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Book Review: 'The Future of Liberalism' by Alan Wolfe

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Review by Thane Rosenbaum
Sunday, March 1, 2009

THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM

By Alan Wolfe

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Knopf. 335 pp. $25.95

In the opening pages of "The Future of Liberalism," Alan Wolfe makes clear that his book is not about Barack Obama. On the contrary, he tells us, he deliberately completed the manuscript before the 2008 election "to underscore the point that liberalism's future is not dependent on the success of any one politician."

But there may be another reason why a book on liberalism, published just weeks after the inauguration of the most liberal president in at least a generation, barely mentions the new president's name. To Wolfe, a distinguished political scientist at Boston College, liberalism is not ascendant in America today. Rather, it's under siege. For too long, liberals have been shut out of the public debate, fearful of the "L-word," masquerading as progressives and surrendering to supply-siders, centrists and either compassionate- or neo-conservatives. The goal of Wolfe's book is to stiffen liberals' spines, to define what they believe and to stop them from apologizing for the very virtues that, in his view, historically have made liberalism an overwhelming force for good.

Wolfe seems to grope at first for a workable definition of liberalism. He begins with a core principle that conservatives, too, might embrace: "As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take." Then, gradually, he lays out a wider set of liberal positions and traits.

To be liberal, according to Wolfe, is to be optimistic about human purpose and potential, open to new ideas and strongly in favor of individual choice. Liberals, he writes, are inclined "to include rather than to exclude, to accept rather than to censor, to respect rather than to stigmatize, to welcome rather than reject." Liberals also see enormous social costs in inequality and value means over ends, procedure over passion, constitutional legitimacy over executive privilege.

A true liberal, Wolfe contends, is pragmatic, sober, skeptical and emotionally detached. Both the political right and far left, in contrast, are romantic at heart; they impulsively rush into military adventures and domestic crusades, yet often display defeatist tendencies premised on the belief that human beings, cursed by nature, cannot change their fate. Wolfe cites the Civil War as an example of these different temperaments: The liberal North was "frugal, businesslike, impersonal, . . . rational," while the conservative South was "impetuous, chivalric, glory-seeking, evangelical, . . . romantic." From there, it's only a short logical leap for Wolfe to describe Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as the inheritors of this zealous, romantic tradition.

"The Future of Liberalism," in short, is a coronary for conservatives, who may not recognize the image of themselves in these pages. But the book is also a gut check for liberals. It takes equal-opportunity aim at the left as well as the right -- at those Wolfe sees as dogmatic, bullying advocates of abortion, multiculturalism and laws against hate speech as well as at those who oppose immigration and globalization.

The book is a valentine to many of liberalism's past heroes: Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Constant, John Maynard Keynes and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But Wolfe criticizes more recent liberals for abandoning the moral sphere to religious conservatives and for failing to consistently oppose genocide.

He also contrasts the mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq with the achievements of the New Deal and the Great Society, concluding that because liberals genuinely believe in government activism, they do it better.

With the election of Obama, they will certainly get some practice. The dismantling of the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, the economic stimulus package and the commitment to rebuild America with public works projects are emblematic of the liberal ethos that Wolfe describes. Indeed, his pages positively brim with confidence. Obama is conspicuously absent from this provocative book, but if Wolfe decides to add a subtitle to "The Future of Liberalism," here's a suggestion: "Yes We Can."

Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor at Fordham University, is the author of "The Myth of Moral Justice."


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