Eight years ago, reflecting on the inauguration of President Barack Obama, I wrote a piece that made two arguments, which may be worth briefly revisiting.
First, I suggested that January 20, 2009, “marked the end of a conservative era.” This proved to be true. Despite the impressive renaissance of aspects of conservatism in the Tea Party efforts of 2010 and sporadically among Republicans in Congress throughout the Obama years; and despite the fact, as I argued then, that “conservatives have been right more often than not—and more often than liberals—about most of the important issues of the day,” Donald Trump’s nomination and election did confirm the end of the Reagan era. A new conservatism based on old conservative—and liberal—principles is possible. Indeed, it’s necessary. But it’s not going to be simply a continuation or even a revival of the conservatism of 1980 to 2008.
My second suggestion—perhaps more a hope than a suggestion—was that President Obama could herald the restoration of a healthier liberalism. I quoted Harvey Mansfield from 1978: “From having been the aggressive doctrine of vigorous, spirited men, liberalism has become hardly more than a trembling in the presence of illiberalism. . . . Who today is called a liberal for strength and confidence in defense of liberty?” I asked whether a revived liberalism of strength and confidence in defense of liberty was possible. “Can Obama reshape liberalism to be, as it was under F.D.R., a fighting faith, unapologetically patriotic and strong in the defense of liberty?”
Well, perhaps Obama could have revived such a liberalism. But he manifestly did not. He didn’t even try. Ask those yearning or fighting for liberty from Tehran to Moscow, from Cuba to the Middle East. And so a liberalism that once fought for liberty, which had already degenerated into a progressivism that took liberty for granted, became a progressivism that doesn’t even seem particularly concerned about liberty. And the nationalist populism that rose in reaction shows a lamentable inclination to forget about liberty as well, especially if the cause of liberty requires sacrifice or long-term effort.
The old conservatism has faded. The recent progressivism has failed. The standard of liberty trails in the dust, unattended by either of the major parties, neglected by the cravenly politically correct and the aggressively politically incorrect. But surely there are those who can see beyond progressivism and look above populism. It is their task today to raise a standard of liberty to which the wise and honest can repair.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard