Question for the day: if liberalism isn?t dead, then why are autopsies performed so regularly? In the latest examination of the much-probed cadaver, the New Republic?s editor-in-chief, Martin Peretz, recalls that John Kenneth Galbraith, in the early 1960s, pronounced American conservatism dead, citing as heavy evidence that conservatism was ?bookless? or bereft of new ideas. Peretz writes, ?It is liberalism that is now bookless and dying.? Liberals, he says, are not inspired by any vision of the good society; the liberal agenda consists of wanting to spend more, while conservatives want to spend less. And the lack of new ideas and the absence of influential liberal thinkers, he says, are obvious.
Galbraith?s comment contains some comfort for liberals: Conservatism revived with great intellectual ferment and a long burst of new ideas, and liberalism presumably can do the same. But there is no sign that this is happening. No real breakthrough in liberal thought and programs has occurred since the New Deal, giving liberalism its nostalgic, reactionary cast.
Worse, the cultural liberalism that emerged from the convulsions of the 1960s drove the liberal faith out of the mainstream. Its fundamental value is that society should have no fundamental values, except for a pervasive relativism that sees all values as equal. Part of the package was a militant secularism, pitched against religion, the chief source of fundamental values. Complaints about ?imposing? values were also popular then, aimed at teachers and parents who worked to socialize children, instead of leaving them alone to construct their own values and celebrate their own autonomy.
Modern liberalism, says Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, has emptied the national narrative of its civic resources, putting religion outside the public square and creating a value-neutral ?procedural republic.? One of the old heroes of liberalism, John Dewey, said in 1897 that the practical problem of modern society is the maintenance of the spiritual values of civilization. Not much room in liberal thought for that now, or for what another liberal icon, Walter Lippmann, called the ?public philosophy.? The failure to perceive the importance of community has seriously wounded liberalism and undermined its core principles. So has the strong tendency to convert moral and social questions into issues of individual rights, usually constructed and then massaged by judges to place them beyond the reach of majorities and the normal democratic process.