Conservatives should be feeling like big losers these days.
But liberals don’t feel like they’re winning. Or they shouldn’t, anyway. This debate would benefit from a liberal perspective: In a crucial sense, whatever lopsided control liberals wield is very far away indeed from translating into the sort of gains we’d like to see. Things still look pretty damn miserable.
In coming weeks, Democrats will assemble President Biden’s plan on children and families. At bottom, it’s about channeling enormous new investments into boosting the life prospects of those who have fared or will fare terribly in our badly unbalanced political-economic order. Many liberals are excited, but it also crystallizes how far we have to go.
The case for conservative despair comes in two interesting new pieces by Richard Hanania. Corporations are going “woke” because liberals are more politically engaged on many fronts, influencing many institutions, corporate America included. As Hanania says, liberals care more “about the future of their country.”
Donald Trump was supposed to engage more conservative voters, Hanania notes, but many of those voters are more energized by the cult of Trump than by conservatism. Meanwhile, Trump has exacerbated the liberal counter-mobilization already galvanized by the “Great Awokening” on race. This is “giving conservatives the worst of all worlds.”
Ross Douthat expands on this case, arguing that conservatives should recommit to the core mission of defending “human goods that are threatened by liberal ideas taken to extremes.”
Among these goods are the family (threatened by individualism), religion (threatened by secularism) and localism (threatened by overweening bureaucracy and the Internet’s globalizing effects). Douthat seems pessimistic that things conservatives value “can flourish within the liberal order.”
But liberalism has its own conceptions of human goods. Are these things really “flourishing within the liberal order”?
Liberalism and human goods
Liberalism is generally understood to mediate neutrally between differing conceptions of the good and the good life. But modern liberalism is not value-neutral. It does have its own various general notions of what constitutes human goods.
For instance, there’s the capacity to develop a conception of the good life and to develop and act on life plans. The tendency to caricature liberalism as valuing unchecked selfishness and atomism while blithely disregarding the common good is a very old story.
But for today’s egalitarian liberals, the oft-maligned ideal of liberal “autonomy” is actually a common good ethic of sorts. Its project is to enable as many people as possible to acquire the means to fully develop powers to formulate and act on conceptions of the good life.
Whether you describe these means as “capabilities” or “equality of opportunity,” the insight is that full human flourishing requires material and social resources. Access to these are human goods. At bottom, the current bills are about moving toward that ideal.
It should be obvious we’re failing miserably at this. The deep gap in life prospects across the board between those with and without college degrees is one example. Or note that we’re currently debating policies that would cut child poverty in half over a longer period. Even if we passed this, enormous numbers of children would still languish.
The liberal order’s shortcomings are of course partly to blame for such failings. Indeed, this is a case the liberal-skeptical left has long made. But a powerful strain in liberalism, explained very well by Paul Crider, has long resisted these failings.
This isn’t just about “redistributing wealth.” As Laura Field says, expanding access to material means is a cherished way to treat others as moral equals. Those ideals carry profound meaning for many liberals. That we’re so far away is a source of despair. How much closer will liberal hegemonic control of our institutions get us in the near future?
Or take the ideals of cosmopolitan liberalism. Cosmopolitan liberals are often mocked as (at best) superciliously prioritizing airy “globalist” causes such as climate change and immigrants’ rights over sturdy, authentic values of community and nation.
At worst, they’re depicted as wealthy suburbanites sipping expensive lattes at Starbucks, a bag of luxury international foodstuffs from Whole Foods packed by immigrant servants at their side, smugly congratulating themselves for feeling globally plugged in.
But the recognition of serious moral duties to those outside our borders rooted in the inherent moral worth of all humans — and the fact that variations of this have been powerfully articulated across many centuries — carries great spiritual meaning for many liberals.
We’re doing terribly here as well. We disproportionally exacerbate the climate problem. We trail the developed world in taking in refugees and legal immigrants seeking work to improve lives made worse by conditions that we contributed to in our interdependent world.
For many liberals, this isn’t just a failing of technocracy. As Samuel Moyn details, the idea that this interdependence calls forth duties to humans outside tribe and nation is a long-held liberal ideal. It’s a powerfully felt commitment to human goods. And Democrats are in a deep defensive crouch, unwilling to forcefully defend this ideal.
There’s more. Liberals detest morally arbitrary barriers to developing one’s moral and intellectual capacities, yet systemic racism runs deep.
And as Adam Gurri notes, liberals see ideals of full democratic participation and equality before the law not just as formal commitments, but as rooted in deep respect for the human worth of others. The powerful movement afoot to entrench our system’s anti-democratic features, and the intractable persistence of police violence directed at African Americans, are cause for serious gloom.
This is a very partial list. But here’s the basic point: However much power liberals wield over our institutions and culture, there’s a lot to feel pretty terrible about.