Commentary Magazine


The Future of Liberalism by Alan Wolfe

Big Bad Wolfe
The Future of Liberalism
by Alan Wolfe
Knopf. 352 pp. $25.95

The liberal hour is at hand. A progressive Democratic President, an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, an opposition in disarray, a public mandate to “do something” to fix the economy and the financial system—these cascading conditions are providing American liberals with a rare opportunity to set national priorities and to enact their long-bottled-up domestic agenda.

Alan Wolfe’s new book, The Future of Liberalism, is therefore appearing at a fortuitous moment. A prolific author and sociologist who directs the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, Wolfe argues not only that liberalism has a future but that it is the philosophy preeminently suited to our time. At their best, he argues, liberals express an ideal of an unfolding and open-ended future, in contrast to leftists, who mistakenly try to engineer the future, and conservatives, who are too strongly attached to tradition to make the necessary adaptations to the challenges of contemporary life.

“Of all the political philosophies that arose in the wake of the modern revolution,” he writes, “liberalism is the one left standing with the least wobble in its legs.” If liberalism has fallen on hard times in recent decades, Wolfe says, that is due to the failure of liberals to defend their principles with the energy and conviction radicals and conservatives have deployed in defense of theirs. Wolfe wants to restore the confidence of liberals by demonstrating that their philosophy rests on a principled foundation far stronger than anything on offer by either leftists or conservatives.

Wolfe is attempting to codify a sentiment that has been on display in liberal circles for decades even as liberals have felt themselves to be in political eclipse. They exude an inchoate but deeply felt sense that they possess a superior temperament derived in part from their political and ideological views—a temperament that is skeptical, reasoned, fair-minded, and concerned with the higher good. The Future of Liberalism is an especially valuable exercise now that Barack Obama, the most unashamedly liberal political figure ever to ascend to the presidency, holds the reins of power in Washington. The extraordinary outpouring of enthusiasm among liberals for the new President has a great deal to do with the sense that in his grave and confident demeanor, Obama is the embodiment and personification of the ideal liberal sensibility—that he is the change Wolfe and his compatriots have been waiting for.

But if Obama’s understanding of liberalism and conservatism proves to be as muddled, disingenuous, and contradictory as Wolfe’s, he is going to have a rough go of it.

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In Wolfe’s accounting, liberalism involves a commitment to the ideals of individual autonomy as well as procedural commitments to the rule of law, popular elections, constitutional rules, and the like. Liberalism, he says, did not create the modern world of rapid change, equality, and individual rights, but it is the philosophy that can best navigate the world we have inherited.

Wolfe’s definition makes liberalism appear as the most reasonable and moderate of philosophies, in contrast to leftism or conservatism. Their proponents, in Wolfe’s account, are sometimes intolerant of those they fear or oppose, anxious about the future, dismissive of procedural rules, or disproportionately concerned with equality (leftists) or freedom (conservatives).

It is important to note that Wolfe stresses the centrality of “autonomy” to liberalism, rather than “liberty” or “freedom,” the terms used by the doctrine’s great philosophers. Wolfe does so because he wishes to distinguish his brand of liberalism, with its willingness to use the state as an instrument to promote independence, from classical liberalism, with its focus on limited government as a necessary precondition for the expression of liberty.

Classical liberalism promoted freedom and equality against monarchists, slave owners, and theocrats. But, Wolfe argues, any attempt to implement a liberty-based philosophy today would lead not to greater freedom but to greater inequality. It would necessarily become part of an attack on the efforts of elected governments to equalize the conditions of their citizens. These days, Wolfe says, the welfare state is an instrument that promotes independence and equality much as the ideal of limited government did two centuries ago. The obsolescence of classical liberalism and its replacement by Wolfe’s brand of liberalism is an ineluctable byproduct of historical change. The distinctive feature of liberals today is that they have adjusted to these changes while their adversaries have not.

Wolfe develops these themes by setting influential philosophers who expressed important liberal principles against similarly influential thinkers he places outside the liberal tradition. He then uses these foundational debates to cast light on current controversies, such as immigration, terrorism, the war in Iraq, the role of religion in public life, abortion, and affirmative action.

For Wolfe, the key liberal thinkers of modernity are Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, along with a few other influential figures like John Dewey and a handful of postwar critics and historians including Lionel Trilling, Daniel Bell, and Richard Hofstadter. Their anti-liberal adversaries form a disparate collection that includes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke, Thomas Carlyle, the romantic poets Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth, and the German philosopher Carl Schmitt.

Wolfe puts considerable emphasis on the late-18th-century debate between Kant and Rousseau over questions of culture and nature and whether society should be judged as an instrument of repression or liberation. Rousseau wrote that man was born free and equal but was enslaved by the artificial conventions of society, culture, and politics. He tried, therefore, to invent a form of politics that might reproduce the freedom and authenticity of man in his natural state.

In opposition to this, Kant argued that human progress takes place within society through the development of law, philosophy, and art. Kant wins the liberal seal of approval from Wolfe for telling us that we can shape a culture to encourage autonomy, equality, and morality. Rousseau says that nature trumps culture and that civilization destroys man’s natural virtue, and for this Wolfe places him outside the liberal pale.

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There is little doubt that Rousseau’s thought provides a foundation for radical attacks on the institutions of religion, family, and government. It is therefore startling, and not a little ludicrous, when Wolfe declares that contemporary conservatives are “neo-Rousseauians.” He argues this, evidently, because conservatives are skeptical of the notion of human progress and because they look to nature as a foundation for culture.

The notion that Rousseau occupies a central position in the conservative canon is so preposterous that it calls the rest of Wolfe’s judgments into question. For example, one simply cannot argue rationally that conservatives can be “neo-Rousseauians” and Burkeans at the same time. Edmund Burke, who defended tradition as the foundation for progress, denounced Rousseau for his role as the philosophical theoretician of the French Revolution, calling him “the insane Socrates of the National Assembly.” It was Burke, much more than Kant, who was the great antagonist of Rousseau, and to the extent that modern conservatives trace their lineage back to Burke, their ideas developed almost entirely in opposition to Rousseau’s.

Burke, moreover, was not an enemy of liberal principles but a Whig and a reformer who sympathized with the American Revolution even as he attacked the French Revolution because he saw in it a betrayal of liberal principles and civilized ideals. This tortured interpretation of conservatism is perhaps the odd result of Wolfe’s knowledge that the late Allan Bloom, whose The Closing of the American Mind (1987) is a much beloved text among American conservatives, was a Rousseau translator and enthusiast. Bloom was in no way a doctrinaire conservative, and the effort to squeeze his Rousseau in with the truly canonical Burke is a sign that Wolfe is not only unsympathetic to conservatism but that he also fundamentally, even willfully, misunderstands it.

Wolfe says that liberalism developed through the 19th and 20th centuries in tension with and in opposition to Rousseau-like political romanticism. A liberal politics limited in its aims, governed by formal procedures, and accommodating of interests cannot be easily reconciled with a romantic politics that is frequently grandiose in aim, carefree about procedures, and disdainful of narrow interests. In Wolfe’s eyes, liberal politics concerns itself with the prosaic and practical, which is its great advantage. “Poetry,” he writes, “makes bad politics.”

Romanticism, he explains, encouraged nationalism and ethnic chauvinism, then glorified militarism and war. Wolfe makes good sense here, but then reaches too far when he tries to apply this lesson to the present time. He proceeds to make a case that the intervention in Iraq was an expression of romantic nationalism, because it sought to remake the Middle East. Neoconservative supporters of the war, he claims, are really romantic nationalists in Brooks Brothers suits. “Rejecting the placid politics of peace,” he writes, “they recall the Romantic poets by finding in military valor a compelling alternative to mundane commercial civilization, and in the wake of 9/11 they sought out heroes.”

This is nonsense on stilts. If neoconservatives were the arch-nationalist romantics Wolfe says they are, they would not care a whit about Iraq or the Middle East at all. The Romantics were, to put it mildly, uninterested in democracy and free institutions and the effort to extend them to the world, which has been the consuming interest of neoconservatives this decade.

Wolfe is even more unjust in a long chapter arguing that the philosopher Carl Schmitt was a forebear and inspiration to contemporary conservatives. Schmitt (1888-1985) was a German authoritarian and anti-Semitic philosopher whose writings provided a justification for Hitler’s suspension of the Weimar constitution. Though he denounced parliamentary democracy, Schmitt admired the provision in the Weimar constitution that gave the president the authority to suspend its operation in times of emergency or crisis. Indeed, he viewed the suspension of customary laws and constitutional provisions as the ultimate act of political authority.

Wolfe is aware that few people in Washington today know who Carl Schmitt was, and that even fewer subscribe to his authoritarian doctrines. This does not stop him from recycling a theme prominently circulated in recent years on left-wing websites and publications—namely, that the Bush administration adopted a “Schmittian” approach to politics in waging the war on terror. He suggests that, through the surveillance and interrogation tactics adopted to fight terrorism, the Bush administration suspended constitutional rule along lines anticipated by Schmitt—the same Bush administration that went along without complaint and along the lines envisioned by the Constitution with the Congress or the Supreme Court when these other branches of government acted to curtail its exercise of power.

It is, at best, disingenuous of Wolfe to accuse the Bush administration of scorched-earth political tactics when he is the one making invidious and false comparisons to Hitler’s favorite philosopher.

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So Rousseau is the godfather of conservatism, neoconservatives are romantics in the manner of Lord Byron, liberals are open-minded realists—these are the most glaring offenses against sweet reason in The Future of Liberalism. Others are more subtle, and for that reason more difficult to untangle. Yet they are in some ways more provocative and interesting.

One misconception running through the book is that American liberalism and American conservatism represent different and conflicting traditions of thought. In fact, they are opposing tendencies within a common framework. Most modern conservatives operate within the broad tradition of liberal thought—endorsing the ideals of representative government, the rule of law under the Constitution, individual liberty, and equality of rights. They call themselves conservatives because they defend the tradition of liberalism and self-government by emphasizing prudence, respect for the past, and the fragility of institutions. They fear that the liberal ideals of equality and freedom can become self-destructive if pushed beyond their limits. Their heroes tend to be liberals of an old school who were aware of such dangers: Burke, Madison, Tocqueville, Lincoln, and Churchill.

For its part, American liberalism is redolent of traditions, especially ones that make Wolfe uneasy, like nationalism. The patriotic symbols of the nation are, in fact, expressions of universalist liberal ideals: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, the Capitol and the monuments to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. These give liberalism in America strength and appeal that cannot be located in the writings of Kant or Mill.

Wolfe insists that liberalism is a prosaic doctrine dedicated simply to common improvement. But Lincoln, through his rhetoric and conduct, succeeded in giving American liberalism a sense of enduring nobility so important that Barack Obama found it worthwhile to mimic Lincoln’s trip to Washington in 1861 and to swear his oath on a Lincoln Bible. If Wolfe had his druthers, he would drain the heroic nationalist strain from American liberalism and replace it instead with thin substitutes drawn from moral philosophy.

During their time in the wilderness, liberals contented themselves with the belief that it was the complexity of their view of the world that made them unpopular at the ballot box, in contrast to the simplistic nostrums of those who won votes by appealing to the lowest common denominator of political life. Wolfe does present a complex case for liberalism, but the complexity is full of internal contradictions that turn his own arguments against him.

About the Author

James Piereson is the author of a new book, Camelot and Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, based in part on his article “Lee Harvey Oswald and the Liberal Crack-Up” in the May 2006 COMMENTARY.




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