The most vital political question facing the United States is not whether its citizens will vote for Democratic or Republican governance in upcoming elections. Rather, it is whether a critical mass of Americans, in and out of both leading parties, will embrace liberal or illiberal solutions to national challenges. Multiple polls show that belief in classically liberal American ideals such as freedom of speech and nonviolent persuasion is at an alarming low.

Not that we need polls to tell us this; it’s in the air we breathe and it’s bipartisan. Neither the left nor the right has a monopoly on undermining or discrediting elections. The left enforces speech codes. The right encourages blind obeisance to their avenging standard-bearer. Progressives overtly crusade against whiteness and dress up their increasing anti-Semitism in social-justice finery. Populists speak of color-blindness and then break bread with white supremacists. Both excuse or encourage political intimidation and violence. Talk of revolution and civil war abounds.

It would be nice, then, to read a book that traces the course of these illiberal themes in our country’s history. How did these noxious ideas first emerge? Where in the body politic have they been lying dormant? And how do we send them back whence they came?

At least the title of Steven Hahn’s new book, Illiberal America: A History, is promising. The first sign of trouble, however, appears only a couple of pages into his introduction. Hahn, a historian and professor at New York University, has a definition problem. He writes that illiberalism embodies

a collection of ideas that favors fixed hierarchies (notably of gender, race, and nationality) and cultural homogeneity, and that can accept majoritarian methods of wielding power. Illiberalism celebrates the nation and its designated people, Christianity and Western “civilization,” the “community” and its defenders, and tightly patrolled territorial boundaries. It stands opposed to cosmopolitan elites and their followers, to a globalized economic system, to supranational political institutions, (the UN, the World Court, the E.U.), to human instead of nation- or community-based rights, and to disrupters of heterosexuality.

According to Hahn, then, belief in secure national borders, distrust of the UN Security Council’s rotating chamber of tyrants, and an uneasiness with child “gender-affirming” care render one illiberal. Cancel culture, DEI racism, BLM riots, and Hamas support in the streets, on the other hand, are all firmly in the liberal tradition. Illiberalism, in other words, is whatever progressives don’t like.

What follows naturally enough from this perspective is a Republicans-pounce version of American history. The illiberal thoughts and actions of progressives are often (but not entirely) ignored in favor of the right’s scary illiberal responses. “Illiberalism is indeed a political and cultural disposition and ideology of the right,” says Hahn. And he aims to prove it.

The author also has a larger aim. To quote from his own Jargonese, his purpose is “to complicate and problematize American liberalism, and demonstrate both the ways in which illiberalism represented the dominant impulses or hedged in and compromised liberal objectives and projects.” In plain English: to expose the mere “invention” of the country’s “‘slavery to freedom’ narrative” and prove that the United States is and always was bad.

Since the advent of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, no good liberal history of the United States dares begin with the actual history of the United States. So Hahn does the Times one better and starts with the late 1500s, when Richard Hakluyt the Elder, an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, wrote to the queen and expressed his desire to colonize North America “‘to plant the Christian religion,’ to ‘trafficke’ (that is, to engage in trade), and ‘to conquer,’ though not necessarily in that order.” Ominous stuff. From here, Hahn covers all the brutality and hypocrisy of America’s pre-founding, from the servitude and slavery to the decimation of natives, and so on.

If there is someone out there, somewhere, who was unaware that the world was, only centuries ago, an inconceivably monstrous place, I hope Hahn’s work can reach him and instruct him. But what’s important about all this is not Hahn’s detailed rehearsal of horrors. It’s that we immediately recognize these things as horrors precisely because the United States took up the cause of human liberty and created a world in which such things rightly disgust us.

As for the American Revolution itself, Hahn argues that colonists in the late-18th century were not so much anti-monarchical as they were opposed to the British Parliament’s predations. In fact, they flattered the king in hopes he would rein in the parliament. And only when he refused did the colonists reject the throne. Rather than this being a fairly pedestrian story of political maneuvering, Hahn takes it as a sign that Americans have always really wanted divine monarchy. That those who wish to question the nation’s founding principles find themselves compelled to speculate about latent monarchic desires within the American body politic shows once again their inability or refusal to reckon with the actual history of America. For what actually matters is this: The colonists revolted, won the Revolutionary War, and created an ever-evolving democratic republic.

Hahn’s early chapters quickly become a slog, and not necessarily because he’s wrong or tendentious in this or that particular about the prejudice or inhumanity of the young nation. It’s because his larger aim of indicting the American project grows tiresome and finally ignorable. The “myth,” as he sees it, of a good and liberal America doesn’t need any more busting. It’s long been supplanted by the popular liberal countermyth of America as irredeemably evil. Howard Zinn wrote the urtext, A People’s History of The United States, in 1980. In the 44 years since, it’s sold millions of copies and been taught to generations of students. And you could fill libraries with the “Untold Histories” that it spurred. Nothing of significance in American’s dark past, at this late date, has been left untold. There’s simply no American adult of normal intelligence—patriot, Communist, or anarchist—who is unaware of the country’s early sins. There are those of us who can put these in their proper context and recognize that the U.S. has imperfectly, even stumblingly, led the civilized world out of a moral dark age. And there are those who are never done compiling evidence against the most uniquely terrible country ever to exist. Hahn’s book is ultimately for the latter group. It’s a footnoted catalogue of confirming biases. And that’s a dreadfully boring use of history.

Illiberal America gets more interesting once Hahn moves into the 20th century, but only because his anti-conservative framework comes under such tremendous strain that it could collapse at any moment. To his credit, he’s forthcoming about the early progressives’ racist obsession with population-control and eugenics. And he rightly identifies the birth-control movement’s founding icon Margaret Sanger as leading the pack. But he doesn’t mention the conservatives who tried to stop them, such as the Supreme Court justice and devout Catholic Pierce Butler, who was the lone dissenter in the 1927 Buck v. Bell ruling that permitted compulsory sterilization. Hahn discusses at length the progressive British eugenicists who joined forces with Sanger, but he doesn’t mention G.K. Chesterton’s outspoken opposition to them. And he never credits the Catholic church more generally for its efforts to shut down the eugenics project.

Hahn also accurately details the illiberal excesses of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency in advancing eugenics, establishing the corporatist state, promoting a nationalistic war fever, and attacking civil liberties. And Hahn even acknowledges that early progressives had a fondness for Benito Mussolini (although he dwells more on the reactionary right-wingers who fawned over him).

What he doesn’t do—what he cannot do—is recognize that these race-obsessed, social-engineering, and rights-infringing schemes of the progressives were not aberrations. They became the templates from which progressives have worked in one form or another ever since. Actual conservatism, a phenomenon that Hahn seems not to recognize, opposes all of it in the name of classical liberalism.

If Hahn is somewhat candid about progressives’ interest in fascism, he treats their attachments to Communism as off-stage noise. In a book purportedly about illiberal movements in America, there’s no discussion of the Stalinist left. Why consider the Reds when there are pouncing “red-baiters” on the right? Similarly, his chapter on the 1960s, titled “The ‘Other’ Nineteen-Sixties,” delves into the racism of George Wallace, the anti-busing movement, and the anti-feminism of Boston housewives. As for the actual 1960s—the decade in which an American Communist assassinated a liberal American president and the Black Panthers were celebrated for their terrorism along with Weather Underground and the assorted fascisti who violently took over universities—Hahn says not a word.

Why? Because just as illiberalism means “whatever progressives don’t like,” liberalism means “whatever progressives like.” And progressives really like actual illiberalism—the angry, unreasonable beast fueled by identity and hungry for power. The proof is in Hahn’s overarching denial of American achievement. He and other progressives refuse to recognize progress on the grounds that it’s not absolute or in precise accordance with their demands. There are words for that, but liberal isn’t one of them.

Photo: AP Photo

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