One of the most curious features of life under political liberalism—for present purposes, the doctrine that the central task of politics is to promote individual autonomy and to secure its preconditions—is that all politics and political conversation happens at one step removed, one meta-level up. Instead of pursuing substantive excellence and justice, we have circuitous conversations about statistical properties like “diversity”; instead of deciding what ought to be permitted, what condemned, we debate “civility”; instead of discerning truth, we quarrel over “religious liberty”; instead of protecting the most vulnerable, we conceal our vices and crimes under the rubric of “choice,” in both market and non-market spheres (although to be fair there are almost no non-market spheres left any more). When we ask about Truth, liberalism answers “What is ‘Truth’? Your truth is not someone else’s truth, and it is no more legitimate to make your truth into public policy than it would be to force your taste in ice cream upon everyone else. All this is solely of private concern.”
Many have observed this, and traced its causes and consequences, including a number of important recent diagnoses of the fragility or even failure of liberalism. It seems to me that some of these diagnoses, acute though they may be, have left out or at least underplayed something simple but important: a deep human revulsion at this muffled, perpetually repressed, and indirect anti-political politics. One cannot perpetually stand at a remove from the substance of our common life, pursuing a shadowy half-life of consumerism in the commercial Market while seeing the civic Forum through a glass darkly. Human nature wearies, sickens, and eventually rebels. The Second Vatican Council speaks of man’s restless desire to “live fully according to truth.” It seems to increasing numbers of people that living fully means living according to the truth not only in the family and local community and marketplace, but in the polity as a whole. Liberalism, in its myopia, has left this out of its calculations, and as a result the liberal order is not ultimately compatible with the deepest desires and beliefs of its subjects. The Achilles’ heel of liberalism is this hunger for the real as expressed in politics, the hunger to come to grips with the substance of the common good.
The most interesting conversation I’ve had lately in an academic setting was with a colleague—a man of the left who thinks of himself as “secular,” but who is in fact animated by a vibrant faith in the progress of history—who asked me to lunch and pressed the question “in a fully Catholic polity, the sort you would like to bring about, what would happen to me, a Jew”? (Nothing bad, I assured him). This was no second-order discussion of “political liberty” or “rights” or “overlapping consensus.” This was a passionate concrete question about the fate of an individual, a people, and the shape that a polity might take, all inseparably linked. It was, at last, after all the academic workshops on “procedural justice” and “tolerance,” a genuinely political conversation.
We are witnessing, with increasing tempo on many fronts, the outbreak of rebellions against anti-political politics. This is a phenomenon of both the “left” and the “right.” That very fact suggests that the left-right dimension is no longer, if it ever was, a particularly useful guide to our politics, and that we need categories more relevant than the seating-chart of the French National Assembly. Trump, Brexit, the recent electoral results in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland and elsewhere — none of these are easy to fit into a standard left-right frame.
One way of understanding the fault-lines emerging in many liberal polities is to cast them as a conflict between liberal elites of the “center” on the one hand, and “populists” who contest the center’s fanaticism on the other, as witness the coalition of left and right populists in Italy. It is sometimes suggested that the main issue is economic — that populism is a reaction by the have-nots against the self-dealing of the haves. In a somewhat more sophisticated variant, the idea is that populism reacts against not only the economic superiority of the haves, but their insufferable cultural smugness, born of conviction of their own merit.
Although all this unquestionably captures something, I don’t think it is the whole story, in part because it leaves out the essentially spiritual dimension of the hunger for the real, of the desire to live fully in the Forum as well as the Market. Consider the offspring of liberalism that goes by the name of “progressivism.” (Let me bracket here inevitable and interminable controversies about taxonomy—whether progressivism counts as a species of the liberal genus, as a corrupted version of true liberalism, or what have you. In my view progressivism is a descendant of classical liberalism, especially in its Lockean and Millian variants, and may justly be termed “liberalism” in the same way that the child traditionally takes on the family name of the father—even if, as in this case, the child and the father are often at odds. Yet these taxonomic and genetic questions are not critical for the questions I pursue here.) In some versions, at least, progressivism gets one big thing exactly right: It attempts to grapple with the real, to make politics and our common life fully and vibrantly political again. And it does so because of the animating faith of its adherents, complete with liturgies and sacraments and hope for salvation and an account of final things, of the end times. To be clear, I believe it to be a corrupted and heretical faith, an odd and distinctive mix of Pelagianism and Gnosticism, but it has this one excellent quality, that it hopes to escape the spectral underworld of liberal politics.
From this point, there are two ways to go wrong. The politics of reality might be, from anyone’s own standpoint, the wrong politics, substantively speaking. A stock liberal claim is that this possibility is so fearsome that everyone prefers or at least ought to prefer public “neutrality”—as among religious views, visions of justice, or any of the other things that people care about most deeply. On this claim, all are risk-minimizers, and liberalism will emerge in equilibrium as the cautious second choice of all. Yet it quickly becomes apparent that this “neutrality” is just another substantive view about who should be allowed into the Forum for what purposes, and what may be said there. The hunger for the real might then make people so desperate, so sick of the essential falsity of liberalism, that they become willing to gamble that the Truth (what liberals would call “their version of truth”) will prevail—or at least willing to gamble on entering into coalition with other sorts of anti-liberals, as in the Italian coalition of “populists” of left and right. In an even better version, the willingness to take one’s chances with post-liberalism is not the spirit of the desperate gambler, but is rather the spirit of faith—never certain, but inspiring and inspired by theologically-inflected hope. This last answer is hardly confined to, say, Catholic traditionalists. The faith in the triumph of a secularized-but-providential history that animates so many strands of progressivism manifestly also fills its adherents with a (warped) version of theological hope. Of course it is true—it’s obvious—that there are versions of non-liberalism that are worse than liberalism. At a certain point, however, people can no longer abide perpetually living in fear of the worst-case scenario. A “liberalism of fear” is ultimately intolerable for creatures fashioned to live in hope.
There is another and somewhat more subtle way that things can go wrong. Liberalism muffles the political in second-order concepts like “civility” and “tolerance” and “choice,” and the hunger for real politics rightly rebels against this. But it does not follow that these concepts have no value at all, when rightly placed within a larger ordering to good substantive ends. If civility, tolerance, and their ilk are bad masters, and tyrannous when made into idols, they may still be good servants. The shibboleths of liberalism all have chastened, nonliberal counterparts, justified in nonliberal terms. J.F. Stephen, the withering Victorian critic of John Stuart Mill, was clear-minded about this, pointing out the many reasons why a prudent sovereign ordering affairs to the common good might choose for that very reason to leave particular matters to individual choice, or might be reluctant to employ the “rough engine” of the law even where serious wrongs occur. “Free trade” and “the free market” are idols, but merchants benefit the community and must be given a duly regulated scope within which to ply their trade. “Civility” and “tolerance” may be cryptic terms in which to measure and regulate the substantive bounds of the views and conduct that will be permitted in a rightly ordered society, but such a society will also value charity, forbearance, and prudence. Hence rejecting liberalism doesn’t entail that men should be allowed to assault teenagers wearing offensive hats. Most generally, as Aquinas observed, a well-ordered society will not use law to suppress all vices and to prescribe all virtues, except to the extent conducive to the common good. Such a society, after throwing down the idol of Liberty, will allow liberties. But even where the nonliberal order happens to reach the same conclusions as a liberal order, it justifies them in different ways and on different grounds.
My main suggestion is not so much about what should be done, but about the constraints that man’s political nature places on what can be done. Ought implies can. The prerequisite for successful political arrangements is that they must in the long run be compatible with the ineradicable human impulse to live fully in a political community ordered towards the truth. As Joseph de Maistre observed, following Aquinas and Aristotle, “before the formation of political societies, man was not a complete man.” Now this impulse to live fully in the civic community of the Forum, not merely in the half-way life of liberalism, is alarming in many ways, but it cannot be denied altogether. It follows that in one way or another it must be controlled and channeled into substantively admirable directions; there is no alternative. The hunger for a real politics must, in some way or another, be sated. Better that it be sated through a sacramental feast.
Header Image: Honoré Daumier, Idea for summer parliament.