January 22, 2012
LIBERALISM IS HONEST ABOUT ITSELF, LIBERALS NOT SO MUCH.
Alan Wolfe, The Future of Liberalism (New York: Knopf, 2009) ("The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries . . . were a time of intellectual as well as political intensity, producing one of the greatest collections of thinks and artists ever assembled in one twenty-five year period: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Tom Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Jeremy Bentham, Benjamin Constant, Carl von Clausewitz, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Immanuel Kant, and G. W. . Hegel--and those in just four countries. It is as if a century's worth of political, social, and intellectual transformation was compressed into the experience of one generation. We are more likely to recognize ourselves--our ideals, our dilemmas, our solutions--at the end of this brief period of political and intellectual ferment than at the beginning." "Today, we lack the genius of those who dominated those years, and our era, while exciting in its own right, also lacks the other's drama. But like defenders of the Enlightenment influenced by Voltaire ad Denis Diderot, we continue to debate whether reason and revelation are in conflict." Id. at 24. " Liberalism emerged as a response to events that were as destabilizing to established ways of thinking as they were exciting anticipations of new ways of living. Born in an era of flux, liberalism tell us not so much what to think but more about how to think. It is not a software program that can spit out the answers to whatever questions we may have, nor is it a set of abstract principles or an inchoate bundles of well-meaning platitudes. Liberalism rather, is best treated in its pre-political form. It is characterized by a set of dispositions toward the world that defines what kinds of creatures we are, establishing goals for us to reach, and lays down guidelines for the fairest ways to reach them. Seven such dispositions . . . strike me as especially important to the world in which we live. . . ." "A disposition to grow. . . ." "A sympathy for equality. . . . " "A preference for realism. . . ." "An inclination to deliberate. . . ." "A commitment to tolerance, even for those who do not tolerate you. . . ." "An appreciation of openness. . . ." "A taste for governance. . . ." Id. at 24-27. "Liberalism . . . does not have to pretend to stand on the side of democracy because, with the exception of its occasional flirtations with elitism, it has backed movements to extend suffrage and to increase racial and gender equality. It does not have to become enthusiastic for war because it views war as a failure in the quest for peace. It can stand up for freedom of speech and association because it really believes in them. It defends the concept of an open society because it truly detests those that are closed. It need not venerate an ugly past because it has a decided confidence about the future. It distrusts otherworldliness because it is grounded in this world. Liberalism does not proclaim that government is evil because it knows that it has been a force for good. It takes modernity as a fact of life, recognizing its gains, accepting its terms, and seeking to improve upon it." 'That is what liberalism does. What liberals do is another matter. All too often, liberal politicians lack the courage of liberalism. Especially in the United States, but elsewhere as well, liberals act as if conservatives are the natural governing party of the contemporary world and that they, the liberals, only get to take over when the right goes on a temporary leave of absence. Liberals read the books written by . . . conservative populists and conclude that they are more right than wrong. Yes, we really are too elitist, they say to themselves, To win people to our side we ought to pander to how people feel rather than appeal to what they think. Our greatest enemy really is ourselves; our ideas are too nuanced, our policies too demanding, our approach to politics too intellectual to win the majorities we need.. Far better to appear more conservative, more nationalistic, and even more romantic than we really are than to stand for what we have long been. Liberalism is honest about itself. Liberals, all too often, are not." "The challenge facing liberalism in the future, then, is not to beat out its rivals; because of modernity, it has already done that. Its biggest challenge is to get liberals to once against believe in liberalism. . . ." Id. at 287.).
Alan Wolfe, Marginalized in the Middle (Chicago & London: U. of Chicago Press, 1996).
Alan Wolfe, Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton U. Press, 2005).