Liberalism on the brink: when social conservatives and BLM protesters have a common enemy
Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Opinion by Benjamin Beiles
This piece is part of Kroeger Policy Review's first issue on Race, Religion, and Culture. The full issue is available here.
The struggle between liberalism and its critics has left the ivory tower. It now flourishes in the streets, in the ballot boxes, and in democratic institutions. In the United States, the murder of George Floyd brought renewed outrage at Western democracy’s failure to uphold its promises of liberty and equality for Black Americans. Liberalism buckles under the weight of thousands of protesters calling for racial justice and a critical examination of ongoing complacency with White supremacy, imperialism, and racism. A vastly different critique is evidenced by the actions and rhetoric of right-wing populists like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán who reflect a growing discontent with the failures of liberalism to preserve social mores. It is tempting to decry support for populist demagogues as patently evil and beyond any explanation, but the sheer level of frustration with the political status quo demands closer examination. To address the most pressing social issues of our time, it is critical to understand how the fundamental principles of Western society sustain suppression and marginalization.
The Black Lives Matter movement and bestselling books like How to be Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi and We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates have put a spotlight on the systemic nature of racism. Increasingly, mainstream discourse on race reflects an intense frustration with a Western liberal order that perpetuates systemic racism against people of colour, especially Black and Indigenous peoples. The United States, like most Western democracies, was founded on the spoils of imperialism and slavery and the impact of that of that history endures to this day. Liberalism critically assumes the equal value of all people, but if inequality is the starting point then liberal principles serve to suppress instead of emancipate (1). The reality is that “income, wealth, education and incarceration remain correlated with ethnicity to a staggering degree” and, in that context, treating everyone exactly the same simply serves to perpetuate those correlations (2). The liberal conception of equality underlies U.S. Supreme Court decisions to restrict policies that directly address race, even if they are directed at ameliorating conditions imposed by historical racism (3). Similarly, liberal meritocracy propagates practices like standardized testing, which impose structural disadvantages on those who cannot afford coaching, perpetuating elitist academic and professional environments (4). A genuine effort to tackle racial disparity must recognize the theoretical limitations of liberalism and consider policies like reparations and affirmative action which radically challenge the dogmatic vision of equality.
The failure of liberal society to solve structural inequalities is not a unique idea and is central to critical race theory, certain feminist theories, intersectional theory, and Marxist theories. Less discussed is the critique of liberalism associated with right-wing populism. Most compellingly presented by social conservatives, this critique of liberalism questions Western society’s focus on expanding individual freedoms. It is argued that humans naturally require strong relationships and communities and thus a political structure that promotes total individual liberty over communal responsibility is inherently problematic. Pointing to trends like declining attendance in community institutions, declining volunteerism, and the fracturing of family units, critics like Republican Senator Jacob Hawley and political scholar Patrick Deneen argue that liberal individualism devalues critical relationships to detriment of the human condition (5). In Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen writes that “the political project of liberalism is shaping us into... increasingly separate, autonomous, non-relational selves… defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone” (6). Populist politicians like Donald Trump point to liberal immigration policies and court rulings against Christian values as tangible evidence of the undermining of national identities and local communities (7). These examples are crude and often contain oppressive undertones, yet receive support from citizens who fear the erosion of their communal spaces. The strength of this argument is the link between liberal individualism and increasing rates of loneliness, suicide, and extremism (8). Western society compels individuals to prioritize individual advancement and material wealth over their families, neighbourhoods, and communities. Critics note that, while the decline in stay-at-home parents is often framed as emancipatory for women, it simply shifts suppression of individual agency from the demands of the family to the demands of the capitalist market (9). Certain right-wing tropes abuse this argument to mask their misogyny and desire for women to return to a subservient role. However, the cogent critique of liberalism does not use the erosion of communities as an excuse to reimpose oppressive traditions. Rather, it calls for the adoption of new cultural practices that encourage the strengthening of progressive communal spaces and for the rejection the dangerous individualism imposed by liberalism. Whether or not this entails a radical dismantling of Western society, the failure of liberalism to create and sustain meaningful communities must be considered.
The failure of contemporary Western democracy to support community solidarity and address systemic racial inequalities are just two examples of the contemporary critique of liberalism. Like critical race theory, there is a growing discourse about intersectional feminist and Marxist perspectives that confront liberalism for perpetuating systemic power imbalances. Another critique comes from critical environmentalists who challenge liberalism for its inability to account for the health of the planet and ensure a sustainable use of natural resources. Internationally, there is a growing distrust of a global order that was enabled and shaped by liberal cosmopolitanism, a concern shared by leftists like Bernie Sanders and autocratic isolationists like Vladimir Putin. Here in Canada, there are critical questions about whether liberalism can address the systemic inequalities faced by people of colour, especially Black and Indigenous folks. The emergence of the Peoples Party of Canada and the Coalition Avenir Québec may also be indicative of a growing desire to assert certain national mores.
I began writing this article on the eve of the U.S. election and found myself reflecting on four years that included numerous repudiations of the liberal order. The Trump presidency showed with clarity liberalism’s failure to serve significant segments of the population. Once a lighthouse for liberal democracy, the United States of America is now a canary in a coal mine and, for this reason, I am cautiously optimistic about the future. Joe Biden’s victory is neither a repudiation nor an endorsement of critical movements, but it does signal a greater willingness to listen to a diversity of voices. By listening, evolving, and advocating, I strongly believe that engaged citizens can shape liberalism into a more durable and just proposition.
Delgado, Richard, Angela Harris, and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory (Third Edition): An Introduction Third edition. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2018, 21.
“Enlightenment Liberalism Is Losing Ground in the Debate about Race,” Economist (The Economist Newspaper, July 9, 2020), https://www.economist.com/international/2020/07/09/enlightenment-liberalism-is-losing-ground-in-the-debate-about-race.
Delgado, Harris, and Stefancic. Critical Race Theory (Third Edition): An Introduction Third edition, 27-28.
Joshua Hawley, “The Age of Pelagius,” ChristianityToday.com (Christianity Today, June 4, 2019), https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/june-web-only/age-of-pelagius-joshua-hawley.html.
Patrick J. Deneen, James Davison Hunter, and John M. Owen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 16.
Jonathan Lemire and Ken Thomas, “Trump Vows Return to Traditional Values in Speech to Christian Conservatives,” Globe and Mail, October 13, 2017, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/us- politics/trump-vows-return-to-traditional-values-in-speech-to-christian-conservatives/article36585031/; Donald Trump, “Remarks by President Trump on the Illegal Immigration Crisis and Border Security,” The White House (The United States Government, 2018), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-illegal-immigration-crisis-border-security/.
Paul Verhaeghe and J. A. Hedley-Prole, What about Me?: the Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society (Melbourne: Scribe, 2016).
Deneen, Hunter, and Owen, Why Liberalism Failed, 187.
General resources on anti-black racism in Canada:
Canadian Race Relations Foundation (https://www.crrf-fcrr.ca/en/)
Canada Anti-Racism Network (https://stopracism.ca/)
Canada Anti-Hate Network (https://www.antihate.ca/)