and populists can be traced back to the Progressive Era in the early 20th century. What changed was the transition in the aesthetic sensibility of America’s liberal elites from the Romantic era or the Victorian era to the Modern era around the 1920s. This goes back to the liberals of the 1920s who broke with the Progressives over World War I.
In the 19th century, liberalism was closely associated with nationalism and the reordering of Europe into nation-states. In the 20th century, liberalism turned against nationalism after the World Wars. Elites which had built up nations reversed course and worked toward dissolving them. Europe’s biggest supporters of nationalism used to be the educated middle classes. Today, this relationship is reversed and professionals and the educated middle classes have been indoctrinated in antiracism, cosmopolitanism and modernism. Elites have gone from celebrating the bucolic rural masses as reservoirs of the folkways of the nation in the Romantic era to despising them in the Modern era because there has been a change in sensibility.
Look at it this way: America’s degenerate elites are the way they are because they have a problem with the 19th century. The European elites of the 19th century were nationalist, sexist, racist, xenophobic, prudish, etc. They identified with the masses and built up nations. In a reaction against those people, the American and European liberal elites of the 20th century defined themselves as cosmopolitan and globalist, feminist, antiracist, sexually liberated, etc. They became elitists who are anti-traditional and who are suspicious of and hostile to the masses who are perceived as hopelessly backward bigots and philistines. This is the result of scrapping a Victorian and Romantic sensibility and replacing it with a modernist sensibility. As if on autopilot, America’s progressive elites are still unconsciously going about their work dismantling the 19th century with their focus shifting over the last five years to Victorian ideas about gender.
Yes, progressive liberalism is the problem, but it is a peculiar strain of liberalism which emerged in the early 20th century. It is cultural liberalism or social liberalism which is animated ultimately by a modernist aesthetic. Modernism romanticizes the interior self and thus encourages hyper individualism and an expressivist set of values that is culturally corrosive. The goal of cultural liberalism or social liberalism is to liberate the individual from oppressive structures whether it is his cultural traditions or the various pathologies of his consciousness which are the always multiplying laundry list of -isms and -phobias. This is due to the influence of Freudian psychology which became fashionable in the 1920s. Whereas the Marxists were obsessed with changing the material standard of living of workers, the progressive liberals who were influenced and spellbound by Freud and Nietzsche and Darwin and H.G. Wells and the Frankfurt School and modernist art became obsessed with the transformation of consciousness. They want to scold and control the masses and subject them to therapy to root out their pathologies like “racism.”
In the early 20th century, Western civilization was plunged into a great crisis: the World Wars and the Great Depression. This crisis which stretched from 1914 to 1945 was blamed on nationalism and blew apart the 19th century order and discredited the values and ideals of that cultural epoch. It was the terminus of the Romantic or Victorian age. This was followed by our current 20th century order and cultural epoch which was young and fresh in the early 20th century and was established as the new cultural mainstream after the end of World War II. It goes without saying that this roughly overlaps with the transition between the old WASP elite and the new Jewish-dominated meritocratic elite around the mid-20th century.
Is it really liberalism that is the problem?
In the beginning, you could say there was Victorian era liberalism coming out of the 19th century, but over the course of the early 20th century it began to change as novelty chasing elites adopted one imported fad from Western Europe after another. The most important fads which were assimilated into liberalism were modernism, psychoanalysis, cosmopolitanism and antiracism which occurred between the 1920s and 1950s which before that time were not part of the outlook of America’s liberal elite. In the late 20th century, these four new doctrines of America’s liberal establishment spawned multiculturalism, feminism, postmodernism and political correctness. In the early 21st century, social justice and political correctness has begotten wokeness. Gradually, you could say that the cancer has overwhelmed the host to the point where the two are conflated now. “Liberal” now means things which really aren’t liberal at all but which are rooted in modernism and postmodernism or Freudianism or the Frankfurt School.
How is despising ordinary White people and hating their customs liberal? How is trampling on the Constitution liberal? How is hating nationalism and patriotism – ideas that historically arose with liberalism – liberal? How is creating a vast surveillance state in violation of the Fourth Amendment liberal? How is toppling statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson liberal? How is celebrating warmongering imperialists like George W. Bush and Liz Cheney liberal? How is censorship liberal? Who are the great liberal philosophers of cultural liberalism? Have you ever wondered how we reached the place where it is liberals who form lynch mobs to come after people for saying the wrong word or who are obsessed with controlling the innermost private thoughts of people which is a total mockery of freedom of conscience which is the most liberal of all ideals? How did the liberals become America’s most dogmatic authoritarians? Isn’t that strange?
The “post-liberals” look across the aisle at these people who call themselves “liberals” and honestly don’t know what to make of them. While they started out as liberals, they are increasingly showing their true colors which are distinctly illiberal. It is a bizarre position for a “post-liberal” to be in these days when we are ideologically moving away from liberalism, but temperamentally more “liberal” than our opponents. They certainly have a far greater problem with thoughts and words and freedom of conscience than we do. The “post-liberals” are decrying censorship, intolerance, violent groups like Antifa who coerce others. By “post-liberalism,” we mean something that is very close to the Old Tory tradition of conservatism which was once at odds with Whiggery, which has room for liberty properly understood.
Nationalist conservatives generally 1.) don’t want to abandon the American tradition of liberty but 2.) also want to address this cancer and cut it off at the root. In fact, the assault on our civil liberties is currently the top issue of nationalist conservatives who are concerned about Joe Biden’s assault on the Constitution. We’re certainly not the people who are clamoring for the end of the First Amendment or the Second Amendment or the Fourth Amendment or the Tenth Amendment. Throughout the Trump era, it was nationalists, populists, conservatives and even some libertarians who held free speech rallies.
“Now some of these voices have dispensed even with the pretense of defending the right of individuals and businesses to make their own choices. We see that in Republican efforts to break up tech firms, but a tweet from The New York Post‘s Sohrab Ahmari takes this thinking to new levels. He’s arguably the most prominent advocate for this illiberal form of conservatism. …”
This is a separate, but closely related debate.
The populist movement first burst onto the national political stage at the end of the Gilded Age because of the power of these monopolies and the concentrated wealth and power of the oligarchy. The populists, however, who wanted to use the government to break up these monopolies, to end the corruption and to regulate the economy in order to promote the common good were firmly grounded in the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian tradition. Americans have always been suspicious of wealthy and powerful elites and have always believed that social stability and the republican ideal of liberty as opposed to the libertarian ideal of liberty is best served by a fair and equitable distribution of property.
To put a human face on this whole debate over liberty between populists and libertarians, it is essentially the difference between William Jennings Bryan and H.L. Mencken. The populist Bryan was a devout Christian and a champion of the common man and a traditionalist who traced his beliefs back to Jefferson and Jackson who was a bitter enemy of monopolies and trusts and a harsh critic of imperialism. Bryan also supported Prohibition and believed the states and the federal government had the right to ban the sale and distribution of alcohol because the people are sovereign in a republican system of government. H.L. Mencken was a Nietzschean and a Darwinist and an atheist and a libertarian. Mencken was an elitist and one of the most influential modernists and opponents of Prohibition of his time. Both Bryan and Mencken believed in liberty, but had different understandings of liberty, morality and sovereignty.
Is the liberty of the American people best served by a degenerate culture, a rotten and entitled technocracy, a massive and intrusive federal government unshackled by the Constitution, an oligarchy constipated with wealth which it uses to purchase the policy agenda of the two parties and corrupt our politics and corporations which use their concentrated economic power to force woke progressivism on the people of the Heartland states, as the progressives believe, OR is liberty best served by rehabilitating unfashionable traditionalist ideas like love of race and nation, masculinity and femininity, religious faith, the concept of two genders and the family as an economic and emotional support unit, maintaining order whether at the border or through law enforcement, redistributing wealth, regulating corporations, breaking up monopolies and corporations, rejecting globalism and imperialism and venerating our national heritage and the past instead of holding both in contempt, as the populists and nationalists believe?