From the issue dated December 10, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Triumph and Collapse of Liberalism


The history of politics -- more, the history of human thinking -- is the history of words. Consider what happened to the word "liberal" in the United States.

It has become a Bad Word for millions of Americans. Confident that a large majority of the American people have come to regard, see, or hear the adjective "liberal" as definitely pejorative, the president of the United States found it proper and useful to affix it to his opponent in campaign speeches day after day, across this vast country. Meanwhile, his opponent thought it best not to identify himself as a liberal.

This accusatory label is reminiscent of the habit of some political speakers 50 years ago who declared that their opponents were "Communists" or "Communist sympathizers." Such a similarity, while not precise, is at least interesting, since the increasingly rapid fall of the popularity of "liberal" began just about 50 years ago. It may be worth tracing the curve of its descent.

In the year 1951 no less a demagogue than Sen. Joseph McCarthy still used "liberal" positively, at least on one occasion. In a speech he accused Gen. George C. Marshall and Secretary of State Dean Acheson of being part of "a conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so bleak that, when it is finally exposed, its principles shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all liberal men." In that very year Sen. Robert A. Taft, idol of recent American conservatives, thought it necessary to state that he was not a conservative but "an old-fashioned liberal."

But lo and behold: By 1960 President Dwight D. Eisenhower would declare that he was a "conservative." A tectonic shift in the development of American thinking, and of politics, had begun.

I put "thinking" before "politics," since the history of the latter is often a slow -- and belated -- consequence of what is happening under the surface of publicity. In 1964 Barry M. Goldwater, the first outspokenly conservative candidate for the presidency, lost in a landslide. In 1980 Ronald Reagan, a self-designated conservative, won in a landslide. Thereafter, the congealing of the meaning of "liberal" as something bad and anti-American became one mark of the recent presidential campaign. But what was happening was something well beneath the verbal habits of electioneering.

"Conservative" was a word (and a political idea) that Americans eschewed for a long time. During the 19th century much of the political history of Europe and, in particular, of Britain was marked by the debate between conservatives and liberals. In the United States that was not so.

There was no Conservative Party in the United States. There were a few American authors and thinkers in whose writings and statements we can detect properly conservative elements; but they, too, with practically no exceptions, shied away from affixing the conservative label to themselves. Moreover, again practically with few or no exceptions, Americans believed in the concept of "progress"; indeed, it may be said that the more liberal a man was, the more he believed in and advocated progress. That American configuration, seen in politics in the association of liberalism and progressivism, prevailed until about the middle of the 20th century. In 1950 the cultural critic Lionel Trilling declared that the only dominant philosophy in America was the liberal one. In 1955 a Harvard professor, Louis Hartz, wrote that the perennial and prevalent American creed was liberalism.

They were wrong. Those reputable academics pursued the obvious (to quote Oscar Wilde) "with the enthusiasm of shortsighted detectives." Right before their eyes antiliberalism was rising fast. Within a few years antiliberals would adopt "conservative" as an adjective; they began to affix it to themselves proudly (and often imprecisely, but that is not the point). Symptoms and examples would fill a large book. Consider just one: In 1955 the first self-described "conservative" weekly of opinion appeared, The National Review, edited and directed by William F. Buckley Jr. It had few subscribers. Twenty-five years later its circulation was larger than that of The Nation and The New Republic combined. Its enthusiastic readership was the vanguard of the massive popular wave that propelled Ronald Reagan to power.

What were -- what still are -- the sources of American distaste for liberalism (a distance from, rather than a disillusionment with, liberalism)? One was the gradual liberal acceptance, indeed advocacy, of the welfare state. During the 19th century, liberalism, by and large, meant political and economic individualism, an emphasis on liberty even more than equality, a reduction and limitation of the powers of government. From the beginning of the 20th century, liberals, by and large, accepted and advocated the spread of equality, meaning more and more legislation and government bureaucracy to guarantee the welfare of entire populations. That kind of administrative intervention, with its occasional legislative and bureaucratic excesses, turned millions of Americans against "government" (though they were often the same Americans who were enthusiastic about the political and military powers of government).

Another source of the dislike of liberalism was anti-Communism. Just as the political advocacy of liberalism had moved closer to socialism, the ideology and foreign policy of liberals and Democrats often seemed (and were) more tolerant of Communism and the Soviet Union than were nonliberals and most Republicans. Liberals were, or seemed, less patriotic (more precisely, less nationalistic) than most Americans. And it is, of course, the viscous cement of nationalism that binds so many of the preferences and beliefs of masses of people together.

Beneath these political and ideological sentiments there was the sense, more or less apparent, of a general disappointment with liberal ideals. There was the inclination, sometimes fatal, of liberals to take the ideas of the Enlightenment to extremes: to propagate a public morality devoid of, if not altogether opposed to, religion; to insist more and more on institutionalizing the promotion of justice, at times even at the expense of truth; to emphasize freedom of speech, often at the expense of thought; to make abortion legal; to approve same-sex marriages and affirmative action.

To an increasing mass of Americans, "liberal" began to mean -- rightly or wrongly -- a toleration, if not a promotion, of what many considered to be immoralities. That the private lives and the moral behavior of many self-professed conservatives hardly differed from those of their liberal opponents mattered not, at least until now. What may matter in the future is a division between conservatives who love liberty more than they hate liberals and conservatives who don't -- or between conservatives who believe in patriotism and tradition and other conservatives who believe in nationalism and technological progress. But that is another matter.

For a long time in common American parlance, to be antiliberal meant also to be anti-intellectual. That is no longer so, for many reasons, one of which is the increasing presence of serious conservative thinkers, writers, and academics. Meanwhile, most academics, however, are still anti- or nonconservative, and remote from the mainstream of people. That is not unusual: Isolation of intellectuals and academics from the great mass of people has almost always been thus.

That liberals in academe have contributed to that isolation by asserting unreasonable ideas, contributing thereby to the increasing confusion and corruption of both higher education and intellectual commerce, may be largely true. Alas, the defense of traditions of humanism ceased to be the monopoly of liberals long ago. Still, intellectual dishonesty (and its customary consequence, selective indignation) is not a monopoly of liberals, either: There is evidence of it among self-identified conservative and neoconservative writers, thinkers, and academics.

We must now understand that the collapse or near collapse of liberalism has not been merely an American phenomenon. Worldwide, we are in the presence of a dual historical development.

On a nearly worldwide level, liberal principles, advancing through centuries, and particularly in the 19th century, have triumphed. There is less institutionalized injustice around the globe than ever before. The abolition of slavery; the promotion of universal education, universal suffrage, freedom, and equal rights for women; and the provision of health services, guaranteed help for the poor, popular sovereignty, etc., if not perfectly or everywhere, but at least in principle, have been widely adopted around the world.

But the institutionalization of those reforms, aimed at the elimination of all kinds of injustice, has also led to an increasing prevalence of half-truths of many kinds. Hence the other, the uninspiring side of the liberal coin, evident -- and not only in the United States -- in the decline of Liberal parties, particularly in much of Europe. Evidence of injustice may still animate millions of people, perhaps, especially, the young; but the political label of "liberal" has become soiled, outdated, torn at its edges.

That is a pity, I must say, as a historian who has never been a liberal. A pity: because consider only the relationship of the word "liberal" to the word "democrat." Two hundred years ago -- and for a long time thereafter, especially in the English-speaking world -- "liberal" was a term of praise, unquestionably so. It not only suggested but meant generosity nay, magnanimity; not only breadth of a mind but strength of soul; a reference to someone "free from narrow prejudice," and "worthy of a free man," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. One need not only open the dictionary for proof: It is all around, in the immortal prose of a Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, or William Thackeray.

When it came to the formation of the democracies of the West, the concepts of liberalism and democracy, while not inseparable, were surely complementary, with the emphasis on the former. Among the founders of the American republic were serious men who were more dubious about democracy than about liberty. They certainly did not believe in -- indeed, they feared -- populism; populism that, unlike a century ago, has now become (and not only in the United States) the political instrument of "conservatives," of so-called men of the "Right." It is significant that in Europe, too, the appeal of the term "liberal" has declined, while "democratic" is the adopted name of a variety of parties, many of them not only antiliberal but also extreme right-wing nationalist.

Yes, democracy is the rule of the majority; but there liberalism must enter. Majority rule must be tempered by the rights of minorities and of individual men and women; but when that temperance is weak, or unenforced, or unpopular, then democracy is nothing else than populism. More precisely: Then it is nationalist populism. It may be that the degeneration of liberal democracy to populism will be the fundamental problem of the future. True, many liberals have contributed to the inflation -- the degeneration -- of the original meaning of "liberal." But the acceptance of the word "liberal" as a connotation of something damnable, unhealthy, and odious is to be deplored.

Liberalism in its noblest, and also in its most essential, sense has always meant (and, to be fair, here and there it still means) an exaltation, a defense of the fundamental value and category of human dignity. But much of scientism and technology (yes, including the orthodoxy of Darwinism and the absolute belief in progress) declares that there was, there is, and there remains no fundamental difference between human beings and all other living beings. But if that is so, what happens to the emphasis on human dignity? Either human beings are unique or they are not. Either thesis may be credible, but not both. That is not just a question for religion.

John Lukacs is a professor emeritus of history. His newest book, Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred, will be published by Yale University Press in February.

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Copyright © 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education