What Was Liberalism?

The Past, Present, and Promise of a Noble Idea


By James Traub

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A sweeping history of liberalism, from its earliest origins to its imperiled present and uncertain future

Donald Trump is the first American president to regard liberal values with open contempt. He has company: the leaders of Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, among others, are also avowed illiberals. What happened? Why did liberalism lose the support it once enjoyed? In What Was Liberalism?, James Traub returns to the origins of liberalism, in the aftermath of the American and French revolutions and in the works of such great thinkers as John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin.

Although the first liberals were deeply skeptical of majority rule, the liberal faith adapted, coming to encompass belief in not only individual rights and free markets, but also state action to provide basic goods. By the second half of the twentieth century, liberalism had become the national creed of the most powerful country in the world. But this consensus did not last. Liberalism is now widely regarded as an antiquated doctrine. What Was LIberalism? reviews the evolution of the liberal idea over more than two centuries for lessons on how it can rebuild its majoritarian foundations.


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Why Liberalism Matters

WHEN I WAS BORN, IN 1954, AMERICANS USED THE WORD liberal to describe almost everything they liked about themselves. “The American assumes liberalism as one of the presuppositions of life,” the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote at the time. “He is, by nature, a gradualist; he sees few problems which cannot be solved by reason and debate; and he is confident that nearly all problems can be solved.” Liberalism meant optimism, rationalism, pragmatism, secularism. It was not so much a political platform as a national disposition. In his 1955 book The Liberal Tradition in America, Louis Hartz, another celebrated Harvard historian, observed that America had never had a national Liberal Party because it would have been superfluous; America, he wrote, echoing Alexis de Tocqueville, had been born liberal. At the time, of course, the president, Dwight Eisenhower, was a Republican, but his election had only confirmed the liberal consensus, for the 1952 Republican platform had accepted for the first time the programs of the New Deal, including Social Security. For all their very real disagreements, the two parties professed a broad faith in free markets, a modest commitment to deploying the state to protect vulnerable citizens and promote public goods, and a bedrock respect for individual rights.1

In the America of my boyhood, everything and everyone seemed to be liberal. My father voted Republican—but liberal Republican. My mother was an actual card-carrying member of New York’s thoroughly marginal Liberal Party. The only really bad people in our household politics were the crackpots who joined the far-right John Birch Society, founded by candy manufacturer Robert Welch. We were not allowed to eat Sugar Babies because he made them. The only time we saw what we considered the lunatic fringe advance anywhere near the middle of American society was in 1964, when the Republicans nominated for president Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator who seemed to be prepared to fight World War III in order to defeat Communism. “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” Goldwater said. But Communism didn’t threaten our liberty; extremism did. At Rosh Hashanah services at my temple in suburban New York, a few weeks before the election, the rabbi, who never spoke about politics on the High Holy Days, implored the congregants to vote for President Lyndon Johnson. They did, of course, and the rout Goldwater suffered felt like a decisive response to anti-liberalism.

In fact, the story was much more complicated than that. Goldwater joined a rabid Cold War conservatism to a tradition of anti-statist free-market liberalism that could be traced back to Adam Smith, or even to John Locke. In 1980, Ronald Reagan, once Goldwater’s most effective proxy, became president. Throughout my adult life, these right-liberals, who called themselves conservatives, traded power with left-liberals, who generally called themselves progressives. When Francis Fukuyama famously argued in 1989 that history had come to an end because liberalism had defeated all its ideological rivals, he had in mind this broader, older understanding of the word. Democrats and Republicans were much further apart in 1989 than they had been in 1954, but both were recognizably heirs of the liberal tradition.

Yet that familiar left-right world now seems almost as archaic as the postwar consensus. We—not just Americans but citizens of the West—live in a world where liberalism, however understood, is under dire threat from illiberalism. For all the vast differences between them, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have more in common with each other than they do with Donald Trump—or with Viktor Orbán or Jarosław Kaczyński, the autocratic populists who dominate the politics of, respectively, Hungary and Poland. Though in 2016 he sought and won the nomination of the institutional party of conservatism, the party of free markets and small government, Trump openly mocked the alleged benefits of free trade and promised to protect Social Security and Medicare. He gleefully flouted elements of the liberal consensus that conservatives in the past had only clandestinely transgressed. This plutocratic populist trafficked in fear rather than hope; luridly evoked the dangers that people of color, especially immigrants, allegedly posed to his white audience; encouraged acts of violence against protesters; invented whatever facts suited his purpose. If voters had wanted a conservative, they could have chosen one from among his seventeen rivals for the GOP nomination; yet Trump dispatched them with ease. He has ruled precisely as he campaigned. And he remains, as of this writing, the darling of his own party.

The rise of illiberalism is the greatest shock of my political life. And it’s precisely because I grew up in a world of consensual liberalism that Trump’s election seemed to come out of the blue. I thought political life was confined to the oscillations between left and right, as, I think, did most people of my generation, and for that matter most politicians. Liberals and conservatives thought that the greatest threat to the American future was one another. They were wrong. The greatest threat is that we will normalize violence and hatred; that we will abandon science, facts, and reason itself; that we will marginalize and persecute minorities. The twentieth century shows us how very short the path is from populism to authoritarianism.

Now that we know that a world exists beyond the confines of liberalism, we must think about what is precious in that legacy and what we are in danger of losing. That means, first, recognizing what liberalism is and isn’t. We are in the habit of using the expression “liberal democracy” as if it were redundant—as if liberalism were intrinsically democratic and democracy inherently liberal. Yet liberalism first arose as a corrective to systems of majority rule. James Madison famously warned of the dangers of the “tyranny of the majority,” an expression one finds echoed in the works of Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill, the great liberal thinkers of the middle of the nineteenth century. There is no inherent reason why the unlimited right of free speech, or the right to do as you wish so long as it doesn’t harm others, should enjoy majority support. Some core liberal principles, such as protecting the rights of political minorities, or of any kind of minorities, are countermajoritarian.

Some early liberals were deeply skeptical that individual freedom could be reconciled with majority rule at all. Others, including of course the Founders, believed that liberty could be made compatible with equality. Many of the mechanisms that we associate with democracy itself, such as the separation of powers, serve to limit the reach of the democratic state and thus protect each of us from all of us. But formal structures are not the whole story. Mill and Tocqueville both would have said that what matters most, in the end, are not explicit rules but values and habits, or what we would now call “norms”: freedom of speech, for example, will survive only so long as people are prepared to defend it. This was the great lesson of the rise of totalitarianism in the middle of the twentieth century. Though Weimar Germany was formally liberal and democratic, the German people ultimately acquiesced to the surrender of their liberties in the name of an immense collective purpose. From the terrifying experience of totalitarianism the great midcentury liberals, above all Isaiah Berlin, saw how monstrous leaders could lead a whole people into tyranny. Liberalism was far more fragile than it looked; under sufficient pressure, people could abandon what appeared to be settled beliefs.

Liberalism and majoritarianism act as restraints upon one another. They function, or should function, as one another’s conscience. A liberalism that simply defers to the majority will is scarcely worth defending. At the same time, liberalism presupposes a respect for the individual and for her capacity to choose her own path. Liberalism without democratic support dwindles into elitism: liberals are left bemoaning mass ignorance while the ordinary citizen responds with a sense of resentment that cynical leaders know very well how to exploit. That is more or less the quandary in which liberals find themselves today.

I chose to write this book as the history of an idea, rather than as a diagnosis of a sudden illness, because we cannot make sense of the crisis we now find ourselves in unless we understand what liberalism is and how it developed. How did liberalism gain the consensual status it enjoyed in much of the twentieth century? What happened to erode that support? Did the material circumstances that had made liberalism into a majoritarian faith disappear? Did conservatives undermine liberalism? Did liberals themselves lose their way? Mine is hardly the first history of liberalism. But even so recent a work as Edmund Fawcett’s erudite Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, published in 2014, was written from the safe perch of dueling liberalisms. We look differently at the idea now that we see that it is in danger of disappearing. Understanding liberalism’s development will help us redeem the idea both from the contempt with which conservatives disfigured it and from the triumphant vacuity that obscured its meaning during the Cold War era.

The problem of vacuity, of liberalism as all good things, is not easily dismissed, for liberalism suffers from conceptual indistinctness. As an idea, it has less internal coherence than a codified orthodoxy like communism, though more than a mere mood, like Romanticism. Like its twin, conservatism, liberalism is a word that has proved to be so compelling that it has remained in use even as the context in which it is used has changed drastically, to the point that people of radically different views regard themselves as the true heirs of the liberal tradition. But if liberalism doesn’t have a fully coherent inner logic, it does have a taxonomy, a set of species relationships to which a common ancestor contributed the original genes.

Liberalism begins with the idea of limited government. Sovereignty rests with the body of the people, as Locke said; they make a limited grant of that power to their rulers. (Many liberals nevertheless reject Locke’s metaphor of a contract, as well as his belief in natural law.) All forms of absolute power violate that premise. The only secure protections against absolutism are rules and institutions limiting the power of the state—the separation of powers, an elected legislature dedicated to open and public debate, an independent judiciary. What distinguishes constitutional liberalism from this broader idea of limited government is the recognition that absolute power can no more be vested in “the people” than it can in an executive. The legislative supremacy of the French Revolution was as dangerous to liberty as the absolute monarchy that it replaced. The state must be designed in such a way as to protect individuals from all forms of arbitrary power, an axiom made explicit in the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution. Such a state need not be democratic in the sense that power is determined through regular elections among the whole body of citizens. It need not even be republican: Louis Philippe I accepted the French throne in 1830 under a liberal constitutional design.

If constitutional liberalism is concerned with the relationship between the state and the individual, personal liberalism defines the sphere of inviolate personal rights. Personal liberalism depends on a modern understanding of the self. The Founders, imbued as they were with a Roman sense of patriotism and citizenship, saw individuals as public beings endowed not just with rights but also with civic obligations. Only when this neoclassical sensibility gave way to the Romanticism of the nineteenth century did individuals come to be seen rather as subjective beings dedicated to their own development. The first political thinker to found a liberal vision on this modern sense of personhood, and then to systematically define the contents of the protected sphere of the individual, was John Stuart Mill. In his 1861 essay On Liberty, Mill defended an almost unlimited freedom of expression but also of behavior—what he called “experiments of living.” The threat that preoccupied him was not the state but “society,” which seeks to compel conformity. Modern liberals share Mill’s sense that no one way of being is intrinsically right, that society profits from a diversity of ideas and even lifestyles, that to submit to the dictation of society is to restrict what is most precious—your individual, particular self. Isaiah Berlin would use the expression “negative liberty” to describe Mill’s concept of the right to speak, think, and act as you wish.

The foundation of economic liberalism is Locke’s claim that people form commonwealths in order to protect their property. Self-interest is not a Christian sin; it is the law of nature. A century later, Adam Smith added the idea that the most effective means of promoting this natural wish for gain is through the self-regulating mechanism of the marketplace, guided by an “invisible hand” that makes self-interest the instrument of collective good. Much of nineteenth-century English thinking was shaped by this association of liberty with economic self-interest. In the twentieth century the idea was taken up by Austrian thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, who argued that even the modest inroads on liberty imposed by the democratic regimes of the 1920s and ’30s had paved the way for fascism. Free-market liberalism was then popularized by American neoconservatives and installed as a governing principle by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Nothing has introduced as much terminological confusion into liberalism as the free-market doctrine, both because latter-day liberals hold a much more expansive view of the state than do the legatees of Hayek, whom they thus regard as conservative, and because many free-market liberals do, in fact, hold classically conservative views of social policy as well as foreign affairs.

Finally, political liberalism, which fuses liberalism in all its diverse meanings, constituted not just the governing doctrine but the civic religion of the world in which I was raised. This was Schlesinger’s “vital center,” to use the title of his 1949 liberal apologia—a secular, pragmatic, rational, optimistic middle point between the dire absolutisms of left and right. This distinctively American formulation of liberalism traces its roots to the years around World War I, when self-described progressives, who had come to view economic liberalism as a flimsy ideological mask over the brutal social Darwinism of the lords of business and industry, made common cause with the liberal supporters of Woodrow Wilson, each to some extent converting the other. Political liberalism accepts the power of free markets to produce mass prosperity but also uses the state to temper its excesses and to provide crucial public goods—education and health care, old-age and unemployment insurance, railways and roads. These two streams found their supreme point of convergence in FDR. Internationally, the post–World War II order shaped and dominated by American power rested on American liberal principles—a belief in the rule of law rather than raw power and in institutions rather than men, a faith in the free flow of ideas and goods, a deep distrust of collectivism and the overweening state.

The house of liberalism does not simply have many rooms; it has warring factions. Liberals of the left regard free-market liberals as handmaidens to plutocracy; those of a libertarian bent regard liberal Democrats as socialists in disguise. Both have good reason to believe that the other has abandoned central aspects of the liberal faith. Yet the overlap between them is real. All liberals start with the belief that individuals have an intrinsic right to have their personal choices respected, and thus that the state must honor those choices whether or not they enjoy majority support. Liberals are skeptical about transcendent goods, at least in the public realm; they put their faith in debate and political conflict rather than in revelation or all-encompassing doctrines. Because liberals believe that a person’s nature is not fixed and thus that individuals can improve their own conditions, they are broadly optimistic about human prospects. People who do not share these views, or that temperament, should not be called liberals. Some are socialists or communists; some are conservatives; some are totalitarians; and some are illiberal democrats.

One could not say, without doing violence to history, that the West evolved toward ever-greater degrees of liberalism. First, that development was far smoother in the Anglo-American world than on the Continent. Second, large parts of Europe revolted against more or less liberal rule and fell under the trance of fascism. (Communism, the totalitarianism of the left, took root in the deeply illiberal soil of Russia.) Yet Fukuyama’s claim, at least when he made it, captured the sense that after an epoch of crisis, liberalism had triumphed over its chief rivals. First fascism disappeared, and then communism. Liberalism reasserted itself in places where it had gone into eclipse and began to emerge in new places—South Korea and Taiwan, India and Turkey.

The history that I recount chronicles the rise, adaptation, and proliferation of an idea. In the second half of the twentieth century liberalism became the national faith of the most powerful country in the world. The American Cold War liberals combined the anti-totalitarianism of Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, and others with the activist liberalism inherited from FDR. The wish to extend the benefits of the liberal state to those who had been excluded led the Democratic Party to take up the mantle of civil rights. Liberalism, at its high noon, came to mean civil rights and President Johnson’s War on Poverty. By 1964 the United States appeared to have achieved the liberal dream of protecting liberty while advancing equality.

Then liberalism lost its grip on the broad American public. This failure poses piercing questions for our own time. Were white Americans simply unwilling to grant full equality to blacks? That is, had the liberal consensus rested on a tacit whites-only understanding? Or did liberals lose sight of their faith in individuals and their skepticism about the state? Did Americans recoil against liberal social engineering? The pendulum now swung in the opposite direction: the 1970s and ’80s saw the rise of a new doctrine that regarded the state as a parasite devouring individual initiative and economic freedom as the key to both personal fulfillment and national renewal. The United States entered a phase in which left-liberalism and right-liberalism fought for supremacy; the fact that left-liberals adopted much of the vocabulary, and some of the policies, of the apostles of the free market argued that right-liberals won the war even when they lost some of the battles.

In retrospect, the triumph of marketplace ideology may have set the stage for our present woes. Free-market policies accelerated global forces that were already increasing economic inequality. Economic growth and social mobility had once made inequality tolerable, but that escalator had slowed to a halt. The drastic recession of 2008 hit at a moment when Americans had already begun to question whether the system would work for them as it had for their parents. Modern liberalism depended on the expectation of an ever-brighter future; the economic and psychological foundation of the faith had just crumbled.

It was also during this period that Republicans released the germ of illiberalism into the national political bloodstream. The party actively courted conservative evangelical voters who did not accept the secular state and did not defer to secular reasoning. These voters soon became the core of the Republican Party. Their absolutism predisposed them to think of the other party as not simply wrong but illegitimate. Such voters were prepared to accept virtually any means that attained the end of partisan victory; even secular Republicans were happy to exploit that radical mood.

Illiberalism was like an underground fire that burned out of sight until, all at once, it exploded into view. I explore the rise of this angry spirit in both Europe and the United States. The causes overlap, though they are not the same. Indeed, the liberal crisis played out differently in Eastern and Western Europe. Liberalism did not sink deep roots in Eastern Europe, and citizens alienated by the secular, rationalist, and polyglot culture of the West looked backward toward a real or imagined period of national glory, and toward the religious and national pillars of that old order. In Western Europe, meanwhile, the combined effect of industrial decline and the cultural dislocation of large-scale immigration, above all from the Islamic world, shook liberal rule. As race split American society, so, in recent years, has immigration and the refugee flight become Europe’s cultural wound.

Americans elected their first illiberal president in 2016. Donald Trump has a rare gift for populist demagoguery, but he also found an intensely receptive audience. As in Europe, economic anger turned voters against the system, while a sense of dispossession fostered a nationalist backlash against immigrants, refugees, domestic minorities, foreigners, and liberals who seemed to take the side of these outsiders against (white) Americans. Finally, Trump was uniquely positioned to exploit the collapse of faith in fact, science, and reason. Trump’s brazen indifference to truth would have exposed him to ridicule a generation earlier; in 2016, he found an audience avid for his alternate realities.

I wonder now how I, and so many others, could have remained so blithe as resentment of liberalism itself was reaching a fever pitch. In retrospect, I recognize in myself a symptom of liberal remove. For many years, as a journalist, I wrote about national politics, urban policy, education reform—the endless pitched battles between left and right. Starting about two decades ago, I began to focus on foreign policy and international affairs, which had itself become an arena of moral drama with the rise of doctrines like “humanitarian intervention.” Ten years ago, I began teaching at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi, a central node in what the university describes as a “global network university.” I moved lightly across the world like other members of the cosmopolitan class. I thought and wrote a good deal about America’s aspiration to shape a world in its own image by exporting its liberal, democratic ideals. I wondered whether that was even possible, but I did not wonder whether Americans continued to believe in those ideals.

I did not see that cosmopolitanism itself—the value system of the globalized world—had become a source of deep rancor. I nodded along when candidate Barack Obama said that working-class voters “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Hostility to liberalism was a pathology, not a worldview. Cosmopolitan liberals have been the beneficiaries of free trade, heightened immigration, the frictionless movement of ideas and people—in short, of globalization. That same system has left millions behind.2

In the final part of this book I ask how we can apply the lessons of liberalism’s past in order to salvage its future. Liberalism has persisted through adaptation; how does it need to adapt to a globalized, postindustrial—and, it seems, post-truth—world? I argue that liberals cannot succeed simply by marshaling their half of the country against the half that voted for Donald Trump. Liberals must respond to Trump’s populist nationalism with an affirmative nationalism that speaks to Americans collectively. That will require serious self-reflection, for the same globalized forces that most liberals embrace have brought real harm to many Americans—who in turn resent liberals for their privileged positions. Liberals will have to decide between the insistent demand of marginalized groups for recognition of their special identities and the need to address the American people as a whole. Liberal nationalism sounds like a contradiction in terms—but only if one flattens liberalism into pure, heedless individualism. Modern liberalism has sought to strike a balance between our individual rights and our obligations to the community. That is the heritage of this great doctrine, and its future as well.


Protecting the People from Themselves

You must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.


IN THE FALL OF 1787 ALEXANDER HAMILTON ASKED JAMES Madison (as well as John Jay) to join him in writing the series of essays that would come to be known as The Federalist Papers. Hamilton’s goal was to defend the United States Constitution, which had just been drafted and signed, from critics who regarded a strong central government as an invitation to a new tyranny almost equal to that under which the colonies had once labored. Madison had done more to frame the Constitution than any other man, and he fully shared Hamilton’s belief that the national government must exercise supremacy over the states, a view known as federalism. Yet he was far more zealous about individual liberty than Hamilton. The New York financial wizard envisioned a powerful centralized state that someday would compete on an equal footing with the principalities of Europe. Madison, by contrast, had come to the paradoxical conclusion that only a robust national authority could control the conflicting interests inherent in a large and rapidly spreading nation, and thus protect the elemental right of citizens to speak and think as they wished.

In Federalist 51, Madison observed that the separation of governmental powers into legislative, executive, and judicial departments, as well as the sharing of authority between federal and state jurisdictions, prevented the government from encroaching on the liberties of citizens. This was unobjectionable: both arch-Federalists, like Hamilton and John Adams, and advocates of a minimal state, like Thomas Jefferson, regarded the doctrine of the separation of powers as holy writ. Madison, however, went on to make a claim at odds with patriotic pieties: in a republic, he wrote, it is not enough “to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers”; it is equally necessary “to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.” Since “different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens,” a majority, united by a common interest, might come to threaten the rights of the minority.1


  • "Traub's is the most muscular of these [liberalism-is-dying] books in tracing liberalism's evolution."—New York Times Book Review
  • "Writing in elegant, aphoristic prose, Traub's trenchant analysis takes populist discontents seriously.... The result is a clear-eyed, timely discussion that illuminates both liberalism's humanity and its hubris." —Publishers Weekly
  • "No post-mortem, James Traub's urgent book accounts for what liberalism has been, why it stumbled, and why it must revive. Much as in the 1930s, assaults on liberal politics from the right and the left practically define our low, dishonest time. Traub joins a rising tide of writers, citizens, and political leaders who are reclaiming the rich, soulful, and indispensable liberal tradition."—Sean Wilentz
  • "What Was Liberalism? provides a concise guide to both the origins and current travails of the most important idea of our time, one that is being threatened by populists and authoritarians today around the world. It is both sympathetic about liberalism's virtues and clear-eyed as to its limitations, showing us a way forward out of the present crisis."—Francis Fukuyama
  • "In this remarkable tour de force, James Traub traces the roots of the idea of liberalism with such nuance and depth that even those steeped in political philosophy will gain insight--still more those of us who simply care about basic concepts of governance. This is an invaluable guide to the crisis that now afflicts the West."—John Sexton, President Emeritus of New York University

On Sale
Sep 24, 2019
Page Count
320 pages
Basic Books

James Traub

About the Author

James Traub has spent the last forty years as a journalist for America’s leading publications, including the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. He now teaches foreign policy and intellectual history at NYU Abu Dhabi and writes for Foreign Policy. He has authored eight previous books on foreign and domestic affairs. He lives in New York City.

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