One of the persistent framings of the debate about liberalism works by asserting that liberalism has figured out how to help people live together in the midst of deep differences.
Thus those who reject liberalism are invoking dangerous demons from bygone worlds, either through ignorance or, more alarming, some moral defect in themselves that causes them to be drawn to violence and political chaos. (Note: When I talk about “liberalism” I mean it in the sense of the social order that sees the chief work of political society as being to increase individual freedom through the maximizing of personal choices.)
This framing of the debate is silly. Liberalism didn’t “solve” the problem of how people can live together in the midst of deep differences. Rather, through a sleight of hand it shifted the grounds for political identity away from a political telos that is shared by the community and toward a set of political procedures that all would agree to abide by. But the key point to note here is that any protestations to having ‘figured out’ pluralism from the liberals are inaccurate. They didn’t figure out pluralism. They just identified a different place of political consensus that, they hoped, would form a sufficient basis for political society.
In other words, they did the same thing that every functioning political society does: Identify common ground around which the society is united and then use coercive means to protect that common ground. But whereas older societies would aspire to identifying a destination they wished to labor toward, the liberal society simply identified shared ground rules for how the society would function and assumed that agreement on ground rules would be sufficient to sustain political life. You can find that move to be more or less acceptable, but we should be clear about what is (and is not) happening in a liberal social order. They haven’t solved for pluralism; they’ve merely shifted the terms of debate about pluralism.
Consider, for example, the historically ambiguous place of Roman Catholics in the American republic. Why was there a question as to whether Catholics could be American, whether Catholics could serve in government? The answer is obvious to anyone who has bothered to spend time in the Roman church’s own social teachings: It is far from clear that Catholic ideas about political authority are reconcilable with the American political project. Indeed, what was the price of admission for our nation’s first Catholic president? No less than a repudiation of Catholic public theology.
Likewise: Why has this nation imprisoned communists on multiple occasions in our history? Answer: Because it was believed that communism of the sort espoused by Eugene Debs, to take one example, undermined the solidarity of the American republic.
Or to take still another example: Why did the FBI surveil Martin Luther King Jr. as he became more radical in his later years? Again, because the direction he was moving in his own political thought undermined the shared consensus around politics that united the American republic.
One can think what one wants about each of these examples, of course. You can think JFK’s religious liberty speech a great triumph in the history of American Catholicism, or one can think the surveillance of King to be a stain on the American republic. But how we assess these historical events is secondary to the more basic point that these things all happened, and the fact that they happened tells us something about the American commitment to pluralism.
The point is not that “we used to have a way of managing pluralism but because of the young left and the illiberal Christians that solution is crumbling and now we have to solve for pluralism again because of these dumb and irresponsible young radicals.”
We never solved for pluralism. All that the American founders did was relocate the problem of pluralism away from the ends of political society and toward the procedures by which political society governed itself. But, of course, means and ends cannot be so easily disentangled. Defining political means implicitly takes us some distance toward defining political ends, as Eliot and many others saw long ago. Enshrining certain means as the sine qua non of the republic meant that certain ends were always possible, perhaps even highly probable.
Thus we once again come back to one of the most important elements of this debate: We should not act as if the question before us is “should we abandon a workable political system?”, as if the burden of proof in this question rests with liberalism’s critics.
We live in a nation where loneliness, depression, and anxiety are increasingly normal, where abortion kills hundreds of thousands of children annually, where we are slowly destroying our planet’s climate, and where migrant children are separated from families and locked in cages. We could go on. To act as if the critics of our current moment are radicals who are turning their backs on a sustainable political order is foolish. If anything, it would seem to me—given the evils of abortion and climate change in particular—that the burden of proof rests with those who think we should persist with liberalism.