Reconsidering American Liberalism: The Troubled Odyssey of the Liberal Idea

Reconsidering American Liberalism: The Troubled Odyssey of the Liberal Idea

Reconsidering American Liberalism: The Troubled Odyssey of the Liberal Idea

Reconsidering American Liberalism: The Troubled Odyssey of the Liberal Idea

Synopsis

In a survey of American political thought unrivaled in its breadth, Young gives voice not just to Locke, Jefferson, and Madison but also to Rawls, Shklar, Kateb, Wolin, and Walzer. To the problems facing Lincoln and Dewey, he brings modern feminism, multiculturalism, postmodernism, and the current conservative backlash. Broadly informed, scrupulously fair, and marvelously clear, Reconsidering American Liberalism is a tour de force of historical exposition and contemporary analysis as well as significant contribution to the future of liberal thought.

Excerpt

William Faulkner told us that the past was not dead; it was not even past. This insight is politically important because, as Thomas Hobbes wrote, "Out of our conceptions of the past we make a future." That implied that the past was not simply there; it was not just an inert object waiting to be discovered. In order for us to understand our past and thus to shape our future, we must first interpret it. What we must come to understand, in Sheldon Wolin's term, is our birthright, that is, those "historical moments when collective identity is collectively established or reconstituted." Such moments are historically ambiguous, and their meanings are often contested. Therefore they must be interpreted if we are to be "able to reconnect past and present experience." And that, in turn, "calls for a citizen who can become an interpreting being, one who can interpret the present experience of the collectivity, reconnect it to past symbols, and carry it forward." It is our theoretical understanding of past and present that helps to make us a people. Thus, the Constitution is part of our political inheritance, but the interpretation of its origins and its substantive meaning is highly contested. The understanding we achieve of this and other aspects of our history shapes our politics and culture in the most direct way. It is with interpretation of this sort that this book is concerned.

There is also another, connected, interpretive concern. If, somewhat tendentiously, we translate Wolin's vocabulary into that of Michael Walzer, then birthright seems, on the surface, closely related to the idea of "shared understandings," which is central to the latter's work. Citizens, Walzer tells us, share a world of meanings. Precisely what those meanings are and how they require us to act politically are not always clear and indeed may be a source of conflict. It is perhaps not too much to say that that kind of interpretive . . .

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