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Fight for Liberty
Defending Democracy in the Age of Trump
Edited by Mark Lasswell
Introduction by Jon Meacham
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Liberal democracy is in crisis around the world, besieged by authoritarianism, nationalism, and other illiberal forces. Far-right parties are gaining traction in Europe, Vladimir Putin tightens his grip on Russia and undermines democracy abroad, and America struggles with poisonous threats from the right and left.
But the defenders of democracy are strong too. Taking their cues from the 1788 Federalist Papers, the Renew Democracy Initiative is a collective of pro-democracy advocates from across the political spectrum, including Anne Applebaum, Garry Kasparov, Max Boot, Bret Stephens, Ted Koppel, and Natan Sharansky. This book is their foundational document, a collection of essays that analyze the multi-pronged threats to liberal democracy in the U.S. and abroad, and offer solutions based on fundamental democratic principles such as freedom of speech, a free press, and the rule of law.
Fight for Liberty is a roadmap for the struggle against the rising tide of extremism and a cri de coeur in defense of the liberal world order, which sees itself threatened as never before today.
The Renew Democracy Initiative began in the months following the 2016 American presidential election. Three of us met over coffee to talk about what might be done to counteract the troubling trends we had seen playing out over recent years: the degradation of civic dialogue, the erosion of faith in basic institutions, the denigration of expertise as “elitism”—and a resurgence of political authoritarianism and extremism.
This resurgence, of course, did not begin or end with the US presidential election and the strong populist currents it revealed on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Nor was it confined to the United States. Across Europe, separatist movements and populist parties were gaining traction. Strongmen were ascendant from Turkey to Russia to the Philippines. Fanatics and terrorists continued to pose a global threat.
Our small group expanded rapidly. Our concerns were widely shared by members of both the left and the right searching for common ground in a new center. The growing threat from all sides to what used to be called “liberal democracy” had sounded an alarm bell.
Traditional bipartisan consensus is under assault on issues including free trade; a system of alliances and the postwar, rules-based order; and the need for political compromise. Even more troubling, confidence in democratic institutions and the individual rights they exist to safeguard is failing. The rise of a new illiberalism has launched a wave of nativism, isolationism, militant identity politics, and hostility toward dissenting views. It is crowding out and undermining the spirit of freedom, meritocracy, and tolerance that characterizes the most cherished ideals of liberal democracy.
We have assembled a coalition of diverse voices—writers, diplomats, statesmen, artists, entertainers, business leaders, academics, lawyers, a Nobel laureate, even a certain chess champion—from around the world to defend these “first principles.” At the Renew Democracy Initiative, old points of division—marginal tax rates, health-care reform, military spending—have faded quickly into the background as we focus instead on how much we have in common: a belief in the fundamental ideas that for generations have made so much of the world free, prosperous, and safe. But shared beliefs are not in themselves sufficient. They must be defended, and this demands action.
What step to take first? Should we start a new political party—internationally engaged, fiscally responsible, socially tolerant? A new think tank? One of our founders, Bret Stephens, argued that ideas were at the forefront of any serious change. And, indeed, those who care deeply about these first principles of liberty and democracy have not been vigilant enough in defending them, in articulating why the siren song of the demagogues, extremists, and cable news talking heads is dangerously wrong. Believing in the principles of liberal democracy is not enough. It is essential to communicate why these principles have improved lives wherever they have flourished and why they are still the best hope for spreading prosperity and security in the future. So short is the collective memory of fascism, communism, and other forms of totalitarianism that many young people today no longer consider living in a democracy to be important. The situation is urgent.
And so RDI came into existence—an effort to reinvigorate democracy from the ground up, based on common ideals and ideas. Our goal is to remind, to educate, and to advocate for liberty. This book, inspired by the Federalist Papers, is our inaugural publication. The essays collected here lay out first principles, describe the most serious threats to liberal-democratic values, and outline solutions to meet those threats. We have no partisan agenda; we embrace any citizen, of any political persuasion, of any nation, who values these principles.
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” Ronald Reagan warned. How to preserve it? Franklin Roosevelt illuminated our path when he said: “The real safeguard of liberty is education.” Education, that is, about the principles that inform the politics and values and processes of democracy. RDI seeks to inspire whomever we can, wherever we can, to help create a cultural and political climate that stirs pride, not alarm. So join us. Visit our website and add your name to our manifesto. Sign up for our mailing list and spread the word. Above all, engage in citizenship to the fullest.
Fight for liberty!
—The Renew Democracy Initiative
Garry Kasparov, Chairman
Richard Hurowitz, President
Anne Applebaum, Director
Max Boot, Director
Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Director
Igor Kirman, Director
Mark Lasswell, Director
Richard North Patterson, Director
Everything seemed to be falling apart. After his election to the presidency in November 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt received a talkative friend. If FDR could rescue America from the Great Depression, the caller said, then Roosevelt would be remembered as the greatest of presidents; if he failed, then he would go down as the worst. There were live alternatives to democratic capitalism afoot in the world: European fascism in Germany and Italy, Soviet Communism in Russia. Roosevelt responded matter-of-factly: “If I fail, I shall be the last one.”
And so, to some extent and some degree, we’ve been here before: a sense of crisis, of crumbling order, of facing destructive forces that may prove beyond our control. America and its allies survived the 1930s and World War II not least because FDR did not fail. For all his shortcomings—and they were legion—Roosevelt was, however, a rare spirit. “Men,” the New York Times wrote after his death in Warm Springs, Georgia, in April 1945, “will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House when a powerful and ruthless barbarism threatened to overrun the civilization of the Western World.” Such an encomium seems unlikely when the newspaper comes to assess the life and legacy of the forty-fifth president.
The issue at hand, though, is larger than any single figure. Once thought to be firmly entrenched in the Western world, democracy—or at least the democratic norms we have taken for granted since the crisis of capitalism in the 1930s—is under global assault. The essays collected here survey the scene with dispassion and clarity. From Putin’s Russia to Trump’s America (the two, alas, have more in common than is even remotely comfortable), freedom of speech and of the press, the rule of law, fair play in the marketplace and in the movements of ideas and of people across borders, and confidence in the integrity of the governing classes are all in danger. The forces of authoritarianism, nativism, and kleptocracy are ascendant. The concerns that have prompted this project are not those of a single news cycle; neither are they driven by partisan animus or by an ad hominem obsession with the current occupant of the Oval Office. The contributors to this book are motivated by fact, not ideology; by reason, not passion; and, crucially, by hope, not fear.
The essayists are working within an old and important American tradition, one articulated by Frederick Jackson Turner, the great historian of the frontier. “Other nations have been rich and prosperous and powerful,” Turner wrote nearly a century ago. “But the United States has believed that it had an original contribution to make to the history of society by the production of a self-determining, self-restrained, intelligent democracy.” In 1944, the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, writing his landmark The American Dilemma, quoted the African-American Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ralph Bunche in an effort to define an American creed. “Every man in the street, white, black, red, or yellow,” Bunche observed, “knows that this is ‘the land of the free,’ the ‘land of opportunity,’ the ‘cradle of liberty,’ the ‘home of democracy,’ that the American flag symbolizes the ‘equality of all men’ and guarantees us all ‘the protection of life, liberty and property,’ freedom of speech, freedom of religion and racial tolerance.” For Myrdal, such a definition of human liberty and of aspiration gave the American creed global significance. “And even the skeptic,” he wrote, “cannot help feeling that, perhaps, this youthful exuberant America has the destiny to do for the whole Old World what the frontier did to the old colonies.”
So it has largely proven in the decades since World War II. Now a variety of factors has put the Western experiment with liberty in jeopardy. Self-government in the American mold, with its roots in the parliamentary and common-law traditions of Britain, was always understood to be the most fraught and perilous of undertakings. “Probably, prudence, wisdom, and patriotism were never more essentially necessary than at the present moment,” George Washington wrote in the early autumn of 1788. In a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette a few months later, on the cusp of assuming ultimate power in the young republic, Washington emphasized, “Nothing but harmony, honesty, industry and frugality are necessary to make us a great and happy people.”
The key insight of the founding fathers—one that has informed every successive generation—was that such virtues are not always in abundant supply. Hence the checks and balances of the constitutional system and the emphasis on the cultivation of republican virtues. “National passions and habits are unwieldy, unmanageable, and formidable things,” John Adams wrote, and the point of divided sovereignty, the rule of law, and a free press was to give reason a fighting chance in the perennial struggle against the appetites and ambitions of the factions of the moment.
The unavoidable truth of the matter is that passion is gaining the upper hand on reason in too many ways, in too many countries—including America. There are sundry causes for the crisis of the hour, and the essayists here explore not only the underlying forces driving the current discontent but also offer possible solutions. It is not the work of a day, or of a week, or of a single election. Recovery and restoration, rather, require constant vigilance and perennial devotion.
History is an ally in this struggle, for an empirical, commonsense case can be made—and must be made—that liberal democracy has always grown stronger the wider it has opened its arms. One sign of the strength of the system, in fact, is the ferocity of the reaction against the infrastructure of liberty in the first decades of the twenty-first century. The forces of fear are mighty, but the armies of hope and of equality of opportunity have much to draw on in this fight.
In the twilight of his life, Franklin Roosevelt, one of the most accomplished purveyors of hope in American history, recalled the words of his old Groton School headmaster, Endicott Peabody: “Things in life will not always run smoothly. Sometimes we will be rising toward the heights—then all will seem to reverse itself and start downward. The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward, that a line drawn through the middle of the peaks and the valleys of the centuries always has an upward trend.” It can be difficult to recall that fact in the maelstrom of the moment, but it is a fact—and, as John Adams reminded us long ago, facts are stubborn things.
Jon Meacham is a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University. His books include American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2009.
Liberal democracy has flourished because it is undergirded by certain basic values. These values merit fresh discussion to help reinvigorate them in the battle against illiberal forces now spreading across much of the world. In today’s supposed post-truth moment, the first step is to assert the seemingly obvious: truth exists, truth matters, truth must be defended. The Enlightenment—progenitor of liberalism and the veneration of individual freedom—was fueled by reason and by the search for its soul mate, truth. To demean and discredit the idea of truth is to attack the foundations of democracy itself.
The reassertion of other liberal-democratic first principles will also help counter the illiberal tide: Individual liberty is not a “Western” concept, nor is it reserved for only those particular peoples deemed capable of appreciating and defending it. Economic freedom nourishes the expression of all other freedoms. The valorization of civics and civility is essential to discouraging the spread of hatred and partisan extremism that hobbles democracy and invites exploitation by demagogues. Globalization knits nations together in peace and prosperity, buttressing liberal democracies and turning a spotlight on freedom’s blessings; economic nationalism accomplishes none of this. Finally comes a distinguishing characteristic of democracy that is a standing rebuke to illiberalism everywhere: the toleration of dissent.
The Need for Truth
“There are no truths,” wrote Nietzsche, “only interpretations.” True or false? If true then false, hence necessarily false—false under every interpretation. That ought to have been an end to the matter. In fact, it was only the beginning. Not long after Nietzsche made this declaration in the late nineteenth century, relativism began to gather momentum. Faced with a world in which people acknowledged rival authorities but no shared method of discussing them, many were tempted to abandon entirely the old distinction between the true and the false. What you say is true from your point of view, was the mantra, what I say is true from mine. Hence there is no disagreement, no conflict, nothing to be resolved, and no way of resolving it in any case. Truth, fact, reality—all such notions were relativized, and the search for the objective standpoint, from which the evidence could be assessed and the facts determined, was abandoned as delusory.
“Cultural relativism,” as it was called at first, looks like a positive step toward toleration. On examination, however, what seems like the acceptance of difference shows itself to be the opposite. If there are no facts, if people cannot judge or be judged save from their own point of view, then all that we say, think, or do is beyond external criticism. Nobody has grounds to protest or to argue, because to do so would be to impose a point of view that has no authority for the person being criticized. All people exist in the bubble of their own opinions and are granted the absolute permission to be who they are regardless. In which case, all people are a potential threat to their neighbors.
Human beings will continue to want those things—possessions, comfort, survival—that power alone can secure for them, and in pursuing those things they will continue to be in competition with the rest of us. If there is no truth, then we cannot accommodate and conciliate our conflicts by agreement, because the idea of agreement suggests a cooperative search for the facts. A world without truth is a world without trust, and in particular without the trust between strangers on which all societies ultimately depend. Take away trust, and you take away all that makes it possible to tolerate difference and to build together with your neighbors a shared form of government.
That a priori argument is not without empirical support. In the emerging “post-truth” culture of young people today, we find an extraordinary burgeoning of intolerance. If there is no truth but only opinion, opinions become the shaping force of social identities. People begin to define themselves in terms of them, and to create networks of conformity where they feel safe among people like themselves. Social media encourage their users to approach opinion in that way. Opinions are part of you and not to be judged. Opinions, like selfies, are things that you share.
The search for safety goes hand in hand with suspicion of the intruder. Hence social media abound in expressions of malice and belligerence toward those who challenge the opinions of the day. When young people find themselves in an academic milieu where thinking is required of them, their first instinct is to escape from all rival forms of thought. In countless universities in the Western world, we have seen students preventing the expression of unwanted opinions, at the very same time as affirming the dogma that there is no objective standard from which any opinion can be judged. Truth has gone, but power and identity remain. And the contest is fought without any possibility of compromise or conciliation, because those both depend upon the belief that there is a fact of the matter and that it is the purpose of discussion to discover it.
Before the advent of social media, the biggest boost for the flight from truth came from the universities themselves. Since the 1960s, humanities departments have surrendered to a wave of relativist scholarship, some of it originating in Paris at the time when the postwar baby boomers knocked the old scholars from their perch. Structuralism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction had a viral effect on the French curriculum, consigning all ideas of objectivity to the trash can. And, in a similar development in America, the once respectable “pragmatism” of William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey was recycled as an attack on the very concept of truth. Pragmatism came to denote the view that truth is “what works,” where “what works” means “what works for me.”
The scholars who fostered this post-truth culture tended to come from the left. But they may have unwittingly helped create the milieu in which Donald Trump has flourished. His thoughts, attuned by their very nature to the limits of a Twitter account, make no distinction between the true and the false, and assume that no one else makes such a distinction either. Should the FBI show that Trump colluded with the Russians in manipulating the presidential election, that would not be a fact but simply “fake news,” of no greater authority than his own homegrown alternative, which will have the added advantage of being contained in a tweet, so that we can read it quickly and move on.
The president owes his election in part to the astute use of social media, themselves the most powerful instruments in the demotion of truth from its once exalted position in the human psyche. We have yet to get used to the damage done to rational argument by the Internet’s conversion into one great seething cauldron of opinions, most of them anonymous, in which every kind of malice and fantasy swamps the still, small voice of humanity. Maybe someone will create software that will worm through the system, systematically deleting all that is false and destructive. But until then we live in a post-truth culture.
An influential proponent of this culture, Michel Foucault, argued that behind every practice, every institution, every system of belief lies power, and that the goal of the historian is to unmask that power and to liberate its victim. Foucault originally described his method as an “archaeology of knowledge” and his subject matter as truth, suggesting that truth and knowledge were the goals of his inquiry. But, in his seminal 1966 work Les mots et les choses (published in English in 1970 as The Order of Things), he made clear that “truth,” for him, would always appear in scare quotes, because “truth” is the product of “discourse,” and discourse the voice of power. Foucault’s “truth” does not exist independently of the opinions that give voice to it but is created and re-created by the prevailing discourse. Hence, there are no received truths that are not also convenient truths, and truth itself has no existence independent of the political structures that it serves.
In a series of striking books, Foucault showed—to the satisfaction of his youthful readers—that the entire understanding of the world on which French postwar society had been built was simply a mask for the power of the bourgeoisie. “Truth” has no authority outside the social structures that are propped up by it and that in turn prop it up. The whole castle of illusions will come tumbling to the ground just as soon as a rival discourse replaces the old “truth” with a new “truth” of its own.
This is not the place to explore all the ways in which the concept of truth has been marginalized by thinkers like Foucault. But one thing is sure: students who have suffered three or four years of Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, and Slavoj Žižek are not likely to believe that there are real truths about the human world and certainly not that it is the business of a university to discover them. On the contrary, they will come away from their studies in the same condition as they began them, acknowledging no distinction between truth and opinion, and confident that their own opinions are the right ones because they are shared by everyone in the same “safe space” as themselves.
The fact is, however, that truth is an indispensable concept, as necessary to the advocates of a post-truth society as to its opponents. Moreover, it is a concept that is more securely founded than any other. Language itself testifies to this. There is no way of expressing an opinion without the implicit assertion of its truth; the first moves in dialogue—“yes,” “no,” “I agree,” “you are wrong”—are ways of establishing a shared commitment to truth. Those who tell lies depend on the distinction between the true and the false, and on the human capacity to engage with it. Our outrage at being lied to by politicians, misled by preachers, and corrupted by seducers is the outrage felt by truth-directed creatures when others have set a trap into which the truth seeker is likely to fall.
Scientific theories aim at truth, and it would be impossible for science to proceed except by conjecture and refutation. To refute a theory is to show it to be false, and even if there are philosophers of science like Paul Feyerabend who believe that any scientific theory can be retained in the face of the evidence, no practicing scientist takes them seriously. The scientific community is founded on debate and challenge, and you cannot debate if you think there is no truth to be aimed at.
Nor is science some isolated sphere to which old-fashioned and eccentric ideas of objectivity retreat from the surrounding intellectual disorder. In every sphere where there is genuine thought and real opinion, the laws of logic apply. All who think are obliged to stand by the implications of what they think. But one proposition implies another if the first cannot be true without the second being true. Logic tells us that every proposition p is equivalent to the proposition that p is true. We cannot reason if we deny the law of noncontradiction, which tells us that p and not p cannot both be true together. At every juncture we encounter the absolute and all-pervasive nature of the concept of truth, which guides our thinking even when it is never mentioned. It is a concept so deeply implanted in the human psyche that only sophism can have any force against it, and those who take refuge in these arguments will not stand up for long.
All this needs to be said now for two reasons. One, as mentioned, is that the relativizing of truth, which seems to its advocates to be a form of toleration, is in fact a recipe for conflict: it closes the door to the very possibility of dialogue. Failure to discuss our differences is a sure way to enhance them, and the first result of the post-truth culture has been the “no platform” and “safe spaces” habit of the modern campus. Post-truth culture is not the friend of toleration but its enemy.
The other reason is that, without the concept of an objective reality, human beings adopt a posture of retreat. In all areas where decisions are required, people lose confidence that there is either a real objective goal or a sure method of pursuing it. Everything becomes veiled in hesitation—a syndrome that can be observed in the very language of so many young people today, for whom all expressions of opinion and decision come padded with “like,” “sort of,” “basically,” and “whatever.” The outgoing, definite, and courageous person is a rare product of the post-truth culture, yet one on whose existence the future of society depends. Without such people the democratic process, in which real and urgent issues are confronted in a spirit of open-minded discussion and a preparedness to accept the facts and act on them, will be jeopardized. If so many young people today are losing the sense that the democratic process matters, it is surely in part because they are losing the capacity to take part in it, not knowing what the point of discussion might be. The first goal of a university education should be to impress on them that truth exists, that it is distinct from mere opinion, and that we discover it by arguing with those who dispute what we say.
Sir Roger Scruton is a professor in the Humanities Research Institute at Buckingham University in Britain and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. His books include On Human Nature, Notes from Underground, and Confessions of a Heretic.
Values Without Borders
Areproach of our age is that “the West” foists its beliefs on other regions of the world. This is like claiming that biology teachers foist an interest in sex on teenagers.
History shows that values considered Western are not. It is patronizing to assume otherwise. People around the world have the same stake in conflict resolution, democracy, and free markets. Starting around 1648, quickening in 1776, and culminating with the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, multitudinous nation-states replaced a handful of empires. Today they number nearly two hundred. The global system to which they belong enjoys transnational norms that have dramatically increased life expectancy. That’s something everyone values.
- "The voices are familiar but fresh. And the topics they explore are handled with a deftness and texture richer than one might expect from a cohesive battle cry....There is a subtle (or not so subtle) prophecy that underlies these essays - the prophecy that such a turn of events is not only possible but probable if liberty is not defended now. Is this truly the fate of things to come? If we don't stand up and 'fight for liberty,' the text suggests, our greatest fears may be realized. The good news is these authors, and many of their devotees, will not go quietly into that good night."—Martha's Vineyard Times
- "Fight for Liberty should be required reading for every college student-indeed, for every American and, regardless of their nationality, every person capable of reading and understanding the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To comprehend the threats confronting our world and consider what to do about them, reading and re-reading this book's essays will be worthwhile."—Walter Clemens, New York Journal of Books
- "The strongest point of this useful collection is the depth and breadth of its opposition to our current illiberal atmosphere...A valuable addition to the literature of democratic resistance."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Oct 16, 2018
- Page Count
- 320 pages