Liberalism and Its Friends

Liberalism and Its Friends

The Future of Liberalism
by Alan Wolfe
Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, 337 pp., $30.00

Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America
by Doug Rossinow
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007, 323 pp., $39.95

This should be the liberal hour. American conservatism is in crisis, both intellectually (it has no affirmative agenda) and politically (its strategy has been reduced to mobilizing white resentment at Barack Obama and the emerging multiracial America he personifies). Obama and a heavily Democratic Congress have embarked upon a range of liberal projects: crafting universal health coverage, attacking global warming, bolstering workers’ rights. And yet—you may have seen reports of this in the news—they have encountered obstacles along the way. Despite the stunning success of last year’s Obama campaign in mobilizing millions of volunteers, the passion and the noise in these legislative battles seem to come chiefly from the Right. If this is the liberal hour, where are the liberals? Where’s their self-confidence? Where’s their élan?

For years, liberal writers have been churning out self-help books for their embattled liberal readers. Now that Democrats are back in power, though, and liberals have a shot at actually altering America’s course, liberals need more than cheerleading and self-esteem courses. Happily, two books written before last November’s election answer that call in very different ways. Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe, long one of the nation’s leading public intellectuals, has, in The Future of Liberalism, authored an elegant argument that liberalism—by which he means a proceduralism in which everyone is free and equal before the law; substantive policies enabling people to take control of their own lives (in which the state gives people the tools to do so that the market often denies them); and an open, tolerant, empirical approach to addressing society’s ills—is the ideology best suited to modernity. Doug Rossinow, a historian at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, has authored a less elegant but strikingly important history demonstrating that liberals and leftists have worked in common cause as, if not more, frequently than they have at cross-purposes since the 1880s, and in every period when liberal reforms were successfully enacted. Where Wolfe tells us why liberalism has been humanity’s best vehicle for navigating through modernity, Rossinow shows us how liberalism has proven necessary but, on its own, insufficient to create a more humane United States.


Wolfe’s liberalism is the enemy of the can’t-do spirit that afflicts many disparate groups (not least, the center and right of the U.S. Congress) in America’s current political landscape. Franklin Roosevelt had it right, he argues, in beginning the New Deal with massive public works—...