Traditional American Liberalism Has Changed in Three Important Ways
The first change involves the understanding of tolerance. The old Jeffersonian notion, rooted in debates over religious freedom, holds that individual conscience is sacrosanct. This has given way to the notion that certain ideas (e.g., racism or sexism) are so heinous that no one should be allowed to hold, much less express, any idea about race or women or sexuality that proponents believe is socially oppressive. In other words, intolerance is now seen as a good thing—if it serves the purpose of a certain definition of social liberation.
The second change involves the idea of dissent. Historically, respect for dissent had its roots in debates over religious freedom and freedom of conscience. But the New Left took an entirely different view of dissent. Rather than an expression of individual conscience, dissent was now seen as a weapon to overthrow the old order. The end justified the means. It was perfectly justifiable, according to the New Left, to shut out the views of the ruling class, defined now along race, gender, and sexual orientation lines.
The third idea that has undergone a radical change is our conception of virtue. Historically, virtue has been understood as a positive habit that forms one’s personal character. In this view, one acquires virtue by repeatedly choosing to treat others well and act in accord with objective standards of morality, even when it is difficult.
The Counter-Culture understood virtue very differently. The “self” was not something that had to be restrained; it was unique and had to be expressed openly, even loudly, to be fulfilled. Individual freedom was to be experienced through the liberation of one’s group (i.e., one’s gender, race, or sexual identity).
Traditional morality—particularly sexual morality—became a force of repression just as capitalism had been in the days of the Old Left. Virtue was politicized and defined ideologically; it was not seen as a measure of personal responsibility or as a right of individual conscience but as a measure of the collective good the government is supposed to guarantee.
As a result, it has become easy to condemn one’s political opponents as utterly mendacious characters who lack decency and virtue rather than to consider them misguided people who happen to see things differently. The scarlet letter is reserved not for adulterers but for people who doubt climate change or who question calling same-sex unions “marriage.”
People who see themselves as “liberal-minded” have come to justify the most illiberal of ideas—namely, curbing freedom of expression and using the power of the state to deny equal rights to Americans with whom they disagree.
Modern liberalism thus does not merely flirt with intolerance. It is now fundamentally based on it. And that is largely because it has become accepted by the culture as a good thing to employ in the service of a cause you believe in. Whatever you may call this new American culture, you cannot call it liberal, for tolerance is the acid test of true liberalism.
This is where the culture stands today. The thinkers of the New Left infect it with illiberal values consciously designed to destroy classic liberalism. It may be true that illiberalism always lurked on the edges of American progressivism in the various ideologies associated with socialism.
But for most of history, progressives had tried to keep their distance from the more blatantly illiberal values of the far Left. That resistance started breaking down in the sixties. As a result, American liberalism today has a decidedly illiberal wing eating away at its purported core values.