Is contemporary liberalism (in its lowercase-L sense) an exhausted project, or simply in need of rejuvenation? Wilfred M. McClay, Yuval Levin and James R. Rogers address this weighty subject in the May 2012 issue of First Things. While the entire exchange — a lead essay by McClay, followed up with two shorter responses by Levin and Rogers — is well worth the read, one significant point from Rogers really hit home.
Responding to McClay’s reference to Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument “that emotivist propositions have replaced rational argument over objective moral ends,” Rogers advances the claim that “liberals believe that the emotivistic move reduces conflict and opens venues for conversation rather than conflict….” Why avoid conflict? Rogers suggests that the “residual horror at the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War, underlined by the English Civil Wars, still prompts a visceral reaction by many to any hint of religion in the public square,” and thus by extension, contemporary politics must answer “whether religious belief is intrinsically dangerous and whether claims of absolute truth are consistent with forms of toleration sufficiently robust to offer credible assurance that devastatingly religious conflict will not be repeated.”
Put more simply: Contemporary liberals favor language and arguments that privilege individual feelings or perspectives, because doing so provides a partial block against abstract arguments sourced from absolute truth statements that, if left unchecked, could engender wide-scale social conflict. Hence the concern about Rick Santorum establishing a “theocracy” or the fear that conservative political ends constitute a “war on [insert demographic group here]” even when dispassionate observers believe the fears rhetorically disingenuous.
Take, for example, the gay marriage debate. Proponents on the left usually stake their arguments in a broad reading of human autonomy. Liberals rarely discuss marriage as a socioeconomic institution or a sacramental event and frequently dismiss communitarian objections to gay or plural marriage as inherently discriminatory. Instead, they talk about “marriage equality” or “the right to love whomever you wish” — language that elevates a person’s experiences and his emotional response thereto as an intrinsic good. When you pit a self-referential, emotional plea against an argument that prevents someone from allegedly being true to himself because of inflexible, “uncaring” institutional rules, the progressive will typically favor the former no matter how the latter’s logic unfolds. Why? Because if dispassionate social norms may be brandished to allegedly prevent a person from enjoying the fullness of a loving relationship, what other sociocultural violence may these norms inflict? Thus, the norm itself must be challenged to protect not just gays but everyone from the risk that those rules may be used as weapons against other people in other contexts.
In short: Progressives believe that sociocultural principles founded on abstract or religious truth-claims, by their very nature, increase the risk of theoretical social violence because they infringe on the self-actualization of people who don’t support those norms. So, hey hey ho ho, your abstract norms have got to go!
Rogers’ insight illuminates in a different way the reasons that the progressive left disdains cultural authority and religion and privileges personal authenticity and a person’s emotional response. Yet it doesn’t answer the Lenin Question: What is to be done?
Commentators decry the polarization in the American electorate, yet the lion’s share of the reason has nothing to do with partisan affiliation but rather with the latent worldview differences between contemporary progressives and everyone else. No matter how you construct the arguments about the proper size and scope of government or fair tax rates or regulatory reform, you cannot escape epistemology. If a progressive by default will often reject “common good” or “historical practice” arguments because they conflict with an emotivist rebuttal, there’s no real chance for a meeting of the minds to resolve pressing political problems. You cannot negotiate or debate in good faith when the discussants haven’t resolved the stark differences in their logic models and value systems.
The central insight into the entire question raised by McClay is that contemporary liberalism faces an existential crisis; from a purely intellectual standpoint, the progressive inheritance is largely spent, with no clear path forward for the dominant political philosophy of the Western world. The question, though, is what happens next. Can liberalism adapt and reform? Will it be supplanted by something different? Will it collapse and some other value system fill the gap (as seems to be happening with the increasingly Islamization of parts of Europe)?
As a conservative in the contemporary American ideological sense, I have a vested interest in seeing liberalism as a political system rehabilitated and strengthened. Alas, it seems that the “fix” has to occur from within, but it’s not clear that anything short of crisis will help today’s progressives to re-evaluate the long-term self-destructive ends that their worldview logically entails.