In a mystifying use of political labels, Andrew O’Hehir, editor of Salon, offers this muddled view of the “failure of liberalism.” Liberalism, we are told, was until recently the dominant ideology in the West, and it was recognizable by these features: “Free trade and the primacy of the capitalist ‘free market,’ the expansion of civil rights and civil liberties, freedom of the press and artistic expression, universal equality before the law and a contested role for the state, which is sometimes highly interventionist and sometimes much more hands-off.” But then this “basket of principles” suddenly fell apart as a “crisis of democracy” assumed serious proportions. This happened because “liberalism in that broader sense” is facing a challenge, to which, according to O’Hehir, it may well succumb.
This fateful challenge has come in the form of Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Vladimir Putin, and others who are defying the liberal consensus that supposedly shaped American and most Western politics at least since the end of World War II. All these leaders scorn the values of liberal societies and are stifling the worldview we once took for granted. To celebrate real liberal heroes, who are contrasted with today’s antiliberals, O’Hehir shows us photos of FDR, JFK, and (lest we forget this media-created Titan) Barack Obama.
As I already pointed out, O’Hehir’s references to “liberalism” are sometimes puzzling. Is it really Donald Trump or is it the enforcers of political correctness (like the staff of Salon) who furnish the greater threat to our intellectual freedom? Did Trump or Orban try to inflict a collectivist economy on their countries? As someone who has read Salon, it seems to me that its contributors—far more than the members of O’Hehir’s rogue gallery—favor such a dirigiste economic arrangement. And isn’t O’Hehir trying to have it both ways when, after identifying liberalism with a free-market economy, he includes among liberalism’s defenders those who favor “a highly interventionist” state? In what sense are those who seek to impose on us a centralized public administration on the same liberal side as those who categorically reject that position?
O’Hehir’s ignorance of the past is truly astounding. The positions of his culturally leftist website hardly epitomize what liberals believed in the past. In my book After Liberalism, I try to demonstrate how fundamentally our concepts of liberalism have changed since the 18th century. Unlike Salon, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Constant would not likely have included LGBT rights as part of their liberal “basket of principles.” Nor would such liberals in the 20th-century sense as Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman have embraced Salon’s notion of expressive rights. Most 19th-century liberals whom I have studied did not believe that women should vote; and most had no moral problems with restricting immigration. Unlike Salon, however, they did believe that civil society should exist independently of the social engineering control of the modern administrative state.
Is Viktor Orban’s refusal to give homosexual advocates a platform in Hungarian public schools any different from what American educators would have done until very recently? Were those who thought that homosexuality was pathological, which as late as 50 years ago included many leftists (even Frankfurt School radicals and Marxists!), exemplars of a right-wing threat to liberal institutions? My point here is not to vindicate the past against the present. I am only underscoring the very recent vintage of what O’Hehir would associate with his website’s liberal worldview.
It’s also unclear how Trump and Orban, both democratically elected heads of state, indicate the brittleness of liberal institutions. The attacks on them by the Left prove only one thing: the Left doesn’t like insufficiently woke leaders and will condemn them as antidemocratic. And given the culturally leftist politics of his website, would O’Hehir have been a happy camper in the emphatically anti-Communist and relatively conservative 1950s? From his comments, I would gather that the post-World War II era was a liberal high point. But it’s not likely that O’Hehir would have reveled in that earlier age, or that he would have hailed such post-World War II leaders as Adenauer, Eisenhower, or de Gaulle as representing the positions of his website.
Since O’Hehir vents anger on the present Brazilian head of state, Jair Bolsonaro, who is a social traditionalist of some kind, would he have been happier with Getulio Vargas, the Brazilian strongman in the 1940s and 1950s, or with the pro-fascist and later pro-Maoist Argentine leader Juan Peron? The liberal past was not quite as liberal, at least not in the sense that O’Hehir may be using that term, as he would have us believe.
I don’t think, however, that O’Hehir is trying to deceive us. “Liberal” signifies in his case what he and his circle of groupies would like it to mean. It refers to their practice of projecting their fantasies on to the past when they’re not conjuring up imaginary futures.