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Cultivating an Ethos of Tempered Liberalism
Ben Klutsey and Joshua Cherniss discuss dark times, the politics of limits, learning by imitation and more
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Joshua Cherniss, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University, about challenges to liberalism in the mid-20th century, the current liberal predicament, the thinkers who exemplify a spirit of tempered liberalism, the balancing act of activism vs. detachment and much more.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today we’re talking to Professor Joshua Cherniss. He is associate professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He’s a political theorist whose research covers the history of political ideas. His work focuses on European and American political thought in the 20th century and looks at the interplay between political ethics, philosophies of history and liberal thought. His latest book is “Liberalism in Dark Times: The Liberal Ethos in the Twentieth Century,” which is the subject of our conversation today.
Thanks for joining us, Josh.
JOSHUA CHERNISS: Thanks so much for having me, Ben.
Ideologically Muddled Times
KLUTSEY: First question for you is: Are we in dark times? Just looking at the title of your book, “Liberalism in Dark Times,” are we in dark times? If we are, in what ways are these dark times different from previous dark times, and particularly the one you described—the 20th-century fascism, totalitarianism and so on? What’s your take on this?
CHERNISS: Well, I think we are in dark times, certainly relative to what many of us thought or hoped would be the case decades ago or even a few years ago. If one compares the current mood in America, and indeed around much of the world, to either the mood in the 1990s or even the mood that I and many of my generation experienced with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, things do seem darker than that time.
I think that we are also looking at already some significant effects of an ongoing and worsening climate catastrophe. That suggests not only that we are in dark times, but that things will get worse rather than better. In that sense, I think we can say we’re in dark times, although we don’t know how dark they are compared to what they will be. It’s quite possible that we will look back, as some people already are looking back, on the last few years as a momentary nightmare from which we are now awakening. We might also, in the future, look back on it as the calm before the storm, the relative calm before the storm. It’s really difficult to tell.
I think this points to one of the ways in which our time may be different from the period that I look at in the mid-20th century. Which is that back then, there were a number of ideologies which commanded fairly widespread appeal or allegiance, which offered some degree of historical certainty. Marxism especially, but other schools of thought presented fully worked-out philosophies of history that allowed their adherents to really have a sense of where they currently were in the movement of history and what would come next.
I think a lot of that faith—not necessarily in the inevitability of things getting better, but in the sense that we have some historical master key that will allow us to predict the future or know where we’re going—that has been lost to a certain extent. I think that certainly on the left, to some extent perhaps on the right—in the mid-20th century, there is a unified movement and a theory, some form of Marxism or Marxism-Leninism on the left; to some extent, although it’s less well developed theoretically, fascism on the right, which provides a degree of unity or provides definite answers.
I think, again, we are currently in more ideologically muddled times now. There’s certainly increasingly sharp, in some cases, polarization and partisan conflict. There are arguments among intellectuals about how much we are seeing the resurgence of fascism, or how much various contemporary political movements could be regarded as fascistic. I don’t think that we have quite the same simplicity of ideological division or the same unifying, systematizing ideological movements or camps that really dominated in the mid-20th century.
I think in that respect, we are not necessarily living in darker or brighter times than in the mid-20th century, but we are living in different times. We are living in times when there is polarization, but where the opposite poles are less well defined or unified. That, I think, is one thing that we need to be conscious of in looking back to the past.
Loss of Faith in Liberalism
CHERNISS: I do think that we are feeling, perhaps not to the same degree as in the mid-20th century, but certainly to a great degree, a loss of faith in liberalism or in liberal democracy. I think that is a loss of faith in three ways, at least. One, which I’ve already referred to, is in terms of historical consciousness. That earlier forms of liberalism—if you look at the liberalism that was widespread and seemed fairly healthy at the beginning of the 20th century—earlier forms of liberalism offered a certain amount of historical optimism. They offered a narrative of steady, maybe not uninterrupted, but still cumulative historical progress to better and better forms of social organization, better and better economic arrangements, better and better education and enlightenment. Following World War I and the Great Depression, there was a loss of faith in that liberal historical optimism.
There was also, connected to that, a loss of faith in liberalism’s ability to solve practical problems. Again, the Great Depression is a major part of this. The sense that old-fashioned laissez-faire could not offer solutions to economic problems, that a radical rethinking of the governance of the economy was needed to prevent or overcome disaster. Also, that liberalism’s emphasis on negotiation, treaties, constitutions had also failed; that international organizations or treaties had fallen apart; that countries that had adopted liberal constitutions in the wake of World War I had all fallen into civil war and/or dictatorship.
Liberalism just couldn’t offer practical, workable solutions to the economic and political problems facing societies—and certainly a loss of faith in liberalism as an ethical ideal. The idea that liberalism, liberal values, liberal ways of life were producing people who were deeply mediocre, deeply complacent, the critical, unprincipled, unimaginative, lacking the strength, the resolution or resolve, the idealism or the realism about political realities that were necessary to really make the world better.
One thing that I think has been really important in recent years is, again, that there’s not just an attack on the optimism to the extent that it did predominate the optimism associated with works like Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History.” Even though it’s worth mentioning, in fairness to Fukuyama, that when he published the book “The End of History and the Last Man,” a lot of the book was about the last man and was actually quite pessimistic, and we tend to forget that.
To the extent that some simplified version of liberal triumphalism was bought into at the end of the Cold War, the fact that things have not all gone according to plan has again led to deep disillusionment. And, in some cases, real pessimism, a loss of hope or confidence in liberal institutions, a loss of confidence in liberal institutions’ ability to deal with problems, as things like the EU have fallen apart or undergone severe tests. The international community, in general, has had a hard time coordinating and responding to problems. And certain policies associated with liberalism, particularly the economic program associated with neoliberalism, have been widely discredited in many people’s eyes.
There is also this ethical dimension, the fact that critics of liberalism, people presenting alternatives to liberalism, have not been focusing just on, or even so much on, the institutional level or the economic policy level. They’ve really been focusing on liberalism’s ethical failing. If you look at Donald Trump, he wants to make America great again, and greatness involves a certain kind of character or attitude. It involves not only winning but being the kind of person who can win, who is strong, self-confident, completely deaf or immune to criticism or self-doubt, who can give us a really aggressive and even brutal confidence and happiness with ourselves, celebration of ourselves, embrace of even our most, it may be, primitive tendencies.
I think that you see similar things in a lot of the far right or new right movements across Europe. You see this very much bound up in the ideological mystique that has grown up around figures like Putin, or Orbán in Hungary, that they are both combating certain social trends that are associated with moral or ethical decline. The fact that homophobia and nativism is a big part of all of these movements is, I think, important. Reassertion of traditional masculinity is important. They’re just offering this model, again, attached to traditional masculinity, of really tremendous self-confident self-assertiveness and lack of scruple or hesitation or doubt of the sort that’s associated with liberalism.
I do think, for all of the drastic technological differences (which we can talk more about, which are important) or the differences in the particular ideological currents that we’re dealing with, where we’re not dealing with communism and fascism as they existed in the 20th century, nevertheless, some of the same loss of faith in liberalism, and some of the same ethical critique of liberalism, I think are still with us and still important to our current moment.
The Liberal Predicament
KLUTSEY: Interesting. Now, each of the thinkers that you discussed in the book—Camus, [Raymond] Aron, [Reinhold] Niebuhr and Isaiah Berlin—talk about or reflect upon this notion of the liberal predicament, which seems to be a perennial challenge for liberalism. Can you outline what this problem is?
CHERNISS: Yes. The liberal predicament, as I use the term—and the term comes from Isaiah Berlin, though I put my own spin on it, or definition of it—starts from a certain definition of liberalism that we should clarify, which is that liberalism is committed to a limited politics or a politics of limits.
That liberalism is really dedicated to the idea, first of all, more positively, that promoting individual freedom is important; that one of the great threats to individual freedom and well-being and also social well-being, social stability or peace is the concentrated, absolute, unchecked wielding of power by any human agent, but especially by the state, which (in modern times, at least) tends to be the strongest of agencies or actors. In order to certainly, at the most basic, protect individual freedom, and also promote other goods, it’s important to place limits on the power of any human agent or agency.
The state, the majority of people, certain private institutions—whether they be political parties or international organizations or corporations—the power of any entity, any agent, should be subject to limits, and those limits are typically threefold. One: legal limits, constitutionalism. Two: limits that come from countervailing powers. So, the state should not be completely unified. There should be multiple state agencies, multiple parties, perhaps—in federalism, multiple units within a state. Economically, there should be some nonstate entities with economic power, not unchecked economic power, but some power that can counteract the state.
Also, though, thirdly, in addition to the legal limits and the kinds of institutionalized checking and counterbalancing of powers in society, ethical limits are also important. That there should be certain things that people just hold themselves back from doing to others. That we should not persecute others, we should not commit violence against others. We should not use even the legal powers that we might have within or under the state to subject others to too much oppression, loss of power, humiliation and so on.
It’s not only important to have good rules of the game, it’s important to also really take the rules of the game seriously and limit ourselves in order to keep those rules upheld and working well. That’s the bare-bones definition of liberalism that I start out with, and we can elaborate on it in many ways.
But a crucial thing about anti-liberalism is that it rejects this model of limits in politics. It says that to take politics seriously, and to take the pursuit of any politically desirable or morally desirable goal seriously, means you have to reject this limitation. If you accept these kinds of limitations in and of politics, you’re not really taking politics itself or its goals seriously enough.
We, the anti-liberals, do take these things seriously, so we are going to just abandon these limits, reject these limits and pursue power without limits—and then, when we get power, use it without limits. The liberal predicament is that liberals are committed to these various limits, both on the pursuit of power—in that liberals don’t believe that they should seek unlimited power or should seek power by any means that might be available to them. They believe in abiding by certain rules and norms, and they also believe in using power with limits. Once they gain power, they think that there should be limits to that power. They should allow a certain amount of freedom and opportunity to gain power to their opponents.
That seems to put liberals at a fundamental disadvantage in dealing with anti-liberals, both because anti-liberals don’t accept the limits or accept the scruples or hesitations that liberals insist on, and also because anti-liberals can present a much simpler, more straightforward case, because they can just emphasize the goals that they want to achieve, and the need or the desirability of using anti-liberal means to effectively achieve those goals.
Whereas liberals have to say, well, we believe that certain goals are important, but we also believe that it’s important to uphold this larger framework for pursuing them, even if that means accepting limitations and compromises on our ability to achieve desirable economic goals or achieve victory over our opponents, et cetera. Liberals are stuck in this liberal predicament where adhering to their own principles, adhering to their own sentiments of limitation, puts them at a disadvantage compared to their anti-liberal opponents.
But to abandon these limits, to start acting in the same ways as their opponents, itself undermines liberalism. That if liberals decide (in the defense or promotion of liberalism) to just abandon tolerance, or abandon legal due process, or abandon the permission, the legal legitimacy of opposition parties, to suspend elections or suspend freedom of speech or organization, then they are starting to undermine the integrity and the rationale for liberalism itself. They seem to be stuck in this situation of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Damned to defeat if you don’t emulate your anti-liberal opponents, damned to self-undermining or hypocrisy if you do emulate them. Not quite in a nutshell, but that is the liberal predicament.
The Ethos of Tempered Liberalism
KLUTSEY: You note that tempered liberalism is the right approach to deal with anti-liberalism and this liberal predicament that you have just outlined. It’s a different flavor of liberalism. It appreciates individual rights, freedom, equality, toleration and so on, but it also is about a disposition or an ethos. What constitutes this ethos of a tempered liberal?
CHERNISS: I think that there are two aspects to answering that question. One is, what is an ethos generally? And secondly, what are the hallmarks of the particular ethos I’m identifying with tempered liberalism?
An ethos generally is the term that I’ve taken, partly because it’s just been a faddish term in political theory circles, I’m afraid. I was influenced by that. It refers to a certain complex or web of different elements of, as you say, personal disposition, features of character, features of temperament, as well as certain values, values that are of a very general sort, and a sort that really paint our outlook or perspective on the world. This set or web or complex of dispositions, perceptions, temperamental features and values together shape the way that we perceive the world and respond to it and act in it. It’s connected to the theories or principles that we might have, but not identical with them. It’s a less systematic, less logical, less intellectually abstracted form of thing.
In talking about the tempered liberal ethos, it is a matter of certain dispositions such as modesty, skepticism of the claims of any ideology or theory, openness to evidence, openness to different perspectives, a certain kind of (what I call) ethical moderation, linked to a pluralistic outlook, which says that there are many valid and important goods and many moral obligations that we face that don’t all align perfectly or fit together, and no one of which is always paramount. Navigating our moral choices is a matter of trying to be open to, aware of and responsive to these different moral considerations and try for some balance between them, rather than single-mindedly pursuing only one over others.
It’s also marked by a certain fortitude in accepting that political life, and human life generally, is going to involve a lot of loss, defeat, imperfection, uncertainty, and that we need to have the courage and the strength to live with reversal and defeat and uncertainty and imperfection and dissatisfaction. That we need to also exercise a certain amount of forbearance in our action, that we should restrain our tendency to want to get everything or control everything, or completely win or completely convince our opponents. That there should be some self-restraint in both our actions and indeed our expectations or desires. That we should not seek, and we should even not want, complete dominance or complete fulfillment, certainly in political life.
Also a sense of political commitment and responsibility, the sense that what happens politically is important, and that it does concern us, and that we should be engaged, we should care about politics, and we should be invested in it in some way. It believes in or encourages a certain degree of self-restraint, and not investing too much in politics, not treating politics as a be-all and end-all, but it’s also resistant to quietism or withdrawal in politics. It does take politics, political questions very seriously and feels some sense of personal investment and/or responsibility for participating in politics.
I think an important thing—and I’m presenting a very grave picture in keeping with this idea of dark times—but one of the things that is very attractive about a number of individual thinkers I look at is that they each had a sense of irony, or a sense of the ludicrous in human existence and in politics. And they took certain principles and dangers very seriously, but they didn’t take themselves too seriously, and they were sensitive to the elements that were ironic or ludicrous or comical in human life. That gap between human aspirations and achievements, or the gap between our self-important sense of ourselves and the actual realities.
I think this leavening of an ethos or temperament or outlook that’s very serious, very morally serious, very pessimistic in certain ways, very responsible—that leavening it with a sense of the comical, the ludicrous in politics, and also the way we are inclined to take ourselves a bit too seriously and take certain problems too much to heart—as, again, a way of guarding against getting too angry in politics—is also important.
A Balancing Act
KLUTSEY: Josh, given what you’ve said, and also thinking about the thinkers that you’ve written about, it just seems to me that this is such a balancing act of engagement on the one hand, and detachment on the other, that a tempered liberal has to exercise prudence and navigate when to be involved in advocacy, challenge and so on, and stepping away and allowing democratic or institutional forces to shape events.
What’s your take on this, and what’s your advice for how to navigate this? Is it a matter of just always thinking about the means and ends of issues? Because that’s another thing that I think a lot of these thinkers you read about reflected on: the consequentialist take on things, and viewing each situation based on the means that are being employed to achieve consequences, and the consequences—whether the ends make sense morally and ethically and so on and so forth. Such a balancing act.
CHERNISS: Yes, I think it certainly is a matter of balancing. The thinkers I look at often invoke this idea of balancing, or this model of balancing. They also invoke this idea, this image of Scylla and Charybdis, these opposite dangers that you need to navigate between. In this, they’re reminiscent of—and here I’m invoking the work of my friend, and I think a friend of IHS and Mercatus as well—Aurelian Crăiuțu, who has a couple of wonderful books, and a third on the way on moderation. And he invokes this idea of trimming set forth by the Marquess of Halifax in the 17th century. This idea that the political statesman is or should be someone who trims, who tries to guide the ship of state between dangers on different sides.
I think there is, for these thinkers, very much this idea that both politics and also moral life, even though they’re different, both involve this balancing model, the “steering between opposite extremes” model. For doing that, I think there are three things that are important. One is this institutional dimension, which, in the book, I emphasize that institutions aren’t enough, and we shouldn’t think of liberalism purely in terms of the institutional arrangements or framework. That is still important; that is still crucial. That in itself should be designed in a way that helps to balance different considerations. If it’s not working effectively to do that, that perhaps points to a need for, among other things, some institutional reform.
A second resource that’s necessary, which I talk about, but which is I think connected to but separate from ethos, is judgment, is the ability to sense—to look at the world and correctly perceive what the greatest dangers at a given moment are. Or what direction are we going too far in? In what way is the balance off? I think this is particularly difficult because we don’t necessarily understand very well or have a very good way of knowing when judgment is correct.
A big part of politics, and a big part of human life generally, just has to do with disagreements in judgment that we cannot really resolve because there’s no way of knowing which judgment is correct or not. Certainly being open to correction, and being able to recognize when your judgment is proven to be wrong, and taking those lessons into consideration.
Knowing that you have a tendency perhaps to be overly alarmist or a tendency to be overly sanguine, a tendency to think too much. To go back to ends and means, to get too preoccupied with the means and lose sight of the larger end, or a tendency to become obsessed with the ultimate end and become insufficiently careful about the means. A tendency to be better able to recognize wrongdoing or bad behavior on the left but not the right (or vice versa)—these are various ways in which our judgment may be skewed, that if we are really self-aware and self-critical, we can hopefully come to correct for.
That’s where I think judgment is connected to, although it’s distinct from, this idea of ethos. I think that having these various features of ethos doesn’t ensure that our judgment will be right, or our perceptions will be right in any given case. It can protect us against some of the things that often skew or damage our judgment.
Again, having a degree of temperamental moderation, a degree of pluralism, where you are aware that there is more in the world that matters, that’s important, that you should take into account—more than any single perspective or theory or a theological position allows for—knowing also that we’re all inclined to moments of despair or anger or fear that might skew our judgment. It’s important to cultivate a certain amount of fortitude and resilience in response to these things.
Really trying to cultivate as much self-awareness or self-reflection as possible, I think, is not sufficient but is necessary to this balancing act or this navigating act that you’re describing.
KLUTSEY: I wonder, who most importantly needs to be a tempered liberal? Is it the citizen? Is it the politician? Is this the academic leader, public intellectuals? Or is it all of the above? Because each category that I’ve mentioned has a role in helping to shape trends and ideas in many ways. Who most importantly needs to be a tempered liberal? To my mind, probably a politician because they’re more prominent out there, espousing their ideas in the public arena quite frequently, but there are others as well.
Tempering the Desire for Difference
CHERNISS: I think that this is a really good question, and I’ll backtrack and say two things in preface to my direct answer to this question. One is that there are two things about liberalism that I tend to agree with. One, liberalism has opposed many, typically left-wing (although not always left-wing) alternatives to liberalism. Liberalism tends to be very favorable toward or to embrace a division of labor. The idea that different individuals should focus on or specialize in different things, both economically but also politically, is really central to liberal thought from the earliest days.
Another thing that liberalism tends to embrace is a division and multiplication of different realms. The idea that you should not need to be, and shouldn’t necessarily want to be, the same kind of person or governed by the same considerations or norms in each aspect of your life.
Now, I think that these are valuable features of liberalism. At the same time—and here we come back to balancing again—at the same time, some liberals have pointed to the dangers that arise from too much incongruity between different realms or different activities. A good example of this is a classic liberal, John Stuart Mill, who says there’s really a problem if we are trying to have a liberal society with a fundamentally tyrannical family, that traditional male patriarchal family is a school of illiberalism within liberal societies. That some reform, at the very least, of the laws that protect these illiberal family institutions . . .
Also, perhaps some active cultural campaign for change within the family and change of understanding of gender roles is important. I think that liberalism more broadly has always had this tension between wanting to push forward fundamental liberal values of freedom and equality for all, of being guided by considerations of justice and mutual respect and reciprocity, on the one hand—on the other hand, wanting to really respect the fact that people are different, and people need to be able to find homes for their differences within institutions, within associations, within ways of living that do differ from one another.
I think that the response that I have to that question reflects these competing liberal impulses. Upon the one hand wanting to say, yes, the different roles that people occupy are important. There are different requirements or needs connected to different roles and different aspects to life. Also, there’s something of this tempered liberal ethos which is valuable and important for everyone, certainly in politics, but maybe not only in politics, but primarily in politics. One point that I make in the conclusion of the book is that this is a political ethos. It is a model of the kinds of character and outlook and disposition that we should bring to bear on political life. It’s not necessarily wrong or bad, but it’s not necessarily as important in other facets of life.
Tensions Within the Tempered Liberal Ethos
CHERNISS: One response to your question is that I think that it’s important for political leaders, ordinary citizens, academics, public intellectuals and so on, to cultivate or embody or exhibit more of this ethos when they’re engaged in political matters. When we leave politics aside, to the extent that we can leave politics aside—and one problem is that more and more of our lives has become politicized. That in itself is something that we need to grapple with and may force us, if we’re going to preserve liberalism, to exhibit or sustain this ethos in more and more facets of our lives.
But certainly, to the extent that we’re engaged in politics, we should be trying to uphold some aspect of this ethos. Now, another thing, though, is that not only are different political roles different, but this ethos itself is a very loose thing, a loose web. One of the things that I try to do in the book is, through looking at different thinkers in different chapters, to bring out different facets of this ethos, or different variants of this ethos that emphasize one perspective or one set of values more than another.
I think the best contrast in this case in the book is between Albert Camus and Raymond Aron, who represent the respectively more morally idealistic or morally severe, and the more pragmatic or politically hard-headed and prudential wings or sides of the tempered liberal ethos.
Aron suggests (and I think this is right) that politicians, those who are exercising some significant political power, could lean more toward that prudential, pragmatic side of things. The importance of a sense of responsibility, a sense of the realities of politics and the need to be responsive to these, of the dangers of wishful thinking or self-righteousness or too much hesitation, too much scrupulousness, is important for politicians.
That on the other hand, social critics or intellectuals—our relative advantage is the ability to speak on behalf of principles, to speak on behalf of doubts and hesitations and scruples and complications in a way that politicians can’t always do. To offer a broader, more temperate, more ironical perspective than politicians can typically achieve.
However, again, there’s this balancing act. The exact balance might need to be different depending on what role you’re in, but there should be some balance. One of the dangers that tempered liberals warn against is if politicians go from prioritizing questions of practical feasibility or consequences as being more important to being all-important. They’re recognizing that politicians need to lean into more of the pragmatic end of this range or variety of versions of tempered liberalism, but politicians couldn’t become completely deaf to moral considerations or completely unconcerned with intellectual complexities.
With intellectuals or social critics, speaking for myself, I definitely know that there is a tendency to become overly morally scrupulous, overly intellectually skeptical or precise, to raise a lot of objections and criticisms and really become preoccupied with nuances and objections. And they’ll lose sight of certain practical considerations that any of us should be concerned with, to the extent that we are thinking about politics at all, or concerned about politics as a whole. Exactly how the balance is struck, I think, varies depending on your role within the larger political division of labor.
It also varies depending on what facet of your life you are acting with it. But you do want to have some element of this tempered liberal ethos, and some element of the different dimensions of it in place for politicians or intellectuals or academics, and also for ordinary citizens. Since ordinary citizens do need to interact with one another, they need to send signals to, and hopefully they will be able to exercise some control over, politicians. We can’t be off the hook, either, as citizens.
Exemplification and Emulation
KLUTSEY: Right. One of the things that I thought a lot about as I was reading your book is formation, and how you cultivate or form the ethos that you’re talking about. I thought about institutions a lot; academia is an important one. But then you also talk a lot about exemplification and emulation. That there are tempered liberals who have been exemplary, and we can look at them and study them and then emulate, maybe not every aspect, but some aspect of their lives and their work, so that we can cultivate this ethos. Can you unpack that a little bit? Am I right in this summary?
CHERNISS: Yes, that’s exactly right. I think that this turn to the possibility of exemplification and emulation as not the whole of, but part of, the way that we respond to threats to liberalism and try to cultivate this ethos is a response to two things. One is a matter of liberal principle or liberal unease with the idea of indoctrination, and the idea that indoctrination involves too much uniformity and a loss of or violation of freedom and equality. That indoctrination doesn’t allow, doesn’t encourage individuals to think for themselves, make up their own minds, become their own person.
In that regard, it is objectionable to liberals who value freedom. It may also be self-defeating. How can you produce people who value freedom and are capable of independence of judgment and creativity through indoctrination? Again, the connection between ends and means seems to be off here. Indoctrination seems to be a bad means to the kinds of ends that liberals want to achieve, as well as being intrinsically objectionable to liberals who value freedom.
There’s also (connected to that, but somewhat distinct from it) a practical worry about what will be the most effective in producing people’s or promoting people’s development of something like this ethos. This has to do with something that I’m not well versed enough in, which is more empirical social science about development. I do know that there are studies that suggest that a lot of our learning, a lot of our character formation does take place within the family, but also outside of the family. It takes place outside of formal schooling, formal lessons. Part of it is just being surrounded by certain norms or expectations and peers who are exhibiting certain characteristics or tendencies. But part of it is also a matter of imitation—that early on, we learn a lot unconsciously through imitation.
Later on, though, I think we can learn more deliberately and more self-critically through imitation. We can see around us different ways of being, and be attracted to or repulsed by them, and more or less consciously think, “I want to be more like this person. Or I really like this person’s way of presenting themselves or handling themselves or acting in the world.” I think that a good idea of exemplifying a certain way of being in the hopes that others will be inspired to emulate you is potentially both more compelling, more effective than trying to indoctrinate people with a set of beliefs or a set of dogmas.
It’s more inspiring, and it also is more in keeping with liberalism because you are trying to influence people through the power of attraction, the power of convincing them by exhibiting something or exemplifying something that they can freely recognize as valuable and choose to emulate, rather than forcing it upon them. That’s the broad idea here. I think that, again, can’t be the whole of the story, but that is something that I think a lot of political theory (and liberal theory included) hasn’t really thought much about or attended to, and it’s at least a promising possibility.
Today’s Tempered Liberals
KLUTSEY: Now, in our current moment in history, who would you say exemplifies this tempered liberalism that you’re describing? Who embodies this ethos? Is it a public intellectual, is it a political leader? Who do you have in mind? Maybe a couple of people you have in mind, but I’m very curious about a living exemplary tempered liberal.
CHERNISS: I think this does go back to the diversity and pluralism and imperfection within tempered liberalism itself, that it may be difficult to find (and maybe undesirable), to look for a single individual who can exemplify everything. Indeed, one reason why the book takes the form of multiple chapters about different thinkers is this idea that there isn’t just one single exemplar.
KLUTSEY: I should’ve probably asked you who are the four?
CHERNISS: Yes, and I think that different figures will exemplify different aspects of this ethos. One person who I think is not a good example of some features of tempered liberalism but does embody some dimensions of it, and who’s very much on my mind and many other people’s minds now, is Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is not a moderate and not an intellectual, and not necessarily even the best political judge in all cases, but who I think does give this model of a particular kind of courage which is calmer, more humane, more moderate.
I think that one of the impressive things about Zelenskyy early on in the Russian attack on Ukraine was the fact that when he spoke to the Ukrainian people and when he spoke to the international community, he continued to be funny. He continued to have a sense of humor, and he also presented a kind of courage or a kind of strength that was quiet. He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t thump his chest so much. There was this definite sense of resolve that he and his government were not going to cave, but it was a quiet reassurance rather than an aggressive hectoring attitude, which I thought was quite impressive.
I think, on the other hand, other exemplars—and I’ll probably name more than four—but other exemplars on the intellectual level, perhaps, that occur to me include people like—well, there are a couple of Tims, actually. Timothy Garton Ash and Tim Snyder, both of whom I think are very important intellectuals, have their own different tendencies within this tempered liberal ethos to a more or less pragmatic or more or less principled stance. Both of them are, I think, people who not only advocate liberal democracy, but do so in a way that is really attuned to the need to uphold a certain ethos or a certain model of thought and behavior.
I also think that there are a certain number of people, many of whom are invisible to us, who are engaged in political resistance or are dissident in very difficult circumstances, who maybe can’t come to such public prominence but who do provide some models of something like this tempered liberal ethos. One of them, who was a dissident under communism and is now a dissident again, is Adam Michnik in Poland, who’s one of the great leaders and heroes of the anti-communist movement in the ’70s and ’80s and still a leading public intellectual in Poland.
Even though I don’t talk about him in the book, his thought is represented in—a lot of his writings under communism, and also since the fall of communism, did really shape my own sense of a tempered liberal ethos. Happily, despite numerous prison sentences, and also the fact that he smokes like a chimney, Michnik is still with us. And so are some other former Eastern European dissident leaders who I regard as people who exemplify this tempered liberal ethos within political action.
Hesitant Hope and Reluctant Defeatism
KLUTSEY: Now, as we bring this conversation to a close, I was wondering if you’d tell us what your motivation was for writing this book, and if you are optimistic that we can foster the liberal ethos you’re talking about among the current and future generations to sustain robust liberalism long term?
CHERNISS: I’ll answer the second question first, although the second question is a better question to end on, which is that I’m not optimistic. I think that the challenges and the tendencies that count against fostering this liberalism are quite significant, but I’m not despairing either. I think that it’s going to be very difficult but that it’s not impossible. I waver between a very hesitant hope and a very reluctant defeatism, but not a complete defeatism. I think it is going to be difficult, but it is possible.
And one thing that history teaches us is that things are seldom either as good or as bad as we think at the time. That there is this tendency to project either victories or defeats forward. Current crises and challenges often seem worse than they appear in retrospect, and also certain possibilities seem easier than they turn out to be. Just again, this moderating, tempering of my own momentary enthusiasm and hope, and also momentary pessimism or despair, is part of what I try to do and part of what I want to encourage in others.
That does then relate to the question about motivation in that I think there were several different moments of motivation, or several different things that fed into my motivation to write this book. One was, at a fairly young age, just fortuitously coming across work by a number of these thinkers, and being instantly and intuitively attracted by it, and being attracted by it in ways that I wasn’t attracted by the alternatives. So other people who were interested in or attracted to liberalism of some sort were really influenced by or attracted to the work of John Rawls, or the work of Hayek, or Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, or to some form of classical liberal thought in Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill.
Some of these things, like Smith and Mill, I found somewhat attractive as well. But I was really much more attracted to, and felt much more affinity with, these other authors, and at the same time realized that they were harder to place, or it was harder to articulate what it was about them I found so compelling. Part of the inspiration for the book was just to try to dig into what I found so appealing about them and what I intuitively felt they spoke to or offered that other flavors of liberalism didn’t as much.
The other thing or the second thing that inspired the book and motivated it was the recognition that—to some extent, I think even before, but certainly in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001—a lot of people like me (and myself, to some extent) were tempted by a tendency to be liberal in nonliberal ways. To promote liberal goals, liberal institutions, but to do so in ways that struck me as worryingly similar to the temperament or the mindset of earlier anti-liberals.
I would be having discussions with people, especially around the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, or the actions of the Bush administration more generally. We shared a lot of the same fundamental commitments, same fundamental values and even a lot of the same sort of emotional responses. And yet I found myself worried or bothered by something in the way they were thinking or the way they were proposing to act, which reminded me a little bit of the communist fellow travelers, strange as it may be to say, that I was reading about historically.
This idea that it was possible to be a liberal with an illiberal ethos or an illiberal mindset, to pursue liberal goals and principles but with a mentality, with a spirit that wasn’t liberal. That that was very much possible, that it was actually quite a powerful temptation, and that it could do a lot of damage. That, I think, was a second element that inspired me to write the book.
Then the third is much more recent and has emerged actually since I began work on the book, which is this resurgence of anti-liberalism as a major force in the world. As I was saying, to bring us full circle earlier, the way in which the rejection of liberalism and the turn to anti-liberal movements or strongmen reflect some of the same ethical rejection of liberalism, the same rejection of the spirit or character of liberalism.
One thing that I always want to insist on when people ask me is—you almost have, but have refrained from directly asking me to predict the future or prescribe for the future. But I do think that it’s important to note that foresight is not among my strong points, except that I did start working on this book on how liberals can respond to anti-liberalism, and to the ethical appeal of anti-liberalism—anti-liberalism not just as a rejection of liberal policies or institutions, but of a liberal mindset or character in favor of ruthlessness and strength—I began working on this in 2009, and Obama had just been elected. And people looked at me like I was crazy to be writing about dark power. Once I took a very long time to finish the project, what I did seemed more plausible, to think that liberalism was under threat from anti-liberalism.
KLUTSEY: Thank you very much for taking the time, and thank you for writing this book, which I think is incredibly informative. And it also, I think, speaks to certain challenges that we’re facing in our current moment in history. Thank you for doing this amazing work. Really appreciate it.
CHERNISS: Well, thank you very much both for the kind words and for the opportunity to talk.