Making Liberalism New

By Ian Afflerbach
Literary scholars pride ourselves on wrangling with words. We stop and isolate them, pick them apart, flip through historical records to uncover their prior meanings. I always find it interesting, then, when certain words slip out from this critical grasp and become easy, uncritical foils in the speech and writing of literary professionals.

Early in my tenure as a graduate student, I noticed that “liberalism” was subject to this kind of useful-but-reductive treatment, not only among my peers but also among those training us. Whether the person in question wanted to promote greater attention towards issues of colonial violence, racial justice, or biopolitical control, somehow “liberalism” always ended up serving as the straw man for their critical projects, the baseline or normative standard against which their more radical claims sought to distinguish themselves.

Before shifting to English, I had studied Political Theory, so (I thought) I knew something about the scope and significance of “liberalism” as an intellectual tradition, and how it was being abused by its simplistic deployment in my new discipline. Making Liberalism New began, in many ways, as an attempt to show my peers that they were getting liberalism wrong, that it was a word, and a body of thought, far more complicated than their rhetorical slights allowed.

What surprised me—but will surprise no one, I think, who has been through the process of writing a book—was that the conceptual history of “liberalism” was far more complex than even I had imagined. One simple illustration: until the presidential election of 1932, “liberalism” had no real significance in American political discourse. Anyone familiar with American political history will likely know that “liberalism” was a buzzword by the 1950s and all through JFK’s “Camelot” and LBJ’s “Great Society” in the 1960s. So the scholar of American liberalism faces a fascinating question: how can a word almost unknown to the public and our professional classes appear, just twenty years later, an idea inextricably present in the nation’s political history, a cultural keyword for its most active corners of intellectual life?


Making Liberalism New argues that we cannot answer this question without paying attention to the way that American political and literary intellectuals interacted in these years, a mutually formative—if often antagonistic—relationship that shaped and reshaped what people mean when they say “American liberalism.” At the same time, this struggle over the meaning of liberalism in the United States helped to define what scholars now mean when we say “American modernism,” a literary era that critics have long defined in contrast to liberal values.

Telling these intertwining stories required me to cover much more ground, and to develop a much more sophisticated method of reading than I had imagined at the outset of my dissertation. I had started with what I believed to be a simple enough task—a single word—but soon found myself grappling with feminist critiques of possessive individualism and individual rights, working through a longstanding challenge to color-blind thinking by scholars in Critical Race Theory. Because of these unexpected labors, I believe my understanding of liberalism grew richer and stranger than the tidy accounts one finds in political theory textbooks, let alone the dismissive glosses of many of our most influential radical thinkers.

While I know that academics tend to cling to scholarship in their home field, and my book might look at first glance like a study of American literature, I feel that its greatest impact does not finally land in describing one nation’s cultural history, but rather in interrogating how we talk about politics. I conclude the book with the same problem from which it began: treating “liberalism” only as a foil, as a broken or useless tradition, gives up the single most powerful body of concepts for talking about politics that we have ever possessed. While the Left has been busy impugning these concepts with (often reductive) critiques, moreover, the Right has absorbed them, appropriating the language of liberalism to undo its historical victories. Building any kind of unified progressive movement in this country, whatever its final aims or values, requires us to start reclaiming this political language—to start making liberalism new.

Ian Afflerbach is an assistant professor of American literature at the University of North Georgia. Making Liberalism New: American Intellectuals, Modern Literature, and the Rewriting of a Political Tradition.

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