A Tale of Two Liberalisms

Illustration by Kapp Singer

Editor’s note: This piece was written in response to McKinsey Crozier’s article “Harper’s Dilemma,” published in the Sept. 18th issue of the Herald.

Yale is a very liberal campus. Back in the Good Old Days™ before the Plague Year™, I regularly saw students on Cross Campus extolling the virtues of Local 34 or the Democratic Socialists of America. Yale students are quick to celebrate behaviors that are “transgressive” in some fashion, and which stick it to the Man™. This Man, of course, is typified by my former Governor—and the straightest, whitest man ever—Vice President Pence. At the same time, most conservatives on Yale’s campus are not likewise celebrated. In conservative political circles at Yale, one feels like a besieged minority, unwilling to share right-wing beliefs publicly for fear of social scorn. Now, this is not an article to boo-hoo the state of discourse, “campus free speech,” or conservatives not being the cool kids at parties (Lord knows there’s been enough of that); rather, I bring this up because I think the liberal reaction to political disagreement demonstrates profoundly different understandings of what liberalism actually is. 

The first possible understanding of liberalism is as a positive ideological project. There are a set of beliefs about the world to which a liberal ascribes. Transgender individuals ought be celebrated because a liberal conception of gender includes them; the same goes for LGBT+ individuals more broadly. Radical economic change is desirable because it is what justice demands, and we know what the ideal distributive outcomes should look like. This liberalism is self-assured; it has a vision of what society ought to look like, and is perfectly content to do what it takes in order to bring that society into being. This self-assurance does not leave a lot of space for those with whom you vehemently disagree. 

After all, what is the point of allowing those against gay marriage, let’s say, to be vocal about it? We know that they’re wrong and their views are harmful. As far as we are able, let’s not allow people who we believe to be hateful to share their hateful views. At the risk of being uncharitable, this viewpoint also tends to ascribe moral evil to its holder’s opponents. Republicans, according to this worldview, are inhumane imperialists who seek profits over lives. Conservatives hate poor people, and pro-lifers are closet misogynists. In this liberal’s perspective, politics is a battle to be won, not a problem to be solved.This liberalism, in summation, is a positive vision of society with clear delineations of right and wrong, as well as clear moral judgements of those who are liberal and those who are not

This seems to be the liberalism of choice for most Yale students. There is, however, a very different kind of liberalism, one that is not really a universal vision of the “good” at all. It requires much more modest claims—either: 1) I do not have a good epistemic position, or 2) Despite my good epistemic position, there are reasons why I should not force my positions onto others. 

The first position is one of self-doubt. We look to those around us, and realize that even people who spend their whole lives thinking about the same things often disagree strongly and violently. We conclude that human faculties of reason are not exceedingly reliable. Claims we can make about how people live their lives are thereby rendered suspect. People should live as they want, not because I approve of their behavior, but because I am not so confident in my beliefs as to wholly prohibit it. 

The other option is that there are reasons not to force my vision of the good onto others. It may be because it would impede their rights. It may be that non-violent politics and procedural democracy are built into my vision of the good. It could also just be that I am scared of what happens when power is used coercively. Humanity does not exactly have a great track record when it comes to wielding power justly. In sum, for whatever reason, this liberalism essentially says “you do you.” 

The two liberalisms often overlap; they often share policy positions and are certainly represented by the same political party. However, they differ in a key respect: their view of the project of politics. An epistemically humble liberalism necessarily extends humility even to its political enemies. Because my beliefs are weakly justified, my opponents could very well be right. Maybe life really does begin at conception; perhaps capitalism is a good thing. This necessarily lowers the stakes of political debates. It’s not that fewer lives are at stake; it’s that we’re not sure what we’re doing will actually save them.

An epistemically humble liberalism necessarily extends humility even to its political enemies. Because my beliefs are weakly justified, my opponents could very well be right. Maybe life really does begin at conception; perhaps capitalism is a good thing. This necessarily lowers the stakes of political debates. It’s not that fewer lives are at stake; it’s that we’re not sure what we’re doing will actually save them.

In his book, The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President, Professor Noah Feldman (YLS ’97) describes the core of President Madison’s political ideal as “political friendship,” which “allow[s] for reasoned disagreement among reasonable people who share the same basic goals but differ on how to achieve them.” This political friendship, or at least political amicability, is at the core of humble liberalism. It is unitive in the sense that it doesn’t morally exclude those on the “opposite side;” indeed, it doesn’t view political disagreement as a division, but rather as engagement in the shared project of the nation. 

Of course, the great irony that Prof. Feldman points out is that Madison himself failed to uphold his own vision. He thought of the Federalists as closet Monarchists who wanted to destroy the Republic. Eris, it seems, has been with the American Republic since the beginning. Nevertheless, political friendship could be a balm to our times. In the culture war and the M.A.D. of American politics, where our opponents are either “socialists”or “fascists”, it is the voice crying out in the wilderness, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Of course, the right has many skeletons in its own closet regarding a lack of political charity. And yet, this does not lessen the appeal of a political détente, if only out of sheer emotional exhaustion. 

There is an obvious rejoinder here: the stakes are too high. Too many people will die from lack of healthcare for us to equivocate in order to please rich Republicans more concerned about their stock portfolios. Too many people will drown in debt for us to placate retirees who think that kids can still get through college on a part-time job. The list goes on. And it is true that the very core of this article is a plea to lower the stakes of politics. If the stakes are too high, then this is providing aspirin for a brain tumor. However, I would then appeal to practical considerations. As long as we live in a democracy, our parties have to convince people to vote for them. Now, if one is sure that they have the numeric advantage, then perhaps ginning up the base will be a perpetually viable strategy. However, it is likely that the Democrats will at some point have to convince some people to vote for them; you will need the much-sought-after “Biden Republicans” or “future former Republicans.”  It is difficult to convince others to agree with you when you claim that they’re morally evil. On a more basic level, if we are obligated to educate ourselves, then the liberal movement has to be redemptive. It has to both celebrate minds that have changed and not cast those which haven’t as enemies. This is a liberalism that is hopeful rather than pugilistic. This is how we get a healthier politics, a healthier discourse, and, God willing, a healthier country.

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