At the same time, the space occupied by liberalism itself has shrunk to the point where it’s difficult to locate. Different strands of it now live on under different names. Conservatives have styled themselves as the new defenders of free speech. Democrats have sidestepped ‘‘liberal’’ and embraced ‘‘progressive,’’ a word with its own confusing history, to evoke the good-government, welfare-state inclinations of the New Deal. Some of the strongest defenses of liberalism’s achievements come from people who identify as ‘‘socialists.’’ And free-trade advocates, with no more positive term to shelter under, are now tagged, often derisively, as ‘‘neoliberal.’’ The various ideas to which ‘‘liberal’’ has referred persist, in one form or another, among different constituencies. Liberalism may continue. But it may well end up doing so without any actual liberals behind it.
I enjoy thinking about basic questions of political philosophy and nomenclature. I enjoy it in much the same way that I enjoy doing pullups, pushups and yoga. It’s good exercise. But whereas physical exercise results in undeniable, observable progress, Scholastic-style quibbles over political essences, no matter how long you ruminate over them, never seem to lead to clarity or simplicity. And then, when I read something like this post by Scott Alexander, I find it increasingly hard to resist the quasi-nihilistic perspective that tempts me to dismiss all such theorizing as nothing but just-so stories hastily contrived in reaction to the unintended consequences of earlier events. Political discourse makes me imagine fleas on the back of an elephant vehemently arguing about which direction to go, while the elephant, of course, does its own thing, completely oblivious to their existence. On top of that, though, they’re not even having reality-based arguments so much as simply shouting past each other. A double layer of absurd pointlessness.