Opinion Why we should all be liberal: The power of an adjective

5 min

The word “liberal” is noble and vexed, loved and hated. It is used by different kinds of people to refer to a wide constellation of worldviews, and it is denounced from many ideological directions.

It also happens to be the word most worth fighting for at this moment — as an adjective.

That is the thesis of what I believe will be the year’s most important political book, Michael Walzer’s “The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On ‘Liberal’ as an Adjective,” published last month. Approachably compact, it’s a volume that politicians and activists, students and academics, and citizens representing every creed should read, ponder and argue about.

Lord knows how many books have been written about “liberalism” as an abstract noun referring to philosophies ranging from “classical liberal” laissez-faire libertarianism to New Deal and social democratic approaches to public life. And I’d make the educated guess that there have been thousands of political ads attacking “liberals” for all manner of sins and failures.

After a lifetime of reflection, Walzer, an 87-year-old political philosopher, concludes that “liberal” is more important as a modifier of other substantive commitments than as a stand-alone noun. The word embodies moral sensibilities, values and disciplines that are compatible with a variety of creeds — and essential to making our politics “decent.”

The adjective “liberal,” he writes, “determines not who we are but how we are who we are.”

Liberals “aspire to be open-minded, generous and tolerant” (even if, as Walzer notes, we don’t always pull this off). They can “live with ambiguity,” are “not dogmatic,” are “not fanatics,” can “recognize moral limits,” and “oppose every kind of bigotry and cruelty.”

To qualify as liberal, a regime and philosophy must be “not despotic, not repressive, not cruel — constrained by individual rights.” The adjective encourages “pluralism, skepticism and irony.”

There are a lot of “nots” here, especially against cruelty, and each of them is important. Liberalism is indeed “sometimes constraining,” as Walzer argues. It can also be “enlivening” and “transforming.”

To be liberal on the Walzer model does not mean, as the old joke goes, being so open-minded that you won’t take your own side in an argument. Those of us who allow our creed to be modified by the l-word — “liberal democrats,” “liberal socialists,” “liberal communitarians,” “liberal feminists,” “liberal nationalists,” liberal adherents to religious tradition, and even “liberal conservatives” — still fight fiercely for political victory and intellectual vindication. But all are committed to carrying on the fight in a particular way.

It makes sense that what might be Walzer’s valedictory book (even as I pray there are more to come) is case for “a decent politics.” Decency has defined Walzer’s approach to life, politics, teaching and scholarship in a career that has taken him from a small town in Pennsylvania to Brandeis University, Harvard University and the Institute for Advanced Study.

The book is warmly informal and includes affecting, always relevant personal stories that run from his childhood to his political and academic undertakings. It puts to mind a wise neighbor conversing during a friendly dinner, not the thundering of a bombastic lecturer utterly certain he’s right about everything.

Walzer has been proudly involved in socialist and social democratic politics all his life. He is forceful in insisting that a more egalitarian society would be a more just and democratic place. Yet this very liberalism leads Walzer to sharp criticism of the sort of zealotry on his own side that dismisses competing arguments and ways of life.

A secular Jew who embraces his tradition, has been friendly to Israel, and has done extensive work on the Bible and the Talmud, Walzer passionately endorses church-state separation and warns against religion based government. “Absolutism in the form of faith, mystery, dogma, heresy and orthodoxy is not alien to religion,” he observes, “whereas it should be alien to politics, at least to democratic politics.”

But he takes to task those who “disdain belief and treat religious men and women as fools.” Liberal secularists, he insists, “respect the lives that believers live and the communities they create, and work to guarantee the safety of both.”

In an observation highly relevant to today’s headlines, he says of the hospitality afforded by religious freedom: “In Israel today, and in many European countries, the treatment of Muslims is the critical test.”

Liberalism’s tolerance and open-endedness make it the subject of easy derision as a flabby creed lacking in substantive commitments. This is the genius of insisting that the word “liberal” is strongest and most demanding in its adjectival form — as a commitment to freedom, mutual respect and to resisting temptations of dominance.

“Two steps forward, one step back is better than three steps forward over the bodies of our opponents,” Walzer writes. “There have been too many murdered bodies.”

Standing against brutality is the highest calling of all who embrace the word liberal. It’s why we need more of them.