The Authoritarians Have the Momentum

The central struggle in the world right now is between liberalism and authoritarianism. It’s between those of us who believe in democratic values and those who don’t — whether they are pseudo-authoritarian populists like Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Narendra Modi or Recep Tayyip Erdogan or straight-up dictators like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping or theocratic fascists like the men who run Iran and Hamas.

In this contest, we liberals should be wiping the floor with those guys! But we’re not. Trump is leading in the swing states. Modi seems to be on the verge of re-election. Russia and Iran are showing signs of strength.

Over the last two centuries liberalism has evolved into a system that respects human dignity and celebrates individual choice. Democratic liberalism says we don’t judge how you want to define the purpose of your life; we just hope to build fair systems of cooperation so you can freely pursue whatever goals you individually choose. Liberalism tends to be agnostic about the purposes of life and focused on processes and means: rule of law, the separation of powers, free speech, judicial review, free elections and the rules-based international order.

In his stirring and clarifying new book, “Liberalism as a Way of Life,” Alexandre Lefebvre argues that liberalism isn’t merely a set of neutral rules that allow diverse people to live together; liberalism, he writes, has also become a moral ethos, a guiding philosophy of life. As other moral systems, like religion, have withered in many people’s lives, liberalism itself has expanded to fill the hole in people’s souls.

Liberals honor individuals’ right to see themselves with self-respect; racial slurs have become our form of blasphemy because they assault this sense of self-respect. Liberal morality tends to be horizontal — pure liberals don’t look upward to serve a living God; they look sideways and try to be kind and decent to their fellow human beings.

Pure liberals place a high value on individual consent; any kind of sex or family arrangement is OK so long as everybody agrees to it. At one point Lefebvre has a nice little riff on all the traits that make us liberals pleasant to be around. We respect autonomy and personal space, dislike hypocrisy and snobbery, and strive to achieve a live-and-let-live tolerance.

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