The threat to liberal democracy comes not from an external...

The threat to liberal democracy comes not from an external enemy but from internal forces, both on the left and the right. Credit: Bloomberg/Sarah Silbiger

As 2021 limps toward the finish line, there are various causes for optimism — but it is also true that liberal democracy is besieged in a way it has not been in decades, at least since the Cold War. Today, the threat does not come from an external enemy but from internal forces, on the left and the right, assailing the foundations of the liberal order based on individual rights, freedom, and the rule of law. Our future depends on how well we can meet those challenges.

On the right, the rise of authoritarian populism has not ended with Donald Trump’s exit from the White House. The Republican Party is increasingly in thrall to its radical fringe, as the mainstreaming of anti-vaccine messages in the GOP makes painfully obvious. Right-wing media, including some Fox News hosts, are overtly flirting with white nationalist ideas such as paranoia about the "replacement" of white Americans by nonwhite immigrants, attacking gender equality, and advocating speech suppression such as the banishment of loosely defined "critical race theory" from public universities.

A growing number of right-wing intellectual voices are openly rejecting the Enlightenment legacy that was at the heart of the American Founding. They argue that reliance on reason and individual autonomy leads to cultural decay and call for a "conservative democracy" in which the state supports religious and social traditionalism.

On the left, so-called "woke" progressivism associated with identity politics and radical "social justice" is increasingly vocal in the Democratic Party, dominant in academia, and highly influential in the media. It, too, is openly hostile to individualism (seen as a smokescreen for "white privilege") and free speech (seen as license for "privileged" groups to harm the "marginalized"). It also pushes such utopian ideas as police and prison abolition.

Left-wing anti-liberalism, like its right-wing counterpart, is overtly hostile to the legacy of the Enlightenment and the American Founding. The Enlightenment is attacked as an ideology rooted in Western imperialism and racism. America’s Founders, complex individuals whose lives reflected the norms of their era, are reduced to their racism, sexism, and willingness to condone slavery.

Right-wing and left-wing illiberalism reinforce each other. On the right, stories of "wokeness" run amok (such as college professors getting suspended for a class reading of a historical text containing a racial slur) feed the view that liberalism has become a rotten edifice and that resisting left-wing radicalism requires fighting fire with fire. On the left, the specter of "fascism" makes it tempting to argue for shutting down speech seen as bigoted — while claims that racism and oppression are America's core make it difficult to counter right-wing assaults on democracy and human rights by invoking America's legacy.

This twin assault on liberalism is not just an American phenomenon; it is also seen in many European countries where the rise of xenophobic populism coexists with the rise of progressivism that rejects the liberal legacy as racist and colonialist.

Both left-wing and right-wing radicalism are based on real grievances — from the failure to fully reckon with a history of racial oppression to the failure to ensure that globalization does not leave large segments of the populace behind.

But anti-liberalism is not the remedy; it’s another disease that threatens to undo liberal democracy’s tremendous gains in human rights and human flourishing. As the new year begins, people of goodwill across the political spectrum should be looking for ways to strengthen liberalism, not dismantle it.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason magazine, are her own.


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