Recently, I spent a weekend teaching about the Progressive Era and the New Deal as part of a Teaching American History grant administered through the University of Virginia. I pitched-hit for Sidney Milkis who knows infinitely more about this period and the liberalism developed through it than me. Nonetheless, after reading a couple dozen essays in two volumes Milkis edited on Progressivism and the New Deal, I came up with a somewhat pithy way to describe the evolution of liberalism in America. Using the ambiguous notion of liberalism reflected in Jefferson’s phrase, “the Pursuit of Happiness,” I suggested that from the founding to the late-19th century American liberalism addressed the pursuing of happiness–the freedom to pursue made people happy; from the Progressive Era to today, Americans have contested the happiness that they all believe they have a God-given right to pursue. While probably not very original, my construction struck the teachers in the program as inordinately generous to liberalism. While as a group they all agreed that liberalism had some relation to “freedom” to pursue interests of different sorts, their reading of essays on Croly, Dewey, TR and FDR, made them rethink their assumptions about liberalism. Most assumed that social security and welfare stand as ends in themselves. In short, liberals have no moral imagination.
The teachers can’t be faulted for their vision of liberalism. In the latest issue of First Things, Bill McClay has the lead essay from a conference sponsored by the journal called “After Liberalism.” McClay’s piece, entitled “Liberalism After Liberalism,” nicely sums up the sense my group had of liberalism: arguing against Justice Anthony Kennedy’s notorious explanation of liberalism as “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” McClay declares that “the alternative private-sector inequality generally is not the vaunted achievement of ‘democracy’ but the gray reign of public bureaucracies, whose ‘equality’ is administered and enforced by unaccountable officials, with exemptions paid out to the politically connected and the ideologically favored.” So much for the legacy of the CCC, WPA, or the Social Security Administration (for that matter).
McClay mentions only two books on liberalism written after 1945, Alasdair MacIntyre’s demolition of liberalism, After Virtue, and Paul Starr’s paean to liberalism Freedom’s Power. The forum in First Things demonstrates that there is little need to address works by Kloppenberg, Rodgers, Westbrook, or Milkis (among the scores of others) that address liberalism in its various complexity. So I have come to an impasse in my understanding of this particular historiography. Have reached the moment that requires a list of books that addresses whatever it is that comes or has come or will come after the death of post-liberalism?
My colleague Andrew Hartman suggested there are three broad avenues regarding the intellectual history of conservatism that need investigation. I ask a comparable question in regard to the what follows our era of post-liberalism. Who is out there writing on this topic (I want to recognized Chris Shannon’s remarkable essay is this general area)? Where are we headed?