How To Be a Liberal Today
Using the term “centrist” isn’t sufficient
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In the first several years after I broke from the right (in 2004), I took to describing myself as a liberal. But after Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party, I began to prefer the more contentless “centrist.” Among other things, this post will attempt to explain why that is. And then I will endeavor to walk it back in favor of reappropriating the term “liberal” for myself, as well as for everyone else striving to resist the various ideological rip currents of our time.
These days, when someone describes me as a liberal (as someone did earlier this week shortly after I promoted Monday’s post on Twitter), I usually respond sardonically with something like: “Yep, that’s me, the last of the liberals.” That’s obviously an exaggeration. I personally know several people I’d describe as liberals who probably wouldn’t hesitate to use the term about themselves, and I suspect there are many others like this scattered around universities, think tanks, and media companies, not to mention in the country at large.
Still, liberalism has clearly seen better days.
I first remember “liberal” becoming an epithet back in 1988 when Republican presidential nominee George H. W. Bush mocked his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis for being a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.” Over the next few years, Republicans made a habit of treating “liberal” as an insult. But that’s nothing compared with what’s happened in more recent years, and especially since the right-populist turn with Trump, when conservative intellectuals began to distance themselves (and the Republican future) from even the classical liberal tradition that anchored the conservative movement from the 1950s on down through to the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney.
On the left, meanwhile, the century-long running dispute between liberals and progressives heated up again during the middle of the last decade, with the latter gaining greater prominence in the Democratic Party than it had enjoyed since before Bill Clinton’s victory in the 1992 primaries. The progressive surge then reached a new post-1972 peak in the late spring and summer of 2020, its strength greatly enhanced by Trump’s constant right-wing provocations, the psychological strain of the worst pandemic in a century, and the proximal catalyst of George Floyd’s murder by a white Minneapolis cop.
As a result, liberalism has gone into eclipse, at least relative to its mid-20th-century zenith and continued, if waning, influence (in subtly modified “neo” form) during the presidencies of Clinton and Barack Obama. But do we have a clear sense today of what liberalism as a political philosophy even is?
Defining liberalism is notoriously difficult because it can take and has taken different forms in different times and places. That isn’t true about other theories of politics. A monarchy is a monarchy. The trappings of communism change somewhat in different contexts, but when instituted at the scale of a nation-state, it invariably becomes a totalitarian form of tyranny.
But liberalism is compatible with a country having a president or a parliament; powerful laws against libel or a near-absolute right to free speech; an established church with toleration for other faiths, a policy of laïcité, or a constitutional restriction on religious establishment and a guarantee of religious free exercise; very strict laws against the private possession of firearms or a right to bear arms; a generous welfare state with high taxes to soften the blows of capitalism’s creative destruction or a stingy one that encourages rapid economic growth through minimal taxes and regulations; the populace can be ethnically homogenous or multicultural; it can favor relatively open immigration or strict limits on who can enter the country and/or become a citizen; and so forth.
I had one or more countries in mind as I wrote each clause in that paragraph, and all of them can be described as liberal, showing how capacious the term can be. Things can get even more confusing in the American context because one of two main parties (the Democrats) is often called the “liberal” party, by contrast with the conservatives in the other party (the Republicans). Making things more confusing still, American journalists often make a habit of saying that politicians and writers become more liberal as they move further left—as in: “Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is more liberal than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton”—even though it’s more accurate to say that President Joe Biden is a liberal, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is a progressive, and Sanders is a democratic socialist.
In reality, until the middle of the previous decade, both of America’s parties were primarily liberal, with each emphasizing certain aspects of the country’s liberal inheritance, pushing back against other aspects, and aiming to make relatively minor adjustment to the liberal status quo. But with the populist turn that hit American politics full force in 2016, a large faction of the Republican Party (led by the man who would become its standard bearer that year and then president) began hitting the longstanding liberalism of both parties from the right, while the somewhat smaller (but still quite influential) progressive and socialist factions of the Democratic Party did something analogous from the left.
Liberalism Rightly Understood
This brings us back to the personal question of why I began thinking of myself as a centrist around that time. I suspect it’s a function of feeling like I’d been caught in a pincer move, hammered from both sides. If that happens and I’m opposed to what each of those sides is advocating, then I must find myself in the center, between then. This feeling was accentuated by the way the embattled center-right and center-left came together during the Trump administration, creating a new political alliance of the “center,” which is where it felt like I belonged.
But what, substantively, does that centrist position amount to? On one level—and here regular readers of this newsletter may recognize a familiar stance toward the political world of the present—that position resists the contrary but mirrored demands of either side to adopt its position in its entirely. If you’re not with us, working to make the country the opposite of what they want it to be, then you must be with them. I prefer a politics that seeks compromise and conciliation, acknowledging that we somehow need to find a way to share a common polity. That means pushing back against some things on either side, but also affirming the things each side says that contain some truth (sometimes just a kernel of truth).
But this makes it sound like my position is just the empty set, or at most the narrow overlap between two parties slowly pulling ever further apart over time. But that isn’t true, which is one big reason why it’s important to go beyond reverting to the “centrist” label.
At the most basic level, a liberal is primarily concerned with preserving, protecting, and defending America’s liberal norms and institutions—and with cautiously reforming them in ways that strengthen them over time in response to changing socioeconomic conditions and the pressures of public opinion. The reform has to be cautious because people often don’t respond well to rapid change, which can easily provoke a backlash, and also because large numbers of Americans will tend to be suspicious of any given proposal for reform, and for good reason, because changes often result in unintended negative consequences.
The further left one moves from liberalism, the more radical and even revolutionary the proposed reform becomes; the further right one moves from liberalism, the more drastic and even counter-revolutionary the reaction to past and present efforts at reform becomes. Liberalism seeks to guide reform in a way that avoids the pitfalls of both of those alternative extremes.
But liberalism is more than a meliorist commitment to caution, pragmatism, and muddling through. At the highest levels, it’s rooted in the ancient virtue of liberality—a habit of mind connected to the intellectual virtue of liberality, which meant generosity or openness. This notion of liberalism underlies the idea of the “liberal arts” as a curriculum that imparts general knowledge of the humanities and at its best instills a sense of humility by opening the student to the full range of human experience, thinking, and feeling. It is liberalism in this high-minded sense—and a politics based upon it—that is dying out in our time and that badly needs to be revived.
I’m merely gesturing toward what this amounts to here. But over the coming weeks there will be some changes at this newsletter that will open up space for more writing and thinking about this topic. I already bring this liberal sensibility to bear in what I write about the right. But I will soon give myself added opportunity to apply it to the illiberal, activist-dominated left as well—and to show the liberal intellect in action by writing more often about topics lacking in any direct connection to politics or policy.
After all, liberalism is, among other things, a political philosophy committed to protecting a private sphere of life in which people are free to think and do and create and love and live as they wish. In that respect, a liberal enacts her liberalism in thinking things through for herself. That’s what I try to do here three times a week, and will continue to do moving forward, in a liberal spirit.
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