The Rise of the Neo-Universalists

Why America needs a vision of citizenship based on equal dignity and rights for all people

Every political or intellectual movement needs a theoretical label—not just for branding purposes but as a way to concisely summarize the main ideas that hold a particular faction together. 

In today’s fractured politics, there is an emerging pool of political leaders, thinkers, and citizens without an ideological home. They come from the left, right, and center but all share a common aversion to the sectarian, identity-based politics that dominates modern political discourse and the partisan and media institutions that set the public agenda. 

Let’s call this new group of political exiles and wayward souls the “neo-universalists”.

Some are traditional liberals alienated by the ideological shift among progressives toward confusing ideas promoted by academics and activists that heighten rather than reduce racial, ethnic, gender, and religious conflict. Others are traditional conservatives repulsed by Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party, replacing a Reaganite commitment to limited government and individual rights with the ethno-nationalism and faux-populist rhetoric of an immoral billionaire. And a third wider group of people are regular citizens—both working class and professional—who find contemporary politics mostly useless and not about them, and just want people to be treated fairly and to get the help they need to lead a good life.  

What unites this new group of people is a vision of American citizenship based on the core belief in the equal dignity and rights of all people. Ignored by the political extremes today, neo-universalists have a real chance to band together to reshape American politics by pushing aside unsolvable cultural fights and shifting public attention toward a common view of democratic citizenship and national economic development that benefits everyone.  

From ancient philosophy, the Enlightenment, and the teachings of monotheistic religions to the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the belief that all people are created equal and worthy of respect and dignity as human beings—with the legal rights and economic opportunities necessary to lead a decent and fulfilling life—is a concept unmatched in moral and political clarity.  

This is not some hoary globalist theory or kumbaya statement that speaks to everyone but applies to no one. It requires a patriotic commitment to one’s own country, and to other people. Equal dignity and rights can only be guaranteed by national governments employing their full legal and economic powers to make them a reality. In turn, it is the responsibility of democratic citizens within nations to uphold these egalitarian values in their daily lives and in their interactions with others who may not be like them. 

A commitment to these goals requires both laws and norms to succeed. This means not treating people differently based on their gender or their skin color, or where they were born or what they believe. This means employing collective resources to help provide for the “general welfare” of all people in terms of jobs, housing, education, and health care. This means giving people a chance and not assuming the worst of them.

Have we lived up to this approach throughout American history? No, of course not. But we’ve made significant progress both legally and socially. And we continue to do so in ways that challenge those on the left who believe America is an irredeemably white supremacist nation or those on the right who think America has become a secular wasteland hostile to traditional values and family arrangements.

A commitment to equal dignity and rights for all is a foundational goal that requires constant scrutiny, updating, defense, and protection by both citizens and leaders. Social problems like poverty, discrimination, and bigotry don’t go away on their own—Americans have to continually work to end them and build something better based on genuine equality and freedom for everyone.

As former President Barack Obama has said: “The story of America is the story of progress,” and “with enough effort and enough empathy and enough courage people who love this country can change it.”

So, what should this disparate group of neo-universalists focus on going forward? 

Given The Liberal Patriot’s mission, our main focus is to return the center-left to its intellectual and moral home in American liberalism—a universal perspective focused on the rights and opportunities of individuals as a means to overcome overt discrimination and social divisions based on race, gender, religion, and parental background.

Moving beyond the center-left to a wider group of ideological outliers, there certainly will be political disputes about the proper role of government, markets, regulations, and levels of taxation and spending. These differences don’t need to be resolved in order to bring people together to confront sectarian politics.

Our goal is not to speak for others but rather to offer a vision of liberal values that might appeal to those interested in building a united front against the tribal, identity-based, culture war obsessions of recent years. Without this vision, basic governance itself becomes practically impossible. Lacking a core commitment to equal dignity and rights for all, politics is little more than a pure contest for power—a battle that never ends well for anyone on the losing side of the struggle.

So, rather than lay out a laundry list of policies or goals, here is a short list of personal commitments that might serve as a unifying ethos among neo-universalists to help start the process of organizing within—and across—political parties and movements:

1.     If someone in your own political party or social movement seeks to stereotype or make generalizations about others based on their biological traits or artificial group characteristics, stand up to them and say: “That’s not right. We believe in treating everyone equally and with respect—not just people who look like us or think like us.” 

2.     If a political or movement leader seeks to advance policies or ideas that benefit one group of Americans at the expense of others, stand up to them and say: “That’s not right. We believe in economic security and opportunity for everyone—regardless of their background or where they live.”

3.     If a government official or party seeks to engage in “us vs them” politics for personal, financial, or political gain, stand up to them and say: “That’s not right. We fight for every American—equally—and the right of all people to live a decent and dignified life.” 

It’s time for neo-universalists to unite around a common national vision of equal dignity and rights for all people—and to reject those forces seeking to divide Americans based on their group status. 

American politics—and the country as a whole—will be better off with this ethos underpinning our future public discussions and debates.

In 1950, on the second anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, students at the UN International Nursery School in New York viewed a poster of the historic document. UN photo.