Modern Political Ideas

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THE LOST HISTORY OF LIBERALISM
From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century
By Helena Rosenblatt
348 pp. Princeton University. $35.

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These days, it seems nobody in America wants to be a liberal — or at least to be called one. For decades, right-wing politicians and media figures have wielded the term as an insult, railing against “the liberal media” and “liberal elites.” By the 1990s, the word had become so toxic that hardly anyone running for office dared embrace it, and Democrats adopted less sullied labels like “progressive.” (Even Barack Obama declined to describe himself as a liberal.) Attacks have come from the left as well as the right. When today’s younger, socialist-leaning activists disparage older, more Establishment-oriented left-wingers as liberals, they are echoing their New Left forebears of the 1960s and 1970s, who used the term to denounce those deemed insufficiently radical.

It turns out that the use of “liberal” and “liberalism” as epithets goes back much further — almost all the way to their origins, as the historian Rosenblatt reveals in this enlightening book. The word “liberalism,” she reports, seems to have been “invented as a term of abuse” in early-19th-century Europe, when monarchists and Roman Catholic propagandists deployed it to denigrate opposition to crown and clergy.

Rosenblatt calls her book “a word history.” But she goes well beyond etymology, exploring the contradictory impulses that have always coexisted uneasily at the core of liberalism: individualism and a concern for the common good, a belief in democracy and fear of mob rule, laissez-faire capitalism and a desire to tame markets, self-determination and imperialism, claims of human equality alongside racism and sexism. Rosenblatt argues that in the 20th century, an Anglo-American conception of liberalism, which emphasizes the protection of individual rights, pushed aside earlier French and German versions that aimed to temper individualism by stressing moral duties and state-building. Unfortunately, Rosenblatt says little about the contemporary era. But the implication of her argument is that today’s liberals might salvage their relevance by reviving the French and German elements of their tradition, focusing less on individual rights and more on institutional reform and morality in public life.

CAN DEMOCRACY WORK?
A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World
By James Miller
306 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.

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“If both North Korea and the United States consider themselves democratic — and if liberals and conservatives, and socialists and Communists, and nationalists and populists, and American politicians of every stripe can all claim to embody the will of a people — then what, in practice, can the idea of democracy possibly mean?” Miller, a political scientist, poses this question at the outset of this searching and somewhat sprawling book, answering it through an idiosyncratic combination of historical analysis, political theory and personal reflection.

Miller begins by drawing the crucial distinction between democracy and liberalism, noting that democracy, “when it first appeared in Greece, had nothing to do” with liberal concepts like popular sovereignty, equality under the law and freedoms of speech and conscience. Today, the connection is no less tenuous: hence the rise of “illiberal democracy” in places like Hungary, where governments elected to run liberal states have dismantled obstacles to strongman rule and one-party control.

Miller shows how, in the absence of moderating institutions and constraints, the radical promise of democracy can slip into despotism, as it did in the wake of the French Revolution. Turning to the present, he sees the surge of right-wing populism that resulted in the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the pro-Brexit vote in the United Kingdom “not as a protest against democracy per se but rather as a protest against the limits of modern democracy.” As a young man in the 1960s, Miller was enamored of radical left-wing politics, as he relates in sometimes distracting bits of memoir. Today, however, he doubts whether that era’s “experiments in rule-by-consensus” or their present-day inheritors (like the Occupy movement) “will ever generate the kinds of alternative institutions that are needed.” He hopes for the development of “new ways” to restore democratic systems and people’s faith in them, but doesn’t spell out what those might be.

THE VIRTUE OF NATIONALISM
By Yoram Hazony
285 pp. Basic Books. $30.

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Hazony defines a nation as “a number of tribes with a common language or religion, and a past history of acting as a body.” To Hazony, this form of tribalism represents the only legitimate basis for statehood: He contends that the idea of a “neutral” or “civic” state, in which individuals of many different backgrounds are bound together by shared principles, is “a myth” — a fig leaf that covers up the majoritarian realities of multiethnic societies in the United States and Europe. To be a nationalist, according to Hazony, means not only to defend the legitimacy of tribal nation-states but also to advocate a world order in which they can “chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference.” He contrasts this with today’s liberal international order of multilateral institutions backed by American power, which he derides as an “imperialist” project that will inevitably seek to impose its will on all of humanity.

A defense of nationalism may be welcomed by groups whose aspirations for statehood have been thwarted: the Palestinians, for example. But Hazony has bad news for them: “There is no universal right to national independence and self-determination.” In the end, his broad case for nationalism devolves into a narrow defense of Zionism and Israel, which he portrays as the paradigmatic victim of the “hatred” encouraged by liberal internationalism.

Hazony is certainly correct that cosmopolitanism can breed arrogance and intolerance, and that criticism of Israel is sometimes hypocritical. But his reductive approach poses a false choice between an idealized order of noble sovereign nations and a totalitarian global government. The world could use a less moralistic, more nuanced defense of nationalism. This book is a missed opportunity.

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