For all the fountains of ink and miles of bandwidth expended in trying to make sense of Barack Obama’s politics, the soundest explanation I’ve come across is contained in The Future of Liberalism, a book that mentions the president-elect just once, in passing. Alan Wolfe, a scholar of political philosophy and religion who writes frequently for such journals as The New Republic and The Atlantic, finished this ambitious monument to liberalism’s past and future before Obama was bound for Pennsylvania Avenue. But the liberal tradition Wolfe delineates and defends is a near dead-ringer for Obama’s political philosophy-at least what we’ve seen of it so far.
The liberalism that Wolfe explains and Obama exemplifies is a politics of hope and faith-not in anything quasi-spiritual or utopian, mind you, but in the capacity of human beings to think and grow, to adapt to changing historical conditions, and to invent a more just and equitable world. Almost as relentlessly as Obama repeated his “Yes we can” mantra, Wolfe calls on liberal-minded folk to recapture their belief in the potency of human reason. “Perhaps the most important thing liberals need to maintain,” Wolfe writes, sounding positively Obamaesque, “is a positive outlook on the world.” As recent history shows, of course, that’s a hell of a lot harder than it sounds.
Throughout The Future of Liberalism, Wolfe exposes the contradictions and dangerous irrationalities of contemporary conservatism. But that’s the easy part. What’s really bracing is his equally unsparing dissection of the “aura of defeatism” propounded by such writers and thinkers as Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben and Richard Dawkins. With the same critical vigor he applies to the half-baked notions of Jerry Falwell, Samuel P. Huntington, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and the neoconservative chickenhawks, Wolfe takes dead aim at leftie icons like Klein. Wolfe derides her best-selling book The Shock Doctrine as “analysis by way of street theatre”-a fundamentally illiberal exercise, as he sees it, because “rather than argue her point empirically, she demonstrates it dramatically.” The essence of liberalism, in Wolfe’s view, is an open-minded commitment to the power of reason, and to free and unfettered argument. If the left succumbs to its own version of apocalyptic defeatism, to viewing our worst tendencies as inevitable patterns, we lose both the will and the capacity to make things better.
On similar grounds, Wolfe lights out after doe-eyed multiculturalists, behavioral economists, post-Darwinist “sociobiologists” and radical environmentalists like McKibben, who’s made the case that the Earth would likely be better off without us awful humans around to muck everything up. In McKibben’s “puritanical jeremiads” against humanity, Wolfe smells a “reactionary concession to human hopelessness,” a trait that also characterizes proponents of genetics-as-destiny like Dawkins. Wolfe draws a counterintuitive but telling connection between the post-Calvinist determinism of Falwell-style fundamentalists and the grim conclusions of the sociobiologists: “Both are persuaded not only that we are inherently flawed but that we can do very little about our fallen state,” he writes. The “evolutionary theorists are in agreement with Falwell about the limitations of a humanistic point of view. Neither he nor they view human beings as autonomous agents capable of building the world around themselves, the one because such an act infringes on God’s turf, the other because it infringes on nature’s.” Advocates of “intelligent design” and of evolutionary determinism, Wolfe archly suggests, should stop hollering at each other and “instead join forces, united by their mutual contempt for the quintessentially liberal idea that human beings have the capacity … to bring meaning and direction to their lives.”
In this book’s must-read chapter, “How Liberals Should Think About Religion,” Wolfe digs his scalpel of rationality not only into the Southern Baptist Convention and its ilk but also into such “amateurish” anti-religion propagandists as Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. “If the mark of a liberal is open-mindedness,” he writes, “there is something decidedly closed-minded about the more zealous [advocates] of this resurgence of militant nonbelief.” Their denunciations of religious faith as (in Hitchens’ term) “fascist” or (in Harris’ view) “mad” might be understandable, Wolfe admits, given the illiberal excesses to which religiosity can run. But they’re also counterproductive to the advancement of liberal society. “This is not the language of argument and discussion,” Wolfe writes, “but of dismissal and contempt.”
In Wolfe’s view, such disdain for religious ideas completely contradicts the most useful of liberal traits. Wolfe is no defender of organized religion, only of the value of mutual respect and free debate. “Liberalism calls for freedom from religion; citizens should not be bound by the closed-mindedness associated with dogma and suspicion,” he writes. “But it also demands freedom for religion; citizens should not only have the right to practice their religion if voluntarily chosen by them, they ought to extend that right to people of other faiths as well.” The enemy of liberalism, he argues, “is not religion but religious oppression.” At the same time, “its friend is not skepticism but freedom, including religious freedom.”
If you haven’t gotten the picture by now, The Future of Liberalism is no breezy read. As befits the kind of intellectualism he sees as a defining virtue of liberalism, Wolfe’s arguments are nuanced and twisty. So, to put it in the best possible light, is his prose. Though it never quite reaches a Kantian level of incomprehensibility, this book can be a real slog. But it’s a worthwhile slog, even if readers will surely find plenty of ruts in the road. This one found Wolfe sometimes too broadly dismissive of leftists like Klein and McKibben-too unwilling to engage their arguments in that good liberal spirit. Another quibble: In his eagerness to denounce right-wing populism, Wolfe shunts aside the undeniable contributions that the progressive brand of populism, especially the late 19th century version, made to the great liberal advances of the 20th century. Even if there’s something to be said for elitism-and Wolfe, to his considerable credit, doesn’t hesitate to say it-not all populism was created equal, or has proven equally destructive.
But as Wolfe makes clear, spirited squabbling about such matters is one of the core strengths of liberalism, a philosophy that inspired not socialism or communism, after all, but checks and balances. While liberals are often falsely painted as ideologues, this book reminds us that ideology, whether the right-wing or the left-wing variety, is liberalism’s most ardent foe. Liberalism, Wolfe writes, “will always be open to challenge. … As much as liberals might want to see their ideas win over their opponents, they should not seek unconditional surrender. A world in which the only ideas were liberal ideas would not be a liberal world.”
Which brings us back to Obama, whose notion of “change” involves, more than anything else, a return to forward-thinking and competent governance. While many cannot resist likening Obama to John F. Kennedy, the comparison is valid mainly in the sense that JFK was not a left-wing idealist-not the Lancelot of Camelot-but a clear-eyed liberal pragmatist. Like Obama, and in contrast to such wearisome elitist geeks as Adlai Stevenson and Al Gore, he had the rhetorical and personal charisma to make liberalism enthralling and electable. But Kennedy’s politics were not defined by the lilt of his “ask not” inaugural flourish. As Wolfe points out, Kennedy’s characteristic line of thinking was more aptly demonstrated by his 1962 commencement speech at Yale.
“What is at stake in our economic decisions today,” Kennedy said, “is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion, but the practical management of a modern economy. What we need is not labels and clichÃ©s but a more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving forward.”
What liberal leaders do, Wolfe writes, is encourage “people to see through demagoguery and confront the world as it actually is,” not with self-canceling gloom and doom but with the hopefulness inherent in rational humanism. Which is a pretty good description of what Obama’s campaign accomplished with such heartening success.
“Temperamentally,” Wolfe writes, “liberalism is not so much defined by the positions one takes, but by the spirit in which they are taken.”
The liberal spirit-broad-minded, practical and optimistic all at once-is precisely the one that appears to animate the man we’re trusting to salvage democracy from the wreckage left by the most disastrously illiberal period of our history. This book is the best guide I know to sussing out what Obama’s liberalism means. And what it doesn’t.
Bob Moser is the Observer‘s editor.