Is Tyranny the Inevitable Consequence of Liberalism?

In a recent column at The Spectator titled “Tyranny is the Inevitable Consequence of Liberalism,” Sohrab Ahmari blames “liberalism” for the woke tyranny afflicting America and the West today.

“Look around you: when was the last time you felt like you lived in a pluralistic, tolerant society?” Ahmari writes. “Does the Free World feel free? Four centuries or so since it was launched, has the liberal project delivered on its promise to make men and women free? . . . At some point, the liberal has to admit that the powdered-wig version of his ideology contained in it the seeds of its woke, repressive variety.”

According to Ahmari, today’s woke tyranny is the “inevitable” result of the “liberal project” to “make men and women free.” The liberal project has failed to bring liberty; “four centuries” of striving for political liberty in the West has delivered us into tyranny. 

The consequences of this thesis are truly alarming. If Ahmari is correct, one thing is certain: we cannot rely on the American founders to lead the way; their ideas have betrayed us. On the other hand, if he is mistaken, widespread acceptance of his thesis would constitute an insidious threat to American liberty.

In order to sow confusion, former President Bill Clinton once said, “That depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” Ahmari has evidently sown confusion in his own mind by failing to ask what the meaning of “liberalism” is. Or, rather, he has failed to ask what the meanings of the word “liberalism” are. “Liberalism” is a term under unusual stress; it is used to designate one thing and also to designate its opposite.

Ahmari gives us a glimpse of this when he recognizes a difference between classical liberalism and progressive liberalism:

‘Classical’ liberals tend to mark 1789, whereas ‘progressive’ liberals—noting that much of reality since that watershed year has failed to conform to their own liberal ideal—are uncomfortable with anything not from the present or the future.

Ahmari’s thesis that liberalism inevitably leads to tyranny only works if classical liberalism and what he calls “progressive liberalism” are, in fact, fundamentally the same. But his alarming argument collapses if it turns out that “progressive liberalism” is really only Progressivism flying a false flag, and if Progressivism is the conscious and explicit rejection of (classical) liberalism—which it is.

We owe this confusion about the meaning of the word “liberalism” to Franklin Roosevelt. FDR stole the name of liberalism for the Progressives. It is thanks to FDR that Ahmari gets to use one term—liberalism—for both the founders’ philosophy and for the philosophy of the Progressives who explicitly rejected the founders’ philosophy. 

FDR was a proud Progressive who had served in the Wilson Administration, but he was elected at a time when Americans had recoiled from Wilson’s progressivism. FDR realized it was time for a name change—and what a change it was! Nowhere is FDR’s genius for politics more evident than in his decision and his brilliant campaign to rename Progressivism. A lesser politician could never have gotten away with it.

The political philosophy of the founders was simply called “liberalism” until FDR’s theft of the term. Thereafter, people were forced to write and speak of “classical liberalism” in order to distinguish it from Progressivism masquerading as liberalism—and here is the key point: Progressivism is in fact the political philosophy that defined itself as the rejection of the liberalism of the founders

The liberalism of the founders gave us, in 1789, what is still today the most radical attempt to create a regime of liberty in the history of humanity. Their focus was the theory and practice of liberty; “liberalism” is its appropriate name. The founders’ concern, and the Constitution’s main endeavor, was to limit government power to its proper sphere. The founders understood that the power of government must be limited in order to protect and preserve liberty. 

Initially, American Progressives were quite open about their rejection of the liberalism of the founders. Avowed enemies of liberalism, Woodrow Wilson and his fellow Progressives set out to discredit the founders’ philosophy of liberty and to dismantle the Constitution which embodies that philosophy. 

Progressives were determined to put government at the center of American life. According to the Progressives, the constitutional limits on the power of government the founders had so carefully crafted were actually defects. Those limits hobbled government, preventing those in power from using government to change American society according to the progressive vision. The ever more intrusive federal, state, and local governments we have to deal with today were imposed on us by the Progressives.

Think of it: FDR stole the label of the philosophy of liberty and bestowed it on the party of the state, the self-proclaimed political enemies of true liberalism and of limited government. For the Democrats, the benefits were enormous. FDR managed to sow confusion at the core of American political discourse with an impact stretching right down to Ahmari’s column.

Since liberalism is the philosophy of liberty, and Progressivism is the rejection of that philosophy, repairing Ahmari’s troubled statement becomes fairly simple. Keeping his format and making the necessary repairs gives us this: Tyranny is the inevitable consequence of rejecting the philosophy of liberty.

Or put another way: Tyranny is the inevitable consequence of progressivism.

There certainly is much to be alarmed about in politics today in America and the West. We are not, however, in trouble in the way Ahmari believes.

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