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Why liberalism and leftism are increasingly at odds

I thought this was an interesting framing of political discourse, but hadn't seen it referenced elsewhere. So, now I'm referencing it elsewhere.

Silver creates a Socialism-Conservatism-Liberalism triangle, proposing that this three-axis (yet still two dimensional) dynamic describes much of political discourse. He doesn't make a direct contrast to the traditional political compass, but their respective merits seems like a good question.

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I'd put it like this:

One of the problems is that we are so used to living in the World That Liberalism Made that we can't really often see how radical the core ideas of liberalism were and, indeed, are (if you don't take them as given). The core of liberalism - things like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, due process and equality under law, representative democracy, rights of the individual etc. – had to actually be argued through and often implemented through revolution and war.

After all, why should someone be able to speak if they are – insofar as the society sees it – wrong? Why should someone be able to spread a false religious doctrine that leads people to hell? Why should a baron be treated the same for slapping some nasty unwashed little oik as the oik would be for slapping a baron, considering the baron is an obviously superior creature to the oik? Why should the have the same vote, in fact? Why should slavery be abolished or women have rights, considering none of the past societies abolished it or gave the women rights? And so on.

During the modern era, these liberal values won so throughoutly that even other ideologies have basically been leavened with liberalism so much that they often have more to do with liberalism than with the actual original ideology. What’s social democracy? Socialism plus liberalism. What’s the basis of modern rightist thought, at least in Europe? Nationalism plus liberalism. What’s Christian democracy? What you got when Christian thinkers decided it’s time to put the traditional monarchist and pseudo-feudal political philosophies aside and create a doctrine compatible with liberal values. And so on.

If we think about ideologies like fascism or Stalinism, they are basically what you get when you take an ideology like nationalism and socialism and remove all that liberal leaven, indeed replace it with open scorn for liberal values. During most of the Lenin-Stalin era, it was an open doctrine that religion needs to be extinguished and class enemies don’t have any rights, least of all a right to a due process the same way as a proletarian communist would have. When the Soviet Union started moderating after Stalin, it meant that it started lazily pretending that it respects liberal rights, even if it didn’t do so in actuality.

Likewise, the Nazis poured scorn on liberal values, like the idea that a Jew and an Aryan should be treated similarly. Even today, more extreme someone is considered, the less liberal they basically are, both implicitly and explicitly. 100 % nationalism (or racism, with race seen as an extended nation), 0 % liberalism. This framing explains, for instance, why the liberals see Nazis and Stalinists as two peas in a pod (“horseshoe theory”), but these ideologies themselves consider themselves wide apart. The liberals can see the lack of liberalism as an unifying factor to these ideologies, but the anti-liberals themselves, while they can grasp the idea of liberalism as an ideology in itself and not just the “water we swim in”, also tend to see it as something ephemeral and fake, not something where its lack by itself would be enough to bring those lacking it to the same camp.

Likewise, it explains why it’s so easy for many to think that moderate social democrats are basically just Communists in disguise and democratic nationalists are just Fascists in disguise; there is an unifying factor between the moderates and the extremists, and what differs is the degree of the liberal leaven in there. Thus, if one is predisposed to believe that liberalism is fake and ephemeral, destined to fritter away when the going gets tough when whatever disaster that one believes is going to hit the humanity will hit it, it’s also only too natural to believe that once that happens the “mask goes away”, the moderate social democrats instantly radicalize to communism and normie nationalists go Nazi.

Now, what about the situation described by Silver? We’re talking about an ideology that’s undeniably on the progressive end of the scale but not necessarily the same as socialism. Rather, I would say that it’s what you get when you take all the minor ideologies that have attached themselves to the liberal framework and then remove the liberalism in the centre.

Remember, we live in a society suffused with basic liberal values, which means that liberalism itself has started to seem like it’s unnecessary. Indeed, for a long time, liberal parties and movements in most countries suffered – the various social democrats, Christian democrats and others had taken up their values and combined it with other attractive ideologies. Likewise in the US both parties were basically representative of various forms of liberalism.

As liberalism started to lose its luster due to this, various other ideologies attached themselves to this framework. This was made easier by the liberal idea of free debate and the “best argument”, allowing new upstarter ideologies like environmentalism, third-wave feminism, various minority nationalisms etc. to get a hearing. Likewise, various liberal ideas were subtly molded by the ideological struggle with Marxism-Leninism, which left an imprint in the developing concept of human rights, the crowning achievement of Anglo social liberalism – affected by Soviet and Third World insistence that the same ideas of free speech should not apply to things like fascism and racism.

What you get when you have the “successor ideology”, “social justice” etc. described by Silver is what you get when you take these attached ideologies and start removing the liberal framework. It’s a liberalism built against itself, a collection of various ideas that have started seeming like natural parts of liberalism, yet which can be implemented without democracy, free speech or anything like that, should there just be enough political power. This is why it all seems like so mellifluous and hard to define. We’re not talking yet about a concrete ideology that can stand by itself – just a collection of ideas without the usual supporting framework. That’s what “successor ideology” seems to refer to, the idea that since liberalism is now useless, it’s being succeeded by an illiberal ideology that has not yet fully formed. It’s entirely possible that it all collapses before it has managed to form itself into something new.

These basic liberal values are, indeed, bread and butter for Silver himself, literally, as he has built his career on the back of the assumption that there are fair elections underscored by fair and free speech that he can pontificate upon and write about. However, he’s also been liberal in the sense the anti-racism and other such causes seem very natural to him – the idea that there are now activists who support them without giving much credence to the liberal values causes pain and confusion. It’s only too natural to fight it by referring to the lost liberal framework – we’ll see how it succeeds.