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When I taught Contemporary Civilization, Columbia University’s core courses on political and moral philosophy from Plato through Freud, officially and awkwardly called “Introduction to Contemporary Civilization,” the class’s overarching themes were the gradual, uneven development of democratic, egalitarian and liberal ideals, and the ongoing conflict with various alternatives to liberalism, culminating in the first half of the 20th century with fascism and communism.

Yes, students read works that traced the development of the notion of natural, civil and human rights and the growth of religious tolerance. But they also studied liberal democracy’s critics:

  • communitarians who argue that liberal democracy neglects the importance of community, erodes social bonds and dilutes a sense of collective responsibility;
  • Burkeans who emphasize the importance of tradition, gradualism, and the mediation of popular will through established institutions;
  • Tocquevillians who worry about the tyranny of the majority;
  • Nietzscheans who are convinced that democracy and Christianity promote a “slave morality,” valuing mediocrity and conformity over excellence and individual greatness; and
  • Marxists who view liberal democracy as a facade that masks the true economic exploitation under capitalism and serves the interests of the bourgeoisie perpetuating inequality and alienation.

This framework provided a way to ensure that thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Kant, Hegel, Tocqueville, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud were in dialogue with one another.

I only wish that the course came closer to the present and included such thinkers as Michel Foucault, Ronald Dworkin, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, Richard Rorty, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Moyn, Amartya Sen, and various postcolonial and critical theorists, such as Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi Bhabha and what they have to contribute to the ongoing debate over liberalism and its alternatives.

These more recent figures provide many insights into the forms that domination takes in nominally liberal societies, including its struggle to address economic inequalities effectively, and the ways that its emphasis on individual rights detracts from collective welfare and social justice, producing entrenched disparities in wealth, access to healthcare and educational opportunities.

Liberalism is, of course, an especially amorphous and ambiguous term with highly disparate meanings. It can refer to a value system that emphasizes tolerance and civility. It can also describe a behavioral style emphasizing moderation and circumspection. Generally, the term connotes values that are considered positive, such as broadmindedness, forbearance and charitableness. But the word can also suggest more negative qualities, implying that liberals are spineless, wishy-washy and insipid.

We most often think of liberalism as a political and social philosophy that emphasizes liberty and a market-based economy with minimal government intervention, or, in its more modern iterations, stresses individual rights, equality, democratic governance, rule of law, pluralism and international cooperation.

There is classical liberalism, which champions individual liberties and “negative” rights (such as freedom of speech, religion, the press and association), limited government (whose primary goal is to maintain order and protect property rights) and free market capitalism.

There is also modern liberalism, which favors a more active role for the government in addressing social inequalities, providing public goods and ensuring that no one is in need; supports government intervention to correct market failures, regulate industries, and provide a safety net for the most vulnerable in society; emphasizes the need for economic regulations to promote social justice and reduce inequalities; and advocates for robust social welfare programs as a means of ensuring that all citizens have access to basic needs, such as healthcare, education and social security.

Today, we speak of various dimensions of liberalism. These include:

  • Liberal capitalism, which seeks a balance between market freedom (to efficiently allocate resources, drive innovation and efficiency, and respond to consumer needs) and government intervention (to correct market failures, protect the public interest, counteract economic recessions and provide public goods that the market cannot efficiently supply).
  • Liberal democracy, which requires free and fair elections but also the protection of civil liberties, minority rights and the rule of law.
  • Liberal education, which seeks to produce well-rounded individuals through broad exposure to diverse disciplines, critical thinking and ethical reasoning; emphasizes the importance of arts and humanities alongside sciences and social sciences; and aims to prepare individuals for informed citizenship and a fulfilling life, rather than provide specific vocational training.
  • Liberal internationalism, a foreign policy outlook that emphasizes collective security, free trade and international institutions and the spread of democracy, and which contrasts with isolationism and real politik.

Illiberalism, then, is the converse of liberalism. The term refers to political ideologies, systems or practices that reject or undermine the principles of liberalism, such as individual freedoms, the rule of law, equality under the law and democratic governance that includes respect for minority rights.

In his new history of the illiberal currents in American history, Steven Hahn (a graduate school classmate) demonstrates that a disdain for democracy and equality has deep roots in American culture, as do a variety of exclusionary and discriminatory -isms: nativism, racism, sexism and more.

Professor Hahn, who won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for A Nation Under Our Feet, an extraordinarily rich history of Black political struggles in the rural South from slavery to the Great Migration, makes a strong case that we need to view the nation’s political history not simply as a partisan conflict or a class or regional struggle or a tussle between urban cosmopolitans and rural provincials or between populists and establishmentarians and technocrats, but as an ongoing struggle between liberal ideals and illiberal tendencies.

Illiberalism, in his view, shouldn’t be viewed simply as a set of prejudices or as a synonym for conservatism or an expression of narrow self-interest. It’s a fairly coherent political philosophy that, in American history, has historically emphasized a constellation of values including states’ rights, local control, patriarchy, rugged individualism, Christian nationalism and, at various times, explicit or implicit forms of white supremacy.

No reader can come away from Professor Hahn’s book without recognizing that he has identified a fundamental truth: There is an illiberal strand or current in American history that is racist, sexist, xenophobic and narrow-minded, parochial, and exclusionary. He is certainly right in arguing that this illiberal strain stands in stark contrast with the principles of liberty, equality and democracy that are often celebrated as central to American identity and history.

Where I would disagree with him is in his tendency to identify illiberalism largely (though not exclusively) with political and moral conservatives. As Thomas C. Leonard observes in his important 2017 study of Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era, it was early 20th-century progressives, the social engineers who established minimum-wage and maximum-hours laws, workmen’s compensation, antitrust regulation, and other hallmarks of the regulatory welfare state, who were also responsible for a host of illiberal “reforms” including voting restrictions, vagrancy laws, prison expansion, immigration restriction, anti-miscegenation laws and eugenicist legislation that proved highly discriminatory.

That example of illiberalism infecting liberals and progressives should serve as a reminder that illiberalism’s allure is intoxicating, and that, as inequality researcher Richard V. Reeves has shown, today’s knowledge class has hoarded opportunities—through zoning laws, schooling, college application procedures, occupational licensing and other mechanisms—to fracture society along class lines. Or, as sociologist Musa al-Gharbi argues, the knowledge economy elite has itself promoted “a social order that is fundamentally premised on exclusion and exploitation.”

Illiberal America is not a textbook, and its topical and chronological coverage is highly selective. Still, it does a masterful job of summarizing how certain aspects of American history have been radically rewritten over the past half century.

For example, many 17th- and even early 18th-century English and Scottish investors imagined establishing neo-feudal landed estates in the New World, enriching themselves through various dues and tribute. To a striking degree, they succeeded in parts of the Middle, Chesapeake and southernmost colonies in creating societies with well-defined social hierarchies and coerced labor. Roughly three-quarters of those who crossed the Atlantic prior to the Revolution arrived in some condition of unfreedom, mainly as slaves or indentured servants, which resulted in the American paradox: an extremely unequal and stratified society that was highly attuned to issues of freedom, rights and status.

Professor Hahn also shows how frontier settlers’ resisted proprietors’ neo-feudal dreams and the landed elite’s speculative schemes. Angry over unequal representation in legislatures and assemblies, and faced with heavy burdens of taxes and rents and government failure to secure land titles, construct roads, operate ferries and expand access to currency, backcountry folk repeatedly staged rebellions and riots and engaged in violence with neighboring Indigenous peoples.

Subsequent chapters examine the Anti-Federalists who opposed ratification of the U.S. Constitution not only because it lacked a Bill of Rights, but out of fears that the new government would favor the wealthy and well-connected and erode state sovereignty; the Anti-Masons, who pioneered the politics of paranoia and the dangers posed by a monster institution; and anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, and anti-abolitionist mobs.

The book pays special attention to the illiberalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the heart of the text lies in a lengthy discussion of the rise of various currents of the right from the 1920s onward: the fundamentalist right, the isolationist right, the anti-Communist right, and today’s “populist” right. Yet this is not another example of anti-American studies. It is, rather, the story of the struggle for the nation’s soul in which extraordinary ordinary people, too often relegated to the margins of history, are active agents striving to realize this nation’s democratic egalitarian promise.

Professor Hahn describes his book as a social history of ideas. He, like a number of our graduate school colleagues including Jackson Lears, Patricia Limerick, Jeffrey Stewart, Christine Stansell and Sean Wilentz were interested in recovering political and ideological traditions that have been largely forgotten:

  • Anti-Monopoly, a critical strand in American political and economic discourse that emphasizes the dangers of concentrated economic power and advocates for measures to prevent or dismantle monopolies and trusts. This tradition, whose roots can be traced back to the Jacksonian era, expresses a deep-seated concern with ensuring opportunity, fair competition, the rights and interests of consumers, and preserving democratic governance from undue corporate influence. In recent years, the anti-monopoly tradition has experienced a resurgence amid growing concerns about the size and power of tech giants and the broader implications of corporate concentration for democracy and societal well-being.
  • Communitarianism, which critiqued the injustices and inequalities produced by the capitalist system, saw private property as the root of social evil, and envisioned alternative societies based on cooperation, equality and communal living. Despite its eclipse by scientific socialism, communitarian ideas about mutual aid, collective welfare, communal living and cooperative economics would influence later anarchist, mutualist and socialist thought and has contributed to a broader critique of capitalism and exploration of alternatives.
  • Producerism, an economic and social philosophy that values the roles of producers—typically farmers, artisans and workers—in the economy and emphasizes their importance to the health and prosperity of society. Producerism often arises in opposition to the perceived interests and influence of the financial sector, including bankers and speculators, as well as large corporations or monopolies that are seen as exploiting the labor of the working class and undermining small-scale producers and local economies.
  • Republicanism, a philosophy that emphasizes civic virtue, the common good and the role of citizens in governing themselves. At its core is the belief that governmental authority rests on the consent and participation of the people; that every citizen, including leaders, is subject to the law; and that decisions should be based on the common good rather than personal interests. This involves a commitment to public service and the welfare of the community. Republicanism also holds that education in civic virtues and the principles of self-governance are essential for promoting solidarity and the health of the republic.

To this list, one might also add other traditions: anarchist, anti-modernist, Black nationalist and pan-African, feminist, mutualist, progressive (or what in Europe is called social democratic), socialist, and, perhaps, the most influential of all, populist—a subject on which Professor Hahn wrote an important monograph.

Populism not only refers to a specific movement—the late 19th-century farmers’ insurgency that grew out of the Granger movement, the Greenback Labor Party and the farmers’ alliances—but it refers to:

  • a rhetorical style that frames issues as a struggle between the people and corrupt self-serving elites and monster institutions;
  • a political platform and policy agenda that advocates economic reforms that are supposed to benefit the working classes and political reforms to make the political system more responsive to the people’s will; and
  • a distinctive mindset suspicious of elites and experts, distrustful of the political, economic and cultural establishment, and skeptical toward intermediary institutions such as political parties, the media, and the judiciary.

Each of these traditions can blend with other traditions and take on conservative or progressive forms depending on the specific context and perceived threats.

It’s no coincidence that many of my graduate school classmates shared an interest in uncovering alternate political traditions and ideologies. For one thing, they found the then-dominant approach to intellectual and cultural history too narrow, omitting the outlooks and perspectives of the majority of the population, too oblivious to issues of power, and too dismissive of the victims of historical “progress.” Products of the activist movements of the 1960s, they (like Phil Ochs with his anthem, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”) were highly critical of liberal hypocrisy, and the glaring gap between liberal rhetoric and ideals and liberal practice.

Yet, as many of us have grown older, we have found certain liberal ideals increasingly attractive. Indeed, Professor Hahn’s conclusion might be read as his attempt to balance the horrors of the past with the genuine achievements of “liberal” reformers and politicians who forged political coalitions, enacted reforms when possible, and, most important of all, sustained liberal idealism.

He has written a history that acknowledges that the past is rife with complexities and contradictions. Individuals and societies can embody both progressive and regressive tendencies. By acknowledging these contradictions, historians can present a more accurate picture of historical figures and movements, recognizing that the path toward a more free and equal society is often nonlinear and fraught with setbacks.

Above all, he has written histories that highlight the agency of individuals and groups and the struggles that they have waged. He has shown that even in the nadir of race relations in the United States, there were those who resisted, fought for their rights and laid the groundwork for future reforms. This focus not only honors their efforts but also serves as an inspiration for current and future generations.

I liken history to psychoanalysis: both operate under the premise that understanding the past is essential if we are to make sense of the present. Much as psychoanalysts seek to uncover the unconscious motives, desires and past traumas that influence individual’s behavior and mental states, historians delve into the past to understand the forces and dynamics that explain how the present came to be. Both rely on narrative and interpretation, and both historians and psychoanalysts must deal with resistance and denial.\

In psychoanalysis, patients often exhibit resistance to confronting painful or hidden aspects of their psyche, and analysts must work to overcome this resistance to facilitate insight and healing. Somewhat similarly, the public often resists revisions or challenges of established historical narratives and interpretations, especially those revisions that challenge ideologically charged or nationalistic myths.

Most importantly, both history and psychoanalysis have therapeutic or cathartic goals: Psychoanalysis explicitly aims to heal, seeking to resolve psychological conflicts and alleviate mental distress by bringing unconscious thoughts and feelings into consciousness. History, while not therapeutic in the conventional sense, can have a cathartic effect on societies by acknowledging and coming to terms with past injustices and traumas. This process can promote understanding, reconciliation, and healing on a collective level.

To acknowledge the illiberal strain in American society is not to negate the progressive strides and ideals that have also characterized American history but, rather, to recognize that the struggle for liberty, democracy and equality has always been contested and is ongoing.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational and Equitable Experience.

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