Classical liberalism vs. The New Right
It has become increasingly clear that the political Right in America is not what it used to be. In particular, my own preferred slant of classical liberalism is being replaced. In its stead are rising alternatives that don’t yet have a common name. Some are called “national conservatism,” and some (by no means all) strands are pro-Trump, but I will refer to the New Right. My use of the term covers a broad range of sources, from Curtis Yarvin to J.D. Vance to Adrian Vermeule to Sohrab Ahmari to Rod Dreher to Tucker Carlson, and also a lot of anonymous internet discourse. Most of all I am thinking of the smart young people I meet who in the 1980s might have become libertarians, but these days absorb some mix of these other influences.
I would like to consider where the older classical liberal view differs from these more recent innovations. I don’t so much intend a cataloguing of policy positions as a quest to find the most fundamental difference, at a conceptual level, between the classical liberal views and their New Right competitors. That main difference – to cut to the chase — is how much faith each group puts in the possibility of trustworthy, well-functioning elites.
A common version of the standard classical liberal view stresses the benefits of capitalism, democracy, civil liberties, free trade (with national security exceptions), and a generally cosmopolitan outlook, which in turn brings sympathy for immigration. The role of government is to provide basic public goods, such as national defense, a non-exorbitant safety net, and protection against pandemics.
In the classical liberal view, elites usually fall short of what we would like. They end up captured by some mix of special interest groups and poorly informed voters. There is thus a certain disillusionment with democratic government, while recognizing it is the best of available alternatives and far superior to autocracy for basic civil liberties.
That said, classical liberals do not consider the elites to be totally hopeless. After all, someone has to steer the ship and to this day we do indeed have a ship to steer. Most elites are intelligent and also they are as well-meaning as the rest of us, even if the bureaucratic nature of politics hinders their performance. We can entrust them with supplying basic public goods, and indeed we have little choice. Those truths hold even if the DMV will never be as efficient as Amazon, and even if sometimes our elites commit grave errors, for instance when the Johnson administration escalated the Vietnam War, to cite one example of many.
In the classical liberal view, the great failing of elites is that they do not keep society as free as it ought to be.
The New Right thinkers are far more skeptical of elites. They are more likely to see elites as evil and pernicious, and sometimes they (implicitly) see these evil elites as competent enough to actually wreck society. The classical liberals see checks and balances as strong enough to limit the worst outcomes, whereas the New Right sees ideological conformity and indeed collusion within the Establishment. Checks and balances are a paper tiger.
Once you start seeing elites as so bad and also so collusive, many other changes in your views might follow. You might become more skeptical about free speech, because you view it as a recipe for putting a lot of power in the hands of (often Democratic-led) major tech companies. And is there de facto free speech if a conservative sociologist cannot get hired at Yale? You also might become more skeptical about immigration, not because you are racist (though of course there are racists), but because you see it as a plot of the Democratic Party to remake America in a new image and with a new set of voters (“you will not replace us!”). Free trade becomes seen as a line peddled by the elite, and that is an elite unconcerned with the social and national security costs of a deindustrialized America. Globalization more generally becomes a failed project of the previous elite.
The New Right doesn’t entirely reject the basic principles of free market economics, but it does try to transcend libertarian views with a deeper understanding of the current power structure. In each case there are sociological forces operating that are seen as more important than “mere” free market economics. In this regard the New Right has a more interdisciplinary worldview than do many of the classical liberals. The New Right thinkers regard most power as cultural in nature, rather than rooted in coercive government alone.
Using this kind of contrast, just about every classical liberal view can be redone along New Right lines. The policy emphasis then becomes learning how to use the government to constrain the Left and its cultural agenda, rather than ensuring basic liberties for everyone. The New Right view is that this obsession with basic liberties leads, in reality, to the hegemony of a statist Left, and a Left that will use its power centers of government, media and academia to crush and cancel the New Right.
There is also a self-validating structure to New Right arguments over time. You can’t easily persuade New Right advocates by pointing to mainstream media reports that contradict their main narrative. Mainstream media is one of the least trusted sources. Academic research also has fallen under increasing mistrust, as the academy predominantly hires individuals who support the Democratic Party.
Most classical liberals are uncomfortable with the New Right approaches, and seek to disavow them. I share those concerns, and yet I also recognize that hard and fast lines are not so easy to draw. The New Right is in essence accepting the original classical liberal critique of the state and pushing it a few steps further, adding further skepticism of elites, a greater emphasis on culture, and a belief in elite collusion rather than checks and balances. You may or may not agree with those intellectual moves, but many common premises still are shared between the classical liberals and the New Right, even if neither side is fully comfortable admitting this.
The New Right also tends to see the classical liberals as naïve about power (the same charge classical liberals fling at the establishment), and as standing on the losing side of history. Those aren’t the easiest arguments to refute. Furthermore, the last twenty years have seen 9/11, a failed Iraq War, a major financial crisis and recession, and a major pandemic, mishandled in some critical regards. It doesn’t seem that wrong to become additionally skeptical about American elites, and the New Right wields these points effectively.
While I try my best to understand the New Right, I am far from being persuaded. One worry I have is about how it initially negative emphasis feeds upon itself. Successful societies are based on trust, including trust in leaders, and the New Right doesn’t offer resources for forming that trust or any kind of comparable substitute. As a nation-building project it seems like a dead end. If anything, it may hasten the Brazilianification of the United States rather than avoiding it, Brazil being a paradigmatic example of a low trust society and government.
I also do not see how the New Right stance avoids the risks from an extremely corrupt and self-seeking power elite. Let’s say the New Right description of the rottenness of elites were true – would we really solve that problem by electing more New Right-oriented individuals to government? Under a New Right worldview, there is all the more reason to be cynical about New Right leaders, no matter which ideological side they start on. If elites are so corrupt right now, the force corrupting elites are likely to be truly fundamental.
The New Right also overrates the collusive nature of mainstream elites. Many New Right adherents see a world ever more dominated by “The Woke.” In contrast, I see an America where Virginia elected a Republican governor, Louis C.K. won a 2022 Grammy award on a secret ballot and some trans issues are falling in popularity. Wokism likely has peaked. Similarly, the New Right places great stress on corruption and groupthink in American universities. I don’t like the status quo either, but I also see a world where the most left-wing majors – humanities majors – are losing enrollments and influence. Furthermore, the internet is gaining in intellectual influence, relative to university professors.
The New Right also seems bad at coalition building, most of all because it is so polarizing about the elites on the other side. Many of the most beneficial changes in American history have come about through broad coalitions, not just from one political side or the other. Libertarians such as William Lloyd Garrison played a key role an anti-slavery debates, but they would not have gotten very far without support from the more statist Republicans, including Abraham Lincoln. If you so demonize the elites that do not belong to your side, it is more likely we will end up in situations where all elites have to preside over a morally unacceptable status quo.
The New Right (and the classical liberals I might add) also seem to neglect the many cases where American governance has improved over time. My DMV really is many times better than it was thirty years ago. New York City is currently seeing some trying times, due to the pandemic aftermath, but the city is significant better run today than it was in the 1970s. Social Security, for all of its flaws, remains one of the world’s better-functioning retirement systems. The weapons the U.S. military is supplying to Ukraine seem remarkably effective. The Fed and Treasury, for all their initial oversights, did forestall a great depression in 2008-2009. Operation Warp Speed was a major success and saved millions of lives.
It is missing the point to provide a counter-narrative of all of our government’s major and numerous screw-ups. The point is that good or at least satisfactory elite performance is by no means entirely out of our reach. We then have to ask the question – which philosophy of governance is most likely to get us there next time around? I can see that some New Right ideas might contribute to useful reform, but it is not my number one wish to have New Right leaders firmly in charge or to have New Right ideology primary in our nation’s youth.
Finally, I worry about excess negativism in New Right thinking. Negative thoughts tend to breed further negative thoughts. If the choice is a bit of naivete and excess optimism, or excess pessimism, I for one will opt for the former.
Perhaps most of all, it is dangerous when “how much can we trust elites?” becomes a major dividing line in society. We’ve already seen the unfairness and cascading negativism of cancel culture. To apply cancel culture to our own elites, as in essence the New Right is proposing to do, is not likely to lead to higher trust and better reputations for those in power, even for those who deserve decent reputations.
Very recently we have seen low trust lead to easily induced skepticism about the 2020 election results, and also easily induced skepticism about vaccines. The best New Right thinkers will avoid those mistakes, but still every political philosophy has to be willing to live with “the stupider version” of its core tenets. I fear that the stupider version of some of the New Right views are very hard to make compatible with political stability or for that matter with public health.
I would readily grant that my opinion of our mainstream elites has fallen over the last five to ten years, and in part from consuming intellectual outputs from the New Right. But I don’t long for tearing down the entire edifice as quickly as possible. That would break the remaining bonds of trust and competence we do have, and lead to reconstituted governments, bureaucracies, and media elites with lower competence yet and even less worthy of trust. If you yank out a tooth, you cannot automatically expect a new and better tooth to grow back.
The polarizing nature of much of New Right thought means it is often derided rather than taken seriously. That is a mistake, as the New Right has been at least partially correct about many of the failings of the modern world. But it is an even bigger mistake to think New Right ideology is ready to step into the space long occupied by classical liberal ideals.