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A compelling and deeply felt exploration and defense of liberalism: what it actually is, why it is relevant today, and how it can help our society chart a forward course. The Future of Liberalism represents the culmination of four decades of thinking and writing about contemporary politics by Alan Wolfe, one of America’s leading scholars, hailed by one critic as “one of lib A compelling and deeply felt exploration and defense of liberalism: what it actually is, why it is relevant today, and how it can help our society chart a forward course. The Future of Liberalism represents the culmination of four decades of thinking and writing about contemporary politics by Alan Wolfe, one of America’s leading scholars, hailed by one critic as “one of liberalism’s last and most loyal sons.” Wolfe mines the bedrock of the liberal tradition, explaining how Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, and other celebrated minds helped shape liberalism’s central philosophy. Wolfe also examines those who have challenged liberalism since its inception, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to modern conservatives, religious fundamentalists, and evolutionary theorists such as Richard Dawkins. Drawing on both the inspiration and insights of seminal works such as John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?,” and Mill’s On Liberty and The Subjection of Women, Wolfe ambitiously sets out to define what it truly means to be a liberal. He analyzes and applauds liberalism’s capacious conception of human nature, belief that people outweigh ideology, passion for social justice, faith in reason and intellectual openness, and respect for individualism. And we see how the liberal tradition can influence and illuminate contemporary debates on immigration, abortion, executive power, religious freedom, and free speech. But Wolfe also makes it clear that before liberalism can be successfully applied to today’s problems, it needs to be recovered, understood, and embraced—not just by Americans but by all modern people—as the most beneficial way to live in our complex modern world. The Future of Liberalism is a crucial, enlightening, and immensely rewarding step in that direction.


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A compelling and deeply felt exploration and defense of liberalism: what it actually is, why it is relevant today, and how it can help our society chart a forward course. The Future of Liberalism represents the culmination of four decades of thinking and writing about contemporary politics by Alan Wolfe, one of America’s leading scholars, hailed by one critic as “one of lib A compelling and deeply felt exploration and defense of liberalism: what it actually is, why it is relevant today, and how it can help our society chart a forward course. The Future of Liberalism represents the culmination of four decades of thinking and writing about contemporary politics by Alan Wolfe, one of America’s leading scholars, hailed by one critic as “one of liberalism’s last and most loyal sons.” Wolfe mines the bedrock of the liberal tradition, explaining how Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, and other celebrated minds helped shape liberalism’s central philosophy. Wolfe also examines those who have challenged liberalism since its inception, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to modern conservatives, religious fundamentalists, and evolutionary theorists such as Richard Dawkins. Drawing on both the inspiration and insights of seminal works such as John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?,” and Mill’s On Liberty and The Subjection of Women, Wolfe ambitiously sets out to define what it truly means to be a liberal. He analyzes and applauds liberalism’s capacious conception of human nature, belief that people outweigh ideology, passion for social justice, faith in reason and intellectual openness, and respect for individualism. And we see how the liberal tradition can influence and illuminate contemporary debates on immigration, abortion, executive power, religious freedom, and free speech. But Wolfe also makes it clear that before liberalism can be successfully applied to today’s problems, it needs to be recovered, understood, and embraced—not just by Americans but by all modern people—as the most beneficial way to live in our complex modern world. The Future of Liberalism is a crucial, enlightening, and immensely rewarding step in that direction.

30 review for The Future of Liberalism

  1. 4 out of 5

    ShawnLeeZX

    A good summary on liberalism, but do not touch much about the social economic precondition of our time.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Aaron

    More than anything else, this book is a primer in the truest sense - Wolfe touches on just about every significant theorist in the canon but can’t spend much time with any of them, so you’re left primed to do the more important reading on the original sources on your own time. In this, The Future of Liberalism doesn’t wander far from any number of basic polisci overviews. The only difference is that Wolfe is trying for popular topicality and a wide audience, so he can’t leave off at merely descr More than anything else, this book is a primer in the truest sense - Wolfe touches on just about every significant theorist in the canon but can’t spend much time with any of them, so you’re left primed to do the more important reading on the original sources on your own time. In this, The Future of Liberalism doesn’t wander far from any number of basic polisci overviews. The only difference is that Wolfe is trying for popular topicality and a wide audience, so he can’t leave off at merely describing liberalism, he has to contemporize and ultimately make something prescriptive out of it to let the exhausted population of dedicated liberals know that there is a legitimate and storied philosophical underpinning for the idea of “liberalism” writ large but more importantly that liberalism is something that modern America can obtain and consolidate within the existing framework of bipartisanism. This is a tricky road and it shows. Half of the time, Wolfe veers into Fukuyama territory by noting just how totally liberal democracies have been willing to operate within their own essential procedural (and thereby liberal) frameworks, that we have been more or less dedicated to the retention of the checks and balances established by the Founders and have gravitated (despite our Silent Majorities and Gingrich Revolutions) ever further in the direction of tolerance and sufferance for women, homosexuals, and racial and religious minorities, and that this trend seems more in ascension than decline and continues to lack serious ideological challengers, especially in the West. This is consistent with a theory of liberalism which frames itself foremost in procedure - that how laws are made is more important than which laws are made, and that the parameters of government should not be undone. Under this definition, liberalism has been phenomenally successful on its own terms. On the other hand, Wolfe isn’t shy about making “liberal” out to mean something very akin to the Democratic Party and “non-liberal” as something very directly equivalent to the Bush cadre of Republican Neo-Cons, a politically useful divide which nonetheless betrays his larger statements about historical liberalism and its dominance. Either the Republicans are a deadly threat to the very existence of liberal tolerance and its dedication to fair process or they’re just another manifestation of the same conversation this country has always been having, part of the natural ebb and flow of American history. Both are insinuated. But the real kicker of this book is timing. Wolfe elected to publish immediately prior to the start of the Obama Administration and this leaves him silent to rationalize any of what has happened since then, so we are left off with Obama understood as a legitimate Liberal Challenger. He should’ve waited a year. He’s got a chapter called something called “Why Conservatives Can’t Govern”, which essentially roots itself in the Republican decision during Katrina to refuse to implement a coherent Federal response to the obvious disaster on the principle that disaster management is a thing properly delegated to the afflicted States and direct intervention is both counter to state sovereignty and, more importantly, prone to creating a climate of dependency on government which is the bane of the Conservative position. Of course, Katrina was followed by the Oil Spill and the Obama Administration’s stumbling capitulation and deferral to private interests in the assemblage of data and the development of a counter-response, mostly replacing FEMA’s bumbling with a more insidious complicity in releasing misinformation, blocking journalists from the scene and issuing the sort of psuedo-scientific catharsis which was always supposed to be the exclusive province of the Republicans. Wolfe gets dreamy about Liberalism and can hardly be blamed for drawing up the prospect of a truly Liberal American President with so much gauze and glitter, but those lofty notions do occasion the reader to wonder repeatedly whether ours is truly a Liberal president at all.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Nigel

    This book absolutely took me forever to get through, but it was totally worth it. It's really dense and academic and really written more for political philosophers, but, for the parts I could stay with it at least, I still really enjoyed it. Wolfe sets out to define what is really meant by "Liberalism," and then to defend it, arguing that Liberalism is, although imperfect, still superior to any other political theory or philosophy of governance you can think to mention (conservatism, nationalism, This book absolutely took me forever to get through, but it was totally worth it. It's really dense and academic and really written more for political philosophers, but, for the parts I could stay with it at least, I still really enjoyed it. Wolfe sets out to define what is really meant by "Liberalism," and then to defend it, arguing that Liberalism is, although imperfect, still superior to any other political theory or philosophy of governance you can think to mention (conservatism, nationalism, progressiveism, socialism, to name a few). According to Wolfe, Liberalism has three basic forms or stances: Substantive, Procedural, and Dispositional. Substantive liberalism says that government's goal should be to ensure the greatest degree of personal freedom for the greatest number of people. Procedural liberalism embodies the idea that due process and adherence to our general principles of order and fairness have inherent value, independent of any substantive component (e.g., we give due process rights to criminals, even in cases where we "know" they are guilty or maybe don't deserve those rights, because the rights themselves are important, regardless of the criminal's guilt or innocence). Finally, dispositional liberalism says that we value debate and dissent, and do not seek to impose any rigid ideology or value system on society as a whole. Peoples' opinions are diverse, messy, and chaotic, and liberals on some level like it that way. Naturally, these three prongs of liberalism come into immediate conflict with one another. Substantive liberalism's efforts to extend individual freedom runs up against dispositional liberalism's reluctance to foreclose any debate from someone with a contrary view. Nevertheless, Wolfe still argues that Liberalism taken as a whole is, on balance, better than anything else political philosophers have come up with. I really liked this book. I liked learning the difficult and complex theory behind the political values I've always more or less blindly held. Also, I liked that Wolfe stressed Liberalism's commitment to PERSONAL freedoms. On a crude, surface level, this almost sounds like Wolfe is confusing Liberalism with Libertarianism. But he's not. Libertarians reject the idea that government should do *anything* -- leave government out of the picture, and people will be more free. Liberalism, on the other hand, rightly points out that this philosophy is naiive and simplistic. Government can and should be an active player in improving society. But when it does choose to act, it shouldn't work toward the betterment of "the State" or even "the populous." (like say Socialism). It should actively work to enable individual people to have individual freedom -- to pursue their own individual dreams and desires, and THEREBY make society and individual lives better. Lastly, Wolfe does a good job of showing how liberalism stacks up against its strongest contender in our current political climate, conservatism. When conservatism takes as its starting point that government is inept and can't do anything, we shouldn't be surprised when conservative governments turn out to be, well.. inept. It's like asking a vegetarian to run a barbecue pit. They simply don't believe in the apparatus they've been charged with overseeing. Anyhow. I've babbled on about this book for too long as it is. It was dense. It took me months to read. But I liked it.

  4. 4 out of 5

    B.

    A great example of one moderate, reasonable liberal's efforts to wrestle with the tension between classical and modern liberalism. While AW's attempt to graft the classical onto the modern is admirable, it ultimately fails. Liberalism as defined by AW is unsatisfyingly overbroad in scope: in his struggle to steer a coherent middle path between what he sees as "the left" and "the right," his targets are depicted in such a weak and sometimes condescending light that the result is in many respects A great example of one moderate, reasonable liberal's efforts to wrestle with the tension between classical and modern liberalism. While AW's attempt to graft the classical onto the modern is admirable, it ultimately fails. Liberalism as defined by AW is unsatisfyingly overbroad in scope: in his struggle to steer a coherent middle path between what he sees as "the left" and "the right," his targets are depicted in such a weak and sometimes condescending light that the result is in many respects too diluted to be terribly insightful. Reduced to defining liberalism as more of a sober, rational, procedural disposition, all but the extremes remain. The book's strengths are its style and historical content. Weaknesses include AW's tendency to assemble and dispatch straw-men caricatures of views or positions with which he sees as not-liberal, AW's reluctance to present opposing views in the best possible light, and AW's selective history. AW isn't immune to logical contradictions, material historical omissions, or occasional spasms of gross exaggeration, and his forays into constitutional law are universally oversimplified. In all the book is an informative glimpse into the mind and of someone who I'd describe as a moderate, thoughtful, and reasonable liberal, but the book is more accurately described as a subtle polemic than as a scholarly treatise.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ldrutman Drutman

    This book would better be called liberalism and its critics, except that's already been taken as a title. What Wolfe does here is defendliberalism from critics on both left and right, using various critiques to bolster the foundation of liberalism. Wolfe's liberalism is in many ways an odorless, colorless substance, a procedural bedrock that we take for granted. It's the idea of equal opportunity, of freedom of speech, of a political process that's open to everyone. It's the idea of civilization This book would better be called liberalism and its critics, except that's already been taken as a title. What Wolfe does here is defendliberalism from critics on both left and right, using various critiques to bolster the foundation of liberalism. Wolfe's liberalism is in many ways an odorless, colorless substance, a procedural bedrock that we take for granted. It's the idea of equal opportunity, of freedom of speech, of a political process that's open to everyone. It's the idea of civilization itself, that collective rationality can triumph over our worst instincts, that reason can win out over nature, that Kant can triumph over Rousseau. At times, Wolfe's liberalism feels very technocratic, as he dismisses anything resembling passion or emotion in politics as fundamentally destabilizing. Yet democratic politics depends on passion and emotion. Maybe we'd all be better off if we were robots capable of full informed decision-making, but we're not. While this book is highly enjoyable as a compendium of ideas and political philosophies, Wolfe seems to put too much faith in the possibilities of collective rationality while failing to appreciate the role that the passions play (and will always play) in politics.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Joseph Gravellese

    Be aware, going into it, that it's extremely academic, so it's not exactly what I would call leisure reading or something to take on the train with you. It ended up taking me about a year to get through after various stops and starts. But it's worth the mental investment - this is about as complete and clear a picture that can be painted of liberalism and all its branches, from past to present. And as someone who would describe himself as a Wolfe Liberal, I find this book to be infused with a gr Be aware, going into it, that it's extremely academic, so it's not exactly what I would call leisure reading or something to take on the train with you. It ended up taking me about a year to get through after various stops and starts. But it's worth the mental investment - this is about as complete and clear a picture that can be painted of liberalism and all its branches, from past to present. And as someone who would describe himself as a Wolfe Liberal, I find this book to be infused with a great sense of purpose; liberalism, in its many senses, is a cause and an experience worth fighting for.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Mark Grannis

    Wolfe skips around the last three centuries and strings together snippets of various books (some classics, and some fairly obscure) to create a picture of what he considers liberalism. I think that no liberal who wrote prior to 1930 would recognize his ideas in this book. Wolfe is trying to lay an intellectual foundation for socialist welfare liberalism, the bastard child of the prosperity that true liberalism created. Because welfare liberalism is self-contradictory in many ways, the result jus Wolfe skips around the last three centuries and strings together snippets of various books (some classics, and some fairly obscure) to create a picture of what he considers liberalism. I think that no liberal who wrote prior to 1930 would recognize his ideas in this book. Wolfe is trying to lay an intellectual foundation for socialist welfare liberalism, the bastard child of the prosperity that true liberalism created. Because welfare liberalism is self-contradictory in many ways, the result just doesn't hang together, despite a prodigious amount of cherry-picking from the tradition. Really, really bad book.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Marvin Soroos

    This is an excellent, challenging, but readible, book that explores in some depth the history of liberal thinking back to the Enlightment, while offering a useful overview of the various streams of liberal thought in contemporary America and why it is important that liberalism prevail in the America's contentious and polarized political culture. I strongly recommend it for those with in interest in political philosophy and its application to contemporary politics in the United States. This is an excellent, challenging, but readible, book that explores in some depth the history of liberal thinking back to the Enlightment, while offering a useful overview of the various streams of liberal thought in contemporary America and why it is important that liberalism prevail in the America's contentious and polarized political culture. I strongly recommend it for those with in interest in political philosophy and its application to contemporary politics in the United States.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Paul Heidebrecht

    At last someone stands up to defend liberalism and honor its tradition and its contribution to our political life. Of particular note is Wolfe's determination to respect and include religion and religious people in the debate. In the end, Wolfe really challenges other liberals to live up to their heritage. At last someone stands up to defend liberalism and honor its tradition and its contribution to our political life. Of particular note is Wolfe's determination to respect and include religion and religious people in the debate. In the end, Wolfe really challenges other liberals to live up to their heritage.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Daneel Lynn

    「改良式」自由主義的介紹(把「平等」拉進來),多為歷史上各「自由主義」流派與各政治哲學的優劣論辯,所以用休閒心態來讀會不好消化。 立論可接受,但說到實際運作,尤其是面對現今情勢的挑戰,也只能指出對手為何不好,卻空有概念與精神喊話而無具體對策。 嗯,難怪歐巴馬執政八年後也就只是這樣子。

  11. 5 out of 5

    Bill

    Thoroughly researched, eloquently written, and argued quite reasonably, Wolfe has almost convinced me that I am a liberal! This is definitely a must-read, no matter what your political bent.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Mathalus

    This sucked. Didn't finish it. This sucked. Didn't finish it.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Cisco

    interesting philosophy, however the book dealt 70% with the HISTORY of liberalism. still, overall interesting background to our policy and cultural wars.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Joe Miller

    There is actually some pretty good groundwork in here for a liberal/libertarian fusion -- despite what Wolfe himself seems to think about libertarians.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen O'Neal

    I read this book during my last year as an undergraduate at FSU. While I enjoyed it, very little about it stands out to me in retrospect which is probably telling.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Coral

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jesse

  18. 5 out of 5

    Cliff

  19. 5 out of 5

    PF Chang

  20. 4 out of 5

    Tigh

  21. 4 out of 5

    Victor

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ruby

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kite

  24. 4 out of 5

    Phil

  25. 4 out of 5

    ProgressiveBookClub

  26. 4 out of 5

    Mike

  27. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

  28. 4 out of 5

    J. Andrew

  29. 5 out of 5

    Timothy McCluskey

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jen Yates

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