Sometimes when you read about great ideas it seems that is all they are . . . ideas, abstractions, vague concepts, high-minded ideals. We’re fortunate to be living in a time when great ideas matter and fundamental values are on the line.
Great ideas and the core values of liberal democracy are the subject of Francis Fukuyama’s excellent book-length essay, Liberalism and Its Discontents.
To be clear, by “liberalism” Fukuyama is not talking about left-of-center politics. Fukuyama’s focus is is “classical (or humane) liberalism.” This set of ideas transcends the liberal/conservative divides of contemporary culture.
By “liberalism” Fukuyama means “the doctrine that emerged in the second half of the seventeenth century that argued for the limitations of the powers of governments through law and ultimately constitutions, creating institutions protecting the rights of individuals living under their jurisdiction.”
Fukuyama elaborates the characteristics of “classical liberalism,” drawing from philosopher John Gray. “It is individualist, in that it asserts the moral primacy of the person against the claims of any social collectivity; egalitarian inasmuch as it confers on all people the same moral status; . . . universalist, affirming the moral unity of the human species and according a secondary importance to specific historic associations and cultural forms; and meliorist in its affirmation of the . . . improvability of all social institutions and political arrangements.”
All of this, albeit imperfectly realized, is so much a part of the American historical and cultural fabric that we have taken it for granted. No longer!
Take for instance the letter of resignation written by Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, after troops cleared Lafayette Square near the White House during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. I quote from Heather Cox Richardson’s newsletter of August 8.
“After June 1, 2020, when Trump had nonviolent protesters cleared from Lafayette Square with tear gas and batons, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley drafted a resignation letter in which he told Trump, ‘It is my belief that you were doing great and irreparable harm to my country’ with his actions over the past weeks.
“Milley explained that our Constitution means that ‘[a]ll men and women are created equal, no matter who you are, whether you are white or Black, Asian, Indian, no matter the color of your skin, no matter if you’re gay, straight or something in between. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jew, or choose not to believe. None of that matters. It doesn’t matter what country you came from, what your last name is — what matters is we’re Americans. We’re all Americans.”
While Milley ultimately decided not to resign at that time, note the way his letter draws on several of the core ideas and ideals of “classical liberalism” as described, above, by Fukuyama.
First, Milley grounds his argument in the Constitution, which is to say in the rule of law which limits the powers of governments or rulers and protects individuals against abuses of power. Second, he argues the egalitarian moral status of all human beings. “All men and women are created equal.” Rights don’t apply to some groups, races or religions more, or less, than others. Third, while Milley points here to a shared identity as Americans, which transcends historic association and cultural forms (say race or gender), you can also hear implicit in this the universalist note of classical liberalism.
We can be grateful that Milley, like others, stood up against Trump’s incipient authoritarianism. And we can instructed by his reliance on the Constitution and core American values to make an argument that rebuked a President. We can also be concerned that these principles and values are not more broadly understood or valued.
“Classical” or “humane” liberalism is currently challenged, argues Fukuyama, by both the right and the left. The right tends to prize “historical associations and cultural forms” (race, gender, nation) over universal rights and rule of law, while the left tends to view people’s identity as a function of a group (identity politics) instead of seeing people as individuals. That said, Fukuyama says the greater and more immediate threat coming from the right.
“I believe,” writes Fukuyama, ”that liberalism is under severe threat around the world today; while it was once taken for granted, its virtues need to be clearly articulated and celebrated once again.” Fukuyama accomplishes this in ways that are both wise and accessible. He is a great synthesizer of complex ideas and trends.
General Milley wrote the letter, but did not resign…….later let the public know how he felt at the time…….. Not quite as heroic as you would have us believe ; suggest you reacquaint the Nixon era.
Thanks for reviewing this book. There needs to be a more universal discussion of how liberalism was a critical intellectual foundation for creating this republic and when its basic principles are ignored our institutions come under attack.
This is really a hopeless quest.
The “liberalism” you’re talking about was meaningful three centuries ago, when the alternative was aristocracy and monarchy. Today the word is not used in that sense, and the frame is so very different that the original core doesn’t make sense. The word has subsequently been used in so many ways to apply to evolving societal and economic conditions, that its origin is practically irrelevant anyway.
This is not to say we don’t need a critique of what’s going down, but I don’t see it here. Gen. Milley recites the classic liberal values, sure, but why? “We’re all Americans”, OK, but how does that point to a better way than Trump’s to deal with disorderly protests, or more to the point a better way to deal with the current societal conflicts?
Liberalism got us out of the middle ages, but it isn’t going to get us out of this. We’re going to have to assert the 21st century, not the 18th. Our real problem today isn’t how people philosophically view government, the problem is that information has become a weapon that’s wielded with increasing skill to achieve factional ends. People can be made to find their philosophical views of government aligned with whatever serves someone’s purposes.
The difference between a culture discussing and debating and defining ‘liberal’ ideas in past centuries, and a culture contemplating ‘liberal’ ideas today is a shared certainty, a common ground, that reality can be defined in terms the vast majority of people accept as factual truth.
That common ground no longer exists in our current American culture. What used to be common ground defining truth has been churned to a fine dust and dissipated on the winds of political malfeasance by one political party, with the intended result being the destruction of our experiment with a government of, by and for the people.
A republic is you can keep it, indeed.
One of the valuable aspects of the Fukuyama book is his description of the left attacks on liberalism, particularly in academia: critical race theory, the justice-above-all philosophy of John Rawls, identity-theories, and the corrosive theories of post-structuralism. The weakness is to look backward rather than to emerging replacement philosophies. Here I would look to the Left, with its impatience with fine-spun gossamer theories.
This cluster of comments highlights a significant reality; liberalism is not what it used to be. However, that is true for every “ism.” They all morph into something different than what the originators expected. Often as new versions emerge, groups within that “ism” oppose each other.
For instance, neo-liberalism, the latest version of liberalism, was coined by a group of economists with F.A. Hayek as a leader. The last time I saw a sizeable political group gather honoring Hayek was at an ALEC annual gathering. That group is anathema to present-day liberals.
Liberalism is relevant in the political environment, now and in the future, because it calls for a central government to limit its ability to control individual non-violent behavior. And to rule by openly written laws available for all citizens to have a practical means to alter. Liberalism does not address changing the social realm to achieve equality among religious, political, gender, and economic groups. That tension embroils all nations, regardless of their ideology.
Has liberalism not been, from its very earliest days, an anti-clerical perspective as much as anything else? Like, defining and enlarging universal rights, which the church might see as its prerogative, or a social safety net that competes with the church’s? Every innovation that offends the church is invariably a liberal project. Reason over faith. Total separation of church and state, from the beginning. It’s no wonder that the Christian denominations that hold a strong grip on their communities, breathe fire when talking about liberals – they know their ancient enemy.