Saving Liberalism from Itself

Francis Fukuyama. (Photo by Ying Tang/NurPhoto/Getty Images.)

The Crisis of Liberalism

Liberalism is in crisis. Its defenders, who see liberalism as a bulwark against tyranny, fear that illiberalism now threatens to overwhelm liberal democracy. Its critics, who say liberalism is a failure that erodes community and tradition, welcome a “post-liberal” order.

Today’s liberalism debate gives the false impression that this crisis is somehow new. In fact, it is as old as liberalism itself: Liberalism has always been defined in part by the argument over the nature and limits of its own identity. Since the middle of the last century, political discourse has been consumed by questions about the virtues and vices of liberalism—from the “fusionist” project to balance freedom and tradition to the republican revival among historians and political theorists to “communitarian” critiques to more recent debates about deliberative democracy.

Today’s critics of liberalism seem to labor under the illusion that they are the first to recognize that liberal society does not provide a substantive moral consensus about the highest good—ignoring intellectual traditions that might help them articulate a humane alternative. Liberalism’s defenders, meanwhile, ignore the fact that individualism does not satisfy the basic human need for belonging. Thus they dismiss the most trenchant criticisms of liberalism, depriving themselves of the resources helpful for a defense of liberal democracy.

What passes for rational debate over liberalism frequently amounts to rival groups shouting past one another—a mutual misunderstanding that gives way to conflict. At its worst, today’s debate offers little more than a performative confirmation of one of the most piercing criticisms of liberalism itself: that liberal discourse masks, rather than resolves, the substantive disagreements that divide us.

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