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The House of Liberalism

Alan Wolfe writes poorly about conservatism.

By From the May 2009 issue

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The Future of Liberalism
By Alan Wolfe
(Alfred A. Knopf, 335 Pages, $26.95)

Alan Wolfe writes poorly about conservatism. The most he can recommend for it is that conservatives admit “the inevitable fact of the state’s existence in modern society” and “consider returning to the ideas” of “America’s greatest conservative,” Alexander Hamilton—or to the Earl of Beaconsfield, Benjamin Disraeli. By great coincidence, Wolfe dismissively laments the “little prospect of such an old-fashioned form of conservatism reemerging, especially in the United States.”

According to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, Wolfe’s 2007 essay on Russell Kirk, published in the New Republic, was “an intellectual embarrassment of the first order: Smug, dishonest, slipshod, ignorant, and willfully obtuse.” Wolfe’s new book, The Future of Liberalism, reveals just how much stronger the author is when defending liberalism instead of assaulting conservatism.

Somewhat in spite of itself, The Future of Liberalism is a book worth reading. Wolfe cites Benjamin Constant to the effect that we “ought to be governed by constitutions to avoid being governed by emotions.” Sure enough, focused closely enough on the anatomy of liberalism to forget intermittently those wicked conservatives, Wolfe produces a nuanced and articulate case for the political philosophy of liberalism—as opposed, that is, to the ideology of Liberalism.

The quality of his case is the result of two primary insights. First, Wolfe recognizes that liberalism is most threatened today not by boring conservatism but by fashionable progressivism, in its twin emotional and scientific strains. This is true in spite of his parallel claim that, with “communism now dead and socialism on the defensive, ideology is more likely to make an appearance from the right, whether in the form of free market utopianism or unrealistic hopes in what military power can achieve.”

Second, and accordingly, Wolfe distinguishes between the ideology of big-L Liberalism, which conservatives uniformly oppose, and the political philosophy of small-l liberalism, which conservatives criticize as friends. As Harvey Mansfield has persuasively argued, conservatism is the political philosophy that best cures liberalism from its own defects. It is a refinement of liberalism, not an alternative to it.

Wolfe, otherwise so attuned to such distinctions of political theory, is sadly unable to permit himself to consider that Mansfield is right. Doing so would cut The Future of Liberalism in half; the remainder would be twice the book.

This refined element is of great significance to conservatives. It teaches them how to be better critics of the left by showing that progressivism seeks to capture liberalism entirely and cleanse it of any and all conservative wisdom. Pro gres siv ism tempts liberalism with a paradoxical vision of perfection—perfect progress, so perfect that it is perfectly immune to criticism. For Wolfe, “progressivism’s firm insistence that it knows what is right conflicts with temperamental liberalism’s lack of certainty, and its preference for ends undermines procedural liberalism’s respect for means.”

This is true, but Wolfe then blames the progressive ethos on the necessary evil of government. “The curse the state visits upon liberalism,” he claims, “is Progressivism.” But political progressivism, as he by then has already established, isn’t the great threat to liberalism today. It’s antipolitical progressivism—in the forms of emotivism, for which politics is incidental to the insistence that all demands and desires be recognized as rights, and scientism, which frees us “from a supernatural power” only to make us “enslaved to a natural one.”

In a philosophical project all conservatives should support, Wolfe’s liberalism rejects the progressivist proposition that we have no choice but to accept the raw, unbounded power of our beastly desires and our ever-more-godlike power to appease them.

Reasonable as this position is, it fits awkwardly with Wolfe’s polemical chapters against conservatism. He consistently downplays and muddles up the variety across kinds and eras of conservatism that he recognizes so clearly in liberalism. Wolfe rightly cheers that “liberals and conservatives, for all their political disagreements, refrain from taking up arms against each other, except on the most far-out extremes, because the world in which we live has come to rely so much on liberal proceduralism,” yet his disagreements with conservatives are anything but fair.

Wolfe on Reagan is as good an example as any. We are told that Ronald Reagan “sided with Hamilton’s opponents when he said that ‘the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government.’” (The issue, of course, was not a matter of sides but of fact.) Reagan, Wolfe cries, “denigrated” the “one institution that Americans had been relying upon since the New Deal to realize their hopes in practice.” (There is but one mention of Jimmy Carter in The Future of Liberalism, a line of praise for creating FEMA “as a response to pleas made on the behalf of the nation’s governors.”) Reagan is made to condemn government flatly as “the problem,” though everybody knows that famous phrase followed the deliberate qualifier “In this present crisis”—a crisis Wolfe refuses to acknowledge.

Those failures of liberalism that are acknowledged are simply brushed off: “Still, all good things come to an end, and eventually the liberal world of the nineteenth century collapsed.” After all, “Liberal democracy survived the French Revolution; indeed, liberalism went on to experience its greatest period of success in the century that followed.” A studious silence is maintained on how that century came to an end.

IN HIS IRE, Wolfe ranges across conservatism indiscriminately. Present-day neoconservatives are dismissed as Rousseau’s romantic heirs, presumably because they care more about wars abroad than suffering at home, but the foundational role that humane domestic policy played in the birth of neoconservative thought is ignored. Non-neoconservatives are tarred with the neo-Rousseauvian brush, too—sometimes absurdly, as in the case of intellectual historian Wilfred McClay. George W. Bush, because his administration’s approach to executive power suggests key aspects of the political theory of Carl Schmitt, is called “the most conservative president of modern times,” while his capitulation to liberal policy on Medicare and education is used to illustrate how liberalism has become hegemonic even among the ultra-conservative. Justices Alito and Roberts are lumped in with Yoo and Addington. Justice Blackmun is criticized for not using the bench “as a bully pulpit from which to encourage opponents of a woman’s right to choose to reconsider their opinion” (“here liberal leadership failed to lead”)!

Wolfe does land a few blows: there is a difference between criticizing liberalism and condemning modernity itself, and Wolfe is right to warn some conservatives against “hating the society that sustains you.” The right today too easily falls into the trap of championing the average American one minute and decrying the unconservative masses the next.

The net effect of Wolfe’s uneven critique can be unintentionally humorous. Wolfe unfairly ascribes to opponents of illegal immigration “no generosity of spirit,” “no heartwarming accounts” of the American dream realized, “no sense that all cultures have something to value,” “no appreciation of the underlying universality of all people,” and “no acknowledgement” that we “could use an injection of new ideas and entrepreneurial energy.” In practice, however, “from the perspective of a Kantian commitment to openness, the least an American can do is to welcome a certain amount of immigration from Africa”—hardly a point, at least as stated, on which the average border security activist would argue.

Behind the sneering, perhaps, Wolfe isn’t so bad after all—nor, relative to the commandments of the extreme left, is his liberalism. “There is a liberal bargain with respect to immigration as there is with respect to religion,” he reasons. “Its basic premise is this: we will be open to you if you are open to us.” Wolfe points to Britain’s liberal foreign minister, Jack Straw, who “felt that something is seriously wrong when, in conversation with another person, he cannot engage in face-to-face interaction.” Saying so would have made a nice ecumenical touch, but Wolfe has left out more than one voice that would greatly strengthen his argument. The exclusion of Tocqueville, especially, is deeply perplexing, given how central Wolfe makes the inevitability of equality and modernity to his thesis.

In sum, The Future of Liberalism is seriously flawed as a book, but as a book that contains a timely, nuanced, and even brave message: liberalism is not undifferentiated leftism; its best ideas are in its past, not its future; and liberals today must reject blind progressivism if they wish to recapture their convictions. A book that fundamentally fails in its subsidiary task of tarring conservatism with a single brush, The Future of Liberalism succeeds in its primary, more important, task: reminding the political left of its deep roots in a cultural tradition right at the heart of Western civilization. Wolfe may frequently frustrate, but he seems to be heading away from the outrageous in favor of the simply arguable: good territory on which to fight political battles between fellow citizens.    

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About the Author

James Poulos is a doctoral student at Georgetown and the former Political Editor of Culture11. His writing has been published by The American Conservative, The National Interest, The New Atlantis, Partnership for a Secure America, and The Weekly Standard. In addition to AmSpecBlog, he has blogged at The American Scene, Doublethink, and Postmodern Conservative, which he founded. With degrees in political science and law from Duke and USC, he is currently at work on a dissertation about life after Napoleon.