How liberalism became an intolerant dogma
At the risk of sounding like Paul Krugman — who returns to a handful of cherished topics over and over again in his New York Times column — I want to revisit one of my hobby horses, which I most recently raised in my discussion of Hobby Lobby.
My own cherished topic is this: Liberalism's decline from a political philosophy of pluralism into a rigidly intolerant dogma.
The decline is especially pronounced on a range of issues wrapped up with religion and sex. For a time, electoral self-interest kept these intolerant tendencies in check, since the strongly liberal position on social issues was clearly a minority view. But the cultural shift during the Obama years that has led a majority of Americans to support gay marriage seems to have opened the floodgates to an ugly triumphalism on the left.
The result is a dogmatic form of liberalism that threatens to poison American civic life for the foreseeable future. Conservative Reihan Salam describes it, only somewhat hyperbolically, as a form of "weaponized secularism."
The rise of dogmatic liberalism is the American left-wing expression of the broader trend that Mark Lilla identified in a recent blockbuster essay for The New Republic. The reigning dogma of our time, according to Lilla, is libertarianism — by which he means far more than the anti-tax, anti-regulation ideology that Americans identify with the post-Reagan Republican Party, and that the rest of the world calls "neoliberalism."
At its deepest level, libertarianism is "a mentality, a mood, a presumption… a prejudice" in favor of the liberation of the autonomous individual from all constraints originating from received habits, traditions, authorities, or institutions. Libertarianism in this sense fuels the American right's anti-government furies, but it also animates the left's push for same-sex marriage — and has prepared the way for its stunningly rapid acceptance — in countries throughout the West.
What makes libertarianism a dogma is the inability or unwillingness of those who espouse it to accept that some people might choose, for morally legitimate reasons, to dissent from it. On a range of issues, liberals seem not only increasingly incapable of comprehending how or why someone would affirm a more traditional vision of the human good, but inclined to relegate dissenters to the category of moral monsters who deserve to be excommunicated from civilized life — and sometimes coerced into compliance by the government.
The latter tendency shows how, paradoxically, the rise of libertarian dogma can have the practical effect of increasing government power and expanding its scope. This happens when individuals look to the government to facilitate their own liberation from constraints imposed by private groups, organizations, and institutions within civil society. In such cases, the government seeks to bring those groups, organizations, and institutions into conformity with uniform standards that ensure the unobstructed personal liberation of all — even if doing so requires that these private entities are forced to violate their distinctive visions of the good.
As the old (flagrantly illiberal) saying goes: If you want to make an omelet, you've got to break some eggs.
Consider some of the ways that liberalism's dogmatism has expressed itself in recent months.
- Brendan Eich resigned as the chief executive of Mozilla, a company he helped found, after gay rights activists launched a boycott against the company for placing him in a senior position. Eich's sin? More than five years earlier, he donated $1,000 to the campaign for California's Proposition 8, which sought to ban same-sex marriage in the state. It didn't matter that he'd explicitly assured employees that he would treat them fairly, regardless of their sexual orientation. What mattered was that Eich (like the 7 million people who voted in favor of Prop 8) had made himself a heretic by coming down on the wrong side of an issue on which error had now become impermissible.
- Liberals indulged in a wildly overwrought reaction to the Supreme Court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, with seasoned journalists likening the plaintiffs to the Pakistani Taliban, and countless others taking to social media to denounce a government-sanctioned theocratic assault on women's health — all because some women working for corporations that are "closely held" by religiously conservative owners might have to pay out of pocket for certain forms of freely available contraception (as, one presumes, they currently do for toothpaste). Apparently many liberals, including the Senate Democrats who seem poised to gut the decision, consider it self-evident that these women face a far greater burden than the conservative owners, who would be forced by the government to violate their religious beliefs. One highly intelligent commentator, inadvertently confessing his incapacity to think beyond the confines of liberal dogma, described the religious objection as "trivial" and "so abstract and attenuated it's hard to even explain what it is."
- Beyond the Beltway, related expressions of liberal dogmatism have led a Harvard undergraduate to suggest that academic freedom shouldn't apply to the handful of conservatives on campus — because their views foster and justify "oppression." In a like-minded column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania argued that religious colleges should be denied accreditation — because accrediting them "confers legitimacy on institutions that systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education," one of which is to pursue "skeptical and unfettered" (read: dogmatically liberal and secular) inquiry.
But wait, some will object: You can't reduce contemporary American liberalism to the illiberal outbursts of loudmouthed activists, intemperate journalists, foolish undergraduates, and reckless Ivy League professors!
To which the proper response is: True!
Still, I wonder: Where have been all the outraged liberals taking a stand against these and many other examples of dogmatism — and doing so in the name of liberalism? I've been doing that in my own writing. And I've appreciated the occasional expressions of modest support from a handful of liberal readers. But what about the rest of you?
A final thought: One area where Lilla's essay cries out for further elaboration is on the question of why the demand for individual autonomy has become so dogmatic at the present moment in history. Lilla himself leaves it at the assertion that since the end of the Cold War we have "simply found ourselves" in a world dominated by libertarian dogma.
I'd like to venture a tentative explanation — one that has nothing to do with the end of the Cold War.
From the dawn of the modern age, religious thinkers have warned that, strictly speaking, secular politics is impossible — that without the transcendent foundation of Judeo-Christian monotheism to limit the political sphere, ostensibly secular citizens would begin to invest political ideas and ideologies with transcendent, theological meaning.
Put somewhat differently: Human beings will be religious one way or another. Either they will be religious about religious things, or they will be religious about political things.
With traditional faith in rapid retreat over the past decade, liberals have begun to grow increasingly religious about their own liberalism, which they are treating as a comprehensive view of reality and the human good.
But liberalism's leading theoreticians (Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson, Madison, Tocqueville, Mill) never intended it to serve as a comprehensive view of reality and the human good. On the contrary, liberalism was supposed to act as a narrowly political strategy for living peacefully in a world of inexorably clashing comprehensive views of reality and the human good.
The key to the strategy was the promulgation of the pluralistic principle of toleration.
Which is why the proper response to the distinctive dogmatism of our time is to urge liberals to return to their tolerant roots. That's what I've been trying to do in my own writing, and my efforts will continue until more liberals come to their senses and begin recalling their comrades to a robust defense of their own pluralistic principles.