As a rhetoric, liberalism is commonly used by everyone who talks in public for every divergent and contradictory purpose. One spokesman can remain liberal and be for, another can remain liberal and be against, a vast range of contradictory political propositions. The businessman and the labor leader, the Democracy and the Republican, the General and the foot-soldier, the subsidized farmer and the subsidized watch-maker – all speak in terms of the liberal rhetoric, defending their interests and making their demands. This means that liberalism as publicly used is without coherent content, that its goals have been made so formal and abstract as to provide no clear moral standards, that in its terms genuine conflicts of interest and ideal can no longer be stated clearly. Used by virtually all interests, classes, parties, it lacks political, moral and intellectual clarity; this very lack of clarity is exploited by all interests. In this situation, as has often been noted, professional liberals, politicians, and intellectuals make a fetish of indecision, which they call open-mindedness; of the absence of moral criteria, which they call tolerance; and of the morality – and hence political irrelevance – of the criteria, which they call speaking broadly.
The crisis of liberalism – and in turn, of political reflection in the United States – is due to liberalism’s very success in becoming the official language for all public statement and debate, the political language of all mass communication. To this fact must be added the use of liberalism, since the New Deal period, as an administrative rationale: in close contact with power, liberalism has become more administrative and less political. It has become practical, flexible, realistic, pragmatic – as liberals assert – and not at all utopian. All of which means, I think, that as an ideology, as a rhetoric, liberalism has often become irrelevant to political positions having moral content.
…As an articulation of ideals, liberalism remains compelling, but on each of the other three aspects of political philosophy – as ideology, as designation of historical agencies, and as a set of theories about man, society and history – its relevance is now largely historical only.
That liberalism has become the common denominator of political and moral rhetoric in America testifies to the compelling character of liberal ideals. But it also testifies to the fact that these ideals have been increasingly divorced from any historical agencies by which they might be realized. Of course, it is easier to agree upon abstract and general ends than upon the relevance and the necessity of specific means to such proclaimed ends. That is one reason liberalism is now more of a rhetoric than anything else.
It is doubtful that liberalism is in a position to designate the condition under which the ideals it proclaims might be realized. It has been detached from any tenable theory of society and from any effective means of action. Accordingly, however engaging as a set of ideals, even these ideals in their abstract and formal condition are no longer useful as guidelines to judgments about what is going on in the world, or as guidelines for those who would by the will of men consciously modify the course of historical events.
As a set of theories – or better, of assumptions about man, society, history – liberalism today is at a dead end. The optative mood has so thoroughly taken over that liberals often appear out of touch with the going realities. That is one reason it is so difficult to sort out distinctively liberal theories as such. Often failing to recognize facts that cry out to be recognized, liberalism is irrelevant to much that is happening in much of the world. Liberal ways of looking at these facts too often become mannerisms by which liberals avoid considering the structural conditions of social life and the need to change them. In fact, liberals have no convincing view of the structure of society as a whole – other than the now vague notion of it as some kind of a big balance. They have no firm sense of the history of our times and of their nation’s or of their generation’s place within that history.
Liberalism has been the firm ideology of one class inside one epoch – the urban and entrepreneurial middle class. On a world-wide scale that class is now often simply not available and their epoch has now largely passed. If the moral force of liberalism is still abstractly stimulating, its sociological content is weak: its political means of action are unpromising, unconvincing, unimaginative. It has no theory of man in society, no theory of man as the maker of history. It has no political program adequate to the moral ideals it professes. Twentieth-century liberals have stressed ideals much more than theory and agency. But that is not all: they have stressed going agencies and institutions in such ways as to transform them into the foremost ideals of liberalism.
As a compelling, or even a useful, ideology, liberalism belongs to the heroic epoch of the middle classes of the already industrialized nations of capitalism; nowadays, as ideology and as rhetoric, it is much more useful as a defense of the status quo – in the rich minority of nations, and of these nations before the rest of the world – than as a creed for deliberate historical change.
To the world’s range of enormous problems, liberalism responds with its verbal fetish of “Freedom” plus a shifting series of opportunistic reactions. The world is hungry; the liberal cries, “Let us make it free!” The world is tired of war; the liberal cries, “Let us arm for peace!” The peoples of the world are without land; the liberal cries, “Let us beg the landed oligarchs to parcel some of it out!” In sum: the most grievous charge today against liberalism and its conservative varieties is that they are so utterly provincial, and thus so irrelevant to the major problems that must now be confronted in so many areas of the world.