"After Progressivism" is one of three addresses given to a symposium on "After Liberalism," put on in late February with the support of the Simon/Hertog Fund for Policy Analysis and of Fieldstead and Company. The following is a response to Wilfred M. McClay's "Liberalism After Liberalism." The other response, by James Rogers, can be found here. The other two addresses and the responses will appear in the June/July and August/September issues.
I come not to bury liberalism but to praise it—or at least to praise a strand of the liberal tradition that we too easily ignore. Wilfred McClay largely ignores it in his brilliant and insightful essay “Liberalism After Liberalism,” and this causes him also to ignore a potential cause for hope amid our worries.
McClay offers a useful and concise definition of liberalism, describing it as “emphasiz[ing] the protection and empowerment of individuals and institutions” against the power of the state, and as “coeval with the emergence of ideas of constitutionally limited government, natural rights, a free-market economy, private property, civil liberties,” and individualism. But he then proceeds to identify that set of views entirely with a series of abstract Enlightenment principles, and thus as a break from the earlier political tradition of the West—a break with many salutary consequences, to be sure, but one that has also left us devoid of deeper roots and so unable to resist the deformities of liberalism.
And those deformities are our reality, alas. McClay argues that over time our original liberalism—the Lockean view he attributes to the founders of our republic—devolved into another political form, which we know by the name of progressivism and which was simultaneously an extension and a rejection of the original liberal ideal. Progressivism has exhausted itself, and so we live not only after liberalism but after progressivism, and in search of a way to keep the best of the liberal project while moving past the worst.
It is a compelling and bracing case, but an incomplete one. The total equation of the forms of modern liberalism with the abstract principles of Enlightenment liberalism is at the heart of what we might call, and McClay does call, the first kind of liberalism: the liberalism of Jefferson and Thomas Paine, of the English radicals of the same era, and of the French Revolution. But a denial of that equation was at the heart of a second kind of liberalism that has been with us almost since the beginning and that exists still as a living alternative to progressivism. This second kind of liberalism was given voice in the writings of Edmund Burke, in the insights of Alexis de Tocqueville, in the profound wisdom of Publius, and in the forms of the Constitution that the authors of the Federalist Papers helped to design and champion.
These two kinds of liberalism largely agree about the first part of McClay’s description: about the protection of individuals and institutions against the power of the state, about constitutionally limited government, civil liberties, rights of conscience, and so on—the forms of the liberal society. But they disagree about its origins and have quite different views of what matters most about it.
The first kind of liberalism, which has always been the more common, argues that liberal institutions were the result of a discovery of new political principles in the Enlightenment, principles that pointed toward new ideals and institutions and toward an ideal society. Liberalism, in this view, is the pursuit of that ideal society.
The second kind of liberalism holds that liberal institutions were the product of countless generations of gradual political and cultural evolution in the West, which by the time of Enlightenment, and especially in Britain, had begun to arrive at political forms that pointed toward some timeless principles in which our common life must be grounded, that accounted for the complexities of society, and that allowed for a workable balance between freedom and effective government given the constraints of human nature. Liberalism, in this view, involves the preservation and gradual improvement of those forms.
Thus one view understands liberalism as a discovery that points beyond the existing arrangements of society, while the other sees liberalism as an accomplishment to be preserved and enhanced. The first is therefore progressive while the second is conservative.
The principles that the progressive form of liberalism thought it had discovered were much like those that liberals who were more conservative believed society had arrived at through long experience: principles of natural right that define the proper ends and bounds of government. Thus, for a time progressive and conservative liberals in America—especially in the republic’s early years—seemed to be advancing roughly the same vision of government.
But when in time those principles failed to yield the ideal society (and when industrialism seemed to put that ideal further off than ever), the more progressive liberals abandoned these principles in favor of their utopian ambitions. At that point, progressive and conservative American liberals parted ways—the former drawn to post-liberal philosophies of utopian ends (often translated from German), while the latter continued to defend the restraining mechanisms of classical liberal institutions and the skeptical worldview that underlies them.
McClay describes this evolution of the first kind of liberalism and ends up yearning for a liberalism with roots in our deeper traditions—for a way by which what “is admirable in liberalism can be, so to speak, rescued from itself, by being grounded on a sturdier set of principles, and construed in a different light.” I would suggest that the second, more conservative, liberal tradition offers just such an alternative.
To explore that alternative, we can look to three sources familiar to American conservatives, but not familiar enough.
Edmund Burke was surely the most self-conscious and explicit defender of a distinct understanding of liberalism as a treasured inheritance from our forefathers, gradually evolving as succeeding generations carefully preserve and improve upon their birthright. He argued that the more radical liberals of his day had chosen to break the chain of inheritance, cutting themselves off from the only available sources of genuine wisdom about human affairs, and had developed instead a rootless liberalism grounded in a preposterously implausible creation myth of the state of nature and purporting to answer to abstract ideals that had little to do with the realities of life in society. When they then measured their own actual societies against those ideals, they were bound to find them wanting and to reject their liberal principles in favor of some impossible utopian dream.
He could see with extraordinary clarity how the abstract liberalism of the radicals would point beyond liberalism and therefore against freedom and virtue alike. His alternative was a liberalism that understood itself as cautiously evolved through centuries of trial and error and defined by a sense of human limits as much as of human possibilities—a liberalism whose constraints on power were grounded in humility, not in utopianism. His is a liberal teaching with much to tell us, and our age could do with a serious revival of interest in Burke.
A similar understanding of liberalism is evident in Alexis de Tocqueville’s political thought. In the author’s introduction to Democracy in
America, Tocqueville lays out an extraordinary history of modern democracy, and the most extraordinary thing about it may be that it begins not in John Locke’s study but in the courts of the forgotten first Capetian kings of France. “If you examine what is happening in France . . . from the eleventh century on,” he writes, you find that “the noble has fallen on the social ladder, and the commoner has risen.” And as he assures us, “this is by no means peculiar to France.” Liberalism has been very long in the making, and the explosion of abstract theorizing regarding it in the two centuries preceding his own life do not even appear especially important in Tocqueville’s telling of its history. His is a liberalism grounded in human nature and political forms evolved to suit a people and their circumstances.
But perhaps most striking, and most pertinent for our purposes, is the expression given to this second kind of liberalism by the chief architects of our own Constitution, both in the design of our regime itself and in the case for it made by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in The Federalist. The Federalist’s vision of government is clearly liberal (at least in the sense of the first half of McClay’s definition of the term), but it appears on every page to draw its liberalism from the wisdom of the ages—from the experience of ancient republics, from prudence built up through sober reflection upon human nature, from a very clear grasp of the difference between the ideal and the possible.
Far from viewing society as a proving ground for abstract postulates, Publius calls for a liberalism realistic about its subject. “Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, the weaknesses, and the evils incident to society in every shape?” Hamilton asks in Federalist 6. “Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”
The constitutional system Madison and Hamilton helped to design embodies this non-utopian liberalism, one possessed of the forms of the liberal society and of a deep commitment to human liberty but without the highly artificial theoretical underpinnings of the radicals, and so without their sharp break from nature and history and their utterly radical individualism. It is the embodiment of a liberal order rooted in the Western tradition rather than opposed to it.
It is not a coincidence, therefore, that the foremost battles between these first and second kinds of liberalism in our history have been battles over constitutional questions—and all the more so since the rise of a self-declared progressivism. In each of those battles, though perhaps most explicitly in the first encounters between progressives and conservatives a century ago, we find the defenders of the Constitution against its progressive foes articulating a conservative case for the liberal society.
It is that kind of case that we now need to reinvigorate as we contemplate a world after progressivism, if not quite after liberalism—a case grounded in what McClay describes as the Western heritage that “antedated modern liberalism, and would provide the sources, deeper and older than the founders, that needed to be rediscovered in order to sustain the American democratic experiment.” The founders themselves, or at least some of them, were well aware that these were the sources of their own liberal tradition, and we would do well to acquaint ourselves with that fact too, lest we throw out the liberal baby with the foul progressive bathwater.
If our liberal society were really the enactment of our liberal theories, with their gaunt, cold, lifeless notions of the human person and of social institutions, it would hardly be worth defending. But the lived reality of liberalism has always been much better than the theory and so has always called out for a better theory. Liberalism lacks self-knowledge, and the task McClay lays out must involve some remedy for that.
Seeing this does not mean that our task will be easy or simple. It does not do our work for us. But it does mean that our work can consist of the kind of project for which we who stand appalled at the ruin wrought by progressivism are perhaps best suited: a project of recovery, of enabling moral progress through a reconnection with our Western heritage and a reillumination of it. It means our effort can be a conservative effort, grounded in gratitude and in appreciation, and guided by the wisdom of instructors we have long trusted.
It means also that we are in pursuit of a better liberalism, rather than a new direction altogether, so that we can call upon our countrymen to make America into an even better version of itself. That is the sort of political and cultural project that has some chance of success in our justly proud republic.
Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs. This paper was given to First Things’ "After Liberalism" symposium, produced with the support of the Simon/Hertog Fund for Policy Analysis and of Fieldstead and Company.