The Liberal in Crisis

August 19, 2021 Updated: August 24, 2021


Back in 1966, liberalism never seemed better. The Civil Rights Movement had just concluded with the triumphant passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Great Society programs such as the War on Poverty promised to curb other forms of inequity, too, with social servants showing the wisdom of the state in fixing what the market couldn’t.

Women’s Liberation was in the air, and females were pouring into universities and aiming for jobs other than nurse and teacher. Meanwhile, the Sexual Revolution was (putatively) opening whole new pathways of human fulfillment.

The momentum was enormous. To join the elite ranks in culture and education and not become a liberal took a measure of independence, or prickliness, that most people don’t possess. On the other side, intellectuals and academics, journalists and artists and entertainers, liberals of any educated kind … they could play offense nonstop, never doubting their rightness, sure that history propelled them forward and would sooner or later prove them altogether correct and good.

The world appeared to our enlightened liberal back then as if it were finally coming around. Soon, we would see the happy consummation of liberal ideas and feelings and practices in a benign society of peace and prosperity and equity. The social tensions caused by backward attitudes about men and women, God and country, family and heritage would dissipate as liberal outlooks swept those attitudes away. It would take time, but not long, he was certain, for he had watched liberalism blast through the institutions with the speed of Genghis Khan’s horsemen.

A reality formed in his head, a vision in which the way things ought to be would become the way things will be. What his liberalism decreed as just and proper would, indeed, unfold, and while conservatives might rant and pelt and jeer it, they wouldn’t be able to stop it.

This glowing expectation of progress was one of the many benefits of the revolutions of those years. If you saw your outlook come to dominate Hollywood, higher and lower education, the news, the art world, museums and libraries, the scholarly associations, and all the hip social circles, you’d be confident, too. It’s nice to be on the winning team time after time. It affected his mind. He started to believe that he should win every time, without exception, a conviction that added righteousness to the joys of victory.

I encountered the mindset every day in my years in academia. For a long time, I shared it myself. It’s comforting; it solves lots of intellectual questions straight off; you know you’re always in the right. Academics prize critical thinking above all things, but critical thinking can wear you down. How pleasant it is to hold one zone secure from it, where the mind can relax, where critical thinking needn’t happen, because in this place, liberal thoughts tally liberal reality and one feels at one with the order of the universe.

That’s a satisfaction no mortal wishes to relinquish. Over time, the opposite happens. It hardens. It can’t help doing so, not when it feels so good and when so many circumstances reinforce it, such as the universal concurrence of your colleagues.

What happens to this worldview, however, though deeply held and cherished, 50-plus years in the making, when in the 21st century, the liberal faces proliferating signs of contradiction? He has absorbed a myth of liberal progress. It’s a part of his life, and he congratulates himself warmly for it. But what about when he reads news items on recent test scores showing that the black–white gap remains large and persistent?

The gap closed in the 1970s and ’80s, but it has held firm in recent decades in spite of affirmative action, multiculturalist curricula, No Child Left Behind and Common Core, the hiring of more black teachers and administrators, and other initiatives that put low-achieving African Americans at the center of attention. “Racial uplift,” as it was once called, has profound symbolic meaning in the liberal personality. The civil rights movement is its highest invocation, and education is the select liberal pathway to success. Not only that, but liberals control the cities and the public schools where most of those kids are found. This can’t be blamed on conservatives.

And what does he think when he sees the border out of control? Liberals don’t like tight border monitoring, and they abhorred Trump’s wall. Those restrictions smack too much of chauvinism, for which they blame the Vietnam debacle. A good liberal is cosmopolitan, a global citizen, and borders strike him as backward and xenophobic. But the sheer number of crossings at the present time makes him nervous. He wonders about the stability he’s always assumed liberalism would produce. He approves the freedom of people to go where they want, but mobility has to be more orderly than this.

Ask him for solutions, though, and he won’t give a practical reply such as, “Hire more border agents.” Instead, he reverts to his benevolent liberal motive: “Well, we can’t just let people die.” In other words, a non-answer, and a sign of cognitive difficulty.

And then there’s the self-expression thing, the “let it all hang out” ethos of ’60s liberalism that we were told would liberate people from the constraints of the conformist 1950s. Liberal intellectuals argued for lifting limits on self-expression as a matter of artistic freedom; liberal psychologists asserted that more self-expression will produce a healthier, less-repressed populace, even if the expression itself is perverse; and liberal judges deemed the old regulations unconstitutional.

But when our liberal monitors the public square in 2021, the airwaves and music coming from cars, and comment rolls on Twitter, he doesn’t discover higher intelligence and more beauty, challenging ideas, and stimulating art. No, he sees a parade of vulgarity, stupidity, profanity, and utter weirdness at unprecedented volume. Among the most common adjectives on the street is the f-word, which only tells you that many people can’t think of another word to use. Everything’s gotten more edgy, more blatant and in-your-face, and less eloquent and smart and witty. Our liberal doesn’t want to admit it.

This isn’t what was supposed to occur. The loosening of the controls of decency should have raised the public tenor, not lowered it. The coarseness and crudity have only multiplied. When he hears 15-year-old girls on the bus swearing like sailors, does he reconsider? Are drag queen story hours OK with him? This is an outcome he won’t trace to its liberal roots.

We have crises in America, and we also have this crisis in the liberal’s head. It all seemed so set to him: History flowed in a smooth and single direction. It couldn’t possibly be that the old model of the family was the best one; or that when obscenity is disallowed in the public square it would produce more inventive forms of self-expression; or that as more women earned advanced degrees and filled the professions that measures of female happiness would go down, not up (as is, in fact, the case). The evidence is right before them, but they can’t accept it. To concede but one liberal failure would be to lose a reassuring part of their identity. The whole world might come tumbling down.

For a few decades, they enjoyed a rare status, a faith in themselves as the future, the outlook toward which everyone should and will aspire. They never thought it was temporary, and when the occasional conservative bump happened, such as the election of Donald Trump, they interpreted it as just that, an anomaly, a wrinkle in the course of history that would soon be ironed out.

The problem for them now, though, is that the bumps are becoming too numerous to avoid, the disappointments coming too fast. Liberalism is cracking up; it’s not working. The conservative (at least the populist ones) now appears more flexible and observant and reality-based than does our liberal, although the liberal has claimed those virtues for himself from the beginning. If it seems to you as if Nancy Pelosi, Stephen Colbert, Robert De Niro, and the columnists at The New York Times come off as a little bizarre, not just wrong about this or that, but speaking as if from a strange land, that’s because they probably feel that way themselves, cut loose in a place they’re no longer sure belongs to them.

Conservatives may rejoice to see liberals mugged by reality, but they should be wary. A spoiled child who has his toys taken away is more likely to strike out at a convenient target than he is to bridle his ego and mend his ways.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.