Liberalism After Liberalism

tags: liberalism

Win McCormack is the editor in chief of The New Republic.

Recently, a book by Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, caused a commotion in American political-intellectual circles. A total of three New York Times columnists—the opinion writers David Brooks and Ross Douthat and the new book critic, Jennifer Szalai—responded to it with different takes. But they all shared with Deneen an underlying assumption: that, as Szalai put it, liberalism—the defining political doctrine of individual rights and freedoms—was “the founding creed of the United States.”

Liberalism was not the founding creed of the United States. The Founders were adherents of classical republicanism—also known as civic republicanism or civic humanism, an older democratic doctrine conceived around the common political good and the welfare of society as a whole—before modern liberalism. Thomas Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence, which fact has encouraged the belief that America’s founding was fundamentally liberal. But he named his political party the Republicans. He and the party’s co-founder, James Madison, were two of the most stalwart republicans of the age.

The idea that the United States is and has always been quintessentially liberal was solidified by Louis Hartz, whose book The Liberal Tradition in America held sway in American political thought from the mid-1950s into the mid-’70s. Hartz argued that because America never had a feudal class system to overthrow, it lacked Europe’s reactionary conservative tradition, as well as its radical socialist one, and had only liberalism as a philosophical guide—a thesis that was accepted as gospel in the academy.

In 1975, however, J.G.A. Pocock published a tome called The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, bringing the civic republican tradition to the fore. Dating to early Renaissance Florence, its most influential exponent was Niccolò Machiavelli, whom Brooks, channeling Deneen, accuses of leading modern political thinkers to “reject the classical and religious idea that people are political and relational creatures” and to decide that “you couldn’t base a system of government on something as unreliable as virtue.”

But the essence of Machiavelli’s political thought is the opposite: He advocated republican government, which depends on citizens motivated precisely by virtue to look beyond their private, self-centered interests. In fact, the premises underlying the republican credo come ultimately from the ancient Aristotelean conception of the human being as a “political animal,” whose highest interest was realized in participatory self-rule. ...

Read entire article at New Republic

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