Up from Conservatism

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 emphasizing Dick Cheney’s machinations, Wolfe travels back to the 1930s German legal scholar and controversial defender of fascism, Carl Schmitt. His discussion shows how Schmitt’s idea of “decisionism,” with its preference for bold action over deliberation and compromise—Schmitt’s smackdown of parliamentary discussion is brutal and chilling—anticipates both Karl Rove’s divisive, warlike politics and Bush’s macho self-image as a “decider” ready to dismantle Social Security or depose Saddam Hussein. Some readers might complain that invoking Carl Schmitt goes awfully far afield. Why not Samuel Huntington’s 1970s writings, or those of other contemporary neoconservatives, on the crisis of executive authority after Watergate and Vietnam? And yet there was indeed a great deal of “decisionism,” and a hatred for the shilly-shallying of politics, in Bush’s push for the country to accept war; and the abstract and distant nature of Schmitt’s ideas helps Wolfe distill Bush’s style of leadership.

The Future of Liberalism teases out just why Bush’s style disturbed so many Americans. Consider Wolfe’s quip that “Hurricane Katrina should be viewed as a decisive event in the history of political philosophy.” In his view, Michael Brown’s cronyism and incompetence and Bush’s own sluggish reaction reflected more than stupidity. They represented the conservative view that government is the problem, not the solution. Wolfe labels this “planned incompetence”—and Katrina in this account registers not as a tragedy, but a symbol of irresponsible conservative ideas. Against it Wolfe poses a liberal ethic, derived partly from the German sociologist Max Weber, of responsibility, respect for governing, and an embrace of “disinterested management.” All of which sounds an awful lot like the new Obama administration—as does Wolfe’s hope for a new “end of ideology,” to steal Daniel Bell’s term, when responsibility and compromise might displace divisive politics.

Wolfe is a longtime contributor to Commonweal, and readers of this magazine will find his arguments about liberals and religion familiar. Liberalism, he believes, must “protect tolerance against the shrill voices of its neo-Enlightenment critics.” He returns to John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, reminding us that Locke was a believer himself, and points out that most of America’s founding fathers were deists and John Adams a Unitarian—a fine rejoinder both to atheists and to right-wingers who believe, mistakenly, that our founding fathers were Bible-thumpers. Wolfe wants to place liberalism on a surer moral footing, asserting that defenses of the welfare state should emphasize “the moral idea of empathy” and thereby challenge the conservative monopoly on values talk. In the process, he provides a nuanced and sophisticated balancing of rights and obligations and holds up reciprocity and compromise in politics. This is the man of the center at his best.

At times, Wolfe’s forays into European intellectual history seem cursory (at one point he invokes “Romantic nationalism” to explain conservative thought, then admits that “the United States... experienced very little” of the tradition). He tends to skydive abruptly from the ethereal realm of ideas to the lowdown of politics. And I was surprised at how dense the writing seemed in places. But these are minor quibbles about an important and timely book. Consider the recent label of “socialist” brandished by Republicans to deride Obama’s policies. As E. J. Dionne has pointed out, the new term of abuse might suggest that “liberal” no longer delivers enough wallop for the Right. Maybe, just maybe, we should be excited about that. Wolfe’s book explains why—and why, in the end, liberalism might have a future after all.

Published in the 2009-06-19 issue: 
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Kevin Mattson is the author (most recently) of When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism (Routledge).

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