The authoritarians have the momentum

The central struggle in the world right now is between liberalism and authoritarianism. It’s between those of us who believe in democratic values and those who don’t — whether they are pseudo-authoritarian populists like Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Narendra Modi or Recep Tayyip Erdogan or straight-up dictators like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping or theocratic fascists like the men who run Iran and Hamas.

In this contest, we liberals should be wiping the floor with those guys! But we’re not. Trump is leading in the swing states. Modi seems to be on the verge of reelection. Russia and Iran are showing signs of strength.


Over the last two centuries, liberalism has evolved into a system that respects human dignity and celebrates individual choice. Democratic liberalism says we don’t judge how you want to define the purpose of your life; we just hope to build fair systems of cooperation so you can freely pursue whatever goals you individually choose. Liberalism tends to be agnostic about the purposes of life and focused on processes and means: rule of law, the separation of powers, free speech, judicial review, free elections and the rules-based international order.

In his stirring and clarifying new book, “Liberalism as a Way of Life,” Alexandre Lefebvre argues that liberalism isn’t merely a set of neutral rules that allow diverse people to live together; liberalism, he writes, has also become a moral ethos, a guiding philosophy of life. As other moral systems, like religion, have withered in many people’s lives, liberalism itself has expanded to fill the hole in people’s souls.

Liberals honor individuals’ right to see themselves with self-respect; racial slurs have become our form of blasphemy because they assault this sense of self-respect. Liberal morality tends to be horizontal: Pure liberals don’t look upward to serve a living God; they look sideways and try to be kind and decent to their fellow humans.

Pure liberals place a high value on individual consent; any kind of sex or family arrangement is OK so long as everybody agrees to it. At one point, Lefebvre has a nice little riff on all the traits that make us liberals pleasant to be around. We respect autonomy and personal space, dislike hypocrisy and snobbery, and strive to achieve a live-and-let-live tolerance.

But I confess that I finished the book not only with a greater appreciation of liberalism’s strengths but also more aware of why so many people around the world reject liberalism, and why authoritarianism is on the march.

Liberal societies can seem a little tepid and uninspiring. Liberalism tends to be nonmetaphysical; it avoids the big questions like: Why are we here? Who made the cosmos? It nurtures the gentle bourgeois virtues like kindness and decency but not, as Lefebvre allows, some of the loftier virtues, like bravery, loyalty, piety and self-sacrificial love.

Liberal society can be a little lonely. By putting so much emphasis on individual choice, pure liberalism attenuates social bonds. In a purely liberal ethos, an invisible question lurks behind every relationship: Is this person good for me? Every social connection becomes temporary and contingent. Even your attitude toward yourself can be instrumentalized: I am a resource I invest in for desired outcomes.

When societies become liberal all the way down, they neglect a core truth: For liberal societies to prosper, they need to rest on institutions that precede individual choice — families, faiths, attachments to a sacred place. People are not formed by institutions to which they are lightly attached. Their souls and personalities are formed within the primal bonds to this specific family, that specific ethnic culture, this piece of land with its long history to my people, to that specific obedience to the God of my ancestors.

These life-altering attachments are usually not individually chosen. They are usually woven, from birth, into the fabric of people’s being — into their traditions, cultures and sense of personhood.

The great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained the difference between the sort of contracts that flourish in the world of individual choice and covenants that flourish best in those realms that are deeper than individual utility: “A contract is about interests. A covenant is about identity. It is about you and me coming together to form an ‘us.’ That is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform.”

The great strength of the authoritarians who oppose liberal principles, from Trump to Xi to Hamas, is that they play straight into the primordial sources of meaning that are deeper than individual preference: faith, family, soil and flag. The authoritarians tell their audiences that the liberals want to take all that is solid — from your morality to your gender — and reduce it to the instability of a personal whim. They tell their throngs that the liberals are threatening their vestigial loyalties. They continue: We need to break the rules in order to defend these sacred bonds. We need a strongman to defend us from social and moral chaos.

These have proved to be powerful arguments. One recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 52% of Republicans believe that America needs “a strong president who should be allowed to rule without too much interference from courts and Congress.”

We could be living in a year in which authoritarians take or keep power in nations across Europe, Latin America and in the U.S. while Putin continues to make advances in Ukraine and Hamas survives the war in the Gaza Strip. In short, the authoritarians still have the momentum on their side.

Worse, liberalism has prompted a counterreaction in our societies. Many people find themselves spiritually unfulfilled; they feel naked, embattled and alone. So they grasp at politics to fill that moral and spiritual void. They grasp at politics to give them the sense of belonging, moral meaning and existential purpose that faith, family, soil and flag provided to their ancestors. In so doing, they transform politics from a prosaic way to negotiate differences into a holy war in which my moral side is vindicated and your immoral side is destroyed. Politics begins to play a totalizing and brutalizing role in their personal lives and in our national life. They are asking more of politics than politics can deliver.

If liberalism is to survive this contest, we have to celebrate liberalism while acknowledging its limits. It’s a great way to construct a fair society to help diverse people live together in peace. But liberalism cannot be the ultimate purpose in life. We need to be liberals in public but subscribe to transcendent loyalties in the depth of our being — to be Catholic, Jewish, stoic, environmentalist, Marxist or some other sacred and existential creed. People need to feel connected to a transcendent order; nice rules don’t satisfy that yearning.

Liberal politicians need to find ways to defend liberal institutions while also honoring faith, family and flag and the other loyalties that define the purposes of most people’s lives. I feel that American presidents from, say, Theodore Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan knew how to speak in those terms. We need a 21st-century version of that.

If liberals are merely nice and tolerant and can’t talk about the deepest and most sacred cares of the heart and soul, which seem so threatened to so many, then this is going to be an ugly election year.

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