a bitter melon

The crisis of liberalism

The Trump victory in the US and the rise of authoritarianism in other parts of the world poses a stark challenge to received ideas about democracy, rule of law, and justice -- in a word, to liberalism.

Mark Lilla in the New York Times:

New York Times -- The End of Identity Liberalism (Nov 18, 2016)

One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end. Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded.

Jonathan Haidt interviewed by Vox:

Vox -- Why social media is terrible for multiethnic democracies (Nov 15, 2016)

As multiculturalism is emphasized more and more, there emerges a reaction against it on the right, which is attractive to the authoritarian mind and also appeals to other conservatives. And this, I think, is what has happened, this is what Trump is about — not entirely, of course, but certainly this is a big factor.

Multiculturalism and diversity have many benefits, including creativity and economic dynamism, but they also have major drawbacks, which is that they generally reduce social capital and trust and they amplify tribal tendencies.

Earlier this year Lawrence Summers made the case for a "responsible nationalism":

The Washington Post -- How to embrace nationalism responsibly (Jul 10, 2016)

It is clear after the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican presidential primaries that electorates are revolting against the relatively open economic policies that have been the norm in the United States and Britain since World War II. [...]

Populist opposition to international integration is also on the rise in much of continental Europe and has always been the norm in much of Latin America.

Idle thoughts

The story of liberalism needs -- unattractively said -- to make room for darkness: liberalism needs to be more humble in the face of human nature and acquire a sense of humor about the gap between its universalist ambitions and the messy particulars that make up the world.

There are many strands of liberalism, many ways to interpret the word. Here I mean a political philosophy that aims at justice and fairness. This entails at the very least equality of opportunity, which is rooted in a fundamental human equality. That does not mean that all people are identical. It means that humans share the capacity for moral reasoning. More than anything this is what makes us fully human.

This notion of liberalism derives from Rawls and his Theory of Justice. Rawls justifies liberalism by making a fundamentally moral appeal. But people don't generally conform to the Kantian ideal of the moral man; even our best accredited knowledge is frequently incomplete or outright wrong; jealousy, anger and lust keep giving rise to dangerous, distressing thoughts and expressions; there are countless slights against justice.

In the present day, some liberals have become preoccupied with naming and calling out these slights of justice. It is an endlessly bifurcating exercise in condemnation and self-flagellation, spiraling inward at a prodigious rate. It resembles a ritual of purification: a continuous denunciation of thoughts, feelings, and actions. But a desire to purify the world and the people in it, I think, profoundly misunderstands what liberalism can and should do.

The aim of liberalism is not to bring about a state of egalitarian nirvana (which in any case would seem like hell to some). But it can make the world a little bit more hospitable. It does so when it acknowledges the darker impulses of mankind and his infinite capacity for error, and then puts in place mechanisms to protect us from our most terrible mistakes. The goal is not to establish flawless justice, but to prevent egregious injustice.

Only then can people begin to fully explore their potential without harm to others, and, in doing so, join in the community of mind that is our shared heritage. Liberalism must be playful, honest, unafraid, and serious in its commitment to understand the world as it is: full of conflict and full of conflicted people struggling to do the right thing. It must not betray that commitment in a misguided attempt to create heaven on earth, against human nature and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Liberalism must show itself equal to the task of creating a better world by engaging with the world as it actually is, and by having a serious discussion on serious issues with the people who are actually in that world -- flawed and prejudiced but endowed with reason and moral agency -- instead of simply wishing them away or condemning their existence.