Liberalism Lost and Found
Claiming the future means embracing the full complications of the past.
It takes less courage than it once did to defend liberalism. Liberal restraint looks better than ever after the excesses of the Bush years. Liberal skepticism of the unfettered market seems wise after the economic meltdown. Liberal tolerance is increasingly valued in a society that grows ever more diverse, and it is a virtue particularly honored among the young. Liberal jurisprudence seems restrained in the face of a wave of conservative judicial activism. Even liberal empathy–good, old-fashioned, bleeding-heart liberalism–seems less contested now, after conservatives tried to steal the word “compassion” as their own.
And yet few politicians dare to call themselves liberal. They fear, as Alan Wolfe writes, that too many Americans still see liberals “as carriers of infectious political diseases.” It’s certainly very hard to imagine any politician, notably including our current president, who would dare to say what John F. Kennedy said shortly before the 1960 election (and remember that Kennedy wasn’t all that liberal). “What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label ‘liberal’?” Kennedy asked. “If by ‘liberal’ they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of ‘liberal.’”
“But,” Kennedy went on, “if by a ‘liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people–their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties–someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘liberal,’ then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘liberal.’”
The statement is bold by today’s standards. Yet it also suggests that a half-century ago, liberals were already on the defensive. Before he spoke of liberalism’s virtues, Kennedy felt obligated to knock down liberal stereotypes that are with us to this day–the fear that liberals are “soft” on national security, profligate with the taxpayers’ dollars, and relentless centralizers of power. There was also a certain calculated vagueness about what constituted the “good” liberalism (have you ever met a politician who would claim not to care about “the welfare of the people”?). Kennedy was engaged in what proved to be an agonizingly close election campaign, so he was careful in his choice of words. But it is the measure of how embattled liberalism has been, and for how long, that this was the best defense of the creed that one of our most eloquent political leaders could muster in times that were more hospitable to the enterprise.
Liberalism’s problems do not arise simply because liberals aren’t fervent enough in embracing their faith and persistent enough in evangelizing on its behalf. There are, in fact, deep tensions in contemporary liberalism, as there are in any philosophy that is put to practical use in the political realm. Conservatives face even more profound contradictions and have suffered mightily because of them. But liberals would do well in this period of reconstruction and rebirth to face their own contradictions squarely. American liberals yearn to be in favor of both moderation and radicalism. They respect Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Vital Center and understand they have to govern in a complicated world. Yet they also love the FDR who castigated “economic royalists,” a labor movement that disrupted traditional capitalist relationships, and a civil rights movement that refused to bow down before the demands of “gradualism.”
Liberals are also ambivalent in their relationship with populism. Wolfe acknowledges that American populism “shares something substantive with liberalism” in its calls for economic reform, but he concludes that “it is deeply illiberal temperamentally.” He adds: “Populism attempts to rouse people out of fear rather than to appeal to them through hope.” Of course some forms of populism are exactly what Wolfe says they are. But he would have done well to give more respect to the strong strain running through American populism–I’d even argue it is the dominant thrust–that is inspired more by hope than fear, and by a profound faith the capacity of ordinary people to achieve self-rule. On this point, I think, the historian Michael Kazin has it right when he argues that American progressives have succeeded in improving the “common welfare” only when they “talked in populist ways–hopeful, expansive, even romantic.” Kazin cites the line popularized by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “March without the people, and you march into the night,” adding, “Cursing the darkness only delays the dawn.”
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