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Liberalism’s Forever Crisis

Across Western democracies, one finds many who casually dismiss liberalism as a self-justifying ideology for economic “winners” or colonialism. But with conservatives openly fantasizing about imposing their moral orthodoxy on the whole society, liberalism’s critics should be careful what they wish for.

PRINCETON – Ever since the double shock of 2016 – when British voters decided to pull their country out of the European Union, and Americans elected Donald Trump as their president – we have been told that liberalism is in crisis. But which liberalism? Are we talking about a set of ideals, or about institutions such as the much-criticized “liberal global order,” or only about recent policies pursued in a number of Western countries, which may or may not have anything to do with a political philosophy plausibly labeled liberalism?

We can ask similar questions about the word “crisis.” Are authors in what has become a “crisis-of-liberalism” cottage industry referring to a life-or-death moment, as in the original Greek meaning, or to something more mundane, such as policy failures?

Recent books chart possible answers. Patrick J. Deneen, a political theorist at the University of Notre Dame, heartily welcomes the crisis and hopes that it will lead to liberalism’s ideological and practical demise. He thinks it should be replaced with something entirely different, and he wants his book to serve as a manual for a new “elite” – a “party of order” – to bring about “regime change” and vanquish the “party of progress.”