- Among the Post-Liberals
Few can agree what liberalism is, but everyone can agree that it's on the rocks. A thousand think pieces have made the litany familiar: Trump, China, Brexit, Orbán, add whatever terms appear on your particular bingo card. Rival cottage industries pit liberal critics of "populism" against left and right critics of "liberalism." These warring camps share a sense of liberalism's evident decline.
The term itself is notoriously slippery. Originating in the nineteenth century, it is sometimes projected back two or more centuries earlier. Frequently linked to two other terms, democracy and capitalism, its precise relationship with them is nonetheless not obvious; liberals have not always been democrats and probably need not be capitalists. Liberalism can equally refer to a set of political principles (freedom and equality, for instance, or individual rights) or to a certain political style (conciliatory and consensus-driven, or gradualist and anti-utopian). There may be a broad affinity between the principles and the style, but they don't always go together. The Jacobins used radical means in pursuit of what often look like liberal ends. Likewise, every society has contained consensus-seekers, but it would be odd to describe moderate Spartans or Aztecs as liberals absent any commitment to recognizably liberal principles.
Recent debates have tended to confuse rather than clarify matters. In left-of-center discourse, "liberalism" and [End Page 162]
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"leftism" are often invoked as respective shorthand for neoliberalism and social democracy. Neither of these positions sits outside the boundaries of liberalism, broadly construed, and most of the positions currently marked as leftist have been supported in other times and places by those we'd describe as liberals. Still, even if this confrontation doesn't signal a verdict on liberalism tout court, it does at least provide clear battle lines in a conflict with real stakes.
On the right, things are more of a mess. Many conservatives in the United States still portray themselves as the true liberals, heirs to a tradition that was hijacked by progressives, but a growing number have cast themselves in opposition to liberalism as such, perhaps even back through the American founding. For now, however, this trend remains more an impulse and a branding strategy than a coherent philosophy. One obvious reason is that critiques of liberalism on the right have coalesced around the figure of Donald Trump. The result has been a tendency to subordinate ideological coherence to the leader's shifting whims, a preference for trolling over substance, and an intellectual environment that offers fertile soil for charlatans, grifters, and cranks.
But this incoherence isn't due entirely to Trump, who reflects the movement that brought him to power more than vice versa. A common narrative, fostered recently by self-proclaimed "national conservatives" and "post-liberals," claims that pre-Trump conservatives were entirely wedded to small-government classical liberalism, thereby scapegoating libertarians for the sins of the broader movement. Yet American conservatism has always combined libertarian tendencies with statist and ethno-nationalist ones, and the leading Trumpist partisans have been adept at oscillating between these registers. Nor, for that matter, has the alleged shift away from libertarianism resulted in a visibly less plutocratic economic program. Alarmism about "woke capital" has rarely extended to non-woke capital; corporations are in the clear so long as they refrain from tweeting out Pride celebrations and focus on brutalizing their workers. [End Page 163]
Nonetheless, there are careers to be made in the post-liberal moment. The formerly neoconservative journalist Sohrab Ahmari underwent well-publicized conversions to Catholicism and Trumpism in rapid succession, then shot to fame by picking a fight with...