It took liberals just two decades to turn from hubris to hand-wringing. When the Berlin Wall fell, their confidence was unbounded. The ‘End of History' was declared. Liberalism had won. Today, with the rise of populism, liberals are walking around like clueless tourists, wondering how we ended up here and what to do about it.
Liberals forgot three fundamental facts about liberalism: a liberal society is a permanent work in progress; the work is hard; the lure of illiberalism is always strong. The forgetfulness of liberals led them to complacency and presumptuousness. Victims of their own short-term success, they failed to maintain the energy and passion necessary to fuel sustainable liberalism. The intellectual triumph of liberalism led to its political neutralisation.
Adam Gopnik accurately describes how the received view of liberals is as weak, unable even to take their own side in an argument. ‘There are no atheists in foxholes, and no liberals in bar fights,' he writes. ‘In the middle of the bar fight, the liberal is writing a blog post about biodegradable bottles or, more likely, trying to start a tasting of artisanal bourbons.' The liberal as weakling is one of the false impressions Gopnik sets out to correct. Another is of the liberal as a kind of lawyer, procedural and technocratic, writing ‘the rules on a board game box'.
Liberalism is in fact vivid, activist, questing. It is a moral movement to fashion a world for all of us, in our kaleidoscopic complexity, to live, love and learn in. Right now, liberals do not need a philosophy lecture. They need a rallying cry, and Gopnik gives us one.