BREAKING NEWS FROM 1919: What Happened to Liberalism?

For a quarter of a millennium liberalism as a theory and as a political movement has been dedicated to the cause of social and political freedom and the pursuit of happiness as a material end. Liberalism continues to pursue those ends, but differently understood and by different means. The result is the diminution of freedom and of happiness in all Western liberal societies. The world that classical liberalism made, neoliberalism and now progressive liberalism are presently unmaking in the name of liberalism.

None of the countries that comprise the Anglosphere—including Great Britain, the United States and Canada, Australia, and others—is as happy a place as it was before liberalism in its updated form went to work on it. But the U.S. is, by almost every standard, the least happy and the most neurotic of them all.

The fact is confirmed by the angry and frequently crazed political polarization here; the racial tensions and the riots; the looting and destruction that American liberals are willing to tolerate and even to excuse; the intellectual chaos and mental and moral confusion produced by “woke” colleges, universities, and the public schools, then promoted in the media; the new liberal biology (comparable to the old Soviet biology) according to which a man can become a woman and give birth to a child and which purposefully complicates the formation of sexual identity among the young.

As Fred Siegel wrote in his 2014 history of the American left, The Revolt Against the Masses:

Liberals were those Progressives who had renamed themselves so as to repudiate Wilson. “The word liberalism,” wrote Walter Lippmann in 1919, “was introduced into the jargon of American politics by that group who were Progressives in 1912 and Wilson Democrats from 1916 to 1918.” The new liberalism was a decisive cultural break with Wilson and Progressivism. While the Progressives had been inspired by a faith in democratic reforms as a salve for the wounds of both industrial civilization and power politics, liberals saw the American democratic ethos as a danger to freedom at home and abroad.

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The best short credo of liberalism came from the pen of the once canonical left-wing literary historian Vernon Parrington in the late 1920s. “Rid society of the dictatorship of the middle class,” Parrington insisted, referring to both democracy and capitalism, “and the artist and the scientist will erect in America a civilization that may become, what civilization was in earlier days, a thing to be respected.” Alienated from middle-class American life, liberalism drew on an idealized image of “organic” pre-modern folkways and rhapsodized about a future harmony that would reestablish the proper hierarchy of virtue in a post-bourgeois, post-democratic world.

That future harmony sure is taking its time finally arriving. When do we finally get to see the omelette?