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How do we restore a decent politics? Political Theorist Michael Walzer on the importance of liberal as an adjective

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Michael Walzer, an American political theorist and public intellectual, about his thought-provoking book, The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an Adjective.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Michael Walzer, the great American political theorist and public intellectual who has written 27 books and published more than 300 articles, essays, and book reviews in the New Republic, The New York Times Review of Books, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His latest book, The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an Adjective, is a personal one that powerfully and persuasively defends liberalism against its growing ranks of opponents on the Le7ft and the Right. I’m grateful to speak with him about the book’s ideas and arguments, including what it means for liberal to be an adjective rather than a noun. Michael, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

MICHAEL WALZER: Thank you. I am eager to talk to you about the book.

SEAN SPEER: You start the book with a big argument. You make the case that liberalism as an ideology rooted in free markets, free trade, a minimal state, radical individualism, civil liberty, religious tolerance, and minority rights is dead. What happened to it? How was it killed?

MICHAEL WALZER: I’m not sure it’s dead. It’s just incoherent as an ideology these days because in Europe it is still what you described, it is still a right-wing libertarian laissez-faire, minimal-state ideology. In America, New Deal liberalism is our very modest version of social democracy, very modest version, but still our social democracy.

But I think liberal is more interesting, more important politically, if we think of it as a way that qualifies our other convictions. So if we are a right-wing, laissez-faire conservative, then liberal would describe a more open-minded, less Trumpist, or anti-Trumpist version of that politics. If you are a social democrat or a socialist, as I am, liberal describes not a moderate version of socialism but an anti-authoritarian version of socialism.

If you are a liberal democrat, the conviction is carried by the noun. A democrat believes that in government with the consent of the governed, and majority rule, and a liberal democrat is someone who believes that majorities can’t do just anything they want. They have to be constrained by human rights, civil liberties, and the effective instrument is judicial review. If you are a liberal socialist, you don’t believe that the vanguard can tyrannize over everyone else. If you’re a liberal nationalist, you believe that every nation has the same rights to self-determination.

So liberal connotes a certain quality, a certain sensibility of generosity, open-mindedness, pluralist sensibility, that there is more than one of whatever there is. I like best the definition of my favourite actress, Lauren Bacall, who said, “A liberal is someone who doesn’t have a small mind.” And you can attach that notion to different political convictions.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a great starting point: There are these common ideals or traits shared amongst this group, or maybe put differently, that distinguishes them from the illiberal forces in modern life. Let me take up your argument about liberalism as an adjective. Michael, does liberal as an adjective modify its noun the same way? That is to say, does it essentially have the same meaning, whether it’s liberal nationalism or liberal socialism or liberal democracy, or whatever?

MICHAEL WALZER: It has possibly somewhat different meanings, but related meanings. A liberal democrat would put restrictions on majority rule. A liberal socialist would put restrictions on minority, the rule of the vanguard, the people who know the true course of history.

A liberal nationalist puts restrictions on what nationalism means because a liberal nationalist is someone who recognizes the rights of the nation that comes next. So a liberal Han nationalist in China would be someone who recognizes the rights of the Tibetan people. A liberal Turkish nationalist would be someone who recognizes the rights of the Kurds. A liberal Jewish nationalist would be someone who recognizes the rights of the Palestinians.

A liberal communitarian is someone who insists that there is a multitude of communities that coexist within some kind of democratic liberal framework. A liberal feminist—I have a chapter written with the cooperation of every woman in my family—a liberal feminist is someone who believes that there are different ways of asserting gender equality.

SEAN SPEER: I want to ask you about the rise of illiberalism. Let me give one hypothesis. What if it’s because liberalism is boring in that its inherent pluralism means that it can’t fulfill people’s innate need for meaning and purpose? What do you think of that line of argument?

MICHAEL WALZER: Yes, I’ve heard the same argument about social democracy. Social democracy is boring. I mean, there are versions of liberal politics and versions of social democratic politics that are complacent, moderate in a bad way. Too moderate. I don’t think a liberal democrat who really believes in the rule of the consent of the governed—really believes in the consent of all of the governed. That’s not a boring position; it’s a position that requires constant struggle because, in fact, in every community there are excluded groups and oppressed groups.

A liberal socialist is not—I suppose you could be a boring liberal socialist, but if you are committed to an egalitarian society, you’ve got a lot of fights that you can’t avoid, that you have to engage. So a couple of the reviews of my book have suggested that I am a moderate and fair-minded person, and I don’t think that’s an accurate description at all. I don’t think liberal equates that way. I don’t think liberal—I mean, there is a meaning obviously in the adjective. “Liberal democrat” is against the rule of a majority that thinks it can do anything it wants, and especially against the rule of a maximal leader who claims to embody the majority. But that doesn’t mean that you aren’t a militant defender of all of the groups excluded from our democracies.

SEAN SPEER: It seems to me that one of the challenges for liberalism is that it brings together people who share divergent political preferences. I’m pretty conservative, Michael, and as you say, you are a socialist, and yet we share a commitment to a basic liberal framework. Is it possible in your mind to build a political or even social coalition around liberalism, or do its adherents differ too much for that to be practical?

MICHAEL WALZER: Well, if you are a liberal conservative, then we have important commitments in common, above all the commitment not to try to destroy the other. I won’t destroy you, and you don’t destroy me. And that’s an important commitment. It doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t be significantly opposed in the political arena.

Right now, I think it is very important to build a coalition in America against Trumpism, in Israel against the radical ultranationalist Right, in Hungary against what Orban calls illiberal democracy. And those coalitions can include people who have disagreements over social and economic policy. But once we win, as I hope we will, the battle against illiberal Trumpist, Orbanist politics, then we’ll fight with each other.

SEAN SPEER: I read a funny review of the book in preparation for our conversation in which the reviewer, a British intellectual historian, writes that “Reading between the lines, we learned that in fact, Walzer believes that the Right, wrong in its continuing adherence to capitalism, but correct in its eschewal of intellectual fashion, currently has a monopoly on political wisdom.” Is there any truth in that interpretation, or do you think he just misread the book?

MICHAEL WALZER: I think he misread the book. It is true that I live on the Left, and I’m constantly arguing with my neighbours. So a lot of the arguments in the book are arguments with leftists that I think are illiberal. But I also have a lot of arguments that deal with contemporary conservatism.

Look, when I was a kid, I had a close friend—I talk about this in the book—who was the nephew of the local Republican party boss in a Western Pennsylvania town. We went together to hear Joe McCarthy give one of his diatribes. And I was horrified, and my friend was disgusted because he was a liberal Republican. So the two of us could have fought against McCarthyism, which in fact had overwhelming support in the Republican Party. So yes, there are some liberal conservatives these days who, in the fights, for example, on campus, are defending free speech and academic freedom against some on the far Left. And yes, I can stand with them. If we win that argument, we’re going to have a lot to do.

SEAN SPEER: Well, let me take up that point because, while I’m the first to recognize that the Right is facing serious challenges with respect to the rise of illiberalism within its ranks, the face of illiberalism on the Left can manifest itself somewhat counterintuitively in the form of tolerance. The idea being that true pluralism gives too much deference to ideas or values that are wrong or offensive. What do you think is behind this growing tendency?

MICHAEL WALZER: The tendency to be too tolerant? Is that what you’re suggesting?

SEAN SPEER: The kind of illiberalism that you describe on campus, I think, has a self-image of tolerance. That it is trying to protect different groups from being subjected to ideas or arguments or values that are offensive, but the tools that they use to effectively impose that point of view can themselves be illiberal.

MICHAEL WALZER: Right. And are, in fact, illiberal. I don’t believe in restricting the right of speakers on campus to offend some people in the audience. If you are engaged in political life, you have to be prepared to be offended by people you disagree with. On hate speech, on open advocacy of violence against minority groups, I would impose restrictions. But on ordinary discourse, Right and Left, ugly sometimes, sometimes sentimental, sometimes pious, I don’t want restrictions. And I don’t think that a group of people who shout down someone they disagree with on campus because they’re afraid that what he says will offend them that doesn’t pass muster as tolerance.

It is a radical intolerance, and there is too much of it. It comes on the Left from militant far-Left students. It comes on the Right from state legislatures, who are trying to censor what gets taught in our schools. The struggle against those forms of censorship is a liberal struggle. And it brings together some conservatives and some leftists.

SEAN SPEER: One of the debates that we’re having in Canada is about what, if any, constraints ought to be placed on pluralism in a society that’s increasingly diverse in its culture, political, and religious values and preferences. The Quebec government, for instance, has passed legislation banning religious symbols for those working in the public service. As a liberal, I’m instinctively imposed to the law, but I wonder, in your framework, if there are any constraints that ought to be or can be imposed by society on the practice of pluralism.

MICHAEL WALZER: I do think that we can make demands on groups that we tolerate and that we recognize as the legitimate part of the pluralist universe. For example, in some religious communities—in some evangelical, in some ultraorthodox Jewish, in some Muslim communities—girls are treated very differently than boys in the educational system. Now, these children are going to grow up to vote in our elections. And so I think we have a right—the liberal state has a right—to impose a national curriculum on subjects like the history of the country, the meaning of democracy, subjects of that sort because the education of citizens is something we all have an interest in. Parents don’t have an exclusive right to their children because they’re our future fellow citizens. So that’s an example of restraint.

Also, I think interventions on things like early or forced marriages, on the more radical versions of female circumcision. On dress, I have a general wish to accept religious forms of dress, but I do worry about the full cover of a woman with just the hijab with just the slit for the eyes.

I talk about that in the book. I think first of all, the state has a right to require, in a courtroom, in a passport office a right to require that the face be uncovered. And I wonder about education. I once lectured at an English university where there were a number of women in the full cover. And there was a discussion in class, and many of them spoke. Afterwards, one of them came up to me, and I couldn’t tell what she had said before because I couldn’t see her face. So I’m not sure that it might be legitimate in educational settings to insist on at least the face even if the hair is covered and the body is covered, we live face-to-face. And in some circumstances, I think it might be legitimate to impose a commitment to show your face. But otherwise, I would tolerate, I think you suggested you would, religious symbols in a pluralist society.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah, it’s obviously a tension, but my commitment to pluralism and minority rights trumps whatever my personal preferences may be. And I think that the challenge that Canada and other similar countries are working through is: where are those lines, and how do we think about them? And as you say, there are some practicalities that we have to account for, to say nothing of ultimately ensuring that those living within our society have access to all the same rights that their fellow citizens do.

Michael, another debate that we’re having here in Canada was set off by an assertion by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau several years ago that Canada is a post-national state. I think his comment has been somewhat unfairly characterized by some on the Right, but it does prompt the question, while pluralism is a necessary framework for living together in a diverse society, is there a risk that it’s insufficient as a source of shared citizenship? And if so, do we need something more to provide for a sense of national identity?

MICHAEL WALZER: Yes. Well, there are different kinds of countries in the world, and pluralists have to recognize that the old nation-states, which had an overwhelming majority of a particular ethnic or religious group, are very, very different from newer immigrant societies that have a very large number of different ethnic groups. The United States and, I think, Canada also are not only multiethnic but multi-religious, and multiracial. So yes, in societies of that sort, you do have to look for a unifying theme.

AI would find it being a liberal democrat in citizenship, in the idea of a common politics, a common political commitment. Now that can be a little crazy. I mean, in a country like the United States, we have the phenomenon of the Un-American Activities Committee. And in Italy, there’s never been an un-Italian legislative committee because they’re held together by their Italianness; one can be an Italian communist and still be an Italian.

In America, we don’t have that kind of ethnic coherence, and so we are held together by our political commitments. In this country, it’s the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers—all of that. And so, it makes sense, although I hated the Un-American Activities Committee, they were onto something because it is our politics that holds us together and not our ethnicity. And not increasingly, it’s not our whiteness or our Protestantness. There is no longer a clear ethnic majority in this country, and probably not in your country. So there has to be a stress on the meaning and value of citizenship. And that also means it elevates the importance of education and it elevates the right of the state to insist on a national curriculum.

SEAN SPEER: I should say, Michael, that as a matter of temperament, I share your aspiration for a decent politics, but I suspect some would argue that the sources of our current political debates, which seem to have shifted from how we organize our political economy to deeper questions about identity and culture, that these are zero-sum and too fundamental for niceties. How would you respond to that argument?

MICHAEL WALZER: Well, first, it’s true; there has been a shift to a cultural politics. And it is especially prevalent in immigrant societies or societies that feel themselves threatened by immigration—often absurdly threatened. I mean, some years ago, a right-wing Polish politician opposed the admission of 5,000 Syrian refugees because it would undermine the Polishness of Poland. There are 38 million Poles. So cultural politics can be absurd. But there is a sense in the modern world of being under a cultural threat, different groups being under cultural threat. And I don’t know exactly how to deal politically with that view.

A lot of the struggle has to be internal to each group in the Jewish community. I have to be a liberal Jew who says that there are many ways of being Jewish. Jewishness has changed over the years and will continue to change. There is no single version of Judaism that has to be defended forever. So if there are people within the cultural communities advocating against small-minded versions of the cultural nationalism, we will obviously be much better off.

But how to deal with that in national politics? I am unsure, and I keep coming back, because I am an old leftist, I keep coming back to issues of class. The alienation from Democratic centre-left politics of the American white working class is in part due to the abandonment of the working class by Americans who called themselves liberals.

In the Clinton administration, there was a conscious decision: “We can win elections with the professional middle class and the minorities together. We could win elections without our old industrial base.” And those workers felt abandoned. And one of the forms of resentment that that abandonment fuels is a sense of “We’re being abandoned because we are poor Whites, white trash, and the Blacks and the Hispanics, and everybody else is being privileged over, and we are being abandoned.” And so the class issues fuel the cultural issues, and one way to deal with that is to resolve the class issues.

SEAN SPEER: Let me follow up on that, Michael, because that’s a tremendous insight. Do you see signs that within centre-left or left-wing politics of reckoning with those issues?

I would just say in parentheses, we’ve seen broadly similar trends in Canada. We just had an election in our largest province, Ontario. And for the first time, certainly in my lifetime, perhaps anytime in the past several decades, a number of trade unions actually endorsed the centre-right party because of a sense that the traditional left-wing parties were more interested in some of these issues of culture and identity and less so bread-and-butter economic issues rooted in a conception or an understanding of class. That’s a long way of saying, I suppose, that we’re seeing broadly similar trends here in Canada. And it’s not obvious to me that the Left has yet reckoned with the consequences of those political choices. Is there reason to think that we may see progress along those lines in the United States?

MICHAEL WALZER: Well, I think we have seen some progress, but stalemated by the failures of the Democrats in the House and the Senate to sustain a strong majority. But Biden came into office really prepared to be a New Deal Democrat, really wanting to play that role and to reestablish ties with the working class, and to abandon neoliberal economics. In fact, a number of the people in the Biden administration are Clinton people who were shocked by the 2016 election and realized that they were in part responsible for what happened to Hillary Clinton and to the Democratic Party. And some of them are in the Biden administration, and they are trying to reverse what they did in the nineties. But American politics, at this point, they have a razor-thin majority in the Senate and they have lost the House. And any ambitious kind of New Deal program is temporarily on hold, really.

SEAN SPEER: You’ve been self-critical of developments on the political Left. Let me ask you to try to empathize with developments on the political Right. How has American conservatism gone from, say, the presidential candidacies of John McCain or Mitt Romney to a party that now seems dominated by an illiberal figure like Donald Trump? How did that transformation occur? What were the underlying causes or factors in your mind?

MICHAEL WALZER: Well, a lot of it has to do with Donald Trump and the role of a demagogue in politics. Of course, he found a following, but it’s not clear that the following would have materialized without the leader. Imagine that—what’s his name?—the Bush from Florida had won the nomination in 2016, we would’ve had what might have been a boring, conservative politics without the fury and the zealotry and the viciousness of Trumpism. So in any society, you should not underestimate the role of—I mean, that’s a major philosophical, historical issue: the role of individuals in history. But Trump suggests that the role can be substantial.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a fascinating insight that, in effect, supply has created political demand. And the question for me, at least, as you put it, a liberal conservative, is how does American conservatism get back on track? Do you have a sense?

MICHAEL WALZER: There are Never Trumpers on the Right. So a whole group of neoconservatives in this country have produced a—I mean, I still have a lot of disagreements with them—produced a liberal version of neocon politics, and it can be quite forceful in opposing Trumpism in the party though so far not successfully.

Then we do have to recognize what we talked about before, that there is a large part of the American middle class, lower middle class, working class, who feel that they are being left behind by the professional elite, by the globalizing elite. And the Left has to find a way of talking to those people. And Scranton, Joe, yes, almost, but we need someone younger and stronger.

SEAN SPEER: Penultimate question: have you found yourself becoming more liberal in the face of these illiberal threats? And if so, is that a sign that liberalism may actually be capable of defending itself?

MICHAEL WALZER: I think that I was always a liberal social democrat or a liberal socialist. I was mentored by the people who who founded the magazine Dissent, which I helped to edit for many years. They were all ex-Trotskyists, and they had broken with that kind of sectarian politics. And they had become—and it took a few years for them to acknowledge it—they had become liberals but still believers in an egalitarian society. And at one point, Irving Howe wrote an article in Dissent magazine called “Liberalism and Socialism: Articles of Reconciliation.” So my politics—I learned it from those people.

SEAN SPEER: I would just say in parentheses, Michael, that I’ve surprised myself that, in response to some of these developments, I’m more liberal than I thought I was. I’ve had this instinctive recoil in the face of illiberal arguments that I didn’t fully appreciate I had in me. But when I’ve seen some of the developments on the Right, I’ve come out of this tumultuous experience more attuned and deeply committed to liberalism than I think I would’ve predicted. It’s not that I had illiberal predispositions. I just didn’t realize how important it was to my political identity until it was under threat, particularly by people who purported to speak for a set of ideas, values, and beliefs that I myself subscribe to.

MICHAEL WALZER: Well, I hope there are many, many people like you who are more liberal than they thought they were.

SEAN SPEER: Which is a good way to wrap up our conversation. What are the reasons or signs to be optimistic that we can restore a decent politics?

MICHAEL WALZER: Whenever there are uprisings, look, right now I’m very involved in Israeli politics. And I’m enormously heartened by the extent of the uprising against a radically illiberal government. But I’ve also come to rethink and value certain kinds of small victories from the past that I think—I write about this somewhere—in my hometown, a steel town, a union town, a Democratic town. It was a steel town with a steel company that ruled the town until the union came. When the union came, the town changed, the workers had more money, they became consumers. I’ve never been against consumerism since that experience, that moment, when the whole civil service of the town became more civil to everybody. And the Left has neglected victories of that kind. I think we have to reemphasize the local because even when we don’t win nationally, there are a lot of local victories to be one of that kind that change the lives of ordinary people.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah, well said, Michael. I think starting small is a good instruction manual for pushing back against these illiberal trends and restoring a decent politics. Michael Walzer, thank you so much for joining us. For listeners and viewers, the book is The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an Adjective. What a tremendous honour to speak with you. Thank you so much.

MICHAEL WALZER: Thank you for inviting me.