Have you ever wondered why political parties that preach similar values–like justice, equality, prosperity, and liberty–have radically opposing policy proposals on how to achieve these goals? The Unvarnished Blog’s four-part series on liberalism seeks to delve into the dominant political ideology of the western world in order to answer this exact question. In a format designed to inform, engage, and entertain, this series aims to distill the convoluted history of political thought into the most important elements that you need to know to make sense of this tumultuous political climate.
Between media pundits and politicians, politics has been reduced to a disjunctive hodgepodge of policy proposals for the largest crisis of the moment—ranging from a never-ending debate on healthcare to the unfitness of certain officials to serve in a position of public trust. Even when it is not distilled into convenient soundbites, mere policy analysis—however tangible its effects—does not have the capacity to answer vital, underlying, fundamental questions: what is the role of the individual in society; does a government have the responsibility to protect every citizen from all potential harms; should a government have the power to limit its people in every sphere of life?
The answers to these critical questions formulate the foundation of political beliefs from which specific policies can be prescribed.
Approaching politics from a philosophical perspective—studying the origins of a particular position as deeply as its individual policy proposals—is critical to evaluating alternative solutions to domestic and international political problems. And at a time where political divisions domestically and internationally seem to be at an all-time high, developing an understanding of bedrock principles of common ground is imperative.
What I propose to do in the following four-part series is to explore the evolutionary intellectual history of liberalism—the dominant political ideology of the Western world since the end of the Renaissance.
Liberalism: Revolutionary and Evolutionary
Broadly understood, liberalism is an ideology that promotes the liberation of the individual from oppressive forces that inhibit living life the way one chooses. In Westernized liberal democracies in general—the number of which has significantly grown since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—and in the United States in particular, the concepts of individual rights, liberty, and human flourishing are championed on both sides of the political aisle as ideals of a just and righteous society. From the Rand Paul quasi-libertines to the Bernie Sanders socialists, large majorities of both parties claim to be committed to bettering the quality of life for the individual citizen and value the sanctity of an individual’s autonomy in choosing a lifestyle.
But if both the left and the right revere the individual in this way, why has the theatre of day-to-day politics become more vicious than an old-school WWE wrestling match? As Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame University explains in his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed, the foundations of liberal ideology form the basis of both the political left and right in Western democracies:
The modern American landscape is occupied by two parties locked in permanent battle. One, deemed “conservative” advances the project of individual liberty and equality of opportunity, especially through defense of a free and unfettered market; the other, deemed liberal, aims at securing greater economic and social equity through extensive reliance upon the regulatory and judicial powers of the national government….These battles often come down to a basic debate over whether the ends of the polity are best achieved by market forces with relatively little interference by the state, or by government programs that can distribute benefits and support more justly than markets can achieve….Both [individualistic] and “progressive” liberalism ground the advance of liberalism in individual liberation from the limitations of place, tradition, culture, and any unchosen relationship. Both [ideological perspectives]—for all of there differences over means—can be counted as liberal because of this fundamental commitment to the liberation of the individual….
Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, 2018, 45-47
In order to make sense of this seemingly abstract connection between modern progressivism and libertarian-conservatism, we must first trace the evolution of political thought.
To the great vexation of many high school social studies students, history is not broken into distinct, easily compartmentalized pieces of time and space. Rather, political thought develops through a stimuli-response patter, taking shape as individuals respond not only to the circumstances of their time and place but also to each other.
With this, the goal of this series will be to trace the roots of liberalism from its origins in the 17th Century—what I will call classical liberalism—through its fundamental schism in the mid-19th century, which created the two dominant voices in modern western politics: individualist liberalism and progressive liberalism. In order to better understand the modern Western political ecosystem—and why the ecosystem is on the brink of extinction—we must first understand the growth of the liberalism tree upon which our system depends.
In the next article, “Classical Liberalism,” we explore the ideological foundation of modern liberal democracies.