top of page


Liberalism Hijacked

By Juliana Geran Pilon

Liberalism has been getting a bad press. Even self-described liberal Francis Fukuyama endorses “the substantive conservative critique of liberalism - that liberal societies provide no common moral horizon around which community can be built,” proof of a profound “spiritual vacuum” at their core. New York Times columnist David Brooks, whose convictions are hard to pinpoint, similarly laments that “the liberal world order is in crisis.” Are these influential opinion-makers right? That all depends on how you define “liberal.”

No easy task. For if there is one consensus about its meaning, it is that no such consensus exists. When asked to define liberalism by the University of Chicago-spawned magazine The Point in 2012, for example, Sixties radical Bill Ayers responded: “I’m not sure I can define it better than you guys can.” Which did not prevent him from rejecting the label: “I grew up cutting my teeth against the liberals.” The founder of the far-left Marxist militant organization Weather Underground and close friend of Barack Obama went on to explain that he considered people like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson “anti-Communist imperial monsters.” If they were liberals, he would throw in his lot with the other guys. Communists? Why not.

Credit Ayers’s candor. Most of his ideological brethren took a different, slyer route. According to the celebrated Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, as the Sixties progressed, “[t]he liberal label was being applied to and accepted by radicals who […] had previously scorned it,” he wrote in Why are Jews Liberal?.  Soon radicalism became camouflaged, through linguistic sleight-of-hand, under the resilient, yet increasingly vague, label of liberalism. The means were quite justified by the revolutionary end. Thus in 1969, the notorious New Left rhetorician Saul Alinsky had asked a rhetorical question of the young Hillary Rodham, who was writing her college thesis under his tutelage: “Must definitions perhaps be as fluid as the actions they purport to describe?”

When action (specifically, acquiring power) takes precedence over rational discourse, definitions are superfluous.  Words, after all, merely purport to describe. As French theorist Michel Foucault declared in a commendable moment of lucidity and candor, speaking for his fellow radicals, “[w]e are subjected to the production of truth through power, and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth.” Not that either he or Alinsky was saying anything that savvy old egg Dumpty didn’t know. As he wisely instructed naïve little Alice, words mean “neither more nor less” than what their author can get away with. Her protest that “[t]he question is whether you can make words so many different things” was fair, but she had obviously missed his point. “The question is,” retorted Humpty Dumpty abruptly, “which is to be master – that’s all.” The garrulous egg had admittedly overstepped the boundaries of good breeding, but the lesson is eminently worth heeding by creatures of all species, shapes, and sizes, not to mention political orientation.

So here we are today, mired in conceptual chaos, since we cannot help using the old isms. Gallup’s recent survey of American political attitudes, for example, reveals that “[i]n 2023, on average, 36% of U.S. adults described their political views as conservative, 36% as moderate and 25% as liberal.” No definition is provided: the questionnaire simply “asks Americans in each survey to describe their political views on a liberal to conservative spectrum.” The field is wide open for politicians to use whatever semantic tools will get them elected. If “liberal” works to attract, go for it; if not, shun it. This is sometimes called demagoguery.

The word comes from “demos,” referring to the common people, as does “democracy,” a political system notoriously susceptible to semantic manipulation. Already two and a half millennia ago it was obvious to Socrates and his friends, who lived in one and knew its limits. They also knew that teaching the technique or “art” of persuasion was especially lucrative in a democracy. Called rhetoric, its practitioners were known as sophists. They readily admitted that rhetoric’s object is not truth but power: “freedom for oneself and rule over others.”  While demagoguery appealed to the masses, debunking it and exposing its cognitive and moral flaws would not be popular. It did not deter Socrates from asking for definitions and exposing inconsistencies. But not everyone is prepared to drink hemlock or its equivalent to protect against the manipulation of language. His intellectual descendants today get cancelled, or worse. Today’s sophists are more sophisticated — words whose etymological similarity, though accidental (sophistry comes from a Greek word meaning wisdom, while sophisticate derives from adulteration), is ironically apt.

Sophistry aside, however, the most insidious obstacle to productive dialogue regarding liberalism is the self-deception resulting from presumed altruism, real or imagined. A liberal who claims to be interested in nothing but the good of society and the benefit of others will not hesitate to impose such virtuous policies on them. If so, however, he is not a liberal as traditionally understood, which is predicated on the principle that the individual must be protected against the abuse of power.

French political philosopher Pierre Manent best captured the centrality of the individual to the Western idea of liberty in his brilliant study An Intellectual History of Liberalism

One of the principal “ideas” of liberalism, as we know, is that of the “individual.” The individual is that being who, because he is human, is naturally entitled to “rights” that can be enumerated, rights that are attributed to him independently of his function or place in society and that make him the equal of any other man…. What are liberty and equality, after all, if not “biblical values” shaping civic life?

America’s Founders would have wholly endorsed this notion. But over the course of the following century, much would change. And while the Old World deserves much of the blame, so too does the Mother Country.  In particular, John Stuart Mill, to whom Harvard philosopher William James dedicated his 1907 book Pragmatism as “our leader were he alive today.” They would later call themselves Progressives. 

The most famous and influential British philosopher of the nineteenth century, Mill’s devotion to freedom of expression and personal autonomy contrasted with his utilitarian collectivism that promoted the greater good of the greatest number. His writings, notably his most famous essay, “On Liberty,” all but intoxicate with ambiguity, which may upset the strict logician, but stylistic flourish appeals to the imagination. As the eminent scholar of the Enlightenment Alan Charles Kors explains

Perhaps Mill’s On Liberty has had such a great influence not only because of the eloquence of his celebrations of individual liberty and autonomy, but also because On Liberty can be appropriated both by casual rights theorists - individual sovereignty over one’s life, absent direct harm to others, has a ring to it - and by casual utilitarians - his stated goal is the long term well-being of mankind as a species. What surely appears as a weakness to more philosophically minded moral and political theorists - a possible conflation of utility and rights - probably functions as a great source of Mill’s enduring appeal.

Mill’s disciples reflected that internal contradiction. Some opted for the strand that emphasized individual rights, which earned him the reputation as the Founder of classical liberalism, while others applauded his utilitarian collectivism, which promoted the greater good of the greatest number, which led to progressivism. By 1935, the progressive philosopher John Dewey would boast in his seminal book Liberalism and Social Action, activist government and social reconstruction had “virtually come to define the meaning of liberal faith.” He had every reason to be proud, having been one of the rhetoricians, a colleague of James at Harvard. 

But it had been long in coming. On August 9, 1900, The Nation published an article by its founder Edwin L. Godkin, who observed:

[A]s the nineteenth century draws to its close it is impossible not to contrast the political ideals now dominant with those of the preceding era… [when] doctrine of natural rights was set up. Humanity was exalted above human institutions, man was held superior to the State, and universal brotherhood supplanted the ideals of national power and glory. These eighteenth-century ideas were the soil in which modern Liberalism flourished. Under their influence the demand for Constitutional Government arose. Rulers were to be the servants of the people, and were to be restrained and held in check by bills of rights and fundamental laws which defined the liberties proved by experience to be most important and vulnerable. … [Alas,] recent events show how much ground has been lost. The Declaration of Independence no longer arouses enthusiasm; it is an embarrassing instrument which requires to be explained away. The Constitution is said to be outgrown.

The linguistic metamorphosis that reverted the butterfly of liberty into the worm of statism would thereafter gnaw at the core of America’s political culture. Gradually, the classical liberalism of the Scottish philosophers would be replaced by a faith clad in scientism, turning to government solutions for social problems, to be implemented by unelected public servants. Godkin had been prescient. Within a few short years, that sentiment would be captured by a Southern academic improbably catapulted from the presidency of Princeton University to Washington’s Rhetorician-in-Chief.  Woodrow Wilson would hone his academic toolset to tackle his first challenge: liberalism. It was a tour de force.

Wilson’s lexical legerdemain was arguably the most tectonic political act in American history to date. In plain daylight, within the space of a few months, the president switched from self-styled progressive in 1916 to new-style liberal in 1917. “I am a progressive,” he said in one of his campaign speeches in 1916. “I do not spell it with a capital P, but I think my pace is just as fast as those who do.” A few months later, on January 22, 1917, he proceeded to ask, rhetorically of course, whether he might not “believe that I am in effect speaking for liberals and friends of humanity in every nation and of every program of liberty,” if not indeed “for the silent mass of mankind everywhere who have as yet had no place or opportunity to speak their real hearts out concerning the death and ruin they see to have come already upon the persons and the homes they hold most dear.”

What he proposed therefore was nothing less than total unity, “[w]hen all unite to act in the same sense and with the same purpose all act in the common interest and are free to live their own lives under a common protection.” All must unite; with the same purpose; and act in the common interest. Not so much Exodus-on-the-(Plymouth)-Rock as pre-demolition Babel-on-the-Hudson, he proclaimed one mindset and one purpose uber alles.

Blithely redefining it with a mere sweep of the semantic hand amounted to nothing less than an intellectual coup d’etat. Although hardly alone, Wilson did more than anyone to propel into the mainstream of American public discourse the idea that some fuzzy notion of collective good collectively pursued, rather than individual freedom, was the paramount ideal of government action. He accomplished this sleight-of-hand by switching labels midstream. From the highest bully pulpit in the nation, he was ideally positioned to affect both the legal and popular culture away from its roots. 

Not that there was anything especially remarkable about refurbishing liberalism: such is politics. Humpty Dumpty had been correct when he reminded Alice that words mean “neither more nor less” than what their author can get away with. Her protest that “[t]he question is whether you can make words so many different things” is fair, but she had obviously missed his point. “The question is,” retorted Humpty Dumpty abruptly, “which is to be master – that’s all.” The garrulous egg had admittedly overstepped the boundaries of good breeding, but the lesson is eminently worth heeding by creatures of all species, shapes, and sizes.

The odyssey of so-called liberalism parallels that of so-called conservatism in endlessly complex ways, which students of intellectual history underestimate at their peril. In his brilliant 1987 book The Language of Politics in America: Shaping Political Consciousness from McKinley to Reagan, political theorist David Green observes that hard as it may be to believe, “a hundred years ago Americans did not talk about ‘liberals’ versus ‘conservatives.’” Words must change with the times. “Because politics is an ongoing struggle for power, the competition to define political terms is constantly being renewed.”

Like any tool, language may be repurposed – and it is, routinely. Since any politician knows, Green argued, that “the retention of an existing vocabulary need not mean fidelity to established policies,” it follows that a label which “has been associated in the past with popular institutions, behavior, and values or appears to embody the dominant values of the moment” is worth keeping, even if its application defies those values. If this sounds like subterfuge, welcome to democratic discourse.

Wilson’s 1916 claim had seemed appropriate at the time, writes Green, since his “rhetoric candidly revealed his strategy.” Namely, the absence of one. The quintessential politician, intent above all on winning, he had “neither a consistent policy framework nor a clearly articulated ideology.” In 1912, his victory had come essentially by default, thanks to the Republicans’ split following Theodore Roosevelt’s defection. Once in office, however, Wilson gravitated increasingly toward his personal preference which had been, just like Roosevelt’s, decidedly statist. Accordingly, Green writes, “by early 1916 he was adopting more and more Progressive party planks from 1912, such as child labor legislation, workmen’s compensation, and rural credits, all of which he had previously failed to support.”

It might not have come as much of a surprise to anyone really familiar with Wilson’s thinking. For while Wilson had no consistent policy in 1912, and his ideology was not clearly articulated, he had actually revealed his underlying viewpoint decades earlier. In a paper entitled “Socialism and Democracy,” admittedly never published in his lifetime, Wilson clarified what was really hidden behind the anodyne labels “progressivism” and “liberalism.” Well versed in political theory, he knew its real name: state socialism. 

[S]ocialism is a proposition that every community, by means of whatever forms of organization may be most effective for the purpose, see to it for itself that each one of its members finds the employment for which he is best suited and is rewarded according to his diligence and merit, all proper surroundings of moral influence being secured to him by the public authority. “State socialism” is willing to act though state authority as it is at present organized. It proposes that all idea of a limitation of public authority by individual rights be put out of view, and that the State consider itself bound to stop only at what is unwise or futile in its universal superintendence alike of individual and of public interests.

Believing that “all proper surroundings of moral influence” are and should be secured by public authority, any limitation on that authority by such gobbledygook as “individual rights [should] be put out of view.” Given its “superintendence alike of individual and of public interests,” therefore, the State might, if it so decides, stop only at “what is unwise or futile.” Sounds good, but… what does it mean? Who decrees what is “unwise” and “futile?”

How does a community “see to it for itself” that each member finds the employment for which he is “best suited?” Will the community as a whole decide? Don’t we each do that for ourselves, through trial and error, within myriad constraints? In sum, Wilson’s proposal that “all idea of a limitation of public authority by individual rights” be “put out of view” is tantamount to rejecting the Bill of Rights and the basic purpose of the Constitution, namely, limited government. The General Will dressed as public authority is not supreme; the people are – each one of them.

Unfettered democracy is thus in principle limitless. If no one may curtail what “society,” speaking through (or for) the majority, “wants,” what’s to stop it? However grandiose sounding, its “will” is ultimately tyrannical. If democracy/society speaks as one, the wills of particular individual considered contrary to it are deemed suspect. Thus the group is Leviathan. As Wilson puts it:

The germinal conceptions of democracy are as free from all thought of a limitation of the public authority as are the corresponding conceptions of socialism; the individual rights which the democracy of our own century has actually observed, were suggested to it by a political philosophy radically individualistic, but not necessarily democratic. Democracy is bound by no principle of its own nature to say itself nay as to the exercise of any power.

The key is to use state power to combat social, economic, and other ills, of which there is never any shortage. His concluding question, therefore, cannot but be rhetorical: “[M]ust not government lay aside all timid scruple and boldly make itself an agency for social reform as well as for political control?” One wonders whether, had the paper been published during Wilson’s lifetime, it would have changed the electoral outcome. 

By 1917, however, circumstances had changed considerably. Given the way the war was unfolding, Wilson faced a new dilemma. The Allies were stalled, battles were inconclusive, and the president was itching to make a difference on the global scene. But how to explain the emerging geopolitical realities to his progressive constituents, stubbornly pacifist and still staunchly opposed to taking sides in a war that didn’t seem to affect the United States? What occurred most readily to his academically trained mind was also the most obvious, if slightly cynical: find the most popular label, then redefine it, completely, if need be, and then blithely appropriate it. 

Green describes both Wilson’s dilemma and the rationale behind his clever semantic solution: 

The rhetoric of liberalism gave him a maneuverability in the situation that progressive rhetoric could not. It would have been extremely dangerous to have argued foreign policy in the language of progressivism, especially as he moved closer to war. … The liberal label was… relatively untainted at the time by domestic political controversy and could be used as a fresh means of refocusing public attention on international affairs.

It was pure genius. The professor-president, preacher-manqué, applied his tradecraft with commendable skill. By casting the United States as the defender of freedom as against German imperialism, Wilson thereby “helped prepare Americans themselves for an unprecedented assertion of governmental authority in the name of liberty.” Yet Green recognizes the irony in this extraordinary legerdemain of progressivism-cum-liberalism:

the substitution could not have worked unless the two labels could have been taken to have some common connotations, however superficial. Indeed that is what happened, for on a general level both appeared to connote sympathy for the underprivileged or oppressed. “Forward motion” could be interpreted as “liberation” from oppression. [Emphasis my own.]

Note that it merely appeared to connote sympathy, little more. Increasingly, the new & improved American “liberalism” would become preoccupied with appearances. “Forward motion” was a synonym for “progress,” with a nod to scientism and pragmatism. Most of all, there had to be compassion, which mandated sounding compassionate. Convinced of their own good intentions, the new autocrats thus felt morally empowered to decide what is best for the demos. Their trust in knowledge and technology was equaled, if not superseded, by trust in their own moral superiority. Hubris was thus camouflaged by self-validated altruism in the name of freedom.

It was not a new affliction. As Lord Acton warned, in an address before members of the Bridgnorth Institute on February 26, 1877: “If hostile interests have wrought much injury, false ideas [about liberty] have wrought still more.” This passage applies equally today: 

The ancients understood the regulation of power better than the regulation of liberty. They concentrated so many prerogatives on the state as to leave no footing from which a man could deny its jurisdiction or assign bounds to its activity. What the slave was in the hands of his master the citizen was in the hands of the community. The most sacred obligations vanished before the public advantage. The passengers existed for the sake of the ship.

Like the ancients millennia earlier, Wilson had chosen power in exchange for liberty, the community at the expense of its members, the ship over its passengers. What he sacrificed was not only his sacred obligation to his office and his nation but in effect, though he would never acknowledge it (except perhaps subliminally), to his God.

Dr. Juliana Geran Pilon is a Senior Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, where she directs the Washington Program on National Security.


bottom of page