Liberalism in America

Analysis: Heritage panel discusses the future of the left

Protesters sit at the intersection of Wall St. and Broad St. in New York, Monday, Sept. 22, 2014
Protesters sit at the intersection of Wall St. and Broad St. in New York, Monday, Sept. 22, 2014 / AP

"The left is intellectually dead, and where it is headed toward is authoritarianism."

Thus began the bleak remarks of Kevin Williamson, National Review’s roving correspondent, at an event this week in Washington called "Where is liberalism going?" hosted by the Heritage Foundation.

The discussion focused more on where the left would like to go than where it will actually go. According to Williamson and other panelists—David Azerrad of the Heritage Foundation and William Voegeli of the Claremont Review of Books, with the discussion moderated by Ben Domenech of the Federalist—the left’s agenda is the destruction of the American regime of constitutional, democratic self-government.

The fundamental assumption of the left is the innate goodness of each person, argued Voegeli. This assumption means that they are seeking to undermine the Constitution, which is based on a very different view of human nature. The Constitution pits the different branches of government against each other so that each will keep the others in check.

As James Madison put it in the Federalist, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," and the Constitution supplies the "defect of better motives" through such balancing.

The Constitution, in other words, expects selfish ambition, and by expecting ambition, Voegeli noted, it legitimizes it—which is precisely what the left does not want to do. The left wants to supply not the "defect of better motives" but rather just "better motives," Voegeli said. Liberals want to set up a system that allows our latent goodness to "flourish," and the checks of our constitutional system can be discarded in favor of technocratic, centralized disinterestedness that allows each individual to live an authentic life of his choosing.

"The object is not to have one’s own way so much as to have a way that is one’s own," Voegeli quipped.

This new freedom of the individual must come at the expense of real political freedom, noted Azerrad in his remarks. The dystopian vision of Aldous Huxley provides a useful description of the left’s ultimate goal, Azerrad contended: a content people, pacified by drugs, ruled by the state. By giving up the right to rule ourselves in our constitutional republic, we gain the license, especially sexually, to do as we please.

If the left gets its way, it might even see that our ideas of the sexually acceptable are not "sufficiently polymorphous," Azerrad mused—leading to, possibly, a lowering of the age of consent.

The result of this pacified citizenry is a loss of the "vigilant and manly spirit" necessary for self-government, Azerrad said, quoting Madison again. The left would degrade the personal character needed for our constitutional republic.

But in order to achieve this goal of a soft, liberated citizenry, the left will have to dominate and to control more of society—a tendency that is already in evidence, Williamson argued.

"At some point we’re going to have to really face in a very difficult way that we’re dealing with a really naked, aggressive authoritarian movement," he said.

Recent events testify to this tendency, Williamson said. Robert Kennedy, Jr., a climate change activist and part of the most famous political family in America, argued recently that conservatives who disagree with the climate-change alarmists should be jailed. Senate Democrats just voted to repeal the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. Several proposed graduation speakers were forced to withdraw from speaking because of protests from students who disagreed with some of the speakers’ past work.

These events and the ideology undergirding them are a far cry from the democratic constitutional republic envisioned in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The progressive agenda is, according to this panel, diametrically opposed to the American political project, as it wants to dismantle the constitutional order and the personal mores necessary for self-government and replace them with a much more authoritarian system.

But the question the panel did not really answer is why the left exists now and, more specifically, whether there is anything about the American system that naturally gives rise to the political left.

At the beginning of the event, Ben Domenech characterized the left as having become largely a "protection racket," seeking to protect certain interest groups—unions, minorities, single mothers—from perceived threats, such as the free market.

This insight perhaps gives a partial answer to why the left exists now and to where it is headed. A free society will always have winners and losers, as people are endowed with different gifts. Thus, a certain inequality is bound to occur in a free society. And this inequality stands in tension with the founding creed of America—that all men are created equal.

One way to understand the political left in America is as the champion of equality, while the right is the champion of liberty. Absolute equality and absolute liberty will always stand somewhat in tension, and the genius of the American system was to balance these two goods in a stable political order.

The progressive vision for society—which is what Voegeli and Azerrad were describing—pushes this equality to the extreme: All people and their choices are equal, and should be treated as such. Undergirding this statement is a moral agnosticism that necessarily undermines a self-governing republic based on rights.

But the fact of inequality persists, and with it the desire of some to be protected from the danger of an unequal outcome that is unfavorable to them. Over the past decades, the left has pushed the narrative that they are for the "little guy" and enacted policies meant to increase his economic security.

So it isn’t quite right that the left is entirely driven by the aim of creating a content, pacified citizenry through a centralized technocratic bureaucracy. Many who support the left simply want protection and more equality, and the left most vocally offers that. The left appeals to people’s desire for security—a basic desire everyone has. That’s why people keep voting for liberal politicians—and why the left keeps winning elections.

Their policies may not work, and the ultimate vision of the liberal elite may be invidious to the American project, but liberalism as a movement will persist because of its appeal to equality and security. This understanding of the left suggests an answer to the question facing the panel: Where is liberalism going?

Liberalism is going nowhere.