This year we’ve all learned about a number of terms we might otherwise have quite happily never known: “R number”, “underlying conditions” or “herd immunity”, to name just three. Another we might hear more about is “successor ideology”, a coinage of Wesley Yang to describe the political belief now dominant in the United States; the successor ideology is, in Yang’s words, “authoritarian Utopianism that masquerades as liberal humanism while usurping it from within”.
I’m a realist when it comes to accepting when linguistic battles are lost, but the misappropriation of ‘liberal’ — often by conservatives — has been to our disadvantage.
‘Liberal’ has positive etymological connotations, meaning ‘generous’ and ‘free’; the liberal arts are so-called because they were subjects worthy of a free man, while ‘the liberal’ as a medieval epithet meant a generous monarch. There is even a town called Liberal in Kansas, so called because of the famous kindness of its founder.
Liberalism is true to this etymology, believing centrally in human freedom but also a generosity of political spirit — pluralism, the willingness to share the political and cultural sphere with people you profoundly disagree with.
John Locke’s conception of liberalism was a response to the wars of religion that had torn Europe apart for almost two centuries, and Locke saw that the only way to prevent more bloodshed was for faith to take a back seat in politics. Otherwise men’s passions would make everything intolerable, and the dominant sect would attempt to crush all others.
Locke was famously a huge influence on Thomas Jefferson, who borrowed from his work in writing the Declaration of Independence. But Jefferson was also the driving force behind the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a groundbreaking moment in history that allowed religious freedom — not just for different Christians but Muslims, Jews and Hindus. The full words can be found here.
The Successor Ideology isn’t interested in any of these principles; it feels quite happy to “compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions” or “proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence… unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion.” Cancelling is the very antithesis of liberalism.
So what killed liberalism? It is certainly the case that many ideas taught at university have played a role, and this partly explains why younger Americans are so much less tolerant than their predecessors.
There is also the argument that the philosophy cannot survive multiculturalism. There is a reason that liberalism developed in fairly homogenous parts of western Europe such as England or the Netherlands, where people shared a common culture, and not the great polyglot societies of the Middle East, central Europe or even France. As societies become more diverse, it becomes harder to disentangle political beliefs from identity and to accept pluralism.
Likewise, liberalism perhaps depended on religion, because as religious belief has declined in the West so political identity has tended to take its place; younger Americans who have no religious beliefs tend to believe that politics brings huge meaning in their life. When politics replaces religion, people develop outgroups devoid of humanity, just as their Catholic and Protestant ancestors did.
On top of this, liberalism depended on a balance of power between Left and Right; when the two were evenly matched, it was in everyone’s interest to encourage free speech and tolerance. Now one side is completely dominant across a range of institutions, the temptation to go all Conan the Barbarian and crush your enemies becomes too strong.
But perhaps liberalism is just in decline because it goes against all our instincts and takes a lot of hard work to achieve. It’s not at all ‘natural’; it’s a brilliant and hugely beneficial man-made creation that was possible in a handful of societies under certain conditions. And for a couple of centuries at least it was able to dampen the fires of faith, before they blazed up again.