“Liberalism as Drama”

Andrew Sabl’s review of Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea. Among other things, the book is forthright on how liberalism used to be deeply anti-democratic (and vice-versa).

My review of Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea has just been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. I like both the book and, well, the review. An excerpt from the latter:

… Fawcett faces unflinchingly what too many of liberalism’s historians and defenders ignore: liberalism was, at its origins, an elite and elitist position. It was cool at best towards democracy and consistently determined to define equality in ways that prevented it from entailing political equality. Between about 1880 and 1945, this changed for good. Judith Shklar once wrote, in terms that Fawcett might endorse, that liberalism and democracy shared a harmonious and monogamous marriage — but one of convenience. Fawcett chronicles the courtship and the prenuptial agreement. Liberals “silenced,” though never “abandoned,” their doubts about democracy. Making an effort to shed its paternalist, improving disposition — swapping the schoolmasterly temperament of a Humboldt for that of the libertine, perpetually indebted Benjamin Constant — liberalism dumped its old favorite word, “character,” for a new one: “choice.” Democracy, for its part, changed substantially as well, from a radical and populist doctrine to one that made its peace with representation, elite-staffed bureaucracies, private property, and a definition of popular sovereignty that rendered it fairly empty rhetoric.

One could summarize Fawcett’s story like this: liberals kept their core ideas and gave up their deep, vicious prejudices regarding who could be trusted to live by them. Democrats, in turn, gave up the demos: they would no longer dream of “the people” acting, only of discrete people speaking and voting. The bargain seems, in good liberal style, mutually beneficial.

Read the whole review here. And buy the book.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

2 thoughts on ““Liberalism as Drama””

  1. Andy

    What an erudite and thoughtful review. You actually convinced me not to read the book, because I think I get the point of the volume and its strengths and weaknesses from your review. Yours was a liberal review by your definition in that you endorse the idea of human progress, i.e., that liberalism has accepted democracy forever (“this changed for good”). I don’t believe in progress, so see this more as a historically contingent achievement that could easily slip away. Even now within liberalism, there is a significant subgroup of elites who have contempt for the common person and his/her judgement, and this tendency becomes worse when election results are unfriendly (e.g., Did you see liberal Professor Stephen Taylor advocating an end to the secret ballot after UK Labour lost? He said that clearly, the hoi polloi need to be monitored in their voting and therefore should have to publicly declare which candidate they are supporting). Liberals who care about democracy ought not I think take for granted the marriage that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century is inherently unshakable.

    1. Well, I'm not much of a believer in progress but I guess I believe in lots of stickiness. In a pessimistic mood, I think that liberal democracy has had such a good run that its luck is bound to change eventually. But liberalism and democracy are, at this point, much more likely to survive or fall together than separately (as wasn't at all true in the 19th century, when plenty of governments were quite liberal without being in the least democratic). Liberal contempt for the masses is, of course, always a mood and a temptation. But nowadays I think it's a passing mood and a minority temptation. Most liberals, most of the time, think everyone should get an equal vote and a secret one. Along with the transition from "character" to "choice" as liberals' favorite word, we've seen a durable though not universal transition from Mill's idea of the vote as a public trust for which one should have to give an account to others–he precisely opposed "the [secret] Ballot"–to the idea that while everyone should think before voting, the best judge of whether a person has thought carefully is that person him- or herself.

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