The issue, [James] Burnham saw, is that modern allotropes of liberalism have equipped us with an ethic that is far too abstract and too empty to inspire existential allegiance. Modern liberalism, Burnham wrote in Suicide of the West,
does not offer ordinary men compelling motives for personal suffering, sacrifice, and death. There is no tragic dimension in its picture of the good life. Men become willing to endure, sacrifice, and die for God, for family, king, honor, country, from a sense of absolute duty or an exalted vision of the meaning of history. . . . And it is precisely these ideas and institutions that liberalism has criticized, attacked, and in part overthrown as superstitious, archaic, reactionary, and irrational. In their place liberalism proposes a set of pale and bloodless abstractions—pale and bloodless for the very reason that they have no roots in the past, in deep feeling and in suffering. Except for mercenaries, saints, and neurotics, no one is willing to sacrifice and die for progressive education, medicare, humanity in the abstract, the United Nations, and a ten percent rise in Social Security payments.
Thus it is that Burnham could conclude that the primary function of liberalism was to “permit Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution,” to view weakness, failure, even collapse as not as a defeat but “as the transition to a new and higher-order in which Mankind as a whole joins in a universal civilization that has risen above the parochial distinctions, divisions, and discriminations of the past.”
Sound familiar? Of course, it does. It’s the hit tune that is playing on every college campus, and that echoes throughout the bulletins emitted by HR departments of major corporations, and the bleatings of Hollywood stars, media “celebrities,” and woke personalities whose affluence is matched only by their ignorance and unconscious commitment to mouthing the sanctioned progressive clichés of the moment.
Read the whole thing, although what Burnham defined as “liberalism” is really a massive stolen base by “Progressives” in the 1920s to rehabilitate the brand after Woodrow Wilson had soiled it completely during WWI, as Fred Siegel wrote in his 2014 history of the American left, The Revolt Against the Masses:
Liberals were those Progressives who had renamed themselves so as to repudiate Wilson. “The word liberalism,” wrote Walter Lippmann in 1919, “was introduced into the jargon of American politics by that group who were Progressives in 1912 and Wilson Democrats from 1916 to 1918.” The new liberalism was a decisive cultural break with Wilson and Progressivism. While the Progressives had been inspired by a faith in democratic reforms as a salve for the wounds of both industrial civilization and power politics, liberals saw the American democratic ethos as a danger to freedom at home and abroad.
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The best short credo of liberalism came from the pen of the once canonical left-wing literary historian Vernon Parrington in the late 1920s. “Rid society of the dictatorship of the middle class,” Parrington insisted, referring to both democracy and capitalism, “and the artist and the scientist will erect in America a civilization that may become, what civilization was in earlier days, a thing to be respected.” Alienated from middle-class American life, liberalism drew on an idealized image of “organic” pre-modern folkways and rhapsodized about a future harmony that would reestablish the proper hierarchy of virtue in a post-bourgeois, post-democratic world.
So from that point of view, “liberalism,” while changing its spots somewhat over the past decade to encompass “critical race theory,” is still working as the original “Progressives” redefined it.
Related exit question from across the pond: What did you do in the Great Culture War, Daddy?