Adam Gopnik and the Cul-de-sac of 21st-Century Liberalism

Illustration by Ben Jones.

In modern political history, few terms have had quite so slippery a career as “liberalism.” It first appeared in early 19th-century Spain as a term of abuse: a system “founded upon ignorant, absurd, anti-social, anti-monarchic, anti-Catholic” ideas, as one early adopter put it. Soon enough, self-proclaimed liberals claimed it as their own, but with amazingly little agreement as to its meaning. At the turn of the 20th century, the English economist John Hobson defined it as “practicable socialism,” while across the channel, France’s Liberal Republican Union insisted that “true liberalism” depended on a close alliance between church and state and a rejection of progressive social measures, such as the income tax.

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Things have become no clearer in the present day. In Western Europe, “liberalism” generally designates what Americans view as free-market conservatism. In the United States, it has come to mean something similar to Western European–style social democracy. Even as many Democrats abandon the term, Republicans have done their best to again make it one of abuse. “What we call liberalism,” Jonah Goldberg writes in his book Liberal Fascism, “is in fact a descendant and manifestation of fascism.” In The Lost History of Liberalism, an excellent recent survey of the term, the historian Helena Rosenblatt states forthrightly that “we are muddled about what we mean by [it].”

Can liberalism be rescued from this lexical and political morass? Should it be? Adam Gopnik has no doubts on that score. In A Thousand Small Sanities, he sets out to offer both a definition of liberalism and a heartfelt defense of it. Gopnik does so in what has by now become his trademark style, honed over 30 years as a staff writer for The New Yorker: engaging, conversational prose; a wry sense of humor; a seasoned eye for the telling anecdote; and a great deal of learning, lightly worn. The book is nothing if not enjoyable to read, and it amply reflects the author’s exquisitely good intentions. Despite the pleasures of the prose, A Thousand Small Sanities is a perfect illustration of the cul-de-sac in which mainstream American liberalism now finds itself. The book is worth reading, above all, because it exemplifies a seductive, well-meaning, but oddly apolitical outlook and language that still may have the power to tempt Democrats away from the progressive policies they need to embrace in 2020.

The vision that Gopnik offers of liberalism as sensible, skeptical, cautious, reformist, and moderate—a path to political safety between the Scylla and Charybdis of right and left extremes—will certainly appeal to many readers. But it is not a politics or a substitute for one; Gopnik himself defines it as a “temperament.” The goals of liberalism, he writes, are to achieve, by incremental, nonviolent means, “(imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not absolute) tolerance of human difference.” But these are goals that many socialists and even conservatives have historically endorsed and that a vast majority of Americans outside of the religious or libertarian right would probably support in the abstract. Gopnik also deliberately avoids specifying how liberals in early 21st-century America should try to achieve them.

A Thousand Small Sanities suggests that if one has the proper constructive temperament, then a proper constructive politics will naturally follow. It is an attractive notion. But as our current, dire political moment shows with particularly cruel clarity, it has always been an illusion. Achieving the goals of egalitarianism and toleration requires—and always has required—a clearheaded analysis of the prevailing political, social, and economic circumstances and the creation of a practical program based on this analysis. Temperament matters, but temperament alone will not get us there. Moreover, in America today, privileging temperament over concrete analysis is especially dangerous, because it encourages self-defined moderate liberals to set themselves up in opposition to the supposedly extreme and immoderate leftists who are, in fact, offering the most incisive analyses of the country’s problems and the most ambitious programs to overcome them. Centrist liberals do not, at present, have comparable analyses or programs to offer, which is why the word “liberalism” has come to seem so hollow when invoked by many in the Democratic Party.

The book, Gopnik tells us, arose out of a long, despairing walk around Manhattan’s Upper East Side that he took with his teenage daughter on the night of Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Much of the text reads like a letter to her, in which Gopnik defends his vision of liberalism against her more insistently progressive politics. This approach has its charms, but it also has the unfortunate effect of framing the book as a dialogue between two highly privileged white New Yorkers. A few moments edge a little too close to self-parody, as when Gopnik reminds his daughter of the time they spent in an Upper East Side restaurant observing a colorfully ethnic “huge family” seated at the next table; the family in question turned out to be that of Vartan Gregorian, a former president of Brown University and the New York Public Library. To illustrate the state of liberalism today, Gopnik provides a sketch of Wellfleet, Massachusetts, “the little Cape Cod town where we’ve been renting a place for three weeks in August for the past thirty-plus years.” Still, none of this is a reason to dismiss Gopnik, who is not pretending to be anything other than what he is: a well-off Manhattan liberal.

The book’s problems lie elsewhere. Gopnik’s statement that “liberalism is a political temperament and a credo” signals a reluctance to define liberalism as a concrete political program, and indeed he explicitly eschews the very idea. “I’ve tried to stay away from obvious contemporary political issues,” he writes. “I wanted to offer something more permanent. The greatest vice of political pundits is presentism.” At first glance, this stance seems like basic common sense. If liberalism is a permanent feature of political modernity, surely it shouldn’t be reduced to a specific, time-bound set of issues.

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Yet consider this. “Socialism” is also a highly slippery term, but it is almost impossible to offer a definition of socialism without referring to some fairly specific political, social, and economic phenomena: the market, industrial capitalism, ownership of the means of production, public assistance, and so forth. These phenomena may have changed enormously since the 19th century, and the policies and programs that socialists propose have changed with them, but socialism has nonetheless retained a basic consistency, because it has always represented a response to the historical conditions of modern capitalist society. Certainly, its founding figures did not envisage it as simply a credo or temperament.

At times in its history, liberalism has had a similarly concrete character. As Rosenblatt explains, the Spaniards who first called themselves liberales were defending principles associated with the French Revolution—civic equality; freedom of the press, religion, and trade; constitutional, representative government—against the resurgent, reactionary Catholic absolutism of King Ferdinand VII. Later adherents, notably in Britain’s Liberal Party, believed that it entailed the moral reform and education of a society left atomized by the rise of industrial society and the disappearance of older, religiously grounded forms of moral order. More recently, other liberals have insisted that powerful modern forms of government tend naturally toward totalitarianism and that market forces, left largely to their own devices, would generate sufficient wealth throughout society to address most social needs, even if the distribution of that wealth remained hugely unequal. These various liberal programs have not had the same consistency as socialist ones, but they too have been based on analyses of and represented responses to specific historical conditions.

Today, however, most varieties of American liberalism have lost this specificity, clarity, and historical grounding. While progressives and socialists gladly pick up the banners of the New Deal and the Great Society, self-described liberals are generally more cautious and more attentive to Bill Clinton’s declaration of defeat in the face of Reaganism: “The era of big government is over.” When it comes to social programs, their model is not the sort of sweeping public assistance proposed by Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, with the necessary attendant expansion of government, but rather Obamacare: cautious, incremental improvement. Self-described liberals generally stand with the left on civil-rights issues, including the rights of women and sexual minorities as well as affirmative action, but they frequently come closer to Republicans on issues related to distribution and regulation. They worry loudly about the divisive effects of identity politics and warn of the excesses of the campus left. In this range of positions, it is hard to discern much in-depth social analysis, let alone a cohesive political response to it.

Another recent manifesto, Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal, exemplifies this variety of liberalism. Lilla has harsh, scolding words for the people he terms “identity liberals,” and he calls for a reorientation of American liberalism in a direction that would recapture broad electoral support. “If only liberals would again begin to speak of citizenship,” he writes. Yet his book offers no sustained analysis of the problems of American society today or suggestions for what a political program driven by the concept of citizenship might entail.

Lilla did not deserve the reflexive abuse that his book received from many on the left, but at the same time it is hard to see what he is offering liberals as a path forward, apart from the repudiation of identity politics. Gopnik is considerably gentler toward those with whom he disagrees and has no particular brief against identity politics. But he proposes no clearer a direction for liberals to take, beyond the general credo of moderation, egalitarianism, and toleration.

Gopnik’s exposition of this credo, in a long chapter called “The Rhinoceros Manifesto,” is undeniably appealing. The title comes from the fact that two of Gopnik’s liberal heroes, the 19th-century English polymath John Stuart Mill and his brilliant feminist lover, Harriet Taylor, had clandestine meetings in front of the rhino cage at the London Zoo. Gopnik also nicely calls liberalism itself something of a rhino: “It’s hard to love. It’s funny to look at. It isn’t pretty but it’s a completely successful animal.”

The chapter provides a quick, spirited genealogy of the Gopnikian liberal temperament. It begins with the skepticism and compassion exemplified by Montaigne in the Renaissance, then proceeds to the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment and their concern for sympathy and self-improvement. The narrative culminates with the tolerant, egalitarian liberalism of Mill and Taylor, which informs Mill’s great 1869 essay “The Subjection of Women,” derived from their discussions. There are also agreeable echoes of George Orwell throughout—for example, “liberalism believes in the imperfectability of mankind. It is a perpetual program of reform intended to alleviate the cruelty that we see around us.”

Unfortunately, Gopnik tends to confuse the texts he admires with the larger history of liberal politics. At one point, he suggests that before the publication of Mill’s essay, “women were for all intents and purposes chattel; afterward, they would sooner or later have to be made citizens.” Apart from being rather obviously overstated (so much for Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe de Gouges, and everyone else who campaigned for women’s rights before 1869!), the sentence elides the half-century of difficult and occasionally violent struggle that followed before Britain grudgingly gave women the vote. Gopnik praises the liberal reformers of 19th-century Britain for staying true to “those essential dance steps of nonviolent tactics, constitutional means, and democratic procedures,” without considering that the dance steps in question usually ended at the British coastline. During exactly the same period that Britain expanded suffrage and enacted early social protections, it undertook the largest imperialist venture in European history. And it did so with the support of many liberals—including Mill, who saw the peoples under British imperial rule as incapable of self-government and even wrote, in 1837, that “I myself have always been for a good stout despotism, for governing Ireland like India.”

Once Gopnik has defined liberalism as a moderate, cautious temperament rather than a political program that may, at times, take its own not-so-moderate positions, his next move is unfortunately preordained. The obvious way to defend a project of self-proclaimed moderation is to present it as the golden mean between two equally harmful extremes. So Gopnik’s next two chapters are titled “Why the Right Hates Liberalism” and “Why the Left Hates Liberalism.” In each case, he again gives a brief historical genealogy, going back to figures like Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson (for the conservatives) and Marx and Emma Goldman (for the left). Both of these political alignments, he writes, reject liberalism’s cautious, humane principles of reform, in the first case because of a belief that it goes too far and destroys social cohesion, in the second because of a belief that it achieves too little. Both credos have their attractions, Gopnik argues, but both lead in terribly dangerous directions: in the first case, to authoritarianism and repression and, in the second, to revolutionary terror. Scylla, meet Charybdis.

What all this amounts to is a classic case of the false equivalence that bedevils mainstream American liberalism today. Liberal reporters and commentators, wounded by conservative charges of bias and anxious to avoid their corporate managers’ taking drastic steps to correct it, attempt to balance the examples of right-wing extremism and misconduct they report on with examples of supposedly commensurate conduct on the left. On the one hand, Steve King; on the other, Ilhan Omar. On the one hand, the Charlottesville march; on the other, attempts by campus protesters to shut down speakers they deem offensive. Except these examples are not actually commensurate. Do campus radicals today really pose the same sort of threat to the public sphere as the unholy combination of Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting, Rush Limbaugh, the Koch brothers, and Citizens United?

In Gopnik’s case, his series of false equivalences is especially unconvincing, for two reasons. First, the vision he offers of the left too quickly descends into caricature. “The left,” he writes, “treats the obvious and inarguable lessons of the twentieth century about radical revolutions…as though they had never been learned, and learned in the hardest of hard ways.” Really? How many admirers of Stalin and Mao or even of Ho Chi Minh and Castro still exist in America? “The left in America today,” he writes at another point, “sees gerrymandering, corporate lobbying, and political funding…as signs of a fundamentally corrupt system that is not worth saving.” Liberals, by contrast, “still think that reform can happen.” Here, Gopnik artfully dodges the question of whether the system is, in fact, fundamentally corrupt (yes?), while suggesting that the left will settle for nothing less than its complete overthrow. Some on the left undoubtedly have such dreams, but at the same time, most would almost certainly work to bring about something considerably less ambitious.

In fact, by Gopnik’s own criteria, nearly everyone on the left in the United States today qualifies as the kind of reformist liberal with whom he is in sympathy. Revealingly, he praises Britain’s 1945 Labour government for bringing about changes—including large-scale nationalizations and the creation of the National Health Service—that were “entirely within the framework of the kind of openly debated reform that is the hallmark of the liberal tradition.” Yet who in America today is proposing a program anywhere near as radical as what Labour enacted or doing so without “openly debated reform”? Not Bernie Sanders, whose Medicare for All bill doesn’t go so far as to include the creation of a National Health Service, and not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose Green New Deal doesn’t include massive nationalizations of industry. Their proposals are both quite moderate when compared with those of the 1945 Labour government that Gopnik praises. And, of course, neither of these democratic socialists suggests enacting their reforms by revolutionary fiat. If liberalism is a matter of temperament and if that temperament is fundamentally defined as reformist rather than revolutionary, then it is not clear what, if anything, distinguishes the long tradition of reformist socialism, going back to figures like Eduard Bernstein and the Fabians, from liberalism. (For that matter, it is worth remembering that Mill, too, sometimes called himself a socialist.)

Second, and more important, Gopnik largely fails to grapple with the fact that the most dynamically harmful force in American politics today consists neither of radical leftists nor of Burkean conservatives resistant to reform in the name of social stability and cohesion. Instead, it is a Republican Party committed to the radical rollback of civil rights, social protections, and democratic procedures in order to benefit the wealthy and retain the allegiance of a sizable bloc of predominantly white, frustrated, and angry suburban and rural voters. There is very little conservatism in this movement, and indeed many genuinely Burkean American conservatives (George Will, to name just one) have recoiled from it in horror. This movement and the angry supporters enflamed by egregious overexposure to Fox News and Limbaugh treat genuinely moderate, cautious liberals with nothing but hatred and contempt. Just think how they treated Barack Obama.

For people who share Gopnik’s values of egalitarianism and tolerance, a serious political program today needs to start by acknowledging and analyzing the historical significance of this radical right-wing movement and the economic and social forces that lie behind it. Commentators on the left today sometimes collapse both the movement and the forces behind it into a single word, “neoliberalism”—but that, to my mind, is a mistake. Not only does it retrospectively tarnish the many honorable older versions of liberalism; it also ascribes far too much intellectual and ideological coherence to what has often been, in practice, a confidence game by powerful economic actors who blatantly violate their professed “neoliberal” free-market principles in the pursuit of profit. The Republican Party today is the party not of neoliberalism but of oligarchic capitalism working in tandem with reactionary, xenophobic nationalism—a phenomenon flourishing in many other places around the world, too, starting with the other superpowers. The enormous forces unleashed by the globalization of the past half-century and, increasingly, by the communications revolution of the past quarter-century have massively strengthened this oligarchic capitalism. Even modest attempts to provide all American citizens with something as basic as decent health care will now be met by ferocious opposition.

In the face of such forces, Gopnik’s liberal credo looks pretty frail. How much can cautious, incremental reform really accomplish in a political system so heavily influenced by vast amounts of oligarchic money and a ferociously partisan right-wing media machine that holds the Republican Party in its thrall? The record of the Obama administration, honorable as its intentions were, is not very inspiring in this regard. It is no surprise that so many in the Democratic Party, to judge by the nascent 2020 presidential campaign, have turned sharply toward the ideas of the one politician who has most incisively analyzed the ills of our increasingly oligarchic republic and devised political programs in response: Sanders.

In his conclusion, Gopnik writes that “effective reform almost never happens as the result of big ideas sweeping through the world and revolutionizing life. Whenever we look at how the big problems get solved, it was rarely a big idea that solved them. It was the intercession of a thousand small sanities.” As a piece of historical analysis, this is rather too simple. Can we, in practice, separate incremental reforms from the “big ideas” that lie behind them or from the particular historical conjuncture in which they were implemented? Gopnik dismisses the French Revolution as “a bloody act of warfare imposed by a minority of true believers…on a mostly unenthusiastic population.” Yet even if this were a reasonable analysis (it is not), how much incremental reform would have been achieved in the 19th century if the French Revolution had not broken apart so many rigid and privileged social structures, inspired so many people, and so desperately frightened ruling classes across the globe?

But, again, the main problem here is that Gopnik is confusing a temperament with a concrete political program and assuming that even the most admirable temperament can act as the principal guide to effective political action. It can’t. Effective political action depends on an analysis of the actual historical conditions under which we find ourselves. In some times and places—the mid-20th century in Sweden, for instance—cautious, incremental reform may well have been the best strategy for moving society in a more tolerant and egalitarian direction. In others, like the United States in the 1930s or Britain after 1945, bolder policies were required, involving an expanded public role in the economy, expanded social services, and taxation measures aimed at reducing inequality and curbing oligarchic power. The United States in 2019 is another of these. To return to Gopnik’s metaphor: While the rhinoceros has indeed been “a completely successful animal,” today there are only about 30,000 left in the world, and the species stands on the edge of extinction.