The day after the presidential inauguration, a coalition of progressives carried a 70-foot replica of a human backbone to the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington. Their point was well taken. The self-appointed party of the American left could learn from the opposition: Be more upright, less spineless.
Yet you might think that the backbone metaphor begs a question. You can't find the courage of your convictions if you lack real conviction in the first place. And as a group, blue-staters have been accused by friendly and not-so-friendly critics alike of being less than red-hot. They typically prize reason and deliberation; they are not gung-ho. They don't shout "bring it on"; they are suspicious of the blind emotion of tent revivals and military parades. They encourage thinking things through, getting a second opinion, and acknowledging the possibility that one can always be wrong. And that, some liberals worry, is just the problem.
The issue is consuming not just Democratic Party strategists. Political theorists, too, have begun a major rethinking of liberal theory. Take a look at this year's book catalogs, and you'll see the "L" word in numerous titles. Like as not, it's accompanied by words like "passion," "purpose," or "vision."
In different ways, liberals are asking: Could the very values they hold dear rob them of the requisite fire in the belly that conservatives, particularly social conservatives, seemingly have in abundance? Most liberals believe in equality of opportunity and resources, freedom for individuals to pursue their own vision of life, and tolerance toward those whose vision of the world is different from their own. Some of them, however, complain that in their eagerness to venerate their ideals, they too often undercut their ability to be politically effective. To put it in a nakedly partisan way, some liberals worry that Yeats was right: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity."
No one wrestles with that dilemma more than Michael Walzer. In his intriguing and intelligent Politics and Passion: Toward a More Egalitarian Liberalism (Yale University Press, 2005), Walzer takes Yeats's warning as his touchstone as he presses his point from the left. Standard liberalism, he writes, is "an inadequate theory and a disabled political practice." It is inadequate, in part, because its values are not conducive to real conviction. It is disabled "because the social structures and political orders that sustain inequality cannot be actively opposed without a passionate intensity that liberals do not (for good reasons) want to acknowledge or accommodate."
As one of the most distinguished advocates of the communitarian critique of liberal theory, Walzer thinks that liberalism has a problem with passion because it ignores the politics of community. A typical picture of a liberal society is one formed on the basis of a rational contract, where social arrangements are made from the standpoint of enlightened self-interest. That, communitarians like Walzer point out, overlooks the fact that human beings' primary sources of value emerge from the communities to which we belong. Moreover, even in the shifting whirl of mobile Western economies, we don't choose most of our communities -- our family, our ethnicity, our religion; we get them handed to us.
By overlooking those facts, standard liberalism not only overplays the role of reason and autonomy in our lives, Walzer thinks, but also ends up being less egalitarian. If an individual's passions and values are formed in a community, then it is not just individuals who deserve equal respect and opportunity, but the communities themselves. Only by providing such respect -- and in some cases, actual financial support -- to traditional communities can we hope to encourage their members to fully participate in liberal civil society. In short, if it takes a village to raise a tolerant liberal citizen, then villages, not just villagers, deserve the support and the protection of the state.
Lefty communitarians are not alone in making that critique of liberalism. Social conservatives have long argued that progressive liberals, in trumpeting individual rights, ignore traditional communities as a source of value. That, after all, is the reasoning behind the president's faith-based social-services initiatives. The thought is that by supporting programs run by churches and synagogues, which are by nature embedded in communities, the community itself is better supported.
Maybe so. But as the neocons are well aware, traditional family values frequently clash with liberal values. That is not a problem for social conservatives, who often argue, for example, that we should ban same-sex marriage on the basis that it offends traditional morality. But it does present a problem for liberal communitarians like Walzer. Some traditional communities are rife with intolerant oppression -- precisely the sort of thing that enlightenment liberalism is presumably meant to combat. Surely liberals needn't tolerate intolerance.
Walzer valiantly attempts to deal with that concern. But in the end, his principle argument is resistible. Consider a hypothetical local religious community that does not value equal education for boys and girls. According to Walzer, if we are to compel our traditional community to educate its girls, we shouldn't appeal to individual rights; we should appeal to the pragmatic demands of citizenship. If a community wishes to participate in an egalitarian state, it must ensure that its members can be full citizens; among other things, that means that all of its children must read and write.
That argument makes sense as far as it goes. The question is whether it goes far enough. For one thing, it is not clear that the "pragmatic" demands of citizenship -- such as voting -- do absolutely require education, even if they are inestimably enriched by it. But even putting that aside, there are surely harms that an intolerant community can bring upon its members that are independent of the demands of citizenship. Even if we grant that citizenship requires equal literacy for the sexes, it doesn't obviously require that the sexes (or races, or ethnicities) be given equal opportunity to all levels of education -- or that communities recognize same-sex marriages, or that children be taught the theory of evolution instead of creationism. Those sorts of requirements only make sense when one sees the state -- as the liberal does -- as being in the job of ensuring that its citizens are free from explicit harms suffered when a community forces its values upon them. That doesn't deny that our values are shaped by our communities. It just rejects that such values are justified by their origin.
In my view, the reason that liberals are sometimes perceived as passionless isn't because liberal values are in need of a communitarian correction. The reason is that some liberals misunderstand, and therefore misrepresent, their own values. In particular, they misunderstand their values in a way that has made them wary of describing their own moral position as true. And that is bad. For once you cease thinking of your values -- your fundamental moral beliefs -- as objectively true, it is hard to even think of them as values at all. And without political values, there simply is no place for political passion.
Two important liberal values, for example, are equality and tolerance. Liberals believe the state should treat its citizens with equal respect and therefore that the state -- and the individual citizens within that state -- should tolerate, as much as possible, a wide range of different ways of life. It is largely that emphasis on tolerance that sets liberals apart from social conservatives. Social conservatives believe that treating people with respect means treating them as they should be treated given the one true way people ought to live. If that is the Christian way, for example, then treating people with respect means treating them as equally subject to the values inherent in Christianity.
That point was most recently echoed in conservative commentaries on the Terri Schiavo case, but it emerged even more explicitly in the Rev. Bob Jones III's now-infamous open postelection letter to President Bush. As Jones wrote, "In your re-election, God has graciously granted America -- though she doesn't deserve it -- a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. You have been given a mandate. We the people expect your voice to be like the clear and certain sound of a trumpet." The letter went on to urge the president to pass "legislation that is defined by biblical norm(s)," "to appoint many conservative judges," and "to leave an imprint for righteousness upon this nation that brings with it the blessings of Almighty God."
In recoiling from that position, some left-leaning thinkers have argued that liberals need to adopt what the philosopher Richard Rorty calls an "ironic" attitude toward our own liberal principles. If we want to be truly tolerant, the thought goes, we need to stop seeing liberal views about equality and tolerance as objective moral truths. Instead, we should see them as morally neutral. Otherwise, we risk being intolerant about tolerance.
Tempting as it may sound to some, that line of reasoning is a mistake. It undermines liberalism's ability to galvanize passionate intensity. That is most obvious when liberal tolerance is defended, as it sometimes is in the popular news media, on the basis of naïve relativism: If different ways of life deserve equal respect, then all ways of life are equally good. The just state must remain neutral with regard to questions of how to live because there are no objectively true or false answers to such questions. So we should live and let live.
But relativistic liberalism is clearly a rational and political failure. It is a rational failure because its key inference is invalid. From the fact that many different forms of life deserve equal respect, it doesn't follow that we can't criticize some as being worse than others. It is a political failure because if every way of life is as good as any other, then what motivation does the liberal have for opposing the conservative's and trumpeting his or her own? It is hard to stand up and fight for a view that sees itself as no better than the opposition's. Passion has no foothold.
Bloodlessness is also the result of more philosophically sophisticated attempts to understand liberalism as morally neutral. The preeminent architect of contemporary American liberal thought, the late John Rawls, argued over the last decade and a half that tolerance demands that liberalism should be understood as a "political, not metaphysical" doctrine. That is, we should not defend liberal principles, such as the principle of tolerance itself, by asserting that they represent fundamental moral truths. Rather, Rawls said, in defending those principles and whatever follows from them -- for instance, a right to abortion, the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, etc. -- the liberal must appeal only to the uncontroversial popular consensus -- that is, "public reasons" that every reasonable person implicitly accepts. In short, since the liberal state must remain neutral among different conceptions of morality, liberal principles must themselves be justified in a way that is morally neutral and that all reasonable points of view can accept.
Rawls's position was complex, and he was certainly no relativist. But his understanding of tolerance was motivated by a related desire: to make liberal values somehow "float free" from any particular moral outlook. And that is troubling, for at least two reasons. The most obvious problem is that the idea that liberal principles are neutral among all "reasonable" points of view only makes sense if "reasonable" is defined in a distinctively liberal way. The less obvious problem is that were I to believe that my foundational liberal principles were already held by all reasonable people -- whether they know it or not -- it is difficult to see why I should bother to vigorously defend my principles. The battle, in effect, would already be won, so there would be little point in getting worked up about it. Again, passion drains away.
If we want to rediscover an intellectual foundation for liberal passion, then we need to forget about the beige of moral neutrality and favor the red of moral conviction. We need to remember that moral convictions are just that, beliefs that some political ideals are objectively better for society than others.
It is also worth remembering that lots of Americans already view liberals as full of passionate conviction. Take last fall's fight over gay marriage. Eleven states, it turned out, passed bans against same-sex marriage. Liberals -- rightly in my view -- protest that such bans treat citizens unequally and privilege one way of life over others. But to many, it is liberals who are pushing their values into other folks' faces. In the endearing language of talk radio, conservatives across the nation rally to prevent "activist liberal judges" from "imposing liberal values" and "special rights." In short, far from seeing liberalism as value-neutral -- Rawls's "political, not metaphysical" account of fair play -- those on the right see liberalism as a rival comprehensive morality, a rival way of life.
Conservatives are right about that. And there is no need for liberals to apologize for it. As philosophers like Joseph Raz have argued, liberalism isn't value-neutral, nor should it be. Liberal values like tolerance and equality are just that -- liberal values, neither merely "true for us" nor ethically inert. Rather, they are part of a particularly liberal ideal of the good life -- an abstract ideal but an ideal nonetheless. The progressive liberal believes that other things being equal, the state should respect our individual rights and tolerate different ways of living that don't violate others' rights. That means that progressive liberalism is not neutral among all ways of life. The progressive liberal is committed to opposing ways of life that value racial and sexual discrimination or collapse the separation between church and state. The progressive liberal believes that societies that sanction torture, or are intolerant toward gays, or allow their citizens to be economically exploited are, in those respects, worse societies.
As much as possible, liberals need to argue for their case, as Rawls has emphasized, by appealing to reasons shared by all. But they cannot assume that all of their liberal values will be so shared, even if some are. And that is not surprising -- democratic politics, after all, is aimed at getting others to see things your way. So, much as social conservatives do, we liberals need to stand up for our values and persuade others to share them. And we must do so by defending our theory in the way that one defends any theory: by arguing for its worth on its own terms and for the beneficial consequences it brings.
But what of passion? Walzer rightly claims that standard liberal theory has too often ignored the role involuntary associations like family, race, and religion play in shaping our identities and stirring our blood. But we wouldn't share emotional bonds with other group members if we didn't also share values. I've argued that liberals do share a set of values, and that passionate commitment to them -- including the values of equality and tolerance -- requires seeing them as objectively worth defending. But it is also worth remembering that values are not just crystalline principles, sparkling under the light of reason. To talk about my values is to talk about what I care about, what I admire, what I aim for, and what I want others to aim for as well: tolerance for a wide array of lifestyles, compassion for those less fortunate than we, and the moral courage to stand up for our rights and the rights of others. So far from being a cold theory of rational neutrality, progressive liberalism is a theory of value -- and theories of value are theories of what we care about.
Liberals favor reason and evenhandedness; they are tolerant; they believe in autonomy, individual rights, and equality. But they can and should be fervent in defending the truth of those ideals. Liberals have no inherent problem with passion. They just need to remember to keep passion alive, and not to waiver in the face of spirited opposition. They just need to remember their backbone.
Michael P. Lynch is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut and author of True to Life: Why Truth Matters (MIT Press, 2004).