Jonathan Alter has an interesting but reminding article on The State of Liberalism.
- Liberals are also at a disadvantage because politics, at its essence, is about self-interest, an idea that at first glance seems more closely aligned with conservatism. To make their more complex case, liberals must convince a nation of individualists that enlightened self-interest requires mutual interest, and that the liberal project is better constructed for the demands of an increasingly interdependent world.
- That challenge is made even harder because of a tactical split within liberalism itself. Think of it as a distinction between “action liberals” and “movement liberals.” Action liberals are policy-oriented pragmatists who use their heads to get something important done, even if their arid deal-making and Big Money connections often turn off the base. Movement liberals can sometimes specialize in logical arguments (e.g., Garry Wills), but they are more often dreamy idealists whose hearts and moral imagination can power the deepest social change (notably the women’s movement and the civil rights movement). They frequently over indulge in fine whines, appear naïve about political realities and prefer emotionally satisfying gestures to incremental but significant change. Many Democrats are an uneasy combination of realpolitik and “gesture politics,” which makes for a complicated approach toward governing.
- Action liberalism has its modern roots in empiricism and the scientific method. Adam Smith was the original liberal. While “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) has long been the bible of laissez-faire conservatism, Smith’s first book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759), pioneered liberal ideas of social and moral inter dependence. By today’s standards,Abraham Lincoln’s support for large-scale government spending on infrastructure and appeals to “the better angels of our nature” would qualify him as a liberal. In the 20th century, progressives cleaned up and expanded government, trust-busted on behalf of what came to be known as “the public interest,” and experimented with different practical and heavily compromised ways of addressing the Great Depression.
- The quintessential example of the pragmatic core of liberalism came in 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that “Dr. New Deal” had become “Dr. Win the War.” Roosevelt believed that the ends of liberalism — advancing democracy, expanding participation, protecting the environment and consumers (first promoted by a progressive Republican, Theodore Roosevelt), securing the vulnerable — were fixed, but that the timing and means of achieving them were highly negotiable, a distinction that often eludes modern liberals.