Is liberal democracy in need of a serious overhaul? As we release the paperback of Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, (which includes a new preface), Edmund Fawcett took the time to answer some questions about his book, including whether liberalism means different things in Europe than it does in America, where exactly liberal democracy comes from, and what about it is in need of repair.
Why liberalism and why a history?
EF: My book’s topical for a simple reason. Where liberal democracy exists, it badly needs repair. Where it doesn’t, it is losing appeal. Nobody disputes that. What’s harder is to say what liberal democracy is and why it matters. Oddly, few books tell us. Mine does both. We need to see where liberal democracy come from. We need to see what we risk losing. As history, my book looks ahead by looking back.
What makes your book on liberalism different?
EF: It looks past disputed, misleading labels like “freedom” or “the individual” to what liberals really care about and aim for. It combines history and ideas. It foregrounds French and German liberals, too often ignored. It handles tricky academic disputes–in politics, economics and philosophy–in a readable, non-academic way. It holds a complicated, 200-year story together through lives and thoughts of exemplary thinkers and politicians.
Don’t Europeans and Americans mean different things by “liberal”?
EF: Not really. On the American right, it’s true, “liberal” is a term of abuse. On the European left, “liberal” means a lackey of neo-capitalism. We can’t, though, let sloganeers hog the argument. France, Germany and the US are liberal democracies. China and Russia are not. Everybody understands what those two sentences mean. Nobody seriously disputes that they are true. The meaning problem with “liberal” is a side issue.
Some reviewers found your liberal tent too big, your idea of liberalism too loose.
EF: Funny complaints for a book on liberalism. It’s not a sect or creed. Inclusiveness ought to be a liberal virtue. Seriously, Liberalism set out four key ideas that unite liberals and tell them apart from their rivals, then and now: resistance to power, faith in progress, equal respect for people and acceptance that social conflict was inevitable, but containable. I distinguished liberalism from democracy, often confused, and described how in the 20th century liberal democracy grew out of historic compromises between the two.
In your big cast of more than 50 characters, name some favorites.
EF: In the 19th century, the thinker John Stuart Mill, for trying hardest to hold together liberal conflicting elements together. Lincoln for his power of liberal words. In the 20th century, Lyndon Johnson for the liberal capacity to change and Germany’s Willy Brandt for the ability to admit national wrong. And now? It’s hard to see one’s own time. Giants are only visible looking back. A fair guess: today’s liberal giants won’t all be white, US-European and male.
What is new in your preface to the paperback?
EF: I answer criticisms, some fair, some not fair. I clarify points of mine that led to misunderstandings. I stress that why I wrote the book–challenges to liberal democracy from inside and out–strikes me as even more pressing now than when I began. I explain that I left out critics and alternatives to liberalism from right and left. Those topics were too vast for one book, though I’m turning to conservatism now.
Edmund Fawcett worked at The Economist for more than three decades, serving as chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, and Berlin, as well as European and literary editor. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian, among other publications.