There is a thought provoking article by American political theorist-commentator James Poulos in Foreign Affairs headlined: “America’s Liberal Logjam – The Tension Between Humanism and Identity.” It’s important to remember that he is an American and has fallen into the trap of thinking that liberal ≈ progressive and conservative ≈ reactionary, even racist. Those words, liberal and conservative, are “loaded” in America and they need to be given a rest. What the Americans call “liberals” are, more correctly, seen in the rest of the world as “social democrats” and American conservatives are brothers and sisters to the German or Dutch Christian Democrats and the like. I would argue that, here in Canada, it is the Conservative party that is the heir to the great liberal values of John Locke and John Stuart Mill while the Liberals have become the party of big business, big labour and big government.
Anyway, definitions aside, Mr Poulos argues that “Western liberals are in trouble. Perhaps too late, they have woken up to the severity of the challenge posed to their ideology by a new wave of radicals to their left and reactionaries to their right. More provocatively, they are in double trouble—well aware that they are losing control of the West’s political imagination, but not why … [and, specifically] … Many American liberals fear that progressive radicalism, especially on questions of identity, has provoked a right-wing backlash that hurt Democrats in the 2016 election. These liberals criticize the radicals for abandoning liberalism’s ecumenical faith in diversity and harmony and focusing instead on a conflict-driven agenda of retributive justice. Yet the attempt to shift all the blame onto the radicals reflects an incuriosity about the extent to which liberalism itself is responsible for the current crisis. For instance, John Rawls, the canonical philosopher of modern liberalism, insisted that justice requires us to put the concerns of the least well-off first. This insistence exposes liberalism to a war of all against all, as people compete to be seen as the least well-off and therefore most worthy of attention—leading directly to the identity-based radicalism that liberals reject. Rejecting this theory of justice, however, would challenge the idea that liberalism has an abstract philosophical foundation instead of depending on deeper foundations in American customs, habits, and mores—as conservatives have long insisted. Unwilling to reconsider their Rawlsian first principle, some liberals are now scrambling to reclaim it from radicals by arguing that it is most compatible not with special pleading but with the one political practice that can ostensibly belong to all: citizenship.“
James Poulos’ explanations of the dichotomy between what he and others call liberals and identitarians ~ those for whom politics is “characterized by a belief that justice means redistributing power and prestige to oppressed groups until they deem adequate penance paid,” are lengthy and detailed and worth the read because they help us to understand what we see in America, Canada and Europe today. There was, in 16th and 17th century Europe, HUGE and over bloody conflict between religious denominations, but it wasn’t just between Catholics and Protestants; it was, sometimes even more violently, between liberal Protestants and Puritans. In some respects that new identitarians, those in the so-called anti-fascist (antifa) movement, for example, are a lot like the extreme Puritans: unwilling to concede that there is any merit, at all, in any view or value except their own. The antifa movement needs only to swap its black ‘hoodies’ for some brown shirts and odd arm bands and it will have come full circle … but I doubt the irony resonates with any of them. The point is that the red flag of communism and the black flag of anarchy are just as foul and bloodstained as the flags of fascism and national socialism and all must be unwelcome in any civilized society.
Conservatives need to pay attention to Mr Poulos’ thesis because, if he’s right, then the liberal-progressive consensus that has held sway in America, Britain and Canada for about 100 years ~ the Laurentian Consensus, here, in Canada ~ may be in a “logjam” that could lead to its collapse. I have posited before, in my various explorations of the bell curve in politics, that most of us, 70% of us, are in the moderate middle which embraces the a lot of the left wing of the Liberal Party of Canada and most of the right, social conservative, wing of the Conservative Party of Canada, too. I have argued that even if the left and the right in Canadian politics found able and attractive leaders and we ended up with a strong four (or five or even six) party system the moderate middle would still be divisible between Liberals and Conservatives and they, not the left or right wing parties, would, consistently form governments …
James Poulos concludes by saying that “The sobering conclusion is that liberals who think they can safely abandon humanist culture for the high ground of citizen politics will be overrun by the left’s identitarians and their intersectional allies. Politics will not save us from identity politics because politics can never save us, however inescapable and indispensable it may be. To pursue a truly shared vision of justice, humans require a deeper common ground. Yet even for hostile critics of liberalism—especially Christian or secular humanists on the right—now is not the time to give in to schadenfreude. Today’s deep crisis may have been inevitable. It may augur some healthy or inspiring changes. But if liberalism does collapse or shrivel up, history strongly suggests that the restoration of Western social order on a different foundation will require another great cycle of war.” The cycle of violence, eerily reminiscent of Europe in the 1920s and ’30s, has already begun. One of the problems in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s was that both the “alt-right” (the fascists and national socialists) and the equivalent of the “antifa” on the left had strong leaders and effective organizational baking … the moderate middle had neither and it sat by and watched the mad-men take over. Who remembers Hans Luther, Wilhelm Marx, Heinrich Brüning or even Franz von Papen? (I had to look up all except von Papen and I consider myself reasonably well informed.)
Mr Poulos hopes for “some healthy and inspiring changes,” but he is not overly hopeful; I am fearful.
Conservatives need to speak up, forcefully and vigorously, for liberal values, because our firm base IS liberal … the growing, imported from America, “alt-right” is and must be anathema to every thing in which every Conservative from Sir John A through Tupper, Borden, Meighan, Drew, Diefenbaker, Clark, Mulroney, MacKay, Harper and Rona Ambrose ever believed. Liberals need to toss aside their fascination with progressive and special interest (identitarian) politics and reaffirm their belief in the policies of Laurier, King, St Laurent, Pearson, Chrétien and Martin. That is how the two parties can lead Canada in ways that will avoid “another great cycle of war.” The key battleground between the two parties will be for the hearts and minds of the Red Tories and the group I call the Manley Liberals, both of which, I suspect are very much alike.
My fear is that Americans are spiralling downwards in socio-political terms, and I think that we, Canadians, and Brits and Australians and so on, really want to avoid following them down … and one key to that, in my opinion, is for both Conservatives and Liberals to offer good, sound, honest, fiscally and socially moderate government (and promises and policies) to the Canadians in the moderate middle. I’m not convinced that America is “down the drain” or “down for the count,” it can come back and be great again when it finds another Truman or another Eisenhower, another Acheson and a new Marshall and another new Kennan. But for now it is sick and tired of itself and it is, as I said, spiralling down into something bad, into something dangerous, into some ‘place’ that we don’t want to follow.