Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

What is Liberalism?

by Jeff Polet, director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

Political terms don’t have fixed meanings. When I say I’m a conservative, I don’t mean by that what people typically mean when they use that word. The words “fascist” and “socialist” have been thrown around a lot in the last years, but those also have had their meanings significantly altered in the process. As a political philosopher I have an abiding interest in definitions, but I also recognize that definitions can evolve over time. Nonetheless, it pays to know exactly what we mean when we use a word.

Perhaps no politically-related word suffers from more confusion than does the word “liberal.” The original meaning of the word liberal referred to that which is suitable for a free person; that is, someone not associated with a trade or strict manual labor. A “free” person was one who did not have to attend to the material conditions of life because they were provided for, and thus lived a life of leisure. Only leisure in its classical sense made one suitable for politics. That is, political deliberation required having the time and “disinterestedness” associated with a leisured class of people.

In our own time, the word “liberal” has been applied to a particular point of view in our politics, usually distinguished from “conservative.” For us, the more partisan designation “liberal” has been largely replaced by the word “progressive,” and this for largely electoral reasons. As a partisan approach to American politics, being liberal meant supporting free and open debate, toleration, an active government that protects rights while it promotes equality, and an activist court system. One can sensibly argue that contemporary progressivism is not a simple substitute for the old liberal ideology, but a “successor ideology” that in many ways operates off the liberal negation.

This narrow use of the word “liberal” takes place in the context of a much larger political reality, as in when we refer to certain kinds of polities as “liberal” regimes. By this we typically mean that they operate on principles of popular sovereignty, have democratically elected representatives, a system of checks and balances, and probably most importantly predicate themselves on a system of rights. We typically refer to liberal regimes as those composed of “rights-bearing individuals.”

It’s a mode of political organization and thinking that emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries, primarily in England. The context of its emergence is not insignificant: liberalism arose largely as a response to the religious disagreements that were plunging Europe into perpetual war. In the wake of the protestant reformation the disagreements over which religion should be ascendant in the realm became so heated that they devolved to violence. No small part of this was the fact that political entities had established religions and often persecuted those not of the official faith. The scope of the violence was breathtakingly horrific.

Thinkers we know as liberal wondered if there wasn’t a way to organize public life on some principle other than that of religion (or religious institutions) with its capacity to raise the stakes too high. What was needed was a turning down of the heat, and the emergent strategy was to treat religious beliefs increasingly as if they were private matters, while trying to cast the foundations of public life upon some more agreed upon foundation (such as the universal desire to avoid a violent and untimely death). By narrowing the scope, liberal thinkers could identify the minimal level of agreement necessary to make society function.

A key part of this strategy was to bracket our conception of the ultimate good. Not only would we be unable to agree on what the ultimate good is, in no small part because it was removed in many ways from immediate human experience, but because of its status the disagreements would be consequential. If we disagree on what kind of ice cream we like, that’s one thing; but if we disagree on significant matters we tend to be more unyielding. But liberal thinkers went further. They didn’t simply try to identify the minimal level of agreement, they recognized that peace could be better sustained if the liberal project hid its own assumptions. Without such obscuring liberalism itself would be turned into a theory, and thus become something contestable. The key to liberalism was to keep its own foundational beliefs sufficiently hidden so that they would never require investigation.

Liberalism as a mode of organizing public life seemed triumphant in 1989. The great challenges to liberal assumptions – Nazism and Communism – had collapsed under the weight of their lack of respect for the individual that formed liberalism’s core. Now triumphant, liberal thinkers quickly embraced their own success and wondered how, messianicially, they could spread the good news throughout the earth.

But there was bad news in this good news, and that was that liberalism had largely worked as a set of institutional and practical arrangements, but didn’t work well when, divorced from those arrangements, it elevated itself into a theory. Once posed as a theory, liberalism was now required to engage in meditations on its own origins and assumptions, and those did not submit themselves well to such reflection. In other words, now ascendant, liberalism became a problem to itself, precisely because its success required a lack of attention to its own foundational assumptions.

We live in the era where we neither know how to think outside of liberal assumptions, nor can we defend those assumptions. Many political thinkers have responded to this crisis by suggesting that the whole liberal project was wrong from the start, and wrong for two reasons: first, it gave us an inadequate account of what human beings actually are; and, second, by removing discussion of what is truly good from political life it rendered politics sterile and set individuals adrift. The critics of liberalism hold to the more classical view that any just polity must direct its citizens toward what is genuinely good. Put another way, when liberal thinkers elevate our capacity to choose what we believe is good over subordinating ourselves to that which is truly good, they unleash moral chaos upon the world.

An example of this can be found in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address, “A World Split Apart.” Having been exiled from his tyrannical homeland to a free country, one would have expected him to congratulate the next generation for being inheritors of the best formed regime. Solzhenitsyn, however, observed that the West’s defining features were (all these words appear in his text) lack of courage, depression, passivity, perplexity, worry, mediocrity, paralysis, destructive and irresponsible freedom, corrosion, superficiality, fashionability, and “a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil,” – in short, decadence. So “should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours.”

The West, Solzhenitsyn believed, displayed all the symptoms of a perishing society, one that was making inevitable Communism’s triumph in the world. Western liberalism, Solzhenitsyn claimed, glorified material wealth at the cost of moral poverty, thus creating internal self-dissolution and attenuating the strength of will necessary to resist evil. In his telling, the force of historical necessity required that liberalism be replaced by radicalism, radicalism by socialism, and socialism by communism.  All of which amounted, in his judgment, to the eventual collapse of liberalism and, by implication, the triumph of the communism that he loathed.

Only after the efforts to make a theory of liberalism could the critiques of liberalism get any purchase. The root cause of the liberal crisis was that once its propositions could no longer be asserted as self-evident but instead require demonstration, the pressure of demonstration caused disagreement about the purposes and principles that had been previously suppressed. And that is what happened. Liberalism has come under attack – in the country of its greatest success – from critics on both the left and the right.

But we need not think of it so glumly. At its best, “liberalism” (if we still want to use that term) was a struggle for liberty under difficult circumstances: oppression, intolerance, war, and civil strife. Thinkers fabricated the idea of rights within the friction of such conflicts, but those assertions were no less worthy for that. The ideas served the vital function of protecting individual dignity and worth in the face of otherwise suspect principles.We couldn’t agree on what the good is, but we could agree that there was something about the person that his or her particular understanding of the good merited consideration.

Naturally, those liberal ideas about rights would become questionable once they were removed from the historical context that generated them and turned into abstract and “universal” rights. But the recognition of that fact doesn’t commit us to regarding them, as Jeremy Bentham did, as “nonsense upon stilts.” There is in the liberal moment a genuine illuminating of the importance of the person and his or her capacity to affirm for him- or herself what is good and true and beautiful. Liberalism is willing to accept any one person’s ability to be mistaken in such identification in order to embrace every person’s competency to do so. And in such an embrace liberalism finds a kind of magic key to maintain social order. Liberal thinkers thus present to us the gift of clarifying for us the structure of spiritual growth by affirming the necessity of the person as the source of the good’s affirmation. The liberal will grant this might create confusion about the substance of what is good, but regards that as a reasonable price to pay for greater appreciation concerning how and by whom the good gets brought into the world.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why would thinkers on both the left and the right become increasingly skeptical of liberalism?
  2. How has society changed in the last 50 years such that liberalism now seems more indefensible? What role has the decline of mainstream Protestantism had in that?
  3. Why is it that Catholic thinkers seem especially concerned about liberalism?
  4. To what degree is American a “liberal” experiment?

Portrait of John Locke.


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