This piece was originally published by The Bulwark on August 16, 2020.
On the July 23, 2020 edition of his Fox News program, Tucker Carlson went after the Democratic Party. He spoke in paranoid tones about the party’s new radicalism. Democrats “despise the country they seek to govern,” he explained. “They plan to remake it completely. These people want power with an intensity that you, as a normal well-adjusted person, cannot even begin to understand.”
Even the most sophisticated and genteel actors on the Republican right indulge in these kinds of ugly fantasies, and have done so for years. The conservatives and nationalist intellectuals whose ideas undergird Trumpism—men like Yoram Hazony, Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, and William Barr—regularly challenge liberals’ capacity for basic human affections and devotions. Their caricatures of whole swaths of the American citizenry are ugly, dehumanizing, and untrue.
Carlson might as well have taken his talking points directly from Attorney General Bill Barr, who has warned of the left’s “holy mission” against traditionalism, and of how “secularists and their allies” are engaged in an “unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.” “This is not decay,” he declared in a speech at Notre Dame last fall, “it is organized destruction.” He doubled down on the message in an interview last weekend, declaring that the left—Joe Biden’s left—has become a “Rousseauian revolutionary party.” He went on: “They’re not interested in compromise. They’re not interested in dialectic exchange of views. They’re interested in total victory.”
It is striking that Carlson and Barr are willing to spout such cant unironically even as a mismanaged pandemic tears through the country, federal troops descend uninvited upon various American cities, and the president openly undermines trust in the election. Such a facility for distortion suggests a degree of ideological conviction that we underestimate at our peril.
And the conviction is mistaken. At bottom, this group holds that liberal democracy destroys human relationships and so undermines the foundation for decent society. While it’s true that the pandemic is straining social bonds—and revealing the extraordinary costs of America’s individualist ethos—it’s also showing us that core affections endure, even across partisan divides, and even in a liberal democracy under siege. If they didn’t, none of this would be very hard.
The notion that liberal democracy destroys human relationships is jarring to contemporary ears, but it draws on ideas that are very old. The core political tensions today’s illiberal reactionaries describe—between conservative traditionalists and innovative, freedom-loving progressives—are nothing new. Early on in his History of the Peloponnesian War, for example, Thucydides shows how a similar dynamic shaped affairs in ancient Greece. At one point a Corinthian envoy is trying to draw Sparta into the war, but rather than provoke the Spartans with tales of Athens’s strength, they raise the specter of her relentless dynamism. The busybodied Athenians, we learn, are “addicted to innovation,” “adventurous beyond their power,” and “daring beyond their judgment.” They are something like the world’s first neoliberals: selfish, restless, “ever engaged in getting,” and never comfortable at home. The Spartans, in contrast, suffer a “total want of invention.” They are fatalistic and slow to act, content with the peace of their rustic life. The Corinthians argue that Sparta is in danger of underestimating imperial Athens. Slowly but surely the Spartans come around.
In February 2020, Yoram Hazony stepped onto a sterile auditorium stage in Rome and gave a rather Spartan speech about loyalty to one’s own. Hazony is an Israeli-American scholar, the author of The Virtue of Nationalism (2018), and a key organizer for the emergent national conservatism movement. The purpose of the Rome conference was to build solidarity on the new illiberal right (Hungary’s Viktor Orbán was the conference’s star speaker). Hazony clearly views himself as sounding a wake-up call to imperiled conservatives across the globe, and, like the Corinthian envoy, offers a Manichean vision of two fundamentally different tribes.
Hazony defines conservatives as those who understand the world of deep familial bonds and obligations:
A conservative knows that one’s first loyalty is to one’s parents, even though we didn’t choose them, and to our children, even though we didn’t choose them. . . . And to your grandchildren, who you didn’t choose, and to your parents and to your grandparents. . . . A conservative knows that these obligations are fixed, and that beyond the family . . . there are obligations to the local church and religious community, to the clan, and beyond that to the tribe and the nation.
Hazony contrasts this deep, unquestioning loyalty with “enlightenment rationalist liberals” in the starkest of terms. While conservatives are capable of real human love and are loyal to the last drop, liberal internationalists are subject instead to Hobbesian individualism and selfishness, and are full of contempt for the ties that bind: “They believe that the world can be reduced to free and equal individuals undertaking obligations only on the basis of consent.” Again and again, Hazony asks “What kind of people are these?” in reference to the liberal foe. “Can you be a decent human being if you have no loyalty? If you build your political theory from—on a structure, on a basis in which no one is loyal?”
For Hazony, the situation is dire. Liberals have been in ascendance for decades in global politics, media, and in schools and universities, the modern-day equivalents of the Athenian imperialists. Such people—the leaders of the EU being his go-to example—are only capable of cold, contractual thinking about their fellow human beings, and they are unwilling to compromise with conservatives, he claims, because “they do not deem us worthy of compromise.” Echoing the Corinthians’ darkest pleas at Sparta, Hazony warns his allies in Rome that “There is not going to be a gentle truce with these people.” An essential difference between Thucydides and Hazony, however, is that, while Thucydides tends not to take sides, Hazony dares to speak to us directly. That also leaves him more open to direct critique.
His February speech in Rome, it must be said, has not aged well in intervening months. In the wake of a global pandemic—in which everyone made sacrifices, and in which nearly 200,000 Europeans lost their lives—Hazony’s attack on liberals and EU bureaucrats sounds tasteless, if not absurd. Europeans came together, in solidarity, to protect one another.
Furthermore, Hazony’s binary rendering of modern peoples ignores some pretty basic questions. Why, for example, is it so difficult for Hazony to conceive of loyalties that are simultaneously chosen and felt? As Anne Applebaum points out in her account of the speech in Rome, this leads him to exclude “the many enlightenment rational liberals who are patriotic, take care of their children, and feel attached to their local customs”—i.e., those who understand that consent and loyalty, intention and love, can and do go together. I also wonder why, for Hazony, it’s possible for conservatives to sustain such a diversity of loyalties all the way up to the nation-state, but so difficult for him to conceive of legitimate, non-universal loyalties beyond that. Is a European’s commitment to the EU so completely different from her love of France? Does a believer’s love for creation make patriotism impossible? If some intermediary loyalties can coexist, why not others? Hazony takes it upon himself to be the arbiter of human loyalties, and then props up the idea that—in the year 2020—our relations ought to be more tribal and unthinking.
It’s an odd way for a scholar to present complex realities, but it got Hazony a round of applause from the crowd in Rome only a few months ago. I can’t help but wonder how it would go over today, with Europe’s major cities recovering from grueling lockdowns, and with so many dead.
Hindsight, of course, is 20/20, and it’s not fair to dismiss the concerns of Hazony based on one bad speech. His book is more subdued and thoughtful. When I first read his critique therein of liberal internationalism, I was reminded of Thucydides’ haunting account of the Athenian conquest of Melos. Events at Melos take place some fifteen years into the Peloponnesian War. The small island colony tried to remain neutral through the protracted conflict, but the Athenians insist on Melian surrender. Annoyed even at the idea of compromise or negotiation, the Athenians make a harsh display of their rationalism, at one point confidently declaring that “right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Much like the EU liberals of Hazony’s imagination, they mock the Melians for their naïve traditions and loyalties. Melos refuses to submit, and so is conquered—the men killed, the women and children sold into slavery. Whether or not Hazony is right about modern liberal rationalism, it’s the kind of moment that should give us pause. It’s hardly the last time that cruel fanaticism would lie on the side of purported reason.
Patrick Deneen wasn’t present for the national conservative conference in Rome, but he is chummy with Orbán, and a fan of Bill Barr, too. His 2018 book, Why Liberalism Failed, fleshes out a critique of modern rationalism that Hazony likely admires. Whereas Hazony’s focus is the impact of liberal ideas on national loyalties, Deneen is more concerned with how liberal rationalism destroys local communities and affections. His argument is that liberalism (by which he means the ideology that undergirds life in all modern liberal democracies) acts as an inevitable solvent on all human connectedness and culture, because it is so singularly concerned with human freedom. Liberalism, he writes, has
remade the world in its image, especially through the realms of politics, economics, education, science, and technology, all aimed at achieving supreme and complete freedom through the liberation of the individual from particular places, relationships, memberships, and even identities—unless they have been chosen, are worn lightly, and can be revised or abandoned at will.
Deneen argues that liberalism has achieved individual liberation, but at the expense of mediating institutions—such as “voluntary associations, political parties, churches, communities, and even family”—and social forms. Like Hazony, and like Barr, he speaks of contemporary society in absolutist, apocalyptic terms. We are experiencing the “evisceration of actual cultures” as well as of “local experience,” and our capacity for self-government has waned almost “to the point of nonexistence,” having been replaced with an impersonal, technocratic tyranny. Our universities, Deneen writes, prepare elite students “for lives of deracinated vagabondage.” “Our default condition is homelessness,” Deneen laments, in terms that recall those unsettled Athenians of yesteryear.
I’m sympathetic to some of Deneen’s critiques of American society, though I tend to agree with Samuel Moyn’s generous view that the book would have been more valuable had it been rendered as a critique of neoliberalism. Even so, it is written as a blanket declaration of the failure of modern liberal democracy. And even as an account of contemporary America it strikes me as histrionic.
For one thing, Deneen offers little actual evidence, and no historical baseline, by which to measure his extraordinary claims. His assertions about liberal democracy’s failure leave me full of questions in a way, say, that Thucydides’ treatment of Athens’ long, complicated decline does not.
On a more personal note: As a mother of two very young children, it’s hard to take things like “default homelessness” and “deracinated vagabondage” very seriously. These notions are just so divorced from the tangible realities—the daily labors and joys—of my own life. I read Deneen’s rhetoric about “individuated selves held together by depersonalized commitments,” and I can’t help but think about every young parent I know—overwhelmed with love, and struggling to build a better future for our kids. Do any of us know any actual “autonomous individuals”—or anyone who manages not to become attached to home? Deneen’s book was published in 2018, and so pre-dates the destabilizing COVID-19 pandemic, but he has continued to push his case against liberal democracy. I would counter that the pain we are enduring, and the evidence of solidarity that we have seen in recent months (mediating institutions might be on the wane, but don’t social movements count?), show that we haven’t quite reached the point of disconnected deracination, assuming that we ever could.
On some level, Deneen knows this to be true. In one of the final chapters of Why Liberalism Failed, he reveals his awareness that middle-class lives like mine and his call into question the basic premises of his work. He admits that there are major exceptions to his catastrophic rendering of liberal democratic life. So many, in fact, as to constitute an entirely new “Aristocratic” regime. Deneen observes that American elites (whom he terms the “liberalocrats,” in a strictly nonpartisan sense of course) are more likely to form lasting marriages, attain higher levels of education, and ultimately live fulfilling lives. The real problem, it turns out, isn’t social dissolution, it’s stratification. But instead of acknowledging that liberal constitutionalism hasn’t been a total failure, and then urging a consideration of how we might fight glaring injustices and growing inequities, Deneen digs a deep and cynical hole. He argues that, while the new aristocrats enjoy the trappings of decency, everything they do—or we do, as the case may be—is in bad faith. In the “liberalocracy,” “friendships and even romantic relationships are like international alliances—understood to serve personal advantage”; education is purely transactional; concern for social justice always a mere façade. And the system of stratification is no accident, Deneen explains. It’s all entirely by design: “this scenario was embraced by those of liberal dispositions precisely because they anticipated being its winners.”
When Deneen gets going, he sounds as conspiratorial as anyone. Furthermore, his notion of a ruling liberalocracy sidesteps major tensions on the liberal left concerning class and economics, and ignores obvious signs of plutocracy on the right. As Jamelle Bouie observes, Deneen’s mode of thinking also ignores the role of race in American politics: It’s hard to know where any historically marginalized people fit into Deneen’s bad-faith description of liberalocracy, let alone how black working-class voters fit with his empirical claims about contemporary conservatism.
But when it comes to people like me, the reactionary perspective is clear: Liberalocratic privilege renders us incapable of the most basic human decencies and devotions. With regard to the pandemic, or racial injustice, or fate of the country—all those things I’m doing, those feelings I’m having, the family I’m raising—it’s all just virtue-signaling self-delusion.
Over the course of his History, Thucydides also discloses some ugly truths about the Spartans. It turns out that one of the main reasons they stayed close to home was because they lived in constant fear of slave revolt. The much-celebrated Spartan way of life depended on an especially ruthless form of slavery, by ancient standards. They knew that if they were away at war for long, this way of life would collapse. So it wasn’t just restraint or virtue that kept them home, it was also the harshest necessity.
Today’s reactionaries want us to believe that something equally sinister is going on with so-called liberal elites—that those doing well within a modern, democratic system are part of a straightforward project of exploitation, like the Spartans or Athenians at their very worst. Any institution that inspires loyalty on the left is, deep down, insidious and oppressive. Liberals and leftists might say they want to tax the rich and build out institutions of support for the marginalized; none of that means anything, it’s all just a pander for (more) control.
Thucydides—a thoughtful historian—sometimes deploys tropes and stereotypes as a way of drawing the reader in. Over the course of the work, however, he presents a broader array of perspectives from which to see the world, and he introduces unsettling details that challenge earlier portraits and conceptions. The Spartans weren’t just loyal and devoted fighters; they were also ruthless and cruel. The Athenian city was beautiful, its best citizens magnificent—but they could also be fickle, hubristic, and power-hungry. These are things to weigh and ponder.
No one, so far as I know, is calling Hazony or Deneen or Barr a Thucydides for our time. But given how much the reactionary crowd likes to preen about dialectics and “Western civ,” it’s worth noting just how out-of-step their work is with that ancient approach and attitude. Whereas Thucydides welcomes you into a world and then invites you to think for yourself, this crowd leads with a hurdy-gurdy of stereotypes and lets it drone on all the way through. Smug, rich liberal elitists? They live in contempt of the heartland and all that heartlanders love. Urban-gentry liberals? They place their “satisfactions (financial and sexual)” ahead of the common good. And where in Thucydides we see the temperaments of competing peoples contrasted, the reactionaries dehumanize huge swaths of their fellow citizens.
Anyone who looks at America today and responds with such distorted accounts of their compatriots’ lives, with such hackneyed stereotypes and reduction, is, at best, profoundly naïve. These might be the thinkers appropriate to Trump. The rest of us—heartlanders, cosmopolites, and everyone in between—deserve more. More thinking, more humaneness, more truth, and quite a bit more goodwill. Sophisticated dehumanization is still dehumanizing. And the love of freedom is a tradition, too.