The core of liberalism

Reading through a book review by Eric Rauchway from the latest issue of Democracy (highlighted yesterday on this blog), I found a claim about political liberalism that made me a little uncomfortable.  The review itself seems good (I’ve read neither book discussed), but it’s Rauchway’s description of a speech in which Robert F. Kennedy discussed the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., that got me.  Here’s the relevant passage:

Kennedy’s extemporaneous speech summarized the basic elements of American liberalism at its postwar peak, and on the brink of a precipitous decline. It was less a philosophy than a political tendency, and it urged its proponents in the gentle direction of using politics to do better by their fellow citizens, especially those less fortunate. But Kennedy’s speech also evoked the essentially emotional component of liberalism: compassion and—the words were wisely chosen—“a feeling of justice” for those who suffer.

A couple things.  First, the description of liberalism as “less a philosophy than a political tendency.”  I’ve seen both conservatives and liberals describe their ideologies as a “tendency” or a “disposition,” but this seems wrong to me.  Liberalism and conservatism are certainly broad, umbrella terms that have encompassed many groups and have changed through history, but this does not mean that they represent something as vague as a disposition.  Liberals and conservatives tend to have somewhat consistent policy preferences that often reflect class interests, and failure to recognize this tends to obscure the actual content of these political philosophies and how they work in the world.

The same goes for the claim that compassion and a “feeling of justice” are the core of liberalism.  Conservatives might make the same claim–certainly law-and-order conservatives has a strong feeling of justice that guides them politically–as might leftists, or even, perhaps, partisans of the far right.

Democracy is a liberal publication, of course, so it’s not entirely surprising that a contributor would use vague but favorable terms to characterize liberalism.  But the point is that these terms are vague and not particularly useful from an analytical perspective.  To describe the “basic elements of American liberalism,” Rauchway would do better to talk about the political history of liberalism in the same way as the books he reviews: with attention to the historical contours of the ideology and to the political views and accomplishments of its proponents.

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