The True Force of Liberalism
by Paul Starr
Basic Books, 2007 276 pp $26
FEW OF US will forget November 2004. I remember driving myself to the point of pneumonia, having spent the previous two months making “persuasion” calls to my fellow Ohioans during the evenings and doing weekend “lit drops” in tiny rural towns, consistently chased away from houses by snarling dogs. Then the results came in. Most liberals and leftists turned morose; some thought the country had lost its mind. Friends told me they planned to move to Canada (they never did). The journalist Marc Cooper argued that it became easy for a progressive in 2004 to “fancy” oneself “a member of a persecuted minority, bravely shielding the flickering flame of enlightenment from the increasing Christo-Republican darkness.”
Then came November 2006, and progressives sighed with relief. But the sigh barely covered up a wince. After all, Democrats had won by playing a strange mix of pro-gun libertarianism and wild-eyed populism. One of the most articulate Democratic Party candidates for the Senate had been a Reagan administration official. Some hoped this was a victory for the left, but most knew it was a victory of conservative negatives, not progressive positives. This was the party not associated with Iraq, a war now perceived as disastrous. Just what Democrats stood for remained a question none dared ask.
And so Paul Starr’s book is nicely timed. Liberals hunger for a philosophy that will explain them to a public that seems uncertain about its political loyalties. Starr’s a good person for the job: He can explain political theory and history to a wide audience. Those who have read his pieces for the American Prospect know this already. His book helps fill a liberal void.
Starr declares liberalism a tradition worth recuperating and condemns those who ditch the term liberal for progressive. Rebranding, he argues, ignores the liberal tradition’s usable past: too much is discarded by tossing it out. Jettisoning the liberal tradition would not just hand conservatives an undeserved victory in the culture wars—allowing them to stereotype and erase a rigorous mode of political thinking—it would endorse intellectual laziness. So back to the liberal past Starr goes.
Starr knows time travel is not easy. Reading his opening discussions about “classical” liberalism reminded me of when, just out of graduate school, I supervised the work of a newly trained political theorist at a think tank. He and I got into a debate about the liberal tradition, and things turned strange. For him, liberalism meant John Locke; for me, it meant Franklin Roosevelt. We argued past one another about two opposed traditions that shared a name. Starr recognizes this confusion in his discussion of “classical” and “modern” liberalism. He goes behind the ...
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