Up from Conservatism

The Future of Liberalism
Alan Wolfe
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 335 pp.

There is a poignant account of the sociologist Richard Sennett, then a radical young academic, upbraiding the great liberal elder statesman, Lionel Trilling. “You have no position,” Sennett complained; “you are always in between.” To which Trilling responded: “Between is the only honest place to be.”

I can imagine Alan Wolfe saying something similar. Wolfe, a political scientist and sociologist who teaches at Boston College, has moved steadily from left to center over the decades. Once part of a group of 1970s graduate students who published a Marxist-oriented journal, Kapitalstate, Wolfe by the 1990s was launching criticisms against the academic left, arguing for welfare reform and the virtues of civil society. Then came the age of George W. Bush, and Wolfe recoiled. If neoconservatives felt “mugged” by the 1960s, then neoliberals—with Wolfe as one of their most intelligent exponents—see the 2000s as their own decade of battering. Now he has come out with a book of political reconsiderations, The Future of Liberalism, assessing the conservative ascendancy of the last decade and counterposing a liberalism that is less a concrete set of policies than a temperament.

To see how Wolfe dissects the Bush administration’s intellectual and theoretical assumptions (some readers, I realize, might find that phrase an oxymoron), consider his treatment of the “unitary executive” arguments put forth by such conservative scholars as John Yoo. Instead of...

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About the Author

Kevin Mattson is the author (most recently) of When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism (Routledge).