The New Liberal Temper

There was once a time, in the good old days, when conservatives in America could rely upon liberals to maintain classical liberal principles that would shield conservatives from suppression. In the mid-20th century, liberalism had become the outlook of the majority of the elite, but that didn’t mean the proactive ousting of conservatives from jobs and pipelines, as happens today. As Lionel Trilling wrote in the preface to The Liberal Imagination (published in 1950), “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” Nonetheless, conservatives who objected talked about it more as a hegemonic condition, not a blackballing process. 

Liberals dominated the university in 1962, for instance, but they wouldn’t think of shunning a conservative colleague just for being a conservative. If he did his academic work and proved a collegial colleague, he could express his anti-New Deal views all he wanted. A fellow who was at Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement told me once that if a conservative patriot got up on a box in Sproul Plaza back then and argued for more American aggression in the Cold War, people would argue back, but no way would they shout him down. 

Conservatives might feel ignored, dismissed, or disputed, but not persecuted. The heritage of liberalism from John Stuart Mill to Richard Rorty demanded that the conservative be allowed to speak. Rorty wanted him to lose, of course, to be prevented from setting policy and running the government, but only through a democratic process, free expression, and a fair election.

A Bit of Spine

Something inside Rorty and other old-fashioned liberals told them that to close the marketplace of ideas on political grounds spelled trouble. It took a bit of spine on liberals’ part to keep illiberalism in check, whether it came from the Left or the Right, but they had it. To be a liberal was, precisely, to uphold the First Amendment, to respect respectful dissent, to welcome pluralism, and observe rights of privacy—no compromise, no waffling.

Within institutions, liberals insisted, people must be judged on professional grounds, not political grounds, and they would bristle if they saw some partisan hackery going on. That very distinction was essential to liberalism, and liberals predicted that obscuring it would, indeed, poison the workings of those institutions. If we can’t withhold from workplace matters that kind of partisanship, they believed, we would find that liberal norms and practices ranging from academic freedom to scientific method to free markets would decay. 

But again, it took toughness. You had to have some intellectual confidence to reject a tyrannical practice such as “repressive tolerance” when it was espoused by someone as brilliant as Herbert Marcuse. You needed lots of moral firmness to stand up to the racial militance of Angela Davis (and the bodyguards who accompanied her around campus). It took courage to publish a book bound to evoke controversy such as The Bell Curve. No bleeding-heart liberal would do, nor would easygoing live-and-let-live types. You needed hard-nosed liberals such as John F. Kennedy and Henry “Scoop” Jackson to hold the line, to keep the public square open. They could do it because they understood what the Left would do if it had the power, and they didn’t like it. 

They’re not around anymore, those muscular liberals—or rather, if they do have that tough sensibility and hold fast to liberal pluralism, they remain liberals but end up on the outs with their brethren. The rest of the center-Left goes along with cancel tactics and the open politicization of liberal institutions taking place today. 

That bilious and angry leftists lead the way is no surprise—it’s what they’ve always wanted. But the liberals who say nothing as it goes on right under their noses, the liberals who sign letters and statements that brazenly trample liberal principle, who sit obediently through diversity orientation sessions that assume they are unconscious bigots and who let their kids undergo critical race theory units in school . . . they outnumber upright liberals 20-to-1 or more. They’re patsies for the Left, pushovers, passive and weak.

It’s embarrassing. We have liberal mayors who in summer 2020 wouldn’t defend their own cities, college presidents who denounce their own colleges at the command of leftist protesters, and a parade of liberal figureheads apologizing dramatically for a slip or a foible that deserves barely any notice at all. 

Academic Surveillance Committees

Last July, 350 people associated with Princeton University signed a letter denouncing racism on campus and demanding a host of reforms. One proposal was this:  

Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.

A liberal of old would read that proposal and blurt, “You gotta be kidding!” A small group of professors will define “racist research” and proceed to judge and, in some cases, punish colleagues accordingly. That is not liberal!

Given the ever-expanding definition of racism, we easily imagine that research into racial score gaps on standardized tests might come under suspicion, especially if the gaps are explained on grounds other than racism. Could essays on Huckleberry Finn be censured if they do not explicitly denounce the n-word in the novel? Perhaps. And who is going to serve on this law-giving surveillance committee? Well, individuals who have no reservations over examining the opinions of others and making them pay for the wrong ones. In other words, very illiberal people. 

And yet, a daunting number of scholars and thinkers signed on to this committee of racial safety, and among them, no doubt, are many dozens of centrist liberals uneasy with leftist bullying. They went along with it, though; they couldn’t say no. This is a change in temperament, not belief. You see it all the time. The liberals I know don’t like cancel culture, and they don’t like to see private expressions go public and become the basis for condemnation. They care about racial and sexual identity, but prefer that it not become overemphasized in social affairs. And they want to see conservatives treated fairly. 

Attuned to Prevailing Winds

But they haven’t the stomach for it. Set our liberal alongside a social justice warrior and the imbalance of passion is ridiculous. He has the moral scruples to resist, but not the stamina. Instead of stepping up and battling over free speech, religious freedom, freedom of assembly, and conscience protections, all of which the Left tries to take away from conservatives, the liberal adopts any of a variety of defenses. 

There is, for example, the oh-it’s-not-so-bad posture, which says that the Left now and then does cross a line, but that those cases are rare so let’s not exaggerate. 

Or, there is the blasé cosmopolitan approach, whereby the liberal smiles and nods, agreeing with the conservative complaint but chalking the Left’s attacks up to the human comedy and muttering about what fools these mortals be. 

There is, also, the concerned sympathy tack, in which the liberal joins with the conservative in lamenting the illiberalism but finding in it a silver lining. “Yes, they’re out of control, but I can tell that the pendulum is swinging back.” Soon, our liberal assures us, we’ll return to normal. 

They mean it, I imagine, but they’re no help to conservatives. At best, these defensive behaviors are self-serving, at worst, cop-outs and rationalizations. Liberals have the power, but they won’t save us. They can’t save us—it’s not in them anymore. It does us no good to accuse them of hypocrisy, either. Double standards don’t bother them, they’ve made their peace. Liberalism is no longer a philosophy. It’s a personality: flexible, situational, attuned to prevailing winds. 

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