Challenges to the liberal order can be met with wide-ranging policy reforms.
In a fortuitous one-two punch, David Brooks and Francis Fukuyama last week published pieces examining challenges to the liberal order. Writing in The Atlantic, Brooks looked at declining levels of social trust and the potential for a shift in ethos from a culture of individualism to one of solidarity. In the inaugural piece for the new site American Purpose, Fukuyama argued that that some of the tendencies of the liberal order are undermining that very order — the conception of the individual as a self-interested atomic actor might not give due deference to the various social valences of a person’s identity. Their modes of analysis differ; Brooks focuses more on contemporary social trends, while Fukuyama attends instead to questions of political theory. But they both offer insights into the way that certain policy decisions made over the past 30 years either were mistaken from the outset or need to be reformed. Their analyses also reveal how robust traditions of liberty depend on broader social and civic architectures. While in popular discourse the “liberal order” is often opposed to “populism” or “nationalism,” reinforcing these broader architectures might locate harmonies between those movements.
According to Brooks, “the Iraq War and the financial crisis” contributed to a loss of trust in the opening decades of the 21st century. While arguing that some of the market-oriented reforms undertaken by Western economies in the 1970s were appropriate at the time, Fukuyama also finds that neoliberalism has grown rigidly dogmatic and thereby limits the range of policy options available to those who seek to steer the liberal international order. These missteps and that policy rigidity have also undermined public trust in major institutions. When key stakeholders — from the White House to Congress to major corporations — make significant errors, they lower the public’s trust in institutions. Self-inflicted injuries have only continued during the coronavirus crisis. Public-health officials (to say nothing of elected officials) undermine their own credibility by disregarding the strictures of social distancing for politically favored causes.
But the legacy of these policy decisions goes deeper than trust. The Great Recession pummeled employment opportunities for many Millennials, hurting family formation and also creating the conditions for intellectual radicalization. “Burn it all down” becomes much less tempting when you have two kids, a mortgage, and a stable job. The economic disruptions caused by neoliberalism left vacuums of opportunity in many parts of the country. Jerry Kammer in his recent book Losing Control found that immigration policy in recent decades undermined the position of workers (especially those without a college degree), and that trend in immigration is reflective of some of the broader tendencies of the high-neoliberal era: The (sometimes disappointed) promise of higher growth led to disproportionate economic outcomes. Brooks has christened this era an “Age of Precarity.” For both Brooks and Fukuyama, these disappointments laid the groundwork for a populist surge.
Intertwined with these disruptive trends has been a kind of institutional meltdown. Giddy financial speculation hollowed out many American corporations. Those who held the commanding heights of many major institutions saw in them not vehicles for managing responsibilities but instead launching pads for a personal brand. Disruptions in the global economy put strain on other institutions, such as media organizations. Elite cultural institutions churned out culture-war messaging that ended up alienating wide swaths of the public and undermining those institutions’ own credibility. Escalating political polarization added to conflict and dysfunction in the federal government.
Two modes of correction might address these challenges. The first involves a recognition of the deeper resources of liberty in the modern era. This recognition suggests the importance not of atomism but of community and ethical commitment for the development and sustaining of these liberties. The second involves the policy steps that could be taken to respond to this disruption.
Fukuyama’s recognition that modern liberty depends on — and may at times be in tension with — deeper social capital has a long legacy, from John Adams to the 20th-century neoconservatives to the Nobel Prize–winning economist Kenneth Arrow. The progress of liberty and self-government has not been simply a story of radical atomism, “thin” political values, or the selfish pursuit of profit. Instead, it has also depended on and appealed to the language of thick commitments and embodied communities. Criticisms of slavery in the 19th century often focused on how slavery corroded the overall character of society and attacked the family. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the sinister slave owner Simon Legree combined both personal cruelty and great impiety, attacking signs of religious devotion and sneering at Uncle Tom, “I’m your church now.” Reform efforts to enrich American democracy — from labor movements to civil-rights activism — invoked and nurtured thicker bonds of ethics, religion, and community.
Deeper social bonds and ethical commitments are crucial for a person’s sense of identity. And some of those bonds transcend the question of consent; most of us do not choose our parents or our siblings, but those relationships profoundly influence our sense of who we are. Nor do we choose the country or community in which we are raised, yet those contours also influence us. Brooks notes the importance of embeddedness for the person, and one of the great follies of certain ideologies of radical autonomy is how they slight this embeddedness. The fact that we naturally crave embedded participation in a broader order makes it important for a political regime to establish the parameters for the forming of thick commitments and communities. The importance of those bonds has perhaps become even clearer during the coronavirus pandemic: Extended lockdowns and social-distancing regimens created the conditions for spikes in depression, loneliness, and mass unrest. The breakdown of institutions under the pressure of this crisis (such as the suspension of some public schooling) has exposed the vulnerable to particular hardships.
American history has also shown how the nation plays a role in securing liberty. The American Civil War was a great war of liberation — decisively ending slavery — but also of national integrity; securing the Union and liberating individuals from cruel subjugation intertwined. Sufficient national state capacity can add to the commonwealth (by, for instance, developing infrastructure) and protect inherited liberties (from foreign domination, for example). Moreover, the national government can provide an overall architecture for civic stability, which is a great friend of personal liberties.
The career of Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln’s hero, also demonstrates how this project of national union need not be one of radical isolationism. In his “American System,” Clay offered a project of infrastructure, tariffs, and other national efforts to promote national integration. But he also was a proponent of engagement abroad, seeking to establish friendly relationships with newly independent Latin American countries during his time as secretary of state. A century after Clay, Franklin Roosevelt’s longtime secretary of state Cordell Hull also found affinities between national coherence and international cooperation. Hull assailed “extreme nationalism” but also found that “all will agree that nationalism and its spirit are essential to the healthy and normal political and economic life of a people.” Hull was one of the architects of the United Nations, and one of the premises of the postwar international order championed by American policymakers was that a system of international cooperation rested on the pillars of sovereign nations.
The intellectual affinities between community and liberty might also suggest certain policy responses. David Brooks, Yuval Levin, and others have argued for the importance of renewing both private and public institutions. Institutions play an important role in channeling and disciplining our cooperative efforts. And policy efforts can also encourage favorable conditions for the creation of certain institutions. Tocqueville celebrated civil society in 19th-century America, but policy often buttressed that civil society. For instance, the proliferation of educational institutions in New England was in part nudged on by state (or colony) and local efforts, such as raising funds for schools or mandating the institution of schools. One of the things that most encourages a healthy embeddedness in society is the forming of a family. Marriage literally brings people together and requires nurturing the bonds of intimate trust, and raising children offers a reminder that our lives are a link in a greater chain of generations. Moreover, working to support a family helps teach some of the mature virtues of compromise and tempered prudence. There are policy efforts that can be taken to support family formation — from tightening the labor market to tax credits for children to efforts to improve trust in the educational system (particularly important in cities hoping to keep a middle-class tax base).
One of the major flashpoints in this “Age of Precarity” is health care. While many Americans are happy with their health care, they also have anxiety about losing access to it, as well as anxiety about the increasing expense of health-care plans. The solution to this is not necessarily a single-payer program. It could involve instead efforts to open up the health-care marketplace (by repealing certificate-of-need laws, for instance, or making health-care licensing more flexible), make insurance plans more portable and flexible, and provide some subsidies to less-well-off Americans.
Other on-the-ground, domestic efforts can also assist in that project of family formation and human flourishing. For instance, education reformers could seek to diversify education so that students are not shoved into a homogeneous model in which college is the only goal for K–12 education. Giving students access to vocational education and apprenticeships can help young people have a variety of career tracks as options.
Efforts to promote industrial capacity and strengthen the hands of workers in the economy can also be ways of promoting economic opportunity for Americans. Immigration and trade policy have been major vehicles for neoliberal disruption, and the rigidity that Fukuyama notes regarding policy has been particularly evident there. Reform of both may play a role in domestic renewal and the recalibration of international relations. Different nations might have different normative impulses, national interests, and social contexts for both immigration and trade, so there may not be a one-size-fits-all approach for all countries. But taking into account that broader embedded condition of a polity (rather than simply invoking the global ideal of free movement) would be an important precondition for thinking through that kind of reform. Reforms to the governance of corporations and the movement of capital were essential for founding the neoliberal era (by rolling back antitrust efforts, incentivizing financialization mechanisms, making it harder for private citizens to declare bankruptcy, and so forth). Corporate and capital reforms might also then play an important role in redressing some of the excesses of that period.
In geopolitics, the gaudy hopes of 1989 were soon rebuked by 2001 and its aftermath (though even 1989 had hints that the global triumph of liberal democracy was far from assured). Renewing the internal civic capital of nations to rebuild trust in core institutions and confront key internal challenges could strengthen the international order in the 21st century. A pluralistic order of nations need not, however, foreclose the possibility of international collaboration. The rise of the People’s Republic of China in particular might prompt the United States and its longstanding democratic allies to rethink forms of global collaboration and engagement.
Brooks’s and Fukuyama’s articles both cast light on elements of our tumultuous time. The rise of populist movements and the Great Awokening (which, in many ways, is a mirror image of fiery populism) are both signs of the growing pressures on an increasingly strained paradigm. The tremendous shift in the global balance of power over the past two decades is another transformative force, as is the digital revolution. Reforms to address those conditions might involve compromising some of the tenets of neoliberalism, but such efforts might also situate liberty on a firmer foundation.
The lived conditions of modern liberty do indeed embody certain tensions — between self-direction and communal belonging, for instance, and between the pursuit of profit and attention to what transcends profit and loss. Those tensions can be a cause of frustration, but they also afford an opportunity for renewal. The fact that essential political questions remain fundamentally unsettled, that new challenges arise, that new balances always need to be struck, means that the public square will continue to be a place of engagement. The comfortable consumption of commercial goods cannot ultimately replace those deeper civic commitments and sacrifices. Many of the features associated with modern liberty (democracy, the rule of law, civil protections, and so forth) afford a way of helping muddle through in a fallen world, but such a liberty, if it is to survive, must also speak to our higher aspirations.