Decline and Fall of Liberalism

By George Will Copyright Washington Post Writers Group | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), November 15, 1994 | Go to article overview

Decline and Fall of Liberalism


George Will Copyright Washington Post Writers Group, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The election confirmed the axiom that people are inclined to believe in the truth of ideas that they see strongly believed. The election results are consequences of the wholesome contagion of conservative ideas. Times have changed indeed.

"In the United States at this time," wrote Lionel Trilling in 1950, "liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation." Trilling worried that "it is not conducive to the real strength of liberalism that it should occupy the intellectual field alone." Today a debilitating supremacy is one worry liberalism is spared.

What is happening is a restoration of an idea. What is being revived is the pre-New Deal tradition of American politics. The New Deal was made possible by a more sanguine attitude about the central government. From the founding of the nation until the 1930s the American premise was that the function of government was to provide the conditions in which happiness can be pursued - ordered liberty - but not to provide happiness itself.

Since the New Deal the government has been more ambitious. But Americans are not happy.

Politics is driven by competing worries. Today conservatives are more distressed than liberals are by conditions in government and the culture. Liberals still express their worries in a 1930s vocabulary of distributive justice, understood in economic terms. This assumes a reassuringly banal politics of splittable differences - how much concrete to pour, how many crops to subsidize by how much, which groups shall get what.

Conservatives worry in a more contemporary vocabulary, questioning the power and ambitions of the post-New Deal state, and finding a causal connection between those ambitions and the fraying of the culture.

Conservatives believe government's principal functions are the preservation of freedom and removal of restraints on the individual. Liberalism's ascent in the first two-thirds of this century reflected the new belief that government should also confer capacities on individuals. Liberalism's decline in the final third of this century has reflected doubts about whether government can be good at that, or whether government that is good at that is good for the nation's character. …

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