The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an Adjective, by Michael Walzer (Yale University Press, 176 pp., $30)
A prominent political theorist and longtime editor of the democratic-socialist magazine Dissent, Michael Walzer has been at the center of major intellectual debates and activist movements of the past 60 years. In his latest book, The Struggle for a Decent Politics, Walzer fuses his longstanding interest in pluralism and his decades of activism to craft a narrative of the “liberal” that stresses flexibility, uncertainty, and diversity. Through stories about visiting Israel in the 1950s, organizing against the Vietnam War, and marching against Brexit, Walzer offers a synoptic view of a career of political involvement. And his wider account of the “liberal” illuminates conflicts about politics today, challenging some of the dichotomies of our own polarized moment.
A debate about liberalism broadly understood suffuses contemporary American political life. Some critics of liberalism—perhaps most notably, Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed—argue that a liberalism of relentless autonomy has dissolved social bonds and led to an alienated misery. Others insist that liberalism should be defended from an onslaught by post-liberalism, nationalism, populism, and other supposed reactionary terrors.
Rather than conjuring some titanic clash between isms, Walzer offers a more parsimonious account of “liberal” as an adjective. Here, what is liberal is not the product of some grand ideology, nor does it necessarily lead to a single set of conclusions (as ideological narratives often do). Instead, it is marked by ambiguity, toleration, pluralism, and an acceptance of openness. That spirit of generosity is not the same as moral relativism: liberals “oppose every kind of bigotry and cruelty.” But it is marked by some acceptance of difference and an openness to correction. For Walzer, the “liberal” is not an ideology but an accent for an ideology; it is “not who we are but how we are who we are—how we enact our ideological commitments.” The “liberal” is thus compatible with a wide range of ideological orientations, and the course of the book is dedicated to exploring the liberal flavors of different ideologies (all dear to Walzer’s heart): liberal democrats, liberal socialists, liberal nationalists and internationalists, liberal communitarians, liberal feminists, liberal professors and intellectuals, and liberal Jews.
In this sketch of the “liberal” as not ideologically tethered, Walzer taps into a broader tradition. Judith Shklar’s “liberalism of fear,” which he cites as an inspiration, argues that the core of the “liberal” is the avoidance of cruelty. Helena Rosenblatt’s more recent The Lost History of Liberalism also broadens the valence of the concept by attending to diversity and even tensions within different liberal traditions. Walzer does not discount the possibility of liberalism as an ideology; he argues that liberalism in this sense (of free trade, open borders, radical individualism, and so on) has many resonances with contemporary American libertarianism. However, he also hopes to show how “liberal” as an adjective can be compatible with a variety of other traditions and political approaches. The “liberal” supports pluralism in numerous ways.
An acceptance of ambiguity and difference structures the book’s very narrative. Rather than assailing his readers with polemical points, The Struggle for a Decent Politics instead advances in a searching and at times tentative (that is, thoroughly liberal) way. The “Liberal Socialists” chapter criticizes “predatory capitalism, profit-driven economic behavior, and a laissez-faire state.” But it also offers a limited defense of income differentiation and many of the trappings of the market economy. A longtime member of the political Left, Walzer also writes that he has “never understood the left critique of consumerism.” The ability of a steelworker to afford a bracelet for his daughter is “an achievement of the organized left, which too many leftists don’t value.”
Walzer’s sense of the “liberal” as demanding a check on power and a wariness about a politics of emergency is in counterpoint to the way that “liberalism” can sometimes be invoked in contemporary controversies. While Walzer uses the “liberal” as a way of tempering existential conflict, political actors since 2015 have at times appealed to some supposed crisis of liberalism as a way of justifying all-out political combat—norm-breaking, lawfare, and constitutional hardball.
In his discussion of “liberal democrats,” Walzer warns against this temptation to turn the legal system against one’s political opponents. He argues that the losers of an election should not face “imprisonment, exile, or death” and applies that teaching to the case of Donald Trump. While criticizing the “Lock her up!” chants of 2016, he also raises doubts about prosecuting Trump: “Even after the events of January 6, 2021 . . . I still thought sending him home was the right thing to do—and then working hard to keep him there. . . . ‘Lock him up’ is not a chant for liberal democrats during or after an election. It is better to say, even in the case of a Donald Trump: ‘That’s not what we do.’” Embodying his emphasis on the provisional, Walzer wrote a blog post for his publisher in January (the month this book was published) saying that he was now more open to arguments on behalf of legally investigating Trump. Yet he remains conflicted. Walzer’s “liberal” is not one of absolutes.
Throughout his career, Walzer has interrogated the demands of human belonging and ethical commitments. For instance, his 1983 volume Spheres of Justice explores the demands of equality in different contexts. The Struggle for a Decent Politics takes up this theme. Throughout, it defends various social commitments not as opposed to the “liberal” but as supplementing it (and as being informed by its limiting demands).
In “Liberal Nationalists and Internationalists” as well as “Liberal Communitarians,” Walzer complicates some popular assumptions. While American newspapers are full of dire warnings about a nationalist threat to democracy or liberal democracy, Walzer instead defends the nation as a key liberal and democratic priority. The national advances the cause of social justice, according to Walzer: “the home of democracy turns out to be, naturally enough, the home of social democracy.” Conversely, he finds that a radical cosmopolitanism—which “den[ies] the value of national membership”—might in fact be illiberal in its dismissal of the importance of national, particularized belonging to many people. Rejecting isolationism, he hopes for the project of international exchange. Arguing that nations have a right to regulate migration (and even to prioritize “familial, ethnic, and ideological kin”), Walzer also thinks that they should be open to some limited number of refugees.
In his discussion of “liberal nationalism,” Walzer implicitly argues that the United States is not a “liberal nation.” Such nations are “ideologically pluralist.” Instead, as “the great un-nation,” the United States is a “multinational, multiracial, multireligious country.” As such, it is “defined by its politics, and people who reject that politics are called ‘un-American.’” Walzer instead endorses the idea that the American political order might best be defined by a kind of creedal patriotism; “nationalism in America isn’t patriotic.”
However, the potential for a narrowly creedal definition of the United States to exclude some people might also suggest the benefits of cultivating some kind of liberal nationalism (in Walzer’s sense) to complement creedal tendencies. In American history, one of the greatest justifications for the abuse of civil rights and for the weaponization of government has been the claim that political opponents are somehow “un-American,” not merely in the sense of ethnicity but in the sense of being ideologically suspect. Indeed, at times arguments about ethnicity have intertwined with those about ideology, so that a group is read as being ideologically suspect because it is ethnically different.
A sense of pre-political belonging—flexible, expansive, and pluralist—can help counteract the risk of ideological purges that threaten democratic stability and “liberal” politics more broadly. Far from excluding others, that kind of belonging could embrace complexity and heterogeneity as part of the American character. In The Omni-Americans, Albert Murray sketched one horizon for that belonging in describing “The American” as “a composite that is part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian, and part Negro.” The family trees of hundreds of millions of Americans suggest how a heritage could be composite—with distinct strands and ever-new assimilations. In a time of growing conflict over what exactly the politics of the United States demands, renewing that sense of a broader compact may be even more pressing.
While Walzer is forthrightly a man of the Left, his account of the “liberal” in The Struggle for a Decent Politics contains insights that might be valuable to people with other perspectives. Walzer reminds us that a spirit of temperance and openness can be in harmony with other commitments—and that maintaining those commitments to others may be an important part of preserving the “liberal,” broadly understood.