Josh Hammer's Dangerous Misunderstanding of Liberalism

An interview between President Joe Biden and social media star Dylan Mulvaney offer a lesson in mutual forbearance.


In a recent column for The Spectator World, nationalist conservative Josh Hammer makes a revealing logical blunder. Seeing where his thinking goes wrong can help us understand why the New Right's defense of its own yen for power is so inadequate. 

Hammer refers to an interview President Joe Biden recently gave with Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender social media star. In it, Mulvaney asks Biden whether "states should have a right to ban gender-affirming health care." Biden answers in the negative: "I don't think any state or anybody should have the right to do that," he says. "As a moral question and as a legal question. I just think it's wrong."

This, for Hammer, is a five-alarm-fire moment. If a majority of voters in a state want to forcibly prevent citizens from accessing transgender medical interventions (whether surgical or pharmaceutical), he thinks they should have the ability to do so. Biden, in contrast, thinks decisions involving such interventions should be, as Mulvaney put it, "just between me and my doctors." Hammer fumes in response:

In articulating his view that the "moral" (read: immoral) imperative to chemically castrate and hormonally bastardize vulnerable Americans is so great as to require removal of the issue from the realm of democratic politics, Biden paid faithful homage to the tenets of the woke catechism. If cultic wokeism is to be our new public orthodoxy, as the progressive faithful wish, then certain things must be legally mandated and certain things must necessarily be proscribed. Biden was only being candid with Mulvaney — his rejection of the foundational liberal paradigm of values-neutrality is emphatic and explicit.

The idea that Biden is rejecting values-neutrality with his answer gets things precisely backward. This becomes clearer if we learn to think of liberalism in terms not of neutrality but rather of mutual forbearance: In cases where fundamental rights are not at stake, I forgo using government power to force you to live the way I want and, in exchange, you forgo using government power to force me to live the way you want. That's the liberal settlement—and if either of us breaches it, liberal institutions will be there to hold us accountable.

It's fine to note that liberalism is not itself morally neutral, in the sense that it rests on implicit moral claims about, for example, all people deserving equal treatment under the law. (That value, thankfully, continues to be widely shared in our society.) But liberalism does insist that government decline to take sides on many other moral questions where there isn't an overwhelming consensus, such as whether Drag Queen Story Hour is a good or a bad thing.

Asked in the Mulvaney interview about one such contested question, Biden says state governments should stay out of it. Far from being a "mask-off moment," this is perfectly consistent with liberalism-as-forbearance. 

Hammer goes wrong because he imputes additional beliefs to the president's answer. He assumes that Biden wants conservatives to forgo the use of state power to oppose the woke agenda—but that Biden would be all too happy for his own allies to use state power to impose woke orthodoxy on everyone else.

It's true that many on the activist left clearly do wish to use state power in this way. Principled liberalism requires that the president be just as opposed to those efforts as he is to efforts from the right. Forbearance for thee and power for me is not liberalism at all, and Biden's record leaves much to be desired on this score. 

Nonetheless, when Biden is asked in the same interview what Democratic leaders should do to advance trans rights, he pointedly eschews calling for government action. Instead, he says the most important thing is "to be seen with people like" Mulvaney, to show regular Americans that there's nothing to be "fearful" of. The answer is reminiscent of a lesson learned in the 1990s and early 2000s by same-sex-marriage advocates, who famously discovered that voters became more sympathetic to their cause upon learning they had friends or family members who were gay.

Biden's is a thoroughly liberal response, one that appeals to persuasion rather than coercion—changing hearts and minds, not subjugating enemies through the use of state power. Watch the interview for yourself: You don't have to agree with the substance of Biden's views to recognize that his answer remains squarely within bounds. That Hammer manages to misread it as an "emphatic and explicit" rejection of liberal neutrality shows just how deeply confused he is about the ideas he purports to be an authority on.

But this is the New Right modus operandi. Ultimately, post-liberal conservatives want to seize power and use it against their political foes. Such a desire can be rationalized only if they can convince rational onlookers that the other side is on the brink of doing the same to them. Hammer is so desperate for an excuse to indulge his own authoritarian impulses that he finds existential threats even where they don't exist. Rising illiberalism is indeed a problem in our politics, but fatuous columns like Hammer's only make that problem worse.