The anti-liberal moment

Critics on the left and right are waging war on liberalism. And liberals don’t seem to have a good defense.

Unlike Schmitt and Putin, the intellectual critics of liberalism opponents do not typically challenge democracy itself. But they are united in believing that American liberalism as currently constituted is past its expiration date, that it is buckling under the weight of its contradictions. Their arguments tap into a deep sense of discontent among the voting public, a collapse of trust in the political establishment, and a growing sense that institutions like Congress aren’t delivering what the public needs.

On the right, the anti-liberals locate the root of the problem in liberalism’s social doctrines, its emphasis on secularism and individual rights. In their view, these ideas are solvents breaking down America’s communities and, ultimately, dissolving the very social fabric the country needs to prosper.

Liberalism “constantly disrupts deeply cherished traditions among its subject populations, stirring unrest, animosity, and eventually political reaction and backlash,” Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule, one of the most prominent of the reactionary anti-liberals, said in a May speech.

Left anti-liberals, by contrast, pinpoint liberal economic doctrine as the source of our current woes. Liberalism’s vision of the economy as a zone of individual freedom, in their view, has given rise to a deep system of exploitation that makes a mockery of liberal claims to be democratic — an oppressive system referred to as “neoliberalism.”

“Neoliberalism in any guise is not the solution but the problem,” Nancy Fraser, a professor at the New School, writes. “The sort of change we require can only come from elsewhere, from a project that is at the very least anti-neoliberal, if not anti-capitalist.”

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