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Individualism’s Staying Power

The essence of liberalism is the culture of individual expression, and it’s here to stay.

Richard Thompson Ford

It’s now a commonplace that liberal democracy is under threat or in retreat in much of the world. Francis Fukuyama offers a deeper analysis of the crisis, noting that liberal institutions and norms such as the rule of law; human rights; and the independence of institutions like the courts, law enforcement, the military, central banks, and administrative agencies are more threatened than democracy itself. Yet, another type of liberalism—what we might call liberal culture—is as strong as ever, so much so that in much of the world no alternative worldview is even imaginable, much less feasible.

I explore the relationship of popular culture to liberal political ideals by looking at the importance of clothing and fashion in political and social movements, a topic of my book, Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History. The book examines laws and rules surrounding attire starting in the late Middle Ages, when the modern liberal sensibility was just taking shape. The new fashions of this early modern era were much more expressive and varied than those of the ancient and early medieval worlds. They expressed not just social position but also personality, letting people present themselves, first and increasingly foremost, as unique individuals. Fashion reflected and helped to shape new ideas about the importance of individuality—ideas that disrupted and undermined older social orders that had subsumed individuals within dynastic, feudal, and religious relationships.

A surprising number of laws of the time were designed to control the expressive power of fashion. Sumptuary laws governed what people could wear according to social rank, allowing aristocrats and royalty to use fashion to reinforce older hierarchies. But new expressive fashions readily expressed individual personality and became visible propaganda for liberal ideals; indeed, in a sense, people actually experienced liberal individualism on their own bodies.

For example, a liberal sensibility emerged in England during the Commonwealth after the execution of Charles I and grew even with the restoration of the monarchy, which weakened Puritan dominance without reinstating absolutist ambition. This sensibility inspired new fashions: a relaxed aristocratic dress suitable for landed gentry, who could abandon Puritan asceticism while no longer needing a royal court’s opulence and formality. According to the fashion historian Norah Waugh, an English tourist arriving in Paris in 1752, who felt compelled to shed his light frock coat for a more ornate French costume, complained:

I thought myself as much deprived of my Liberty, as if I had been in the Bastile[sic]; and I frequently sighed for my little loose Frock, which I look upon as an Emblem of our happy Constitution; for it lays a Man under no uneasy Restraint, but leaves it in his Power to do as he please.

Cultural liberalism reflects a worldview based on the primacy of individual liberty and human flourishing. It is expressive, individualistic, and exuberant; it chafes at constraint by tradition and repressive hierarchies. Some disparage it as superficial and anomic, but it reflects a profound ethos: it prizes individual expressiveness and authenticity, values the intimate drama of biography over the grandeur of the heroic epic, and insists on the dignity of the common person over the honor of the high-born. It is sometimes defiant and resistant, as in the black power, women’s, and gay rights movements. Sometimes it is sly and subversive, insinuating itself into older, traditional, even illiberal customs and institutions and transforming them from the inside—as American entertainment and commercial culture have done in secularizing once primarily religious celebrations like Christmas and Easter; as modern televangelists and mega-church preachers do when they convert religious worship into mass entertainment and consumerism; as cosmetics companies do when they advertise a heavily made-up woman wearing a hijab; as multinational luxury brands have done in transforming Communist China’s cities into centers of capitalist individualism and consumption.

While the institutional liberalism of political theory is high-minded and idealistic, cultural liberalism is brash, often vulgar and typically irreverent. Yet it is the liberalism that most people who are not paid to explore ideas embrace and practice in their daily lives. If you ask most Americans about checks and balances or the rule of law, you will get blank stares. If you ask about rights, you will get forceful but often incorrect accounts of the entitlements of citizenship. But if you ask about individual freedom and personal expression, you will get a well considered and largely sensible, if controversial, answer.

One could argue that the political and institutional arrangements of liberalism are simply those that struck certain thinkers as most likely to promote individual flourishing. In some cases, the connection is quite obvious and straightforward: individual rights for example. In others it is more tenuous: For instance, it is not immediately obvious that limited government is more conducive to individual flourishing than government with presumptive authority over everything: the need for such limitations arises from the human shortcomings of political leadership, a lesson the history of failed utopias has taught us.

People who have forgotten that lesson—or never learned it—may be tempted by populist authoritarianism. But even such illiberal reflexes are consistent with a type of cultural liberalism, motivated by a commitment to a corrupted but still recognizably liberal type of individualism and expressive dignity. Indeed, the driving impulse underlying the popularity of authoritarian Trumpism is the perceived indignity experienced by white people in increasingly culturally marginal geographic regions and occupations who are losing the racial status that was their last hold on social esteem. Ironically, the aspiration of neo-fascism is a revival of individual prestige.

Similarly, much of the rise of religious fundamentalism is an outgrowth of cultural liberalism. Religious fundamentalism, as careful observers have long noticed, is not a revival but a new, distinctively contemporary phenomenon. For instance, in the United States, sectarian zealots demand religious liberty and tolerance of what they see as an embattled minority viewpoint. Religious extremists seek to pursue a way of life, central to their individual sense of self, that contemporary cosmopolitan society stigmatizes or makes impractical. Among such committed sectarians, almost no one wants to trade individual expressive freedom for the reassurance of a collective orthodoxy. In its ability to inspire personal allegiance, the Kingdom of Heaven has nothing on the Empire of Fashion.

For liberals, this gives reason for hope and for worry. On the one hand, the cultural and psychological foundations of liberalism may be more secure than ever. On the other hand, cultural liberalism may be as likely to lead to illiberal practices and institutions as to liberal ones, whenever some citizens are willing to pursue their own individual flourishing at the expense of others. The deep-seated and long-lived nature of the American racial hierarchy is clear evidence that liberal sensibilities can coexist with profoundly illiberal practices. This leads many to reject liberalism as a mere apology for an unjust status quo, leaving it embattled on all side: from ethno-nationalist fascists on the one side and from egalitarian radicals on the other.

But if liberalism is practically consistent with illegitimate hierarchy and oppression, it also provides the readiest basis for attacking them. The most familiar and most compelling basis for a sweeping critique of social prejudice and for a demand for tolerance lies in liberal ideals. The commitment to eliminating bias, prejudice, and discrimination—indeed, the very way of thinking that conceives of society in such terms—is a product of liberalism.

Cultural liberalism is not a systematic worldview or a political program. Like any cultural disposition, it’s messy, inconsistent, and unpredictable. But it inspires and underlies liberal institutions. In this respect, liberalism isn’t going out of style. In fact, one could say it’s still the hottest fashion.

Richard Thompson Ford, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is George E. Osborne Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. He is author of the forthcoming book, Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History (February 2021).

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