Nihilism Has Taken Over American Politics

The success of the New Right is the latest evidence of how America is turning away from liberal democracy and toward nihilism. How did we get here?

Today’s political discourse has turned toward nihilism, where nothing really matters except winning. Image Credit: Paloma Latrel/EyeEm/Getty Images

This is the first in a two-part series on counteracting nihilism in today’s American political system.

Now that classical liberalism is most needed, the spirit of our time seems to forbid it. The dreams of making America great again, or returning to normalcy, have been supplanted by the realities of inflation, an energy crisis and a dehumanizing culture. But while our current material reality may resemble the 1970s, our politics increasingly resemble the 1930s: Our discourse has turned toward nihilism, where nothing really matters except winning. How can we turn the tide toward problem-solving, with the goal of building a brighter future together?

Not long ago, liberal democracy was the consensus position. This term implies not merely democratic elections but also unalienable individual rights, such as freedom of speech and of assembly. Now, few Americans seem to believe very strongly in these rights. For example, a 2021 Pew poll found that “roughly half of U.S. adults (48%) now say the government should take steps to restrict false information, even if it means losing some freedom to access and publish content.” And another poll found that 1 in 10 Americans think violence against the government is justified right now. Without individual rights, though, democracy is a farce.

In a prior century, we might have turned to bipartisan reforms and unifying messages to respond to these challenges. Think, perhaps, of a born-again Christian farmer from Georgia, a Democrat, who “deregulated oil, trucking, railroads, airlines, and beer.” Or an FDR-admiring California governor, a Republican, who called immigration “one of the most important sources of America’s greatness.” But that was then.

The Success of Illiberalism

Today, win-win opportunities and political moderation are out of style. Take environmental activist Jamie Henn, who recently expressed concern that we might reduce carbon emissions without radically overhauling our entire society: “Look, I want to get carbon out of the atmosphere… but this is such an opportunity to remake our society. But if we just perpetuate the same harms in a clean-energy economy, and it’s just a world of Exxons and Elon Musks—oh, man, what a nightmare.” Henn’s nightmare is that we might achieve net zero emissions and yet still suffer the travesty of private enterprise. Oh, how awful! Henn admitted what many on the right already suspected—that the climate is often a pretext for other left-wing policy objectives.

Yet the right clearly has its own version of this. Andrew Sullivan’s August interview with “post-liberal” New Right icon Sohrab Ahmari serves as a case in point. Sullivan suggested a series of marginal changes to mitigate Ahmari’s avowed concerns about obscenity and corporate power. Could Ahmari not address the problems he cares about “within the rubric of a liberal society?” Ahmari explained that “the key post-liberal insight is that coercion is inevitable” (emphasis is mine). Among post-liberals like Ahmari, the liberal idea of an autonomous private sphere is an illusion. The only question is toward which highest good we coerce each other. Post-liberals’ problem with liberalism is not that it preserves the private sphere of unalienable individual rights. Rather, their problem is that liberalism maintains the myth of the private sphere.

This sounds a bit familiar: In the 1930s, German nihilists, led by those in the Nazi Party, objected to the open society for being “based on hypocrisy.” In his 1941 speech analyzing German nihilism, professor Leo Strauss tentatively defined nihilism as “the desire to destroy the present world and its potentialities, a desire not accompanied by any clear conception of what one wants to put in its place.”

Today, Ahmari’s critique of the open society is remarkably similar. He is not satisfied with Sullivan’s incremental suggestions. Even if it worked—especially if it worked—Sullivan’s incrementalism would preserve the facade of liberalism, the myth of the private sphere of autonomy. Therefore, Ahmari is concerned that we might address some of his ostensible concerns and yet miss such an opportunity to remake our society—or, one suspects, to unmask it.

The post-liberal objection to liberalism has two layers. First, it is material: It concerns an economic, environmental or social trend—or set of facts. This layer is mostly sheen. And the second, deeper layer is psychological: It represents a profound dissatisfaction with the current regime, or with a comprehensive form of political and economic organization.

Post-liberalism therefore presents a profound challenge. Too often, liberal thinkers think only of the material perspective, refuting lyrical lamentations of decadence with graphs indicating rising GDP growth, or declining carbon emissions. They often do not seem aware of the psychological dimensions to the post-liberal lament. (To some extent, this is post-liberals’ fault, since they often hide their agenda behind abstraction and obfuscation.)

Far from persuading post-liberals that they can achieve their goals within a free and open society, factual rebuttals heighten their angst. Sweeping away the factual critique of liberalism lays bare the true, psychological grievances. Worse, the liberal comes off as a money-grubbing materialist, worrying about dollars and cents and property rights when weighty moral matters are being discussed. In the words of Acton Institute research director Samuel Gregg, “The case for free markets will lose if it remains narrowly economic in its content and emphasis.”

Exposing the other side as irrational may seem like victory to many liberals. Is it victory, though, if the other side keeps gaining adherents? Would not the trends in American political discourse in fact suggest that the illiberal agenda is winning? Why, then, have liberals had such a hard time recognizing, let alone effectively responding to, the subjective dimensions of post-liberal thought?

First, we must understand how we got here. How has illiberalism succeeded? Why, indeed, has liberalism failed? An analysis of historical precedent may indicate how we got to this point—and maybe even how to get out of it.

The Practical Liberalism of Leo Strauss

One might hesitate before associating German-American professor Leo Strauss with the words “liberal” and “practical.” Strauss’ critics have lambasted him as an “anti-liberal” thinker. This attack is founded: Strauss is known for his criticisms of modern liberalism, a category which for him includes both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

Nor does “practical” seem to apply to Strauss’ thought. Strauss’ admirers often argue that the core theme of his work was the unbridgeable gap between theory and practice. Timothy W. Burns refers to the “radical disjunct between theoretical and practical life” in Strauss’ writing. Not only did Strauss not produce practical philosophy, but he also criticized the very idea of practical philosophy.

Despite these reservations, we may uncover in Strauss’ work some practicable insights for how to defend liberal democracy today. As mentioned above, in February 1941, Strauss gave a talk to the graduate faculty at the New School on “German Nihilism.” In this talk, which preceded Pearl Harbor and American involvement in World War II, Strauss was already looking ahead to the implications of an Allied victory over the Nazis. The West might eventually win the war, he said, but “the defeat of National Socialism will not necessarily mean the end of German nihilism.” This might have been a strange concern when Hitler was occupying France. Yet, looking at the state of modern politics, who would now deny Strauss was right?

A Jew who left Germany in 1932, Strauss was intimately familiar with the elite intellectual and cultural climate of his homeland. As he explained in “Living Issues of Postwar German Philosophy,” “certain lectures and conversations and discussions which I remember revealed to me the tendencies of the world in which I then was living, much better than the so-called final statements which I could read later in print.” For Strauss, German thinkers like Edmund Husserl, Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger were not merely symbols of philosophical schools, or authors of lengthy tomes, but men he knew and interacted with. Moreover, Strauss could himself sympathize with nihilists, having been an avid Nietzschean in his 20s.

How did Germany, once the peak of European civilization, sink to such depths after World War I? First, Strauss notes that “German liberal democracy of all descriptions seemed to many people to be absolutely unable to cope with the difficulties with which Germany was confronted.” Hyper-inflation, the shame of military defeat, the settlement at Versailles and internal domestic unrest all contributed to the rise of German nihilism.

Yet frustration with the material present was only part of the nihilistic rejection. The Weimar Republic’s economic and political difficulties “created a profound prejudice” against liberal democracy, but they didn’t imply any particular path forward. Two other options remained open. The first was “simple reaction,” or attempting to return to a simpler time. The second was a communist revolution.

The German youth believed in the inevitability of the communist revolution and the impossibility of conservative restoration. Because they believed the Marxist myth that the world was progressing towards a communist utopia, they rejected the former option—traditional conservatism—as futile. Something more was needed. Strauss identifies this as a “fallacy” committed by naïve youths. They were too enthralled with “that modern astrology,” social science, to see that the communist utopia was impossible. Here, the modern parallels are obvious. One may think of the American New Right figures who accept progressive narratives about “market fundamentalism”, “neoliberalism” and the need to “reimagine capitalism,” despite their manifest empirical shortcomings.

Strauss explained, “The prospect of a pacified planet, without rulers and ruled, of a planetary society devoted to production and consumption only, to the production and consumption of spiritual as well as material merchandise, was positively horrifying to quite a few very intelligent and very decent, if very young, Germans.” This is the future envisioned by Marxism and communism. And “[i]t was this prospect at least as much as the desperate present, which led to nihilism.” Assuaging material concerns would not have helped. The youth “did not object to that prospect because they were worrying about their own economic and social position.”

What then would have helped? Strauss’ description of the conditions of postwar Germany suggests some clues as to what went wrong, and what might have prevented the tragedy.

Plato’s Cautionary Tale

Strauss remarked that the German youth “needed old-fashioned teachers” who “would be undogmatic enough to understand the aspirations of their pupils.” Poor education seems to be a root cause of German nihilism. A reference earlier in his talk to Glaucon, a character from Plato’s Republic, indicates the full scope of Strauss’ analysis.

In Plato’s Republic, the late 5th century Athens has suffered a recent plague, a public health crisis that has exposed the moral failures of its citizens. Athens is confronting the gap between its past imperial pretensions and its decadent, unstable present. In just a few decades, the city-state has gone from dominating other nations to failing to rule itself. Pericles had once boasted of Athens’ moral claim to lead Greece, but at the time of the Republic, Athens has become disenchanted.

Glaucon is Plato’s brother, a young man who mixes ambition with idealism. In the words of Plato scholar Alex Priou, Glaucon “protests simplicity and demands luxury.” (We see a version of this tension today in the “trad” movement, which constantly posts online about how it rejects modernity and technology.) Glaucon is fed up with the corruption of Athens. He knows he seeks justice, but he’s not quite sure what that means. At the point he asks for Socrates’ help, he has been “talked deaf” by Thrasymachus, a proto-Nietzschean orator who attempts to exploit Glaucon’s naivete.

Socrates knows how to talk to young men like Glaucon. First, Socrates wins him over to the cause of justice with the idea of a morally upright guardian class, and then shows him that perfect justice cannot obtain on earth. The “philosopher king” approach Socrates suggests—that the way to create the perfectly just city through a perfectly wise ruling class controlling all aspects of life—is a provocative absurdity: No one ruler will ever possess the knowledge, moral and practical, necessary to make the best city a reality. (This is an ancient predecessor of Friedrich Hayek’s knowledge problem.)

Through his discussion of philosopher kings, Socrates inspires “political moderation” in Glaucon. As Priou remarks,

Read in light of Thucydides, the Republic emerges as a cautionary tale regarding the susceptibility of men, living in the midst of great political and moral decay, to grand visions of political and personal transformation, to redemptive and salvific projects both in this life and the next.  It is often remarked that the Republic is a book on the limits of politics.

We see in Glaucon that youthful nihilism is not exclusive to the modern era. Nihilism is not merely a reaction against modernity: In Strauss’ words, “Nihilism is the rejection of the principles of civilization as such.” Post-liberal civilization, even assuming that it is practically possible in the West, cannot be the answer to nihilism. In fact, the post-liberal dream of a rightly ordered state, oriented toward the common good and virtue, might very well lead to despair and disenchantment when practice inevitably falls short of theory.

What Do We Do Today?

The young Germans needed, but lacked, teachers like Socrates to instruct them in political moderation and the limits of politics. But what about today’s youth? Sam Goldman has doubted Strauss’ implication that old-fashioned education will solve the problem posed by nihilism: “The yearning for risk and commitment he describes can only rarely be satisfied in the library or classroom.” Further, old-fashioned teachers in the mold of Strauss or a Socrates are rare, and formal classical education is in decline. Staking our civilization on their recurrence may be unwise: Not only do we lack such educators, but our current educational system bears striking resemblance to the Weimar Republic’s “progressive education system,” which Strauss described as “the most dangerous thing for these young men.”

Strauss’ other observations are scarce more encouraging. German youths, appalled by modern amorality, “would have been impressed as much as we were, by what Winston Churchill said after the defeat in Flanders about Britain’s finest hour.” Individual greatness remains possible in the modern age, despite our pretensions to equality. The right statesmen might help appease nihilists’ concerns with modern civilization. This is plausible, but waiting around for another Churchill is not a viable option today. And our political class gives us little hope that such role models will emerge.

What about the church? Strauss observes that the German youths “knew that they were the sons and grandsons and great-grandsons of godless men.” Perhaps a more religious Germany would not have fallen for the pagan myths of National Socialism. Today, the rise of illiberalism has also coincided with a rapid decline in religious institutions. Still, waiting around for revival is not a practicable solution to immediate political and economic problems.

A final clue might lie in the “fallacy” Strauss identified above. The nihilists believed that the communist understanding of the future was correct. This was wrong, as many understood even then.

One doubts, however, that exposing the German youths to the arguments of Mises and Hayek would have done much good. The notion that the future is unknown and unknowable is unlikely to appease someone worried history is heading in the wrong direction. It may not actually be the case that communist utopia is the inevitable end point of history. Yet that refutation does not supply nihilists with a definite, alternative vision.

What then will stop the tide of nihilism? We cannot sit around in hopes of another Churchill or Great Awakening. If there aren’t enough old-fashioned teachers, and economic refutations don’t work, what then? Are we to keep going up against the post-liberals with our charts and fact-checks?

To answer these questions, we must first deepen our understanding of the problem. If the nihilists of the 1930s were reacting against the vision of the future offered by communism, what is the modern equivalent? What vision of the future are today’s nihilists reacting against? And what is the alternative vision? Strauss explains that “the most ardent upholders of the principle of progress, of an essentially aggressive principle, were compelled to take a defensive stand; and, in the realm of the mind, taking a defensive stand looks like admitting defeat.”

Liberals, whether on the right or left, still often come off as mere defenders of an unsatisfactory status quo. To respond effectively to nihilism and post-liberalism, liberals must recognize post-liberals’ deepest concerns, and articulate a positive vision for the future that speaks to those concerns.

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