Classical Liberals in a Polarized Age: A Warlike Politics Is the Greatest Threat to Liberty

Classical liberalism, the political movement to which I belong, is in decline. Illiberalisms, both left and right, grow bold, spurring one another on with outrage, censorship, and tribalism. Politics is more warlike than at any time in living memory. And classical liberals have joined the conflict, taking sides rather than defending freedom. Too many of us care more about the red or blue team than about preserving liberalism from them both.

Instead of choosing a side, we classical liberals must take on a new role in American society as a movement that can reduce political polarization and restore social trust through the limitation and decentralization of political power.

Falling trust and rising polarization pose a grave but ignored threat to liberty. We must also reformulate classical liberal ideas to create a new antiwar movement, one that aims at resisting the political war raging within the United States. But to do this, we must understand the dynamics of trust and polarization.

The Promise of Trusting Societies

Social trust—faith that strangers will abide by established norms—has been in gradual decline in the United States since the early 1960s. The decline is worrisome because social trust produces many great goods, such as lower corruption, higher economic growth, and a more robust and active civil society. Social trust lowers corruption in the legal system; it discourages legal officials from violating the informal norms that prohibit bribery, theft, fraud, and self-interested decisionmaking. Social trust encourages higher economic growth by making people more willing to exchange and helping them to become more economically productive. It leads people to form new associations because they feel safe around strangers.

High-trust societies are also more amenable to deregulation and privatizations because they are less concerned that private persons and firms will misbehave. It has been much easier for Sweden to move from democratic socialism to a capitalist welfare state, with large privatizations, deregulation, and tax cuts, because Sweden is one of the world’s most trusting nations. The Swedish market liberals who proposed these policies in the 1980s and ‘90s were often greeted as acting in good faith. But when market liberals in the United States propose similar policies, they are met with furious denunciations and accusations that they are the servants of corporate power.

Totalitarian states target social trust. Propaganda and secret police constantly encourage neighbors to turn on one another. State power becomes total because communities and local institutions that could resist state power disintegrate. High-trust societies are freer because they demand less control of their members and are better able to resist it.

High-trust societies do demand larger welfare states, but from a classical liberal perspective there are two mitigating factors. First, high-trust countries’ institutions are much less corrupt, and so they are less wasteful. Second, high-trust countries have broad support for redistribution, including from the very rich, which helps to ensure that redistribution is more voluntary than it is in medium and low-trust countries, since more people agree to it.

On balance, classical liberals should want to live in high trust societies. But in the United States, classical liberals have stood by while trust collapses.

Political Polarization and the Decline of the Liberty Movement

Why is social trust declining? Trust theorists disagree, but one likely cause is rising political polarization. As I argue in my new book, Trust in a Polarized Age, and in The Wall Street Journal, trust is causally linked with political polarization; indeed, they are arguably in a kind of feedback loop. To stymie falling social trust, we must look for ways to reduce political polarization.

Few tasks are more important than creating peace between groups classical liberals consider our political opponents—here, they are mainstream Democrats and Republicans. These groups are not classical liberals. Not even close. But we should not want them to tear each other apart, and us along with them. Polarization in an increasingly mistrustful society is a losing proposition. And as people trust each other less, it creates a vacuum the state will fill. When trust dies, it’s replaced by coercion and control.

Indeed, circumstances in the United States are worse than what I just described. Falling trust and rising polarization have launched a “cold civil war” that has descended from occasional outbursts of violence and general incivility to a coordinated attack on the Capitol. The war is only beginning, I fear.

Classical liberals have long understood the horrors of war. For one, the wars of religion in early modern Europe spurred thinkers to establish the classical liberal tradition. More recently and here at home, classical liberals in America were more united against the threat of foreign wars and the expansions of state power that invariably follow. Our opposition to the Iraq War was strong and principled, and the movement was absolutely correct to oppose it. Our predictions of grave disaster were false only because we underestimated the horrors that would follow. No one could have foreseen the nightmare of ISIS.

And yet we have allowed ourselves to be torn to pieces by a warlike political process, dividing ever more furiously into the cultural left and right, which has led many people to reject classical liberalism altogether for right- or left-wing identity politics.

Too many classical liberals have spent more time attacking or defending Trump than defending and expanding freedom. We now prefer to shout down the red or blue team, rather than not playing their game.

Some will strenuously object to what I’ve said. “Yes, but who is the greater threat to liberty?” you may ask.

That question is important, but it is not the most important one we face. Our most pressing question is how to turn the energies of classical liberal thought and classical liberal academic, policy, and political organizations towards building a liberalism that can appeal to everyone, including liberals of other stripes, and even those tempted by illiberal ideas.

Reuniting to Save Liberty

We may not fully emerge from the coronavirus for several years, and we may well come to permanently embrace a much greater level of dependency on the state. I expect a dramatic increase in attachment to government, as Americans saw in the aftermath of World War I. We will not embrace socialism. People don’t want the government to own the means of production, in part because it manifestly doesn’t work. But socialism is not the only threat.

Political polarization has also created a suffocating dynamic that may lead to the rise of a new domestic terrorism apparatus within the federal government. We know this new apparatus will be abused, much as the foreign terrorism apparatus built after 9/11 was abused. That’s the future we face. If we are to have any hope of stopping it, we must resist the titanic clash of two increasingly anti-liberal parties.

The new illiberals don’t care to play nice. They are committed to capturing institutions. For the left, this involves capturing the education system and the business world, with a new focus on the giant tech companies and social media. The right intends to capture the Republican Party, twisting the electoral system to ensure minority rule, right-wing media, and rapidly replacing the conservative intellectual class with populists.

I fear that classical liberals are enemy #1 for both sides. The illiberal right and left know that, in the end, there can be only one victor. They are content with this winner-take-all conflict. Their fight is a force that gives them meaning. Genuine liberals have become an irritant because they resist closing society around their own contested values. But liberals are playing defense, and classical liberals can’t see it. We are too distracted by rooting for the red team or the blue team to preserve liberalism from them both.

Classical liberals sometimes tell me that there is no other option but to choose sides. But American politics has not always been this bad, nor do other countries with similar institutions face these challenges to the same degree.

A New Antiwar Liberalism

Let’s sketch a strategy for classical liberals who wish to focus on limiting polarization and boosting falling trust. Our goal must be to make peace by lowering the stakes of political conflict, which requires dividing and decentralizing power. In this way, we may bring about a new antiwar movement, one focused on ending political war at home.

We must continue to insist that the executive branch is far too powerful relative to Congress, and we should worry more about a Senate that does not properly represent both sides of the political aisle, creating a sense of political bias and exclusion that destabilizing our institutions.

We need a renewed emphasis on federalism. The more power we get out of Washington, the less there is to fight over. We must send political authority to states, even if that means that their governments may grow.

Preserving religious liberty and expanding school choice are other ways of ensuring that our cultural choices are not imposed on those who disagree, but we must also respect the values of people who have diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Conservative religious communities and progressive LGBTQ communities are here to stay. Let us make peace between them by preventing them from excluding the other from social life.

I argue in Trust in a Polarized Age that deregulating the housing market will increase economic prosperity for workers by helping them afford to live in high-wage areas. The same policy can reduce economic inequality by allowing markets to reduce the real estate of the urban rich. This would simultaneously advance the goals of right and left. Deploying prediction markets in small deliberative bodies to formulate public policy could help to avoid decisions based on misinformation and simple economic fallacies.

But the science of social trust is fairly new, and there is much we do not know. Few classical liberals have helped us understand its sources, though there have been important exceptions like Vernon Smith. And many classical liberal-adjacent scholars have much to teach us about trust, such as the Ostroms, Russell Hardin, and Robert Putnam, along with the contemporary Scandinavian political economists Andreas Bergh and Christian Bjørnskov.

My research has convinced me that we must build a united antiwar movement once again, as we did twenty years ago. The war is domestic now, and it’s taking place within our movement, and within our own hearts. The role of classical liberals in a polarized age is to bring unity in diversity through liberty.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kevin Vallier argues that politics should not be war, and that classical liberals should strive to be peacekeepers. He marshals evidence that high levels of social trust lead to many desirable social outcomes, and that social trust in the United States has been on the wane. At the same time, Vallier also laments the decline of classical liberalism as a force in American politics. He proposes that classical liberals can reinvigorate their movement by addressing the problem of trust—a development that will improve the political climate for everyone.

Response Essays

  • Steven Horwitz points out that civil society is of great value regardless of the political beliefs of those within it. Our neighbors—whom we may hate for voting for Trump, or for Biden—are the same people whom we greet and exchange kindnesses with. They are also the same people who provide us goods and services in the market—meaning that the market and civil society both stand in conflict with our harsher political impulses.

  • Martin Gurri places the blame for declining instutional trust squarely on how internet-mediated social interactions have fatally undermined many of our old, elite-run institutions. The problem is structural, he insists, and not the result of partisanship alone. He is doubtful that classical liberalism, however defined, can offer a workable solution.

  • Americans are paradoxically both highly polarized—and not all that ideologically divided, writes Irina Soboleva. Voters are intensely attached to their parties and their leaders, and, she argues, it is these institutions and leaders that have encouraged polarization. Political ignorance has exacerbated this tendency; in response, Soboleva calls for “buffer zones” of relatively nonpolitical life including but also extending beyond the market.