Liberalism and Its Discontents

  • David Brooks on how authoritarians have momentum, because liberalism doesn’t appeal to people’s needs for a higher metaphysical meaning;
  • Biden and Trump: appearance and reality;
  • Double standards at Fox News about Butker and James;
  • Republicans about Trump: loyalty vs. principles;
  • Yet another Ten Commandments mandate; what is the point?

NY Times, David Brooks, 16 May 2024: The Authoritarians Have the Momentum [gift link]

David Books consistently includes himself among “we liberals” even while espousing a lot of traditionalist notions, especially the need for shared values in a large society. Here he tries to explain that, even though liberalism should be “winning,” it isn’t, for reasons. He opens:

The central struggle in the world right now is between liberalism and authoritarianism. It’s between those of us who believe in democratic values and those who don’t — whether they are pseudo-authoritarian populists like Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Narendra Modi or Recep Tayyip Erdogan or straight-up dictators like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping or theocratic fascists like the men who run Iran and Hamas.

In this contest, we liberals should be wiping the floor with those guys! But we’re not. Trump is leading in the swing states. Modi seems to be on the verge of re-election. Russia and Iran are showing signs of strength.

In contrast to authoritarianism, where self-identified authorities tell everyone the best way to live their lives (as did that NFL guy a few days ago):

Over the last two centuries liberalism has evolved into a system that respects human dignity and celebrates individual choice. Democratic liberalism says we don’t judge how you want to define the purpose of your life; we just hope to build fair systems of cooperation so you can freely pursue whatever goals you individually choose. Liberalism tends to be agnostic about the purposes of life and focused on processes and means: rule of law, the separation of powers, free speech, judicial review, free elections and the rules-based international order.

What’s not to like? Well, most people, as Yuval Noah Harari identified, throughout most of history, have objected to one or more of these principles. Certainly the modern MAGA folks do. They have very firm ideas about everyone else being more like them, and stamping out contrary views.

Brooks is reacting to a new book called Liberalism as a Way of Life, by Sydney professor Alexandre Lefebvre, whose premise is that liberalism has become a moral ethos, a guiding philosophy of life, that has expanded to fill the void in people’s souls left by the withering of religion.

But I confess that I finished the book not only with a greater appreciation of liberalism’s strengths but also more aware of why so many people around the world reject liberalism, and why authoritarianism is on the march.

Liberal societies can seem a little tepid and uninspiring. Liberalism tends to be nonmetaphysical; it avoids the big questions like: Why are we here? Who made the cosmos? It nurtures the gentle bourgeois virtues like kindness and decency but not, as Lefebvre allows, some of the loftier virtues, like bravery, loyalty, piety and self-sacrificial love.

What’s missing, Brooks claims, is the identification with a higher cause, a transcendental order, whether it be “Catholic, Jewish, stoic, environmentalist, Marxist or some other sacred and existential creed.” And this is why the backlash against liberalism in modern societies. Lots more in the full essay (free link above).

Liberal politicians need to find ways to defend liberal institutions while also honoring faith, family and flag and the other loyalties that define the purposes of most people’s lives. I feel that American presidents from, say, Theodore Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan knew how to speak in those terms. We need a 21st-century version of that.

My comments: This well may be true; his diagnosis aligns with my take on base morality, or tribal mentality, as I’ve tried to outline in this post. Perhaps I need another row to account for Brooks’ take. (Perhaps I will just keep adding more rows…)


Because as T.S. Eliot said, Humankind cannot bear very much reality. (Which probably doesn’t mean what it means at face value; Eliot was deeply religious. It’s true in a way he didn’t intend.)

Salon, Brian Karem, 16 May 2024: Biden vs. Trump debate: A battle between appearance and reality, subtitled “Trump is an expert at selling an appearance and Biden can’t sell reality”


Joe.My.God, 17 May 2024: Fox Host Who Told NBA Superstar To “Shut Up And Dribble” Lavishes Praise On NFL Kicker Harrison Butker

Standard Fox News/Republican double standards. This is about Laura Ingram, Harrison Butker, and Lebron James (who was told “to ‘shut up and dribble’ after he had the audacity to criticize Glorious Leader”).

Also, among reactions to Ingram’s piece is this: According to Harrison Butker, Laura Ingraham needs to find a husband, quit her job, take care of her kids and be a homemaker. Bye bye Laura.

No to mention about Butker’s mother.


AlterNet, Carl Gibson, 17 May 2024: Republicans prove their ‘ultimate fealty’ is to Trump, not the rule of law: columnist

Also here at New Republic, but I don’t have a subscription there and have run out of free articles for the time being.

I’ll have to add this to my chart: tribal morality is all about loyalty; advanced morality is about principles.


Joe.My.God, 17 May 2024: Louisiana To Mandate Ten Commandments Classroom Posters In All Schools, Colleges That Get Public Money

It continues to amaze me that conservatives think there’s any point to this. Do the Ten Commandments truly inform our laws? No; only four of them are instantiated into modern law, and maybe not even the ninth. The tenth is what drives capitalism. And so on. Why not post Jesus’ Beatitudes instead? Because the posting is a shibboleth; it’s totemic; and it’s to show impressionable kids which religion is boss.

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