Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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Liberal passions: a redemptive finale

Having noted some liberal lapses, this chapter ends with a corrective to a typical misidentification of the relationship of liberals to their creed. It is not in doubt that liberalism is about the rational application of reason to political issues. Yet in recent times that has often been costly in failing to find a language appealing to populations with different political tastes. The association of liberalism with cool, reflective rationality is only one side of the coin. Like any other ideology, liberalism has an emotional side that its critics underestimate and of which its adherents are not always aware. For Hobhouse, ‘the philosophies that remain ineffectual and academic are those that are formed by abstract reflection without relation to the thirsty souls of human kind.’ He contended that only the philosophies that arose out of the practical demands of human feeling have driving force. In effect, that is what gave them their ideological force. Liberalism was not just about reason but about imagination and social sentiment. That, liberals believe, is where one of liberalism’s great strengths lies: its rational ideas—at their best—inspire passion and commitment. Liberals get hot under the collar when confronted with injustice, and outraged by violations of human dignity and by physical violence against people. Dehumanizing acts provoke anger and protest—though liberals being liberals, such protests usually occur through petitions, letters to the editor, and campaigns to change laws or policy, rather than by direct action. That is one reason, perhaps, why the suffragettes fighting for their right to vote over a century ago lost patience with liberalism. Liberal parties have been modest in their use of bombast and propaganda to arouse support in an age of mass politics, unlike demagogues from the left and the right. That, unfortunately, reduces their competitive edge in the world of politics.

Liberals, as we saw in , are not averse to nationalism either, though they may prefer its milder and less strident forms of patriotism. And nationalism is a very emotive practice of identifying with one’s country or ethnicity. Liberals appear to extend the right to national self-determination to all nations, though in a world that acknowledges plural ethnic groupings it is increasingly complicated to agree on who constitutes a nation. Ultimately, liberals wax emotional about their own view of the world. As the Italian liberal historian Guido de Ruggiero put it, ‘liberalism possesses that kind of tact or flair …which …is true political sensitiveness, and serves to recognize everything that is human—human strength and human weakness, human reason and human passion, human interest and human morality’. It is therefore fitting to end this book with Hobhouse’s message to liberal democrats:

… they may come to learn that the vision of justice in the wholeness of her beauty kindles a passion that may not flare up into moments of dramatic scintillation, but burns with the enduring glow of the central heat.
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