David Horowitz: “I am a liberal.”
At VFR, we have repeatedly argued that today’s mainstream conservatives and neoconservatives are more correctly to be understood as liberals, though they are right-liberals as distinct from the left-liberals and leftists who have appropriated the liberal label. I have on occasion said to David Horowitz that in my view he is a liberal, a comment with which he disagreed. Yet Horowitz seems to have had second thoughts on the subject. In a postscript to his exchange today with Jacob Heilbrunn, he writes:
I’m uncomfortable with labels myself. I am a liberal—free market, individualist, politically tolerant, even ecumenical, and progressive. But my reactionary political enemies who dominate the cultural institutions that are the arbiters of public language—the universities and the media—label me a right-wing conservative (and worse). There’s not much I can do to redefine the political landscape, but I have given it a try by creating DiscoverTheNetworks.org.Horowitz’s statement, while a significant event in the history of modern conservatism, is not surprising. He has always made it clear that his strongest political commitment is to values such as tolerance and inclusion, a belief that finds expression in his impassioned support for the homosexual rights movement. These positions make him, by definition, a liberal, though he has denied that conclusion. Instead, he has pointed to his non-utopianism, his acceptance of the world as it is, his respect for the natural limits of human beings, attitudes mark him as a conservative.
My point here is that Horowitz’s typical mainstream mixture of liberal and conservative views, whether we call the mixture “conservative liberalism” or “liberal conservatism” or simply “unlabeled,” is at bottom a form of liberalism rather than of conservatism, and as such will show the characteristic weakness of liberalism in relation to leftism. As long as a person’s highest political values are the procedural liberal values of individual rights, equality, tolerance, and free inquiry, then, even though he is not a leftist, he nevertheless shares a fundamental orientation with the left: the lack of allegiance, or at least of primary allegiance, to a substantive civilizational or spiritual order. Such a person will be more concerned about defending and expanding individual freedoms than defending the social and familial order that makes such freedoms possible; he will care more about tolerance for other cultures and peoples than the preservation of his own culture and people. In the long run, liberals’ inner commonality with leftists makes them incapable of standing firmly against the left’s ongoing reconstruction of human society.
This is the solution to a question that arises continually when one is reading Horowitz’s recent writings. As Horowitz sees it, radical leftists and fellow travelers have taken over America, constituting more than half the population and controlling the main institutions. In his analysis, he draws an absolute distinction between destructive leftists and good liberals. But if this is the case, where are these good liberals? Why have they not successfully resisted the leftist takeover of America that Horowitz bemoans? Why have they been so easily influenced and re-shaped by the left into fellow travelers? Horowitz to my knowledge has never asked, or answered, these questions. The answer is what I’ve already suggested. Even though liberalism is very different from leftism, and is often at war with leftism, it starts from the same spiritual basis as leftism: the denial (or at least the downgrading and thinning out) of transcendence and of particularity, the attempt to base society on abstract ideas and procedures (tolerance, inclusion, equality) rather than on the substance of a culture, namely transcendent reality as transmitted through a particular historical tradition.
It is all to the good that one of America’s most thoughtful and articulate mainstream conservatives has now admitted that he is a liberal. The increased terminological clarity will enable political debate to proceed on a more intellectually honest and productive basis.