What It Means to Be Liberal

Michael Walzer in Dissent:

Is liberalism an “ism” like all the other “isms”? I think it once was. In the nineteenth century and for some years in the twentieth, liberalism was an encompassing ideology: free markets, free trade, free speech, open borders, a minimal state, radical individualism, civil liberty, religious toleration, minority rights. But this ideology is now called libertarianism, and most of the people who identify themselves as liberals don’t accept it—at least, not all of it. Liberalism in Europe today is represented by political parties like the German Free Democratic Party that are libertarian and right-wing, but also by parties like the Liberal Democrats in the UK that stand uneasily between conservatives and socialists, taking policies from each side without a strong creed of their own. Liberalism in the United States is our very modest version of social democracy, as in “New Deal liberalism.” This isn’t a strong creed either, as we saw when many liberals of this kind became neoliberals.

“Liberals” are still an identifiable group, and I assume that readers of Dissent are members of the group. We are best described in moral rather than political terms: we are open-minded, generous, tolerant, able to live with ambiguity, ready for arguments that we don’t feel we have to win. Whatever our ideology, whatever our religion, we are not dogmatic; we are not fanatics. Democratic socialists like me can and should be liberals of this kind. I believe that it comes with the territory, though, of course, we all know socialists who are neither open-minded, generous, nor tolerant.

But our actual connection, our political connection, with liberalism has another form. Think of it as an adjectival form: we are, or we should be, liberal democrats and liberal socialists. I am also a liberal nationalist, a liberal communitarian, and a liberal Jew. The adjective works in the same way in all these cases, and my aim here is to describe its force in each of them. Like all adjectives, “liberal” modifies and complicates the noun it precedes; it has an effect that is sometimes constraining, sometimes enlivening, sometimes transforming. It determines not who we are but how we are who we are—how we enact our ideological commitments.

More here.