We live in intolerant times. A former Secretary of State is disinvited from speaking on campus. Corporate leaders are forced to resign because of their views on marriage. People are forced by the courts to violate their consciences. A prominent Senate leader calls Tea Party activists “anarchists” and, in a speech reminiscent of McCarthyism, brands the businessmen-philanthropist Koch brothers “un-American.” The Internal Revenue Service—harking back to the Johnson and Nixon eras—is accused of targeting individuals and groups for their political views. And government leaders routinely ignore laws they are sworn to uphold.
This is more than intolerant. It is illiberal. It is a willingness to use coercive methods, from government action to public shaming, to shut down debate and censor those who hold a different opinion as if they have no right to their views at all.
All across America, this illiberal mindset is spreading, corrupting our culture and our politics. It is evident in the mendacity with which opposing opinions are attacked and in the way that state and federal governments conduct their business. This mindset turns ideas like tolerance and liberalism on their heads. It weakens the checks and balances that have long protected our rights and freedoms. As a result, illiberalism threatens not only the social peace of our country, but the very future of freedom and democracy in America.
We ignore this growing phenomenon at our peril.
The new illiberalism is more than intolerance. Webster’s Dictionary defines illiberalism as “opposition to or lack of liberalism.” In popular usage, the word is used to describe an attitude that is close-minded, intolerant, and bigoted. But there is a broader meaning. In a 1997 Foreign Affairs article, Fareed Zakaria described the “illiberal democracies” of Russia and Venezuela as regimes that suppress dissent, bend the law, and hold sham elections. In a 1964 Harper’s Magazine article, Columbia University professor Richard Hofstadter described the “paranoid style” of American politics, a style that closely resembles the worldviews and conspiratorial fantasies of the illiberal mindset. Though Hofstadter associated this paranoid style with the American Right, he admitted that it “is not necessarily right wing.” Indeed, as Professor Richard Ellis described in The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America (1998), illiberalism has a long track record in the history of the American Left.
Illiberalism historically has been associated with political authoritarianism. Scholars of European history such as Fritz Stern saw it lurking in German political culture prior to World War I. In this form, it found expression in nationalism and the anti-democratic movements of the German Right that eventually gave rise to the totalitarian mindset of National Socialism. On the Left, the radical egalitarian illiberalism of communism gave rise to Stalinism and other totalitarian movements in Europe and Russia.
It would be wrong to associate illiberalism solely with these historical examples. For one thing, these movements were truly totalitarian, which illiberalism need not be. It’s one thing to demonize one’s opponents and to use quasi-legal or administrative methods to coerce them. It’s another altogether to take them out and shoot them or throw them in a gulag. Illiberalism may have a tendency to evolve into political coercion and, in extremes, violence; but it does not always end up there.
Moreover, illiberalism need not be associated with any particular ideology or form of government. Yes, its temperament is anti-democratic, and it can lead to fascism or communism. Yet at its core, illiberalism stands opposed to the classic liberal notions of individual rights protected equally by government and the law, and it is hostile to freedom of conscience and expression.
There are “hard” versions of illiberalism (i.e., the kind that evolved into totalitarianism), and that is evident in the authoritarian movements in Putin’s Russia and post-Chavez Venezuela. In America, hardline illiberalism exists on the far fringes of American life. On the right, there are white supremacists, unauthorized “militia” groups, and other radicals who mistake “sovereignty” for anarchism. On the left, there are radical environmentalists, communists, and black nationalists such as Louis Farrakhan. Some of these groups advocate violence, but not all do. Homegrown Islamist terrorists, who defy traditional left-right definitions, could be seen as hardline illiberals too, but it would be more accurate to describe them as totalitarian.
Hard illiberalism, however, is not the only variant. There are “soft” versions too. They often appear “liberal” and even operate inside democratic systems otherwise committed to the rule of law. But their core idea is that liberal democracy and the constitutional rule of law are insufficient to bring about absolute equality.
It is this form of illiberalism that is gaining traction in America today. It comes in many guises and varying degrees of intensity. It is a campus official countenancing “trigger warnings” and speech codes that censor free speech and suppress debate. It is a radio host shouting that he hopes employees of the National Security Agency get cancer and die. It is politicians and government officials who bend the rules, launch investigations, overturn laws, criminalize so-called “hate” speech, and stretch the meaning of the Constitution to impose their views on Americans. It is the mindset of “us versus them” that leads government officials such as New York’s governor to say that there is “no place in the state of New York” for “extreme conservatives”— by which he meant not fringe or violent groups but anyone who opposes abortion or the redefinition of marriage. And it is the idea that constitutional limits, individual rights, and even due process can be ignored in the “greater” cause of creating income equality.
These people have become not merely intolerant but fundamentally illiberal.
Illiberalism is not just about government denying people the right of free expression and equality before the law. It is also about controlling how people think and behave. It is a threat both to our democratic system of government and to the “liberal” political culture.
The Culture of Illiberalism
The roots of modern American illiberalism lie in the trauma experienced by liberals in the 1960s. The rise of the New Left and its sister movement, the Counter-Culture, changed how liberals viewed not only culture but also politics. As I describe in Rebound: Getting America Back to Great, rebellion for New Left liberals moved beyond mere economic class issues to ones involving gender, sex, and race. Politics became cultural, and Marxist assumptions about the irreconcilability of class conflict were transferred to the culture wars over gender, race, and sexual identity. Channeling the ideas of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, the New Left dismissed old-fashioned liberalism that preached individualism and moral responsibility as “repressive tolerance.” Liberation focused now on groups, not on individuals, and dissent was seen not as an individual right of conscience, but as a political weapon to overthrow traditional morality.
Whatever one may say about the New Left—the radical movement inspired by neo-Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse—one cannot claim it was liberal. In fact, its most bitter ideological enemy had always been bourgeois liberalism, which supposedly propped up capitalism.
Since the 1960s, the radical egalitarianism of the New Left has fused with traditional progressive ideas about state and society. Feminism is no longer about giving women equal political and legal rights—it’s about confronting the male power structure and the “rape” culture. Fighting racism is no longer about ensuring that African-Americans and minorities are treated equally before the law—it’s about eradicating “systemic” racism and promoting affirmative action. Environmentalism is no longer about conserving natural resources—it’s about “saving” the planet from overpopulation and climate change. With such utopian causes, it seems perfectly acceptable to “break a few eggs” to make a new liberal omelette.
Over the years, the hard edges of the rebellious sixties attenuated. Many liberal baby boomers grew older and mellower in their views. Yet many held on to the assumptions of the Counter-Culture, particularly with respect to gender, sex, and race. Today, these people occupy the high ground of American culture, and their values are mainstream. They are university professors and trustees; intellectuals and writers; Hollywood producers and actors; lawyers litigating politically correct, high-profile cases; newsroom executives and producers; school teachers and administrators; and the pastors, deacons, priests, and bishops of some of America’s mainline churches.
Because of their influence, traditional American liberalism has changed in three important ways.
The first change involves the understanding of tolerance. The old Jeffersonian notion, rooted in debates over religious freedom, holds that individual conscience is sacrosanct. This has given way to the notion that certain ideas (e.g., racism or sexism) are so heinous that no one should be allowed to hold, much less express, any idea about race or women or sexuality that proponents believe is socially oppressive. In other words, intolerance is now seen as a good thing—if it serves the purpose of a certain definition of social liberation.
The second change involves the idea of dissent. Historically, respect for dissent had its roots in debates over religious freedom and freedom of conscience. But the New Left took an entirely different view of dissent. Rather than an expression of individual conscience, dissent was now seen as a weapon to overthrow the old order. The end justified the means. It was perfectly justifiable, according to the New Left, to shut out the views of the ruling class, defined now along race, gender, and sexual orientation lines.
The third idea that has undergone a radical change is our conception of virtue. Historically, virtue has been understood as a positive habit that forms one’s personal character. In this view, one acquires virtue by repeatedly choosing to treat others well and act in accord with objective standards of morality, even when it is difficult. The Counter-Culture understood virtue very differently. The “self” was not something that had to be restrained; it was unique and had to be expressed openly, even loudly, to be fulfilled. Individual freedom was to be experienced through the liberation of one’s group (i.e., one’s gender, race, or sexual identity). Traditional morality—particularly sexual morality—became a force of repression just as capitalism had been in the days of the Old Left. Virtue was politicized and defined ideologically; it was not seen as a measure of personal responsibility or as a right of individual conscience but as a measure of the collective good the government is supposed to guarantee.
Seen in this way, virtue became almost exclusively public. As with Angelina Jolie using humanitarian gestures to smooth over her affair with the very married Brad Pitt, the only true sins are not religious or moral, but political.
As a result, it has become easy to condemn one’s political opponents as utterly mendacious characters who lack decency and virtue rather than to consider them misguided people who happen to see things differently. The scarlet letter is reserved not for adulterers but for people who doubt climate change or who question calling same-sex unions “marriage.” People who see themselves as “liberal-minded” have come to justify the most illiberal of ideas—namely, curbing freedom of expression and using the power of the state to deny equal rights to Americans with whom they disagree.
Modern liberalism thus does not merely flirt with intolerance. It is now fundamentally based on it. And that is largely because it has become accepted by the culture as a good thing to employ in the service of a cause you believe in. Whatever you may call this new American culture, you cannot call it liberal, for tolerance is the acid test of true liberalism.
This is where the culture stands today. The thinkers of the New Left infect it with illiberal values consciously designed to destroy classic liberalism. It may be true that illiberalism always lurked on the edges of American progressivism in the various ideologies associated with socialism. But for most of history, progressives had tried to keep their distance from the more blatantly illiberal values of the far Left. That resistance started breaking down in the sixties. As a result, American liberalism today has a decidedly illiberal wing eating away at its purported core values.
In the next installment of this series, I will discuss how illiberalism is infecting American politics and government policies.
- Kim R. Holmes is a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in Public Discourse