You don’t come to Point of Order for a 5,000 word essay on liberalism (for that you read ‘Liberalism and its Discontents’ by Francis Fukuyama at American Purpose).
But he does have a handy definition:
“Classical liberalism can best be understood as an institutional solution to the problem of governing over diversity … The most fundamental principle enshrined in liberalism is one of tolerance: You do not have to agree with your fellow citizens about the most important things, but only that each individual should get to decide what those things are without interference from you or from the state.“
And using this yardstick of containing diverse views, let’s look at some of the ways in which Trump’s Republicans or Biden’s Democrats might go should they prevail in America’s national elections next week.
On the role and reach of the state, Trump and the Republicans seem the lesser of two evils. The Democrats regularly push out the boundaries of the state when they get the chance. While Republicans can’t claim clean hands, they tend to put up a stronger show of resistance. And Trump’s disavowal of foreign commitments, his tax cuts and his remarkable halting of the US regulatory machine position him at the liberal end of this particular spectrum.
Two long-running policy messes are worth considering from this institutional perspective of diversity.
In the first, healthcare, the Democrats’ answers to a badly regulated private sector and a politically insufficient public sector are either government direction of resources (Obamacare) or government provision (single-payer). Republicans oppose these illiberal trends reflexively but without enough enthusiasm to explore more liberal regulatory solutions that might expand choices and reduce costs.
Meanwhile, on climate policy, Democrats have committed themselves to a maximalist understanding of the risks and costs of global warming, and an expensive government-led solution (which also weakens the US against potential adversaries). Republicans disagree with the risk calculus and see plenty of time to adapt – if indeed this is required. While liberalism does not require sharing the Republicans’ scepticism about the nature of the threat, it should make one more receptive to their uncertainties on impact, timing and market-led solutions.
While it’s understandable that more confident liberals might be uncomfortable with the Trump Republicans’ heroic inaction, the alternative is to put a lot of faith in the ability of the Democrats to reconcile diverse opinion in favour of action on these questions.
Let’s turn then to some areas where Trump has clearly made the running.
Judicial policy for example. With the elevation of Justice Barrett, Trump has appointed one-third of the bench of the US Supreme Court. And liberals should be cheering. During the last century, the Supreme Court worked hard to stop elected majorities imposing illiberal rules over blacks, women, minority dissenters and others. But these days, Democratic appointees seem more open to expanding state powers where they feel there is a comfortable consensus. Trump’s commitment to appoint judges with a bias for individual rights from the rigorously constitutional Federalist school comes across as – well – rather liberal. It certainly leads to outcomes which have astonished his more conservative supporters (such as Justice Gorsuch’s finding that prohibitions of gender discrimination also apply against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity).
However, liberals could be more spooked by Trump’s trade policy. His rhetoric distresses the liberal ear and his challenge to the global trade status quo may yet prove to be economically reckless. And yet the thinking liberal is uncomfortably aware that the status quo is looking moribund and the current institutional framework has no answer to the encroachments on international competition by Chinese state policy and European regulatory overreach. One might welcome Trump’s challenge, while fearing his proposed solutions. The perceptive liberal might speculate that Trump has picked the turn in the cycle and that the next phase of economic growth will depend less on global trade and more on the flexibility (and liberalism) of internal policy settings.
None of these policy selections is supposed to prove that Donald Trump is channelling the spirit of W.E. Gladstone. But they do make a case for less stress on doctrinaire perceptions and more on the substance – particularly the longer term substance – of policy.
Other folk are also trying to bridge the gap between the rhetorical Trump and the policy Trump. Financial Times commentator Janan Ganesh takes the view that Trump’s faults are more libertarian than authoritarian.
“In truth”, he writes, “the Trump phenomenon is much more about antic rebellion than deference to the collective.”
And then he swiftly concludes: “The point is that it is no less harmful for that”.
And that may be the key insight. Elections do not always turn on policy, and rarely on its liberalism. It’s possible that the Covid epidemic has called for more deference to the collective – at just the wrong moment for Donald Trump. Quite how far a President Biden would want – or be able – to take such a mandate is unclear. But it doesn’t look like it will have a lot more liberalism in it.