Liberals have more problems than one can comfortably count these days, but the essential one is this: fewer than one in seven Americans trust the government “to do what’s right almost always or most of the time,” an all-time low since pollsters began asking the question in 1958. This is approximately the same anemic percentage as those who, questioned in a previous poll, expressed confidence in the government’s “ability to stand up to vested interests.” Barack Obama’s hyper-cautiousness and misguided deficit obsession notwithstanding, if liberals cannot change those numbers, they cannot win.
Liberal politics, Michael Walzer observes, is difficult “because it offers so few emotional rewards…it lacks warmth and intimacy.” Without universal foundations—Lionel Trilling termed it “a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine”—liberalism can offer only narratives of sacrifice and common purpose, ones that can often be trumped by the tales of the right, which frequently combine libertarianism with jingoism, fearmongering and other easily pushed emotional buttons that tend to drown out the more idealistic liberals’ homilies. As Richard Hofstadter feared nearly sixty years ago, “In a populistic culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes,” it would be “at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active, and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.” Sound familiar?
Ironically, it is at moments when liberalism is most difficult to practice that its defense is most desperately needed. As I argue in my new history, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism From Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, while liberal policy prescriptions certainly change over time, their inspiration has not. To be a “liberal” is to be a child of the Enlightenment, to stand firm on behalf of the foundational freedoms of thought and expression. Liberalism insists that individuals take hold of their fate and shape it according to the values of liberty and equality, while being fully aware that the two must always coexist in tension with each other. While the word “liberal” has come to imply many ideas and commitments over the past two centuries, only those that honor what John Kenneth Galbraith called “the emancipation of belief” are worthy of it. Liberalism’s guiding spirit can be found in the words of Immanuel Kant, who in 1784 proclaimed: “Sapere aude! [Dare to know!] Have courage to use your own understanding!”
The liberals who founded America invented a new form of government based on these precepts. They aspired to create what Thomas Jefferson called a nation of “natural aristocrats,” a term they associated not with family lineage but with what historian Gordon Wood defines as the qualities of “being reasonable, tolerant, honest, virtuous and candid.” Further, they implied “standing on elevated ground in order to have a large view of human affairs, [and] being free of the prejudices, parochialism, and religious enthusiasm of the vulgar and barbaric.”