Freedom is an uncomfortable condition, particularly when enjoyed by others. Whatever the other blessings of liberty, it also inflicts upon us the agony of decision, the weight of responsibility, the dread of consequences, and the burden of regret.
And when others have freedom, well, you just wouldn’t believe what damn fool things they’ll get up to.
So freedom is always hanging in an uneasy balance. America, founded upon a ringing declaration that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”, was also the nation of chattel slavery and the Trail of Tears, the Palmer Raids and the Red Scare, the Blue Law and the Comstock Act.
Indeed, these impulses are often at war in the same person. In 1765 John Adams, certified founding father, wrote that “The only Maxim of a free Government, ought to be to trust no Man living, with Power to endanger the public Liberty”.
“Cities may be rebuilt, and a People reduced to Poverty, may acquire fresh Property,” he wrote to his wife in 1775, “But a Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty once lost is lost forever.”
Yet in 1798, as President of the United States, Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, permitting the summary deportation of immigrants, and the arrest of his administration’s critics. He justified this as an exigency of war, but then, the enemies of freedom always have some reason that liberty, while usuallyexcellent, is currently too inconvenient to contemplate.
Fortunately, Adams was wrong that the arrow of history travels only in one direction, from freedom to despotism, just as the modern progressive is wrong to see history as a steady journey from oppression to liberation. Despite his energetic suppression of dissent, the administration’s critics won the 1800 election, in part thanks to a backlash against the Alien and Sedition Acts. Slavery was followed by the fourteenth amendment, the Palmer Raids by the founding of the ACLU, the Hollywood Blacklist by the Berkely Free Speech movement. The more our liberties are encroached upon, the more fiercely we fight for what is left.
But if it’s wrong to see history as a one-way trip towards either freedom and prosperity, or utter doom, it would also be incorrect to think of it as a pendulum, a self-regulating machine. It's probably more accurate to think of freedom as an unstable equilibrium—and that, I submit, is why we are anxiously asking whether freedom has a future. Instinctively, we know that many systems have multiple equilibria, and we fear we may be on the verge of tipping into something much worse.
Are we on the verge of the abyss? Substantial factions on both left and right certainly seem to think so. The right speaks of woke capital and “Flight 93 elections”, after which there is no hope of recovery. The left warns of white supremacy and “fascism”. Both feel basic liberties are under existential threat. Unfortunately, the harder they fight to protect their own freedoms, the more they have given the other side reason to fear for theirs.
Almost as soon as they stopped laughing at Trump’s ride down the golden escalator, the left started issuing increasingly frenetic warnings about an impending authoritarian takeover. They prophesied that Trump would attack crucial civil rights such as freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and due process. They worried that he would roll back hard-won freedoms for racial and sexual minorities, who had long suffered both public and private discrimination. They brooded about his promises to appoint justices who would eviscerate a woman’s right to choose. They fretted that he would try to undermine the fundamental democratic processes that undergird our other freedoms, such as “the rule of law” and “one man, one vote”.
They were not wrong to worry—Trump did try all of those things! But if they correctly identified his atavistic proclivities, they vastly underestimated how effectively he could put them into practice. His most effective actions came in the very normal political field of appointing Supreme Court justices. Otherwise, his administration was one long festival of overreach and underperformance. His verbal attacks on the press boosted subscriptions; his hastily drafted attempts to ban muslim immigrants and transgender soldiers got tangled up in courts; his squalid little attack on the election ended in indictments, not a triumphant return to power.
These things still mattered. They were unpresidential and unAmerican, and they badly eroded crucial civic norms. But they were controlled by a system that was still strong enough to maintain its equilibrium.
Unfortunately, rather than trusting the system to work as normal, even in the face of abnormal threats, the left panicked and tried to destroy the village in order to save it, gravitating toward proposals to pack the court or eliminate the electoral college. Ironically, they were following a very similar path to Trump supporters who were panicking about incursions on basic liberties like speech and religious liberty and worried that the Constitution itself had become an obstacle to the defense of freedom.
Even before Trump, an increasingly influential progressive coalition had been flexing its institutional power from strongholds in academia, the media, corporate boardrooms and professional societies. When it came to traditional views on sexuality, the view was increasingly that error had no rights: a corporate boycott forced Indiana to rewrite its Religious Freedom Restoration Act to enshrine more LGBT rights, an evangelical college in Massachusetts was threatened with the loss of accreditation, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was threatening to shut down a cake shop for its refusal to cater gay weddings, while the ACLU—the American Civil Liberties Union—was suing Catholic hospitals in an attempt to force them to perform abortions.
I first wrote about cancel culture, which I then dubbed “shamestorming”, in 2015, the year that a group of Yale students vehemently protested, and eventually forced out, a residential advisor who suggested that maybe students, rather than administrators, should decide what sorts of Halloween costumes were appropriate. It was a preview of much worse to come on college campuses. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, attempts to sanction professors increased dramatically after 2014, with nearly 900 such incidents between 2015 and 2022. Sixty percent of those attempts resulted in sanction, including 156 firings.
Some have argued that this was the simply inevitable result of increasing the share of women and racial and sexual minorities in schools and workplaces, creating social frictions that demanded redress. One could argue, too, that as secular morality diverged from its religious ancestors, it was impossible avoid reaching a point where the two would come into irreconcilable conflict.
Whether or not these explanations were correct , it certainly felt true to a lot of people that the fight was existential, life or death, them or us. People who thought they were fighting for their very existence somewhat predictably decided we could scarcely afford abstract principles like “free speech” and “open inquiry”, or procedural niceties like “equality under the law”. And that was before Trump got elected and started tossing rhetorical Molotov cocktails onto a dumpster fire that was already burning quite merrily.
After that, well, le deluge.
On the left, entire journalistic and academic cottage industries sprang up to identify “misinformation” and “disinformation”, and bully social media sites into suppressing it (including many reports that turned out—oops!—to be true). In the pandemic-haunted summer of 2020, America’s reckoning with police abuses somehow triggered a wave of firings at newspapers, non-profits, and universities. And while the purge mentality has retreated somewhat, it’s hardly gone away; a recent survey showed that three quarters of students believed that professors should be reported to the administration for saying something a student found offensive about vaccines or trans issues.
Not to be outdone, the right developed its own class of artisans producing hand-crafted denunciations of liberalism, and tributes to various Eastern European bullies who were willing to defend traditional values from the Rainbow Horde. Suddenly Catholic Integralism, which seeks to subordinate political power to spiritual authority, was making a comeback--quite a feat for a set of ideas that had been out of vogue for roughly a century. Conservative activists began demanding that schools ban books. Red state governments who had been running scared from corporate boycotts abruptly turned around and started attacking “woke capital” where it hurts, in the pocketbook. One of the most striking things about the survey of student opinion mentioned above is that over half of conservatives thought their teachers should be reported for disagreeing with them.
The more things escalated, the less people talked about the freedoms they were trying to protect, and the more they just talked about how awful their opponents were--as if the goal was not self-defense, but selecting the right group of victims. It's enough to make one despair for freedom’s future.
And yet I don’t. After all, American freedom has survived much worse, and an unstable equilibrium is still an equilibrium. This one is held in place by many of the same forces that are trying to tear it apart: the very pluralism and vast scale that make it impossible for us all to agree on any one right way to live.
The liberal order emerged slowly from the brutal religious wars that followed the Reformation. Eventually people realized that no matter how important the questions they were fighting over, they could not be settled by destruction. And so they chose to settle things through persuasion instead of coercion, tolerance rather than totalitarianism. They did this even though they were arguing over what seemed like the most important question in the entire world: how to save your immortal soul. Compared to an eternity of damnation, any temporal problem pales in comparison. Yet they managed to bracket their disagreements well enough to live side-by-side.
The regime they created, unintentionally as well as by design, has many flaws and more dissatisfactions. It is riddled with frictions and frequently fails to live up to its principles. It creates ample room for offense, error, and contradiction. Yet on the other side of the ledger, it has delivered us increasing shares of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Even our most egregious failures, the dispossession of Native Americans and the enslavement of Blacks, were corrected within the system, however slowly and imperfectly. That’s hard to give up for some hypothetical alternative—and looks pretty good compared to its real-world competitors.
Which is not, of course, to say that freedom is inevitable. Far from it, as the founding fathers knew: we have to choose freedom, over and over, even at great cost. But perhaps naively, it seems to me that America is once again making that choice—haltingly, grudgingly, and with much shouting, but making it all the same.
Even in the worst of it, many institutions held. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, once solely focused on campus issues, has expanded its mission beyond the campus to fill the void left by the ACLU’s leftward lurch. The court system has proven quite willing to slap down a former president who appointed much of the federal bench, and three Supreme Court justices—while also protecting both gay marriage, and religious liberty.
But new institutions have also sprung up to fight those fights—new nonprofits, new media outlets, even a new university. And though they may have started out as lonely, isolated voices, their voices are rising, while the doom-mongering anti-freedom brigades seem to be in retreat. The promises of radical action for radical problems are growing strained and the culture war appeals are falling flat, whether it’s Ron DeSantis addressing Republican primary voters, or progressive activists addressing the editors of The New York Times. Most people don’t want their information censored by disinformation specialists or Elon Musk, their books chosen by Christopher Rufo or Robin DiAngelo; mostly, they just want ideologues and busybodies to leave them alone.
Which is, of course, where freedom begins: People who want to be left alone eventually realize that the only way to achieve their wish is to grant others the same privilege. Which is why I remain hopeful that once again, we will ultimately recommit to freedom, because it matters, and because it works.
Megan McCardle is a columnist at The Washington Post and author of The Up Side of Down.