Why They Hate Us
Post-liberalism Reveals the Nakedness of the Liberal Imperium
This semester I am teaching one of my favorite courses: “Liberalism and Conservatism.” This semester’s class has about 50 students from every undergraduate year. Every year I teach this class, I ask my students to write a short “Political Autobiography” laying out the nature and origins of their political beliefs. It’s always an interesting exercise, foremost for allowing me to get to know a bit about the views and backgrounds of the students in my class. However, over the years the results have also turned out inadvertently to be something of a barometer of where elite opinion is trending. This year’s class proved to be among the most fascinating yet.
Typically I plot their beliefs on the handy if not always comprehensive four-box scheme that measures for economic and social liberalism and conservatism. If the vertical axis measures social beliefs, from most socially liberal on the bottom of the line, to the most socially conservative on the upper part of the line; and the horizontal axis measures economic “interventionism” on the left (what we Americans call “liberal”), and “libertarian” on the furthest right part of the line (what Americans call “conservative,” but what Europeans more accurately call “liberal”!), we can divide up the territory into four fairly recognizable political ideologies.
The upper-most right corner represents old Republican fusionism, or what went by the name “conservative” for several decades. Its stance is “Socially Conservative and Economically Libertarian” - think Ronald Reagan and the Heritage Foundation. It commends “limited government,” believing the outcome of low taxes and deregulation is economic dynamism, along with space for “civil society” to foster and support institutions like family and church. It remains a powerful force in the actual policy commitments of Republican Party, in spite of widespread belief in the media that the right is wholly captive to Trumpism.
The lower left corner represents the current core of the Democratic Party - AOC and Very Online Progressives. Socially liberal and economically “interventionist,” it seeks at once a more equal economic order and a more libertarian social order. It is committed especially to sexual and identity autonomy, the freedom of individual expression and from oppressive institutions that presumably benefits from great economic redistribution.
The right-most lower corner represents pure, unadulterated libertarianism in both the economic and social spheres: think Ayn Rand. This ideological bloc appeals to minds who desire a consistent ethos of freedom, the erasure of all “lines” drawn that differentiate spheres of autonomy from spheres of authority (e.g., free speech absolutism). While it attracts only a relatively small cadre of committed believers, they have an outsized institutional and political influence through funding sources like the Koch Foundation and institutions like Cato. This bloc has funded the upper right “fusionist” bloc, and, as a result, has kept their economic agenda at the forefront of the Republican Party (low taxes, reduced regulations, with bones thrown to the social conservatives - such as Anthony Kennedy).
The upper left corner is the home of those who seek restraint in both the economic and social sphere - think Aristotle, Aquinas, Pope Leo XIII’s De Rerum Novarum and the whole of Catholic Social Teaching. In less lofty terms, think of those political figures who support more consistent use of state power to effect ends of order and stability in both the economic and social spheres, such as Viktor Orbán. Tucker Carlson, and J.D. Vance. Voters in this quadrant seek a political and social order that draws on old working-class economic themes once advanced by the Left, along with a priority on using public power to strengthen civic and familial institutions treasured by the Right. This quadrant has been described as the “Party of the State” by the Postliberal Order’s Gladden Pappin: a combination of left-economics and right-social policy. A shorthand typically used to describe it is “populism.”
This division of political worldviews was made somewhat famous when the results of the 2016 election were plotted according to voter identification. For much of the post-Cold War period, the American electorate was divided between the lower left and the upper right quadrant, with Republicans drawing some libertarians and Democrats drawing social conservatives who supported the Left’s economic policies (largely working-class Catholics, a segment of the electorate of which Joe Biden represents the last gasp).
In 2016, a dramatic shift occurred. The numbers of voters in the upper left quadrant had been growing for a number of years, with a succession of candidates attempting to reshuffle the electorate: Buchanan, Perot, Santorum, Huckabee (the latter two straddling the two upper quadrants). But it took the genuine outsider - Donald Trump - as well as the economic catastrophe of 2008, the debacle of the Iraq War, and the culminating despair among the white-working class portrayed in Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, to effect an electoral transformation. The result was stunning:
(Key: each dot represents 10,000 votes for Republicans [red], Democrats [blue], or Other [yellow])
Trump won because he pulled in enough voters in the upper left quadrant (which now tilted decisively Republican) while running against nearly all the commitments of Libertarianism. Indeed, the electorate of the Republican Party then, and arguably moreso now, genuinely straddles the upper two quadrants, its working class base further to the (economic) left, its institutional elites still more beholden to the libertarian economic wing. Trump was the first genuinely “populist” candidate nominated by a major party since William Jennings Bryan, and arguably the only populist President since Andrew Jackson. He called for the use of public power to intervene both in the marketplace and in the social sphere. Economically, he campaigned on impositions of tariffs, constraining economic globalization, restricting immigration, and attempted to use the bully pulpit and tax policy to encourage growth in the domestic manufacturing. Meanwhile, he tilted the “culture wars” toward more aggressively conservative positions, such as taxing university endowments, banning CRT in the federal government, and promised (and perhaps delivered) more socially-conservative judges.
Trump revealed something that the three other “quadrants” wished to obscure: there was a large, non- (even post-)liberal segment of the American electorate. The revelation of this powerful segment - one that could tilt elections for the foreseeable future - caused the massive freak-out that we have witnessed for the past five years. The reaction wasn’t just normal political opposition, but Armageddon-level denunciation: American democracy is ending! Fascism has arrived! Time to move to Canada!
This reaction came not just from denizens of one quadrant, but voice-pieces of all three liberal quadrants. Progressives became “mostly peaceful protesters.” The old neo-conservatives of the right upper-quadrant, self-satisfied with their perches provided by libertarian funders, huffed and fumed, declared “Never Trump!” - and became Democrats. Libertarians spent more money creating ever-more politically-irrelevant campus centers devoted to FREEDOM!!!
What this moment in our politics revealed above all is that the supposed political oppositions that emerged from the Cold War era actually had more in common than not. They had divided the liberal pie among themselves. Notably, libertarians don’t arise in the real world: they are created in the basement laboratories of Cato Institute. Only a psychopath, or Ayn Rand (is there a difference?), believes the best possible world is one without laws, boundaries, or children. To become politically relevant, its core commitments were divided out between the main parties. Republicans became the party of economic liberalism. Democrats became the party of social libertinism. While one side would periodically lose, liberalism always won. Our entire social order became more libertarian. Globalized economic liberalization and the normalization of sexual libertinism waxed steadily and inexorably together. America’s greatest export became libertarian ideology.
The result of this transformation is today plain to see: the class bifurcation that defines our political divide. Working class people consistently lost ground on the economic front while experiencing devastation in their social lives. By every known social science measurement, to be a non-college graduate America (particularly if you are a man) is to be destined for economic and social dysfunction, a dysfunction that has now become a generational inheritance. Meanwhile, “the laptop class” has flourished, monopolizing economic opportunity that provides a financial cushion to form healthier family lives in the wake of the dismantling of broader social institutions. What had been a public utility of social support networks like church, community, and extended family had become privatized for the sole benefit of the wealthy. The effort to “de-center” the family and unmoor people from places and history was yet another means of maintaining class advantage. Untold millions, nay, billions of dollars are now being spent to make everyone forget the upper-left quadrant ever existed.
Our little project - The Postliberal Order - is an exercise in reminding people not only that a non-liberal tradition and electorate exists, but that it is superior to the dehumanizing, fragmenting, and deracinating experience of liberalism. Our alternative draws on ancient wisdom and teachings of the classical and Christian eras, wisdom that has either been explicitly rejected by liberalism’s architects or neutered by liberal appropriation. While today’s political reshuffling arose largely from the bottom-up, explanations and justifications of this political alternative has a distinctly noble pedigree, a heritage that is now being articulated forcefully by a growing number of philosophers, theologians, lawyers, journalists, and public intellectuals.
As expected, our opponents are legion. They come from every quadrant of regnant liberalism. The Progressives are horrified. The Right-liberals are beside themselves. And the Libertarians want you to know that we are “un-American.” Their common purpose: the restoration of the old liberal “consensus.” Should they be successful, the outcome is certain: more of the same. If you liked an economic order that culminated in 2008; a social order in which marriage and children become ever-rarer; and an international order in which America continues to lose wars and legitimacy - you are cheering for that restoration. If so, it’s all but certain that you are a member of the gentry liberal class who stands to benefit from the smash-and-grab that is now occurring during the twilight years of the American liberal imperium.
What they fear, above all, is loss of the narrative: once the true nature of their coalition is “seen,” it can’t be unseen. And it has been seen especially by the young people who are watching their elders closely. Among the most thoughtful young and conservative-ish leaning students I meet, there is hunger to discuss these ideas, and to be part of a more fundamental change to our politics.
The old battle lines are still there - living like zombies in the desiccated institutional landscape established over the past fifty years. The Right-liberals have been especially active, working hard to rebrand their old program with more “populist” titles and creating new programs to forestall common good constitutionalism - but all to the end of maintaining “defensive crouch conservatism” in the service of liberalism’s ongoing advance. Yet in spite of rearguard efforts by the think-tank zombies and their epigones, those battle lines are shifting nevertheless.
To return to the unscientific findings of my students’s political views, this year was a further revelation. For at least the past twenty years - whether at Catholic universities like Georgetown or Notre Dame, or a secular school like Princeton - the breakdown of my classes was roughly a third in each “liberal” quadrant: Progressive, Libertarian, and Right-liberal. Doubtless I drew an unrepresentative number from the latter category - “fusionist” Republicans - because of my reputation as a conservative-ish professor. But that breakdown comported with the political divisions of the American polity over that time, and the students’ ambitions to belong to one of those relevant political “tribes.”
1/3 old Republican Fusionism (upper right)
1/3 Progressivism (lower left)
1/3 Postliberals (upper left)
And hardly a libertarian in the room.
That’s why they hate us. The liberal imperium wants that you not see behind the curtain. But we have, and there’s no hiding a genuine alternative that reveals the deeper continuities between the flavors of liberalism. Their soldiers continue to fight the old war, unaware that the battle lines have changed. The future is postliberal, and the front has moved on.