The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 15, 2018

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Pale Liberalism
Ted McAllister - 07/20/09

Wolfe’s criticism of the effect “conservatives” have had on the liberal center fails to account for the fact that the term “conservative” can be just as elusive as the term “liberal.” Of course to the degree that Wolfe and other liberals persuade readers that they are supporting the defining American tradition non-liberals become “extremists.” As liberals see the American political terrain, all participants fit on a two dimensional grid. Any three dimensional thinker is inexplicable—the globe becomes a flat dot, mountains and valleys are invisible. On the flat-land of the liberal imagination, there are only those to the right and those to the left—extremists all.

Wolfe’s political map, as a result of this limited imagination, contains many truths that lack the appropriate context, or truths that are so shaved, as though written by some crazed nominalist, as to lose all their interesting texture. So often Wolfe claims for “Liberalism” the virtues, the characteristics, the sentiments, the habits, that others would claim for “conservatism.” Because the author never defines the conservatism against which he is reacting, he effectively defines conservatives by the hodgepodge critiques he makes of a most eclectic group of people on the “right.” The closest he comes to a definition appears late in his book: “The essence of conservatism is that it wants to limit the reach of liberty and equality while the essence of modernity is to expand them.” Indeed, Wolfe “frames” conservatives.

Putting aside the incoherent uses of the label “conservative,” Wolfe declares—does not rely on empirical evidence or tease out of events their subtle implications but declares—that “conservatives can’t govern.” Declaring also that Bush was “the most conservative president of modern times,” (a statement that is meaningless absent a clear definition and absurd if one imagines conservatism to be faithful to restraining precedent), Wolfe relies on common liberal prejudices to demonstrate that because Bush failed and he was a conservative, that conservatism fails as a governing ideology. One quick reference will suffice to note the strangely axiomatic quality of Wolfe’s argument. “Hurricane Katrina should . . . be viewed as a decisive event in the history of political philosophy.” Why? Because the federal government failed utterly to respond to this disaster and the reason they failed was because of government incompetence born of ideological nonsense. “After Katrina, no one except the most ideological can still take these (conservative ideas of limited government) as axioms of political life.” Even though the government response to the Katrina hurricane is a primary argument for the failure of conservative ideology, Wolfe never follows evidence, never tells the story in its rich and complex detail. He declares rather than argues—his authority and the prejudices of sympathetic readers is all that he requires to make his case.

If we don’t get a compelling definition of conservatism, Wolfe does provide a variety of characteristics, sentiments and ideas (he emphasizes three ways of defining liberalism: substance, procedure, and temperament) that collectively define liberalism. Wolfe appropriately places one philosophical ideal as the irreducible core of liberalism, no matter its variety: individual autonomy. On this subject Wolfe is thoughtful, sometimes insightful, as he navigates the various tensions in this defining ideal. It stands for independence and so is closely linked to the original meaning of the word liberty. But the obvious and often changing forms of interdependence force one to explain what kind of independence one wishes to assert and what kind of institutional, cultural, and historical imbeddedness is required for the individual to be meaningfully independent. However, insofar as individual autonomy reaches beyond the more political meanings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to capture the alluring prospect of self-creation and self-redefinition, Wolfe’s account is insufficiently occupied with the antinomian tendency in matters of moral authority. Moreover, liberal theorists more generally take scant notice of the often crushing responsibility people feel to create themselves—to craft from the cultural flotsam around them a soul that is both chosen and authentic.

Understandably, Wolfe puts equality as a second, but subordinate, liberal ideal. Equality is always in the service of individual autonomy. As a result, the quest for equality changes depending on the kinds of inequality that emerge and how much they threaten individuals who should have the absolute right to define their lives on their own terms. The tendency of American and European governments to use the power of the state to equalize economic conditions, to provide basic goods, is an example of liberalism adjusting to changing circumstances to protect individuals from evolving threats to their independence.

In addition to these “substantive commitments,” Wolfe notes that liberalism is also procedural, affirming constitutionalism, the rule of law, and more generally a regime that promotes fairness and impartiality. These procedures are necessary when a nation contains great diversity. In the absence of a hard consensus on basic goods, liberal proceduralism makes it possible for all parties to get a fair hearing, if not their way.

More intriguing, Wolfe also stresses liberal “dispositions” that are part of the liberal way of thinking—habits of the mind and the heart. Wolfe, in ways that put one in mind of Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, finds in the pre-political form the real liberalism, in this case manifesting such things as a “preference for realism,” “an inclination to deliberate,” “a commitment to tolerance” and “an appreciation of openness.” He is on to something here, but the author doesn’t explore it fully. Dispositions, inculcated in many diverse ways, are the heart of any liberal regime—without these dispositions a people can affirm all the doctrines of liberalism, can create all the procedures meant to produce a liberal regime, and the regime will still fail. Liberalism is ultimately a way of being in the world, not a set of reified ideas. As such one cannot expect it to be an export. Liberalism is a cultural product, and of this Wolfe is keenly aware—but the full implications of this fact are not evident in his book.

Depending on how one categorizes such things, many of the dispositions that Wolfe characterizes as liberal could be understood as part of the conservative’s mental habits. However, two sentiments are either missing or dismissed as dangerous by Wolfe. First, the author stresses the liberal preference for “realism.” By this he means to stab at the romantic tendencies in both the right and the left. Romance is something not allowed in liberalism. Closely related, one notices that Wolfe’s description of liberal dispositions leaves no room for a sense of the tragic nature of life. Throughout the book, Wolfe finds passion, angst, romance, to be problems—dispositions that drive various non-liberals to challenge or even threaten the liberal regime.

In one of the most illuminating insights of this book, Wolfe defends the liberal love of the prosaic. Liberalism, he writes, “developed throughout the nineteenth century as a reaction against Romanticism.” One is reminded of the famous observation made by Lionel Trilling in his 1950 book, The Liberal Imagination, where he asserted that liberalism had dominated American politics whereas non-liberals had dominated America’s literary imagination. For Wolfe this is as it should be since politics should be kept “close to the ground.” Romanticism as applied to politics tends toward nostalgic paeans to a golden age or toward visions of a perfected future: the passionate sins of the right and the left. Romantic politics has such a dreadful modern record of unleashed passions, scorched earth, devastated cultures, final solutions, that the liberal taste for the pragmatic compromise, the earth-bound debate about goods and needs, is the only appropriate disposition for a modern, pluralistic word. Pale liberalism is the only legitimate liberalism. In the American context, populism is the greatest threat to the pacific regime of pale liberalism, emerging like a periodic dust storm from the heartland, driven by passion and an unseemly certainty.

This pragmatist’s fear of romance, I suspect, helps account for the strange dichotomies that Wolfe employs as his way of contrasting liberals and their enemies. “Liberalism begins,” asserts Wolfe, “with the conviction that the question of human nature is up to human beings to decide; even if their nature makes them bad, their works can make them good.” This bold and complex assertion serves as the keynote of a most maddening chapter, “In Praise of Artifice,” in which the burden of his argument is that humans are radically free and that appeals to human nature are both deterministic and laced with dangerous passions. Rousseau serves as the great seducer in this story—a powerful and bold thinker who voiced for moderns a lament that civilization had corrupted us, had alienated us from our true selves, our nature. Culture, as Wolfe reads Rousseau, is a distorting, even disfiguring, artifice that has created the vices that plague human society. Kant provided the response to Rousseau’s dangerously romantic yearnings by stressing human artifice, human understanding, and therefore human control over our destiny and even our beings.

Wolfe’s dichotomy—Rousseau v. Kant—is fascinating and puzzling. Somehow people as different as Jerry Falwell and Richard Dawkins (a fundamentalist and an atheist) become part of the spiritual lacuna produced by Rousseau. The grouping is interesting but cavalierly reductive, requiring perverse labels to be attached to all manner of people, including the odd label of “neo-Rousseauian” for the imminent historian and public intellectual, Wilfred McClay. The Procrustean bed of Wolfe’s philosophical taxonomy distorts so much at this crucial point in the book. The very title of the chapter, “In Praise of Artifice,” leads one to anticipate a discussion of Edmund Burke. Burke’s response to Rousseau is of a different sort than the one provided by Kant and opens up a way of thinking that is less dichotomous—less nature v. culture, or freedom v. determinism. Burke, the great Irish Whig, defended liberty as powerfully as any thinker of his age and yet does not offer a reductive approach to human nature, culture, tradition, or liberty. The complexity and rootedness of Burke’s arguments make him ill-suited to a dichotomous argument and therefore inconvenient for Wolfe’s account. But had Wolfe thought through Burke in this chapter then he would have had to deal with a species of thinker who is both liberal and conservative, and yet reductively neither. Wolfe’s book depends on a reductive categorization of groups, putting all manner of distinctly different kinds of thinkers and political actors together by virtue of their disagreement, on one point or another, with Wolfe’s reified liberalism.

The future of liberalism, as articulated by Wolfe, is to return as America’s governing ideology. By stressing that liberalism is the historic center of American political life and by emphasizing that liberalism is particularly suited to the ever-changing or evolving nature of modern life, Wolfe has framed political life in such a way as to place those who fall outside of his definition as extremists. Defined properly, Wolfe’s historical claims to the liberal nature of the American regime could contribute or even revivify the great American political conversation. As a framing technique, Wolfe’s actual characterization of liberalism and its American enemies is a most illiberal closure to the conversation, contributing to the baleful tendency of political partisans of all stripes to assert their right to speak for the broad American center.

Wolfe gives intellectual form to the pale liberalism that I caricatured earlier. The overlooked dangers of such liberals come from their provincialism painted up to appear cosmopolitan—the tendency to generalize their own experiences of the world. When liberals believe that they are tolerant, when they think that their easygoing demeanor in the face of those who disagree, when they are so certain that passionately held beliefs by non-liberals are proof of their immaturity or ignorance, then there is no real listening—no real communication.

A belief that human nature is plastic and that humans can choose to remake themselves, is dangerously dismissive of the experiences of the vast majority of humans in history. It is time to reopen the questions about human nature, about human autonomy, about the desirability self-creation. Liberals should, in brief, broaden their horizons to ponder competing views of human flourishing. A return to the most ubiquitous and pressing questions would be a start: Who are we? Why are we here? Under what obligations do we live our lives? What does our inevitable death teach us about purposes, individual and collective? Liberalism began by orienting our political thinking around our desires, pushing out of the public sphere the normative questions.  We win an important victory if we make these questions matters of public concern.


  1. While John Gray’s book by this title is more famous, Lloyd’s book, The Two Faces of Liberalism: How the Hoover-Roosevelt Debate Shapes the Twenty-First Century, focuses particularly on this American debate about the nature and direction of liberalism.

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