While Robert Kagan basically dismisses church and community in the development of liberalism, can there be any sadder but more important concession than his own admission that “liberalism has no particular answer” for what can legitimize its rights?

An essay is meant to be very, very important when it consumes four giant pages in the A section of The Washington Post, the official Bible of the nation’s establishment.

Robert Kagan’s “The Strongmen Strike Back”* is a defense of Enlightenment liberalism against the threats from modern authoritarian nationalism. The bad guys are: Hungary’s Orban, Poland’s Duda, Russia’s Putin, the Brexiteers, France’s Le Pen, Netherland’s Wilders, Israel’s Hazony, Turkey’s Erdogan and, the “most significant,” U.S. conservatives—headed by Donald Trump.

The good guys (didn’t notice any women) seem mainly limited to Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton. Mr. Kagan’s Enlightenment rises from the darkness of the earlier traditional societies that were dominated “by powerful and pervasive beliefs about the cosmos, about God and gods, about natural hierarchies and divine authorities, about life and afterlife that determined every aspect of people’s existence.” But with Enlightenment liberalism “people begin to believe that the individual conscience, as well as the individual’s body, should be inviolate and protected from the intrusions of state and church.”

Mr. Kagan identifies John Locke as the one who “most clearly,” set these “liberal principles,” specifically that “all humans were endowed with ‘natural rights’ and that government existed to protect those rights. If it did not, the people had a right to overthrow it and, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, to form a new government.” Since these “natural rights knew no race, class or religion,” America’s founders did not need to draw from tradition but simply followed Hamilton in holding that “the ‘sacred rights of mankind’ were not to be found among ‘parchments or musty records’ but were ‘written, as with a sunbeam… [in nature] by the hand of the divinity itself’ and thus could never be ‘erased or obscured by mortal power’.”

Evolving under the “principles of Enlightenment liberalism” this worked well for a while in the U.S. until the survival of those principles became “the core issue over which the Civil War was fought. When the United States miraculously survived that war and emerged as a great power in its own right in the late nineteenth century, the autocratic challenge remained in the form of a Germany still ruled by Hohenzollerns, a Russia still ruled by the czars, an Austria still ruled by Habsburgs, a Turkey still ruled by Ottomans, and a Japan and China still ruled by emperors.” World Wars I and II defeated them, preparing the way for a liberal future enforced by American global power.

When the last holdout Soviet Union expired it looked like liberalism had triumphed. But now in very recent times the bad guys have come back.

In Russia, for instance, we believed that communism had been defeated by liberalism, and in a sense it was, but the winner in post-communist Russia was not liberalism. The liberal experiment of the Boris Yeltsin years proved too flawed and fragile, giving way almost immediately to two types of anti-liberal forces: one, the remnants of the Soviet (and czarist) police state, which the former KGB operative Vladimir Putin reestablished and controlled; the other, a Russian nationalism and traditionalism that the Bolsheviks had tried to crush but was resurrected by Putin to provide a veneer of legitimacy to his autocratic rule. As Putin dismantled the weak liberal institutions of the 1990s, he restored the czarist-era rule of the Orthodox Church and promised strong leadership of a traditional Russian form.

Putin’s example was followed by other authoritarian leaders with varying degrees of success.

The premise underlying liberalism had been that “all humans, at all times, sought, above all, the recognition of their intrinsic worth as individuals and protection against all the traditional threats to their freedom, their lives and their dignity that came from state, church or community.” But the more realist Mr. Kagan adds that this has always been “an incomplete description of human nature. Humans do not yearn only for freedom. They also seek security—not only physical security against attack but also the security that comes from family, tribe, race and culture. Often, people welcome a strong, charismatic leader who can provide that kind of protection.”

Liberalism has no particular answer to these needs. Though liberal nations have at times produced strong, charismatic leaders, liberalism’s main purpose was never to provide the kind of security that people find in tribe or family. It has been concerned with the security of the individual and with treating all individuals equally regardless of where they come from, what gods they worship, or who their parents are. And, to some extent, this has come at the expense of the traditional bonds that family, ethnicity and religion provide.

To exalt the rights of the individual is to weaken the authority of the church and other authorities that presume to tell individuals what they must believe and how they must behave. It weakens the traditional hierarchies of birth and class, and even those of family and gender. Liberalism, therefore, cannot help but threaten “traditional values” and cultures. Those are maintained either by the power of traditional authorities or by the pressures of the community and majority opinion. But in a liberal state, the rights of the few, once recognized, supersede the preferences of the many.

The revolt by tradition, culture, and community against the “tyranny” of liberal individualism is the cause of today’s “backlash mounting across the globe, and not only among the increasingly powerful authoritarian governments of Russia and China, but also within the liberal democratic world itself.” In the U.S. the threat comes primarily from conservatives, whose “views were suppressed during a war fought explicitly against Nazism and its racial theories, and then during a Cold War waged against communism. But when the Cold War ended, the old concerns about the nation’s social and cultural identity reemerged. Led by political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, the concern became that the U.S.’s ‘Anglo-Saxon Protestant “identity” was being swamped by liberalism in the form of ‘multiculturalism’.”

Huntington even predicted a new nationalist “white nativism” and a clash of civilizations, urging Americans to pull back from the world and tend to their own Western civilization. “In the decades since, it has sometimes been difficult to distinguish between conservative efforts to protect political and cultural traditions against the assaults of progressive liberalism on the one hand, and the protection of white Christian ascendancy against the demands of racial and ethnic and other minorities on the other.” Only in recent years has the left joined in on the attack on liberalism as “deeply and perhaps inevitably flawed.”

By far, the most significant distinction today is a binary one: Nations are either liberal, meaning that there are permanent institutions and unchanging norms that protect the “unalienable” rights of individuals against all who would infringe on those rights, whether the state or the majority; or they are not liberal, in which case there is nothing built into the system and respected by the government and the governed alike that prevents the state or the majority from violating or taking away individuals’ rights whenever they choose, in ways both minor and severe.

Mr. Kagan’s is a very sophisticated argument but the problem is that there do not seem to be any nations with unchanging norms, say on free speech; so are there no liberal nation-states, even the U.S.? The latter has fared better on the permanent institutions aspect but they too have changed over time, as with central-executives subordinating states, or judiciaries dominating both. Consider “the majority” that is not allowed to infringe on “rights,” that liberal rights need protection even from “majority opinion,” as well as from “church and community.” In sum, “The rights of the few once recognized supersede the preferences of the many.”

So in Mr. Kagan’s liberalism the many can overthrow a government but cannot change “recognized” rights, however they need to change? Does “once recognized” include Plessy v. Ferguson and separate but equal? Who then is to protect or change rights if not the majority, the progressive elites in the institutions? It is not clear, nor is Kagan’s history. Take his statement that “Generations of peasants were virtual slaves to generations of landowners” and were “not free to think or believe as they wished, including about the most vitally important questions in a religious age—the questions of salvation or damnation of themselves and their loved ones.”

As for the peasants, even Marx found European peasantry an advance from actual slavery and that it was emerging into capitalism by the fourteenth Century. Christian European slavery actually was first banned by the Merovingian Frank Empire Regent Bathilde as early as the seventh Century. Tocqueville argued slavery was basically absent from Europe for a thousand years until it rose again with the Dutch voyages of discovery—actually during the Enlightenment. Well before Locke or the Enlightenment there were vibrant universities and scholarship in the twelfth Century, actually five hundred years before “enlightenment.” Rather than not free to question, such disputes in those same institutions recurred regularly thereafter cumulating in a Reformation over those very questions a century before the seventeenth-century Enlightenment.

Mr. Kagan reflected upon the “czarist-era rule of the Orthodox Church” but surely the church was ruled by the czar? Did religion really control the divine right monarchies, or vice versa, with Machiavelli congratulating Ferdinand for using the “pretext” of religion to advance Spanish national interests? Did even the idea of individual conscience arise as late as seventeenth-century England, or did it begin much earlier, with Christianity perhaps? Or other complexities: Did not even the tolerant Locke limit conscience for Catholics and certain dissenters?

What is this secular Enlightenment when most of its early thinkers were believing Christians, including Locke? Indeed, liberalism only developed indigenously in Christian Europe and is mostly still confined to it and its offshoots today.

While Mr. Kagan basically dismisses church and community in the development of liberalism, can there be any sadder but more important concession than his own admission that “liberalism has no particular answer” for what can legitimize its rights? Religion, cosmos, God and gods, natural hierarchies, divine authorities, life, afterlife, bonds of families, church, ethnicity, nation, class, and culture—are all rejected as non-liberal justifications.

Yet as Kagan explicitly rejects even “English tradition” as justification for his liberalism, he is forced to rely upon his favorite Hamilton to vindicate “the sacred rights of mankind” as coming from the “hand of the divinity itself.” That is where Locke gets his rights from too. How can these perhaps subliminal liberal concessions not be taken as the real enlightened justifications?

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* “The Strongmen Strike Back” by Robert Kagan. The Washington Post, March 14, 2019.

Editor’s note: The featured image of Robert Kagan is from the Brookings Institute, and is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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