Only Words: Liberalism, Past and Future

Only Words: Liberalism, Past and Future

Only Words: Liberalism, Past and Future

Two new histories examine contemporary liberalism’s entrails and peer into its future.


William F. Buckley Jr., if I recall correctly, once declared wearily that he was determined not to read another book vindicating liberalism or reflecting on its prospects until his grandmother wrote one. Old Billzebub may have been right, for once: liberals do seem peculiarly given to anxious self-examination and self-justification. Still, an uneasy conscience is better than no conscience, which has been the general rule among conservatives since 1980 at least. So let us attend, even if a little wearily, while Alan Wolfe and Jedediah Purdy examine contemporary liberalism’s entrails and peer into its future.

Wolfe is a sociologist of religion and a prolific commentator on American politics and society. His best-known books, including Moral Freedom and One Nation After All, argue convincingly for the existence of a core American morality, compounded of civic virtue and muted, nonsectarian religiosity. He interviewed a great many ordinary people, listened to them sympathetically and perceptively and produced an account of contemporary American moral psychology that was at least as illuminating as the better-known Habits of the Heart.

Wolfe is a public intellectual as well as a scholar, a preacher as well as a scribe. The Future of Liberalism is not a work of intellectual history or political theory, nor is it exactly a sermon, much less a manifesto. Admonitory, authoritative, benign and bland, it resembles a pastoral letter, an encyclical from one of the bishops of the Church of Liberalism, American Synod. “Dearly beloved,” it exhorts us, “lift up your hearts. Our fathers have set our feet upon the path of moderate righteousness. Therefore, let us shun extremism, straying neither to the left nor the right, but instead march together, at all deliberate speed, toward a better–though still necessarily imperfect–world.”

In one respect, at least, The Future of Liberalism is wholly successful. Wolfe has found the perfect epigraph, an austere but luminous passage from a 1934 address by John Dewey titled “The Future of Liberalism.” Because it expresses so well the fundamental premise of Wolfe’s book, it is worth quoting in full:

[Liberalism] knows that an individual is nothing fixed, given ready-made. [Individuality] is something achieved, and achieved not in isolation but with the aid and support of conditions, cultural and physical–including in “cultural,” economic, legal and political institutions as well as science and art. Liberalism knows that social conditions may restrict, distort and almost prevent the development of individuality. It therefore takes an active interest in the working of social institutions that have a bearing, positive or negative, upon the growth of individuals who shall be rugged in fact and not merely in abstract theory. It is as much interested in the positive construction of favorable institutions, legal, political and economic, as it is in removing abuses and overt oppressions.

That liberalism is concerned with both positive and negative liberty, with development as well as freedom–that in fact the traditional distinction between them is oversimplified and misleading–is Wolfe’s guiding conception.

As he puts it in his first chapter, concerned with definitions: “The core substantive principle of liberalism is this: As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take.” That means, on the one hand, open societies with no more than a necessary minimum of state coercion, and on the other hand, a guarantee of “sufficient economic security to individuals so that they are not dependent on the arbitrary will of others for the basic necessities of life.” As this definition makes admirably clear, conservatives and libertarians are simply one-handed liberals, opposed to restraints on economic activity but unconcerned about those unable, for whatever reason, to take part in economic activity on equal terms.

Liberalism is committed to liberty and equality, Wolfe reminds us. When economic inequality is too great, the liberty of the less powerful is diminished. “The freedom to live your life on terms you establish does not mean very much if society is organized in such a way as to deny large numbers of people the possibility of ever realizing that objective.” Freedom has material prerequisites. Liberals recognize this; laissez-faire conservatives don’t, or don’t care.

Wolfe’s account of liberalism’s substantive commitments is straightforward and persuasive–much the best part of the book. The conservative and libertarian enemies of liberalism have squandered so much wealth and welfare, blighted so many lives, that it is always satisfying to see them intellectually routed yet again. Unfortunately, Wolfe does not stop there. He sees liberalism’s enemies, or unreliable friends, everywhere and feels bound to scold them all. Wolfe’s spiritual home is The New Republic, and he manifests the same complacent centrism as most of its regular writers (though not–for better and worse–the snarky wit and verbal edge that make the magazine at once irresistible and insufferable). Half The Future of Liberalism is valuable affirmation; the other half is an ideological Syllabus of Errors.

The first and most dangerous heresy that Wolfe rebukes from the pulpit–“the single most influential illiberal current of our time”–is evolutionary psychology. The attempt to view human behavior in Darwinian perspective amounts to “nothing short of a determined campaign to reduce human beings and their accomplishments to insignificance.” According to these anti-humanists, humans “rarely accomplish very much independent of what nature has bequeathed to them”; culture is a “side effect,” a “by-product,” just “one more way in which nature imposes its designs upon us.” All this, Wolfe protests, radically undermines liberal morale. Liberalism is about choice and purpose, but the aim of evolutionary psychology “is to show that leading any kind of life we think we are choosing is impossible.”

If science really and truly discredited liberalism, then the only honest response would be: so much the worse for liberalism. But, of course, it does not. The distinction between nature and culture that Wolfe brandishes so menacingly is far more subtle and tenuous than he recognizes. His version, like the obsolete distinction between body and soul, implies that we cannot be both purely physical and meaningfully moral. And yet we are. Whatever “free will” means, it does not mean that choices are uncaused. Someday our descendants will emerge from the metaphysical mists, shaking their heads and wondering what all that philosophical fuss was about. Meanwhile, as Wolfe acknowledges, a majority of sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists are liberals who believe that “it is wrong…to confuse a scientific theory such as evolutionary psychology with a moral and political agenda.” Wolfe thinks he knows better. I cannot understand why.

Easier to understand, even if no more persuasive, is Wolfe’s antipathy to the “new atheists,” that quartet of scoffing skeptics: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Though not overtly religious, Wolfe is a fellow traveler. He recalls liberalism’s debts to John Locke and John Leland, the Social Gospel movement and the civil rights movement. He repudiates fundamentalism but also complains that many contemporary believers feel beleaguered. “Nonbelief has historically taken both liberal and illiberal forms, and…much of the resurgence of atheism we have been witnessing in recent years belongs in the latter category.”

It is, Bishop Wolfe admonishes these nonbelieving zealots, “a cornerstone of the liberal sensibility to extend rights to those who hold ideas with which you disagree.” Well, yes. Don’t Hitchens and Harris agree that citizens of a liberal democracy have a right to their beliefs? According to Wolfe, Hitchens “just barely” agrees, and Harris “not at all.” They are “intolerant,” “closed-minded” and do not believe in “the free exchange of ideas.”

As anyone who has read Hitchens’s God Is Not Great and Harris’s The End of Faith knows, Wolfe cannot mean this, and he does not. What he means is that they do not show their allegedly benighted fellow-citizens sufficient respect. They raise their voices, make fun, jeer. This may be unwise; it is certainly uncharitable. But there is nothing illiberal about it. Liberal equality means (or will mean, if we ever get there) that we all have a chance to be heard during the discussion and all have one vote at the end. To be impatient with superstitious nonsense violates no one’s rights–though if Hitchens and Harris are listening, I would recommend a little more patience.

A Tolerable Anarchy is a kinder, gentler book, anxious and wistful where The Future of Liberalism is magisterially self-assured and smugly condescending. Jedediah Purdy, who introduced himself to the world a decade ago with For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today, is preoccupied with “the divorce of civic identity from government”: the displacement of public virtue by personal virtue in American political life and language. The delicate, shifting interplay between public and private, individual and community, freedom and obligation, in our political rhetoric is, for Purdy, the best index of the condition of liberalism.

A “tolerable” anarchy was Edmund Burke’s bemused but approving description of American freedom in its earliest incarnation. Unlike that hidebound Tory Samuel Johnson, Burke thought the new polity struck a sensible balance between propertied authority and democratic equality. (Many debt-burdened Revolutionary War veterans, like Daniel Shays, came to disagree.) Johnson was scathing about the hypocrisy of slaveowners’ insistence on their rights and liberties, but Burke shrewdly saw that slavery was an essential part of the American “sensation of freedom,” because it furnished a defining contrast.

In Purdy’s telling, the prestige of individualism waxed during America’s nineteenth century, notably in the writings of Emerson, Frederick Douglass and Walt Whitman. In their expansive conception, habit and tradition–any impediments to forging and asserting one’s uniqueness–were a kind of slavery. But then came the chief watershed in the history of American freedom: mass production. Economic self-sufficiency, the old basis of American individualism, vanished into our heroic past. Dependence on large, impersonal economic arrangements became the rule, as business and the state beat back efforts by Populists and the labor movement to regain a modest autonomy.

Woodrow Wilson, according to Purdy, was the first president to reckon with these momentous changes. Wilson “turned from old images of Americans as self-reliant pioneers and entrepreneurs to a new acknowledgment that personal fate depended on vast and impersonal forces, which could willy-nilly crush or elevate a vulnerable individual.” In this new environment, only the national government could tame these forces and enable individual Americans to achieve meaningful freedom. Business again beat back the challenge, stymieing Wilsonian Progressivism. But two decades later, economic collapse called forth similar language from Franklin Roosevelt, who decried our “highly centralized economic system” as “the despot of the twentieth century” and promised that government would help solve the “ever-rising problems of a complex civilization.” Governmental support would “not hamper individualism but protect it.”

This language of government/citizen partnership persisted for several decades, Purdy claims, until Ronald Reagan’s “brilliant recasting” of partnership as paternalism. Reagan simply denied that “complex, impersonal systems” often “outstripped individual will and understanding.” The essential conditions of social and economic life had not changed, he insisted; Americans could master them, as always, by “common sense and free choice” if government only got out of the way. This adroit rhetorical reversal set the tone for his successors. Clinton reluctantly and Bush II enthusiastically agreed that government intervention eroded individual autonomy–or, turning Roosevelt on his head, did not protect individualism but hampered it.

This rapid survey does less than justice to Purdy’s lovingly nuanced account of American political rhetoric. But perhaps Purdy does American political rhetoric more than justice. They’re only words, after all. If you want to know what Reagan really stood for, read William Kleinknecht’s The Man Who Sold the World, which traces Reagan’s “infusion of commercial values into every sphere of American life.” If you want to know where he came from, read Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands, which shows how a few “business crusaders,” inflamed opponents of the New Deal, recruited, tutored and financed the feather-headed film star. To assess Reagan’s legacy, pore over his works, not only the words of his first inaugural address, as Purdy does.

In fact, Purdy’s near-exclusive focus on language sometimes has the effect–as with his attempt to fit the Iraq War into his story line–of raising serious doubts about his grasp of reality. He writes, for example:

Confident in their humane motives, the president and his more idealistic advisers scarcely considered the inhumane effects their acts might have: the heart, astonishingly, seemed to be enough. Trusting that what seemed clear to them must be equally clear to others, the war’s supporters imagined themselves in a concert of freedom-promoting motives with Iraqis, an illusion that took months of growing chaos to unravel. Above all, the architects of the occupation were indifferent to the basic institutions of order, allowing the tasks of government to slip through their fingers. They waited for freedom to arise while squandering its preconditions.

Unlike Wolfe’s pedestrian prose style, Purdy’s has rhythm and lilt. A graceful style can cover only so many sins, though. His précis of the Iraq War is piffle from beginning to end. The invasion of Iraq was initially portrayed as a response to threats to American security. When these were exposed as nonexistent (indeed, fabricated), a new marketing strategy, “democracy promotion,” was devised by the government and eagerly swallowed by a docile intelligentsia. Meanwhile, the occupying forces moved immediately to accomplish the invasion’s real goals: construction of permanent bases for future Middle East military interventions, exploitation of Iraq’s energy resources and conversion of the country into a wholly unregulated investors’ paradise. It was a perfectly plausible, entirely coldblooded imperialist project, though unexpectedly it failed. There were no “humane” or “freedom-promoting” motives, no “idealistic” advisers, no “indifference to the basic institutions of order”–the order they really intended to create.

Liberalism has an honorable past, as Wolfe and Purdy are right to remind us. Its future must be more of the same–much more than either Wolfe or Purdy seems willing to advocate. Liberalism has always stood, at least in theory, for government accountability and citizen participation, for broadly based prosperity and the absence of class hierarchy, for social solidarity and against exploitation, domestic or international. It has always, that is, been proto-socialist. It needs to affirm those values far more explicitly and emphatically, even if the word “socialism”–the victim of history’s greatest terminological hijacking–is never heard again.

The problem with socialism–the real kind, not the totalitarian travesty–is, as everyone knows, that it would take too many evenings. The problem with contemporary liberalism is that it takes too few. How many Americans meet regularly with neighbors or co-workers to formulate questions or instructions for their elected representatives or evaluate their performance; to hear experts, activists, or officials criticize or defend government or corporate policy; to share information or discuss strategy with fellow citizens in other neighborhoods or workplaces? A nationwide participatory political culture has been perfectly feasible since radio was invented. With current technology–at least until the Internet is privatized and community cable TV is defunded–it’s a piece of cake. Yes, it can be tedious. But if we don’t meet before this or that local or national institution breaks down or crisis develops, we’ll just wind up having to meet afterward, in far less pleasant circumstances.

Eternal involvement is the price of democracy. Refuse to pay the price and you wind up with the catastrophe of Reagan/Gingrich/Bushism: the world’s richest, freest country turned into a decaying, plutocratic, militarized rogue state. Marx warned that our alternatives were socialism or barbarism. Since we’ve agreed not to use the s-word, let’s just say that our alternatives are a democratically energized liberalism or a banana republic.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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