Alas, liberalism is not doomed, at least not for the near future. It’s been around in one variant or another since the serpent said to Eve, “then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” (Gen.3:5) The Devil of course is a liberal–the eternal “I,” the manipulator of the Creation, the revolutionary against God’s Order. He hasn’t gone away, nor has the basic impulse to take over for God, which is at the heart of all the manifestations of liberalism.
Mr. Obama we all know—back to him presently. The band Ye Shall Be As Gods (unfortunately, as yet without a recording contract or concert dates) lists itself as “post Heavy Metal,” and “post Hard Rock,” which of course is shorthand for another form of post-music, and says that one of its influences is “the Devil Wears Prada.” They probably have much in common with many medieval minstrels, at least in terms of cultural commentary. Liberalism, you see, has always required cultural as well as political manipulators and nihilists. For all I know, of course, the band members may be perfectly nice young men; although I doubt that many readers of this site would have much in common with them, you know, like culture-wise. Liberal culture encourages them.
Politically, liberalism has worked since 1789 primarily through reason and revolution. Reason dances on the edge of ideology; revolution on the edge of chaos. Thus liberals have had to whip up the masses who are incapable of reason, and control them once the barricades go up. As long as the modern enemy was monarchy there was a certain unity among liberals, however out of control their enthusiasms happened to get at any given moment.
When a real revolution came along, one that nobody could control or at any point even fathom what it might produce—that is, the “industrial” revolution—liberalism was in a unique and wonderful position to take advantage of it. Since Progress and “change” are the stuff of manipulating the Created Order, liberalism could doubly rejoice at the industrial revolution, since it produced both prosperity unknown in the history of mankind and victims who could not adjust to its creative destruction. Their high point of optimism was probably December 31, 1899. The new century, full of promise, was about to begin; the new technology had already changed man’s basic relation to nature, and almost nobody had noticed the cultural rot that would stink up the new year. Even the most important of the old forms had not been dropped completely. As late as 1912 Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party opened its political convention with a hearty singing of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”
In Thornton Wilder’s magnificent novel, The Eighth Day, the residents of Coaltown, Illinois assemble to celebrate their prospects for the new century. Dr. Gillies, the best the town can offer as a philosopher statesman, speaks, believing little of what he says but convinced that it is the duty of the old to lie to the young. What will the new century be like? He says,
Nature never sleeps. The process of life never stands still. The creation has not come to an end. The Bible says that God created man on the sixth day and rested, but each of those days was millions of years long. That day of rest must have been a short one. Man is not an end but a beginning. We are the beginning of the second week. We are children of the eighth day.
Had he really believed it, he would have been the perfect turn-of-the-century liberal. Many did believe it, and it behooves us to understand the sense of joyful liberation from the past that the generation of 1900 deeply felt. Marx, Darwin, and Freud had already freed us from authority, responsibility, and sin; their disciples would create a brave new world and 1984 that made the 20th century the most terrible century in the history of the world, and the liberals would always have the same answer: We haven’t done enough to institute our vision! We haven’t done enough to make our plans work!
The problem is, it never works. The gorilla in the easy chair is that the old order, despite all the hits it has taken for so many years, doesn’t go away because it contains Truth—but that is another story, and I want to return to the tenacity of liberalism.
It’s like a lightweight fighter, bob-and-weave, hit-and-run, bleed here but heal there, because you can always adapt. It doesn’t take a Long March to have a long march through the institutions. It doesn’t take a Bolshevik party to create a Jacobin state. As long as “change” keeps everybody off balance, the relativist forks in the road can be taken either way. And remember, the exhilaration of being shed of the past, of being in control, of feeling your way to happiness through government is the next most powerful impulse in human nature after…what?
How’s the eighth day doing, by the way? Has our music improved since 1900? Of course by then we had already absorbed “Frankie and Johnny” and “Stakerlee,” so maybe it’s a wash. How about our politics?
I know this is breezy and superficial, intentionally so. But it is also, on one basic level, true. Here I bring up one obviously symbolic point, but pointing at the vitals of liberalism. The irrepressible Ann Coulter, in her brand new book, calls liberals “demonic.” In an ecumenical way, I agree. The essence of sin is selfishness, the replacing of the authority of God with the authority of self. Now, consider this, that every progressive regime in the USA since 1901 has had a motto. New Nationalism, New Freedom, New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier, Great Society. Carter and Clinton, two small-time governors from two failed states, did not think of themselves as progressives so much as, in their own ways, healers. AlGore certainly would have adopted a name (dare we think what it would be?) but Mr. Obama has not. He ran on “Change We Can Believe In,” whatever in the world that could mean, but has not given a name for the ages to his administration.
It’s because, I’m convinced, that the New Deal has come to the point where there is no name but “I.” Several pundits have noted that Mr. Obama uses “I” and “my” more often than any other politician in our history. Is his regime the “I Deal?” Or the “My Deal?” The President with no background, no local loyalty, no job history, the affirmative action student; he is the perfect expression of Ye Shall Be As Gods, White House version. He also has no recording contract, but he has unlimited concert dates, until about a year from November.
That will not, however, mark the end of liberalism. Just because it doesn’t work doesn’t mean it will go away. The Pres and the band may be post something or other, but it is not post liberalism.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.