How Liberalism Betrayed the Enlightenment and Lost Its Soul

In the anti-communist climate of the Cold War, prominent liberal thinkers abandoned the Enlightenment’s ambitions for a society of real freedom and equality. The consequences have badly warped US politics to this day.

Signage for a news conference hosted by Biden-Harris 2024 in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 15, 2024. (Rachel Mummey / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Here we are again, facing a possible Donald Trump presidency. Trump’s re-ascendence — if we should call it that — has revived harbingers of America’s collapse, democracy’s demise. A pessimism, if not fatalism, has surrounded the dominant narrative around Trump for almost a decade: he is our national nightmare personified, foretold by premonitions from our ancestors ravaged by fascism and totalitarianism.

How we discuss the threat Trump poses to democracy is both crucial and revealing. No one should minimize the impact of another Trump presidency, particularly on the most marginalized — undocumented immigrants, black Americans, LGBTQ, Latinos, and the poor. Fear of Trump is well grounded. We do, indeed, need to stop him.

But, some argue, Trump is not only a danger to the most vulnerable among us. If we don’t stop Trump, they say, civil war or the death of the republic awaits us. Historians like Ruth Ben-Ghiat have argued that Trump is the epitome of a dictatorial “strongman,” that his 2024 campaign is premised on a “re-education strategy: conditioning Americans to see authoritarianism as a superior form of government to democracy.” Timothy Snyder has urged Americans to “see Trump for what he is: an aspiring fascist who likes, wants, and needs violence.” Historian Heather Cox Richardson does not mince words — Trump’s reelection would mean “the end of American democracy.”

These historians-cum-prognosticators (academic pundits, really) have gained press attention and public popularity for offering answers to “Why Trump?,” for chasing and isolating — with acute awareness of their marketability — the autocratic tendencies within the American right wing. Trump has sustained their clout and secured their book advances.

But Trump has also been good for jarring liberals into action, or at the very least scaring the hell out of them. The prospect of defeating Trump in 2020 propelled a large voter turnout, the highest since 1980. Fundraising for organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also reached all-time highs during the Trump years. Trump’s mendacity and depravity unites the disparate elements of the Democratic coalition in a way no figure has done since Barack Obama in 2008.

Here is the strange conundrum that Trump has bestowed on liberalism. Trump is indeed a threat to democracy. But what will give the liberal project purpose when he is gone?

The Legacy of Cold War Liberalism

Samuel Moyn’s most recent book, Liberalism Against Itself, tries to answer this question. Moyn provokes us to ask why an apoplectic focus on “strongmen” resonates in liberal circles — why liberals are preoccupied with autocrats without addressing the conditions that make them possible.

Liberals’ concentration on strongmen, and personal evil, has diverted our attention to bogeymen and away from the internal, bipartisan sources of democracy’s decline: the ways democracy decays from within; the ways liberals don’t want to see, perhaps because their readers — the self-identified defenders of democracy — have contributed to it. The liberal pundits mentioned above are largely silent on how to tackle climate change, economic redistribution, or social injustice. They seem not to know what decades of neoliberal policies, from both Democrats and Republicans, have wrought.

Moyn’s book ends with this point. But Liberalism Against Itself is not a political screed, nor does it purport to be a tonic for what ails our body politic. Rather, it offers a historical infrastructure for understanding contemporary liberalism and its limits. Moyn suggests that the problem of Trump is also a problem of liberalism, specifically Cold War liberalism. Having binged on decades of American exceptionalism, of US primacy formed by Manichean struggles between autocrats and democrats, liberals today remain hungover from the Cold War.

Fearful of a communist monolith, the Cold War turned liberals against the threat of a Leviathan. The Cold War generated what political theorist Judith Shklar called a “liberalism of fear”: a liberalism that distrusted humanity to make progress through the ambitious use of state power. Cold War liberalism also thrived on crisis, on emergency politics. It forced its proponents to defend the present from a supposed authoritarian menace while rejecting visions of “human liberation” for the future. Cold War liberals “abandoned the Enlightenment,” according to Moyn, “purging perfectionism and progressivism from liberalism’s past.”

Without an appreciation of utopia — of how to achieve justice through a vision of a better tomorrow — Cold War liberalism urged people to look inward, to reject a “collective future,” to shore up the status quo. This is why the liberal reaction to Trump has been preoccupied with autocracy, but also why “saving democracy” from Trump demands an individualized, dramatic act of “resistance” — or at the very least, a moralistic display of one’s reading preferences. In the hands of the “new” Cold War liberals like Richardson and Ben-Ghiat, being a good Democratic partisan is synonymous with self-actualization. Post-Trump liberals have made securing the fate of American democracy into reading the right books, listening to the good podcasts, and subscribing to certain Substacks. It has made the most informed responsible for democracy’s fate. Trust elites, believe in truth, respect your peers, buy my book.

Moyn argues that a better liberalism awaits us, one that rejects the Cold War past. We need a liberalism that wants more than a return to a pre-Trump America. Moyn has an aspirational vision for us to get there, for a liberalism that believes in human perfectibility once more. And he has faith that liberalism can be redeemed — that liberals can rescue liberalism from the Cold War. But would our historical moment allow this? Or is this utopian thinking in the pejorative sense?

A Loss of Faith

Moyn, a historian at Yale, is a foremost critic of modern liberalism. His work regularly appears in publications as wide-ranging as the New York Times and Dissent, aiming to dispel liberals’ shibboleths about Trump, and themselves. Moyn has targeted liberals’ faith in undemocratic institutions like the Supreme Court and the Department of Justice to rescue democracy from its enemies at home and abroad, arguing that a more robust political project of social democracy — a reimagining of democracy — is needed to rectify the problems liberals care about: racial justice, inequality, environmental degradation. His willingness to speak harsh truths — or, to his critics, undue mischaracterizations — to liberals has made him a spokesperson for a generation of leftists jaundiced by a Democratic Party that is increasingly excising the working class from its ranks and pursuing neoliberal policies, the result being rampant inequality and an empowered right-wing movement.

Moyn saves much of his ire in print for liberal internationalists and the architects of US foreign policy. He has publicly skewered Robert Kagan, Samantha Power, and George Packer, for instance. In his 2021 book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, he offered a critique of liberals’ efforts to reform the brutality of war through international law. Then there are his well-read books on human rights: The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Christian Human Rights, and Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, the last of which represented the end of a trilogy of sorts, which argued the human rights revolution after World War II — a thoroughly liberal project — discarded economic equality in favor of “sufficiency.”

This is the Samuel Moyn that many of his Twitter/X followers might know. But Moyn began his career as an intellectual historian of Europe. His first book, Origins of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas Between Revelation and Ethics, is an academic, albeit readable, treatise on the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Briefly a student of Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, Levinas promulgated a philosophy of “intersubjectivity” derived from the collapse of liberalism in the 1930s. Moyn argues that Levinas’s philosophical thought, his contributions to phenomenology and existentialism, were a product of interwar Europe and liberalism’s travails after World War I, not the Holocaust or a postwar liberal order.

Liberalism Against Itself could be seen as a return to Moyn’s roots in intellectual history. But the book reflects the arc of Moyn’s career since Origins of the Other: his ability to marry a biting, iconoclastic critique of liberalism with his capacious respect for the liberal tradition, one studied through the methodologies of a historian. The lineage between Moyn’s first book and Liberalism Against Itself reveals his dedication to studying the contradictory, irreconcilable tenets of liberalism — of what made liberalism triumphant in twentieth-century democratic life, yet also responsible for the formation of antidemocratic politics. Implicit in Moyn’s work is a faith in the promise of American liberalism and his disappointment that its practice has often betrayed that promise, whether at home or in the projection of US power abroad.

Like Origins of the Other, Liberalism Against Itself places intellectuals in their historical contexts. Moyn selects a group of intellectuals who represent archetypes of Cold War liberalism. These include expected characters like Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, and some not so expected figures like Hannah Arendt and the neoconservative Gertrude Himmelfarb. Along with Shklar and Lionel Trilling, they comprise Moyn’s typology of Cold War liberalism. Moyn isolates the contributions each one made to the canon of Cold War liberalism and the ways they made liberalism anew.

The book begins with Shklar, Moyn’s antihero. Shklar’s most famous book, After Utopia: The Decline of Political Faith, offered an overlooked but enduring critique of Cold War liberalism that also forms the basis for Moyn’s analysis. In Moyn’s forward to the 2020 edition of After Utopia, he argued that the book offers a “depiction of a liberalism that has adopted conservative principles.” Moyn expands on this point in Liberalism Against Itself, putting Shklar in dialogue with liberals like Berlin and neoliberals like Friedrich Hayek, who, despite their philosophical differences, rejected the Enlightenment as a Soviet endeavor and gave Cold War liberalism its defining feature: a “loss of optimism” in emancipatory projects.

Liberalism has always taken umbrage toward revolution and the masses who create it. But Cold War liberalism provided a blueprint for constraining the revolutionary impulses unleashed by the Enlightenment by placing faith in the individual over the state. This made Cold War liberalism an inherently conservative ideology. Indeed, the rejection of the Enlightenment made Cold War liberalism a malignant, reactionary distortion of its nineteenth-century version that followed the French Revolution.

Case in point: Isaiah Berlin. Berlin’s anti-Enlightenment thought coincided with his anti-statism, another pillar upholding the edifice of Cold War liberalism. Berlin emerges from Moyn’s treatment as a reluctant Cold War liberal, as a thinker who remade Romanticism to suit the tragedies of the Cold War. Moyn argues that Berlin, aided by Jacob Talmon, whose 1952 book The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy took the French Revolution to task, purged Jean-Jacques Rousseau from liberalism, fearing that Rousseau’s influential notion of “the general will” had given us totalitarianism. (Here he echoed Bertrand Russell, who said that “Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau.”) By encouraging a subjective will without “strict limits on state power,” Berlin felt Rousseau had inadvertently paved the way for autocracy. This is how Berlin’s Cold War liberalism came to be premised on “negative liberty,” a liberalism promulgated by Hayek and now touted by the Mises Institute on its website.

Moyn then takes us into the writings of Popper and Himmelfarb. Each abandoned the idea of dialectical and teleological progress to instill liberalism with its sense of despair. Whereas Berlin discarded Rousseau to reinvent Romanticism, Popper and Himmelfarb rejected Hegel — “de-Hegelizing” history — to oppose the view that humankind inevitably progressed through historical struggles. Popper abandoned historicism — the idea of objective, scientific history — and Himmelfarb embraced the Catholic theologian and historian Lord Acton, who injected Christian principles into historical inquiry. In Acton’s view, history did “not have a meaning or purpose beyond itself; it acquired meaning only by comparison with a fixed moral standard outside it”; Himmelfarb “canonized” Action’s analysis of history that presupposed “modernity was a vast mistake.” With Acton as her guiding light, Himmelfarb became an early convert to neoconservatism.

Up to this point, Moyn’s choices can be validated by his subjects’ intellectual arcs. But his selection of Arendt is curious. Arendt had no outright connection to Cold War liberalism — or any sort of liberalism, for that matter. But her critique of utopian projects, of Enlightenment thought, placed her adjacent to Cold War liberalism. Cold War liberals like Shklar also engaged with her writing, and her fear of totalitarianism resonated with many of her contemporaries.

Arendt also fulfills Moyn’s thesis that Cold War liberals rejected postcolonial projects that looked to escape a Eurocentric past. Arendt, like the Cold War liberals, embraced the “civilizational and indeed racial restriction of the possibilities of freedom in a decolonizing world.” Moyn highlights Arendt’s Zionism as proof that Cold War liberals “supported nationalism in one specific locale” while ignoring liberation in the Global South.

Moyn is not wrong, but he misses an opportunity to bolster his argument by delving into Arendt’s other writings on race. Arendt’s essay, “Reflections on Little Rock,” took umbrage with blacks’ call for desegregating public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. Arendt feared that the state would be dictating the “free choice” of parents to send their children to school where they wished. Arendt’s analysis of postwar totalitarianism operated on a slippery slope — and without a historical context — where legal means to achieve equality invariably served the ends of government tyranny. She therefore lauded states’ rights as “the most authentic sources of power” and worried “that the achievement of social, economic, and educational equality for the Negro may sharpen the color problem in this country instead of assuaging it.”

Liberalism Against Itself’s discussion of Arendt’s Zionism segues into Trilling’s rejection of the idea as a “mad parody of European nationalism.” Trilling replaced Judaism with psychoanalysis as a secular religion, guiding self-actualization and interpretations of humanity’s limits for emancipation. With his preoccupation with “self-control” and the limits of free will, Trilling used Sigmund Freud to argue that liberals must not be tempted by their ego — i.e., “ideological passion.” Trilling’s infatuation with Freud demonstrated, Moyn says, how “the Cold War liberal self had to be a garrisoned one.” With his indirect indictment of Freud, Moyn uses Trilling to show how Cold War liberals deployed Freud’s moralism against proponents of Freudian Marxism (as diverse as Herbert Marcuse and Frantz Fanon) and the liberatory potential of psychoanalysis to free people from socially imposed barriers to the “good life.”

By the end of the book, we have a holistic, composite picture of what Cold War liberalism bestowed our generation: a liberalism that distrusted the masses, feared state power (because it all led to autocracy), rejected historical progress, and shunned world-making (in the form of decolonization).

A Specter Haunting Liberalism

One can take issue with Moyn’s case studies and thus his framework for understanding Cold War liberalism. Indeed, Moyn gives us just one of many Cold War liberalisms. Cold War liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Henry Jackson, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr — though only Schlesinger could be counted as an “intellectual” — opposed racial segregation and were key in pushing the Democratic Party out of the South. Their anti-racism was parochial (it did not extend into the Global South), but they were no less dedicated to political pragmatism and Cold War anti-communism as the vehicle for justifying social progress. These Cold War liberals sought out state power to achieve racial equality in the United States, even as they championed the military spending that ultimately eroded the social welfare state they wished to create.

But whatever the distinctions among them, the progenitors of Cold War liberalism — and their modern disciples — ultimately shared a mission to purge Karl Marx from the intellectual canon. They represent a collective effort to extirpate his influence over the twentieth century and deprive us of visions of a better world beyond liberal capitalism, even as communism failed in many parts of the globe.

Yet for all their accomplishments in engendering and maintaining a “liberalism of fear,” Cold War liberals ultimately failed to eradicate Marx. When liberals trade justice for performative equality or hesitate in the face of moral commitments and existential crises in favor of a pragmatic and incrementalist “art of the possible,” they breathe new life into Marx. Marx remains an inimitable foe of inaction and indifference, of tepid and piecemeal responses to existential, material problems; he perennially returns to remind us that liberalism has an obligation to reexamine itself, to offer a renewed vision of the “good life.”

Marxism has outlasted Cold War liberalism, but Liberalism Against Itself is a solid attempt to show how the persistence of the latter prevents the former from realizing its promise in a political project for an egalitarian world. Still, Moyn urges us to not give up hope, as he thinks we can put a stop to the “endless revival” of Cold War liberalism. “The task for liberals in our time is to imagine a form of liberalism that is altogether original,” writes Moyn.

Here is where things get slippery. History favors Moyn’s argument that a “liberalism of fear” is a precarious foundation for social democracy. Crises, whether in national security, economics, or global health, tend not to sustain movements for reform. The New Deal and World War II eras saw significant government intervention, but many of the programs from the 1930s and ’40s are no longer with us — the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the National Recovery Administration, and Civilian Conservation Corps are just a few. Wartime price controls are of course gone; the War Production Board and Office of Price Administration — which regulated the defense industry and instituted rent controls for residential buildings during World War II — were dissolved in 1945. But a permanent military industry remains.

Or think, more recently, of the federal government’s response to COVID. Proposals for a universal basic income, protecting renters, and generous student loan forgiveness have fallen by the wayside. Why? Pandemic relief measures aimed to rectify temporary crises; they were not designed to build a new social democracy. The features of the administrative state that did survive World War II were those meant to outlast their histories. The Social Security Administration, the National Labor Relations Board, the Fair Labor Standards Act (which created a minimum wage and abolished child labor) transcended the urgency of their origins.

Crises also have a way of killing reform, not just stimulating it. Lyndon B. Johnson launched his Great Society in 1964 at a time of low unemployment, high wages, and expected affluence. Johnson did not need a war or depression to justify Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, or Head Start. But the Americanization of the Vietnam War felled his most ambitious plans for racial and economic equality, led to the deaths of millions, and cost him his historical legacy.

Liberals should take lessons from this history. The specter of Trump kept him out of office in 2020. But Trump is not enough. Liberals — Democrats — need to move beyond a fixation on short-term victory to envision democratic reforms that could build a liberalism (and a liberal coalition) that can outlast Trump’s politics. Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, largely a bonanza of corporate subsidies — the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the CHIPS Act — has so far not met the moment. If liberals are to save democracy, they must demand a victory that asks us not to forget how we won the war.

This raises the question of whether such a liberalism exists or can flourish. The type of liberalism that could revitalize social democracy in the United States, that could deter future Donald Trumps and not just stop current ones, is hard to find. Moyn is right that we are stuck with the afterlives of Cold War liberalism — liberals remain committed to emergency politics, to finding internal renewal through battling a foreign foe. But leading liberal intellectuals like Richardson and Ben-Ghiat seem content with this version of liberalism: a liberalism with truncated visions of what democracy can be, or of how democracy can be realized outside the context of geopolitical struggle with illiberal rivals (i.e., against China or Russia).

If there is to be a revival of a pre–Cold War liberalism, that project must include the Left. For a liberalism that lacks an appreciation for Marx is doomed to revanchism. Marx had a healthy respect for liberalism, one that enabled him to address liberalism’s contradictions without discarding its contributions to political rights and free speech. But respect, as my mother used to say, is a two-way street.