Has Democratic Liberalism Failed?


As a minister in a conservative protestant church I am well aware of the animosity many people have towards political liberalism, but I was not aware that there was such a strong antipathy towards classical liberalism. While reading Brad East’s review of Why Liberalism Failed in the LA Review of Books and the many articles that he linked throughout his writing, I discovered this deep-seated aversion, but I kept getting the feeling that a large part of this debate centers around two fundamental problems, mistaken categories and fallacies of composition. The first mistake seems to revolve around the grey area between, classical liberalism (the value of liberty and equality) and political liberalism or leftism (the value of strong central authority as opposed to conservatism and "the right"). In this grey area it is difficult to speak clearly because the terminology is so similar, the ideology so different, and the stakes so high. To prevent confusion I will use classical or democratic liberalism and political liberalism or leftism throughout.

The second problem I am referring to, the fallacy of composition, is seen in this quote from T.S. Eliot which Brad includes from Jake Meador’s article Debating the Actual Crisis of Liberalism, “(Classical) Liberalism can prepare the way for it’s own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos...by destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, (and) by licensing the opinions of the most foolish.” Before pointing out why it is a mistake to attribute these societal woes to classical liberalism, I have to highlight the tremendous irony in Eliot’s quote because it is only by equating the problems he lists with classical liberalism itself, thereby undermining the true value of classical liberalism, that it can ever be negated.

In any society you have a political and a social order, like the opposing sides of the triptych on the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Those two orders are ruled primarily by the state and the church. It is disingenuous for those within the church to blame the ills of society primarily on the vision and execution of the dominant political order (democratic liberalism). The reason this is a fallacy of composition is because moral and practical failures by a part of society does not prove that the political or social order has failed as a whole. Classical liberalism does not itself destroy social habits, dissolve collective consciousness, or license the opinions of fools, it simply forms a society which makes those things possible. If those things do occur it is most likely a failure of the social order (church) rather than the political order (state).   

What we have to realize first is that there is a tremendous pressure within the church to blame the political order, because if it isn’t the political orders fault then the church will have to take responsibility for the corruption of society. And the church is notoriously bad a taking responsibility for its actions, as Ephraim Radner points out in his book Brutal Unity which focuses on this phenomenon, “The dead bodies, as it were, are already gathered by the time churches admit to complicity in their murder.” Liberalism may give people the freedom to reject their traditions but if they ultimately decide to do so the fault lies in the tradition not in the freedom of rejection.

Many of the proponents quoted in Brad’s review suffer from a common trinity of Western flaws which include an under-realized and fatalistic eschatology, a demonization of freedom, and an overly deterministic interpretation of the OId Testament. I will attempt to deal with each of these flaws individually but concisely. First, an under-realized and fatalistic eschatology. As Athanasius said in his classic work On the Incarnation, when the gospel came to Alexandria, the King arrived in the clouds with glory. We are not waiting for some future point outside of time in which the King will arrive and set things right. Jesus’ was not mistaken when he said that some of you will not taste death until you see the son of man coming in his kingdom. Daniel’s interpretation has been fulfilled and even more. The pre-christian empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome have been overthrown AND the descendants of Rome the post-christian empires of Great Britain, France, Spain, and Russia have been toppled as well. This, in and of itself, is proof that the moral arc of the universe does bend towards justice and it has not "cracked under the weight of empire," even with constant attempts to undermine it’s greatest political rival, the freedom found in democratic liberalism. Second, a demonization of freedom. Western christianity’s demonization of freedom is so well documented that I don’t need to waste time detailing it and drawing correlations to our tendency to demonize classical liberalism as a parallel.

Finally, our tendency towards an overly deterministic interpretation of the Old Testament may be our strongest reason for attacking classical liberalism. We often view the events in the Old Testament as God’s elaborate plan to redeem Israel and the world, but more often than not Israel is not following God’s ultimate desire but their own stubborn path. This can be seen most clearly in their demand for a human king. God’s desire is for human autonomy where he alone is their king but humanity's desire is to constantly build their own kingdoms and crown their own kings to rule over the state and the church. One of the most consistent themes throughout all of scripture is God’s resistance to human empires. Thankfully, Socrates argument holds true to reason and to God’s will, that even if we define justice as the will of the stronger, when the weak work together they will always be more powerful. It will ultimately be their will and by association God’s will that wins out, and no amount of blame shifting can change that.

Hopefully my use of the term classical liberalism throughout this essay has not been to burdensome and I hope that it has served as a reminder to how confusing this debate can become. I am a conservative and I already know that despite my distinction between classical liberalism and political liberalism or leftism many people who read this will be tempted to see it as a defense of leftism. Also, I am not a staunch enemy of leftism as many conservatives are. I believe that the right and left are both working towards liberty and equality for the masses but in radically different ways. Both are working towards keeping power out of the hands of a few wealthy elites at the top. Unfortunately an oligarchy has already been established in the United States primarily because the rich have convinced the left and the right to view each other as their enemies and now it seems they’ve even convinced us that the freedom we have found through democratic liberalism is part of the problem as well.