Helena Rosenblatt on The Lost History of Liberalism

Lost History LiberalismThe Lost History of Liberalism challenges our most basic assumptions about a political creed that has become a rallying cry—and a term of derision—in today’s increasingly divided public square. Taking readers from ancient Rome to today, Helena Rosenblatt traces the evolution of the words “liberal” and “liberalism,” revealing the heated debates that have taken place over their meaning. This book sets the record straight on a core tenet of today’s political conversation and lays the foundations for a more constructive discussion about the future of liberal democracy. 

What led you to write this book?

 I became interested in the history of political thought in college and my interest grew in graduate school.  My PhD dissertation, which became my first book, was on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I wrote my second book on Benjamin Constant. Both these thinkers had a huge influence on liberalism, Rousseau as a kind of gadfly, and Constant as a founder. In the course of my work, I became aware of a curious fact: despite the importance of liberalism to our history and current politics, no comprehensive history of liberalism had been written in a surprisingly long time. So I began thinking about writing such a history myself.

I set to work, but soon confronted a series of perplexing questions and contradictions. In one way or another, they all involved defining liberalism. Why was it, I wondered, that liberalism means one thing in Europe and something else in the United States? Why do some people speak of a “classical liberalism” that they say is more authentic than today’s? Why are there so many different “founders” of liberalism? Some call Machiavelli a founder, while others speak of John Locke, or even Jesus Christ.  How can they all be founders of liberalism when they are so radically different? While pondering these and other questions, I couldn’t help noticing that liberalism was often called a “slippery,” “elusive,” or “vague” concept in the books and articles that I read. All of it led me to ask a deceptively simple question: what is liberalism? And how do you write a history of liberalism when you don’t know what it is? After struggling for some time, the smoke cleared and I fell upon a new approach.

What is original about your approach to the history of liberalism?

I made it my mission to let the past speak for itself. In my book, I trace the history of the words “liberal” and “liberalism” over the course of history, starting with classical Rome—when the word “liberal” existed, but not yet “liberalism”—and ending today. What did “liberal” mean to the people who used the term two thousand years ago and how did that meaning change over time? When was the word “liberalism” coined, why was it coined, and what did it mean to the people who used it? When was the first “liberal party” formed and what did it stand for? These are the sorts of questions my book asks and seeks to answer. And my approach leads to a number of surprising findings.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?

 It is hard to summarize the many interesting discoveries I made. One concerns liberalism’s origins. We tend to think of liberalism as an age-old and venerable “Anglo-American” tradition with roots stretching deep into English history. Some trace its origins as far back as the Magna Carta. From England, liberalism is said to have spread and slowly gained acceptance until it was transported to America in the eighteenth century. There its principles were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. During the 19th century, liberalism continued its steady and inexorable progress until it became the dominant doctrine of the West.

This is a nice story, but it’s inaccurate. “Liberalism,” as a word and cluster of concepts, emerged in France in the wake of the French Revolution, not before. Its first theorists were Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël, not John Locke. For most of the nineteenth century, liberalism was widely seen as a French doctrine and closely associated with France’s successive revolutions (1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871). The Encyclopaedia Americana of 1831 did not contain an entry on “liberalism,” and the article on “liberal” explained that its political meaning came from France. Only half a century later was liberalism given an entry in the American Cyclopaedia of Political Science and, even then, it was a translation of a French article equating liberalism with the “principles of 89.” During the closing years of the nineteenth century, “liberalism” remained a rare word in the language of American politics and, when it was used, was sometimes spelled “liberale,” or rendered in italics, to indicate its foreignness. The word “liberalism” only gained currency in America’s political vocabulary in the early twentieth century and the idea of an “Anglo-American liberal tradition” half a century later.

What is the relationship between liberalism and democracy?

A common mistake we make today is to use the expression “liberal democracy” unproblematically, as if “liberalism” and “democracy” go together naturally. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably as if they were synonyms. However, for the first one hundred years of their history, most liberals were hostile to democracy, which they associated with chaos and mob rule. Certainly, the founders of liberalism were not democrats. Although he believed in popular sovereignty, Benjamin Constant insisted that it be limited and advocated stiff property requirements for voting and office holding. Madame de Staël championed the “government of the best,” which she distinguished from democracy.

To Constant, de Staël, and many other liberals, the French Revolution proved that the public was utterly unprepared for political rights. People were ignorant, irrational and prone to violence. Under popular pressure, the rule of law had been suspended, “enemies of the people” guillotined, and rights trampled upon. Napoleon’s despotic rule, repeatedly legitimized by plebiscite, only confirmed the liberals’ apprehensions about democracy.  They watched with horror as demagogues and dictators manipulated voters by appealing to their lowest instincts. It was obvious to them that the masses lacked the judgement necessary to know their true interests, and even less those of their country. Liberals accepted democracy very late and even then they thought hard about ways to contain it.  They pondered methods to “enlighten” and “educate” democracy and make it safe. 

What is the relationship between liberalism and socialism?

The relationship between liberalism and socialism is often described as antagonistic, but this is untrue. Again, the question has a lot to do with definitions, since “socialism” has always been a contested and evolving cluster of ideas. At first, the word “socialist” simply described someone who felt sympathy for the poor. Three more revolutions, in 1830, 1848, 1871, and the dislocations and hardships brought to the poor by the Industrial Revolution, caused many liberals to become increasingly receptive to socialist ideas. By the early twentieth century, some began calling themselves “liberal socialists.” In 1909, the future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, championed what he referred to as a “socialistic” form of liberalism dedicated to improving the lives of the “left-out millions.” A leading British liberal weekly declared that “we are all Socialists in that sense.”

It was World War II and the fear of totalitarianism that caused the rift between liberalism and socialism with which we are now familiar. First published in 1944, the bestseller, The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, warned that the “social liberalism” toward which Britain and America were headed would inevitably lead to totalitarianism. Such anxieties caused other prominent Cold War liberals increasingly to distinguish themselves from socialists.

How is your book relevant today?

As an historian, I tend to think that getting history right is important in its own right. But I also think that history can lend critical perspective on the present. It can tell us about the challenges people in the past faced, the options they had, and the choices they made. Today it is clear that liberalism is facing crisis. Alarming statistics indicate that people around the world are losing confidence in liberal democracy. Populism is on the rise, American hegemony in decline. And it is not just that liberalism is being attacked by enemies or losing adherents. Liberals are divided among themselves. Some say that they have lost sight of their essential values. Some are beginning to ask what liberalism’s essential values really are. One way of answering this question is to turn to the history of liberalism. That is what my book does.

Helena Rosenblatt is professor of history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her many books include Liberal Values: Benjamin Constant and the Politics of Religion and Thinking with Rousseau: From Machiavelli to Schmitt. She lives in New York City.

James Campbell: Just how polarized are our politics?

campbellThe United States of today is a divided nation, with two sides resting on opposite ends of a political spectrum.  James Campbell’s new book Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America provides a new and historically grounded perspective on the polarization of America, systematically documenting exactly how and why the current divide came to be. James Campbell recently answered some questions about his book, what exactly has lead to such bitter disputes in the American system, and what this has meant throughout political history.

What is political polarization?

JC: Polarization concerns the level and organization of political conflict in society generally or between groups such as the political parties. Political differences can vary in severity and their relation to one another: cross-cutting or reinforcing. A high level of polarization is one in which there are substantial differences in political perspectives on a wide range of issues organized along an ideological spectrum. Polarization intensifies rather than diffuses conflict. It establishes an “us versus them” politics and it is always the same “us” at odds with the same “them.” High levels of polarization are the basis for bitter disputes, making political compromises more difficult to achieve.

What are Americans polarized about?

JC: The short answer is government. The extent and use of governmental powers is the underlying and organizing subject that causes two sides to be set up for most issues in American politics. It is the great divider setting up quite consistently “us versus them” sides in disputes about public policy. Those with liberal political inclinations tend to be more inclined to see problems as public in nature and best solved by the use of government powers and programs. Conservatives tend to take a more restrained or “last resort” view of the use of government. Views about government and individual responsibilities unify liberals and conservatives against each other.

Why is polarization even an issue? Don’t we know that Americans are polarized?

JC: Most political observers believe that the public and the parties are polarized, but many social scientists doubt that the public is highly polarized. Reviews of survey data of public opinion indicate that extreme views on issue questions are no more likely today than they were 40 years ago. This leads some to believe that polarization of the public is a myth. They suspect that activists and the political parties are polarized, but that the general public is predominantly moderate and not ideological. My research, however, presents evidence that the public is highly polarized, has been so for some time, and has become more so in recent decades. The political parties used to do a poor job representing these polarized views. The realigned parties of the last couple of decades, for better or worse, now represent and accentuate those polarized views.

How can Americans be ideologically polarized when research indicates that they are not very politically sophisticated or informed?

JC: There is no doubt that most Americans are not highly informed about politics or very sophisticated in their political thinking. This does not mean, however, that they cannot be ideological in the sense that they have some fundamental perspectives or values they apply to politics. Pretty much everybody has a sense about what they think is politically right or wrong and that is, at its core, what ideology is about. Unfortunately early studies of political thinking labeled the highest level of political conceptualization as ideological. But ideologies can be based on vastly different levels of political thought, from philosophies to gut instincts. If nothing else, knee-jerk liberals and wing-nut conservatives are both ideological.

How do you know that Americans are highly polarized?

JC: Good question. I examined the extent and change of polarization in the public using three types of evidence. The first was the direct evidence of how people identify their ideological perspectives–liberal, moderate, conservative, or they don’t know. The second type of evidence was the reported attitudes of the public on various public policy issues. In a sense, this is indirect evidence, since attitudes on the issues may reflect an underlying sense of political values and perspectives. The third type of evidence was circumstantial evidence. It is widely accepted that the political parties in government have become more polarized in recent decades. Assuming that this is the case, a largely moderate public would be expected to react to this change in the parties differently than a highly polarized public. A polarized public would likely respond better to more polarized parties than would a largely moderate public. The analysis of all three types of evidence supported the same set of conclusions: the American public was fairly well polarized in the 1970s and has become more so since then.

Did polarized politics develop from the top-down or from the bottom-up? Did political leaders and activists cause the public to become more polarized or did the public lead the way?

JC: The conventional view has been that the increase in polarization was a top-down process. The idea is that leaders are more sophisticated and attentive to political issues and, therefore, ahead of the curve when it comes to political change. At least in this instance, I found the opposite to be the case. The increased polarization of our political system was instigated by the increased polarization of the public in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The polarization of leaders lagged that if the public. Leaders are more attentive to political change, but elected leaders also have a vested interest in preserving the status quo and the tools (incumbency advantages) to help them do so. The lack of a viable Republican Party in the South also impeded a good deal of leadership change until the early 1990s. The public was not so encumbered. The increase in polarization, at least initially, was a bottom-up process.

James Campbell is UB Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. He is the author of such works as The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National Vote and The Presidential Pulse of Congressional Elections. His most recent book is Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America.