Fawcett, Edmund. Liberalism: The Life of an Idea. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

  • He dislikes reporters and writers…If he feels that he has been criticized unfairly, and he considers most criticism unfair, he doesn’t hesitate to pick up the phone and complain to an editor…[I]n general, he views the papers as his enemy. The reporters, specifically. They want to know things that are none of their business, because they are little men.”
  • “Now some of his friend Charlie’s flophouses are going to be torn down…redeveloped for office buildings and such…Let people wonder why out-of-town investors let Charlie in for a big piece of the new project, without Charlie having to put up any money or take any risk. Let people ask why the city, after acquiring the land under urban renewal powers, rushed through approval of Charlie’s bid. Let them ask if there’s a conflict of interest because Charlie is also the head of the city’s public housing agency, which makes him a city official. Let them ask. What trees do they plant? What buildings do they put up?”
  • “Then a rumor was spread in white neighborhoods that [political opponent] Merriam’s second wife, who was born in France, was part Black…Letters from a nonexistent ‘American Negro Civic Association’ were sent into outlying residential areas, urging a vote for Merriam because he would see to it that Blacks found homes and building sites in all parts of the city.”
  • The owner of a small restaurant, Harry, put up a sign for his friend, who was running as a Republican against the Democrat’s incumbent politician. The day the sign went up, the local Democratic Party head came to the restaurant. “How come the sign, Harry?…I’d appreciate it if you’d take it down.” “He’s my friend…it’s staying up” said Harry. The next day the local party head came back and asked again, but Harry wouldn’t budge. So the next day the city building inspectors came. The plumbing improvements alone cost Harry [more than $17,000 in 2017 dollars].

‎None of what is described above illustrates liberal governance–it is all illiberal. And, if some of the quotes and stories above remind the reader of our current President, that is because our current President is illiberal. (The quotes and stories are all from the wonderful book by Mike Royko about former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, entitled Boss.)


As a nation we have lost sight of what the terms “liberal” and “liberalism” really mean and, in doing so, we arguably have also lost the capacity to distinguish liberal from illiberal politicians. For instance, one side of the political aisle accuses former President Obama of being illiberal, while the other side of the political aisle accuses Senator John McCain of the same. In fact, they both are advocates of liberal values, as are many other conservative Republican and progressive Democratic politicians. In our confusion, we have now elected an illiberal person as President, and therefore face the risk that he will govern illiberally, with all the abuses of power and intolerance that fundamentally distinguishes a liberal government from an illiberal one.

So what does it really mean to be liberal? Edmund Fawcett’s book, Liberalism: ‎The Life of an Idea, comprehensively explores the answer to that question. ‎

Fawcett’s book traces the pre-liberal history of the ideas and changes in society that gave rise to liberalism (for example, people’s desire for liberty – reliable protection from the arbitrary power, interferences and demands of rulers, land owners, and priests; and the Enlightenment thinking that paved the way for liberalism’s faith in progress); describes the history of liberalism and it’s evolution to liberal democracy; and introduces the reader to most of liberalism’s famous practitioners, comparing how their ideas differed.

1. What is Liberalism?‎

According to Fawcett, “Among European anti-globalists ‘liberal’ means a blind apologist of market greed. To angry American conservatives, liberals are an amoral, bleeding-heart elite… Across the wider world, liberalism blurs in many minds with a Western way of life, whether envied or scorned, to be imitated or left aside.”

‎These beliefs are misguided. In fact, according to Fawcett, liberalism incorporates a wide variety of political beliefs, most importantly the following: (i) the belief in constitutional government and the rule of law; (ii) a hostility to concentrated power and authority; (iii) faith in progress; (iv) respect for people’s individual rights; and (v) tolerance.  L‎iberals come in many varieties, prioritizing these beliefs differently and holding them to different degrees. But a common thread among liberals is the belief that there are moral limits on how those with more power may treat those with less.

It is not inconsistent to be a liberal in the true sense of the word – to adhere to the five principles set forth in the preceding paragraph – and to be a member of today’s Republican Party. Unfortunately, not only do Republicans (and Democrats now too) steer away from the term “liberal,” but increasingly both parties are drifting away from liberal values as well. In 2016, we paid a price for this drift. Yet there is common ground to be found in refocusing on these liberal values.

2. Why Is Liberalism Important Today?

Liberalism rose as a political philosophy in the years after 1815, when the French Emperor Napoleon was finally defeated and centuries of religious strife and revolutions came to an end. It responded to a society (in Fawcett’s words) “energized by capitalism and shaken by revolution in which for better or worse material and ethical change now appeared ceaseless… Liberalism offered means to adapt law and government to productive new patterns of trade and industry, to hold together divided societies from which familiar organizing hierarchies and overarching creeds were disappearing and to foster or keep hold of standards of humanity, particularly standards of how state power and moneyed power must not mistreat or neglect people with less power.” That is, liberalism grew out of a need to help people deal with times of great economic and social change. And it has an important role to play in these current times of great economic and social change.

Fawcett contrasts liberals with both conservatives and believers in other political doctrines. He asserts that liberals are more open to challenging authority and customs than conservatives are. Fawcett further notes that liberals also advocate for human progress through the gradual reform of society, unlike many conservatives, who are more likely to think of the human character as largely unchangeable and society’s scope for meaningful improvement as small or nonexistent.

Fawcett states that socialism, like liberalism, also has faith in human progress, though it’s a more collectivist vision of common ownership and material equality. He asserts that liberals value private choice more than socialists.  Additionally, Fawcett argues that more extreme political philosophies, such as fascism and communism, equated social progress with the “progress of the nation, race or class, from the benefits of which those in the wrong nation, race or class were excluded. Neither fascism nor communism offered [liberalism’s] benchmarks for civic respect, or indeed any clear lines that society might not overstep in its pursuit of the common good.” Historically, these more extreme ideologies also embraced violent, revolutionary change, rather than gradualism.

‎In the Twenty-First Century, new challenges to liberalism have arisen: these include one-party authoritarianism, state capitalism, democratic nationalism and theocratic Islam. “Each denied or shortchanged one or more of the elements that marked out liberalism, most obviously resistance to power and civic respect [for individuals’ rights].”

Fawcett points out that liberalism and democracy are distinct, and that a good deal of the history of liberalism is the story of liberalism’s promises being extended to everyone. “Liberalism is about how authority is to be restrained and talked back to. It is about how people, their beliefs, and their property are to be shielded from the intrusive powers of state, market and society…It is about how the general conditions of moral and material life are to be improved. Democracy by contrast is about who belongs in that happy circle of voice, protection and progress. The ‘how?’ and the ‘who?’ are not the same question. Liberalism is about content, democracy about scope.”

According to Fawcett, “Looked at from the point of view of citizens, liberalism is a practice of politics for people who will not be bossed about or pushed around by superior power, whether the power of the state, the power of wealth or the power of society. Liberal politics aspires to openness and toleration, to settling matters by argument and compromise, to building coalitions rather than creating sects, and to recognizing the inevitable existence of factions and interests without turning them into irreconcilable foes.”

Fawcett contends that liberalism has loose, wide borders, but that, if we understand it, we can more clearly see “where liberalism breaks up into something nonliberal…[including] economic libertarianism, or the conservative defense of prevailing order at any cost.” Or a rise of illiberalism on the left.