I wrote this article while reading Adam Gopnik’s new book, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism. In my opinion this is a great book about liberalism, both in the past and right now. I think it is also a very important book.
This article is a mixture of quotes from the book and my observations about what is happening in the world right now.
This article is about just one of the many, many good points Gopnik makes in his book. This point being that liberal reform is possible even in the face of implacable hostility. As he says in the title, liberalism is 1000 small sanities.
Both John Stuart Mill Mill and Harriet Taylor, his lover and then wife, insisted that reform could still be possible even with iniquitous institutions in place.
“How does liberal reform happen? Mill and Taylor and their circle insisted that reform was possible even within inequitable institutions and that a virtuous circle could begin even in the face of gross unfairness: change an institution in small measures and it will eventually improve in larger ones.”
I think this is probably true. Look at what Obama began even in the face of the harshest Republican constraints. He got Obama Care passed and he got the Iran deal done, as well as many more small, almost invisible reforms. The Republicans have made serious inroads into all of this, but virtuous cycles have begun. We would be in far worse shape right now had the Obama administration not happened. And this is still true in spite of the fact that Trump has undone much of Obama’s work.
“The lack of something even approaching perfect democracy has not been a barrier to effective change when a country becomes ready for it.”
I think that this point is a very important thing to remember in this time of Trump and of powerful oligarchs and autocrats. Political change is not impossible even though the Republicans have a firm grip on power. This country is ready for democracy and change. Polling shows that the majority of Americans dislike Trump and approve fighting climate change. This is an important time to remember that liberals can change things to greater democracy and to greater liberalism. This battle is not in any way lost. Liberals still have more than a fighting chance and if they persist they will eventually win.
Liberals in this country right now need to take hope and have faith in what they are doing. They should never give in to Trump.
In early 20th century in Britain, the Women’s right to vote was finally passed in the face of the implacable hostility of the British ruling class.
“The British Parliament in the nineteenth century was a kind of family compact among gentlemen, but by the end of the century radical social change had taken place within it, including a broadly if imperfectly expanded right to vote.”
Liberals nowadays need to remember victories like this that happened all through the 19th and 20th centuries in governments that were far from perfect democracies.
This is just one small point in a book filled with many many many good points about liberalism. Another point this book makes is that gradual reform is always superior to violent revolution, and that history clearly proves this point. Gopnik explains in detail that this is true in spite of the partial successes of the American and French revolutions. There are many pages about this point. And this is just the beginning of this wonderful book.
I am now on only page 50 of a 250 page book. I look forward to many other good explanations of what liberalism actually is. This is a very fine book so far.