Modern liberalism, so apt to see every social pathology as a form of mental or emotional illness, invites the application of a similar perspective on itself. Whether the issue in question has to do with teenage promiscuity, adultery, prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse, kleptomania, school shootings, child abuse, gang warfare, or corruption in government (though never corporate greed, tax evasion, or white-collar crime), the liberal is always in a hurry to attribute the cause to the irrational yet irresistible impulse to antisocial behavior. But this Weltanschauung that dims and enfeebles the moral imagination is a form of mental and moral addiction, operating on the mind and soul much as cocaine or whiskey act upon the body to induce intoxicating highs in the short run and intellectual deterioration, moral laxity, and self-indulgence in the long one.
For thousands of years, Homo sapiens has resorted to drugs and alcohol to achieve gratification across a spectrum of powerful sensations, among them euphoria, the illusion of power, the transcendence of limits, and self-integration with the cosmos. Liberalism provides access to all these sensations, by ideological rather than chemical means. It is not coincidental that 20th-century liberalism, and not libertarianism, should have been inseparably associated with what originally was called “free love” and later “sexual liberation,” and with the drug culture. The libertarian idol is unfettered Action; the liberal one, Sensation—Action being subordinated to the instrumental role of promoting and supporting Sensation. What is more, for liberals, the proximate object of sensation is always oneself. That is only one of many reasons why liberalism from its beginnings has recognized in religion its foremost enemy.
Ultimately, there is no addiction without denial, whether in respect of oneself or others. Recent presidential campaigns in the United States have been marked by dishonest and disloyal repudiations of liberalism by liberal Judases in both the Republican and Democratic parties. Since Ronald Reagan’s last hurrah on the campaign trail in 1984, scarcely any American politician has permitted himself to be tarred by the “L-word” without making it clear that he regards it as a fighting one. The easy temptation is the cynical one, to reply to the denial with a horselaugh. Yet addiction is addiction, as every addict’s family—far better than the addict himself—knows all too well. Denial may indeed be a conscious, or semiconscious, lie to oneself or to others. More often, it is simply a part of the illusory aspect of addiction. The chemical addict has existed so long in his drug-induced Shangri-La that it seems like empirical reality to him. Wholly acclimated and acculturated to the entrancing colors, sensuous textures, thrilling intensity or beguiling languor, and heightened reality of this opiate world, he cannot recognize it as an inverted world—inside out, upside down, and viewed through a looking glass. It is entirely possible, for instance, that Sen. John McCain believes in all honesty that he really is a conservative appointed to confront a party of wild-eyed liberals in the fall. He is part, after all, of a society to whose drinking-water supply the liberal love potion was added some generations ago. If 300 million Americans daily consumed water that in fact was 50-percent white wine, no one of those 300 million would be in a condition to distinguish the mildly squiffed state of his compatriots from his own pleasantly relaxed one. Likewise, neither Mayor Giuliani nor Mitt Romney nor Mike Huckabee nor Newt Gingrich nor President Bush considers himself to be a liberal. All he knows is that he is not a Neanderthal. And Neanderthals didn’t have wine to drink, only water—and fresh blood.
Chemical addicts drink, snort, smoke, and shoot up to escape from reality. Liberals embrace, or hold to, the doctrine of liberalism for the same reason. They do not take reality for their starting point for the very good reason that, like all addicts, they have no interest in, or concern for, present reality, but rather the realization of a new reality and the transformation of the human condition. Ignoring reality is a highly self-destructive habit, and so liberals are committed, equally with other addicts, to slow-motion suicide. “Liberalism,” James Burnham thought,
is the ideology of Western suicide. When once this initial and final sentence [in Suicide of the West] is understood, everything about liberalism—the beliefs, emotions, and values associated with it, the nature of its enchantment, its practical record, its future—falls into place.
[L]iberalism has come to be the typical verbal systematization of the process of contraction and withdrawal [italics mine]; . . . liberalism motivates and justifies the contraction, and reconciles us to it.
The instinct for withdrawal, added to guilt, self-criticalness, and self-hatred, are classic symptoms of the addicted personality, as well as the liberal one. And in liberalism’s role in “reconciling” society to withdrawal and contraction, we discern still another parallel between the addict’s tendency to attempt to draw others within the circle of his own illusory universe.
In the land of the inebriate, the half-drunk man is king. Or so one might suppose. Unfortunately, it is the half-drunk, not the drink-sodden, who experience the heightened excitement of intoxication—who throw themselves out of windows in the expectation of flying, in preference to falling downstairs in a heap on the way out. Burnham thought that liberalism’s clammy-handed hold on public opinion and policy made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Western nations adequately to face the problems that confronted them in the 1960’s—those arising from the Cold War, in particular.
The withdrawal from, or refusal to recognize, reality is an important part of liberalism, but it is hardly the whole of it. Equally pernicious is liberalism’s transcendental tendency. Liberals have often been accused of wanting to bring down Heaven to earth. In fact, the heresy of liberalism goes further than that, by intimating that earth is really Heaven in disguise, if only we had the imagination to recognize it for what it really is. I expect that even atheists experience that warm interior glow, the sensation of being spiritually whole and complete and connected with something universal, that comes from sudden reconciliation, usually unexpected, with the most unlikely person, most commonly an enemy or a stranger one has rubbed the wrong way. In company with the saints, liberals hunger after this sensation, world without end. But unlike the saints, their means are insufficient to realize it, and so their reward is a frustrating sense of incompleteness, inadequacy, and inexpungable guilt—the liberal’s distinguishing psychological trait.
One of the many contradictions of modern liberalism is that an ideology that professes faith in the free and unfettered individual is deeply suspicious of the efficacy of individual action to solve what liberalism views as the “problems” of society and of the world. Liberals, like the rest of us, regard good deeds by individual men and women as commendable—commendable, but hardly more than a brave and defiant gesture, like writing an inspirational poem no one will read. Liberals, assuming all human problems to be systemic, insist that these can be overcome only by systemic means—a hierarchy, that is, of organizations and bureaucracies culminating in the state. The difficulty is not simply that the liberal assumption is a false one; it is that the profoundly religious impulse to transcend self through good works is compromised by the equally profound libido dominandi that is aroused by participation in the life of social organizations that are by nature competitive—that is, political. So the urge to self-transcendence is joined with, and fatally compromised by, the lust for power and for dominance—not least the power to impose a regime of forced self-transcendence on society as a whole.
The sensation of power is as overwhelming a one as that of an harmonic unity, and indeed the two may overlap to a considerable degree. For those people who feel they have succeeded in transcending the world, the conviction that they have earned the power to rule the world comes naturally. Rule and harmony are not, of course, contradictory things. But the spiritual nature of transcendence, and the earthly nature of power, are irreconcilably opposed to each other. Liberalism, for the last two centuries at least, has been pulled almost apart by the tug of war between these two—without liberals themselves knowing anything about it. Secure within the iridescent bubble of their addiction, they have been content to remain ignorant of the possibility that any contradiction might exist at all. Liberals have long since forgotten, if indeed they ever knew, that love is humble.
Yet power itself is addictive, as the philosophers have always known. Indeed, it is the prince of all addictions—the sole cure, even, for those lesser princes who stand below it. For if there is one thing competent to tempt a drunk from drink, a doper from opium, a lecher from lust, and an acolyte from God, it is the opportunity for power. But lust too lusts after power, and dipsomania eagerly fastens on it.
Western society—American society, in particular—is drunk on power, the liberal addiction. It is true that Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao are, with George Bush, equally power hungry. But Putin and Hu do not consider themselves liberals, and they do not lay claim to liberalism’s humanitarian and universalistic ideals. Unlike Bush or Tony Blair, they are essentially frank about their political philosophies, such as they are, and quite willing to let their intentions be deduced from their actions, rather than from their words. If they, too, are power addicts, they are not in denial about it. This is possible for them because they do not subscribe to a political doctrine that, as Burnham noted, “can survive in application only by violating its own principles.”
In a speech delivered last March in Nashville to a meeting of Christian broadcasters, President Bush defended his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the purest liberal rhetoric. “The effects of a free Iraq and a free Afghanistan,” Bush declared,
will reach beyond the borders of those two countries. It will show others what’s possible. And we undertake this work because we believe that every human being bears the image of our [M]aker. That’s why we’re doing this. No one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.
The moralistic exhilaration of Bush’s stated defense of his unprovoked war of aggression in Iraq, taken together with the exhilarated enthusiasm he has shown in launching and prosecuting it, is a perfect example of how the intoxication of power combines with the high induced by liberal idealism. No president since Theodore Roosevelt has faced the world with such joyous belligerence as George W. Bush, who is said to have rejoiced, on his first day in office, at having the mighty American military under his sole command. (It was, indeed, a boast worthy of TR, who is nowhere on record as having said such a thing.) But Teddy, unlike the shirker Bush, had experienced combat in action when he inherited the Oval Office, and he never attempted to cloud jingoistic and imperialistic aims with liberal platitudes about imposing peace and democracy on the world.
Roosevelt was an avatar of federal power, at home and abroad, but he was no universalist, and he pulled the country along with him by force of personality, not ideology and cant. That was left, a couple of administrations later, to Woodrow Wilson, whom Mencken dismissed as “the perfect model of a Christian cad” and who once declared, “Politics I conceive to be nothing more than the science of the ordered progress of society along the lines of greatest usefulness and convenience to itself.”
Pat Buchanan, in a column written a year or two ago, deplored (with some wonderment) the fact that half the American nation has converted to the socially destructive and immoralist agenda of modern liberalism. The array of winnowed candidates so far selected to do battle next fall suggests that Buchanan was overly optimistic. Almost the whole of American society and the American polity is simply steeped in the liberal opiate, unable to conceive of any life, or any thought, beyond the opium den. When compared with addiction, simple insanity seems a more acceptable, as well as a more charitable, diagnosis.
One way or the other, the final result may already be assured. It was Mencken, not Burnham, who, writing in the 1920’s, predicted that the United States would blow up in a hundred years. It begins to look as if the event will occur right on schedule.
Chilton Williamson, Jr., is Chronicles’ senior editor for books. This piece first appeared in the May 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.