As a conservative, I mourn the loss of liberalism
The Successor Ideology is far, far worse...
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.
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‘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.
“So what killed liberalism? It is certainly the case that many ideas taught at university have played a role.”
Not really – it’s a dubious hypothesis. Really something else is happening – (many of) the students bring Woke values to campus. Managers, more than academics, buy into and promote these values because they treat students as “customers”, and therefore give them what they want.
Much more than anything that happens on campus, the phenomenon is surely a symptom of the workings of social media, in which people publicly expressing dissident opinions can be visibly slapped down, un-friended and so forth. In the past fifteen years, people have been accultured to police their own thoughts and to shape themselves into ideological conformity. Andrew Sullivan’s remark, “We are all on campus now”, could be more accurately rephrased as “We are all on Twitter now”. This diagnosis, by the way, explains why the sea change has taken place within the last ten years, although far-left perspectives have been disproportionately represented in academia for decades. The generation that has undergone this dramatic shift is the generation that started using social media in late childhood or in adolescence (those of us who were already adults were a bit less vulnerable). If you think of how traumatic it can be, at the age of 13 or 14, to be “cancelled” by a friend – it always occasionally happened in real life, as it does now often online – then it scarcely seems surprising how anxious to conform the generation born in the late 1990s, who started to access Facebook as it became a phenomenon around 2010, have become. The problem has been exacerbated as people have become more aware that there is a permanent, searchable record of things one may have thought or said, years ago, and that therefore it is not only what one says today that is held against us, but what one said in the past. With this in mind, the present and recent generation of students have become used to monitoring their comments not only in conformity with present social mores, but in anticipation of hypothetical future ones (always naively assumed, of course, to be more progressive than those of the present).
If we want free speech back, we need to tackle social media.
This is spot on, in my opinion. And I say that as someone finishing a PhD in a top-tier humanities department as we speak. I’m 45 though, so am not a “digital native”, and indeed have this year binned all my social media accounts. I think it is the single most precipitously toxic thing to happen to human social life in history.
” have this year binned all my social media accounts. I think it is the single most precipitously toxic thing to happen to human social life in history.”
I happen to agree with this BUT I also don’t think this view is consistent with repressive regimes like China banning FB as they fear it so much. So one could argue they do some good. But net net, I think they’re awful and as a young parent I dread the day my sons get upset over something that someone has said about them.
I’m a little younger than you, but similarly, old enough to have had a life before social media. I also abandoned Facebook within the last year (was never on Twitter). Of course social media has its conveniences and its virtues, but overall I agree with you – I think it’s been a disastrous influence.
Quite likely. The algorithms that are designed to feed you things you want to see and consume – although designed largely for financial purposes – work to reinforce whatever trench you happen to be in.
Clicked on a photo tagged MAGA? Biden2020? Puppies? Guess what, you’re more likely to getting news, jokes everything else to do with it. Same goes for anything and everything.
This is quite likely contributing to the polarisation of people’s views as all they see is like minded viewpoints so become utterly convinced of their correctness. They get knocked out of kilter if anyone offers something at odds with their worldview as it comes as a shock.
A point that has been made many times before, but cannot be overstressed
My father once told me that one of the most valuable life lessons he ever learned (from my late uncle, his brother-in-law, who was ten years his senior) was the realisation that you can hold right-wing positions on certain topics and left-wing ones on others. This is a lesson that many people nowadays never learn.
If we want free speech back, we need to tackle social media.
How? By ensuring that social media history is always automatically erased after, say, a week?
Isn’t social media best tackled by the acknowledgement that the most vociferous individuals on it are not representative of the majority?
Quite. Above all, it’s best ignored!
There’s a sense in which nothing that’s really worth saying can be adequately said in the length of a tweet. The best thing parents can do is teach their children to read proper old-fashioned books and learn to reflect on the complex and nuanced arguments which cannot be made at any shorter length.
Liberalism has been under assault since its inception, and frequently by those who claim to be the greatest liberals themselves. The Woke young are only following in the footsteps of previous, high profile hypocrites.
One example you may recall. In 1998 General Augusto Pinochet, former President of Chile was in London for medical repair. He was arrested in a highly controversial case initiated by Spain and Amnesty International (AI). At the time Pinochet was the personification of Hitler, for the Woke world, and the rejoicing was biblical!
Pinochet’s subsequent Appeal went to the ‘Law Lords’, in this case a panel of five of them. The Appeal was lost, three to two, only for it later to be revealed that one of the Law Lords, ‘Lord Justice of Appeal in Ordinary’, Leonard (Lennie) Hoffmann had broken a cardinal rule that no Judge must have any connection with the trial procedure, whatsoever. Astonishingly, Hoffmann, sometimes known as the “brightest legal mind in England”, whilst to others as “Leg over Lennie”, failed to disclose that he had been an (unpaid) Director of AI Charity for the previous eight years, whilst his wife had been a member of AI for twenty one years. This resulted in the absolutely unprecedented setting aside of the judgement, or what the Law prosaically calls “vacated”.
This meant considerable expense to the taxpayer as a new hearing had to be set up. Hoffman’s fellow Law Lords, in particular Lord Browne-Wilkinson LBW) and Lord Hope were, understandably scathing.
Hoffman remained unrepentant despite having brought the centuries old and much admired reputation of British Justice into gross disrepute. As LBW said ” Justice must not only be done, but it must be seen to be done”.
So why did Hoffmann do it? He has never offered an explanation for his atrocious conduct, but one must suspect he was blinded by Woke, as we would say today. So terrible a man was General Augusto Pinochet, that anything, whatever the terrible cost, was worth the sacrifice to get him, was probably the perverted logic that drove Hoffmann.
The question one must ask is whether British Justice can or even will, recover from this dreadful affair. Needles to say at the time whilst there was some publicity, everything humanly possible was done to ‘cover it up ‘. In reality an early and prophetic triumph of sorts for the Woke?
Sic Gloria Transit Mundi.
It’s true. As a conservative, I do tend to feel that liberals are basically on the side of the good, and that we should make common cause with them against the fascists, the communists, the race-baiters, the social justice warriors, and all other oppressors of humanity.
I have never been a member of a political party but I think it sad that a party with the terms “liberal” and “democrat” in its name has shown by its actions and policy to be anything but. Instead it’s down to organisations like the Institute of Ideas and Toby Young’s new Free Speech Union to unilaterally start flying the flag
As a conservative I mourn the loss of conservatism.
“… equate the disease with a case of “the sniffles”.
Why not? I’m old enough to remember the CMO telling us at every possible opportunity that “for most people, this is a very mild disease”. Then he decided we needed to be frightened into obeying lockdown rules and stopped saying it. But it’s still true.
My guess is that Covid-19 will play itself out however it thinks fit while increasing anarchy in Democrat-run cities will give Trump his second term.
I think the link made between religious fervours of old – and today’s secular versions – is spot on. There is a kind of religiosity in the zeal and cult-like behaviours we are seeing right now – and the punishments for ‘heresy’.
Correct. How far away are we from burning at the stake?
‘Make America Normal Again’: MANA (from Heaven), as the baseball cups will no doubt say.
What I’ve been realising as I go deeper into the culture war is the distinction between positive rights and responsibilities and negative rights and responsibilities and their politicisation.
In this context, Liberalism has been essentially split in two with the Left politicising positive rights and responsibilities and to some extent the Right politicising negative rights and responsibilities in response.
Hence there seems to be a centre less stand off between the positive and the negative strands of Liberalism with the Left lurching towards Statism and the politicisation of Labels like black, white, ethnic minority in order to justify their Statism and why they should be in control of that Statism and the Right generally bewildered by the notion of the Perfect State and the constant onslaught of Labels that are used to discriminate, harass and victimise the Right.
The irony of course and perhaps the indelible weakness of the Right is that to stop the creeping authoritarian utopianism of the Left within the civic realm, the Right also needs to adopt a Statist attitude in order to effectively nationalise and purge these institutions.
The only reassurance is that the Left only thinks it has won the linguistic battle when the ‘on the ground’ reality is far far different.
People know exactly what is going on and all they see is a Left that is using the power of speech and the power of words to promote an unequal society.
In other words, when labels like Black Lives Matter are used by the ideological Left then all most people see is Inequality in Action especially when the label White Lives Matter is rejected by the faux liberal establishment.
Consequently, it is actually quite easy to expose and beat the Left. Just oppose their UNEQUAL labels by mirroring their unequal labels with the opposite. Their unequal reaction will be enough to put most people off their highly prejudiced sanctimonious politics.
In conclusion, Liberalism as the political philosophy is not dead, it has just been split apart into positive and negative rights and responsibilities political iterations which the Left in particular exploits using labels.
Just oppose their unequal labels by mirroring them with the opposite? Good idea in theory, but try going out in public with an “All Lives Matter” t-shirt and there’s a good chance you will be beat to death by the tolerant and more educated.
A lot of this confusion comes about due to the inadequacy of the term “liberal”.
The term “liberal” is used as a pejorative for left-leaning individuals, but it is a distinctly liberal (or libertarian) perspective to be sceptical of authoritarian or state power. In the US that perspective is generally a very conservative/Republican viewpoint.
Likewise it is also obviously liberal to call for greater equality or freedom from other oppression (e.g. sexism, racism etc).
In short both sides of the debate inhibit traits that fall under the same categorisation. The title of this piece “As a conservative, I mourn the loss of liberalism” is not remotely as odd as it first sounds.
I would go further and say that the most radical people of the successor idealogy outlined above have long left the liberalistic elements of their beliefs behind – usually without realising it.
We see this time and again. It’s apparent in the “converts” to atheism to name one; who treat atheism like a new religion (missing the point completely). As is with those mentioned above, and those mentioned in Tom Chivers’ article here today. It is people who adopt a way of thinking like a cult, without truly understanding the meaning or the deeper rationale behind it. There are strong traces of people like this who support the “woke” movement as they do not seek anything like equality or freedom – but a levelling and reckoning of perceived wrongs.
I am an atheist, and I do not “treat atheism like a new religion”. Atheism, for me, is simply the absence of belief in any supernatural being who created and presides over the world. It does not involve weekly meetings in ornate buildings, authoritarian figures in funny costumes, kneeling, singing, or giving up of money. It is based on rational examination of scientifically obtained evidence. Faith is not involved. I do not attempt to convert others to my point of view, and rarely even mention it. I believe in their right to follow any fantasy they choose and hand over their hard-earned dollars to finance garish statues and silly pointy hats, if that’s what makes them feel fulfilled.
“but painful and hard to listen to (or be forced to take seriously!) the ones you don’t.”
I disagree. There were 2 important issues at Uni where I lost the argument and changed my mind. Isn’t that what we are supposed to do ?
Jefferson was so justifiably proud of being the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that he had it put on his tombstone, where there is no mention of his serving two terms as president of the United States. Jefferson was brought up as an Anglican, or an Episcopalian, in a Virginia where his church’s dominance was unchallenged. It was the established church both of his state and of the mother country. In fact, the independence of the Episcopal Church in America was only declared in 1789, to avoid ministers declaring an oath of allegiance to the British monarch, three years after the promulgation of the Statute for Religious Freedom. As Daniel Boorstin has pointed out, the first statute for religious freedom did not come out of a state like Pennsylvania or Massachusetts, founded by religious dissidents from the Church of England.
The authors apparent believe that the Democrats in 2016 were the party of enlightenment is somewhat amusing – you don’t get from rational to anarchy in 4 years. It does however undercut the rest of his premise -Trump is bad but he might get re-elected if covid turns out not so bad. As with most anti-Trumpers he refuses to credit Trump’s achievements or to look at the shambles the Democratic Party has become. AOC for Vice President anyone?
Interesting. I presume the role of the devil’s advocate within a religious but now democractic political context, is to resist blind faith and to counter the emergence of demagoguery and false prophecy.
I think what is interesting about the role and function of our ability to play devil’s advocate is how it helps to define a centre between our left and right ðŸ˜ŠðŸ’®.
I guess when people reject the Devils advocate, they are also resisting the centre being defined.
Beliefs create fences in our mind and the task of the devil’s advocate is to bring them down again.
Lucifer – The light bringer ðŸ˜ŠðŸ’®
I saw the phrase “older woman” in the subtitle, then saw the photo and assumed it was in reference to some show other than the one pictured. When I read that the older woman was thirty-four years of age, it occurred to me that Miss Strimpel must be part of an apprentice program in which teenage high school journalists are allowed to contribute articles to UnHerd.
An excellent article. But Trump isn’t facing the Democratic state governors and the Democrats in Congress, he is facing Biden. How appealing are Biden’s positions on the pandemic and economic recovery allied to Green New Deal?
A very sad future for us all if it is reduced to eggs and sperm. Whatever has become of fun and nonsense, tears and laughs at our once necessary and unnecessary expressions. Lust surely cannot die after 2.5 Million years just because we look and smell nicer, surely not?
My biggest complaint with political discussions is overvaluing the importance of logic. The presidential election in the US is a popularity contest that plays out over for-profit social media platforms like Facebook. If you really want to make predictions, I think you have to try to peer in the mind of the average American, and most of them are tired of the shutdown and tired of being told they are going to die of COVID (even if it might be true). If we have the unworkable school restrictions that are planned, I think that will hand the election to Trump. It has nothing to do with logic or what you think of him as a person, it is simply that Democratic party = continued lockdown, Trump = back to normal.
“There is a reason that liberalism developed in fairly homogenous parts of western Europe such as England or the Netherlands”
England and the Netherlands weren’t particularly homogenous compared to France. Liberalism arose in cosmopolitan cities like Amsterdam, surely?
“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”
In the US at least, it seems that it is conservatives who both hold power AND go Conan the Barbarian. Conservatives have helped demonise liberalism and increasingly reject it themselves.
The School of Scepticism does not mean one has “a tendency to question things that orthodoxy holds to be unquestionably true”, but simply that we must reserve judgement on statements made in opposition to what we believe. After more research and introspection you can then determine whether to maintain your belief or change. Granting Trump(ism) a place at the table of the Sceptics is too generous by half.
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