Ross Douthat, the NYT's earnest conservative conscience and solicitous adviser to the left, notes:
The Trump-era reading lists I’ve seen ... tend to focus heavily on the dark forces lurking out there, somewhere outside enlightened circles.... They are anthropologies of populism, cautionary tales from history, blueprints for blunting revanchism’s appeal. But they do not generally subject Western liberalism itself to rigorous critique.
And that might be what liberal readers needs right now: Not just portraits of the Brexit and Trump-voting domestic Other, but a clearer sense of their own worldview’s limits, blind spots, blunders and internal contradictions.
I'm all for self-examination, and nothing begs for it more than a person's "worldview," loosely defined as ideology. In liberalism's case the definition is exceptionally loose, in that liberal ideology is a vertiginous patchwork of progressivism, pragmatism, Burkean conservatism and sufferance. Ask your average liberal his or her view of an ideal America and a ponderous pause is likely to ensue, followed, perhaps, by an articulated blur of, say, better healthcare, higher taxes on the rich, "free" higher education and an embrace of multiculturalism. Modern liberalism is less a coherent political program -- a delineated ideology -- than a sentiment, a temperament, a goo-goo sensibility.
That is not to say, however, that modern American liberalism, in its most ecumenical conception, is grievously crippled by what Douthat giddily characterizes as its "limits, blind spots, blunders and internal contradictions." Sandersism and its demagogic degradation of democratic socialism often fits those bills of fare -- indeed, Bernie's "progressivism" was and remains a blind, blundering mush of noble political objectives absent pragmatic paths of realization -- but it's a stretch to say that Sen. Sanders' impatient militancy has redefined American liberalism at large. The latter perseveres, I'd argue, in FDR and Barack Obama's progressivism-conservatism. That in itself might portend an "internal contradiction," but such is the experimental, dialectical stuff of incremental societal progress.
I'd further argue that American liberalism is, at its rather ambiguous core, fundamentally a conceptual striving toward "reason operating within tradition," which, paradoxically, was Bill Buckleyism's fusionist platform of the 1950s and 1960s. Appallingly, that era's "new conservatism" swiftly transmogrified into the mere, monstrous pursuit of political power; hence, so much for old-school prudence, scrupulous reason and Burkean tradition on the right. But in contemporary liberalism, those conceptual properties endured.
Back, though, to Douthat's somewhat self-satisfied depiction of American liberalism as a wearied collection of shot-through blunders and blinds spots. Is it, here and there, endowed with such? Of course it is, for there never has been, nor shall there ever be, any infallible "ism." And yet what Douthat goes on to imply is that American liberalism has been swamped and eclipsed by emergent Trumpism -- dark, dominant circles of populist alienation from the American political tradition. It is here that Mr. Douthat is in need of reminding that the American electorate, in last month's presidential election, just cast, by a sizable margin, more liberal than Trumpist votes.
Which is to say, modern liberalism ails not quite so much as Douthat portrays it.