Defending Liberalism

"Defending Liberalism," The Alternative, April 1974.


LYNDON JOHNSON’S death on the day before the peace settlement in Vietnam was announced gave Richard Nixon the opportunity, while making the announcement, of vindicating Johnson against his critics. It was a chance befitting the course of events, for Nixon’s policy has rescued Johnson’s, and with it Johnson’s supporters, the liberal Democrats whom he inherited. Now they need not abase themselves before radical critics of the war or before liberal defectors who claimed to be “right from the first.” Those who had the wisdom or dignity to go “all the way with LBJ”—in many cases, further than LBJ himself went—can now return to being liberals as distinguished from radicals or radical-liberals. But they must do so with the appalling recognition that Richard Nixon made it possible. This obligation is not cancelled by Watergate; it is only made more painful.

Why do liberals have so much trouble defending themselves? Liberalism as an “ism” implies a body of doctrine, a more or less consistent whole more or less closed to doctrines inconsistent with itself. But it is evident that liberalism, if it is a whole, is a whole that is afraid to be a whole—and therefore has difficulty in rousing partisans to its defense. To defend oneself it is necessary to recognize the enemy, and thus to have defined oneself against the enemy. Liberals, however, are tolerant, and to show their tolerance they favor a large and various society in which all groups, even enemies, are encouraged to take an interest. Liberal society is a society of interest groups, with the consequence that there is no interest group for liberalism. Even the American Civil Liberties Union, which might seem to be such a group, defends not liberals but the enemies of liberalism, in the spirit (though not the letter) of the maxim attributed to Voltaire that “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” To a degree, this lack of spirit on the part of liberals is merely silly complacency, but to a greater degree, it reveals the nature of liberalism as originally propounded.

UNZ [pdf]