Talking Points

Family, politics, and the spirit of classical liberalism

During the Trump administration, it seemed every Thanksgiving was an occasion for media outlets to run fretful stories by progressives about what to do when a "racist uncle" at the holiday dinner table vocally supported the 45th president. When those essays ended on a militant note, either advocating refusal to attend or pronouncing an imperative to confront and denounce the offending relative, many of us recoiled.

We did so not because we were cowards or closet Trump supporters. We did so in the spirit of classical liberalism.

Right-wing critics of liberalism like to mock it for aspiring to political neutrality. Such neutrality is impossible, these critics claim, because as a political philosophy, classical liberalism invariably stakes out substantive moral positions and therefore can't stand above the fray. But liberalism, rightly understood, doesn't aspire to — let alone claim to have achieved — neutrality. It only aims to check and restrain politics to leave room for other, nonpolitical goods and pursuits.

That's a not a political philosophy of neutrality. It's a political philosophy of limits.

This is why classical liberalism is usually talked about in terms of freedom. But this isn't (or isn't simply) freedom understood as an absence of external constraint on individuals. It's also, and maybe more fundamentally, freedom understood as living one's life without political considerations impinging on all, or even most, of our choices. That means allowing people to worship or not worship God as they wish and read or not read what they choose, but also allowing them to decide for themselves how much politics should matter in their lives.

Back in 1982, when the Cold War had begun heating up again, Leon Wieseltier wrote a beautiful essay for The New Republic (not available online) in which he criticized conservatives for trying to politicize culture for the sake of advancing the West's position against the Soviet Union. One passage in particular captures perfectly the comprehensive humanistic outlook of liberalism: "The real triumph over tyranny is not a poem about freedom, but a poem about love — a poem that neither submits nor resists, because it takes freedom for granted. Not the right politics, but no politics."

If you encounter a Trump-supporting uncle at a family gathering this Thanksgiving and feel the urge to rise up in anger against him, consider responding as a classical liberal: Change the subject instead. Recognize that there's more to life than political disagreements and disputes.

That kind of freedom is something every American should be thankful for: Not the right politics, but no politics.