If you have been a Serious Political Commentator over the last four years or so, you have been worried and anxious and even unsettled about the rising tide of “illiberalism.” The word has always annoyed me because it sounds so pompous–something about the -il prefix, so rare in spoken English other than in the word “illiterate”–and is so non-descriptive. As a negation of an already poorly defined concept, illiberalism doesn’t communicate much of substance, but it does signal that one is a learned person with respect for “institutions” and a hard-earned knowledge that the world is complex. Like a lot of related hyperventilating about “free speech” on campus, much discussion about illiberalism focuses on surface-level stuff–tone, mode of address, style, things happening only online or in the media. Students yelling at someone they despise = illiberalism, students sitting at a table outside a hall where someone they despise is talking = liberalism. So, as a superficial concept used to telegraph depth, its currency tracks with Trump, not just because of his authoritarian desires or allegiances but because of the challenge, mostly rhetorical, to various sorts of “norms” and institutions.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, since the eighteenth century “liberal” has connoted “open-minded” and “tolerant,” a characteristic of an individual personality. This obviously informs its political uses, especially by self-described liberals: a liberal is someone appreciative of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. Along these lines, we find that the liberal favors “social reform and a degree of state intervention in matters of economics and social justice,” a meaning that accords with the use of “liberal” in US politics. But the next political definition, “supporting or advocating individual rights, civil liberties, and political and social reform tending towards individual freedom or democracy with little state intervention,” complicates matters by invoking a parallel, and in some ways antagonistic, political tradition. This is what we might call the “libertarian” definition of the term. While sharing the concept’s basic orientation towards the individual as the basis of political life, their implications, especially in economic affairs, can be quite different.
But the designation “liberal” is really more a value judgment than a coherent political tradition. Its connotation of generosity (“princes are munificent, friends are generous, a patron liberal,” explains a nineteenth-century thesaurus) is used negatively in right-wing caricatures of the profligate liberal politician, but it is embraced by “bleeding-heart liberals.” Meanwhile, liberal in the sense of “unrestrained”—when we describe a libertine’s loose behavior or a trade agreement’s rules on capital movement—shadows the second, libertarian meaning, and lends itself to “classical liberal” or neoliberal. At the same time, liberal as “unrestrained” can be negatively repurposed as “undisciplined”—as in left- and right-wing mockery of the liberal as sentimental and soft-headed.
On the subject of soft-headed. All this imprecision is compounded by the fashionable adjective, “illiberal.” Whether one is describing campus radicals demonstrating too noisily against university policies, nationalist politicians mass-arresting their critics, left-wing politicians threatening to hold too many referendums, or people online being mean, “illiberal” is usually a useful pundit’s term for “that shit I don’t like.” The negative prefix, “il-,” calls to mind one of its definitions, “ill-bred,” an echo that, to my ear, heightens the anachronistic sound of the word and underscores the elitism its use covers for in the sorts of places (the Financial Times, The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, the Atlantic, etc.) where one encounters it most often. But it’s not just my ear: derived from the Latin illiberalis, “sordid,” illiberalism’s snobbery is built into its etymology.