How does a Conservative differ from a Liberal? Part 5 (Illiberals and Anti-Liberals)
Updated: Apr 5
The conservative conserves both ancient and modern wisdom. What happens, then, when ancient and modern wisdom conflict? As I attempted to show in Part 2, the ancients viewed liberty as a balance between freedom from external forces and internal restraints upon our passions. They did not believe the individual was truly “free” if, having been set free from all external authorities, they became enslaved to their animalistic instincts. It was for this reason much of the complex systems of religious traditions, fealty to one’s ruler, and customs and norms were developed—to keep the individual’s appetites in check.
Liberalism turned this idea on its head, insisting that the arbitrary power structures that had been carefully built over the centuries had abused their powers and were needlessly restraining the individual from liberalism’s understanding of liberty—freedom from restrictions imposed by external authority. Much of modern conservatism has been a balancing act of encouraging the sort of freedom afforded to the individual by liberalism while insisting that our institutions, traditions, and culture must be maintained in some sense.
“The institutions which conservatives wish to preserve are, and for two centuries were called, liberal institutions, i.e., institutions which maximize personal liberty vis-à-vis a state, a church, or an official ideology,” Irving Kristol explained. In this grand compromise conservatives hope to have the best of both worlds: a secular, liberal society composed of people who are themselves steeped in their culture’s religious traditions.
John Adams’ famous admonition springs to mind: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” There is nothing religious about the Constitution, yet it is specifically suited to a people actively working to reign in their passions. That is to say, a political system in which the people govern themselves only works when the people are in the habit of governing themselves.
But there are some conservatives who reject this balance between ancient and modern ideas—that is, they reject the grand “compromise”. They believe liberalism itself is the problem and that any allowance made for the liberal ideology will invariably undermine the religious and cultural institutions conservatives cherish. We might call these conservatives the illiberals.
We’ve already heard from a prominent illiberal. Notre Dame political science professor Patrick Deneen gained notoriety with his book I’ve quoted throughout this series, Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen insists that liberalism will ultimately undermine every institution in America until democracy itself is ruined. “Democracy, in fact, cannot ultimately function in a liberal regime,” Deneen claims. “Democracy requires extensive social forms that liberalism aims to deconstruct, particularly shared social practices and commitments that arise from thick communities, not a random collection of unconnected selves entering and exiting an election booth.”
Throughout the book, Deneen argues that the problem with liberalism is that it eviscerates all but the individual and the state in its ruthless quest to “free” the individual. But because humans are association-seeking creatures, what transpires is not truly autonomous individuals finally free of one another, but an all-consuming state fueled by the simple fact it’s the only association left with any vigor or function. Deneen offers a grim picture of the climax of liberalism:
“Taken to its logical conclusion, liberalism’s end game is unsustainable in every respect: it cannot perpetually enforce order upon a collection of autonomous individuals increasingly shorn of constitutive social norms, nor can it provide endless material growth in a world of limits. We can either elect a future of self-limitation born of the practice and experience of self-governance in local communities, or we can back inexorably into a future in which extreme license coexists with extreme oppression.”
On a personal note, I find Deneen’s argument compelling. There’s just one problem: he doesn’t offer an alternative to the liberal system. As we’ve explored throughout this series, no other system has been shown to extend nearly as much liberty to the individual from arbitrary external authority while, at the same time, maintaining order in society. If liberalism is to be discarded, we first need to identify a suitable replacement.
The fact that Deneen doesn’t offer a comprehensive alternative to classical liberalism doesn’t mean that others haven’t tried. A few months ago author Sohrab Ahmari set the conservative world aflame with his controversial article entitled Against David Frenchism. The article took shots at David French’s supposed weak and ineffective brand of classical liberal conservatism and offered up Donald Trump as a sort of messianic hero for the Right. Without getting into a lengthy digression I’ll simply point the reader to a post I did on Ahmari’s article if they’re interested in learning more.
My point in bringing this up is that Sohrab’s approach is becoming increasingly commonplace among those on the Right who insist we’re “not winning” or that Donald Trump’s brand of nationalist populism offers the only last-ditch hope of restoring the glory of an imagined past whenever America was “great”. While there is much that could be said on the matter, what interests us here is that voices such as these could be described as far more than illiberal—they’re downright anti-liberal.
The anti-liberals insist, with varying degrees of radicalism, that the great American experiment of liberal democracy—the entire secular apparatus of self-rule and conceding losses in an election and arguing your policy proposals and ideas in a public forum with people who don’t share your worldview—is over. They are no longer satisfied with conserving the liberal order as they don’t believe it is capable of preserving our culture of American virtues or—for some—Christian identity and culture.
In seeking to tear down liberalism they’re more than just anti-liberal, they’re anti-conservative. For conservatism has long accepted liberalism as a necessary, even desirable, system for protecting the rights of the minority. And, even for conservatives who object to liberalism—such as illiberals like Deneen—they have long been wary of radical structural changes, preferring slow, contemplative reforms.
Generations before Deneen penned his criticism of liberalism, Irving Kristol questioned the long-term viability of a secular liberal society: “What if the ‘self’ that is ‘realized’ under the conditions of liberal capitalism is a self that despises liberal capitalism, and uses its liberty to subvert and abolish a free society?” This is hardly a new issue, but the central challenge of every generation of conservatives: how do we conserve a thick culture of traditions and norms with secular liberalism that seeks to put the desires of the individual above all other groups and associations?
Some conservatives (the illiberals) have responded that these our contradictory ideas that simply cannot be reconciled while others (classical liberals) have asked what good is conservatism if it isn’t capable of conserving the most stable, prosperous, and liberating system of government ever known? Still others—the anti-liberals who I dare not call conservative—insist in foregoing the entire liberal system and replacing it with a brash nationalism that mandates a sort of Branson-style American culture.
I am sympathetic to the illiberal’s concerns. But in the end conservatives must face the stern reality that unless and until there is a viable alternative to the liberal system, liberalism will forever be worth conserving.