The Descent of Liberalism
From the April 5, 2010, issue of NR.


In his 1950 book The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling said that “in the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” Liberalism was no less the dominant political tradition; a coherent conservative opposition had yet to emerge. Over the next 60 years, however, the liberal imagination lost its hold on the American mind. In October 2009 Gallup found that just 20 percent of Americans described themselves as liberals; twice as many called themselves conservatives.

What happened? Part of the answer lies in liberalism’s loss of an element that was essential both to its intellectual vitality and to its popular appeal. Liberalism in the middle of the 20th century maintained an equilibrium between the antagonistic principles within it. The classical liberalism that descended from Jefferson and Jackson survived in the movement; the social liberalism that derived from the theories of 19th-century social philosophers, though it was steadily gaining ground, had not yet obtained a complete ascendancy. Liberalism today has lost this equipoise; the progress of the social imagination, with its faith in the power of social science to improve people’s lives, has forced liberals to relinquish the principles and even the language of the classical conception of liberty.

The two philosophies that animated liberalism in its prime were widely different in both origin and aspiration. Classical liberty is founded on the belief that all men are created equal; that they should be treated equally under the law; and that they should be permitted the widest liberty of action consistent with public tranquility and the safety of the state. The classical vision traces its pedigree to Protestant dissenters who in the 17th century struggled to obtain freedom of conscience. Their critique of religious favoritism was later expanded into a critique of state-sponsored privilege in general.

The American patriots who took up arms against George III thought it wrong that some Englishmen were represented in Parliament while others were not. This sort of privilege, in the Old Whig language of liberty from which classical liberalism descends, was known as “corruption.” The revolutionary patriots, it is true, countenanced their own forms of corruption; when they came to write a Constitution for their new republic, the charter tacitly recognized slavery and other forms of discrimination. The country, in Lincoln’s words, was “conceived in liberty,” but not until it experienced various “new” births of freedom was the promise of its founding ideal extended to all of its citizens.