Conservative Liberalism

The false dichotomy between conservatives and liberals is distracting citizens from the real threat, which is to liberalism more broadly

John M Lund Photography Inc/Getty Images

I’ve always been puzzled by the labels we use for political positions in the United States. The opposition of “conservative” to “liberal” has been particularly confusing to me. Like many of the dyads that allegedly capture contrasting views—“pro-life” versus “pro-choice,” “capitalist” versus “socialist”—the “conservative/liberal” dichotomy always seemed like a bad cross-categorization. It’s akin to dividing automobiles into “front-wheel drive” and “Japanese.” Can’t one be in favor of both life and choice? Likewise, can’t we embrace both conservative and liberal?

What terminology might work better here? Well, if we were to start with a commitment to preserving the “conservative” half of this dyad, then seemingly “progressive” would work better as a contrast. And once “progressive” is admitted to the field of play, even more felicitous dichotomies might present themselves: “traditionalist versus progressive”? Or, if we’re partisan progressives, we might recommend “progressive versus regressive,” or even “reactionary”—though the latter label seems more naturally juxtaposed with “revolutionary.”

But what if we were to start off with a commitment to preserving the “liberal” half of the dyad? What label is more apt to serve as its foil, assuming “conservative” does not fit the bill? Here I can offer nothing better than “anti-liberalism” or “illiberalism” as the relevant contrast.

One reason this tactic might seem undesirable, of course, is that it’s such a cheap way of ensuring that you’ve identified (nay, created) a relevant contrast class. But additionally, it’s rather uninformative: if “liberal” and “illiberal” are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive terms, then the class of illiberal things includes everything in the world that’s not liberal. Furthermore, the two sets {liberal} and {illiberal} include, between them, every single thing in the universe. So, it might seem that to be told that “illiberal” is the relevant antithesis of “liberal” is to be told very little: a lesson in logic and set theory, but not much more.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that in the present moment, a clumsy amalgamation of myriad, diverse political impulses under the single, inartful label “illiberalism” is perhaps the right way for us to go. This is the case, at least, if we are liberals, in any of liberalism’s many flavors. And very many of us are: the traditionalist/conservative and progressive variants are chief among these flavors.

The most natural application of the label “liberal,” I hold, is to the great politico-philosophical tradition that contains multitudes: Adam Smith and also J. S. Mill; Thomas Paine and also Edmund Burke; Alexander Hamilton and also Thomas Jefferson; Friedrich Hayek and also John Maynard Keynes; John Rawls and also Robert Nozick. And yet, within this diverse group of thinkers, there is a coherence. Indeed, liberalism comprises a vision of government as secular, limited, representative, and constitutional, and a vision of citizens as free and equal.

It’s a tradition that unites many foes who until recently would have considered themselves warring partisans—the Democrats and the Republicans of the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s, for example, and even into the early years of the just-lapsed decade. And it’s a tradition that has recently come under assault from multiple flanks in the United States. (I might group these warring flanks into two large groups named “the Right” and “the Left,” were it not for my dissatisfaction with that particular labeling scheme as well—though that’s a topic for a separate essay.)

These assaults have, for the most part, come to fruition in just the last five years (though they began brewing well before that). The attack on the liberal tradition erupted first within the Republican Party; its 2016 nomination of the anti-liberal demagogue Donald Trump seemingly betokened the party’s abandonment of liberalism broadly construed. But the scale of that party’s repudiation of liberal mores has been matched (and perhaps exceeded) by recent actions on the other side: the revolutionary Year Zero zeal now on display among many associated with the Democratic Party and its proxy institutions (e.g., the media and the academy) should give any genuine liberal at least as much pause as does Trumpism.

And if we’re liberals in this broad, sweeping, grand sense of the term, then in one respect it is of relatively little importance that we be able to draw fine-grained distinctions among, or categorizations of, the sorts of illiberalism that currently threaten us. Scholars and historians may illuminate much by trafficking in such distinctions. Right now, though, concerned citizens have rather less need to keep track of the subtle or not-so-subtle gradations of the forces of illiberalism that threaten our republic.

That is why, despite its tautological vacuity and underinformativeness, “illiberalism” is still the most useful term for us to adopt. This vocabulary derives its utility largely from the fact that—by stripping from its title any of the qualifiers (“traditionalist,” “progressive”) that once served to subdivide its adherents—it thereby encourages these adherents to think of themselves as “small-l,” “mere,” or “no-label” liberals. Furthermore, it focuses the energies and aims of all adherents of liberty, equality, limited government, individual rights, personal responsibility, and the universal dignity of all. For it is time—it is past time—for liberals of all stripes to put old divisions (and terminological distinctions) behind them and to unite in an effort to resist the impending forces of illiberalism: to band together, in other words, in an effort to conserve our cherished and hard-won liberalism.

“Conservative liberalism”: at last we have a label, and not a dyad, that makes sense. And may we also finally have a label that unites—and possibly even inspires?

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