What comes after liberalism? We know what came before it: oppression, ignorance, violence, and superstition. The myth of our political origins is the story of how we learned to build societies on the values of freedom and equality, rather than the accidents of birth and the cruelties of power. It celebrates our liberation from coercive authority, and the growing awareness of our autonomy. The power of this myth, and even our sincere belief in it, has never stopped us from questioning it. Our culture is filled with stories that imagine a heroic world before the comforts and mediocrity of our own. They imagine the courage and gallantry that it inspired, and prompt us to wonder what has been lost in exchanging its noble codes for greater security. But whether their characters wear swords or Stetsons, these stories tell us that their world will never be, and can never be, ours again. It might have inspired braver men and greater deeds, but there is no going back. The frontier is closed. To ask what came before liberalism is to leave our world safely intact.
To ask what comes after liberalism, however, is to threaten it. It is to ponder what is supposed to be unthinkable, and to anticipate what is supposed to be impossible. It is to assume, if only for a disorienting moment, that the direction of history is fundamentally different than what we have long believed. It is to contemplate the shattering possibility that we have been wrong about what human beings are and what they will become. It is not, to be sure, that we ever assumed the work of politics was concluded. If anything, liberalism roused us from complacency, inspiring us to find injustices still hidden and victims still unrecognized. It told us that people should be free to choose their own paths in life and that government ought to protect the exercise of this freedom. But while carrying out its commission, even amid sharp disagreements, we took its future for granted. We assumed history would celebrate the rightness of its values and the sanctity of its causes. The idea that the future might judge it critically was inconceivable. Or at least it once was.
We are living in a postliberal moment. After three decades of dominance, liberalism is losing its hold on Western minds. Its most serious challenge does not come from regimes in China, Russia, or Central Europe, whose leaders declare the liberal epoch is “at an end.” It comes from within Western democracies themselves, where intelligent critics, and not just angry populists, are expressing doubts about its most basic norms. Critiques of liberalism are as old as liberalism itself, of course, and its ideas have never gone unchallenged. For centuries, philosophers have questioned it from all sides. They have blamed it for increasing inequality and exploitation, and for corrupting culture and religion. They have been especially skeptical of its vision of human beings as rights-bearing individuals who are defined by their ability to choose. But if our moment is not novel in every respect, it is jarringly new to some of us. The idea that human equality, minority rights, religious toleration, or cultural pluralism might be rejected out of principle, and not blind prejudice, is bewildering to many. They are ideas associated with antiquated books and defeated causes—with people living in the past, not looking toward the future.
A new conservatism, unlike any in recent memory, is coming into view. Ideas once thought taboo are being reconsidered; authors once banished are being rehabilitated; debates once closed are reopening. There is disagreement about how this intellectual space opened up, but there is no doubt who is filling it. Nationalists, populists, identitarians, futurists, and religious traditionalists are vying to define conservatism in ways previously unimaginable. To a remarkable degree, they dissent from an orthodoxy that seemed settled as recently as 2016. They take as a premise, not a possibility, that American conservatism as it has defined itself for generations is intellectually dead. Its defense of individual liberty, limited government, and free trade is today a symptom of political decadence, they argue, not its solution. Perhaps more significant, they see it as an obstacle to the future they already embody: a political right prepared to dismantle liberal institutions, not simply manage their decline.
Young, countercultural, and dismissive of conventional opinion, these conservatives have fomented debates that will seem esoteric to outsiders. They range from a recovery of ancient paganism to defenses of the medieval papacy. They promote theories of elite dominance and rules for grassroots radicals. They imagine futures in outer space and on farms. They envision new industrial policies and new liberal arts colleges. Their debates feature atheists and Catholics, racists and minorities, coders and agrarians. If this postliberal landscape sounds bizarre, you are not alone. Its arguments are rarely discussed in mainstream publications, and certainly not in the legacy media. They are found in self-published books, pseudonymous podcasts, and short-lived websites, all publicized through anonymous social media accounts. They have raised up new luminaries in place of old ones. Instead of William Buckley it is Curtis Yarvin. Instead of Milton Friedman it is Peter Thiel. Instead of George Will it is Angelo Codevilla. Instead of Richard John Neuhaus it is Adrian Vermeule. Instead of Irving Kristol it is Steve Sailer. That you might be unfamiliar with some of these names does not make you unusual. In congressional offices, Republican politicians won’t know them all either, but their young aides will. At conservative magazines, senior editors don’t read them, but their junior staff do.
On what do the postliberals agree? On almost nothing. They disagree profoundly on race, religion, economics, and political strategy. Some focus obsessively on immigration and demographic change, others on economic stagnation or the collapse of religious authority. But they all agree on this: new forms of political life will soon be possible. If they are hopeful about a prospect that others fear, it is because they foresee a revolution in conservative thinking. National solidarity and cultural identity, not individual liberty, will be its principal themes—a conservatism focused on public goods, not private interests. In charting this path, the postliberal right takes inspiration from the progressive left. The left, it concedes, got something right. It understood that for political change to be possible, it must first be conceivable. Feminism, marriage equality, racial justice, multiculturalism—the left governed political life by controlling how we imagined the arc of history. It convinced Americans that history progressed by removing barriers to inclusion and equality, assumptions that left conservatives with little to say about the destination of our culture, only the speed at which we arrived. For the postliberals, we are nearing a time when these roles might be reversed.
If the new right has claimed the future, it is largely powerless at present. It has no political representation, no policy platform, and no institutional base. To espouse the views of integralism, neo-reaction, or the alt-right, as some of its most radical factions are called, is to commit professional suicide. But appearances can be deceptive, and politics is a lagging indicator of cultural change. Listen closely, read carefully, and ignore the noise of social media, and you will detect a generational shift on the intellectual right. Young conservatives are seeking a new theoretical basis for our politics, a conceptual framework that makes sense of the failures of the right and the successes of the left. They are second-guessing older arguments in their movement’s canon, especially those placing individual liberty above the common good. They are instead looking furtively to dissident authors and taboo traditions, contemplating the cultural, spiritual, and even racial foundations of human identity.
There is no knowing for certain what this postliberal mood portends. No synthesis of its factions is possible, and it is foolish to make predictions about elections. But history offers a guide to the destiny of ideas, and we would be wise to follow it where we can.
From A World after Liberalism by Matthew Rose. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.
Matthew Rose is Director of the Barry Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Morningside Institute.