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You're Gonna Miss Your Constitutional Liberalism When It's Gone

Somewhere or other, sometime or other, I read that G.K. Chesterton, asked whether he was a liberal, answered that he was "the only liberal." I sometimes feel that way. I long ago acquiesced to the fact that in the American political context I'm more or less correctly classified as a conservative. But as the so-common-as-to-be-hackneyed followup to any such statement goes, what American conservatism seeks to conserve is in large part classical liberalism.

It probably doesn't need saying to people who read this blog, but in case it does: "classical liberalism" refers not to what we currently refer to as the liberal faction in contemporary politics, but to a political philosophy which is, in a nutshell, that of the United States of America. Most discussions of it emphasize its economic aspects, which I'm sure is accurate, but I'm not a political philosopher or economist and am not very interested in wrangling over the definition. For my purposes it's the political system described by the Constitution, and a corresponding culture which values self-government, liberty, the rule of law, reason, the free exchange of ideas, religious tolerance, and so on--the whole list of things which until recently were generally agreed upon, all based on what were considered in the 18th century self-evident truths about human nature. The American constitution puts that basic worldview into a system of government, and so I prefer the term "constitutional liberalism." (Also "classical liberalism" has other associations, with capitalism for instance, which I want to avoid--but that's another topic.)

But whatever I want to call the thing for my own persnickety reasons, it is undeniably under attack now. Some conservatives are giving up on it, having concluded (correctly, I think) that it is philosophically deficient in serious ways, most significantly in that it assumes a bedrock of agreement on fundamental principles among the citizenry. Moreover they say that it has its own unacknowledged principles which in time displace all others and which are inimical to what I'll very loosely refer to as Western civilization, and which are ultimately conducive, or even inevitably moving, to tyranny. I won't go into all that here: you can read Patrick Deneen or Ryzsard Legutko or Sohrab Ahmari for more.

I think there's a lot to be said for that view, and in fact made more or less the same point many years ago. And the contemporary left is in the process of demonstrating it. It seems pretty obvious that a great many on the left no longer believe in the old liberal ideals, and more specifically do not believe in our constitution, by which I mean they don't regard it as a statement of fundamental law by which we are all bound, a legal framework into which all other laws must fit. For much of the left, the constitution is a relic, at best obsolete because times have changed, at worst a scheme for oppression. Many openly denounce it. Others don't really see the implications of their impatience with it, or even sincerely, though irrationally, believe that whatever they think is good must be by definition constitutional. Their view is culturally predominant now, and seems likely to become more so. For that reason many on the right are ready to give up on the whole project.

Well, I'm not. The way in which I'm truly, inarguably conservative is my instinctive inclination to preserve the good which exists rather than to destroy it so that it can be replaced with something presumed to be better. For what I've come to think of as the "Imagine" left, that means much, much, much better, because its superficially political program is in effect a utopian religion, and in comparison to the imaginary promised world the real one always looks pretty bad. That natural tendency on my part is strongly reinforced by the fact that many of the ideas proposed by the destroyers are pretty much self-evidently terrible ones (e.g. communism).

In spite of all the wrong that's been done within and even because of it, I think our system is basically a good thing. And--looking a little bit deeper--although there are many problems with the many things that we lump together under the designation of "modernity," I want to preserve most of them. I've done my share of complaining about, for instance, the automobile and the society based around it. I'd like to see that change. But do I seriously want to return to the physical living conditions of, say, 1800? No. And neither does anyone else making these complaints. Nor do they want to live under the political and social arrangements of pre-modern times. But these things which make our lives so much easier in material ways have been around for a long time now, so we take them for granted and assume they are simply a natural part of life. 

They are not, and we may have to learn that lesson, and in a pretty hard way. I don't want that to happen. I want to preserve the goods of constitutional liberalism. This is not a new position for me. I wrote about it fourteen years ago in a series of posts called "The Liberal Conservative," and thought it was important enough to include the first entry in the selection of posts from this blog that I published in book form. (Click here to read it.)

Things look pretty bleak now, not only because the forces attacking the constitutional system are very powerful, but perhaps more because it looks as if a majority of Americans no longer believe in it. No, that's giving them too much credit: they are ignorant of it and indifferent to it, and if the cultural leaders in entertainment, academia, and the media tell them it is oppressing them, they're likely to believe it. In any case they want what they want and vote for the party that promises to give it to them without demanding anything of them.

There are some reasons for hope, though. One of these is a tactical alliance between religious and social conservatives such as myself and old-school liberals who insist upon facts and reason in the face of post-modern emotionalism. It's an odd sensation to find myself sympathizing with Dawkins-style secular atheists, but I often do when they are under attack for opposing reason to the irrational bullying of identity politics.

As things stand now I believe this one question transcends all other political considerations: are we going to preserve the authority of the constitution or not? This is not about any of the specific issues on which right and left are so divided. There is, for instance, nothing in the constitution that would prevent our having a national health care system. It's about resolving those issues within the framework of the constitution, which means among other things compromise. Perhaps it's too late. There's a poignant moment in Ken Burns's Civil War documentary, when the historian Shelby Foote says "Compromise was our great gift, and it failed us." It certainly seems to be failing; whether it has failed I'm not sure.

Back in the late '70s or early '80s, I heard it some Reagan-movement conservative speaking of the economy say that it was "Time to stop worrying about dividing up the golden eggs and start worrying about the health of the goose." Something like that is true now of the constitution itself. I'm pretty sure that if constitutional liberalism disintegrates few of us are going to be happy with what comes after it. 

Wikipedia, by the way, tells me that there is a difference between liberal constitutionalism and constitutional liberalism. I'm not sure which one I'm talking about, but whatever: I'm not a political theorist, and surely what I mean is clear enough.


Addendum: just to be clear, I'm not a classical liberal in the abstract philosophical sense. At that level it's really incompatible with Christianity.


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Excellent summary, with which I agree almost 100%.

This explains why, while I may or may not be voting for DT this afternoon, under no circumstances could I vote for Biden. As bad as the GOP is, I simply do not see in it the threat to “constitutional liberalism” that’s part and parcel of the ascendant IdPol wing of the Democratic Party. And I would note that the latter's diehard commitment to the Sexual Revolution, including virtually unlimited abortion rights, is the keystone of the whole IdPol edifice.

"...simply do not see in it the threat..." Right. It's just a whole different order of wrong, well beyond any differences about specific policies.

"...diehard commitment to the Sexual Revolution, including virtually unlimited abortion rights, is the keystone of the whole IdPol edifice..." And traditional economic leftism very much takes a back seat to it. I think there are some leftists who recognize that. Maybe there are a lot of them. But I guess even if they do think the priorities are wrong they don't have an argument with the basic position.

Mac, leaving aside the political stuff, a point of interest. I follow the website of an "old-school liberal . . . Dawkins-style secular atheist . . . " who dislikes identity politics and posts about it frequently. The irony of you and he having that one similar viewpoint has certainly occurred to me. I found his website due to the ailurophilia, pictures of cats and animals, and the biological expertise.

Ha. Cross-posted with you, interesting conjunction. Good for that guy, anyway.

Looks like the election is turning out to be pretty gruesome. At least I have the consolation that my prediction was correct: that there would be a lot of scared and angry people.

What amazes me is how uncharitable people who I otherwise consider to be pretty devout and holy are. Some of the things they say on Facebook....I just shake my head.

"Has Liberalism Failed?>"
An interview by Bishop Barron with Dave Ruben. Topics include:
- Classical liberalism and how it relates to other political systems
- How “woke” politics undermine a truly liberal society
- The limits of liberalism and Enlightenment values
- Freedom and responsibility in our social order
- The emergence of idolatry towards political leaders
- The Jordan Peterson phenomenon
- And how to have a productive and healthy religious argument

That looks interesting. Have to wait till later to read it.

I only have experience of one person whom I'd consider devout being uncharitable on Facebook. But I'm sure there are plenty out there.

Or rather watch and/or listen.

I do not follow any of my Facebook friends who post a lot of political stuff or get uncharitable. Of course, they could always comment on what I post, but I mostly post pictures of flora and fauna, and grandchildren, and things that strike me as funny.


They have to really irritate me for me to unfollow them, but I don't often engage them on those subjects. Sometimes they engage me. ;-) I only unfollow them if they annoy me enough to distract me from things I'd rather be or should be thinking about.

I don't unfriend them, they just don't show up on my newsfeed. Really. I unfollowed everyone but my family and a handful of friends one Lent, and haven't put many back.


I don’t think I’ve ever unfriended anybody. As you say, unfollow does the job. And you can still look at their pages if you want to.

I did have at least one person demand that Trump supporters unfriend him. That strikes me as weird. If you want to unfriend them, do it yourself. If you don’t know that they’re guilty of Trumpism, they’re not bothering you. But you want to punish them anyway? Or are afraid they’ll get their filth on you?

That's weird to say the least. How would you get their "filth" on you if you're not even aware they're filthy? Or is Trumpism like COVID -- you can be infected by it without knowing it? TDS is a strange malady!

Yes, and no respecter of intelligence. :-) I know some smart people who are consumed by it. Actually I think it preys particularly on smart people.

I think it's the desire to punish, more than horror of contamination.

My uncle said TDS is on both sides, and perhaps moreso among his followers.

It’s kind of an apples and oranges thing. The symptoms are very different. But yes, definitely found on both sides.

Dreher specifies two types of TDS -- Trump Derangement Syndrome and Trump Devotion Syndrome. Irrational opposition vs. irrational support. I know people of both persuasions and the former strike me as more angry/bitter, the latter as naive and idealistic.

That’s a useful distinction. My personal experience is that anger is predominant on both sides. Not universal, but predominant. Anger and paranoia.

I wrote this earlier, but I guess I didn't post it correctly.

As much as I think that the Biden presidency will be a trial, I must admit that I have a sort of lightening off heart: a) because I no longer have to think about how to vote, and b) at the idea that soon I won't have to listen to and about Trump. I realize that there is going to be some unpleasantness to be got through before that happens, but the day will come when I never think about him.

Although I should probably continue to pray for him.


Similar feelings here. I'm not exactly pleased, but there is a sense of relief. See the post I just posted.

There is, for instance, nothing in the constitution that would prevent our having a national health care system.

No, but in general social programs should be state run. A case could be made for national programs that are run under interstate compacts with minimal federal oversight.

I just noticed the preceding comment, made almost a month after the one before it. Sometimes I do miss those. Anyway, just to say I agree, and in fact one could probably make a reasonable argument that the constitution *does* prevent it, as being an unjustifiable over-riding of state powers and responsibilities. But those arguments are pretty much effectively dead now.

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