Political polarization is the watchword in this cultural moment. Family members and friends are estranged over everything from Trump to transgenderism. We seem strangely obsessed with the news and even rally our children as public mascots for our various causes. The second-wave feminists used to say that everything is political, and though I’ve never believed it, I suppose declaring it so has had a kind of self-fulfilling effect. There’s not much left now that feels like a private part of life.
Explanations for this phenomenon often focus on the rise of social media and the proverbial echo chamber. In Reviving Classical Liberalism Against Populism, Nils Karlson, a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, is open to the influence of such contingent factors, but he makes a strong case for a different explanation altogether, and one that doesn’t depend on modern technology: populism. Populism isn’t anything new, after all. Charismatic demagogues rallying the people by promising a grab bag of goodies go back at least as far as ancient Athens, if Aristotle is to be believed. Whatever means they use, populist leaders can take advantage of perceived social and political failures to gain power, and they do so by means of polarization. Stoking an “us vs. them” mindset, they tap into our primordial tribal instincts.
As a classical liberal himself, Karlson explains populism and offers his suggestions for how classical liberals can fight back. Populism can’t be defined in terms of a particular political philosophy; it’s more about the cultivation of fear and resentment to claim autocratic power. His review of classical liberal ideas and strategies is interesting and broad. Students of classical liberalism will find this work especially helpful, as Karlson moves through the literature quickly but refers to all the important players and ideas. It’s almost like a very readable bibliography. I was genuinely struck by the sense of control it gave me just to understand more fully the populist leader’s playbook, too. It made me feel less vulnerable to their manipulations. Ultimately, however, it wasn’t clear that Karlson understands the extent of our current cultural crisis, nor has he fully grappled with the metaphysical assumptions that underlie the moral framework of a classical liberal society.
Karlson defines populism as “a kind of collectivist identity politics,” whether left or right, that tends toward “non-liberal institutional changes,” specifically by promoting social polarization. He considers populists to have unserious policy suggestions, usually dealing with redistribution of wealth and aimed at telling people what they want to hear more than thinking through the actual consequences. The data are quite clear, as he shows, that the actual economic consequences of populist takeovers are consistently negative, and often extremely so. Populism is little more than a whole lot of empty promises.
Karlson associates the rise of populism with particular philosophical figures like Rousseau, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Carl Schmitt. He claims that each of these thinkers contributes to a rejection of reason and an elevation of subjectivity that replaces real political theory with a more instinctual friend/enemy dichotomy. While philosophers will surely argue about the details, Karlson does present several cases of explicit connection in which major populist leaders appeal to these thinkers.
In spite of its terrible track record for results, populism is on the rise, as Karlson demonstrates, and liberalism on the retreat. He reports a fivefold increase in the number of populist national leaders (from 4 to 20) since 1990, and an increase in populist presence in established democracies as opposed to the less stable emerging ones more commonly associated with populism. Extensive research on policy positions around the world demonstrates a general drift in the direction of greater illiberalism, which Karlson defines as “lower commitment to political pluralism … problems with the demonization of political opponents [and] respect for fundamental minority rights, and … problems with the encouragement of political violence.” Once again, political scientists may want to quibble about the measures, but Karlson appeals to several vast studies to show that, with regard to each of populism’s defining characteristics, the so-called end of history seems to have come but also seems to be going. The assumption in the early 2000s that liberalism had won and its inevitable spread was a foregone conclusion now seems naive at best.
In terms of fighting back, Karlson is happy to review the classic arguments for liberalism’s basic institutions and the benefits of market exchange. But he also recognizes—rightly, I think—that modern liberals have been far too anorexic in their understanding of the human person and her need for community and culture, not just peace and material well-being. In this fight, then, we must reclaim a thicker classical liberalism that tells better stories, fights for the “soul” of liberalism, and engages people, not just rationally, but viscerally as well. By appealing to the broad legacy of classical liberal thought, we can find a deep well of appreciation for localism, the centrality of the family, and thick civil society institutions.
Karlson is right to point out that some populist grievances are actually misconceptions. Regarding the immigration issue, which often drives right-wing populism, he reviews relevant data. 1) Citizens seriously overestimate the number of immigrants coming into their country. 2) Popular ideas about labor competition with immigrants often turn out to be false, since immigrants take jobs that citizens don’t do. 3) Citizens often seriously overestimate the correlation of immigration with welfare abuse and crime. At the same time, he’s willing to admit that the cultural threat coming from isolated immigrant communities is real, and that properly integrating immigrants should be a major priority for classical liberals in the face of the rise in populism. This is just one among many examples in which Karlson is willing to go past the mere “night watchmen state” of libertarianism to deal with the particular challenges of life today.
Karlson also makes a helpful distinction between genuine communities and much larger groupings, which he refers to as “collectives.” It’s often collectives, not communities, into which the bombastic populist leader invites his followers. Feeling part of the nation or a political party doesn’t necessarily involve any personal, face-to-face, life-together activity, but it can still bring meaning to a person’s life if incorporated into one’s identity. The issue comes when the overlapping, underlying communities that generated the meaning of the collective in the first place begin to fail. When they do, the sense of meaning and purpose in the larger group weakens as well. In a sense, the populist leader is trying to do the impossible: resurrect a sense of existential value through a collective that has lost its substance. The real disease is a lack of community.
In the end, though, Karlson seems to be at a bit of a loss for exactly how we go about rebuilding a strong sense of community and meaning while embracing the liberal spirit of openness and tolerance. I couldn’t help but bristle a bit as he reviewed John Stuart Mill’s “religion of humanity” and James Buchanan’s elucidation of “an attitude in which others are viewed as moral equals and thereby deserving of equal respect, consideration and ultimately equal treatment.” Yes, that sounds lovely! But why in the world should anyone accept it? If this or that group of people are the evil ones, or the barbarians, or the racially inferior, there’s no reason to believe we are all moral equals deserving impartial treatment.
It sometimes strikes me as incredible that Enlightenment rationalists take for granted that people should believe such a far-fetched notion as that of equal rights. My father, who was a pastor, referred to such people as unwittingly relying on “gospel capital.” There’s only one good reason I can see to hold that people are equal and worthy of impartial treatment, and it’s because they’re made in the image of God, unique and unrepeatable persons with an eternal destiny. But who knows? Maybe everybody will just decide that it’s a useful fiction.
The suggestion that liberalism does indeed rely on gospel capital even as it hopes to maintain impartiality between religious beliefs may sound like it’s complicating the perfect liberal neutrality of, say, John Rawls. But is it really? It turns out that liberal tolerance always hits a wall somewhere. We have to decide who counts as a person, or as a woman, or what marriage is, or what percentage of Amish or anti-vaxxers we can tolerate. We just don’t want to declare that we’ve hit the wall when we can actually tolerate a bit more. At the end of the book, Karlson’s overview of classical liberal strategies was so brief, it might be taken to mean that he doesn’t fully appreciate the possibility that we are now at the wall. Consider the following facts.
Recently, the United States has surpassed all other countries in the world for our rates of fatherlessness. Single parenthood is highly correlated with poverty, criminality, and other undesirable outcomes. In fact, according to one excellent study, while every kind of household has gotten richer, the poverty rate itself gone up. Why? Because of the growth in one kind of household: single mothers. While this demographic group may be doing better than it used to, the shift of so many women from participation in a more stable type of household to this type made the poverty rate itself rise.
In the meantime, serious mental illness is also on the rise, and not simply as a matter of more accurate diagnoses. This rise has contributed to a legal crisis around questions of sex and gender. As more and more people declare themselves a different gender from their biological sex, protests around privacy in sex-separated spaces, sports competition, and appropriate medical care are causing a cascade of legal and cultural battles. Many think we’re in total cultural crisis.
Post-liberals blame liberalism, claiming that the transactional nature of market interaction has crept into every part of our existence, disrupting the family cohesion and religious community required for the appropriate formation of the soul. Many on the right feel that they must jettison the old Reagan consensus on small-government social conservatism for a far more muscular set of state interventions to undo all this damage.
Either way, we’re left with a conundrum: those steeped in the classical liberal tradition know full well that increasing panic over these issues won’t magically make cumbersome and blind government intervention effective. Karlson is right to emphasize all our good reasons to reject the new right’s big-government conservatism. But an appeal to some new humanistic liberal religion that will restore our sense of meaning and purpose falls flat in the face of genuine disagreement on the very nature of reality—and even such human realities as the social science around the family or the biology of the body. Karlson might not like it, but we may have to go back to where we got our fundamental belief in moral and legal equality in the first place: Genesis 1. Interestingly, even some of the most strident atheists are coming around to this conclusion.
I’ll leave Karlson with an extended quote from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, victim of female genital mutilation, one-time virulent atheist and anti-Muslim crusader, who shocked the world just a few months ago when she published “Why I am now a Christian”:
We can’t fight off these formidable forces [of rising authoritarianism] unless we can answer the question: what is it that unites us? The response that “God is dead!” seems insufficient. So, too, does the attempt to find solace in “the rules-based liberal international order.” The only credible answer, I believe, lies in our desire to uphold the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
That legacy consists of an elaborate set of ideas and institutions designed to safeguard human life, freedom and dignity—from the nation state and the rule of law to the institutions of science, health and learning. As Tom Holland has shown in his marvelous book Dominion, all sorts of apparently secular freedoms—of the market, of conscience and of the press—find their roots in Christianity.
Karlson has provided classical liberals a great service: a short but thorough review of our greatest current threat—populism—and its rise, plus a laundry list of cross-cutting strategies for fighting back. He may just need to bite the bullet and add one more.