I don’t know what’s more confounding: that Trump won in 2016, that America hasn’t fallen apart since, or that he might yet be re-elected. Certainly, his administration has been a time of widespread hand-wringing, soul-searching, and finger pointing. It has also been a great time for reading about politics. Now Adam Gopnik has added to the reading list with a book-length note to his university-age daughter. The tone, patronizing at times: Don’t freak out. There’s no need to get emotional. Stay calm and carry on. Let me teach you about liberalism.
Gopnik’s left-leaning daughter isn’t the only one who could use an explainer: liberalism is a highly contested and often misused term, with a contested and complex history. We certainly hear the word a lot these days, and although it aligns most closely with the federal capital‑L Liberal Party, it is an older and more varied concept than that connection suggests. Its origins are in the Enlightenment, it’s been most realized in Western countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, and it is increasingly beleaguered around the world.
Liberalism’s most general contours include an emphasis on individualism over group, community, or nation; on reason and secularism over faith and religious institutions; on democracy and the rule of law over tyranny or monarchy; on markets over the state; on progress over tradition; and on freedom and individual rights over arbitrary authority. Gopnik defines it as constant reform through reason. Liberalism, he explains, 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.”
He goes on to trace its rise, central thinkers (Locke, Smith, Mill, Jefferson), and most significant political and historical movements. He wants his daughter — and, by extension, us — to understand what led to the current (mis)use, neglect, and decline of liberalism, and why it is so important to revive and protect it. Understanding this history helps us understand the ascent and the threat of Trump, the alt‑right, and populism.
One can critique liberalism from the left and the right, of course. It’s a helpful formula that Gopnik adopts: provide clarity by giving voice to both sides and showing the limits and biases of each. In doing so, Gopnik plants himself firmly in the middle: moderate, restrained, incremental, procedural. The alternatives are all untenable and, as the title implies, insane. Following his logic to the end, liberalism emerges unscathed and triumphant, vindicated not only in the realm of ideas but also in the world of historical events and long-term patterns.
For the right, the failure of liberalism occurs because of its emphasis on reason, along with permissiveness, relativism, and cosmopolitanism, which taken together neglect the importance of faith and family, order and authority, nation and community. For the left, the failure arises from liberalism’s emphasis on reform, which overlooks the need for more radical and revolutionary pursuits. In fact, Gopnik claims, liberalism can accommodate all the good things claimed by both the right and the left: It can do a better job of making space for faith than conservatism, for example (“Faith has never flourished so freely and variously as it has in the liberal city”). It is moderate, reasonable, and sane in ways that show just how radical, immoderate, and reckless conservatives have become. Liberalism can also be radical whenever it’s appropriate. Indeed, liberalism can outflank both the left and the right!
Gopnik’s account of liberalism, however, is deeply flawed.
Restraint and moderation mark the liberalism that Gopnik champions. Yet its alignment with uncontrolled technological progress, the free market, and endless economic expansion shows that liberalism is anything but sane. It is modernization without restraint. In discussing the colonial legacy of so-called liberal countries in places such as the Congo and India, Gopnik concedes that liberalism tends to “export its atrocities” so it can keep up pretenses at home. Do opportunities for conciliation make up for its failures? Liberal intellectuals and politicians have revealed those atrocities themselves, and Westminster has even issued an apology. Liberalism redeemed!
Liberalism could have skipped colonialism altogether, of course. In not doing so, liberals have shown they do not have a monopoly on sanity or “reason,” which they’ve used to colonize “unreasonable” populations, delegitimize women, and imprison the distraught once diagnosed as insane. Calls for restraint and moderation, like those of Neville Chamberlain, have allowed fascists to come to power. Measured steps to rein in climate change, accelerated by the liberal democracies that benefitted the most from the Industrial Revolution, have proven incapable of solving the crisis. While celebrating parliamentary reforms and leadership, Gopnik minimizes the shortcomings — past and present — of liberal parliamentarians.
As he enumerates the thousand small sanities of liberalism, it all starts looking a little crazy. While it may be true that there has never been a greater need for sanities, moderation isn’t always a sign of lucidity in a time of crisis. Perhaps it’s possible to be sane yet inflamed and fired up — radically committed to justice, democracy, and fairness.
Liberals appropriate the accomplishments of the left just as they appropriate the language of the right. For Gopnik, whenever social democrats do something good, they are acting like liberals, who get credit for countless reforms — from labour laws and abolition to the civil rights movement. Yet many of those reforms were fought and won not by liberals but by radicals and immoderates — who were sometimes fighting against liberals. After all, it was liberals in France who opposed the nascent anti-Nazi movement by playing down Hitler, then subsequently decamped for Britain while the French Resistance risked life and limb. Sanity can mean survival, yes, but it often means betrayal and abandonment. Liberalism would have died out long ago if not for those dogged immoderates.
Put another way, liberal institutions — parliaments, courts, and constitutions — have helped liberal regimes practise a great deal of illiberalism. The enslavement of one society to build up another; the colonization of entire continents; the pillaging of natural resources — the contradiction is baked in. In Canada, the very buildings that house our liberal institutions sit on land taken from First Nations.
Nonetheless, Gopnik urges his daughter to trust the small, incremental reforms that tend to operate on practical, institutional levels. “In almost every confrontation between open liberal societies and closed authoritarian ones,” he assures her, “the liberal state has triumphed.” Liberalism always wins. History is on our side. Such are the consoling platitudes many find insufficiently compelling. In Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right, Ronald Beiner argues that today’s citizen tends to look for connection, meaning, belonging, and aliveness — not the security, moderation, or supposed sanity of liberalism. It’s a striking counterpoint to Gopnik’s take. For those who seek meaning, belonging, and aliveness — whether on the right or the left —iberalism proves all too hollow, banal, and weak.
Gopnik — and other liberals — would do well to engage these impulses. Instead, his breezy writing style invites skimming; his stories and anecdotes come at the expense of helpful analysis. At times they come across as naive. If only he were more liberal in his writing — moderate, cautious. In other words, if only he were more conservative.
Ultimately, A Thousand Small Sanities offers the type of flippant, superficial explanation of contemporary politics and social problems that brought us to this moment. We never hear from Gopnik’s daughter. Is she convinced by the end? Does she realize what’s at stake? Complacency is, perhaps, the worst sin of liberalism. That, unfortunately, is a lesson Gopnik seems to have skipped over.