Leftist Discontent for Liberalism

Leftist Discontent for Liberalism
The execution of the Girondins.

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The fourth of six posts on Francis Fukuyama’s recent book Liberalism and its Discontents.

Leftist Discontent for Liberalism

The left has a long, but complicated relationship with liberalism. Liberalism began as a radical movement of reform. But it became conservative after it accomplished its original aims. Many liberals looked to consolidate their political gains rather than demanding more. Meanwhile, the French Revolution provided momentum to those who wanted equality to extend beyond the law. Many wanted greater equality in economic conditions. However, liberal institutions constrained the possibilities for deeper reforms. Discontent from the left began with the limitations liberalism imposed upon radical reform or even revolution.

Liberalism institutionalizes disagreement and debate in the public sphere. It encourages a proliferation of ideas even when they challenge established political norms or values. At the same time, the meaning of liberalism is elusive. It continues to change and evolve. Most recently it has expanded to include rights to sexual orientation, gender self-identification, and others associated with the LGBTQ+ community. Nonetheless, liberal institutions take time to implement liberal policies. So, liberals frequently find themselves in the awkward position where their institutions slow down liberal progress.

Moreover, identity politics in its most radical incarnations turn liberalism upside down, because it focuses on what people are rather than who they are. At the same time, it does expose a flaw in liberal thought. Liberals place so much emphasis on individuals they ignore group dynamics. As Yascha Mounk writes, “The aspiration to be race blind can turn into a reality of being racism blind.” Liberals also confound radicals, because they show tolerance for intolerant ideas. In frustration the radical left questions the value of liberal institutions and norms to bring about further reform. “Once again,” Fukuyama writes, “we see liberal ideas being stretched to the point of breaking.” In short this is the source of leftist discontent for liberalism.

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