Return of the L-Word?
New York Times LONDON -- It seems incredible now that Lionel Trilling could have written
8 November 1998 MICHAEL IGNATIEFF
in 1950 that "liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole
intellectual tradition" in America. This wasn't true even then: Trilling
blithely ignored the vigorous life of American conservatism and radicalism.
He also failed to foresee just how brief the liberal ascendancy would be: from
Roosevelt's second inaugural in 1937 through to Lyndon Johnson's Great Society,
with the Civil Rights Act of 1965 as American liberalism's last hurrah.
Since then, retreat has been the order of the day. Though not the toxic label it
was earlier in the 1990's, liberalism remains the politics that dares not speak its
name. In their strong electoral showing last week, the Democrats successfully
depicted themselves as moderates, not liberals.
But these hedgings make for a political discourse that denies some important
realities. Americans who despise the very word liberalism actually live within a
polity ordered by liberal institutions, like Social Security and Medicare.
The rhetoric of American politics requires Democrats and Republicans alike to
praise the free market, but every day bankers and traders actually pray that
market regulators like Alan Greenspan, chairman of that eminently Rooseveltian
institution, the Federal Reserve, will deliver them from the ravages of markets red
in tooth and claw.
This paradox -- made familiar by John Kenneth Galbraith -- seems to do nothing
to restore liberalism's prestige. Its political achievements cannot rescue its moral
status. For the real obstacle to liberalism's revival is its association with moral
relativism. The liberal hour ushered in the moral and sexual revolution of the
1960's, only to be devoured by it after 1968. It was then, as Middle America
reacted to the new-found freedoms of its sons and daughters, that Richard Nixon
became the first politician to discover that he could ride all the way to the White
House by equating liberalism with permissiveness.
But this, too, was paradoxical: even as Americans voted for politicians who ran
against the 60's and all of that decade's supposedly diabolical experimentation, the
larger culture slowly embraced the permissive revolution: freer divorce, more
sexual explicitness, more tolerant attitudes toward homosexuality. The liberal
causes of the 60's won out, and American society is more inclusive and open as a
But liberalism paid the price of losing its own moral legitimacy. It was seen rightly
as being both too permissive on the one hand and too dismissive on the other of
the family values of most Americans.
In retrospect, the reasons for the conservatives' ascendancy in the 1970's seem
clear. They had proved more adept than liberals at understanding the anxiety and
unease of a generation living through rapid moral change. Conservatism had the
virtue of nostalgic simplicity: it preached "values," preferably ones with divine
sanction. In doing so, it effectively associated liberalism with relativism, with
But in the late 1990's, the conservative counter-revolution is encountering
difficulties of its own. "Values" are anything but the rigid moral compass that
conservatives suppose. For values conflict. Even for the devout and the faithful,
there is no rock of ages to cling to.
As the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin has persuasively argued, the abortion
issue is not a debate, as conservatives contend, between those who hold life
sacred and those who don't. It is a furious, even violent confrontation between
people who believe equally in the special importance of human life but derive
radically different practical conclusions from that shared moral premise.
Likewise, the debate about the conduct of President Clinton is not, as many
conservatives claim, between those who don't care about immorality and those
who do. It is between those who believe that private immorality forfeits public
trust and those who do not. And if public immorality -- that is, perjury -- is in
question, the debate is between those who believe equivocation in any court of
law is wrong and those who believe exceptions can be made if the court in
question is actually a witch trial.
In the largest terms, this is a debate not between relativists and conservatives, but
between pluralists and absolutists.
Liberals, I would argue, should be pluralists, not relativists: their claim should be
not that objective standards of moral behavior don't exist, but that public and
private standards conflict.
M oral judgment is inescapable, but it requires, at a minimum, an understanding of
which moral standards are relevant to which arena. Judging from the failure of the
moral absolutists to convict President Clinton in the court of American opinion, it
appears that most Americans are practicing pluralists. That is, they believe there
are absolute standards of private and public conduct but they do not suppose
that these both point in the same direction.
They know that there have been good Presidents who have been less than perfect
human beings, and fine fathers and husbands who turned out to be indifferent
Presidents. They think that while lying is a bad thing, not all lies are equally bad.
A majority appear to believe that the stability of government institutions is
jeopardized if the law becomes the instrument of politically motivated moral
If this is how Americans are making their moral choices, it would appear that the
times are right for liberalism, for a revival of a political mode of thought that takes
its stand not only against moral absolutism and its intolerance, but also against its
absurd and sometimes violent simplifications.
Yet simplifications are seductive and pluralism is complex.
Liberalism's revival does not just require politicians with the courage to talk to
Americans in a manner that respects their moral intelligence. It also requires an
intellectual revival that gets the distinction between relativism and pluralism clear.
Conservatives will insist that the one is just a fancy name for the other. But as
Isaiah Berlin argued in "Two Concepts of Liberty," a relativist believes morals are a
matter of taste and inclination; a pluralist believes adherence to moral standards is
not a matter of taste but the very definition of what it is to be a human being.
The mistake absolutists make is to suppose, first, "that all values can be graded on
one scale," in Berlin's words, and, second, that values must have divine sanction.
Not so, Berlin insisted: "Principles are not less sacred because their duration
cannot be guaranteed." We choose one moral principle over another. Every
choice entails loss, but the act of free choice is what defines us as human.
Liberalism has always derived its authority and persuasiveness from this vision of
human nobility, from this idea that our dignity is derived from the exercise of
moral choice. Moral absolutism fears this act of choice and fears the freedom
required by the act of choosing.
Liberalism depends, ultimately, on faith in human choosing, and a liberal revival
depends on recovering the inspiration of this central conviction.
LONDON -- It seems incredible now that Lionel Trilling could have written