The Key to Liberalism is Diversity of Thought
The marketplace of ideas is the key to a successful reformist politics
Welcome to Rebuilding Liberalism, a series where we look at how to rebuild the classical liberal consensus, and build a rational and successful reformist politics on top of this consensus.
Recently, in an article about the 2022 US midterm election results, I’ve analyzed how ‘woke’ activists are creating a dilemma for the Democrats (as well as their counterparts in other countries). The ‘woke’ agenda, consisting mostly of postmodern critical theory inspired activism, is broadly unpopular, and the Republicans have successfully painted the Democrats as supportive of it. Even if they stay silent on cultural issues, they can’t seem to shake off the ‘woke’ vibe. This is because, unlike back in the 1990s, party establishments don’t control the conversation in the media anymore, and hence can’t control how they are perceived. The solution I suggested was to develop an alternative platform that addresses the social justice demands out there, but rooted in the long-standing classical liberal consensus instead of postmodern critical theory, including upholding values like free speech and freedom of conscience.
However, one might still ask, how would the (classical) liberal alternative be heard over the postmodern critical theory agenda? The answer actually lies in one of liberalism’s most cherished values: diversity of thought. Of all the ideologies that have existed in the history of the West, liberalism is uniquely committed to diversity of thought, as reflected in its values like free speech, freedom of conscience, encouragement of rational debate, and so on. Until recently, liberal media was well known for giving all sorts of unusual views airtime, in contrast to conservative media’s habit of running the same message over and over again. This kind of coverage was well suited to liberal audiences, because of their open-minded nature. However, in recent years, this liberal diversity has greatly diminished. I believe it has a lot to do with the rise of cancel culture. Journalists and media outlets, who used to take interest in diverse viewpoints across the spectrum, have been increasingly leaning towards the argument that ‘harmful’ ideas shouldn’t be platformed. As to what is harmful, it could range from actual racism (which I agree shouldn’t be entertained), all the way down to proposals for compromise solutions on issues related to racial justice and LGBT issues (which are probably essential to building consensus for reform). Activists have also attacked liberal media outlets that feature ‘harmful’ voices, leading to the calculation that, for reputation’s sake, it might be better not to invite certain people on. All this has meant that progressive-side media has increasingly toed the activist line. I even suspect that this is actually one of the biggest reasons for the current polarization.
Restoring the diversity of thought in liberal media would stop the conservative attempt to paint everyone to their left as ‘woke’ on everything. The ‘everything is woke’ narrative would naturally be discredited in a world where diversity of thought and sincere debates are clearly the norm among those who want to reform society. Yes, ‘woke’ voices would still be there, they will still be part of the conversation, but it would be clear that they are not the only perspective on offer on the progressive side. Free debate would also lead to the exchange of ideas, the refinement of proposals, and yes, the formation of compromises most people can get behind, which is what needs to happen for any progressive reform to occur, or indeed, to stop reactionary policies from winning. For example, parents are rightly concerned that sex education in schools need to be age appropriate, and they need to have a say in it. Polls have repeatedly showed that a majority of Americans agree with this position, for example. However, activists on the left have made the issue taboo to discuss in liberal media. This has created an opening for people like Ron DeSantis to come up with ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills. A similar dynamic also exists in relation to discussions on history and race, again allowing reactionary politicians to run a culture war in that area. Restoring liberal diversity would short circuit these dynamics, and likely stop the rising tide of reactionary culture war politics.
The other important thing is that, those in favor of social reforms should welcome a re-diversified landscape, and adapt to it accordingly. This way, they can potentially greatly expand the coalitions supporting their policy goals. To do this, they need to learn to build coalitions in favor of reforms, which can include a diverse range of views about the underlying reasons for embracing particular policies. For example, I have long argued that the pro-environment coalition needs to include people who are still skeptical of climate change, but would support climate action as an ‘insurance policy’. Similarly, the pro-choice coalition needs to include people who are personally against abortion, but believe the government shouldn’t be involved, or otherwise believe that banning abortions isn’t the answer. The LGBT rights coalition should welcome people who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman in the religious sense, or who don’t believe that ‘trans women are women’, but are still compassionate enough to support civil rights to make life easier for LGBT people, for example. The attitude they should take is, ‘you shouldn’t have to agree with us on philosophy to agree with us on policy’. This is the only way to build broad coalitions to achieve needed reforms.
Finally, it is only to be expected that critical theory-aligned activists will not be kind towards any attempt to develop and articulate an alternative progressive agenda that doesn’t entertain their ideological point of view. Those advancing a truly liberal agenda must be prepared for smears of not being committed to social justice, or even throwing minorities under the bus. The best way to argue against these smears would be to show a genuine commitment to equal opportunity for everyone in society, regardless of race, gender, or other immutable characteristics. It is the only way to win the argument against postmodern critical theory.
She is also the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which argue that liberalism is still the most moral and effective value system for the West.