Liberalism’s Identity Problem

Tim Farron, former leader of UK's Liberal Democratic Party

Tim Farron, former leader of UK’s Liberal Democratic Party

This week Tim Farron, the leader of the British Liberal Democrats, resigned  because he found his Christian faith incompatible with leading his party. Apparently, the problem was that while he agreed with the Liberal Democratic position that homosexual relations and same-sex marriage should be legal, he also believed, like many Christians, that homosexual relations were wrong.  Many party colleagues found the combination of these two positions intolerable.

But this kind of combination traditionally defined the essence of liberalism, supposedly the guiding light of Farron’s party.  Liberalism was exactly the view that government had no business regulating actions or beliefs unless they could be demonstrated to cause concrete harms to a third party. As a result, liberals have supported legalizing all sorts of matters that they may have believed immoral or imprudent. In my view, the best test for a liberal is the willingness to tolerate behavior of which he morally disapproves.

Over on this side of the Atlantic such liberalism is in trouble too. The stirs on campus these days come from students who refuse to tolerate views that they consider immoral. If the choice is between stamping out new forms of immorality (which turn out in some cases to be the opposite of old forms of immorality) and jettisoning the liberal principle of free speech, so much the worse for free speech.

Identity politics is a primary cause of the decline of liberalism.   Some members of the Liberal Democrats no doubt would argue that it is impossible to have a party leader who “challenges” their identity. And the students on American campuses often justify their disruptions on the claim that a speaker is undermining their very identity as a minority or a woman.  But Farron’s religion is also likely part of his identity as well.  Indeed,  liberalism got its start in the Enlightenment by promoting religious toleration. Toleration meant that religious beliefs (and thus aspects of personal identity) could be challenged so long as they were never legally sanctioned.

As a psychological matter, it may be true that people need to rest their politics on identification rather than abstract ideals.  That is why civic norms and civic education are so important.  Our identity as Americans was historically not based on race or ethnicity, but on the Constitution, itself an Enlightenment document full of liberal ideals like free speech.  The United Kingdom’s identity was also connected to its tradition of liberalism and fair play. What threatens our liberal order today is that this kind of identity is losing out to the identities created by multiculturalism and sexuality. That the leader of Britain’s liberal party must resign for being a liberal symbolizes liberalism’s current plight.

John O. McGinnis

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His book Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the coauthor with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.

About the Author

Recent Popular Posts

Related Posts

Comments

  1. djf says

    “Law, who is himself homosexual, no doubt would argue that it is impossible to have as leader of his party one who ‘challenges’ his identity.”

    Who is the referent of “Law” in this sentence? There is no prior reference to such a person in the post.

    But the post makes a good point that, with regard to sexual morality, we may be replacing the enforcement of traditional ethics (now long in the past) with enforcement of the ethics of “inclusiveness.”

  2. nobody.really says

    As a psychological matter, it may be true that people need to rest their politics on identification rather than abstract ideals. That is why civic norms and civic education are so important. Our identity as Americans was historically not based on race or ethnicity, but on the Constitution, itself an Enlightenment document full of liberal ideals like free speech.

    So through civic norms and education, the US transcended the psychological drive to rest their politics on identification? Maybe. Clearly the Founders were keen on Enlightenment philosophy, even as they practiced slavery. And the long era of Jim Crow and legal segregation illustrated the nation’s deep commitment to any liberal ideal that could be implemented without inconveniencing those in power.

    Today the US is experiencing unprecedented levels of censorship—when members of a narrow band of elites give live addresses. I find this regrettable. Yet today the world is experiencing unprecedented levels of free speech. Thanks to the World Wide Web, ever more people have been free to express themselves. And thanks to a growing resistance to various forms of prejudice in the US, we have never seen a broader range of people attending college and gaining access to forums for expression.

    Admittedly, there have been some notable examples of illiberal conduct at speaking events. We’ve seen a few on college campuses. But prior to those, we saw (and continue to see) instances of organized members of the public shouting down members of Congress at town hall meetings. This seems to have followed a more general pattern wherein leaders would engage in breaches of decorum, perhaps as a means of expressing intensity or authenticity. Thus, we observed presidents swearing into loose mics. We observed Vice President Cheney, in his role as Speaker Pro Tem of the Senate, telling a fellow senator to fuck off. And we observed Congressman Joe Wilson shouting “You lie!” at the President of the United States during a live address to Congress. As leaders have been willing to show ever more distain for people with whom they have political disagreements, the public has learned to do likewise.

  3. nobody.really says

    [T]he best test for a liberal is the willingness to tolerate behavior of which he morally disapproves.

    Let me take this opportunity to again advocate the Market Power Affirmative Defense to the charge of violating the duty to avoid discriminating in the provision of employment, housing, or public accommodations. Currently laws require certain employers to make certain “reasonable accommodations” for their employees. I propose requiring the public to grant reasonable accommodations to businessmen.

    Under this proposal, if a businessman refuses to provide employment, housing, or public accommodations (accommodations) due to undue discrimination, but informs the plaintiff where similar accommodations can be had nearby at comparable terms, then the businessman could evade liability for the discrimination. That is, civil rights laws would be designed to ensure that people can gain access to accommodations comparable to the accommodations available to other members of the public (consistent with the idea that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was designed to facilitate interstate commerce).

    But unlike current civil rights laws, under the Market Power Affirmative Defense, a plaintiff could not dictate from whom he or she receives the accommodation. The term “Market Power Affirmative Defense” reflects an idea that civil rights laws should be designed to ensure that members of protected groups have the same access to accommodations as anyone else, and that this access is threatened only to the extent that discriminators—individually or collectively—restrict the available supply of accommodations. If a plaintiff has an ample supply of comparable employers/landlords/restaurants from which to choose, the fact that some—or even most—would withhold accommodations really won’t affect the plaintiff’s access.

    In this manner, more businessmen could express their freedom of religion/conscience without depriving people of access to accommodations. For example, bakers/florists/photographers would be free to withhold their services from gay couples—or Jewish couples, or interracial couples, or anyone else—provided that they could provide a referral to a nearby competitor who is willing and able to provide comparable accommodations.

    To be sure, when a businessman refuses service, a plaintiff might incur dignity harms. But if we require Jews in Skokie to endure the presence of Nazi marchers, or the families of slain soldiers to endure the Westboro Baptist Church with signs saying “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” it doesn’t strike me as unreasonable to ask gay couples to endure the indignity of contracting with a different baker.

    There are many complications, to be sure—many of which are discussed here. Maybe some august law professor would want to take up this project?

    • gabe says

      ” Maybe some august law professor would want to take up this project? ”

      They probably already did “take it up” – one would not be surprised to find that these “august” law professors provided *guidance* to the florist / baker slayers of the past few years.

      2) I rather like your Market Power Affirmative Defense – of course, the poor baker in Bulls Balls, Montana is kinda up the creek, isn;t she?

    • nobody.really says

      ” Maybe some august law professor would want to take up this project? ”

      They probably already did “take it up” – one would not be surprised to find that these “august” law professors provided *guidance* to the florist / baker slayers of the past few years.

      Not that I’m aware.

      I’m proposing a change to civil rights law. And the legislative report accompanying the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 stated explicitly that the law was intended to defend dignity interests. So basically I”m arguing for a legislative change.

      That said, I suspect that many exercises of free speech (“Gays are going to hell!”) may offend other people’s dignity. Can you characterize the restrictions of the Civil Rights Act as mere time/place/manner restrictions? (“You’re allowed to express your disapproval of gays, but only after you step off the premises of the workplace….”) There’s a whole jurisprudence about hostile work environment that similarly creates a conflict between free speech and professional/commercial norms. I haven’t really researched this stuff.

      2) I rather like your Market Power Affirmative Defense – of course, the poor baker in Bulls Balls, Montana is kinda up the creek, isn;t she?

      Yes, my proposed affirmative defense would provide no remedy for people who effectively exercise monopoly power, even within a small area. (I’m told that cement trucks get terrible mileage. Thus, during the 70s when gas prices were high, many trucks exercised monopoly power in their localities because the cost of driving in a truck from a neighboring locality would be prohibitive.)

      But let me add, my proposed affirmative defense would not HARM their interests, either. Neither seller nor buyer would be put in a worse position than under the status quo.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>