The Liberal Revival

In addition to our own contributions to the intellectual defense of liberalism here in Symposium, I will occasionally round up interesting articles on the future of liberalism that we see elsewhere. (And if you see an interesting one, send it to me at

I’m rounding up these items because I am aware the Symposium is just one part of a larger, still-emerging movement, a revival of “liberal” ideology and institutions as many intellectuals on both the left and the right realize how much those ideals have been neglected.

Notice, for example, a new petition in favor of free speech and against censorious “wokeness,” this one signed by prominent Jewish intellectuals speaking up in defense of “the liberal principles that have long defined Jewish civic life and America’s democratic tradition.”

There is an element of frank self-interest here—and in a good way. One of the noble traditions of Jewish intellectuals in America is their realization that their own safety as a racial and religious minority lies in defending the rights of all minorities.

This is hinted at in the petition, which notes that freedom of speech is “among the essential tools by which American minorities—including Jews—have made progress in advancing the causes of equality and justice.” It also notes what happens when liberal values are subordinated to a narrow, tribalist racial politics. “Because this dominant narrative creates a worldview in which groups are only oppressors or oppressed, it encourages pernicious notions of ‘Jewish privilege,’ even implicating Jews in ‘white supremacy.’” The problem with tribal conflict is that your tribe might not end up on top—and if we can expect anyone to be acutely aware of this, it would be the Jews.

I’ve noted before that the “woke” ideology of the left is an engine of conflict, pitting group against group in an “intersectional” war of all against all. But this is precisely what will recruit growing numbers to a rebellion against this illiberal doctrine. That’s what the petition calls for.

The way to fight racism is to insist on our common humanity—and to engage in dialogue, including with those who dissent…. We members of the Jewish community add our voices to the growing chorus supporting our liberal principles, opposing the imposition of ideology, encouraging open discussions of challenging topics, and committing to achieving a more just America.

The more powerful challenge to the illiberal left is emerging from a new movement for “free black thought,” the beginnings of a rebellion among the very people on whose behalf the “woke” leadership purports to be acting.

If the illiberal left tends to pit groups against one another, it also does the same within each group, demanding that dissenters conform to the party line laid down by self-appointed spokesmen. As Erec Smith explains in Persuasion, this new orthodoxy claims “that you can have African ancestry, dark skin, textured hair, and perhaps even some ‘culturally black’ traits regarding tastes in food, music, and ways of moving through the world. But unless you hold the ‘correct’ political beliefs and values, you are not authentically black.”

But of course, black people are not all the same. Most of them have not been victims of police violence, and most of them don’t live in inner cities or in poverty. Thus, black people certainly don’t all “feel” or “experience” the same things. Nor do they all "experience" the same event in an identical way. Finally, even when their experiences are similar, they don’t all think about or interpret their experiences in the same way.

What the current obsession with a spurious black authenticity and the actual fact of black diversity suggest is that we must begin to attend in a serious way to heterodox black voices. This need is especially urgent given the ideological homogeneity of the “antiracist” outlook and efforts of elite institutions, including media, corporations, and an overwhelmingly progressive academia. For the arbiters of what it means to be black that dominate these institutions, there is a fairly narrowly prescribed “authentic” black narrative, black perspective, and black position on every issue that matters.

Check out the whole article and the Free Black Thought website he links to.

I describe this as a growing rebellion, but it is not a rebellion of wild-eyed radicals with crazy new ideas. Rather, it is a re-assertion of mainstream, formerly bipartisan American liberalism.

Political horse-race expert Harry Enten observes that this is a widely popular cause, and so far the center-left has been allowing conservatives and Republicans to set themselves up as its champions, giving them just about the only popular issue they have left after the last five years.

While Democrats may mock them, the fear of cancel culture and political correctness isn't something that just animates the GOP's base. It's the rare issue that does so without alienating voters in the middle.

Enten cites poll numbers which indicate that voters’ opinions on “wokeness” or “political correctness” is divided by about the same margin they chose Joe Biden over Donald Trump in the last election—but in the opposite direction. That is, voters in this polling sample went for Biden by a 53% to 42% margin, even while they oppose the speech police by a 53% to 46% margin. And this is not just grumpy Boomers but younger voters, too.

[I]t’s not only the case that opposition to political correctness and cancel culture won’t age out of the electorate, but it's something that could conceivably win Republicans a lot more youth support than their baseline….

In other words, the Republicans really do seem to be making a smart political play. Of course, it may be their only political play.

If that’s the case, letting them have the issue all to themselves is worse than a crime, it’s a blunder.

Moreover, conservatives are busy trying to throw away whatever advantage they have on this issue by using opposition to Political Correctness as an excuse to embrace their own apocalyptically unpopular form of illiberalism.

A few months ago, a lot of people got worked up over an article by Glenn Ellmers of the Claremont Institute, a venerable old conservative think tank in California, that borrowed a lot of civil-war-tinged rhetoric from the MAGA crowd. Ellmers declares that “most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” He describes them as “citizen-aliens”and “human rodents,” declares that “the US Constitution no longer works,” and concludes, “Our norms are now hopelessly corrupt and need to be destroyed.”

This led a lot of people to describe the essay as fascistic. But in reading it more closely, I find it more pathetic than ominous. The chest-thumping MAGA-style rhetoric is dangerous and authoritarian in spirit, but Ellmers is still trying to use it to promote the old-fashioned classical liberalism of Claremont’s founder, Harry Jaffa.

Here is what Ellmers imagines he is harnessing all this rhetoric to promote.

[T]he United States was the first nation in the history of the world explicitly founded on the idea that government derives all its legitimacy from the inalienable rights of the people, and makes their consent essential to the common good and justice. 

Inalienable rights? Is that what anybody really thinks this is about?

The current era is full of attempts like this, in which a conservative intellectual sees a grassroots populist-nationalist-authoritarian movement marching down Main Street, so he rushes out in front pretending to be its leader and telling himself he will shape it to his existing ideology—Ellmers hails Claremont’s efforts to “make an intellectual case for Trumpism”—only to have the populist movement shape his agenda, not the other way around.

Giving the lie to this unconvincing effort to dress up classical liberalism in MAGA clothing is the actual crusade of our era’s leading nationalist conservatives, which is to target and denounce the classical liberals.

The loudest of these voices is probably Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor of the New York Post, who took to the Spectator late last week in an attempt to discredit classical liberals on the right by blaming them for the cancel culture aggressions of the illiberal left.

It won’t do for the “classical” liberal to insist that these phenomena are gross distortions of some aboriginal version of his ideology….

At some point, the liberal has to admit that the powdered-wig version of his ideology contained in it the seeds of its woke, repressive variety: that enshrining individual autonomy and choice as the highest goods of human life would eventually create the conditions for a kind of private tyranny, precisely what the common-good tradition of classical and Christian thought had always warned about and sought to restrain.

He does this, not by presenting some devastating argument showing the flaws in classical liberal ideas, but by completely ignoring those ideas and their entire history. As I put it, his basic message “is that once there was the monarchy and the Church—and then there was the French Revolution and contemporary ‘wokeness.’ These are the only two things that have ever happened—and the only two alternatives.”

But he is hardly alone in his outlook. A few months earlier, Damian Thompson warned, “Medieval Fantasists Have Infiltrated America’s Catholic Right.”

[I]t’s an odd time for Catholic intellectuals to be proposing changes to the US Constitution that they hope will be a prelude to the worldwide subjugation of secular rulers to the Catholic Church. But…that’s what’s happening. The movement is generally known as Integralism, a label previously applied to ultra-conservative Catholic reactionaries before World War Two.

This overview of Integralism should have you good and properly alarmed, but do keep in mind the tradeoff here. The vicious illiberalism of the Integralists’ agenda is counterbalanced by its futility. As Thompson notes, this is an odd time for Catholic triumphalism, given that the Church is shrinking and is in even less of a position to achieve dominance over American institutions than it has ever been.

[T]he Integralists have about as much chance of refashioning the Constitution as a Gettysburg reenactment does of altering the actual outcome of the American Civil War. 

Yet he also warns that they enjoy a curious degree of forbearance among the older and more temperate Catholic intellectuals. That trend is underscored out by the fact that Thompson’s own warning appeared in the Spectator, where he is an editor—the same publication that would publish Ahmari’s screed against classical liberalism a few months later.

Writing in The Bulwark, I took Ahmari’s piece as an opportunity to look at this bigger picture, the intellectual crackup and dissolution of the conservative movement. I focused particularly on the one ideological and terminological decision that laid the groundwork for the illiberal takeover.

This is the price conservatives are paying for long ago giving up on the term “liberal” and agreeing to use it to describe anything on the left, no matter how illiberal it might be. It is the price they are paying for giving up on defining their own philosophy as “liberal”—as a defense of freedom—rather than as a mere clinging to tradition.

That decision turns out not to have been merely semantic or terminological, but to have real, substantive consequences.

You may say, as the best conservatives do, that what you are trying to conserve is the American founding and its classical liberal ideas. But the act of couching your outlook as “conservative” has the effect of shifting your focus toward the preservation of the past as such and draws you into an ideological and political alliance with those for whom the value of liberal principles is secondary at best. It creates a political category that attempts to encompass the souls of both Thomas Jefferson and Archie Bunker—and ultimately cannot contain both….

When you let these people paint the totalitarian woke left as “liberals,” think about how much of the glorious history of human freedom this sweeps out of existence. Think about how much you are giving up by abandoning the banner of liberalism to those who don’t deserve it.

This, of course, ties in to the basic idea and central cause of Symposium. Just as the mainstream liberals should not cede the initiative to the illiberal right when it comes to opposing “woke” ideological conformity, so the classical liberal right should not agree to abandon the mantle of “liberalism” to the illiberal left.

Both should recognize the common cause we share and recognize it by our embrace of a shared word.