Most conservatives have apprehended by now that ‘racism’ has become an empty and arbitrary term.

Among literally a thousand other transgressions, one may be labelled a ‘racist’ for: living in a suburb, driving a car that burns gasoline, sending one’s children to private school, enjoying ‘Gone with the Wind’, disagreeing with Colin Kaepernick’s attention-seeking campaign, being born with a paler shade of skin, and worst of all, casting a vote for the current president–even if one chose him by a coin flip.

So what political electricity does ‘racist’ touch on? Here’s a strong candidate: ‘racist’ is the progressive left’s dumbed-down term for ‘illiberal.’

What do I mean by ‘illiberal’? The United States and its Constitution were partly built on the Enlightenment’s ideas of classical liberalism; and the country is generally considered a liberal democracy. An ‘illiberal’ is one who rejects liberalism altogether. An illiberal thinks that the Enlightenment’s project of handing out liberties and rights to everyone–including those with no maturity, responsibility, education, or acculturation–is a recipe for societal self-destruction.

Illiberals tend to believe that those of the populace with no civility or self-control must be controlled, and firmly. The rabble cannot be granted expansive rights and liberties without risking chaos, rioting, looting, mob rule, and an eventual collapse of the polis from the misuse of liberties and rights. The democracies of ancient Greece–in which only free adult men of social standing held office and a vote–were illiberal (or pre-liberal) democracies. The republic of ancient Rome was an illiberal republic.

For clarity, it’s important to understand that a ‘conservative’ is one who wants to conserve classical liberalism (more or less what we think of as the notions of the founders); and a progressive is one who wants to evolve beyond classical liberalism and create ever-broader and more subjective liberties and rights. Properly speaking, the two teams are referred to as ‘conservative liberals’ and ‘progressive liberals’. Conservatives and progressives are both liberals; they just hold different viewpoints about what the liberties in ‘liberalism’ should be.

So much for explaining terms. Do you begin to see why an accusations of ‘racism’ are so powerful against conservatives?

By calling a conservative a ‘racist’ (illiberal), the accuser suggests that the conservative is a massive hypocrite and a traitor to his tradition. That is, the illiberal pseudo-conservative has forsaken his liberal principles and doesn’t really believe “all men [or women] are created equal” or that rights and liberties should be exactly the same for everyone. Such accusations of illiberalism are devastating for conservatives and threaten to put them outside the modern conservative pale–like accusing a vegan who is living in a vegan commune of secretly enjoying hamburgers.

Conservatives in general are not seriously worried about being found out as haters of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, or Inuits. Today’s conservatives generally harbor no such bigotry, so there’s nothing to find. But they are very concerned about being mischaracterized as apostates to Enlightenment ideals and the liberties derived from them–including the expanded liberties added since the founders for women, black Americans, and others.

Interestingly, a lot of progressive liberals hold the opinion that conservative liberals are NOT real liberals but rather illiberal fascists disguising their illiberalism with a powdered wig of tradition. After all, how can conservative liberals call themselves ‘liberals’ and not support a woman’s liberty to abort a child she does not want to have? How can conservative liberals fail to support the liberty of gays and lesbians to marry same-sex husbands and wives? In liberalism, isn’t more liberty always better? Progressives see a streak of what we might call ‘systemic illiberalism’ running through classical liberalism and American history.

On this point, progressive liberals are partly right. There is an inherent contradiction in classical liberal ideals, and progressives and conservatives both know it. French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville noticed this contradiction when he visited the United States in the late 1820s. Tocqueville astutely pointed out that Americans didn’t practice what they preached. Sure, they talked a lot about defiant individualism and autonomy, universal equality, and unbounded liberty; but Americans at that time also held a deep respect for their society’s curbs on individual liberty and for social inequalities born of legitimate differences in social standing, sex, wealth, and culture–curbs embodied in institutions such as religion, rule of law, marriage, family, education, and property ownership. To Tocqueville, America was a bizarre but functional hybrid of fantastical new liberal ideals paired with a traditionally grounded populace.

Today, very little of Americans’ respect for hierarchy and for traditional curbs on individual liberties survives. The illiberal counterbalance to America’s liberal ideals has disappeared. One could say America has finally gulped down its own Kool-Aid, whereas before it stood around holding the cup for show with the occasional sip. Now, everyone is truly liberated. Everyone is “free” to do all kinds of things our ancestors would have thought despicable or even socially suicidal. And it’s probably no coincidence the United States at the same time has begun losing its grip on reality and plunged into instability, like a schizophrenic whose disease finally has rendered him unable to differentiate his hallucinations from authentic experience. Liberalism– classical down through progressive–is ripping apart under the stresses of its unconditional victory.

Liberal democracy has been our nation’s grand narrative for more than 200 years. Liberal democracy has given meaning to America’s past; explained our present; and offered guidance for our future. Liberalism was the water we swam in and didn’t even notice, like fish. Now, progressives intuit that the 500-year classical liberal tradition on which they have relied to extort agreement from their partners and from conservatives is stalling and falling apart, leaving their ruinously expensive and increasing insane social projects half-built and bleaching in the sun.

Progressives and hard-line classical liberals (including Never-Trumpers) intuit that a new philosophy of government is dawning to reform or replace Enlightenment liberalism, and neither group likes it–not at all, since it appears to be a return in some respects to pre-Enlightenment illiberalism and also to commonsense acknowledgement of limitations to human nature.

What do progressives do about this illiberal threat? The fascism of Nazi Germany remains the most distasteful and frightening reemergence of illiberalism in the modern consciousness. Thus progressives incessantly refer to the president, his supporters, and Republicans in general as “fascists” and “Nazis”–their way of saying ‘dangerous, evil illiberals.’ Their name-calling smacks of grasping desperation and historical illiteracy–a bit like a Tesla salesman who, when a prospective buyer tells him he’s also looking at Fords, replies: “Don’t do that! Just look at the Ford Pinto debacle in the 1970s!” Not all Fords–or Fords today–pose a danger because of the Pinto.

Though progressives and classical liberals are loathed to admit it, lliberalism was grafted into America’s founding, too. One need look no further than the illiberal democratic and republican institutions of the House and Senate, patterned on the models of ancient Greece and Rome; or the institution of a Supreme Court with lifetime tenure to restrain popular but ill-considered demands for liberation. These illiberal institutions were deliberate. The founders had no illusions that an unalloyed liberal democracy would run amok. They knew a populace granted the chance to free itself of all boundaries and hierarchy would quickly do so, then devolve into selfishness, anarchy, and death.

Unfortunately, the founders underestimated liberalism’s corrosive power against all counterbalancing forces. Liberalism has eaten away from the inside at America’s formerly illiberal institutions: churches, traditional universities, courts, and elite lawmaking bodies. The allure of non-virtuous liberties has proved too strong for our technocratic elite–including thoughtless wealth accumulation regardless of social costs; unbounded sexual license; unexamined technological adoption regardless of side effects; and freedom from the burdens of family, community, and faith. Today, the institutions tasked with counterbalancing liberalism have adopted it with fanatical enthusiasm, and in their zeal to erase “oppression” they threaten to push America onto the pile of history’s failed states via civil war or Orwellian progressive authoritarianism.

If conservatives want to silence the accusations of racism, the truth will set them free. When called a ‘racist’, they need only reply:

If you mean ‘illiberal,’ then yes I am. I am sick of living in a country in which the only uniting institution and symbol is the Almighty Dollar. I am sick of ‘protesters’ (mobs) dictating terms to leaders and threatening the peaceful majority to achieve their demands. I’m tired of receiving no return or acknowledgement for my best efforts as a law-abiding, hard-working, virtuous citizen. And I am fed up with liberalism’s grift–a zero-sum game in which more and more ‘liberties’ (special privileges) are transferred to so-called ‘vulnerable groups’ at the expense of rights and liberties promised in our social contract to every citizen.

Enlightenment liberalism is dead; the body just hasn’t cooled to ambient temperature yet. Its derivatives, conservative liberalism and progressive liberalism, are expiring as well, but the majority of both species refuse to admit the asteroid has hit and they are shortly joining the dinosaurs.

Progressives liberals have no fallback position. Progressives are like sharks: they must keep swimming forward toward ever-increasing liberty and license or suffocate, since that’s all they’ve got to offer. That’s why progressives have now taken to fabricating new rights and liberties for sub-groups of Americans, and now are even starting to push whacko projects like “pedophile rights” and the rights of criminals to loot without interference because “justice.”

Conservative liberals, in contrast, do have a fallback position: they can embrace the burgeoning moderate illiberalism in their ranks and stop trying to pretend it is shameful or doesn’t exist. Moderate illiberalism is part of America’s fabric, too, and does not make one a racist, fascist, or Nazi, or even a “populist.” Moderate illiberals are those fed up with unalloyed liberalism and the destruction it is causing to their communities, families, employment, and country. They are the illiberal counterbalance the founders thought would reside in the institutions mentioned before. These folks are not calling for a Fourth Reich; they are calling for enough illiberal structure and unity to survive. And they have a point.