Paul Kelly has an oped in The Australian today revisiting one of his recent themes – the centre cannot hold.
I want to focus on one aspect of his argument:
The ultimate statement reflecting this rage is the 2018 book, Why Liberalism Failed, by Catholic academic Patrick J. Deneen, a social conservative, economic primitive and misguided political analyst. The thesis is that liberalism is to blame for the decline of religious faith and the destruction wrought by progressive morality. Deneen says 70 per cent of Americans believe their country is moving in the wrong direction and half the country thinks its best days are behind it. He said liberalism, with its ideals of limited but effective government, independent judiciary, responsive public officials and free and fair elections, has betrayed virtually every promise made in its name.
“Liberalism has failed — not because it fell short but because it was true to itself,” he said. “In practice (it) generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation and undermines freedom.” Deneen argues the tragedy is that liberalism — the first of the modern world’s competitor political ideologues after fascism and communism — is now exposed for its vices.
A couple of things. Deneen is entirely correct when he argues that liberal democracy is failing. Government is not limited, and not effective, the judiciary is not independent, public servants are not responsive. Perhaps elections are free and fair, yet increasingly there are impediments to sources of finance and advertising and what can be said and done during elections that are inherently anti-democratic.
Deneen is wrong to suggest that liberalism has succeeded too well. These outcomes are not successes of liberalism – the Marxist notion that somehow liberalism carries the seeds of its own failure. Or the Schumpeterian notion that liberalism destroys itself by being too liberal. They are failures of liberalism.
Part of the problem is that Deneen has a far too inclusive definition of what constitutes liberalism. So in his story everyone from Sarah Hanson-Young to Pauline Hanson in the Australian Parliament would be ‘liberal’. Whereas I would argue that neither of those two individuals is a ‘liberal’.
The liberal project remains important – but right now it has few friends. I saw a wonderful phrase the other day that applies here:
disillusionment curdled into alienation
Yes, disillusionment with liberalism has curdled into alienation from the ideals and principles of liberty.
As an aside – if you read this oped from Paul Kelly a couple of days ago, you’ll realise that he simply does not understand the political phenomenon that is Donald Trump.