Modern Liberalism Has Become a Defense of Hierarchy and Deference to Elites

As liberals defend their tradition from attack, their definition of liberalism has become so broad as to encompass everything and nothing at all. The truth is liberalism has become more about deference to elites than about challenging hierarchy.

Legal scholar Cass Sunstein and current USAID head Samantha Power attend an official state dinner at the White House in 2016. (YURI GRIPAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Last month, Harvard law professor and former Obama administration official Cass Sunstein published a lengthy defense of liberalism in the New York Times, most of it consisting of a numbered list detailing the various commitments that Sunstein argues make up the liberal tradition. At least some of his premise is fairly noncontroversial. Sunstein begins by observing that liberalism is under siege from both sides throughout much of the world:

On the left, some people insist that liberalism is exhausted and dying and unable to handle the problems posed by entrenched inequalities, corporate power and environmental degradation. On the right, some people think that liberalism is responsible for the collapse of traditional values, rampant criminality, disrespect for authority and widespread immorality.

Sunstein is broadly correct that anti-liberalism is on the march, but, partaking in some vintage horseshoe theory, he more than once implies there’s some vague equivalence to be drawn between its left and right versions.

Here I can only offer the standard rejoinder that those of us on the Left mostly want things like more democracy and universal public goods, whereas anti-liberals on the Right tend to want theocracy, legalized racial discrimination, and minority rule. The Left is critical of liberalism because it’s become associated with resistance to progress and the preservation of hierarchy, and because we think it represents an incomplete idea of human freedom. Many anti-liberals on the Right want to take us back to a time before universal suffrage and see hierarchy as both natural and desirable. Clearly, these critiques are not the same and are radically different in their implications.

Still, what’s most puzzling about Sunstein’s portrait of liberalism is how unbelievably broad it is. The exact meaning of basically any political label is always going to be somewhat fluid and contestable, and people who differ in their commitments might nevertheless be assigned it.

What it means to hold a particular political identity is also highly context specific and prone to variation across time and place. Notwithstanding all these caveats, however, Sunstein’s definition of liberalism casts a net so wide that it’s fair to ask whether what he’s describing actually constitutes a coherent political project.

The liberal, according to Sunstein’s thirty-four theses, believes in economic redistribution but also may reject it (16). The same applies to the administrative state, about which liberals can and do vigorously debate “climate change, immigration, the minimum wage, free trade,” and whether regulations like those that make seat belts mandatory are a bridge too far (17). Philosophically speaking, liberals might follow classical exponents of their traditions like John Locke or Adam Smith and neoclassical ones like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, for whom property rights are central, or left liberals like John Rawls, whose famous treatise A Theory of Justice kept open the possibility of collective ownership of the means of production (21). A liberal might adore Ronald Reagan or hate him, and the same when it comes to Franklin Roosevelt.

In defense of this broadness, Sunstein cites Rawls’s notion of a “political liberalism” that rejects capital-T truth and instead finds consensus between people who hold diverse viewpoints. His, he says, is a liberalism “meant to accommodate people with very different views about fundamental matters [that] can easily be supported by people on the left, the right and the center” (19). It’s by no means clear how this principle applies to many of the conflicting polarities in liberal thought he includes elsewhere (it’s obviously impossible to reconcile, say, Hayek’s view of the state with Rawls’s, or Reagan’s with FDR’s).

There are also plenty of instances where it’s fair to ask whether actually existing liberalism lives up to some of the noble aspirations that Sunstein invokes. Human rights, which he cites as a core commitment at the very outset of his list, do not appear to be top of mind among senior officials in the Democratic Party who are currently ignoring the pleas of innumerable human rights organizations about the horrors in Gaza. In practice, the mainstream liberalism of today more or less rejects economic redistribution except in the form of tax credits and means-tested benefits that barely alter the macro-distributive picture, if they even do so at all.

A further problem, related to much of the above, is that many of Suntein’s theses exist at such a level of abstraction that it’s unclear what exactly they mean. Those of us who aren’t open authoritarians all broadly embrace concepts like pluralism, tolerance, civic open-mindedness, and constitutional limits on abuses of power by both individuals and the state. Actualizing these things in policy or practice, however, is much more complicated, and requires a level of specificity incompatible with broad generalization.

If there’s a coherent thread to be pulled from all this, it might be that liberal intellectuals like Sunstein associate their tradition more with a kind of centrist disposition than an actual political project distillable to concrete premises. This is at least one explanation for the frequent liberal collapsing of Left and Right into some monolithic anti-liberal tendency: the Left sometimes holds mass rallies in which people express anger at various perceived injustices and blame them on specific culprits — something that the populist right, albeit in very different ways, has been known to do as well. When your vision of politics is primarily an affective one, and premised on the rejection of ideology, it becomes a whole lot easier to conflate the two.

It also goes some way toward explaining why Sunstein’s portrait of liberalism is so unbelievably broad. Faced with mounting critiques from the Left and the Right over the past decade or so, some liberal intellectuals have retreated into abstraction and, as a consequence, have ended up with an unhelpfully zero-sum understanding of their own tradition. As Samuel Moyn argued in an essay last summer:

In books like Patrick Deneen’s best-selling “Why Liberalism Failed,” there was an up-or-down vote on the liberalism of the entire modern age, which Mr. Deneen traced back centuries. In frantic self-defense, liberals responded by invoking abstractions: “freedom,” “democracy” and “truth,” to which the sole alternative is tyranny, while distracting from their own errors and what it would take to correct them. Both sides failed to recognize that, like all traditions, liberalism is not take it or leave it. The very fact that liberals transformed it so radically during the Cold War means that it can be transformed again; liberals can revive their philosophy’s promises only by recommitting to its earlier impulses.

In effect, this is exactly what those of us on the socialist left seek to do. If elements of the liberal tradition can be found in both nineteenth-century colonialism and the best parts of the French Revolution, there is simply no reason to treat it as something uniform. If liberalism has made vital contributions to egalitarian thought and been complicit in the likes of imperial violence and war, why not simply take the former and reject the latter? And if there are obvious conflicts or contradictions between various parts of the liberal tradition, there is no reason to not simply stake out a position and defend it.

Democratic socialists see certain parts of liberalism as necessary but also insufficient. They have also, fairly in my view, come to associate its modern incarnation more with reflexive conservatism and deference to elites than with equality or progress. As Irving Howe put it nearly seventy years ago, after acknowledging liberalism’s “obvious and substantial benefits,” including “mak[ing] us properly skeptical of the excessive claims and fanaticisms that accompany ideologies”:

Liberalism dominates, but without confidence or security; it knows that its victories at home are tied to disasters abroad; and for the élan it cannot summon, it substitutes a blend of complacence and anxiety. It makes for an atmosphere of blur in the realm of ideas, since it has a stake in seeing momentary concurrences as deep harmonies. In an age that suffers from incredible catastrophes it scoffs at theories of social apocalypse — as if any more evidence were needed; in an era convulsed by war, revolution and counterrevolution it discovers the virtues of “moderation.”. . . Liberalism as an ideology, as “the haunted air,” has never been stronger in this country; but can as much be said of the appetite for freedom?