Anti-Liberalism in U.S. Will Only Lead to Violence

“Suppose the election was declared free and fair,” American diplomat Richard Holbrooke worried of Bosnia in 1996, but the winners are “racists, fascists, separatists, who are publicly opposed to [peace and reintegration]. That is the dilemma,” he said, in a decade when ascendant illiberalism was a relatively distant prospect, a problem for faraway places like Peru, Slovakia, and the Philippines.

And though that sentence could be pasted verbatim into any number of articles about former President Donald Trump from the last half-decade, I’m not so sure we have the same dilemma now, when illiberalism is rising on left and right alike here in the United States. Ideological anti-liberals—the sort of people who know what “David French-ism” means, who explicitly reject liberalism’s insistence on tolerance and want to fundamentally change how our government works—don’t have the numbers to sweep to power as Holbrooke’s comment anticipated.

That means their plan to overhaul American politics depends, at best, on a delusional belief that if we toss out liberalism, their party will somehow come out on top. At worst, however, it depends on something much darker: forcible subjugation of the many Americans who haven’t embraced their vision for a post-liberal United States. And that’s a plan which could only appeal to those who have forgotten the centuries of horrific violence that led the West to liberalism.

Two things are true about contemporary American illiberalism at once. First, it is a significant movement with widespread influence in U.S. politics right now. But second, there’s no majority illiberal bloc, partly because the average American’s politics aren’t deeply ideological and retain many liberal values and impulses, and partly because anti-liberals themselves have differing agendas.

“On the left,” as Stephanie Slade summarizes at Reason (where I am a contributor), “a new crop of socialists hope to overthrow the liberal economic order, while the rise of intersectional identity politics has supplanted longstanding commitments to civil liberties. On the right, support for free markets and free trade are more and more often derided as relics of a bygone century, while quasi-theocratic ideas are gathering support” in the social sphere.

The illiberal promise is that once we’ve dispensed with liberalism’s inconvenience, uncertainty, and constant rumbles of public dispute, you will end up empowered.

There’s a real convergence on the pursuit of power unconstrained by liberalism’s “procedural niceties,” Slade observes, like the Constitution and reciprocal willingness to forgo using the sword of the state to recut the rest of society in our own image. But the convergence is much more about methods than outcomes, as Americans are still strongly polarized on partisanship and especially culture war issues. This means that though illiberalism is rising, there’s no one illiberal group positioned to ride a wave of legitimate popular enthusiasm to the top of the current constitutional structure and, from there, demolish it.

Anti-liberals are loud, but most of our fellow citizens are neither tankies nor blasphemy law enthusiasts. Catholic integralism, for example, has an extremely small constituency, and though “capitalism” is losing points among younger Americans, the ongoing popularity of “free enterprise” suggests growing support for “socialism” is just about expanding the welfare state.

So how do these illiberal groups expect to win? Let’s take the blasphemy law crowd—Christian nationalists—as a case study. Writing to self-proclaimed Christian nationalists in the pages of World Magazine, a conservative Christian outlet, Southern Baptist ethicist Andrew T. Walker raised the key question: “Tell me,” he said, “how are you going to achieve sufficient enough majorities in a nation where Christianity is in decline?”

Realistically, they won’t. Christian nationalism isn’t a decades-long evangelism program. It’s an illiberal politics supported by a minority of a minority of a shrinking demographic. The answer to Walker’s question, then, isn’t conversion and persuasion. It’s delusion—or force.

Like other advocates of illiberalism, Christian nationalists typically don’t spell this part out. They don’t acknowledge the comparative unpopularity of their cause, and they certainly don’t openly endorse a return to the ideological violence that fueled demand for liberalism in the first place. Let’s get back to creed wars is not an attractive message to anyone who knows that history.

Before liberalism, “wars of religion wracked Europe not just for years but for generations,” as Brookings scholar Jonathan Rauch notes in The Constitution of Knowledge. They “mowed down not only combatants but large numbers of civilians”—in the Thirty Years’ War, one in every five Germans died!—leaving a ravaged Europe desperate for a new way to settle ideological disputes.

The solution, supplied by Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, was liberalism: “Impersonal rules, neutrally applied; limited government, accountable to the people; pluralism of belief; and government which protects rather than persecutes dissent,” as Rauch writes. This is what “relegated violent creed wars to the history books.” And if minority factions like Christian nationalists tried to create and dominate an illiberal America, we could no longer take that relegation for granted.

The illiberal promise is that once we’ve dispensed with liberalism’s inconvenience, uncertainty, and constant rumbles of public dispute, you will end up empowered. Your morals will be enshrined in law. Your culture will be propagated by the government. Your friends will be rewarded and your enemies punished.

But a litany of wars, inquisitions, and purges show that for almost everyone, this promise is a lie. Without liberalism, you probably won’t end up empowered. You’ll end up bearably oppressed, if you’re lucky, or persecuted or dead if you’re not.

Liberalism doesn’t have a perfect record of precluding injustice and peacefully settling disagreements. Anti-liberals’ charges of inconvenience, uncertainty, and the messiness of pluralism are fair. But unpopular ideological minorities, of all people, should realize it’s the best option we have.

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