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The Liberal Project Goes into Another Year, Weathered but Unbeaten

It is interesting that in his op-ed Cracks in the Liberal Order, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is able to line up Western liberalism’s foes and not find the Republican Party. True, he finds Trump’s “reality-TV shamelessness, European-style nationalism and boastful authoritarianism” a threat but acknowledges that “Trump will not be the Republican nominee.”

He sees bogeymen in Vladimir Putin and in France’s Marine Le Pen and even in migration from Africa, but he misses the catastrophic specter of climate change entirely. You begin to wonder if Republican will notice when the sea level is lapping about their belly buttons.

According to Douthat, “the Islamic State and Vladimir Putin’s Russia were supplying evidence that the liberal project can be at least temporarily defied.” By liberal project, of course, he means the modern liberal democracy, the West being, undeniably, the outcome of the 18th century’s European Enlightenment. Liberalism built that. The Old Order, championed by conservatism, was swept away in revolution after revolution, and the voice of the people was heard.

But the liberal project has been defied before, and by more potent enemies, from Hitler to Mussolini to Imperial Japan to the Soviet Union and Mao’s China. King George III tried and failed to halt liberalism’s rise, as did King Louis XVI. George lost a continent, Louis his head.

The Third Reich lasted 12 years, the Soviet Union four days short of 69. Communist China’s fate is a bit more murky, but what stated in 1949 as a Communist victory has ended in the triumph of Chinese capitalism and profits were winning out over Mao’s Little Red Book within a little more than half a century.

The colonies ejected the British in 1783 and 232 years later there are still no kings or dictators in North America.

And Putin hasn’t done anything to threaten the United States, let alone the liberal project, despite Douthat’s claim that “by playing power politics in his near abroad and the Middle East, Putin has helped make the Pax Americana look more fragile than at any point since 1989.”

Putin’s Syrian ploy might well prove to be a classic example of strategic overreach. He yearns for the heady days of Soviet adventurism, but Afghanistan ruined the Soviet Union when it reached into that country on this day in 1979. Just 22 years later the Soviet Union was no more. Putin has a much less firm grasp on things at home than did the Soviet regime and the Party apparatus. It is not like Western capitalism, let alone democratic ideals, have no cachet in Putin’s Russia.

It wasn’t conservatism’s pursuit of the status quo that toppled the Soviet Empire. It was the triumph of the liberal project. The triumph of people who, like the American colonists, wanted to be free.

The liberal project’s most dangerous threats come not from without, if we exclude global warming, but from within, and Trump can hardly be named while ignoring the ideology that birthed him and made him possible – even created him – the Republican Party. Douthat doesn’t get off that easily from acknowledging Trump’s antecedents.

From theocracy to demagogic populism and the specter of a racist neo-Confederacy, the liberal project is under assault from within, fueled by forces that have always been present, including an ever-simmering and endemic racism and a sense of “whiteness” that transcends melanin by dictating that not only are “real Americans” white (sort of, Bobby Jindal and Ben Carson) but Christian and Republican.

Bernie Sanders has correctly identified our real common enemy as climate change, because without a planet, none of the rest of this matters. We have just one climate and there are no substitutes, and rising sea levels and toxic air and water and a polluted food supply diminished by rising waters and temperatures, will trump all projects, Trump’s included.

It is doubtful his wall will be built, and it certainly won’t keep out the rising waters driven by corporate greed and blinkered ideology. We could do something about climate change, if the same conservative forces that drive Donald Trump would hearken to the fact that they can’t stash their profits on another planet.

The liberal project’s one major enemy then is a conservative ideology that has de-legitimized all other modes of thought and eschews compromise and with it, a thought for the common weal. But we go into the new year as we have gone into every year since the British went home, with the right to vote.

Until we can no longer vote away our problems, there is hope for the liberal project. The conservative project will see what it can do about that, because it has plans for the liberal project. But rooted in the people as it is, in their hopes and their dreams as well as their fears, the liberal project should not be counted out, and Douthat is wrong if, as he says, he plans to hedge his bet.

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