The Moral Gulf Between Liberals and Populists

A reply to Matthew Sleat's review of "Freedom from Fear."

The Moral Gulf Between Liberals and Populists

I would like to thank Liberal Currents for giving me the opportunity to comment on Matt Sleat’s review of my Freedom from Fear: An Incomplete History of Liberalism (Princeton, 2023). The review makes a number of interesting points that deserve further reflection by those who want to see liberalism thrive in the twenty-first century. Today this means finding a response to the problem of populism.  

The response needs to be in part historical. As Sleat notes, my work and that of other historians has shown “that a lack of proper historical sense has left liberals and their critics alike with an emaciated view of what liberalism is”.[1] Giving substance to liberalism means, in my view, restoring to contemporary liberal discourse the traditional three pillars of liberal argument, freedom, market, and morals, or politics, economics, and morality/religion,. This applies especially to the moral pillar, which has been largely eliminated or hollowed out since WWII. In Sleat’s view, however, there are “reasons to be sceptical” that a return to the moral pillar, which he reduces to “liberal perfectionism”, will do the trick. “There is little reason to think if liberalism ‘did morality’ that that would make understanding or reconciliation [with populists] more likely”. Hence the “dangers of re-moralisation”: liberals would be better-off continuing with the neutralist liberalism that has flourished since the 1950s, which advocates that in the public sphere liberals (and everyone else) should abstain to the greatest extent possible from taking moral or, God forbid, religious positions. “Kahan interprets this as abandoning the moral pillar of liberalism, but that is not right. Better to think of it as thinning out liberalism’s ethical commitments precisely so that it can still enjoy moral legitimacy across as broad a base of the population as possible, or as reimagining… what can morally legitimate the liberal state…in conditions of… radical pluralism”.

If this were true, populism would not exist. The moral neutralism of late twentieth-century liberalism did not prevent, indeed probably helped incite, the rise of populism. If the thin gruel of neutral liberalism had not left large numbers of people hungry for something thicker, we would not be faced with today’s situation. Thin liberalisms are weak liberalisms. Simply restating, a little bit louder or better, the neutralist mantras of late twentieth-century liberalism will not help.[2] If populists did not listen to Moses and the prophets of thin liberalism, e.g. Rawls, Nozick, and the earlier End of Ideology movement, why will they listen to their acolytes today? Rather than continuing down the dead-end path of recent neutralist liberalism, we should look to profit from the successes, and failures, of morally more substantial versions of liberalism in the face of similar problems in the past. The parallels do not run in entirely straight lines (historians like to say you can never step in the same river twice), but they are nevertheless illuminating, and may even be useful. Many constituent elements of populism today are old liberal nemeses.

“Populism has forced twenty-first century liberals to once again confront some old nightmares: religious fanaticism, radical nationalism, and even insurrectionary violence” (433). With regard to radical nationalism, the twenty-first century has seen numerous liberal attempts to distinguish between nationalism, or sometimes ethnic nationalism (bad), and patriotism, or sometimes civic nationalism (good) . Both the populist attack and the liberal defence are golden oldies from the 80s – the 1880s. Liberal attempts to distinguish between good and bad forms of nationalism go back to the fin de siecle, if not before (165-180, 282-290).  Just as today, previous generations of liberals, before and especially after WWI, attempted to distinguish ethnic nationalism – typically associated with Germans – from civic nationalism, usually associated with France and America. The distinction was always false, geographically as well as descriptively. Relatively more successful nineteenth-century liberal responses sought to combine ethnic and civic elements in a liberal nationalism. Historically, the best liberal solution to nationalism has been not nationalism vs. patriotism but nationalism and patriotism; not cosmopolitanism against community but both; not the defence of individual rights or of ethnic/community rights but of all.

Liberals must fight what Jacob Burckhardt called the terribles simplificateurs, knowing that people are not as simple as populists pretend, and that all of us have more than one identity. This is not a new discovery. In the 1848 Frankfurt National Assembly debates on a constitution for a united Germany there was discussion of “the non-German German”, as one delegate put it, much as today the EU has to consider the problem of the “non-European European” when thinking about immigration. The liberal solution, as another 1848 delegate put it, was to recognize that just as one could be simultaneously both very Scotch and very British, so one could be Czech or Polish AND German, too. History shows that the problem of the relationship of nationalism and liberalism has deep roots. Trying to identify the “good” version of nationalism and doing without nationalism altogether are difficult endeavours. The lesson seems to favor eclecticism – as so often the case for liberals.

History also provides some insights into how today’s liberals might deal with religious illiberals. In the nineteenth century, “Catholicism posed the general problem of the relationship of liberalism to illiberal beliefs and movements, a problem that has continued to be significant for liberalism” (182). The fight against Catholicism was fundamental for many liberals during the nineteenth-century (181-98). Liberals have always feared aggressive religion in the public sphere, even when arguing that a moderate religion is essential to public life. Like so many today, nineteenth-century liberals imagined that illiberal religion (identified with Catholicism for them) was destined to disappear with time and educational and economic progress. Wishful thinking! Time and sociology, not to mention God or History, are not necessarily on the liberal side. The hope that if twenty-first century liberals can hold on long enough, populism will be strangled by demography and sociology is likely as vain today as when nineteenth-century liberals thought the same about Catholicism. Furthermore, telling populists that time has passed them by can only further alienate them.

One effect of both radical nationalism and anti-Catholicism in the nineteenth century/fin de siecle, and of populism today, has been to push liberals away from democracy. For example, today we have a flood of political theorists like Jason Brennan and Bryan Caplan casting doubt on the merits of universal suffrage. They follow in the footsteps of earlier liberal doubters, whether Walter Lippman in the 1920s or Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the 1880s, who reacted against radical nationalism or illiberal religion by trying to limit the political power of the masses. A general effect of radical nationalism and illiberal religion on liberals was and is to raise the question of how far liberals can and should go to accommodate illiberal groups and communities, whether electorally or otherwise.

History also tells us that liberal perfectionism and other forms of liberal moral discourse were widespread in the nineteenth century and fin de siecle, periods which were, not coincidentally, times in which liberalism made rapid if uneven progress. Yet liberals for the most part abandoned moral language after WWI.  There were reasons that most liberals eliminated the moral pillar from their arguments in the twentieth century, and thus one might suggest that if history furnishes arguments against a thin liberalism, it furnishes just as many against thick versions. Sleat himself makes this suggestion, saying that calls to revive liberal moral discourse greatly resemble the leading tendencies of fin de siecle liberalism, and that “there were reasons, some of them very good, why… Social Liberalism fell dramatically out of favor following World War One”.[3] The problem with what Sleat calls Social Liberalism and I call modern liberalism was that it was altogether too optimistic about “the power of rationality” and “human nature itself”, a point reinforced by the Holocaust, one might add.

Insofar as liberalism is a party of hope, liberals are necessarily utopian idealists, just like their opponents. But unlike their opponents, liberals’ healthy fears preserve them from fanaticism. Liberals know that part of human nature is the desire to make other people afraid, the libido dominandi: hence liberals are pessimists, too. Populism (or some illiberal successor) will be with us always. Liberals can reasonably seek only to limit its power, much as liberals succeeded in limiting the power of illiberal religion in the nineteenth century, and tried, but failed, in the early twentieth century, to limit the power of radical nationalism. Late twentieth-century liberals were misled by their apparently total victory over fascism and then communism into thinking that eliminating rather than limiting illiberalism was possible, and that the path to victory was to completely avoid moral language that in itself would only serve to fuel illiberal passions (372-415). And for a certain time a barebones anti-Communism seemed to provide an adequate substitute for morality. Since then, the missing moral pillar has resulted in a shaky and tottering liberalism in the face of populism.

There is a methodological point to be made here. Freedom from Fear attempts to meld intellectual history, the history of political thought, and political theory, not exactly seamlessly, to show the necessity of understanding the relationship of contemporary liberalism and populism through an historical lens, which is not to be cast aside as irrelevant once one reaches the twenty-first century.[4] All too often political theorists regard the past as a foreign country where there might be some interesting things to see, maybe even some pretty souvenirs to bring home, but nothing worth the price of the ticket to go there, i.e., the investment in historical research. It is not a question of saying that those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it, although the temptation exists. When strategies for dealing with fundamentalism and nationalism today mirror those proposed in the past, it is worth knowing – especially when they failed the first time. When history shows that thick liberalisms which made strong moral appeals were highly effective, indeed more broadly convincing than neutralist liberalisms have been in the last thirty or forty years, that is worth knowing too. This does not mean that the moral/religious arguments of nineteenth-century liberalism can simply be copied and pasted onto today’s world, however inspirational Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill remain. But historical traditions of thought can offer insights into contemporary problems, even when the problems faced are not altogether the same. [5] 

The contemporary problem is, in large part, a result of the moral gulf between liberals and populists. In the context of today’s struggle between liberalism and populism, a return to the moral pillar of liberalism is crucial because neutralism enrages populists, despite its anodyne intentions. To populists, the claim of value-neutrality appears to be a form of contempt for all values. “A liberalism that excludes perfectionism from the public sphere, as neutrality does (440)”, excludes and alienates populists, which is why they see a liberal government that claims to be morally neutral as anathema. One of the things populists are seeking from liberals is respect. Mutually recognizing that your opponents’ values are values and deserve a place in public discourse makes at least some of them more likely to acknowledge that your values are values too. Openly avowed liberal perfectionism, an open embrace of moral/spiritual/religious discourse by liberals, will have the seemingly paradoxical effect of making some populists less afraid of liberalism. After all, who is afraid of Unitarians, Quakers, or even Episcopalians? Satanists, however, are another matter. And without going so far as to embrace some systematic form of perfectionism, liberals can still use moral/religious language that registers with populists.

A liberal return to moral/religious language may thus lessen the mutual contempt between liberals and populists so widespread today. This also requires a different kind of effort by liberals. They must not act as if populists (even Trump voters) are contemptible, not to say deplorable. Liberals need not love their enemies, but despising them is counterproductive—whether it is harder to love your enemies or refrain from despising them is a question that need not be addressed here. Liberal contempt contributes to making populists afraid. The definition of liberalism in Freedom from Fear is “the search for a society in which no one need be afraid” (3-12). Populism appeals to those who have nothing to hope from liberalism, and something to fear. A liberal society has a duty, as well as an interest, to prevent populist fear to the extent possible, just as it has a duty to prevent the illiberal from making others afraid. Sometimes liberals cannot avoid making the illiberal afraid. Those offended by public swimming pools that are not race or gender-segregated must suffer or stay home. Those made afraid by the presence of a competing vision of the good life have no choice but to live in a pluralist world, and a pluralist world is necessarily a world in which different visions of the good life compete. As Mill pointed out, competition arouses the fear of losing the race. But in a pluralist world, fear of competition must be considered one of those fears about which  liberalism can do nothing. Competition, indeed, is an essential element of the political, economic, and moral pillars of liberalism, and a necessary consequence of a pluralist world. Illiberals of all sorts will dislike this.

It should not be thought, however, that liberal perfectionism, a return to liberal moral discourse, will solve the problem of populism on its own. The moral pillar is only one of three, and the simultaneous pursuit of several strategies will be necessary to overcome populist illiberalism. It should be stressed, perhaps more than I did in Freedom from Fear, that it is not only the moral pillar of liberalism that needs renovation, although that is the first task facing liberals today. Liberal democratic political institutions have not been doing very well, and the market pillar of liberalism is under increasing pressure. These problems were not extensively addressed in Freedom from Fear. Which is why my current project, tentatively titled “Democratic Liberalism”, is Freedom from Fear’s logical sequel.

[1] All quotations not followed by page numbers are from Sleat’s review. All citations followed by parenthetical numbers refer to Freedom from Fear.

[2] In the terminology of Freedom from Fear, “Liberalism 3.0”.

[3] This objection, however, does not apply to Ordoliberalism (see 361-71), which arose during the Nazi/Fascist period and flourished post-WWII. Ordoliberalism deserves greater attention than it has received in the Anglophone world.

[4] This is not the only aim of the book, which also makes purely historical arguments, but it is the aim discussed here.

[5] For a more extended discussion of this issue, see the “Methodological Appendix” in Kahan, Tocqueville, Democracy, and Religion: Checks and Balances for Democratic Souls (Oxford, 2015).

Featured image is The Demagogue, by José Clemente Orozco