Abandoning Liberalism Will Destroy Social Peace

Published June 11, 2020

National Review Online

Which is more destructive of America’s social peace: abolishing the police or barring op-eds by Trump supporters? I’d say it’s a tie, but the problem is that both ideas are gaining favor at once. Banning op-eds by Trump supporters — like Senator Tom Cotton — may seem less likely to kick off violent strife than a defunded police force, but it is every bit as dangerous.

This piece by Vox’s David Roberts calls on the mainstream press not only to ban op-eds by pro-Trumpers, but to portray Trump and his supporters as the “racist authoritarian movement” they supposedly are. No more balanced reporting. Expose Republican evil, then do it again.

I wish Roberts was an outlier, but he is simply voicing the thoughts of the faction at the Times that suppressed Cotton. What’s worse, Roberts is merely recommending openly what has been happening at outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post from the moment Trump was elected. The Cotton controversy is merely the capstone on a mansion of journalistic malfeasance. The funny part is that Roberts presents his call to end the marketplace of ideas — and to abandon “old-school” journalism — as a defense of “small l” liberalism. Since Trump and his supporters are “racist authoritarians” (i.e., practically fascists), they no longer get to play the “small l” liberal game, we are told. Fascists don’t get rights.

What follows from that? If you deny the fruits of liberalism to half the country, where do they go to get their say? Conservatives in general, and Trump supporters in particular, are already being squeezed out of social media. If Trump and his supporters are really so dangerous that they are no longer entitled to fundamental rights, why not hound them out of restaurants, shout down their lectures, get up in their faces at their homes and make their lives impossible? We’ve seen all that already, of course. Up to now, however, it’s been condemned, however tepidly, by at least a few “small l” liberal voices on the Democrat side. But what if half the country begins to feel — with justice — that the other half is eager to deprive them of their rights, has set them beyond the pale, wants to see them crushed? What then?

Roberts says racist authoritarians don’t get to enjoy their “small l” liberal rights. The Democrats, he explains, are a “normal” party, while the Republicans are not. Actually, it’s just the opposite. It’s the Democrats who’ve abandoned classical liberalism by embracing identitarian socialism. It’s Democratic campus administrators who’ve abandoned classical liberalism by allowing student thugs to suppress speakers. It’s the Democrats who’ve abandoned classical liberalism by distorting liberalism itself into a justification for censorship. The Democrats have abandoned classical liberalism, but I haven’t. That’s why I’m not calling for people who make illiberal arguments, like Roberts, to be barred from op-ed pages. Roberts has missed his calling. He’d have been great at banning Communist-sympathizing professors from college campuses in the 1950s, because that is what his argument effectively justifies.

Has Roberts been to a university lately? Has he noticed that “small l” liberalism is out on campus, while preferential treatment according to race, sex, and ethnicity, along with Marxism, neo-Marxism, and postmodernism are in? What is classically liberal about any of that? What is Michel Foucault’s work, if not a debunking and repudiation of “small l” liberalism? Does that mean we should we bar authors who approve of illiberal Foucaldian frameworks from the New York Times? There’d be no one left to write op-eds.

Funny, but not so funny. The Left is playing with fire, and abolishing the police is only the half of it. They think they can replicate the college campus at the national level. But it’s easier to silence visiting speakers or hapless students than to treat half the citizens of this country as fascists unworthy of rights — especially when what’s actually bothering the Right is the Left’s abandonment of liberal principle, and its embrace of argument-by-accusation-of-bigotry instead.

The Times can bar anyone it wants from its pages, right on up to senators and the president himself. And it can cover politics the way it likes, too. Trump supporters still have the right to speak and to publish in outlets of their own. Yet those legal rights rest on a cultural presumption in favor of free speech. Once mainstream outlets bar Republican op-eds on grounds that the party is now beyond the pale of liberal rights — and openly depict Trump supporters as fascists in news stories — that cultural presumption in favor of liberty is out the window. A press transformed in this way will create and enlarge a public constituency that favors chipping away at legal protections for speech. The courts and laws will change. Freedom will head for the exits. But it won’t take that long for the social fabric to tear. Once half the country sees itself made out to be bigots without rights — with no voices on the op-ed pages permitted to contradict this depiction — civil peace will slip away.

Yesterday, Vox cofounder Ezra Klein put out a piece effectively saying that the journalistic sea-change advocated by Roberts and others is exactly where the press is headed. Instead of dominating metropolitan markets like they used to, news outlets have effectively gone national. With the mainstream press competing for readers, says Klein, they’re afraid to alienate their liberal base. On top of that, a now demographically dominant Millennial generation doesn’t see things the way their Baby Boomer elders do. (Remember when “Baby Boomer” was a synonym for hippie radical?) These forces, says Klein, mean that views held by the President of the United States and his supporters have now been “pushed . . . into a sphere of deviance.” Klein depicts this a difficult though necessary call that editors are bound to make under current conditions. But Klein takes social peace for granted. He is assuming that editors have the luxury of making editorial choices in a society that grants them legitimacy and respects their rights. Be warned. If the press trashes the freedoms of half the country on the grounds that they are fascists, it will forfeit such deference.

Classical liberalism arose to prevent murderous civil strife between those who could not agree on ultimate things — and who questioned each other’s good faith as a consequence. Throw aside the marketplace of ideas, throw aside even the aspiration to neutral reporting, and throw aside, on this account, the basic rights of those with whom we disagree, and we are back in the soup, back to the wars, back to the days before liberty and civil peace, the crowning achievements of our history, the history we’ve stopped celebrating — or even remembering. Is that what we want? Because that is where we are headed.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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