Adam Gopnik: Liberalism. The “Left,” and the “Right”


The Moral Adventure of Liberalism
Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik: Liberalism. The “Left,” and the “Right”

In his latest book, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism, Adam Gopnik rejects “the right” and “the left” and advocates “liberalism,” which, he says, is more “potent” than either “conservatism” or “radicalism.” However, he acknowledges that “radical” and “liberal” traditions are “entwined, entangled, braided one into the other,” and he affirms many aspects of “conservatism.” These complications create confusion and make it difficult for him to clearly distinguish the two ideologies. 

So why not integrate the best elements from each perspective (and others) into an alternate worldview? Gopnik does not consider this option, though a blend of “liberal” economics and “conservative” racism, as evidenced by Tucker Carlson, could prove to be a serious threat as the old categories become outdated. A better blend is called for.

Following are some of Gopnik’s “liberal” principles that make sense to me (except for his “liberal” label): 

  • “Liberalism Is an evolving political practice that makes the case for the necessity and possibility of (imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not absolute)  tolerance of human difference through reasoned and (mostly) unimpeded conversation, demonstration, and debate.”

  • “Change an institution in small measures and it will eventually improve and larger [changes will result]…. Big reforms have happened.”

  • “Liberalism seeks and eventually sees or admits its own failures. Liberal reform, like evolutionary change, being incremental, is open to the evidence of experience.” 

  • “The liberal idea of community is not one...of blood ties or traditional authority.”

  • “Liberal reform drives toward egalitarian ends.... The point of the liberal act is to expand freedom while also expanding equality.” 

  • Everyone should be treated equally before the law.

  • Stronger individuals should not dominate weaker individuals.

  • Prosperity, pluralism, and peace are valuable.

  • “Fanaticism in political life is the chief enemy of the liberal ideal.” 

  • Liberalism is passionate, patriotic, and public-minded.

  • “Humanism precedes liberalism.” 

  • “Higher education now often seems to be more of a status contest rather than a means for social ascent…. Universities are designed for elite self-perpetuation.”

  • We should seek a society without “mass poverty,” bankruptcy caused by medical illnesses, and “gun massacres.”

  • We should affirm “skepticism against authority…, constant inquiry..., self-doubt” and accept “the inconsistencies and uncertainties of an open society.”

  • “Compromise is not the sign of the collapse of one’s moral conscience…. There is nothing more necessary to a moral conscience than the recognition that other people have one, too.”

  • “What we want liberty for is the power to connect with others as we choose.”  

  • “No living thing is ideal.”

  • “The search for radical change by humane the single most spiritual episode in all of human history.”

  • “Morals and manners change politics.” 

  • “The endless minutiae of social life are the real ground of our behavior, and the slow but willed transitions between social roles.”

  • All behavior is emergent [as in biological evolution],...  slow processes that suddenly make people leap out into new and unseen states.”

  • Liberals want “to understand how change happens in complex systems.”

  • “The rules of a system can be completely different than the rules of the elements that form it.”

  • “Learning to live and work in peace with other people with whom you don't share genes  or a creed is a foundation of modern freedom.” 

  • “The clubs we make are collectively smarter than the people we are. Reason, like musicals, emerges from the meeting of many minds.” 

  • “The power of emergent systems, positive circles of a living truth.” 

  • “A readiness for self-inspection precedes an effort at self-improvement.”

  • “Liberalism takes the idea of a liability into a political practice by trying not to have too much power concentrated in one place or part of the system.”

  • “Knowing that everyone is many things at once, [liberals] want everyone to act with maximum fairness all the time.”

  • “The liberal believes that tolerance must be as tolerant as it possibly can be.”

The following “right-wing” principles, as defined by Gopnik, make sense to me (with caveats in parentheses):

  • “Community is a way of preserving tradition.” 

  • “The most important need human beings have is for order.”  (Order is very important, but not “the most important.”)

  • “Order does not just mean obedience to authority, though at times it does mean accepting a subordinate role for ourselves for the good of everyone else.”

  • “Order means to discipline our ensure that social peace can continue.” 

  • “Shakespeare sings most eloquently about the beauty of an ordered and hierarchical world not for the sake of the powerful but for those beneath them.” (Some hierarchy is needed, but it can be a democratic hierarchy.)

  • “Shakespeare believed in charity and forgiveness, too—justice and order tempered by mercy and cheer.” 

  • “In fact, [Samuel] Johnson thought, the impoverished need order more, since they have fewer means for buying themselves out of natural anarchy.”

  • Even conservative superstars can be confounding. Burke, as hallowed a name among the right as Mill is among liberals, actually spent most of his parliamentary life arguing in favor of the great liberal revolution of his day, the American one, and trying to impeach Warren Hastings, the brutal colonial ruler of India.”

  • “The emphasis on social order is grounded in something still more primal: a reverence for the natural order of family and community,… respect for the military and reverence for religion,... (and) showing deference to the manners and traditions of a people.” (I would say “respect” rather than “deference.”)

  • “Myths matter. Without a sense of common significance and shared symbols. it is impossible for any modern state to go on.” 

  • Most conservatives have advocated patriotism, but not necessarily nationalism.

  • deGaulle’s and Disraeli’s careers show us that “the politics of national grandeur...need not only be the province of gangsters and clowns and crooks and con men.”

  • Conservatives object to “every man for himself.”

  • “The right-wing critique of liberalism is largely an attack on its over-reliance on reason.”

  • “The right-wing assault also tends to focus on the evil that liberalism does internally to the traditional communities and nations it betrays.”

  • “Conservatism is in many ways an even more confusing term than liberalism, taking in everyone from upright patricians to down-home fundamentalist preachers.”

The following “left-wing” principles, as defined by Gopnik, make sense to me (with caveats in parentheses):

  • “A  faith that the future can be better than the past and a confidence that spiritual improvements depend on material ones, that we have to be well fed before we can be high minded.” (I would not say “depend on” and “have to.” Rather, material improvements can enhance spiritual improvements.)

  • Liberals share those left-wing values.

  • “Liberal reform will always be inadequate to the problems of modern capitalist society.” (All reform will always be less than perfect.) 

  • Liberals only gain “a series of grudging and partial concessions to popular pressure,... letting a few lucky poor folks shimmy part way up the liberal chain of being to keep the others thinking they can too.”

  • “The leftist assault on tradition and the past tend to be...breathtakingly absolute.” (Sometimes, but maybe not usually.)

  • “Bourgeois liberalism is not merely incidentally exploitative and inequitable, it is intrinsically and incurably exploitative and inequitable.”

  • “Most left-wing critiques of liberalism now do turn more often on its cultural power and its cultural illusions than on the narrower, classically Marxist terms.”

  • “Neoliberalism is meant to label the spread of absolutist free-market doctrines,...[and] the doctrine that all social life should be seconded to the market.”

  • “When you read the central theorists of intersectionality,... you find that it's an impressively ambitious effort to offer a unified field theory of cultural and economic oppression.”

  • Leftists sees “signs of a fundamentally corrupt system that is not worth saving.” (Not worth saving as is.)

  • “The left-wing pays attention, as well, and sometimes more often, to the evil that liberalism does externally to its distant victims in the foreign countries.” 

Gopnik offers the following criticisms of left-wing radicalism with which I agree (as qualified):

  • “Romantic utopian visions, put in place, always fail and usually end in a horrific car crash.” (Unless they are “put in place” incrementally and realistically.)

  • Contrary to leftist ideology, “economic injustice is self-evidently amendable within the liberal order, if we have the will to do it.” (But amended injustice is still injustice.)

  • “The radical assault on liberalism...does not propose practical politics.” (But that is not always the case). 

  • “Intersectionality seems to come in two versions….  The sophisticated version insists that these nodes identify types of difference and with it types of oppression that are invisible to most eyes…. The less interesting version loses the fluidity of its own social observation and simply turns these intersections into fixed types—not much richer than the astrologers’ Libras or Virgos.”

On the other hand, I disagree with Gopnik’s conclusion that leftists view freedom of speech as “less foundational” than the right to protection from problematic speech, such as hate speech. When he says leftists in general have unjustified opinions about when to restrain free speech, I think he creates a straw man (as he does on a number of occasions). Some do, some don’t, and drawing a clear line is impossible.

I also believe Gopnik contradicts himself numerous times:

  • He says, “Liberalism's task is not to imagine the perfect society and drive us toward it.” But elsewhere he affirms “the liberal ideal.” Ideals are conceptions of the perfect. 

  • He says, “Liberals are not afraid of revolution. But liberals will remain reluctant revolutionaries.” However, elsewhere he says liberals oppose efforts at revolution. 

  • Moreover, in his discussion of evolutionary change, he acknowledges “slow processes that suddenly make people leap out into new and unseen states.” And he says, “Change an institution in small measures and it will eventually improve and larger ones [will result]…. Big reforms have happened.” Evolutionary revolution is revolution.

  • He affirms “radical change through practical measures.” But he also criticizes leftists for pushing for radical reform.

These contradictions confuse his effort to distinguish liberalism and radicalism. 

My main problem with A Thousand Small Sanities, however, is that Gopnik does not advocate the development of what Elizabeth Anderson describes as communities “in which people stand in relations of equality” to one another (see “The Democrats: What Happened to Equality?”). The book includes no discussion of mutual respect for one another as individuals of equal worth. Rather, it only talks about equal rights.

That’s not surprising. Liberals are typically paternalistic. Gopnik is no exception. He clearly comes across as condescending. At one point, he imagines a critic telling him, “This is exactly why people hate liberals. They’re self-satisfied—smug.” Gopnik replies, “When liberals take credit for the accomplishments of the social democratic state...we're merely being accurate. Social democrats are socialists who saw the liberal light.” Smug indeed. That disrespectful arrogance discounts the key role that radicals have played in advancing progress, refuses to accept their identity as they define it, and ignores their own explanations for their compromises, which many have seen as an intermediate step.

His arrogance is also reflected in his claim that “success” depends on “the work of a thousand small sanities communicated to a million sometimes eager and more often reluctant minds.” Gopnik clearly considers himself to be one of those Teachers. But success depends more on peer learning than it does on top-down dynamics.

His regular use of the word “sympathy,” as when he says “sympathy...brings men and women together and keeps them together,” also reveals condescension.  The primary definition of sympathy is “a feeling of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune.”  Gopnik’s use of “sympathy” carries that meaning. And, as Anderson argues, pity differs from compassion, which “aims to relieve suffering, not to equalize it…. [Compassion] seeks to relieve suffering wherever it exists, without passing moral judgment on those who suffer.” On the other hand, pity “involves a sense of superiority and persistent, often subtle, paternalism.”

Gopnik’s book touches on equality only briefly and superficially. He does declare “liberal reform drives toward egalitarian ends” and “equality of opportunity is evidenced by equality of outcome.” But  “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome” are hopelessly ambiguous. So long as some people have substantial material advantages, “equal opportunity” is impossible. Gopnik writes, “We know a race is fair when the same people don't always win it.” But if the same people can’t win, it’s not fair. And at what point after people leave the starting gate do you measure outcomes? After ten years? Two generations? 

As Anderson argues in “What is the Point of Equality?”, the focus on “equality of opportunity” is wrong. Citizens must have effective access to certain goods their entire life, not merely at the starting-gate. 

Moreover, the equal opportunity target neglects whether relationships are based on equal respect. People are entitled to avoid or escape oppressive social relationships regardless of how equally material goods are distributed. Except when he discusses marital relations [“Freedom begins in the bedroom and in the mind.”], Gopnik barely discusses interpersonal equality. 

Gopnik writes, “A society can't be truly pluralist if it is class-divided.” But that seems like Utopianism of the sort he criticizes elsewhere. Modern societies must be stratified. The question is accountability. What voice do those on lower levels have concerning how the hierarchy operates? 

Another contradiction is when Gopnik affirms “rising, if not generally egalitarian, prosperity.” How can he embrace prosperity that is “not generally egalitarian” if he envisions a classless society with equal outcomes? His passion seems to interfere with clear thinking.

He says liberals embrace “a readiness to act...on behalf of equality,” but does not elaborate or clarify what he means. He opens one paragraph with “social equality and political liberty—one depends on the other,” but proceeds to merely discuss Canada’s use of bilingual public notices! And he devotes one paragraph to income inequality, but ends up only claiming that “a relatively small change [in inheritance taxes] can have a large effect,” without discussing how much of an effect or the time period involved. Those brief considerations of equality are hardly adequate.

In Gopnik’s discussion of community, there’s no consideration of the need for democratic communities whose members treat one another as equals. He talks about social capital, civic engagement, clubs, service groups, citizen participation, reciprocity, trust, and cooperation. But he displays no concern about how those groups make decisions. In fact, such groups are often authoritarian or paternalistic. He does not discuss the notion of a “community of equals” and what that might look like.   

Because I’ve so loved his New Yorker work, I tried to keep an open mind. But Gopnik’s “liberalism” irritates me. His condescension is at the heart of what ails our nation. One result is paternalism, as addressed by Charles Blow in “Joe Biden Is Problematic.” Figuring out how to nurture mutual respect and horizontal, peer learning is an urgent imperative. 

I relate to many of the principles Gopnik affirms, but I also relate to many of the “conservative” and “radical” principles that he identifies as “right” and “left.” I see no logical argument for his insistence that his “liberalism” is superior. But he’s attached to the word “liberalism” like an idol, as evangelical Christians insist on the word “Jesus.”(The same applies to other ideologues who are addicted to their own terminology)

His insistence on using the word “liberalism” is counter-productive. “Liberalism” is a confusing term that has so many different meanings it’s worthless. Though Gopnik acknowledges the value of other perspectives, his book reinforces the myth of the “left-right political spectrum,” which is meaningless (see “Beyond Left and Right: Compassionate Pragmatism”). 

His dogmatic addiction to his preferred label contradicts his belief in reconciliation, throws up barriers for those who use different language, and undermines the potential for greater unity. Rather than integrating the best of various worldviews into a perspective that transcends conventional tribalism, Gopnik seems compelled to establish his superiority and the superiority of his ideology. 

Tellingly, however, in his 26-page closing, he forgoes his criticisms of “the left” and “the right.” Rather, he presents the case for his (humanistic, pragmatic) worldview and merely comments on “the totalitarian tendencies of the left and the authoritarian brutalities of the right.” Precisely. Top-down power is widespread—throughout society. Our problem isn’t a left-right continuum. It’s the top-down continuum—with dictatorship at the top, cooperation in the middle, and chaos at the bottom. After all, as Gopnik states in his final sentence, “the real work” is simply the “work of being human.”

Mayor Pete Buttegieg rightly says, “I think everyone wants to fit you on an ideological spectrum which I think has never been less relevant. More and more people want to know what your ideas are and whether they make any sense.” And Tom Perez, head of the Democratic National Committee recently said, “I honestly don't know what labels are anymore.... I, frankly, have a lot of trouble in today's world with what labels mean.”

Why not drop the hyper-competitive assumption that the “left” must defeat the “right”—and integrate the best of these and other worldviews into an inclusive new one? 

The cultural turbulence on this issue and the growing desire for communities of equals may crystallize soon and nurture personal, interpersonal, cultural, economic, and political transformation—systemic, evolutionary revolution. Let’s hope it happens soon enough to save the planet from the climate crisis.