The New Religion of Illiberalism

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 humbled me and made me aware of the echo chamber I exist in and the failures of the media to present in good faith the thoughts and realities of those living outside urban, affluent, college-educated, Democratic enclaves. While I did not understand the appeal of Trump as a politician, I also did not believe as most on the left did that the people who voted for him were just racists and idiots. That explanation, besides being smugly offensive, was too reductionist to explain the motivations of a large, heterogeneous group of people, many of whom, I imagine, felt as frustrated with the lack of options as I did.

Even after Trump was elected, the media failed to report adequately on his policies and continued to this day to focus almost exclusively on the smoke and mirrors that are his tweets and contradictory, inflammatory statements. I was following the gold standard of news—the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, etc.— and yet I knew little of what was happening policy-wise in the federal government. It took a conservative commentor lauding Trump’s policy accomplishments in response to a derisive op-ed that would have had me believe that Trump was accomplishing nothing that made me realize that I was learning nothing of substance from the news media. I was increasingly frustrated that the media was providing infotainment rather than information, and I was exhausted by the perpetual outrage cycle that the media was constantly feeding into. By focusing almost wholly on sensational click-bait stories, the media was creating a flawed and incomplete narrative of the state of the country, and I lost confidence in the news. Eventually, I cut back my consumption of news and took these revelations as a call to humility, a recognition that I need to try better to understand how others think outside of the narrative that I’d been presented with.

But many of my peers have done the opposite. They are more tuned in than ever into the cycle of outrage, each headline further reinforcing the narrative that the county faced an unprecedented threat in the form of Trump. For years I have watched in horror as purported liberals ironically adopted illiberal ideas in response to their fears that Trump’s term would usher in fascism. Apparently concluding that the ends would justify the means, they turned to illiberalism supposedly to protect against the decline of #Liberalism. Now people arguably on the left actively strive to censor ideas they do not like often on paternalistic grounds and to control the thoughts, speech, bodies, and behaviors of everyone else. Though operating in the name of anti-fascism, they became vocal proponents of fascist ideals.

This shift created a schism between myself and my supposed political allies on the left. The Liberal (in the classical, philosophical sense of ideology, not in the common usage that describes the political attitudes of people who tend to identify with the Democratic party and the left. I will use a capital ‘L’ to denote when I am referring to the Enlightenment philosophy rather than modern political attitudes.) values of liberty,  independence, pluralism, government restraint, and reason that I hold dear—that the country was founded on—used to be values that united the otherwise disparate populations of the United States.

Such cultural values form a creed, or a set of beliefs that the population shares, and creeds act as the nation's and individual's operating system, constantly running in the background of a person's mind so that they may not even be consciously aware of it though it shapes every action they take.  Increasingly, I find myself in a minority by continuing to champion these once bedrock ideals of Liberalism. There has been an ideological shift, and I frequently observe that Americans are disturbingly eager to cede longstanding Liberal ideals in favor of short-term exigencies. Even former champions of Liberalism like the ACLU are now retreating into this new illiberal mode of thought. In effect, many Americans now have a new set of values they operate on, values that are largely incompatible with the old. 

The Ideology Of Illiberalism

This burgeoning, illiberal ideology has the following values attached to it:

Collectivism: The mob rules over everyone. The individual is disposable and can be constrained to accomplish the group’s goals. It is proper to abridge the rights and welfare of the individual whenever the majority wishes it.

The individual is not intelligent or competent. The individual is easily swayed by information deemed dangerous by the group and therefore must be protected from that information through #censorship. There are no protections for deviant minorities.

There is a hollow dialectic of equity that fails to acknowledge that the group’s choices benefit some in the group more than others and a disregard for the harms suffered by those not favored by the group.

Authoritarianism: They believe heavily in expansive government and reliance on the state rather than on individual or local community reliance. Rather than limit government to protect individual freedom, government power should be utilized to the utmost to compel individuals into conforming to the majority. Again, since the majority assumes moral superiority, there are no protections for minority groups. They do not respect the concept of rule of law; rather, they feel the rules should be changed and constitutional rights violated to serve the desired ends. Moreover, general, unwarranted surveillance of the populace is appropriate, and the government should be able to compel individuals to act when it deems it necessary and without any due process.

Because of the jaundiced view of the individual as incompetent and ineffectual, there is a bias towards institutional solutions to every problem, especially government institutions. It is appropriate for the government to expand without limit to meet the goals of safety and conformity.

Further, every aspect of life and area of knowledge is outsourced to credentialed experts who are empowered to prescribe how the individual should act. #Science is reductionist and sacrosanct and, when wielded by authority, can quash non-quantitative, philosophical objections, including Liberal objections. Not complying with authority figures and experts is seen as immoral. Authority figures should be questioned sparingly. Absent state accreditation or other formal certification, the individual is not considered competent to question expert advice, which taken to the extreme means that the private individual should not question or criticize government policy. The lack of recognition of individual competence means the individual’s actions are not legitimate or appropriate when they contradict authority.

Risk Intolerance: They are completely intolerant of risk and discomfort, and they seek to eliminate all risk and suffering at all cost without reason. #Freedom is less important than safety. There is no balancing act, no recognition that some risks provide rewards, that some suffering can be necessary or even positive, or that the costs of eliminating the risk may outweigh the benefit. Anything that could cause pain is deemed an unmitigated evil to be avoided. These people believe that that which does not kill us does not make us stronger, and it is appropriate to employ government to avoid non-lethal risks. Every person is deemed drafted without due process to serve the cause of safety of others even at the expense of one’s own welfare. The collective pursuit of safety trumps the individual pursuit of happiness.

Because risk pervades all aspects of life, extreme risk avoidance coupled with #authoritarianism results in enabling government to police nearly every aspect of a person's life. The government can interfere to make the individual “safe” whether the individual wants it or not. Any person who admits a tolerance for some risk or hardship is deemed foolish, selfish, or malicious. Illiberalism encourages a culture of performative victimhood and discourages personal responsibility. The institutional bias inclines citizens to externalize all of their problems onto others and seek solutions outside of themselves instead of acknowledging their own loci of control.

This creates a cycle of fear; individuals are perceived as increasingly ineffectual in the face of institutional solutions, and that sense of impotence makes the world appear more dangerous in relation to the individual, who now has no sense of control over his own safety. The more risky the world appears to be, the more government and other authority figures are called on to make society safer, further disempowering the individual.

Conformity: There are right and wrong ways to behave and think, and the individual must conform to the group. There is no room for experimentation. Rather than tolerate diverse manners of lifestyles and faiths, the group expects the individual to bend to the majority. Once the group forms a consensus about a thought or action, then any deviance should be punished and eliminated. Dissenters are enemies, and questioning or criticizing the consensus even mildly is not permitted. If you are not with the group, you are against the group. Speech is deemed violence when incongruent with the group consensus. Loss of livelihood and ostracism are appropriate punishments for speech crimes and other deviant acts because it is important to send a message to those witnessing the speech that such divergence is unacceptable, which purposefully chills further such speech.

The marketplace of ideas needs to be highly regulated, and the individual should not be able to judge for him- or herself whether an idea has merit; rather, the group should actively censor supposedly inflammatory ideas and arguable misinformation to avoid allowing the individual, who is incompetent to judge for himself, to be seduced into deviance. The group must take control of the media in all its forms to ensure that only the accepted narrative is presented to the corruptible individual. It is an anti-intellectual and anti-scientific ideology, more concerned with ensuring that every person is indoctrinated into the proper mode of thought as determined by the elite members of the majority rather than trying to better understand the truth of a matter. Once the proper mode of though has been established by the majority (or more specifically the powerful elites who control the majority), it shall not be questioned, not even by disinterested scientists. If any new studies cast doubt on the group consensus, those studies should be censored. #Truth is something decided on by the most powerful voices in the #majority.

Post-Modernism: Nature is inherently flawed, individuals are broken, and technology is necessary to tame and correct both. There is no agreed upon #reality aside from the subjective group consensus dictated by the elite, no self-evident truths. Everything material is socially constructed and therefore not real, but the subjective is real when promoted by the majority. The focus is on fragmentary identities and labels that separate us from one another rather than on those universal truths that unite us. It is society’s and the individual’s job to validate other people’s subjective, internal realities and to constantly keep these subjective realities at the forefront of our existences, which perpetually reinforces the seeds of division that prevent true collective action and mobilization.

Liberalism vs. Illiberalism

Thus, illiberalism is a deeply paternalistic ideology that diminishes individual autonomy, eliminates diversity in thought and action, negates intelligent discourse, and uses government and institutional force to manipulate the populace into complying with the wishes of the elite. These modern values are in violent conflict with Liberalism’s values of individual liberty,  independence, pluralism, limited government, and reason. Americans now seem increasingly hostile to the Enlightenment ideals that provide the foundation for the country’s government. They value conformity more than liberty and diversity and cannot tolerate that their fellow citizens can think and believe differently than they do. And while these illiberal values have been flourishing on the left, many of the same tendencies are evident on the right as well (Although, due to reflexive opposition to the left and the fact that conservatives have become the target of leftist illiberalism, it is common to see those on the right today at least nominally defending Liberal values, unlike many on the left.).

Americans are more than willing to sacrifice freedom if it means they can be the ones dictating how others behave. No longer concerned with defending against illegitimate power, Americans now want to ensure they have the power to control other people's lives, bodies, thoughts, speech, and actions. Modern Americans value power more than freedom. We have regressed to the point that many Americans now openly sympathize with dictatorial appeals rather than the ideas of Enlightenment revolutionaries and philosophers. Consequently, the very rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution are under threat.

This illiberal ideology amounts to a secular #religion that a large portion of the population are attempting to foist on everyone else. The believers of illiberalism see their values as indisputable truth and will deride, police, ostracize, criminalize, and quash anyone who dares to question the new religion. To question or criticize is heresy. Consequently, to be a Liberal in today's society is to be a modern heretic.