When most people think of intolerance, they imagine a racist taunting a black person. Or they think of the white supremacist who killed a demonstrator in Charlottesville, Virginia.
It seldom occurs to them that intolerance comes in all political shapes and sizes.
A protester storming a stage and refusing to let someone speak is intolerant. So, too, are campus speech codes that restrict freedom of expression. A city official threatening to fine a pastor for declining to marry a gay couple is every bit as intolerant as a right-winger wanting to punish gays with sodomy laws.
There is a word that describes this mentality. It is “illiberal.” For centuries, we have associated the word “liberal” with open-mindedness. Liberals were people who were supposed to be tolerant and fair and who wanted to give all sides a hearing. They cared about everyone, not just their own kind.
By contrast, illiberal people were hardheaded in their opinions and judgmental about others’ behaviors, hoping to control what other people thought and said and to cut off debate. In extreme cases, they would even use violence to maintain political power and exclude certain kinds of people from having a say in their government.
Sadly, the kind of liberalism we used to know is fast disappearing from America. While the intolerance of the far right is well known, its manifestations on the far left are less known and often not fully acknowledged.
All too often, people who call themselves progressive liberals are at the forefront of movements to shut down debates on college campuses and to restrict freedom of speech. They are eager to cut corners, bend the Constitution, make up laws through questionable court rulings, and generally abuse the rules and the Constitution in order to get their way.
They establish “zero tolerance” regimes in schools where young boys are suspended for nibbling breakfast pastries into the shape of a gun. They are supposedly great haters of bigotry but sometimes speak of Christians in the most bigoted manner imaginable, as if Christians were no better than fascists.
American liberals are, in short, becoming increasingly illiberal. They are surrendering to the temptations of the closed mind.
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We must be careful about what this means. There are hard (sometimes very hard) and soft forms of illiberalism that exist regardless of their ideological (left-right) variations.
The hard forms are totalitarian or authoritarian. They rely on the threat of force in some measure to maintain power, and they are invariably anti-democratic and anti-liberal. Think of communism, fascism, and all the various hybrids of authoritarian regimes, from Putin’s Russia to Islamist states that support terrorism.
Soft forms of illiberalism, on the other hand, are not totalitarian or violent. Outwardly they may observe the limits constitutional democracies place on the arbitrary use of power, but there is a suspicion that liberal democracies are not fully legitimate.
On the other side of the political spectrum, leftists often judge liberal democracies as economically and socially unjust because they are capitalist. Since most liberal democracies still allow conservatives to have a voice in the democratic process, leftists find them wanting, and in some cases condemn them outright as inherently oppressive (of racial and sexual minorities, for example), precisely because conservatives still have a voice.
Hard forms of illiberalism certainly exist in America today. On the right they are manifest in the form of hard-core racists and white supremacists, and on the left as communists, anarchists, or any leftist radical who openly threatens violence.
But soft illiberalism is present as well, and in America today it is pervasive.
Historically, a progressive liberal was someone who imbibed the intellectual nectars of both progressivism and classical liberalism.
The progressive tradition is easily recognizable. It is the legacy of prominent progressives from the turn of the 20th century such as Herbert Croly, John Dewey, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and others.
The classical liberal tradition is less well known, and as a result our understanding of it is murkier.
Classical liberalism is a set of ideas about individual liberty and constitutional government inherited from the moderate Enlightenment.
In America those ideas influenced the Revolution and the founding of the Republic. In Europe they were taken up in the 19th century by such liberals as Benjamin Constant, David Ricardo, Alexis de Tocqueville, François Guizot, and John Stuart Mill.
Although originally swimming in the same intellectual stream, American progressives and classical liberals started parting company in the late 19th century.
Progressives initially clung to freedom of expression and the right to dissent from the original liberalism, but under the influence of socialism and social democracy they gradually moved leftward. Today they largely hold classic liberalism—especially as manifested in small-government conservatism and libertarianism—in contempt.
Thus, what we call a “liberal” today is not historically a liberal at all but a progressive social democrat, someone who clings to the old liberal notion of individual liberty when it is convenient (as in supporting abortion or decrying the “national security” state), but who more often finds individual liberties and freedom of conscience to be barriers to building the progressive welfare state.
To untangle this confusing web of intellectual history, we need a more accurate historical rendering of what “progressive liberals” actually are. If they are not really liberals, then what are they?
As this volume will explore in more depth, they are postmodern leftists. A postmodernist is someone who believes that ethics are completely and utterly relative, and that human knowledge is, quite simply, whatever the individual, society, or political powers say it is.
When mixed with radical egalitarianism, postmodernism produces the agenda of the radical cultural left—namely, sexual and identity politics and radical multiculturalism. These causes have largely taken over the progressive liberal agenda and given the Democratic Party most of its energy and ideas.
The illiberal values inherent in these causes have been imported from neo-Marxism, radical feminism, critical race theory, sexual revolutionary politics, and other theories and movements imbued with the postmodern critique.
Combined with the dreams of the old social democratic-socialist left, of either dismantling or radically containing capitalism, the culture of the postmodern left today is a very potent force in politics.
This excerpt was taken with permission from Kim Holmes’ book, “The Closing of the Liberal Mind: How Groupthink and Intolerance Define the Left” (Encounter Books, 2017).