Replica of the United States Bill of Rights, documenting the 10 amendments to the US Constitution (Getty Images).
The lead article in the latest edition of Harper’s Magazine is a four-way discussion of the topic, “Is Liberalism Worth Saving?”
The forum presents a broad array of American elite opinion: Patrick Deneen, a post-liberal right-wing critic; Francis Fukuyama, a mainstream left-liberal who once called our system the end of history; Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, a libertarian and Distinguished Scholar at the Cato Institute; and Cornel West, a civil rights advocate, sounding very much like a Christian reformer.
I hope readers will take a look at this wide-ranging and civil exchange. I have assigned it to my law school students.
Nevertheless, given our recent successes and the experiences of our adversaries, the question— Is liberalism worth saving? —seems ridiculous.
Americans love to express dissatisfaction with our system of government — let’s call it liberal democracy. But actually America has done very well.
We should start with democracy itself. In 2020, there was a lot of talk about the superiority of one-party rule in China in handling COVID-19.
Conversely, in America, politically divided government was said to have fractured an effective response to the virus.
In reality, former President Donald Trump led an incredibly effective government-drug company partnership, called Operation Warp Speed, that quickly developed reliable vaccines against the disease. There is no telling how many lives world-wide were saved by this successful initiative.
At the same time, popular dissatisfaction with the economic shutdown forced reluctant blue states to reopen faster than public health experts wanted. Whatever one thinks of this policy change, this public reaction benefited the American economy.
In contrast, in China, one-party rule permitted Xi Jinping to impose his disastrous zero-COVID policy for far too long and to make do with less effective Chinese-produced vaccines. The result was that both economic performance and public health suffered.
The same pattern has played out in issues of war and peace. Yes, America stumbled into foreign wars after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But public weariness ultimately forced an American retrenchment.
The hurried and incompetent exit from Afghanistan should not obscure the fact that Trump and President Joe Biden came to the same conclusion — the American effort in Afghanistan had to end. That is what the public wanted.
Again, in contrast, no one wanted the war in Ukraine except Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. And it appears that no one else in Russia can end this disastrous policy. The stoicism of the Russian people should not be confused with support or enthusiasm for the war. If Russia were really a democracy, the war would probably never have started and would certainly be over by now.
Of course, one-party rule is a relatively easy target compared to democracy.
What about the liberalism of our system? How does that compare?
Liberal democracy is usually understood as a representative system with a largely private economy, an independent judiciary, guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press, and a large amount of individual liberty.
On the economic front, America compares favorably with the rest of the world. The American economy is enormously dynamic and productive. We certainly have to figure out a way to better distribute the fruits of the economy, but the average wage has continued to grow under both parties and American innovation continues to lead the world.
Liberal democracy has also meant an increase in individual liberty, especially in issues of race, gender and sexual identity. These trends have led to a public backlash, not only among conservatives.
But contrast American freedom with regimes attempting to impose national and cultural unity, like Hungary and Turkey. I suspect most Americans would greatly prefer our cacophony, despite its flaws.
What nation in the world has been as ready to confront its racial and gender history as has the United States?
The advantage of liberal democracy can also be seen in the issue of religion in public life. Americans fight over this too, but our Constitution would not permit the elevation of one religious tradition over the rights of everyone else.
The opposite can be seen in a theocratic state like Iran.
But even the robust democracies of India and Israel are now privileging one religion. Israel passed a Nationality Basic Law only recently, in 2018, in an apparent attempt to reinforce the exclusively Jewish nature of the country, despite the presence of sizable religious minorities.
The law provides in part, “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, is attempting, through various means, to mold India, previously a religiously pluralistic state, into a Hindu nation.
It is difficult to take equal citizenship seriously in a one-religion state.
None of this diminishes the very serious problems confronting the American political system. Many of those problems, and indeed failures, are highlighted in the Harper’s Magazine discussion.
Our racial reckoning is not complete and has not included America’s abuses of indigenous peoples. Nor have we come to terms with our incredible level of violence. Or, for that matter, our unsustainable national debt.
However, in evaluating our system of government we have to be realistic. We should not compare our system to a perfect system. Instead, we should look around at the way that other countries are governed and ask whether there are aspects of those approaches that we should borrow.
We also have to ask more generally whether another system exists that, all in all, we would prefer. In making that judgment, we must not be so blinded by our problems that we overlook the many advantages that our liberal democracy confers on us.
Is our liberal system in need of improvement? Of course.
Is it worth saving? Obviously.
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