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.
As demonstrated in several of the comments to it so far, the main issue with this post is use of the ruined term 'liberal'. A lot of the people you might categorize as illiberal public intellectuals would not agree that many of your characterizations of liberal values do not describe their own too.
It seems to me that when you talk about 'the liberal game' you actually mean something closer to simple 'meritocracy', which is a lot more politically neutral-sounding, but with the implication that the 'liberal' society produces results which are close to the ideal version of it: about as fair, neutral, objective, equal opportunity, etc., as human societies can hope to achieve.
Your argument seems to be that people who don't win in actual meritocracy are hungry for excuses for why they should have won, and would have, if not for having been the victim of some unfair injustice. They are also hungry for opportunities to still 'win' by underhanded means, by knocking rightful winners down and being put in their place, with a cover-story that everyone is socially obliged to support - that instead of identity-based bias and favoritism this is actually a 'correction' in the direction of the ideal.
My point is that you are framing this as an attack on 'liberalism', as if anyone actually cares about the political philosophical debate about values except for a tiny number of intellectuals. But actually, the attack is really on meritocracy, and whatever 'liberal' values serve to make things more meritocratic are just a kind of mere infrastructure that must be demolished to hurt the real enemy. When you blow up a bridge or a ball-bearing factory so the enemy cannot use it, you are obviously not fighting a "war on bridges" or a "war on ball bearings", but a war on the real enemy via the mechanism of undermining the basis of their capacity to thwart your objectives.
Now, it is true that no one wants to admit they are attacking meritocracy, and so they indulge in some bogus cover stories about how it is worth blowing up traditional 'liberal' norms because those norms were inherently bad. I can see how a lot of people who were not in on the inside joke would thus never get the joke and thus start taking these positions seriously, especially in subsequent generations who never hear a word of disagreement about it, because disagreement gets crushed.
Still, while some of these people may be genuinely and self-consciously illiberals as an ideological matter, I think most of these folks are only consciously or subconsciously going along with it to the extent that it furthers their own interests in overcoming the obstacles that meritocracy places in the path of the furtherance of their interests.
Are SJWs and SJW-adjacent professionals really illiberal, or are they simply more effective at using the existing tools of liberalism to outcompete their rivals? Under liberalism, social competition is sublimated to the courtroom, the boardroom, the legislature, and the banking house. Glory through combat is mostly forbidden and considered déclassé.
SJWs may oppose many components of the neoliberal agenda per se, but so did many archliberals: for most of the 19th century, the US ran tariffs of around 30%, while during the same time, Victorian Britain ran tariffs more like 5%. The line between liberal and illiberal is not really decided by something like neoliberal trade vs. List/Hamiltonomics, in the same way that liberal vs. illiberal is not determined by the presence of an income tax versus no income tax. Middle America is liberal: they are mostly disputing issues of internal structure and foreign policy rather than crying out to restore the Stuarts.
Being pressured by overeducated sans-culottes to forsake important meritocratic values is a battle within liberalism. Trying to define it as illiberal vs. liberal is the same sort of error as defining the Cold War as a fight between the liberal US versus the illiberal USSR. The Cold War was a struggle for the future of liberalism.
With the meritocracy stuff, the defense just didn't show up to fight and just immediately surrendered to Big Brother internally, like the meme with the dude who puts the stick in his own bike tire and then says "illiberalism did this." Nah man, they just didn't defend themselves and what happens when you don't defend yourself is you get killed by someone who wants to get rid of you. It's a lot like when someone gets a default judgment against them and doesn't realize what that means. If you don't show up, you lose.