Foreign Affairs

Help Is Not on the Way

Foreigners looking for the U.S. to defend liberal democracy might be disappointed.
May 17, 2019
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People hold placards and shout slogans as they take part in a protest on June 18, 2016 in Hong Kong in support of Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

With the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre upon us within weeks, Xi Jinping is steadily tightening the screws, attempting to stamp out all dissident voices and all independent centers of power. One focal point of his efforts is Hong Kong, where freedom is on the line.

Through its influence in the Hong Kong legislature, mainland China is seeking to impose an extradition law that would effectively legalize kidnapping of Hong Kong’s democracy advocates. Even without the law, figures like Lam Wing-kee, the Hong Kong-based bookseller, have been covertly whisked across the border into the mainland and imprisoned. The extradition law would put every Hong Kong resident on official notice that if they speak out they might pay with a spell in the Chinese gulag.

A delegation of Hong Kong democracy advocates is now in the United States with the hope of mobilizing American and world support against the measure. One of them, the student leader Nathan Law Kwun-chung, has already spent time in prison for his pains. If the extradition law is imposed, these brave individuals will be living with a sword of Damocles hanging over them.

There is an unhappy irony in the fact that these defenders of freedom are making their case in the United States at a moment when liberal democracy here at home is facing a multitude of threats.

The first of these, of course, comes from the current unlikely occupant of the White House, Donald Trump. Among his other flaws, the president exhibits no interest in defending the institutions of liberal democracy. Indeed, if he has any notions about what those two words mean, they have been poured into his head by blood-and-soil nationalists like Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller or dirty tricksters like his lifelong friend Roger Stone. Given the creatures he has long surrounded himself with, it is unsurprising that Trump routinely tramples on democratic norms here at home and expresses admiration for dictators and strongmen around the world.

Unfortunately, Trump is as much a symptom as a cause. The Republican party not long ago stood for liberty and constitutionalism. Today, important elements of the GOP have latched on to authoritarian ideas and autocratic powers. The ties of the National Rifle Association to Vladimir Putin’s Russia have been well documented. Major components of the Christian right have found Russia a welcome ally in the culture wars. Populist authoritarians like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Jair Bolsinaro of Brazil, and Viktor Orbán of Hungary have also found their share of GOP admirers. But what has garnered less attention than they deserve are the illiberal ideas that have been percolating among certain influential conservative thinkers.

Some intellectuals on the right are insisting not only that the freedoms offered by liberal democracy are a sham, but that liberalism itself, in its essence, resembles totalitarianism.

The British conservative John O’Sullivan, a former top editor at National Review and currently the president of the Danube Institute, a government-funded think tank in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, finds that liberal democracy in its modern form shares “a number of alarming features with Communism.” Both, he contends, “are devoted to social engineering…and because such engineering is naturally resisted…both are engaged in a never-ending struggle against enemies of society.” Liberalism, like Marxism, he writes, is becoming “an all-encompassing ideology,” one that, “behind a veil of tolerance, brooks little or no disagreement.”

Adrian Vermeule, a chaired professor of constitutional law at Harvard and a self-professed Catholic integralist (that is, a believer in the establishment of a Catholic confessional state), argues that just as Communism falsely boasted of being supremely democratic, liberal society also presents a false face. It “celebrates toleration, diversity, and free inquiry, but in practice it features a spreading social, cultural, and ideological conformism.” Given their overlapping qualities, Vermeule contends that the distinction between a liberalism that “allows freedom of thought” and a Communism that is “violently coercive” is “glib.”

Foremost in this new school of illiberal conservatives is Patrick Deneen, a professor of political science at Notre Dame and author of a widely discussed book, already translated into 15 languages, with the question-begging title: Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen takes an exceedingly dim view of the blessings offered by our political order.

The political philosophy underpinning liberal democracy, writes Deneen, “was launched to foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity and, of course, expand liberty.” But in practice, he continues, it “generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.”

Our electoral processes, in Deneen’s view, are nothing more than “a Potemkin drama meant to convey the appearance of popular consent.” The liberties that liberal democracy boasts of protecting—freedom of religion, association, and speech—claims Deneen, have been “extensively compromised.” Instead of democracy, and without even realizing it, we live under a form of tyranny, one that Deneen labels “liberalocratic despotism.”

Among other remarkable things about Deneen is that his evisceration of liberal democracy echoes no one so much as Herbert Marcuse, the quasi-Marxist philosopher of the Frankfurt School, whose contempt for the “false” freedoms enjoyed in the West provided inspiration to the New Left of the 1960s.

Corresponding to Deneen’s “liberalocratic despotism” is Marcuse’s categorization of liberal democracy as a society of “total administration” or “totalitarian democracy.” Marcuse insists—in language which Deneen closely maps—that the promises of liberalism are actually camouflage for social control: “What is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression.” To Deneen, the pernicious promises of liberalism are also camouflaged: Liberalism, he writes, is “a pervasive invisible ideology” that “surreptitiously” remakes the world in its despotic image.

Marcuse rails against the “false needs” generated by advertising amid the dehumanizing broader culture of consumerism. Deneen offers nearly the identical complaint, condemning consumerism as a pathway to spiritual impoverishment: “We have endless choices of the kind of car to drive but few options over whether we will spend large parts of our lives in soul-deadening boredom within them.”

Deneen sees democratic elections as a “managed” process that serves to “dissipate democratic energies, encourage the creation of a fractured and fragmented public, and ensure government by select elite actors” who amount to a new “permanent aristocracy” that is bent on maintaining a regime of “liberal injustice.” Marcuse, for his part, writes that the exercise of political rights such as voting in elections “only strengthens the system of total administration by testifying to the existence of democratic liberties which, in reality, have changed their content and lost their effectiveness.”

As these strikingly similar passages, and many others like them, clearly reveal, today’s illiberal right has converged with yesterday’s totalitarian left. To be sure, despite the extraordinary overlap, Deneen and Marcuse would prescribe very different cures for liberal democracy—or perhaps, to put it more accurately, they would kill off the patient in very different ways—but they find a strikingly similar set of malignancies in their diagnoses.  

The alignment of left and right anti-liberalism would be a comedy if it were not a tragedy. O’Sullivan states that the parallels he draws between liberal and Communist institutions “must strike a newcomer to the argument as absurd.” In that claim, at least, he is right.  Across the world, people are struggling to obtain or defend the basic freedoms that we as Americans enjoy but which American conservatives now dismiss as fraudulent. The distinction between liberal democracy and Communism is not “glib,” as Adrian Vermeule insouciantly maintains. One need only ask those fighting for freedom in China under which type of regime they would prefer to live: liberal democracy or Communism? I would also highly recommend putting the same query to the millions of underground Catholics in China, whom the Vatican has betrayed. If Vermeule were to propound his preposterous equation of liberalism with Communism to the delegation visiting from Hong Kong, they would be incredulous. Indeed, when one contemplates these fearless individuals, facing an enormously powerful and ruthless authoritarian behemoth, yet risking everything to defend self-government and the rule of law, the baseless denigration of liberal democracy as a form of tyranny—“liberalocratic despotism,” in Deneen’s formulation”—is nothing short of obscene.

This article was adapted from Schoenfeld’s The Illiberal Temptation, published by the American Interest on April 26, 2019.

Gabriel Schoenfeld

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and an opinion columnist for USA TODAY, is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.