The American crack-up: Why liberalism drives some people crazy

Examining the psychological demands that liberalism imposes on the modern citizen

Published September 9, 2023 8:00AM (EDT)

US President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address as U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) look on during a joint session of Congress in the U.S. Capitol House Chamber on March 1, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address as U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) look on during a joint session of Congress in the U.S. Capitol House Chamber on March 1, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty Images)

American politics, like the man who jumps from a plane and only then considers his parachute, is in a bad way. Joe Biden's administration has some important successes — a few of them even "bipartisan" — but the political system seems unable to gain substantial traction on a wide array of dire problems. Climate change, voter suppression, reproductive rights, gun violence — all these afflictions fester while Republicans flog Hunter Biden and fulminate, with no apparent irony, about the Biden "crime family."

If we reach for a cliché to describe this situation, we might alight on "fiddling while Rome burns" as a natural candidate, especially if our focus is on global warming. But fiddling is an activity that requites actual effort; this obstinate stasis in the face of existential challenges is an outrageously perverse refusal of action, undertaken simply because Republican politicians consider it to be in their political self-interest.

In other words, the parlous state of American democracy is deeply rooted in the ongoing crisis of the Republican Party, a crisis that has been unfolding in real time for at least sixty years now. The seed of this crisis, the dark singularity from which it bloomed, was the decision by GOP leaders to pursue the support of white Southerners repulsed by the Democratic Party's embrace of the Civil Rights Movement in the nineteen-sixties. These voters, who had generally shunned Republicans since the hated Lincoln broke the Confederacy, were not a natural fit for the GOP as it existed in those years. A party with historical ties to the capitalist class and the aspirational bourgeoisie, it suddenly found itself inundated by millions of working-class voters whose instincts did not always align with its more traditional audience.

To secure the long-term loyalty of these voters—- and to cement a tectonic shift in the American party system—- it needed to show them that their new electoral house was in fact a home. The forward-facing, commercial ethos of the old GOP would have to accommodate itself to the atavistic, Lost Cause-nostalgia of the American South. Individual rights would have to make room for states' rights; optimism for pessimism; a republic of consumers for an apartheid state; capitalism for feudalism. 

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Republican success in squaring this circle cannot be denied: Beginning with Richard Nixon in 1968, their presidential nominees won five of the next six elections and states across the South and Midwest gradually came under GOP control. But it came at a price, one paid in two different coins. The first was demographic. The darker, harsher rhetoric the party used to succor its new Southern voters struck some old-line adherents as shrill and extreme; over time, they drifted away from the GOP and ended up as Democrats or Independents. In 1944, the year FDR won his fourth term as president, 38% of Americans identified as Republicans; by 2022, that number had dropped to 28%.

This demographic cost had ideological consequences. The voters who left were not interchangeable with the ones who stayed. The "conservatism" of the old GOP, anchored then in the small towns and cities of the North and Midwest, was really a form of classical, laissez-faire liberalism. It saw public life as transactional, and wanted a state large enough to facilitate those transactions but too small to interfere with them. (In this it inherited the interest of its ancestor, the Whig Party, in "internal improvements"—- that is, economic infrastructure.) The post-1964 GOP evolved into a party whose electoral capital is invested in the rural and exurban spaces of the South. (The Party also dominates in some Western states, but they are too sparsely populated to provide much political heft.) Here "conservatism" has a much different connotation: it signals a social vision based on hierarchy and exclusion, on the idea that some people, simply by virtue of their identities, are not suited for citizenship. Its politics is not transactional, but existential. It sees social life as a kind of guerilla war in which the "real" America must constantly defend itself against outsiders and usurpers who seek to overwhelm it. 

The burdens of liberal selfhood— of accepting the presence of creeds, conduct, and beliefs that strike you as absurd, of agreeing to be ruled (depending on the election results) by people whose lives you cannot fathom — are not easily borne.

Donald Trump, with his thinly veiled bigotry and misogyny, is the tribune of this Republican Party. But he did not invent it; he merely inherited it. With the feral insight of a born grifter, he saw very clearly what GOP mandarins by 2016 were unable to see, or at least admit: that their political choices had delivered the Party to voters disgusted and appalled by the very existence of certain kinds of people. 

It is this sense of threat and dread, this deeply personal shuddering from difference, that I want to explore in what follows. Doing so, I hope, will help us understand the central fact about American politics at this time: how one of our major political parties sold itself to a virulent strain of irrationalism. Liberalism has, to put it bluntly, driven many Republicans insane. But why?


Western liberalism arose as a response to two different aspects of modern history: the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century and the absolute monarchies that emerged as commercial and demographic change dissolved the feudal world of medieval Europe. These developments, of course, differed greatly in their sources and details, but liberalism's relation to them was roughly the same. In the religious realm, it came to stand for toleration and a removal of sectarian passions from public life. In politics, it sought to replace arbitrary monarchical regimes with representative governments in which power was dispersed and limited by law. The effect, in both cases, was to shelter difference and to accept a public sphere in which plurality was preferred to a coercive unity. 

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This attempt — to trade social complexity for social peace — struck many as doomed to failure. Civilized life is largely life lived with strangers. Critics of liberalism, such as the French authoritarian Joseph de Maistre, drew the necessary conclusion that social peace depends on our ability to cooperate with strangers. But this could only happen, they argued, when we share certain "essential" features with them, including a religiously-informed fear of punishment. We might not know our rulers (or many of our fellow citizens) personally, but we could coexist with them on the basis of these common traits and the social trust they create. In their eyes, the liberal quest to conjure political order out of pluralism was quixotic at best and dangerously demented at worst. 

What modern forms of anti-liberalism such as fascism add to this is more of a tweak than a novelty. For de Maistre and his ilk were always disingenuous in arguing as if their main concern was order and only secondarily who gets to impose it. Definite ideas about who deserves to exercise authority are always in the background of this kind of view; fascism's only contribution was to move it into the foreground. Whether it's defined in cultural/national terms, as in Mussolini's Italy, or in predominantly racial terms, as in Hitler's Germany, the point is always the same: There is some element of the population which, given the specified features, is entitled to wield power over the rest. If they do so, the political regime is ipso facto legitimate; if they do not, it is ipso facto illegitimate. Period. 

Modern history testifies to the enduring power of this vision of political life. So do the last eight years of American politics. It's easy to dismiss it as a discredited mythology, a remnant of bigotry, intolerance, and hatred. It's easy, because in large part that's exactly what it is. But a credo does not sustain itself over such long periods of time — especially when competing with even stronger rivals — without speaking to something large numbers of people find compelling. 

The demands of liberalism

The literary and cultural critic Lionel Trilling is no longer a central presence in American thought, but at the middle of the twentieth century he was the archetypal "public intellectual," a person who work was valued not just by academic colleagues — Trilling taught English at Columbia University for decades and now has an endowed chair named after him — but also by that hallowed audience, the "educated middle class." His book The Liberal Imagination, published in 1950, sold over one hundred thousand copies, a previously unheard-of success for a scholarly work.

The book includes a famous essay on Henry James's novel The Princess Casamassima. James's book, briefly, follows a young working-class man in late nineteenth-century London as he falls under the spell of a radical organization. Leveraging his horror at the injustices of industrial capitalism, the radicals enlist him to perform a political assassination. But as he moves toward the date of his appointed deed, the young man develops a love for the artistic and cultural achievements of ancien regime Europe, achievements, he understands, that in important ways depended upon the inequalities of wealth he has come to loathe. When the assassin's hour arrives, he is unable to fulfill his promise; he cannot strike down the embodiment of privilege he has been sent to kill because he cannot affirm the broader objective he knows it would symbolize: the death of the social order that enabled the works of art he loves so much. And so he kills himself instead. 

In Trilling's view, the protagonist's psychology has led him to an impossible choice: He cannot abandon his commitment to social justice, but neither can he renounce his sense of art as something of intense and supreme value. He holds both passions within himself, and his act of suicide is to be understood as signaling his desire for an end to the conditions, personal and cultural, that place these things in tension with each other.

For our purposes here, what matters is something Trilling himself does not dilate on: the role of the liberal society of Victorian England in precipitating the protagonist's crisis. The Victorians were, of course, very imperfectly progressive, but their society was visibly moving in a liberal direction. And we can see this in the fact that it readily provided the materials for the experience that drives the hero to suicide — the experience, that is, of contradiction. The young man looks around himself and sees great wealth side-by-side with great misery; he also absorbs the reforming and radical sentiments the society allows to circulate. At the same time, the world he experiences includes numerous examples of beautiful objects that unjust fortunes have made possible. It is the complexity of a liberal culture—- its social manifestation of visible difference—- that ultimately imposes a demand he cannot reconcile or manage. In a socialist utopia cleansed of ill-gotten gains, or a pure plutocracy without reforming voices, he might have found a simpler, seamless world of less spiritual—- and therefore less lethal—-strain. 

But it is just this demand—- the requirement that citizens find ways to navigate a social world which will, necessarily, often baffle and horrify them—- that liberal societies must impose. They arise when coercively monolithic social forms come under new pressures that weaken and subvert them. By insisting on a pluralistic regime, they then drive a relentlessly ramifying scene of social complexity. (This is why the late critic Joseph Frank was wrong to argue that Trilling was mistaken in thinking of liberalism as having special connections with complexity.) Citizens must develop habits of thought and feeling that allow an experience of difference as one of the natural facts of democratic life — not as the perverse evidence of a disordered society.

This demand gives the lie to a common misconception of liberalism, namely, that it is an ethic of insouciant self-indulgence, a politics for blithe egoists. In fact, just the opposite is true. The burdens of liberal selfhood— of accepting the presence of creeds, conduct, and beliefs that strike you as absurd, of agreeing to be ruled (depending on the election results) by people whose lives you cannot fathom — are not easily borne. They are difficult and strenuous, and the chaos of our own political moment is ample evidence of this. They are, clearly, more than some people can bear. There is a certain kind of personality that is unmoored when it looks at the world and does not see a reflection of itself. And when a politics decides that its main problem is not the management of competing interests, but the very fact of difference itself, then all its solutions must be authoritarian ones.

The Princess Casamassima gives us a tender soul crushed by his inability to deal constructively with the visible difference on display in his time and place. Our anti-liberals are not tender. They are, rather, adherents of a social vision that figures large numbers of their fellow citizens as permanent outsiders, as active threats to peace and security who cannot be cooperated with, only dominated. The violence, rhetorical and literal, of the Trumpist Right flows directly from this sense of social life as necessarily and unavoidably coercive. Unlike James's hero, they will not be pointing the gun at themselves when they pull the trigger. 

By Kim Messick

Kim Messick’s work has appeared in Salon, Real Clear Politics, Huffington Post, and other venues. He’s writing a book about the liberalism of Lionel Trilling and Bernard Williams.

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