February 22, 2021, Issue

(Roberto Parada)

Our Illiberal Moment

The virtues that our political order requires are in decline

Charles C. W. Cooke

Voltaire’s apocryphal maxim “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is in the process of being turned squarely on its head. Today, a more suitable rendering might read: “I disapprove of what you say, you are exiled, goodbye.”

To be adequately maintained, classical liberalism demands three key virtues. Humility, so that each of society’s competing factions might comprehend that it will not always hold power. Tolerance, so that the habitual reaction to a difference of opinion is the shrug rather than the bayonet. And forbearance, so that the immediate rush of victory can be subordinated to longer-term ambition. Little by little, we are losing all three and, as they go, forgetting the good practices that have built, sustained, and improved our remarkable society for generations.

Thus far, these losses have been primarily limited to our culture. For now, the Supreme Court continues to stand athwart, especially in defense of free speech. But, with culture sitting upstream of the law, and with the institutions that are supposed to be the most committed to liberalism rapidly becoming the institutions that are the least committed to liberalism, we cannot expect that this will remain true forever. The New York Times is, of course, within its legal and institutional rights to issue craven apologies for the crime of having irritated its readers’ sensibilities, just as the paper’s staff is within its rights to pretend that a given column has meaningfully put them in “danger.” But it matters when it happens. Behavior breeds behavior, and every time the employees of Politico revolt because Ben Shapiro edited Playbook for a day, or the crew at New York magazine decides that it “can’t even” with Andrew Sullivan, or the team at The Atlantic insists that the appearance of Kevin Williamson’s byline represents a mortal threat, or CNN’s Oliver Darcy proposes that the competitors to the cable network for which he works should be shut down, our hard-won customs are damaged a little more. Read a piece about a contretemps at a major American press outlet and you will invariably learn of a split between the “old guard,” which is committed to free speech and pluralism, and the “woke young,” which is not. That old guard was a young guard once, though. And, one day, the woke young will be the woke old.

Our political antennae are trained to look for individuals with too much power, which, given the history of the 20th century, is no bad thing. And yet our current predicament is the product of a somewhat different phenomenon: the inward-facing mob. Why did the New York Times become an unbearable workplace for someone as moderate and open-minded as Bari Weiss? Because its staff, complaining and haranguing and egging each other on in Slack, put pressure on their bosses and all but took over the joint. Why did Twitter choose to delete President Trump’s account, and Amazon Web Services choose to delete Parler? Because the lower-downs pushed and pushed and pushed until the companies did “the right thing.” Why are due process and open debate recast as “apologism” on college campuses when the defendant or the speaker is disliked? Because administrators who should know better fear that their offices will be filled with protesters or that they themselves will be targeted. Much of the criticism of our new American illiberalism focuses in on the ideologies that inform it. Not enough of that criticism, however, is engaged in analyzing the motive. It is undoubtedly the case that a good number of Americans have swallowed whole the idea that classical liberalism is a smokescreen for all sorts of insidious isms. But an even bigger number, one suspects, are simply using the weapons they’ve been handed. One need not be an incisive student of history to understand that when a man is told that he can silence his critics by merely claiming to feel “unsafe,” he will quickly claim to feel unsafe. 

As for those of us who have no interest in silencing anyone? Well, we face the age-old liberal problem of being obliged to advance our arguments in defense of someone — or something — that is unpopular. When, in 1978, the American Civil Liberties Union defended the right of Holocaust-denying neo-Nazis to march through a Chicago suburb with a sizeable Jewish population, its leadership was asked why it was spending its time and resources in the service of such a repugnant endeavor. But this, of course, was the wrong question, predicated on the wrong assumption. In practice, the ACLU was not defending, endorsing, or empowering neo-Nazism but conserving an imperative principle: that even the least favored of all figures within American society are entitled to their rights. That the ACLU considered the neo-Nazis to be revolting was not beside the point so much as it was the point. Yes, few Americans would have wept had the neo-Nazis been denied their permit — or, even, had they been arrested. But, at various points, the same was true of other reviled minorities, including those who happened to be correct — among them, abolitionists and civil-rights advocates. As the ACLU had learned over the years, one cannot pick and choose whom to defend based on one’s personal moral preferences without setting legal and cultural precedents that one will eventually come to regret. 

Today, this notion is under threat. Consider, by way of example, the manner in which self-described liberals habitually talked during Robert Mueller’s interminable investigation into the Trump campaign. The mere fact that Trump had been accused of colluding with the Russian government was sufficient warrant for many to assume guilt; reports that the president or his associates might plead the Fifth Amendment were met with the insistence that “only criminals” would do such a thing; complaints about the FBI’s bad habit of finding process crimes to prosecute when it cannot find anything concrete were met with eye rolls; and warnings about the danger of, say, perjury traps were dismissed as distractions (“One easy way to avoid the ‘perjury trap,’ ” tweeted the New York Times’ Nick Kristof, stupidly: “Don’t lie.”) Even the denouement was grotesque. At the press conference announcing his findings, Mueller invented an entirely new standard of guilt, and nobody batted an eye. “If we had had confidence that the president had clearly not committed a crime,” Mueller explained, “we would have said so.”

Oh, is that how it works in America?

Because the targets of the investigation were Donald Trump and his entourage, all of the Left’s traditional skepticism toward such shenanigans disappeared instantly, while those who demanded that it be restored were denounced as naïfs or stooges or “anti-anti-Trumpers” or whatever other description happened to be doing the rounds at MSNBC that day. But the skeptics, as usual, were right. Donald Trump is a well-connected septuagenarian billionaire and was, at the time of the investigation, the president of the United States. Which is another way of saying that Donald Trump was about as well placed to weather the storm as it was possible for an American to be. Do you know who isn’t so well placed? Almost everyone else, that’s who. There is a reason we all know that scene from A Man for All Seasons, in which Sir Thomas More berates William Roper for his willingness to bend the rules (“And when the last law was down — and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?”), and that reason is that it is timelessly true. We may fancy ourselves to be more advanced than the Tudors, but we still cannot cut down the rules that protect the Devil without cutting down the rules that protect the saints. 

A similar mania obtained during the Brett Kavanaugh saga, certain parts of which would have been considered a little too on-the-nose by the denizens of Salem. Within hours of the accusations having been brought by Christine Blasey Ford, many figures within the Democratic Party and the press had begun referring to Ford as a “victim” or a “survivor” — designations that, by definition, can be bestowed only after an evidence-based tribunal has demonstrated culpability. From there, they never let up, even after it had become obvious that no such evidence would be forthcoming — and, indeed, after key witnesses had confirmed that they had no memory of what had been alleged. Among the ploys attempted by Kavanaugh’s opponents were that he should be disqualified purely because he had been accused; that his anger and upset at having been described as, among other things, a gang-rapist was evidence of both his guilt and his unsuitability for the bench; and that because other men who attended similar elite schools have behaved badly, he should simply be presumed to have done whatever terrible things the worst actors in the press and the legal profession could dream up. For a few weeks in late 2018, it seemed as if America’s commitment to liberalism was being tested and that America was failing that test spectacularly. Had Senator Susan Collins not come out swinging, it would have.

Still, I suppose we can’t say we weren’t warned. In 2014, Ezra Klein laid out the progressive position on campus sexual-assault cases, arguing in Vox that while critics might “worry that colleges will fill with cases in which campus boards convict young men . . . of sexual assault for genuinely ambiguous situations,” such a development would in fact be “necessary for the law’s success.” Or, put another way, Klein proposed that women as a category were at risk, so we should knowingly sacrifice some men — a repugnant approach that represented a flat disavowal of the principle that individuals should be judged on their merits. Alas, Klein’s submission was not an outlier. As has been made clear by his relentless attempts to strip due process from college students, Joe Biden, the current president of the United States, agrees with Klein completely — and, if anything, wishes to take his foolishness further. In 2016, during a speech in Pittsburgh, Biden contended that no woman who accused a man of sexual assault should ever have to answer questions such as “Were you drinking?” or “What did you say?” or to have her claims examined in any way that implied they might be untrue. “No one,” Biden continued, “particularly a court of law, has a right to ask any of those questions.” Thus we can see the progression: from academia, into the newspapers, back into the colleges, and then into the law.

To adopt Biden’s approach would be, in effect, to abandon all the fancy “evidence” stuff that we’ve insisted on for a few centuries and go back to weighing witches. I exaggerate, yes, but only a little, for if due process is to be cast as the opposite of justice, and if the details of a given case are to matter less than the characteristics of those involved, then why bother with the formalities? Perhaps the most frustrating part of our illiberal turn has been how closely it resembles the other illiberal turns from which we seem to believe that we have learned. It should be clear by now that principles such as free speech, due process, and equality under the law cannot survive contact with political favoritism. And yet political favoritism continues to be offered up as if it were a panacea. The architects of Proposition 16 may have believed that they were being frightfully modern when they tried to empower the government of California to treat citizens differently depending on their race, sex, or ethnicity, but in practice they were just dragging us back into an ancient mire. Max Boot may think he is advancing truth and light when he calls for his least favorite cable channels to be silenced by the state, but in truth he’s just a good old-fashioned censor, uttering those good old-fashioned words “but this is important.” Joe Biden and Ezra Klein may suppose they are helping to prevent further indignity when they demand that tribunals make prejudgments, but in reality they are condemning a whole class of Americans to suffer based on an immutable characteristic. And those kids who stand up and chant so that Charles Murray can’t give an address? They may think they’re fighting fascism, but they’re not: They’re emulating it. As liberalism was unable to coexist with Jim Crow, so it is unable to coexist with the progressive hierarchy of victims. We are either equal, or we’re not. We either extend charity to all, or we extend it to none. Now, as ever, liberal is as liberal does. 

A few weeks after Brett Kavanaugh was approved by the Senate, The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill reported back from an event she had attended at “an auditorium with 100 black men in the city of Baltimore.” She had expected, she said, “to hear frustration that the sexual-assault allegations against him had failed to derail his Supreme Court nomination,” but instead she “encountered sympathy.” In fact, to “applause, and an array of head nods,” one man had even stood up and asked, “What happened to due process?” This had shocked Hill, who proceeded to explain that the black men in question were wrong to feel sympathy for Kavanaugh because, as a white man, he enjoyed privileges that they never would. But it was the black men in Baltimore who were right, not Hill, for they grasped that one cannot selectively abuse our liberal order without damaging it for everyone. Hill is undoubtedly correct to observe that Kavanaugh is privileged and powerful, but, as in the case of President Trump, she fails to grasp that that is precisely why it was so important that we set a good example. If what happened to Kavanaugh were to become the norm, figures such as he might well be able to ride it out. But everyone else? Not so much. Sometime soon, the hideous standards that were crafted and reinforced by those attempting to bring down Kavanaugh will be used against someone with no power, money, name recognition, or institutional backing. Perhaps then Hill will understand? 

Conservatives should remember this, lest they become so angered by the trend that they give in to the same temptation to which Hill succumbed and end up burning themselves with their own fire. In many quarters, including this magazine, conservatism continues to play its role as the primary protector of America’s liberal order. And yet in other parts of the Right, including in the Trump White House, we have seen the rise of a host of self-consciously illiberal figures who have decided that because the system does not always yield their preferred results, the system must be junked. These people are wrong. To guarantee America’s future for everyone, we do not need a dictatorship but a robust federal system that is capable of accommodating profound differences in moral judgment and a culture that respects dissenters irrespective of where they sit on the political spectrum. I certainly understand the frustration that the post-liberals of the Right feel. But I do not understand their strategy. We cannot restore the principles of free speech, religious liberty, and genuine pluralism by aping the behavior of their enemies.

And if we try, we will lose. The Left’s descent into authoritarianism has been appalling to watch, but at least it has been explicable. Once, progressivism was the counterculture and needed liberalism to advance itself. Now that progressivism is the dominant culture, it has no such need. What, though, is the Right’s excuse? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that for a brief moment the government were empowered to crack down on profanity or pornography or “drag-queen story hour” or whatever is concerning illiberal conservatives today. Then what, when the pendulum swings in the opposite direction? Are we seriously supposed to believe that there is a political market for 13th-century integralism in America?

I’ll answer that one: There is not — thank goodness. Instead, our best friends are still our better angels, and our best bet is still the open order we have spent years assiduously protecting. History is littered with examples of men who, when pressing their case in the public square, have thought solely about the interests of their land, tribe, religion, or self; but it is sprinkled only lightly with men who, in making their arguments, have taken care to respect the enduring principles that have served to break the old cycles of strife, faction, and war. In the United States today, we seem increasingly drawn to the tribalistic over the principled. If we act now, we’ll have time to put out the pyre. But make no mistake: The flames are rising.