Reviving Liberal Republicanism in America

Introduction to Liberalism

 
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Fawcett, Edmund. Liberalism: The Life of an Idea. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

  • He dislikes reporters and writers…If he feels that he has been criticized unfairly, and he considers most criticism unfair, he doesn’t hesitate to pick up the phone and complain to an editor…[I]n general, he views the papers as his enemy. The reporters, specifically. They want to know things that are none of their business, because they are little men.”

  • “Now some of his friend Charlie’s flophouses are going to be torn down…redeveloped for office buildings and such…Let people wonder why out-of-town investors let Charlie in for a big piece of the new project, without Charlie having to put up any money or take any risk. Let people ask why the city, after acquiring the land under urban renewal powers, rushed through approval of Charlie’s bid. Let them ask if there’s a conflict of interest because Charlie is also the head of the city’s public housing agency, which makes him a city official. Let them ask. What trees do they plant? What buildings do they put up?”

  • “Then a rumor was spread in white neighborhoods that [political opponent] Merriam’s second wife, who was born in France, was part Black…Letters from a nonexistent ‘American Negro Civic Association’ were sent into outlying residential areas, urging a vote for Merriam because he would see to it that Blacks found homes and building sites in all parts of the city.”

  • The owner of a small restaurant, Harry, put up a sign for his friend, who was running as a Republican against the Democrat’s incumbent politician. The day the sign went up, the local Democratic Party head came to the restaurant. “How come the sign, Harry?…I’d appreciate it if you’d take it down.” “He’s my friend…it’s staying up” said Harry. The next day the local party head came back and asked again, but Harry wouldn’t budge. So the next day the city building inspectors came. The plumbing improvements alone cost Harry [more than $17,000 in 2017 dollars].

‎None of what is described above illustrates liberal governance–it is all illiberal. And, if some of the quotes and stories above remind the reader of our current President, that is because our current President is illiberal. (The quotes and stories are all from the wonderful book by Mike Royko about former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, entitled Boss.)


As a nation we have lost sight of what the terms “liberal” and “liberalism” really mean and, in doing so, we arguably have also lost the capacity to distinguish liberal from illiberal politicians. For instance, one side of the political aisle accuses former President Obama of being illiberal, while the other side of the political aisle accuses Senator John McCain of the same. In fact, they both are advocates of liberal values, as are many other conservative Republican and progressive Democratic politicians. In our confusion, we have now elected an illiberal person as President, and therefore face the risk that he will govern illiberally, with all the abuses of power and intolerance that fundamentally distinguishes a liberal government from an illiberal one.

So what does it really mean to be liberal? Edmund Fawcett’s book, Liberalism: ‎The Life of an Idea, comprehensively explores the answer to that question. ‎

Fawcett’s book traces the pre-liberal history of the ideas and changes in society that gave rise to liberalism (for example, people’s desire for liberty – reliable protection from the arbitrary power, interferences and demands of rulers, land owners, and priests; and the Enlightenment thinking that paved the way for liberalism’s faith in progress); describes the history of liberalism and it’s evolution to liberal democracy; and introduces the reader to most of liberalism’s famous practitioners, comparing how their ideas differed.