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When Liberalism Grows Up

For all its flaws, liberalism still has a future—it just may look different from what we are used to.

Dhruva Jaishankar

The end of the history of music, at least in the Western classical tradition, can be dated to the warm, rainy evening in August of 1952 in Woodstock, New York, when a pianist first performed John Cage’s “4'33"”, a work consisting solely of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. Cage’s composition was perhaps the natural conclusion of a cultural evolution that began in medieval abbeys and Renaissance courts, thrived in German churches and Italian opera houses, and flourished under Dvorak, Mahler, and Shostakovich.

Despite the uproar over “4'33"”, music did not die. Less than two years later, in July of 1954, Bill Haley and His Comets enjoyed rock and roll’s first major commercial success with “Rock Around the Clock.” Over the next seven decades, popular music exploded, evolved, and globalized: bebop, folk, bossa nova, blues rock, soul, country, glam, reggae, prog rock, disco, punk, metal, new wave, grunge, hip-hop, reggaeton, EDM, K-Pop, mumble rap. Classical music stayed popular, but further innovation in that genre was relegated to the ivory tower, subsidized performing arts centers, and the occasional film score.
Liberalism may be at a similar point today. A combination of social compacts, globalization, demographics, and technology have made evident some of liberalism’s limitations. But we could just as likely see not a reversion to a pre-liberal past, but an explosion of new diverse, experimental, chaotic, and rebellious liberal political traditions.

Just as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, or Bob Marley would have sounded jarring to Bach or Brahms, future liberalism may appear almost unrecognizable to today’s observer. And yet, just as the functions and forms of classical music are foundational and familiar to any contemporary performer of popular music (there would be no Beyoncé without Beethoven, no Chance the Rapper without Tchaikovsky), liberalism could well remain the basis of all future politics. Contemporary life almost anywhere in the world is so pervasively imbued with liberalism that it will be impossible to fully escape its gravitational force.

Francis Fukuyama, in his essay “Liberalism and Its Discontents,” mourns the global “wave of discontent” with liberal democracy, a system of governance that ensures checks and balances by combining accountability with the rule of law. He says that liberalism, by ensuring human dignity through tolerance, equal rights, and individual choice, “tends toward a kind of universalism.” He laments the threats now faced by liberalism from within and without—from authoritarian regimes, the economic forces of neoliberalism run amok, and the cultural hollowness created by stoic individualism.

This account of liberalism and its present-day challenges may be zeitgeist-appropriate, but it is not entirely satisfying. One problem is that liberalism, without sufficient context, is frustratingly nebulous. As historian Adam Tooze notes, liberalism “means and has meant many different things:” After all, “John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, John Rawls and Margaret Thatcher are all reasonably identified as liberals.”

In fact, depending on your vantage point, two very distinct strains of liberalism either briefly converged or split apart around the time of the French Revolution. There was the bourgeois liberalism of Hanseatic burghers, London coffeehouses, Scottish moral philosophers, and landed American colonists. Then there was proletarian liberalism, which recognized structural inequities and believed that politics was about righting social and economic wrongs in favor of the systemically disadvantaged. Both conceptions arose within the Third Estate; both required rebellion against the ancien régime of the European aristocracy. But they diverged to become the forerunners of the Western political traditions of the right (conservatism, libertarianism, Austrian economics, Christian democracy) and left (progressivism, socialism, Keynesianism, social democracy). In this sense, all modern democratic politics in advanced industrial societies has been a contest between two liberal traditions.

Additionally, liberalism, contrary to Fukuyama’s somewhat Whiggish account of its progress, stumbled from crisis to crisis for much of its history. Despite the 18th-century revolutions, the 19th century was in some ways decidedly illiberal, featuring a reactionary political elite in Europe, chattel slavery in the United States, and global wars of nationalism and colonialism. The first half of the 20th century forced the more liberal powers to contend with fascism and manifestations of competing imperialisms, including colonial competition, domestic oppression, and ideological compromises. In the second half of the century, liberals had to contend against Soviet communism, often prioritizing ends over means. The people of Algeria, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile, and South Africa may be forgiven for their lack of nostalgia for the post-World War II liberal international order. Fukuyama’s contention that postwar Europeans “saw the folly of organizing politics around an exclusive and aggressive understanding of nation” does not fully acknowledge Europe’s rigidity when it came to immigration, decolonization, and multiculturalism.

None of this means that liberalism should be jettisoned on grounds of hypocrisy, as its critics frequently conclude; but the case for liberalism is far stronger if made on concrete and material rather than moral grounds. It remains the case that liberalism, not any other ideology, created the conditions for the absence of large-scale conflict and the growth of unprecedented (albeit unevenly distributed) global prosperity over the past three decades.

There are also inconsistencies in Fukuyama’s portrayal of the universality of liberalism. As he observes, liberal individualism has always been at odds with the social proclivities of human beings, especially in “non-Western societies,” where “kin, caste, or ethnic ties are still facts of life.” Yet he subsequently argues that “liberalism properly understood is perfectly compatible with communitarian impulses and has been the basis for the flourishing of deep and diverse forms of civil society.”

So, is liberalism then universal, or isn’t it? Is it compatible with identity politics—and, if so, to what extent? Those questions remain unresolved; and, being unresolved, they lie at the heart of many of liberalism’s problems today.

For liberalism, the equivalent of John Cage’s “4'33"” composition may have been the evening in August of 2008 when the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics served as an announcement of China’s global ambitions. On the same day, Russian forces entered Georgia. In the same month, Lehman Brothers laid off 1,500 employees, a precursor to its crash and the global financial crisis. In that year, the Chinese navy deployed to the Gulf of Aden in its first modern operations outside its claimed territorial waters. These developments, though obscured by Barack Obama’s historic election victory that November, heralded an end to Western liberal primacy.

Still, liberalism has not come crashing down in the years since. Liberal aspirations—human dignity, individualism, equal rights—remain achievable, desirable, and inherently unobjectionable. What the events of the last twelve years have done is to expose liberalism’s inherent weaknesses. Human beings are not just logical but emotional creatures. Free markets attain miraculous economic growth but undermine equality of opportunity. Access to abundant information does not guarantee enlightenment. Individuals exercising free choice may choose to be tribal. Elected officials exploit these conditions.

The way to perfect these imperfections is not simply to reaffirm liberalism’s moral superiority. It is to tinker continuously with liberalism, exploring the potentially infinite variations upon its themes.

Dhruva Jaishankar is executive director of ORF America in Washington, D.C.

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