The American Revolution began as a “liberal” revolution. It stayed that way. The French Revolution began as a “liberal” revolution. It soon went off the rails as ever more radical groups seized power and pushed their agendas. Eventually, they went too far for almost everyone. Then came a course correction, the “Thermidorian Reaction.” The basic lesson to be drawn is that people can push an idea too far for anyone’s good.
Our recent history illustrates this historical lesson. The chosen solution to the economic crisis of the Great Depression of the Thirties came in an expansion of government responsibilities and in the power needed to meet those responsibilities. This worked, so after 1945 the political left adopted the cause of government expansion as the solution to any problem that crossed their line of sight. It became a kind of religious belief among people who were otherwise increasingly secular. Their extreme optimism about the possibilities of government action ignored both the possibility of over-regulation and the limits of competence of bureaucracy. The tumultuous Seventies (“stagflation,” racial strife) triggered a Thermidor.
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan adopted a different approach. Their economic “neo-liberalism” sprang from the thought of Milton Friedman and Joseph Schumpeter. There were limits to economic management by the government; high taxes and intrusive and incoherent regulation choked capitalist dynamism; markets were more efficient; and the “nanny state” corrupted individual virtue and eroded personal responsibility. This worked, so after 1980, the political right adopted the cause of government contraction as the solution to any problem that crossed their line of sight. It became a kind of religious belief among people who were otherwise often familiar with religion. Their extreme optimism about the possibilities of the market and the individual ignored both the possibility of under-regulation and the limits of individual action in the real world. Essentially, “there’s no pockets in a shroud,” as my Welsh grandmother used to say.
The obvious course is a turn back toward some middle ground. It is also the course not taken by angry, loud voices on the left and right. On the left, liberal democracy has been portrayed as a false front concealing the realities of what amounts to a white, male, upper-class “dictatorship of the bourgeois.” On the right, liberal democracy has been portrayed as a false front concealing a powerful “administrative state” that panders to the interests of selected “people of color” at the expense of the “real” country. One trouble among many others from this polarization of American politics is that the very idea of “liberal democracy” is being attacked from both sides.
Is there any solution to our problems? A “9/11-style commission” isn’t likely to do much to arrive at a shared understanding. The torrent of crises in the daily news constantly distracts attention from fundamental issues. Changes in emotional expression–the celebration of sensitivity, feeling, and experience—are desirable. Perhaps our greatest hope is in that no one can imagine a viable—or desirable—replacement to liberal democracy in places where it is deeply entrenched. The changes that distress so many people have all been tied to great social and economic progress, not to decline. So we will just have to keep trying. Harrumph.
 I’m 68, so my notion of “recent” may differ from that of other people. “Objects in mirror,” etc., etc.
 Francis Fukuyama, Liberalism and Its Discontents (2022).