Ross Douthat of the New York Times had an interesting column last week about the state of liberalism today. Douthat’s main thesis is that the strict proceduralism of a liberal order, while useful for facilitating pluralism, isn’t existentially or spiritually nourishing. In Douthat’s words, liberalism “depends on constant infusions from other sources, preliberal or nonliberal, to generate meaning and energy and purpose.” While Douthat doesn’t define liberalism, one can infer that he is talking about the Enlightenment-era system of formal laws and informal norms, political and economic, that aim to promote the freedom and equality of the individual. That is — our Madisonian system of checks and balances, our legally codified system of individual rights, and our capitalistic economy.
While this system is good at producing harmony or at least coexistence among diverse grounds – if not a productive system for channeling sectarian disagreements into innovative political, economic, and even (as Jonathan Rauch might say) intellectual solutions – liberalism was never intended to provide the kind of connection, meaning and sustenance that human beings require. Again, one can infer here that Douthat believes that liberalism was designed to manage competing religious sects, not to provide the same meaning and purpose as a religion does.
Instead, Douthat believes that the ideal solution for a good society is a formulation that he terms “liberalism-plus,” and he provides examples from successful societies in the past:
“Liberalism plus nationalism (as in 19th-century Europe or Ukraine today), liberalism plus intense ethnic homogeneity (the Scandinavian model, now showing signs of strain), liberalism plus mainline Protestantism (the old American tradition), liberalism plus therapeutic spirituality (the mode of American culture since the 1970s), liberalism plus social justice progressivism (the mode of today’s cultural left), etc., etc.”
But absent some deeper purpose, liberalism’s hyper-focus on the individual pursuing their own well-being leads down a depressing and lonely road to consumerism, isolation, ennui, and even despair – as Douthat puts it: “ . . . a realm of atomized, unhappy consumers, creatures of self-interest whose time horizons for those interests are always a month rather than a decade, Lockean individuals moving in a miserable herd.”
Indeed, it is only those who revel in either the hedonistic delight of unrestrained freedom – social or economic – or those who take an eccentric joy in constitutional proceduralism – who can find real meaning for their lives under liberalism-plus-nothing. In Douthat’s memorable words: “nobody except Hugh Hefner, Gordon Gekko and a few devotees of the old A.C.L.U. can bear to live for very long under conditions of pure liberalism.”
For Douthat, that means that classical liberals must “look even at forces that seem most threatening, whether the Trumpist right, the illiberal left or something else, and recognize in them impulses and desires and demands that require satisfaction, not just denunciation.”
Douthat is skeptical that any other approach is likely to “replace” the liberal order wholesale, but I appreciate the way he frames the problem.
I think that “liberalism-plus” is a really useful formulation, and I think there’s much truth to what he says about the difference between the proceduralism and negative freedoms offered by liberalism versus the deeper sense of meaning and need satisfied by other elements of our society. I’m too much of a (John) Dewey-ian to believe that it’s only grand political or social movements that really provide a meaningful sense of purpose; read John Dewey’s Democracy and Education for one of the fullest accounts of how a “vocation” – in the widest sense – can provide meaning and worth. But I appreciate Douthat’s broader point – it’s important to try to separate out liberalism from the other stuff, to understand it as best we can, and to try to appreciate it for what it is good at – all while understanding its patent limitations.