Liberalism's quiet revolution

Our domestic politics are maddeningly divisive. But around the world, liberalism is winning.

Let's face it: Day-to-day politics can be boring.

Take the State of the Union. It was a perfectly lovely speech, but the most-talked about policy proposal the day after was something called MyRA, a small-bore proposal for reforming retirement accounts. Not exactly the Great Society.

When we zoom in too much on these sorts of moments, we miss the bigger tectonic changes that are transforming our political world for the better. Take a step back, and you'll notice we live in a profoundly exciting, even revolutionary political age. And it's a liberal revolution.

Many people aren't used to thinking of liberalism as a force for radical change. But it always has been, and it explains one of the great features about our liberal world: its push towards equality.

Now, when I say "liberalism," I don't mean it in the conventional sense of "whatever it is that the American center-left believes at the moment." Rather, I mean liberalism in the original sense, the political package of limited democratic government and individual rights.

Liberalism dominates the political landscape today, especially in the Western Hemisphere, so we're used to taking it for granted. Liberal revolutionaries of the past would likely envy us; the American and French Revolutions were famously radical challenges to monarchy, the 800-pound ideological gorilla of the day.

Klemens von Metternich, the 19th century OG Henry Kissinger who committed the Austrian monarchy to an aggressive anti-liberal containment policy, didn't mince words about the liberal menace. "Union between the monarchs is the basis of the policy which must now be followed to save society from total ruin," he wrote. "Speak of a social contract, and the revolution is accomplished!"

That last line was intended primarily as a jab by Metternich at liberal naivete, but it also neatly encapsulated Metternich's accurate fear about the viral spread of liberal principles. The Austrian prince believed that liberal ideals of freedom and equality were like seeds: Once they took root, they had a way of growing uncontrollably, upending existing hierarchies in their drive to drink in democracy's sunlight.

Metternich was right. Liberal institutions are grounded in a basic moral ideal of equality, one that pushes liberal societies in a relentlessly egalitarian direction, and perpetually puts conservatives on the defensive.

In his "I Have a Dream" speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. famously cast America's founding documents as "promissory notes." This is perhaps the most eloquent encapsulation of the liberal promise. Though races were manifestly unequal at the time of America's founding, the "the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence" were promises that one day, the idea of equal citizens before the law that the revolutionaries fought for would be extended to everyone.

King's "promise" is at once a logical and cultural idea. Logically, if you say "all men are created equal," you can't stop people from asking why it's "all white men," "all rich men," or "all men." If people grow up deeply believing in the ideal of equality, they'll start asking those questions. Hence the great egalitarian social movements (race, gender, sexual orientation, and labor) of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Seeing as how these social revolutions spread globally, the promissory note is not just a peculiarly American idea. It's built in to the structure of liberalism itself. Liberalism's central beef with monarchy was that monarchy rested on the idea that some persons were, by virtue of who their parents were, more equal than others in the eyes of the law. Liberals challenged that, arguing that governments, to be legitimate, needed to take into account the opinions of all its citizens rather than make them comply with the king's dictates at the point of a musket.

Philosopher Charles Larmore calls the moral ideal at play here "the principle of respect for persons," a basic impulse that people, because they're thinking beings, deserve not to be forced to live in a political system they haven't chosen. Larmore's principle is inherently an egalitarian one, as it appeals to the essential human qualities that, of course, we all share.

So if the core principle behind liberal democracy entails the idea that we're all equal, then it make sense that people raised in liberal democracies will be inherently intolerant of inequalities. When your entire social ideal depends on the idea of equality, people raised on that social ideal will chafe at manifest inequality. This is true of all kinds of inequalities, including economic ones. Why else has the maturation of liberal democracy gone hand-in-hand with the rise of the welfare state?

Now, I'm not trying to be the liberal version of a Marxist historian here. "History" doesn't just make liberal societies on its own. Individual people and movements have to figure out how to marshal this inclination towards equality to produce political systems that are actually egalitarian.

Moreover, there are powerful and cross-cutting countervailing pressures to liberalism's egalitarian core. A number of studies have explained America's relatively stingy welfare state, for instance, by referencing the legacy of slavery and racism. But liberalism's long-running track record of egalitarian progress shows that the egalitarian impulse can be more than a match for such forces when properly harnessed.

Understanding liberalism in this light reveals two important truths about American politics. First, there's a reason conservatives often see themselves as fighting hopeless rearguard battles. The past and present are full of inequalities, and conservatives who see something worth saving in them often lament that the egalitarian tide is taking the past's baby along with its bathwater. As long as there are inequalities, the egalitarian impulse will push people to change them. And that means tearing down institutions conservatives might find other kinds of value in.

Second, it explains the increasingly global nature of democratic politics. In a response to my last column, my colleague Damon Linker argued that politics "is always exclusionary — at its most basic level distinguishing between who is and who is not a citizen of a particular political community." Politics, for Linker, must be focused on the good of the community it serves ("the national interest") and not universal moral ideals.

But liberalism is inseparable from its universalistic moral core. There is no plausible reason why, in liberal terms, governments should care about people inside their lands more than others. Borders are just lines on paper, arbitrary historical accidents rather than deep markers of moral communities. Liberalism's egalitarian premises deny that politics is exclusionary altogether; in fact, they push us towards radical inclusion in the name of equal respect for all persons.

We live in a time when liberalism has become increasingly mainstream worldwide. The project of foreign aid, for instance, is historically unprecedented; the idea of governments giving to others out of a sense of moral duty owes a lot to liberal ideas of political obligation beyond our borders. Given liberalism's egalitarian track record, we should be wary of underestimating its power to radically reshape the world into a more global community.

How's that for boring?

(Image courtesy Reg Lancaster/Express/Getty Images)


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