Explaining Current Anti-liberalism, 12-17
My theory of the illiberalisms of the left and the right
These days, a lot of people seem to want to throw liberal values—such as free markets, free trade, and free speech—under the bus. “Neoliberal” is an epithet. 21st-century leftists and rightists both allege that libertarianism took over American politics in the 1980s and caused ruin.
I think that there are two battles taking place. One battle is between young progressive activists and Boomer liberals. The young activists are fighting for status within the American elite.
The other battle is between middle America and the elites. Middle America is fighting for respect.
Old-fashioned liberals see knowledge as a goal worth pursuing. Truth is objective. The laws of physics apply to the king as well as to the peasant. We may disagree about ideas, but we should agree on methods for pursuing knowledge. Anyone can advance a hypothesis, and everyone must subject their hypotheses to criticism and testing.
People flourish in liberal societies. We have achieved material and moral progress.
But human beings naturally compete for status, which is inherently a zero-sum game. And today there are many well-educated people who are dissatisfied with their status. Historian Peter Turchin has a term for this: elite overproduction.
Some elites attain their status by competing in a “game” played by liberal-values rules. In science and journalism, those who play this way pursue objective truth. In business, they pursue profit. When Boomers applied to college, admission was based largely on test scores and high school grades.
Social justice activists object to the results of the liberal-values game. They say that it puts white men at the top and marginalizes women and minorities. These activists have introduced a different game with different rules. These rules explicitly favor ethnic minorities and people with sexual orientations other than straight male. They treat identity as the only truth.
Most of us on the right, and some on the left, see the social-justice game as clearly incompatible with the liberal-values game. Indeed, I suspect that this is what explains the popularity of the social-justice game. That is, people who are not satisfied with their status under the liberal-values game are trying to change the rules in order to gain status for themselves.
Activists claim higher status on the basis of allegiance to social-justice causes. They seek to demote the status of elites who did well at the liberal-values game but who have insufficient points in the social-justice game. White males score particularly low in that regard. Furthermore, if a successful individual can be found to have made a politically incorrect statement at some point, the social justice advocates can bring that person down severely using mob action.
In short, social justice ideology serves as a weapon used to try to capture status by taking it away from those whose elite status comes from their success in the game that was governed by liberal values. The people who wield this weapon the most do so because they are not successful at that game. Of course, that is not how they would describe their own motives. But I think it works out that way.
There is a sense in which middle America does not have a dog in this race. As the economy has transitioned toward services and the intangible goods of the digital world, less-educated workers have been left behind. The older elites ignore middle America, because they are too busy competing for high status in the liberal-values game. The social-justice rebels ignore middle America, because they are too busy trying to change the game to one with social-justice rules.
The social-justice activists often claim to crusade on behalf of less-educated Americans. But in fact, the activists are disconnected from the groups that they purport to champion. Thus, progressive activists use the term “Latinx” to refer to people who themselves are not fond of that term. The progressive agenda includes many causes that are not helpful, and may even harm, ethnic minorities.
In fact, less-educated Americans are becoming increasingly aware that they are not appreciated by either the older elites or the young activists. As one of my seminar participants pointed out, Donald Trump was attacked by elites because he has some of the class markers of the less-educated, and this in turn made him a hero to middle America.
Liberal values were hardly a priority for Mr. Trump, and some of his would-be successors at the National Conservatism conference were openly disdainful of liberal values. When I listened to recordings of speeches there, I thought I caught a strong whiff of demagoguery.
I think that middle America benefits from liberal values, probably more than people realize. For the economy, I think that neoliberalism is better for middle America than populism. I think that Mr. Trump’s supporters make the Republican Party more receptive to illiberalism on the right than it would be otherwise.
But unlike, say, Jonathan Rauch, I don’t see the illiberal right as an existential threat to our society. I think that the social justice movement does pose an existential threat. As institutions start to play by social-justice rules, they raise the status of the wrong people.
Most of the work to keep our society from being ruined by the social justice activists has to be done by those of us who see their game for what it is. We need to keep liberal values from being obliterated by the social justice movement.