Can Liberalism Thrive Without a Wolf at the Door?

The idea that Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine would be a restorative tonic for Western liberalism, touted hopefully in the first few weeks of war, has taken sharp blows in recent days.

First came the election in Hungary, where Viktor Orban’s conservative populist government won a sweeping popular majority, despite — or, more likely, because of — Orban’s relative dovish approach to the struggle in Ukraine. Then came the presidential-election polling out of France, where Marine Le Pen is suddenly climbing in second-round polls, threatening Emmanuel Macron with a shocking upset.

Le Pen will probably still lose, not least because her past friendliness to Putin will get more attention between this weekend’s first-round vote and the runoff, assuming she wins through. But there is no sign as yet that the war has prompted a vast revulsion against nationalism or populism, a stampede back to the liberal establishment.

Another possibility, however, is that the Ukraine war could help the liberal establishment in the long run, by encouraging an internal reassessment of what liberalism itself should seek to be.

For example, a writer who seemed overly hopeful about the liberal-revival scenario in the first days of the war, Francis Fukuyama, has now written a searching essay for Foreign Affairs on why “liberalism needs the nation” arguing that the heroic resistance of the Ukrainians should teach liberals a lesson about the virtues of national identity.

“With their bravery,” he writes, the Ukrainians “have made clear that citizens are willing to die for liberal ideals, but only when those ideals are embedded in a country they can call their own.” The war has thus been a partial rebuke to the fantasy of a pure cosmopolitanism, of a liberalism that transcends borders, languages and specific histories. And it’s offered a case study in how the nation-state, its loves and loyalties, can unite a disparate population around a common cause in a way that no supranational institution has ever been able to achieve.

The challenge, though, is that the “sense of national purpose” Fukuyama is praising in Ukraine conspicuously depends on an external enemy, a wolf at the door, and you cannot simply will such an enemy into being. (Nor should you wish to!) Whereas most of the peacetime sources of national solidarity he cites, from food and sports to literary traditions, are somewhat thinner things. And one of the potentially thicker forces, a sense of religious unity within a liberal order, Fukuyama rules out: In a pluralist society, “the idea of restoring a shared moral tradition defined by religious belief is a nonstarter,” leading only to sectarianism and violence if applied.

But that might be too simplistic. Certainly you cannot impose strict religious uniformity upon a pluralist democracy. But the liberal order in America, at least, long relied for solidarity and purpose on a softer religious consensus, a flexible religious center, based on Protestant Christianity and then expanding to a more ecumenical but still biblically rooted vision. From the 19th century through the civil rights era, this shared worldview supplied not just a generic unity but a constant moral touchstone for would-be reformers, a metaphysical horizon for the entire American project.

Here Fukuyama’s essay might be usefully supplemented by my colleague Ezra Klein’s recent meditation on how Western liberalism appears when seen through the eyes of its enemies — meaning not just Putinism, with its spurious Christian justifications for aggressive war, but certain radical-right philosophers who have rejected liberalism and Christianity together, seeing the latter as the original source of liberalism’s egalitarianism, its attention to the poor and marginalized, and its restless quest for universal dignity (all of which they reject and despise).

To push Klein’s idea a little further, you might say that since the 1960s, when the old Protestant consensus cracked up, the American system has been in search of a form of religion that can ground its liberalism in something like that way.

That search has been unsuccessful. The religious right proved too conservative and parochial (and scandal-plagued) for a diverse and liberalizing country, and it cracked up with George W. Bush’s presidency. The liberal Christianity of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, while in certain ways better suited to hold the religious center, lacks internal vitality and is easily subsumed into a mixture of pantheism and gnosticism, with its moral vision supplied by a progressive activism that’s intolerant in its own distinctive way. These failures have left us with a spiritual competition between an ascendant wokeness and a resentful Christian nationalism, which isn’t likely to supply unity or solidarity to anyone.

But notably, throughout these culture wars, liberalism’s inner party, its intellectual elite, has retained a conception of itself as resolutely secular, persistently imagining a perfected, post-religious liberal order that can establish solidarity and purpose without any of the old American appeals to Providence or nature’s God.

It will be a sign that liberalism is ready to confront its present challenges, all the unhappiness of its citizens and children, when that illusion is finally and irrevocably put away.

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