The Future of Liberalism

By Alan Wolfe
Knopf. 352 pp. $29.95
March 1, 2008


Chapter One

The Most Appropriate Political Philosophy for Our Times

At the Ending

"In the beginning," wrote John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government, "all the world was America."

Locke, the late-seventeenth-century English philosopher as well known for his explanation of how our ideas are formed as for his insistence that government be based on the consent of the governed, viewed America, at least before the white man arrived, as a land in which, because "no such thing as money was any where known," conflicts over that particular root of all evil would not be necessary. From that seemingly simple idea sprung a political philosophy thoroughly alien to the absolutist monarchies of Europe. Because everyone possesses the capacity to work, all have a right to the property created when their labor is mixed with the blessings offered by the land. It follows that societies are best organized by freedom (no one can legitimately take away what naturally belongs to you), as well as equality (nor can they take it away from anyone else). To say that in the beginning all the world was America is to claim that freedom and equality would become forces too powerful to resist. That, in turn, became the single most influential component of liberalism: the dominant, if not always appreciated, political philosophy of modern times. Three centuries after Locke wrote his masterpiece, liberalism offers the best guide not only to our own times, but to the future as well. It will be my task in this book to show why.

Liberalism is a way of thinking and acting so easily taken for granted that one can easily forget how it struggled to come into existence; solved many of the problems it was asked to address; spread its influence around the world, not through coercion, but because of its universal appeal; and remains to this day far more attractive than its leading alternatives. As important as liberalism has been to the development of modern citizens and the societies they inhabit, it suffers today from a crisis of confidence. To flourish, liberalism needs to be recovered, and the stakes in its recovery are much greater than which party wins a forthcoming election, proposes the latest social reform, or even launches the next war. Modern citizens all too often forget that the liberal way of life is a good way of life, indeed, under the political conditions in which they live, the best way of life. It is liberalism's underlying philosophy-its understanding of human nature, its respect for both individualism and equality, its discovery of the social, its passion for justice, its preference for experience over theory, its intellectual openness, its commitment to fairness-that offers us the surest path toward both individual freedom and a collective sense of purpose. We need liberalism if we are to respect the integrity of human beings, design institutions that serve their needs, and enable them to shape their destinies. John Locke pointed the way, and we remain indebted to him every time we insist that we be recognized for our own accomplishments or demand that nobody be treated as inherently more superior (or inferior) than anyone else.

There was a time when Americans appreciated the importance of the political philosophy that John Locke did so much to bring into being. "Locke's little book on government is perfect as far as it goes," Thomas Jefferson wrote to Thomas Mann Randolph, his brand-new son-in-law, exactly one hundred years after the publication of The Second Treatise. Jefferson was hardly revealing state secrets; the whole literate world knew the extent to which he had relied on Locke when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. So closely connected were Lockean ideas with the development of the United States that one of the classics of modern political thought, the Harvard political scientist Louis Hartz's Liberal Tradition in America (1955), was devoted to exploring every aspect of them. Like any transformative book, Hartz's generated fierce controversy, and some of the criticisms, especially those pointing out his insufficient treatment of race, have stuck. But no one has effectively undermined Hartz's overall thesis. Lockean truths, as Jefferson put it in the Declaration, were "self-evident," which meant, in contrast to Europe of the ancien régime, that no one could easily mount an attack against them.

In the beginning all the world may have been America, but, if current political arguments and election results in the United States are any indication, one must wonder about the present. The country that once embraced John Locke so warmly has been turning its back on the liberal political philosophy he did so much to inspire. Far from self-evident, liberalism in the United States remains conspicuously unpopular; twice as many Americans say that they are very or somewhat conservative compared to those who say they are very or somewhat liberal. After eight years of right-wing government under George W. Bush, these sentiments changed. Although the ultimate historical judgment on these years is yet to be delivered, the Bush administration's combination of ideological rigidity and persistent incompetence-demonstrated from its response to Hurricane Katrina to its conduct of the Iraqi war-produced widespread dismay, not only among liberals, but among significant numbers of conservatives, causing, along the way, serious dents in the alliance between small-government advocates, religious-oriented values voters, and unilateralist national security policymakers that had characterized the era of Ronald Reagan. Still, conservatism's increasing problems in no way guarantee liberalism's political success. This book was completed before the elections of 2008, but even if Barack Obama is elected president and the Democrats wind up controlling both houses of Congress, the question of what they should do once in office will still require an answer. And should the Republican candidate John McCain win the presidency, the pressures on Democrats to figure out what they ought to believe will be even greater.

The problems facing liberalism, moreover, are not just confined to the United States. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Great Britain produced the most impressive collection of liberal thinkers ever associated with one country, nearly all of whom will make their appearance in the pages that follow; yet the Liberal Democrats, the inheritors of their ideas, have been a third party for quite some time in British politics, and the other political party on the left, the Labour Party, has been in deep trouble because of the support its former leader, Tony Blair, gave to an American conservative president. On the Continent, liberal parties are either out of power or unsure what to do with whatever, generally minimal, power they have. With the exception of Margaret Thatcher, European political systems do not produce conservative politicians in ways recognizable to Americans. But nor do they feature liberal ones with a well-articulated sense of the direction in which their societies ought to be headed. Stalemate is more likely to characterize European politics than right-wing reaction, which means that Europeans, no doubt to their relief, are spared anything resembling America's Christian right. But no one can make a credible argument that European liberalism is a vibrant political force. Europeans are unsure whether liberalism instructs them to ban Muslim head scarves or welcome them, support globalization or oppose it, or choose jobs over environmental protection rather than the other way around.

None of this means that the world has suddenly been stripped of liberal thinkers. On the contrary, liberal political theory is flourishing in the English-speaking world, especially in the work of the late American philosopher John Rawls, who asks us to evaluate the fairness of any policy or program based on the assumption that we do not know whether we personally will benefit from it or not. Although French and German philosophy throughout much of the twentieth century was inspired by one or another form of Marxism, the collapse of socialism has given rise to serious liberal thinking there as well; some French intellectuals, rather than shifting from their left-wing enthusiasm of 1968 to the neoconservative right three decades later, as many American thinkers did, stopped instead with the liberal tradition in between, and many of Germany's most important thinkers, in the aftermath of Marxism's collapse, turned to American pragmatists for inspiration. But although liberalism remains something of a growth industry in the contemporary academy-endless books pour out from university presses addressing how liberals should treat multiculturalism, religion, equality, free speech, affirmative action, and a number of similar topics-many if not most of them, technical in approach and densely written, are intended not for general readers but for other liberal political theorists. In them, moreover, liberalism frequently comes off as unappealing, as if it were a set of formulaic abstractions written from on high to guide less principled ordinary people down below. In the United States over the past few decades, any one conservative theorist in a Washington, D.C., think tank has had the public influence of at least ten liberal philosophers in America's most prestigious universities.

There also exist compelling accounts of liberalism outside the academy; some prominent journalists have written in defense of liberal ideas, and they have been joined by academics who write for the broader public. These books aim for a general readership, yet they tend, in their focus on policy debates and current events, to lack historical and comparative depth. The aim of these writers is to persuade contemporary citizens that liberalism, far from problematic, is not so bad after all. They do this in different ways; some of them argue that liberals need to remind themselves of the great leaders and policies they once produced and to reclaim their connections to ordinary voters; others spend most of their time attacking conservatives; still others insist that liberals will recover their popularity when they better learn to "frame" their beliefs in more publicly appealing ways or learn to speak not just to matters of fact but to the power of emotions. Liberals are not rolling over and playing dead. They have much to say and are saying it energetically.

Still, there is an apologetic tone to these books, which leaves the impression that those writing them are not quite convinced of their own case. When liberals address issues of foreign policy, they frequently do so as if conservatives are peering over their shoulders ready to pounce on any false move or thought. When they propose new domestic programs, their ideas tend to be pale carbon copies of the ambitious liberal programs of the past. Feminists defending a woman's right to choose are more likely to base their argument not on liberal beliefs about equality but on libertarian, and even conservative, ones about freedom from government interference. The response of many liberals to the growth of the religious right is not to make a defense of separation of church and state, and to show how that might be good for both reason and revelation, but to urge the creation of a religious left. Liberalism, in both theory and practice, all too often represents an effort to stop further losses rather than a strategy to make additional gains. Its best offense has become a cautious and conservative defense.

This, then, is the proper time to try to close the gap between what liberalism used to mean and what the citizens of contemporary political systems all too often take it to mean. "The 'L word' implies unelectability and marginality," the historians Neil Jumonville and Kevin Mattson, liberals themselves, have written in Liberalism for a New Century. "The situation has become so bad that some in America are seeking a new name for liberalism: 'progressivism.' But this move is mistaken. The term liberalism should be championed today and reinvigorated as a source of pride and a reminder of Americans' connection to basic values that stretch back centuries. To avoid the moniker is to run from the past, and liberals have no reason to do so." They are right. "Progressive" is the wrong term and the wrong turn; by returning us to the days of Woodrow Wilson and others who once adopted the label, it would take liberals back to a political agenda too convinced of its own moral superiority and too hostile to civil liberties to serve the needs of an open and dynamic society. If liberals run away from their own tradition by hiding behind other labels, they will hardly be in a position to make the case for liberalism's relevance both to their own times and to the future.

Despite the ambivalence that so often seems to surround the term, liberalism does not lack for important, indeed vital, things to say. Its problem, at least in more recent times, has been its inability or unwillingness to say them clearly, positively, and convincingly. Reminding ourselves about what liberalism has stood for ought to encourage liberals to overcome some of their insecurities. It should also enable liberal societies to better find their way. And-who knows?-it might just help liberals not only to win elections but to know what to do once that happens.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Future of Liberalism by Alan Wolfe Copyright © 2009 by Alan Wolfe. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.