Lofty love song

For more than a generation, few words in American public life have been uttered with such contempt as liberal.

When crusty Republicans in Congress want to damn a bill, they need only curl their lip and give the word the dismissive inflection that makes it come out "lib'ril." Hearing it, one knows how distasteful they find a political philosophy so intimately associated with the nation's founders and with democracy itself. Many Americans are no different. Little wonder Democrats scuttle away from the term like so many crabs on the beach.

And yet the irony is that some of the most true-blue liberals should be Republicans and self-congratulatory conservatives. They just don't know it. Indeed, it can be argued that Ronald Reagan, the most revered figure in the Republican pantheon, was in some respects a liberal.

To red-meat Republicans, for whom Reagan was a political messiah, this is blasphemous. But no apology need be made. It is the brunt of Alan Wolfe's engrossing book that the United States is more liberal -- socially, politically and culturally -- than those on the Right could ever realize. If you doubt it, take this quiz:

Do you prefer rule by law rather than by fiat? Do you believe in freedom of conscience, and all that comes with it? Do you support equal rights and equal opportunity for all? Do you support a free market that is responsibly regulated? Do you believe that those who govern are accountable to those who elected them?

You answered yes to all of the above, of course, and that makes you, like me and like all Americans, liberal in the classic and still binding sense of the word.

A tougher question

But there is another question that must be answered, and it is this one that divides Americans into camps they would call "liberal" and "conservative" -- or, in the rather too facile taxonomy of television campaign coverage, red states and blue states.

That question is: Should government, especially the federal government, take an active role in American life? If so, should that role be minimal or something more?

Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston College, puts the matter another way: "Why do we have government in the first place? From where is its power derived? When are its actions legitimate, and when are they not? Is it our friend, ready to help us in times of danger, or a seducer, holding out false allures that we must be ready to resist? Are we too dependent on it?"

Liberalism in its modern incarnation is identified with support for a more active federal government, conservatism with a government that would have little role at all except for providing a robust military. Modern liberalism sympathizes with the working middle class and the less privileged, conservatism with business, budgets and bottom lines. To the conservative way of thinking, the federal government could profit by modeling itself after the private sector.

The presidency of George W. Bush, though, makes an unfortunate case study for business acumen. The missteps are well-known and too many to enumerate here. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides an example that would be too exquisite if it were not the cause of so much anguish.

Bush appointed as head of FEMA a failed lobbyist and crony named Michael Brown, a man with no experience in managing emergencies. As Wolfe writes, when the nation's first president with an MBA responded to Katrina and its aftermath by praising Brown ('You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie') for the job he was doing, critics of the administration began to focus on its almost surreal level of incompetence."

That was the plan

It turns out those critics were only half right. In the case of Katrina, Wolfe argues, the administration's incompetence was in fact partly intended.

"The conservatives who worked for Bush," Wolfe writes, "had a well-developed philosophy of how to treat issues such as disaster relief and responded to Katrina by putting their philosophy immediately ... to work."

Wolfe squarely reveals the anti-government mind-set that the Bush administration brought into office, one almost without precedent in American experience. The neoconservatives surrounding Bush did not even see a national disaster as requiring a role for the federal government.

Wolfe quotes Brown's predecessor, a Bush campaign manager named Joseph Allbaugh: "It is not the role of the federal government to tell a community what it needs to do to protect its citizens and infrastructure. Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management." He said this little more than two years before Katrina.

Few Americans, certainly not after Katrina, are so blinkered as that. The election of Barack Obama was many things, not the least of them an embrace of the kind of activist government that Franklin Delano Roosevelt ushered in during the Great Depression.

Then as now, an active federal government was decried as "socialist," usually by people who had never studied socialism. Anyone who has studied it knows there are good reasons why socialism has never flourished in the United States. One is that its natural enemy, liberalism, was too well established for socialism to take root.

What is socialism?

To this extent, Wolfe offers an updated, but far more comprehensive, version of Louis Hartz's classic "The Liberal Tradition in America." The central idea of both books is the one first enunciated by Alexis de Tocqueville in "Democracy in America": "The great advantage of the Americans is that they have arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution; and that they are born equal, instead of becoming so."

As many have noted, Tocqueville was writing when African-Americans were not free and white women were not free in the way men were. The seedbed for freedom had been laid, but if it could one day produce equality of opportunity, it could not guarantee equality of result.

For Wolfe, the two polestars of liberalism are individual freedom and equality. The least satisfactory part of his otherwise persuasive book is his attempt to resolve the tension between them.

If individual freedom (conservatives, interestingly, are inclined to prefer the word liberty) and equality were so complementary, we would not have witnessed the torturous disagreements over affirmative action, taxation of the very rich and the role of corporate power in public life.

On all of these, liberals and conservatives part ways, and yet they somehow return to a middle ground. It is often an uneasy middle ground, but it is an accommodation nonetheless.

That they should reach accommodation at all is testament to a frame of mind established at the nation's founding. That frame of mind was liberal in spirit and liberal in principle. Whatever our party registration, whatever we call ourselves, we pay homage to it every time we call ourselves American.