City Journal Summer 2014

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Summer 2014
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Books and Culture

Fred Siegel
Liberalism on the Rocks
Two recent books appraise the contemporary Left, with varying results.
8 August 2014

Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, by Edmund Fawcett (Princeton University Press, 468 pp., $35)

Silent Revolution: How the Left Rose to Political Power and Cultural Dominance, by Barry Rubin (Broadside Books, 332 pp., $25.99)

Edmund Fawcett is a man of wide reading. In his new book, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, Fawcett, who spent 30 years writing for The Economist, tries to meld history, political philosophy, and storytelling into an account of the evolution of liberalism. Fawcett promises a “bold attempt to pull together a complicated story,” but his book, more analect than coherent argument, is held together largely by his personal predilections. After what he acknowledges is “extended throat clearing” about four concepts of liberalism, four countries, and four time periods, Fawcett is unable to establish a coherent framework. The book, however, is rich in potted histories of such long-forgotten German liberals as Wilhelm von Humbolt and Eugen Richter, along with intriguing short essays on, for instance, the difference between anarchism and dissent and on the origins of the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

But Fawcett inexplicably chooses to ignore, for the most part, both the American Founding and Edmund Burke in his nearly 500 pages. James Madison enters only through the back door, when Fawcett compares the Virginian’s ideas about the separation of powers with those of François Guizot, the French prime minister during the reign of the bourgeois monarch Louis Philippe. Edmund Burke, friend of Adam Smith, proponent of the American Revolution, and opponent of colonial repression, who remains a lynchpin of conservatively oriented British liberalism, barely makes it into the index, while Fawcett insists on including Jean-Paul Sartre and Eric Hobsbawm, both devoted Stalinists, as liberals of sorts.

The reader is left with the sense that Fawcett, an Englishman of strong pro-European Union leanings, has emptied his three-by-five cards into these pages. Had he done more than provide a useful compendium, Fawcett could have asked why French and German liberalism ran aground in the twentieth century. Similarly, though he writes with an admirable astringency at times about the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, he fails to note the parallels between the European Union’s rights-based statism—which makes it impossible for Europe to control its borders—and the conception of group-based civil rights, borrowed from George McGovern, that led Obama liberals to give up on policing America’s borders. By darting between countries, issues, ideas, and personalities, Fawcett fails to explain why liberalism has come upon hard times. Though recently published, Liberalism has the feel of a work written before the Obama presidency and the European Union—both expressions of the centralizing, rights-based statism that Fawcett finds congenial—ran into stiff headwinds.

“Liberalism,” Fawcett argues, “is about improving people’s lives while treating them alike and shielding them from undue power.” But Fawcett’s assertions don’t apply to liberalism’s contemporary incarnations. Take his point about treating people alike: the faculty senate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, long one of the flagships of American liberalism, has, with barely a dissent, proposed a new plan for increasing diversity on campus by distributing grades on an ethnic and racial basis. As John Leo has reported, the plan calls for “proportional participation of historically underrepresented racial-ethnic groups at all levels of an institution, including high status special programs, high-demand majors, and in the distribution of grades.”

As for improving people’s lives, the “billionaire boys club” of radical environmentalists central to the Democratic Party’s finances is dedicated to a stratified America, in which the masses are kept in their properly subordinate place. Opponents of economic growth—billionaires such as Tom Steyer and George Soros, as well as the Rockefeller and Page Foundations—seek to curtail the expansion of the natural gas industry in the name of climate change. On both sides of the Atlantic, a liberalism dedicated to heading off the supposedly imminent threat of environmental catastrophe has scant concern for the declining middle class.

Fawcett writes that “the permanence of conflict in a society, distrust of power, faith in human progress and respect for people whatever they think and whoever they are” constitute the underlying tenets of liberalism. But each of these is problematic. In de facto one-party “blue” states, like New York and California, issues such as the imminent danger of climate change are deemed “settled” by leading liberals. Rather than distrusting power, Obama liberals, assuming they have a permanent lock on the presidency, have been happy to expand their power through a neo-imperial presidency and a Senate shorn of the rules that curbed majority abuses. The discovery of vast new sources of natural gas, which liberals once might have seen as progress, is denounced by today’s “progressives,” who decry carbon-based energy. They’re willing to block energy exploration, even at the cost of increasing poverty. Finally, public figures holding traditional views on, say, gay marriage have been excoriated and their companies threatened with boycotts. So much for respecting people, “whatever they think.” Fawcett misses all this because he tunes out liberalism’s intolerant tendencies, which first took hold on campuses and are now spreading to the broader culture.

Barry Rubin’s Silent Revolution examines the leftward shift of contemporary liberalism that Fawcett ignores. The Silent Revolution discusses the trends that have led some liberals in both Europe and America to embrace a Jacobin-like authoritarianism, sometimes cloaked in the language of human rights. Rubin, a prolific and thoughtful writer on Israel and the Arab world, passed away last year. He will be missed.

Rubin explains that “It is a privileged class that gives the current left its mission—not the proletariat or downtrodden but elements of the intelligentsia and cultural elite which views itself as the proper ruling class.” He’s right, but I would add that plutocrats such as Steyer, Soros, and the Rockefellers have formed a top-bottom political alliance with entities like the Service Workers International Union, which organizes janitors, fast-food workers, and, through what was once known as Acorn, the unemployed. This alliance is central to the Obama administration’s goal of making low-wage workers and the poor comfortable in their relative poverty.

The obstacle to the top-bottom alliance, Rubin writes, is the private-sector middle class, “the dumb unwashed who buy the lies” about upward mobility in America. “The task” of the liberals, says Rubin, is “to direct these ‘peasants’ properly so that the aristocracy of progressive thought can restrain them from their natural base impulses.” Contemporary liberalism, then, “is profoundly conservative in a very traditional sense.”

Rubin plausibly argues that liberalism’s base of support lies in a concatenation of upper-middle-class liberals appalled by the GOP’s social policies, crony capitalists aligned with the administration, globalist plutocrats indifferent to the domestic economy, and the organized poor. Obama has delivered for top and bottom, with a booming stock market and generously enhanced transfer payments to the poor. The upshot is an administration indifferent to economic policies that produce widespread middle-class prosperity. Obama liberals, concludes Rubin—writing from the perspective of an era when liberalism meant tolerance and open debate—are “motivated by something that blends deliberate suicide with incompetence . . . and they will never get better because they are uninterested in learning what works.” It’s an acidic conclusion, and it captures the currents that flowed undetected past Fawcett’s elaborate apparatus.

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