A dispassionate overview of the term and concepts of liberalism—how it emerged, evolved, diversified, and alienated.
Rosenblatt (History/Graduate Center, CUNY) has published previous works about liberalism (Liberal Values: Benjamin Constant and the Politics of Religion, 2008, etc.), and she brings considerable scholarly substance to this work, though most of it forms the infrastructure for the accessible text. A few key ideas flow throughout. The term “liberalism” did not emerge until the early 19th century (although the sentiments clearly did); the term still means different things to different people, including liberals themselves; and the ideas were almost always polarizing. The narrative is chronological, beginning with Cicero and ending with the present—although the last figures Rosenblatt discusses in much detail are John Dewey and Franklin Roosevelt. Readers may be surprised to discover that Donald Trump makes no direct appearance, though it is not difficult to imagine him in some of the more general comments the author makes about political leaders in the past. The text is tightly organized: brief chapters, each with a summary at the end and each with several subheadings that keep the analysis focused. Rosenblatt confines her analysis to the Western world, specifically to France, which she credits heavily for the emergence of liberal philosophy; the United States; England; and, perhaps surprisingly, Germany, whose contributions, she writes, have been slighted (or even ignored) because of that country’s disastrous behavior in the 20th century. There are some true surprises here, too, perhaps most notably the initial liberal opposition to women’s rights and a fondness for eugenics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The author also notes, surprisingly, that factions within various liberal movements were opposed to government help for the poor—a disincentive, they claimed.
Fair, balanced, and chockablock with information and surprise.