Radicalism Is Killing Liberalism


In early 20th century Russia, the Marxist revolutionaries hated the liberal democrats even more than they hated the czarist empire (which was notably hateworthy). The conservative monarchy was autocratic and corrupt, but the liberal alternative, with its Western-style emphasis on free institutions, checks and balances, and procedural democracy stood squarely in the way of Lenin’s headlong rush into an utterly left-wing version of the czarist Empire. Lenin, you see, wasn’t against czars, just against conservative czars.

Mythical liberal gains

Conservatives today wring their hands over liberal gains, but it’s not liberalism that’s making the gains. In his historically astute and occasionally disturbing new book Silent Revolution: How the Left Rose to Political Power and Cultural Dominance, Barry Rubin documents that it’s radicalism, not liberalism, that’s the ascendant sociopolitical vision of our time. Ruben is a partisan of liberalism, the older liberalism, the Democratic liberalism of FDR and JFK, and the Republican liberalism of Dwight D Eisenhower and Richard M Nixon. It’s the liberalism of free markets with social safety nets, opposition to consolidations of power (including economic power), support of universal human rights (including racial equality), and the vigorous debate of ideas.

In Ruben’s genealogy, this liberalism caught a serious infection in the 60s and died during the first Obama administration. What replaced it, though continuing to march under its well-thought-of banner, was radicalism. By “radicalism” Rubin means a post-Communist social vision that he terms the Third Left.[1] It’s the social vision of 60s revolutionaries adapted to today’s Western democracy. Its goal is nothing less than cultural transformation. And it’s been a ringing success.

Liberalism versus Radicalism


What it has not been is liberalism. Ruben outlines the differences. Liberalism (along with conservatism) was patriotic. JFK was as anti-Communist as Ronald Reagan. Liberals no less than conservatives wanted American ideals of liberty to pervade the world.

Radicals, by contrast, ridiculed patriotism as jingoistic. America is the world’s problem, not the solution to the problem. Exhibit #1: the president’s global apology tour.

Free markets

Liberalism (along with conservatism) advocated free markets. The only substantive difference was the extent of the social safety nets the government would provide. Liberalism opposed large corporations because it believed (correctly or incorrectly) that they became bullies.

Radicalism, on the other hand, wanted to transfer society into one vast social safety net. Radicalism didn’t want to impose checks on the free market; it essentially wants to commandeer the market for its own purposes of social engineering. Exhibit #2: Obamacare.

Religious freedom

Liberalism (along with conservatism) championed religious freedom. JFK worked hard to assure the electorate that his Roman Catholicism would not undermine America’s traditional WASP culture. A leading political goal of both liberals and conservatives was to respect the free expression and exercise of religion. Pat Robertson, Pentecostal preacher, was a Republican presidential primary candidate. Jimmy Carter, Southern Baptist layman, won the presidency for the Democrats.

Alternatively, radicalism wanted to erase religious (specifically Christian) influence anywhere in society except between people’s two ears, and preferably even from there. Exhibit #3: the Obama administration argued before the Supreme Court that the religious convictions of Hobby Lobby against the coerced supply of contraceptives to employees had to bow to secular government (i.e., Obama administration) imperatives.

Rational discourse

Liberals were strong believers in the European Enlightenment. They believed in the priority and success of rational discourse. If all people of goodwill could simply sit down and discuss matters calmly and rationally, taking into account all the available evidence, they would more often than not arrive at identical or similar conclusions.

But this was far from the approach of the radicals, who believed that rational discourse was simply a cynical tool of white, privileged, power-hungry capitalists to preserve and perpetuate their cultural hegemony. The radicals, consequently, like their progenitors Marx and Lenin, wanted to sweep away rational discourse as well as the effective operation of American institutions within which it operated (checks and balances, courts, constitutional guarantees) in favor of “direct democracy,” meaning: an ideological mob shouting down all reasoned opposition in order to get their own way. Exhibit #4: Brandeis University’s cancelation of the commencement address and honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, strong feminist and critic of Islam’s treatment of women, under pressure from radicals.

A colorblind society

Liberals and many (though unfortunately not all) conservatives wanted a racially colorblind society. Martin Luther King, Jr. was no more quintessentially liberal than when he declared, “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The original civil rights vision was a vision of legal de-racialization.

This is not the radical racial vision. That vision is for legal re-racialization in the form of quotas, preferential policies, guilt manipulation, and racial strife. Exhibit # 5: “Microaggression.”

The Radical Revolt Against Liberalism

Rubin implies, in fact, that at a number of points, radicalism is most nearly the opposite of liberalism. This thesis in particular piqued my interest. My own biological life almost exactly parallels the life of Third Left radicalism in the United States. I shared a biological birthday with an ideological birthday: U. S. radicalism. As a conservative Christian, I have observed its fits, starts, reversals, and triumph in the last five decades. Until encountering Rubin, I was under the impression that Obama’s radicalism was simply the latest permutation of early 20th century liberalism. Obama’s was merely the most recent poisonous fruit of the same corrupt tree that included Woodrow Wilson and FDR. Rubin has forced me, if not to abandon, at least to temper, that sociopolitical genealogy. Rubin (who passed away recently) was a true-blue liberal disturbed that his liberalism had been co-opted by essentially Marxist radicals. I am now at least willing to consider that thesis. When I heard for years that 60s radicals were rebelling against their Eisenhower-era liberal parents, I shrugged my shoulders. Now I realize this assessment might be quite literally true.

The Establishment Radicals

The radicals, Rubin theorizes, people like Bill Ayers from the Weathermen, were fanatically anti-establishment in the 60s but decided to become pro-establishment in the 70s. Why overturn the system when you can become the system? In the words of radical leader Van Jones,  “I’m willing to forgo the cheap satisfaction of the radical pose for the deep satisfaction of radical ends.” Therefore, writes, Rubin

Although they entered the system, tens of thousands of ideologically oriented professors and scientists and political journalists; environmental, feminist, African American, or Hispanic activists; foundation and think-tank officials; artists, filmmakers, and other cultural producers; government and trade-union bureaucrats; and even politicians still remained radical activists. By entering into the system, they were not “selling out” or being co-opted. They still maintained their goal of thoroughgoing [cultural] change.

My Canadian friend, Dr. Scott Masson of the Ezra Institute, posited to me that the reason Canada radicalized so quickly since the 70s was that so many 60s U. S. draft-dodgers ended up teaching in Canadian universities. It’s one U. S. export (not the only one) that has harmed our Canadian neighbors.

Rubin popularizes (though does not mention) Richard Wolin’s thesis that late 60s European Maoists saw that political revolution was a dead end and instead recognized that if they captured the levers of culture they could get politics thrown in to boot. The success of radical feminism, the homosexual agenda, criminals’ rights, ubiquitous pornography, and the perpetual victimization of what Thomas Sowell calls “moral mascots” (the poor, the homeless, the racial minorities) is the result of an intentional radical agenda. There is no hint of a conspiracy here. The radicals, like Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, disdained to conceal their aims. They aimed. They fired. They hit their target.

But Rubin wants to remind us that while radicalism is many things, liberal isn’t one of them.

Rubin concludes optimistically. The radical era will end because it must end. It will end for the same reason that the Soviet Union ended. It is not rooted in reality. It is rooted in ideology. It champions a false view of human nature. It refuses to take the Triune God into account. It is, in fact, a Grand Illusion. Grand Illusions die hard. But they do die.

Still, before it exhausts itself, this illusion will leave carnage in its wake. It has left carnage in its wake.

There is a price to pay for believing lies.


[1] The First Left is old-line 20th century liberalism, which Rubin embraces. The Second Left is the Marxist revolutionary radicalism of the 60s. The Third Left is the more recent (post-60s) establishment radicalism his book is about.


One thought on “Radicalism Is Killing Liberalism

  1. Pingback: Why There’s No Longer Political Common Ground | P. Andrew Sandlin

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