The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 15, 2018

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Pale Liberalism
Ted McAllister - 07/20/09
Saying Grace, Norman Rockwell

The Future of Liberalism by Alan Wolfe, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)

At least since the rise of Progressivism in the United States, and probably well before, people have fought over the meaning of liberalism. In the 1930s, for example, both Hoover and Roosevelt argued over the label in what Gordon Lloyd has called the two faces of liberalism.[1] However many faces there are to liberalism, there are many contrasting hues, and the decades since the New Deal have only added to the frustration of anyone seeking definitions. It is impossible to find our way simultaneously to analytical clarity (definitions) and historical/ empirical fidelity. In this case, the impossible task is also a necessary one. We cannot abandon the label, we cannot declare, because some of us love semantic rigor and tight taxonomies, that the word has no meaning. We live in a very messy world of ideas, beliefs, policies and all the theorists in the world cannot glue together a LIBERAL that fits the competing and legitimate uses of the label.

Almost all historical accounts of liberalism take liberal ideas and sentiments to have developed as a response to a crisis of authority in Europe. With religious pluralism and with the rise of the economic and political clout of the middle classes, the claims to authority made by churches or kings seemed increasingly to be about sheer power cloaked in claims to authority. If the Church couldn’t assume the cultural right to rule and if kings and aristocrats confronted competing nodes of power and influence, how could European societies order themselves? Who should rule, and by what authority? Questions of this nature prompted both practical and philosophical reactions that included, for those who would make up the liberal lineage, a belief that tolerance was the best response to the emerging religious pluralism and that the best foundation of political order was self-evident human needs and desires rather than the summum bonum. Without a received cultural consensus about authority, early liberal thinkers emphasized human choice—humans choose their government to serve their needs. In due course, liberal thought would recognize only governments that had the “consent of the governed” as legitimate, even if the means for determining consent remained elusive.

The resulting doctrine of popular sovereignty entailed respect for the individual stripped of all social, ethnic, institutional accoutrements. As church, family, and other institutions lost authority, the individual became the primary bearer of rights—usually designated “natural” rights, which asserts a moral defense of individualism. And so with the first “liberal” regime, the US Constitution recognized formally the sovereignty of the “people” and through this document “the people” used their authority to constitute governments (federal and state) and to delegate to these governments the right to exercise the powers implied in sovereignty—sovereignty remained vested, however, with the People. The Constitution empowered the government but, more importantly, limited its power and scope so as to protect the liberties and rights vested with the people. And so the defining liberal idea, that people are by nature free and that governments should be limited, was imperfectly but definitively declared with the new American regime.

In the United States, liberalism has, since the time of Andrew Jackson at least, been the playing out of two somewhat incongruous ideas: liberty and equality. Equality first appears, naturally, as the demand for equal political power, and with it the implied argument that each person is equally worthy to exercise the power of the vote, or to hold office, or other expressions of democratic participation. But even as this political equality became an irresistible force in the Anglo-American world, questions of whether individual liberty can survive the tyranny of the majority become inevitable. Will a crude form of populism, born of political equality, lead to a soft despotism that oppresses the individual without him knowing that his liberty had been surrendered to the demos?

One way of organizing various liberal camps is to arrange them relative to their belief in equality as a moral and political end. Almost all liberals will claim that equality is a means to a greater end: liberty, but in real terms their commitment to strong, government-sponsored equality varies dramatically. Those who find themselves nearly conflating equality and liberty are virtually socialist and those who reject all but political and legal equality are libertarians.

The latter are heirs of John Stuart Mill’s response to the danger of soft despotism. Mill’s stirring apology of the sovereign individual stressed a strong theme in all subsequent liberal thought: the imperative to allow the person to create herself, to become whomever she wishes to be. This liberal imperative to personal development is both an intellectual curiosity and the great moral appeal of liberalism. It is a curiosity because the sovereign self is both the author and subject of the creative act. As a moral ideal the dream of self-creation is as old as human story-telling, only now turned from a Promethean vice into a (the) moral virtue.

When Mill wrote On Liberty, the greatest threat he espied to the ideal of individual self-creation came from democracy—from the potentially irresistible power of a mobilized majority against the eccentric desires or needs of individuals. Excessive political equality could destroy liberty, it seemed. But within a few years, in both England and the United States, the dramatic expansion of wealth and power in the hands of a few industrialists suggested that inequality of a different sort threatened the sovereign individual. With the concentration of economic power, the evolution of a new generation of machine technology, and the evolution of production techniques that undermined guilds and unions, liberals began to note that freedom from external restraint is useless if one doesn’t have the resources to develop one’s unique qualities, if one cannot have the economic means that allow for self-creation. The fight for economic equality then became a fight for individual freedom.

If the primary means of protecting individuals in an earlier age was to limit government interference in their lives, in this new age of a robust industrial capitalism, government appeared to be the only tool capable of protecting the individual from a rapacious economic system. Liberals who had feared government as a source of tyranny had to learn to love it as a protector of freedom.

In addition to these 19th century splits in the stream of liberalism, a series of events, beginning in the 1970s, have altered the linguistic terrain, making the word liberal extremely elusive, often polarizing, and usually confusing. The “neoliberalism” (as leftists often call it) of Thatcher and Reagan turned into “conservatism” in political discourse, even though it more precisely might be called right-wing liberalism. The rising populist sentiment against government solutions put liberals in a defensive posture as they now had to defend the welfare state, or parts of it, in the name of liberalism. The complex politics of global capitalism, the rapid but very uneven growth in the American economy, a series of domestic skirmishes over what misleadingly goes under the rubric “values,” had so scrambled labels as to make semantic clarity impossible by the time of the strange election of George Bush.

Confusion is wonderful, demanding that some new semantic order be articulated out of the chaos. Books defining and defending liberalism have been numerous since the Reagan years, but today those who defend liberalism (even before the election of 2008) display vigor and enthusiasm befitting a nascent movement. As a rule, those who write these books and articles think they have figured out the enemy and why it has been effective even as they have figured out a contemporary expression of liberalism that captures America’s political sweet spot. This newly updated version, this political expression that proponents believe is (re)capturing the broad middle, is what I call pale liberalism.

Pale liberals call for no great sacrifice. They smile indulgently, like the aged do at the young, at passion, at noble dreams, at sacrifice and duty. If passion persists, they fear its latent power. When liberals dream they envision a prosperous land with a tolerable record of justice, peopled by decent folk who respect the individualism of others and who find the social and moral space to work out their own lives on their own terms. An ideal, self-actualized liberal, thin and healthy in his now late middle aged body, expresses his moral commitments through his gregarious openness to the interests of those he meets, and he displays a historically unique democratic elitism as he carries his expensive organic groceries while wearing the carefully crafted casual clothes and easy gait of his species. Having traversed two thirds of his journey through this vale of tears, he finds satisfaction that he has tolerably few tears and that he knows none of the angst upon approaching the end.

Alan Wolfe’s recent apology, The Future of Liberalism is an excellent example of what I mean by pale liberalism—bourgeois and practical, rejecting high ideals in favor of the possible, rejecting passion in favor of the prosaic. Wolfe typically touts a presumed middle ground in his books and essays, but whether the ground he demarks is really in the middle or not, it is most usually squishy. His work is its strongest when it is empirical and when he teases out an alternative to polarized vocabularies or ideologies. In his book Moral Freedom, for instance, Wolfe explores the moral choices and vocabularies of citizens from eight American communities and lays bare the difficult task of moral choices in an age of such expansive individual freedom, but he also notes that these individuals have not abandoned morals or even virtues, only the ease that comes from having inherited them. But where Moral Freedom rests on limited empirical evidence from which the author gives a suggestive analysis about moral inquiry in our times, The Future of Liberalism is untethered to evidence, it is declaratory, pontifical, and the author is strangely frightened of passion. The book has the feel not of liberalism’s future but of bourgeois liberalism in senescence.

Wolfe “frames” (many liberal academic activists have employed this loaded word to advocate using language to capture a working electoral majority) the subject of liberalism in a most conservative fashion—the defining American political tradition that he finds threatened by elements outside of the broad middle. The future, therefore, depends on recovery of the past (or at least capturing the narrative about the past). The “future” of liberalism is really about “recovery”—or so the logic of Wolfe’s argument dictates. Indeed, Wolfe’s assumptions in this regard are nearly universally held among those who presently write books in defense of liberalism. Those assumptions include: 1. That liberalism is inherent in the American way; 2. That liberalism has been under assault from the right and the left; 3. That “conservatives” have done the most damage to the liberal center; 4. That the primary task today is to recover the American liberal tradition, to return America to its liberal heritage after decades of “extremist” corruption.

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