Say the words “post-liberal,” and you are bound to get a host of responses. Some may mention post-liberal theology, others may reference post-liberal peace-building, and many will discuss the prospect of organizing a genuinely post-liberal politics. Isolating a precise definition of post-liberal politics is difficult. Post-liberalism is a vague term that only denotes politics after liberalism—and after the “End of History“—without specifying what the content of this politics will be or clarifying how far this post-liberal withdrawal from liberal principles will go.
According to the political philosopher John Gray, these liberal principles assume that humans on a universal basis are individualistic creatures that are destined to experience progress along meliorist lines and create better, more egalitarian societies that value the equal worth of each person. As writers and thinkers from across the political spectrum start to look beyond these axioms, a number of commentators have attempted to identify and explain the core tenets of an emerging post-liberal politics. This new brand of post-liberal politics can be divided into three strands—one on the Left, one on the Right, and one in the Center—which are united by their shared divergence from the core tenets of liberalism to varying degrees.
The Post-Liberal Right
Right-wing post-liberals believe that humans are, by nature, relational beings who are better suited to pursuing virtue within their own communities than falling prey to the false promise of universal progress. For this reason, right-wing post-liberals put duty and virtue ahead of rights and liberty, and they have a tendency to rely on state power to enforce these duties and virtues. Similarly, they reject the universal, individualist, meliorist, and egalitarian notions of liberalism because they believe that liberalism has failed to live up to these principles.
In a timely article about the New American Right, Matthew Continetti provides his conception of right-wing post-liberalism:
Post-liberals say that freedom has become a destructive end-in-itself. Economic freedom has brought about a global system of trade and finance that has outsourced jobs, shifted resources to the metropolitan coasts, and obscured its self-seeking under the veneer of social justice. Personal freedom has ended up in the mainstreaming of pornography, alcohol, drug, and gambling addiction, abortion, single-parent families, and the repression of orthodox religious practice and conscience.
Continetti then lists a wide array of conservative politicians, activists, and commentators that share this particular post-liberal outlook. Among these are Josh Hawley, who opposes liberalism’s “Pelagian vision”; Yoram Hazony, who finds virtue in nationalism; Rod Dreher, who promotes a Benedictine retreat from liberal modernity; Sohrab Ahmari, who critiques the “David French-ism” of mainstream American Republicans; and Patrick Deneen, who calls liberalism a failure—because it has succeeded.
These individuals share an antipathy toward liberalism and modernity and believe that virtue and duty precede freedom in society. As Josh Hawley puts it, “though [liberalism] proclaims liberty, it destroys the life that makes liberty possible.” By promoting virtue ahead of rights, these post-liberals hope to create a space where the duties and values of associational life enable freedom and the common good to flourish side-by-side—a valiant goal no matter their political inclinations.
According to Continetti, they also have an intriguing willingness to turn to the state for salvation:
Post-liberals say that the distinction between state and society is illusory. They argue that, even as conservatives defended the independence of civil society from state power, the Left took over Hollywood, the academy, the media, and the courts. What the post-liberals seem to call for is the use of government to recapture society from the Left.
This veiled statism is not an end in itself, as Continetti points out. While these right-wing post-liberals are skeptical of big government and recognize that individualism and statism go hand-in-hand, they have a tendency to employ state power as a moral instrument of right-wing causes in society—most recently, by punishing liberal universities with endowment tax “indulgences” at a time when college tuition is too expensive for most young people to afford. This view of state and society mirrors that of Aristotle, who did not draw a clear distinction between the political and social life of the polis. By fusing state and society, these right-wing post-liberals risk putting America—and the Western world—on an illiberal path that is more likely to generate an ultraliberal backlash than resolve liberalism’s underlying contradictions.
The Post-Liberal Center
Centrist post-liberals are less anti-liberal than those on the Right. They agree with their right-wing counterparts that liberalism has fallen short of its promises. However, they leave a larger space for individualism and egalitarianism by balancing rights and duties in society—even if they do not fully embrace either of these liberal principles. Centrist post-liberals also put society above the state and the market. For this reason, they depart from the universal and meliorist tenets of liberalism and believe that true social progress—if such a notion exists—emerges from one’s local context rather than one’s abstract principles or one’s faith in the government and the economy.
This centrist form of post-liberal politics is now emerging in the United Kingdom. What makes this brand of post-liberalism unique is its view of freedom. In the words of British political commentator Peter Franklin:
Post-liberals, like liberals, are pro-liberty; but unlike liberals they do not believe that the maximization of personal freedom is the be-all-and-end-all of politics. Other things are important too—like family, community, nation, fairness and beauty—and therefore there are balances to be struck and conflicts to be resolved as an essential part of the democratic process. Post-liberals therefore believe that individuals have rights and duties.
This emphasis on balancing liberty and responsibility in society echoes the social and political thought of Edmund Burke, who believed that humans inherit their rights and duties through their covenantal ties to those who came before them. Along with this emphasis, British post-liberalism also views society through a different lens. According to British political philosopher Adrian Pabst:
Post-liberalism, by contrast, signals a politics that priorities society over state and market. This means the embedding of state agencies and market mechanisms in intermediary [social] institutions: from local government via regional organisations to nation-wide professional bodies (employers’ associations and trade unions), manufacturing and trading guilds as well as universities.
By elevating society, centrist post-liberals inoculate themselves against the excesses of statist temptation and promote virtue through the values, rights, and duties tied to social institutions. In this sense, centrist post-liberals are less “trigger happy” with state authority and less likely to disrupt the balance between rights and duties in society—which makes them less right-wing than their conservative, American counterparts.
For this reason, these post-liberals occupy the political center. However, their political center is not “mushy middle” and does not follow Messrs. Macron and Trudeau in recycling old, Third Way themes. Instead, centrist post-liberals stand in a “hard centre” that acknowledges liberalism’s achievements—freedom for women, minorities, and marginalia; and affluence by historical standards for all—within the context of its shortcomings—economic inequality, social atomization, and political oligarchy. Similarly, they move beyond—rather than reject—the individualist tendencies at the heart of neoliberalism and blend economic justice with social solidarity.
By tacking to the middle, these centrist post-liberals have made inroads in both of Britain’s major political parties—even if the future of these parties is uncertain. Those in the Conservative Party call themselves Red Tories while those in the Labour Party refer to themselves as Blue Labour.
The Post-Liberal Left
Left-wing post-liberals reconcile themselves with liberalism to a greater degree than their centrist and right-wing counterparts. Unlike those on the Right, they do not reject individualism and egalitarianism altogether and instead believe that individualist, egalitarian societies based on rights and liberties can thrive—so long as these rights and liberties are guaranteed by the state and contribute to a shared notion of the common good. In this sense, left-wing post-liberals believe that rights precede duties—even if social duties are still essential for a vibrant society. Similarly, left-wing post-liberals acknowledge that humanity does have some universal and meliorist tendencies that expand wealth and freedom for all—provided that these tendencies do not outweigh the social and relational virtues that make us human.
This left-wing form of post-liberal politics is now surfacing in America’s Democratic presidential primary. The standard-bearer of this left-wing, post-liberal vision is Andrew Yang. According to Jacob Siegel, Yang is “the first genuinely post-liberal figure in American political life.” What makes Yang post-liberal—from Siegel’s perspective—is his desire to put “Humanity First” in the face of technological automation and his potential to be the “Asian-American reconciler” that transcends social divisions and unites the country.
Yang’s left-wing post-liberal vision revolves around the “Freedom Dividend”, a government proposal to give all American citizens $1,000 per month, regardless of their job status. For Yang, this proposal is not an individualist enterprise aimed at helping people pad their personal bank accounts and increase their individual liberty. Instead, Yang believes that the “Freedom Dividend” is inherently social because it promises to overcome economic inequality and restore social harmony across America. This perspective places Yang in similar political territory to other post-liberals.
However, Yang is not the only left-wing post-liberal candidate in the Democratic primary. Marianne Williamson’s presidential campaign also has post-liberal undertones. What makes Williamson’s politics post-liberal is her focus on love. For Williamson, this politics of love is part of the moral fabric of America and has inspired the country to overcome countless forms of social oppression. According to Williamson, this record of social achievement includes abolitionism, suffrage, civil rights, and gay marriage, among others. By pacifying these forms of injustice, America—in Williamson’s eyes—has lived up to its deepest values and has enabled its citizens to unify around a common social vision.
According to Williamson, this social vision is under threat from a new politics of division and fear on the Left and the Right that has conspired to destroy the communal bonds and social virtues that hold America together. In order to overcome this threat, America—in Williamson’s view—must launch a nationwide spiritual renewal that transcends social divisions and unites the country.
Williamson and Yang are both left-wing post-liberals because their presidential campaigns focus on unifying America by promoting the common good of all citizens in American society. However, their brand of left-wing post-liberalism is unique because it employs state power to elevate rights above duties and virtue in society. For Yang, these rights revolve around the “Freedom Dividend,” which he believes is essential to pacify social divisions generated by economic inequality; and for Williamson, they require a politics of love that inspires the country to find unity by overcoming social oppression. In this sense, Williamson and Yang recognize that humans are “social animals”—in the words of Thomas Aquinas—who naturally overcome profound, social differences and connect with one another to form vibrant societies based on a common set of values.
However, by putting rights ahead of duties, Williamson and Yang risk undermining their left-wing post-liberal projects altogether. While granting all Americans the right to a minimum income or the right to personal liberation is a valiant goal, these rights do not automatically translate into virtue. Furthermore, employing state power to enforce these rights has the potential to erode the social institutions that promote the common good of society.
The Post-Liberal Future
These three strands of post-liberalism have emerged at a time when the world itself is becoming more post-liberal. This political shift is present on the Left and the Right and continues to influence mainstream politics. On the Left, the emergence of anti-capitalist sentiments casts doubt on political and economic liberalism and makes space for a new political economy that puts economic equality above individual initiative. On the Right, the rise of nationalism and populism is responsible for the transition away from social and cultural liberalism and toward a new politics that prioritizes national attachments over individual autonomy.
However, this post-liberal shift does not guarantee that a genuinely post-liberal politics will replace liberalism altogether. As political commentator Ross Douthat puts it, “[while] a genuinely post-liberal politics might, indeed, someday be required…to save liberal civilization from dystopia or disaster[,] the post-liberalisms presently on offer are not as serious as either their advocates hope or their critics fear.” Douthat certainly has a point. Right-wing post-liberals may have difficulty imposing their conservative values on people outside of Catholic circles and traditionalist countries—such as Poland and Hungary—because many Westerners enjoy the personal autonomy that liberalism affords them. By the same token, left-wing post-liberalism may struggle to gain traction with progressives because today’s left-wing activists care more about personal liberation and identity politics than the common good.
Because of these limitations, post-liberalism may have a more promising future in the political center, especially with its emphasis on transcending divisions and promoting the common good. This emphasis is remarkably similar to the consensus and compromise that centrists of all political stripes desire. A truly centrist post-liberalism must unite the political center under one post-liberal banner—whether these centrists belong in the moderate middle and fuse fiscal conservatism with social progressivism or they come from the radical center and hold communitarian views on the economy and society. By uniting these groups, centrist post-liberals can put the Western world on a new political path, one that promises to restore hope, renew virtue, and recover a shared world.
M.T. Steiner is a congressional staffer based in Washington, DC. He previously spent a summer working in the European Parliament. He can be reached at mtsteiner.politics@gmail.