Authoritarian Liberalism: 'Going High,' Going Wrong

"Though liberals do a great deal of talking about hearing other points of view, it sometimes shocks them to learn that there are other points of view," the American conservative, William F. Buckley, quipped in Up from Liberalism (1959).  Here he seems to have struck at the heart of a central difficulty afflicting liberals: their tolerant and virtuous self-image tends them to an intolerance of anyone who disagrees.  This is becoming increasingly evident globally, as many liberals cling harder to the power they fear may be slipping from their grasp.

A significant number of Americans were riled during the former administration by the uneasy sense that they were being talked down to by their president and his circle.  "When they go low, we go high," said by the former first lady, unwittingly expressed this moral and intellectual presumption.  It was an instance of a general stance that has propelled the liberal elite away from the populace, turning them from being representatives of the people to a law unto themselves.  Not specific to the U.S., this pattern can be seen across the West. 

Broad though the observation might be, there appears to have been a shift in the West's political culture in the past two decades.  Although Trump, Brexit, and the "populist" surge across continental Europe buck the trend, we are nonetheless still stuck in what U.K. Blairite Peter Mandelson called a "post-democratic age."  Where there was once the separation of powers and a politically neutral bureaucracy, there is now a politicized liberal "Deep State," or "the swamp."  Respect for the outcome of the democratic process, freedom of expression, and the rule of law has been replaced by campaigns to undermine them all.  As far as the fourth estate goes, fact-based independent journalism has disintegrated, and we are now served up mainstream "fake news" propaganda.

These anti-democratic tendencies, evident in Obama, Trudeau, Merkel, Blair, Cameron, May, the E.U., et al., are arguably a logical, if warped, outcome of liberalism, rather than a deviation from it.  But if liberalism is the doctrine of an open society, how did it go wrong? 

In philosophy, for an argument to work, it must tick two boxes.  The argument should be "logically valid" – have no contradictions – and have premises that are true.  It is with the latter that liberal theory tends to fall short.  Despite the elegant structure of its arguments, its claims often do not square with reality.  For instance, the idea that pluralism in society leads easily to tolerance is challenged by Thomas Sowell's observation that "if you look at societies that are 'diverse,' they have all they can do to avoid mutual bloodshed."  Such realities are denied with defensive emotionalism by many liberals in an attempt to preserve their worldview.

Part of the problem with liberalism may be that it begins with lofty ideals and abstractions: "shoulds," which are then imposed on the world and people.  Working from idea to reality, from "high" to "low," in this way, is perhaps liberalism's "original sin" – what the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, ridiculed in Vindication of Natural Society (1756) as being lost in the "fairy land of philosophy."  For liberalism to survive as an ideology, reality must be made to fit the concept, people need to "get with the program," and the doctrine must be preserved against all evidence to the contrary.  

For instance, the popular rhetoric surrounding mass-immigration can often draw on liberalism's assertion of human ethical equality.  But chanting, "No human is illegal" becomes little more than a hollow virtue signal when open borders facilitate the free movement of criminals and terrorists.  As President Trump has boldly asserted by championing "angel families," liberals do not always hold the moral high ground they like to claim – their ideals can yield tragic consequences.  With Angela Merkel's open-door response to the 2015 migration crisis, Europe has likewise seen an attempt to "go high" crash.  Cologne's New Year's Eve sexual assaults and the endlessly heightened terror threat are but two grim consequences.

It is perhaps too painful for many liberals to look at the manifold catastrophes brought about by their naïveté.  It is too painful to have the comfortable fantasy of how they wish the world to be disrupted by evidence to the contrary.  Being honest about the impact of the extralegal mass immigration and enforced "diversity" they have promoted would involve a terrible realization: that they have facilitated rape, murder, terrorism and child abuse and have perhaps permanently damaged Western societies – ironically, the societies that produced their liberalism.  Therefore, to preserve emotional equilibrium, the fantasy of their world of "shoulds" must be preserved and harsh realities denied.  Why else, then, the demands for "safe space"?  The road thus opens to authoritarian liberalism. 

Imposition is inherently authoritarian, no matter how good the intentions might seem, and in pushing their agenda, many liberals have become intolerant of laws, due process, and democracy itself.  Trump has been obstructed by "resistance," particularly from the bureaucratic state, Brexit risks being "reversed," and populist objections to mass-immigration and oligarchy are typically smeared as "far-right."  Furthermore, when the unintended negative consequences of good intentions arise, liberals can be intolerant of both whistleblowers and victims, as has been the case in the U.K.'s ongoing grooming scandal.  In this, underage victims of systematic sexual abuse have been blamed by authorities unwilling to prosecute perpetrators from ethnic minorities – children have been sacrificed on the altar of multiculturalism.  In a similar vein, liberals can be indifferent to, or contemptuous of, the needs of society as a whole – individual rights come first, no matter how niche, as in Obama's insistence on transgender bathrooms.  Tried and tested tradition, such as the vital tradition of accepting legitimate election results, is junked because it might stand in the way of the "arc of history" being bent toward liberal hegemony.  It is hard to accept different points of view or outcomes when one's self-image is a paragon of virtue and tolerance – but this is narcissism, and its effects are malignant.

The English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote in the essay "On Being Conservative" (1956) that government "as the conservative in this matter understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world."  He saw such utopian ideologies as a corruption of the mind and fundamentally oppressive, not least because they insist on a common purpose for all and collective Orwellian "goodthink" – what we nowadays call "political correctness."  Oakeshott argued that government should instead act like an umpire in a cricket match.  An umpire is not actively involved in the game he adjudicates; likewise, a government should aim to restrict itself to enforcing general rules of procedure.  The wisdom of this aspiration for limited government is the understanding that, as he notes, "it is beyond human experience to suppose that those who rule are endowed with a superior wisdom" to those who are ruled. 

The authoritarian tendency lurking in liberalism has now become obvious and is but one aspect of a multifaceted decline in the postwar liberal order.  In contrast to its ideological, "top-down" approach, Trump's handling of the economy and domestic and foreign policy is from the "bottom up" in its pragmatism: for Trump, what seems to count is what works.  His personal quirks jar many, but he is a businessman and a real estate developer who likes to build things and see results.

Trump is not a polished, professional politician, and his earthy ways cohere with the side of conservatism that sees human nature as flawed, life as a series of trade-offs, and heady intellectuals as potentially dangerous fools.  The 45th has brought America back down to Earth, which, despite its imperfections, is not such a bad place after all, given the alternative.  It is, anyhow, the best place to start from if you want to build something on a solid foundation.

"Though liberals do a great deal of talking about hearing other points of view, it sometimes shocks them to learn that there are other points of view," the American conservative, William F. Buckley, quipped in Up from Liberalism (1959).  Here he seems to have struck at the heart of a central difficulty afflicting liberals: their tolerant and virtuous self-image tends them to an intolerance of anyone who disagrees.  This is becoming increasingly evident globally, as many liberals cling harder to the power they fear may be slipping from their grasp.

A significant number of Americans were riled during the former administration by the uneasy sense that they were being talked down to by their president and his circle.  "When they go low, we go high," said by the former first lady, unwittingly expressed this moral and intellectual presumption.  It was an instance of a general stance that has propelled the liberal elite away from the populace, turning them from being representatives of the people to a law unto themselves.  Not specific to the U.S., this pattern can be seen across the West. 

Broad though the observation might be, there appears to have been a shift in the West's political culture in the past two decades.  Although Trump, Brexit, and the "populist" surge across continental Europe buck the trend, we are nonetheless still stuck in what U.K. Blairite Peter Mandelson called a "post-democratic age."  Where there was once the separation of powers and a politically neutral bureaucracy, there is now a politicized liberal "Deep State," or "the swamp."  Respect for the outcome of the democratic process, freedom of expression, and the rule of law has been replaced by campaigns to undermine them all.  As far as the fourth estate goes, fact-based independent journalism has disintegrated, and we are now served up mainstream "fake news" propaganda.

These anti-democratic tendencies, evident in Obama, Trudeau, Merkel, Blair, Cameron, May, the E.U., et al., are arguably a logical, if warped, outcome of liberalism, rather than a deviation from it.  But if liberalism is the doctrine of an open society, how did it go wrong? 

In philosophy, for an argument to work, it must tick two boxes.  The argument should be "logically valid" – have no contradictions – and have premises that are true.  It is with the latter that liberal theory tends to fall short.  Despite the elegant structure of its arguments, its claims often do not square with reality.  For instance, the idea that pluralism in society leads easily to tolerance is challenged by Thomas Sowell's observation that "if you look at societies that are 'diverse,' they have all they can do to avoid mutual bloodshed."  Such realities are denied with defensive emotionalism by many liberals in an attempt to preserve their worldview.

Part of the problem with liberalism may be that it begins with lofty ideals and abstractions: "shoulds," which are then imposed on the world and people.  Working from idea to reality, from "high" to "low," in this way, is perhaps liberalism's "original sin" – what the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, ridiculed in Vindication of Natural Society (1756) as being lost in the "fairy land of philosophy."  For liberalism to survive as an ideology, reality must be made to fit the concept, people need to "get with the program," and the doctrine must be preserved against all evidence to the contrary.  

For instance, the popular rhetoric surrounding mass-immigration can often draw on liberalism's assertion of human ethical equality.  But chanting, "No human is illegal" becomes little more than a hollow virtue signal when open borders facilitate the free movement of criminals and terrorists.  As President Trump has boldly asserted by championing "angel families," liberals do not always hold the moral high ground they like to claim – their ideals can yield tragic consequences.  With Angela Merkel's open-door response to the 2015 migration crisis, Europe has likewise seen an attempt to "go high" crash.  Cologne's New Year's Eve sexual assaults and the endlessly heightened terror threat are but two grim consequences.

It is perhaps too painful for many liberals to look at the manifold catastrophes brought about by their naïveté.  It is too painful to have the comfortable fantasy of how they wish the world to be disrupted by evidence to the contrary.  Being honest about the impact of the extralegal mass immigration and enforced "diversity" they have promoted would involve a terrible realization: that they have facilitated rape, murder, terrorism and child abuse and have perhaps permanently damaged Western societies – ironically, the societies that produced their liberalism.  Therefore, to preserve emotional equilibrium, the fantasy of their world of "shoulds" must be preserved and harsh realities denied.  Why else, then, the demands for "safe space"?  The road thus opens to authoritarian liberalism. 

Imposition is inherently authoritarian, no matter how good the intentions might seem, and in pushing their agenda, many liberals have become intolerant of laws, due process, and democracy itself.  Trump has been obstructed by "resistance," particularly from the bureaucratic state, Brexit risks being "reversed," and populist objections to mass-immigration and oligarchy are typically smeared as "far-right."  Furthermore, when the unintended negative consequences of good intentions arise, liberals can be intolerant of both whistleblowers and victims, as has been the case in the U.K.'s ongoing grooming scandal.  In this, underage victims of systematic sexual abuse have been blamed by authorities unwilling to prosecute perpetrators from ethnic minorities – children have been sacrificed on the altar of multiculturalism.  In a similar vein, liberals can be indifferent to, or contemptuous of, the needs of society as a whole – individual rights come first, no matter how niche, as in Obama's insistence on transgender bathrooms.  Tried and tested tradition, such as the vital tradition of accepting legitimate election results, is junked because it might stand in the way of the "arc of history" being bent toward liberal hegemony.  It is hard to accept different points of view or outcomes when one's self-image is a paragon of virtue and tolerance – but this is narcissism, and its effects are malignant.

The English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote in the essay "On Being Conservative" (1956) that government "as the conservative in this matter understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world."  He saw such utopian ideologies as a corruption of the mind and fundamentally oppressive, not least because they insist on a common purpose for all and collective Orwellian "goodthink" – what we nowadays call "political correctness."  Oakeshott argued that government should instead act like an umpire in a cricket match.  An umpire is not actively involved in the game he adjudicates; likewise, a government should aim to restrict itself to enforcing general rules of procedure.  The wisdom of this aspiration for limited government is the understanding that, as he notes, "it is beyond human experience to suppose that those who rule are endowed with a superior wisdom" to those who are ruled. 

The authoritarian tendency lurking in liberalism has now become obvious and is but one aspect of a multifaceted decline in the postwar liberal order.  In contrast to its ideological, "top-down" approach, Trump's handling of the economy and domestic and foreign policy is from the "bottom up" in its pragmatism: for Trump, what seems to count is what works.  His personal quirks jar many, but he is a businessman and a real estate developer who likes to build things and see results.

Trump is not a polished, professional politician, and his earthy ways cohere with the side of conservatism that sees human nature as flawed, life as a series of trade-offs, and heady intellectuals as potentially dangerous fools.  The 45th has brought America back down to Earth, which, despite its imperfections, is not such a bad place after all, given the alternative.  It is, anyhow, the best place to start from if you want to build something on a solid foundation.