Why Is This Happening? Defending liberalism with Adam Gopnik: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with writer Adam Gopnik about the tenets of liberalism and the serious challenges it now faces.
Get the Think newsletter.
By Why Is This Happening?

Liberalism is the ordering principal of American life. It is American society’s foundational belief in self-governance, freedom of speech, and individual liberties. After the end of the Cold War, it was widely believed that liberalism and liberal democracy would become the set up for the modern state, but that has not proven to be the case. There have globally been huge challenges to liberalism as different types of authoritarian governments flourish and some countries backslide by curtailing liberal institutions and guardrails.

Even in the United States, there are both left and right leaning philosophical arguments that challenge our current status quo of liberalism. This week Adam Gopnik, author of the new book "A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism," sits down to discuss the tenets of liberalism and the serious challenges it now faces.

ADAM GOPNIK: Every time authoritarians come to power, there's an opportunistic left response. They think, "Oh, we can ... that'll be good in the long run. That'll heighten the contradictions. We'll be able to take advantage of that." That never happens. What happens is, is that it only, that kind of passivity and that kind of opportunism only feeds the right wing autocrats. Nationalism isn't something that you can play games with or you can play dice with. It's always a huge danger.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to Why Is This Happening, with me, your host, Chris Hayes. You know WITH pod listeners, I don't know if this is an annoying tendency of mine, but I'm just going to go with it, which is that the older I get, the more inclined I am to tell stories about back in the day, back in my day.

I have a particular inclination to do this with our staff, many of whom are under 30. Seamus Hughes is sitting in for Tiffany Champion, today, who's looking up at me and nodding. Matt Toder I think is more like my age, right? Yeah.

So here's a back in my day story. Back in my day, in the Bush administration, in the sort of post 9/11, post-Iraq War, the net roots, there was this big fight over the term liberal, and a kind of consensus view that the term had been so destroyed by conservatives, and made into such a caricature, that it had to be jettisoned in favor of progressive and basically no one called themselves liberal anymore. No one talked about liberalism or a liberal approach to things. It was all progressive, progressive, progressive.

And that I think has more or less stayed the same. I think progressive has become the kind of standard word, but it's also the case that the word liberal is really slippery. All of these political terms are between two different things, right? Liberalism in the American political context, which are people that are sort of on the center left who are, you know, believe in like higher taxes and redistribution and the sort of platform of the democratic party and things to the left of that unionization, et cetera. And then there's liberalism in a broader sense, which is like the political theory of essentially self-governance with specified inalienable rights that preserve an independent civil society, freedom from domination, human flourishing, free speech, judicial process and things like that.

That's been like the field upon which the sport of American politics has played on. Like we're not having a fight over what system of government we should have, right? We're having a fight where we have a system of government, broadly we believe in like self-governance, liberalism, enumerated rights, judicial process, and then we fight over things like whether abortion should be one of those rights and we fight over things like how much should we tax and what should the state provide versus not provide, things like that.

And in the wake of the end of the Cold War, I think there was generally a sense that that victory, that sort of idea that that's the kind of foundational setup for the modern state became a kind of commonplace consensus among a lot of thinkers. Like there was this huge battle between two different models, like broadly liberal democracy on the one side and communism on the other, and one side won and one side lost, and the communists collapsed, and so the side that won was just going to spread all over the place and then Ukraine would be a liberal democracy. Russia would be a liberal democracy. Armenia would be a liberal democracy. Kazakhstan will be a liberal democracy because that's the other model and that model is the one that won. Not at all what happened, right?

I mean what we've seen is a flourishing of various forms of government that are definitely not communism in the sense of sort of one-party rule by a communist party, but they are not liberal democracy. Modern Russia has elections, but it's not a liberal society. Civil society is incredibly manipulated and dominated by the state. It doesn't allow for free expression. You can be harassed and thrown in jail, even murdered if you get crosswise the ruling party.

Turkey's the same thing. Turkey has elections, they have regional elections, they have politicians, they have a legislative body, but it's a strongman state in which Erdoğan controls the main ways of people getting their information and he has shrunk civil society. And then the actual existing biggest country in the world, which is still nominally communist, Chinese Communist Party runs China, has evolved in this fascinating way where it's a state managed market economy that is also not at all liberal, in fact has gotten probably less liberal.

So we did a whole podcast about the camps that they're putting the Muslim Uyghur minority into. There's all sorts of creepy and crazy stories about their digital use of surveillance to surveil their own population and curtail their freedom. So around the world you're seeing huge challenges to the system of liberal democracy as different forms of more authoritarian government flourish. And even backsliding happens in countries that were formerly liberal democracies like say Hungary and Poland, where there've been steps by the ruling right wing populist parties in both of those places to sort of curtail some of the liberal guardrails that preserve civil society shutting down one of the biggest universities in Hungary for instance, which the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban just did.

So that's the global context. Liberals as a political structure of the modern developed country is sort of under threat. And then there's a philosophical debate within America in which there's increasingly fights about whether America should be liberal. Like on the right there's like an explicitly ethno-nationalists challenge to liberalism and there's a resurgent socialist challenge I think to liberalism on the left. Now that resurgent socialist challenge, I think it gets a little muddy because I think a lot of people call themselves socialists are really kind of social democrats or believe in democratic socialism and don't want to like get rid of the first amendment and don't actually want like a one party state with the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Although there are some of those people and they really don't like liberalism, but in all these ways, liberalism is, I think it's not crazy to say like somewhat under siege at the moment. Even though, let's be very clear, it is the ordering principle of American life and it still is, we're still a liberal democracy and Canada's still a liberal democracy, and the UK's still a liberal democracy, and we have lived through history before where like genuine spread of fascism across the continent was happening, say right before World War Two. That's not the world we're in right now, and yet it is the case that liberalism I think is under threat both politically and also theoretically.

Into the breach, coming to defend liberalism is Adam Gopnik, he's an author and staff writer for the New Yorker. He's a great writer. I've been reading him forever and he's got this new book out. It's a slim volume. It's a very easy read that is just a kind of manifesto defending liberalism. It's called "A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism." And the book is an attempt to basically take on liberalism's foes on both the left and the right as he sees it and defend it, not from a sort of crouching position, but actually that liberalism is the best system for ordering human affairs, that we should be proud of it and sing its praises and evangelize it, and that it's dangerous and scary to retreat from those commitments.

And I am someone who is very sympathetic to that argument, but still finds myself deeply questioning where we are in this political moment, what the era of climate crisis will require from our political system, what the future of global conflict will look like and where this liberal vision fits into all this. And I think that's a pressing question for all of us in this very era. And I thought it was really important to sit down and wrestle all this over with Adam Gopnik.

Why a book about liberalism?

ADAM GOPNIK: Well, for two reasons really, Chris. One is that for the past 30 years I've been writing about liberal philosophers, liberal thinkers, liberal actors, liberal novelists for the New Yorker, and over that time I've developed a lot of ideas about liberalism and I, at this moment of extreme national emergency, I thought it might be helpful, for me at least and maybe for other people, to put them all together in one book. The immediate impulse to do it is, as I explained at the beginning of the book is that my daughter Olivia, was 17 at the time, was completely traumatized and freaked out she would say by the results of that election. And I took her for a long walk around our neighborhood and I failed completely to reassure her or raise her spirits or teach her why liberal humane values were important. So I had a kind of mental memorandum, write a letter to Olivia on liberalism and that's what this book is.

CHRIS HAYES: It's a really interesting moment. The book is quite good and quite readable and accessible, but quite dense in terms of its ideas. It's a moment when there's a sense in which liberalism is embattled. But before we get to that, the first chapter's sort of about what, how you're going to define the project, like what is liberalism to your mind?

ADAM GOPNIK: Well, I can better say sort of in a certain ways what is not. Liberalism is to me is a temperament in the first place. It's not an ideology that has axioms and consequences. It's not something where you can say, if you sign up for these principles, you are a liberal. Because if you look at the great liberals throughout history, they've been by definition pragmatic. They are possessed of a temperament that explores and tries to reform the world in a certain way.

If I had to narrow it to a simple concept, it would be, liberalism is the great project of reform through reason. That's what really begins right around the time of the Civil War, Chris. And when in the aftermath of the American Civil War, in England and France and in America, the idea that you could have a reforming project, you're trying to make the world better, campaign against cruelty, both in terms of greater social equality, and in terms of greater individual freedom and greater tolerance for difference among individuals. That you could attempt that remake the world on a large scale, but you could do it through reason. Bayard Rustin is one of the heroes of this book and one of my heroes, the great gay civil rights organizer, as much as he was an activist, had it in three simple dance steps, constitutional procedures, democratic means, and nonviolent methods.

Those were the three dance steps of liberal activism. And I think that that remains the same. So for me, the program of reform through reason kind of comes closest to encapsulating what liberalism is.

CHRIS HAYES: And I want to be clear about this. So when we're talking about liberalism, because when I went into the book I didn't know sort of, it's a capacious concept that sort of-

ADAM GOPNIK: Sure, it can take very different terms. Sometimes people refer themselves as classic liberals and what they really mean is-

CHRIS HAYES: Right, which by the way man, that's a red flag.


CHRIS HAYES: When anyone walks up to you at a party and he's like, well I really am a classical liberal or you see it in the Twitter handle, it's like go run a million miles in the opposite direction.

ADAM GOPNIK: Yes, that means a free market conservative. That means a conservative who may have some mild libertarian tendencies, but that's what that means. But the liberalism I'm talking about is above all, if you want to attach a name to it, so the liberalism of John Stuart Mill. As much as Marx is the father of radical leftism, John Stuart Mill is the father of liberal, of the liberal left, and it's his ideas on freedom, on equality and particularly his simple conception that there was no tension between being for the expansion of individual freedom to the maximum possible and to the achievement of social equality to the maximum possible.

Conservatives always say, well you can't have both, right?

CHRIS HAYES: Right, that we're trading off between the collective and the individual and a society where individuals flourish maximally is necessarily a society that-

ADAM GOPNIK: Minimal equality or limited equality.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, egalitarian.

ADAM GOPNIK: Now, core insight, the core beautiful leap, the sublime conception of liberalism is that they're not contradictory. That's what John Stuart Mill understood. That's why he wrote both "On Liberty," which is the best book ever written in 1859 about our absolute right to speak freely in every situation, no idea's too perfect to withstand scrutiny, and also wrote with his great lover and teacher, Harriet Taylor, "On the Subjection of Women," which is a great book that makes the radical case for absolute women's equality for feminism, first really great feminist manifesto. And they don't see these two books as being in any way contradictory.

Of course, if you believe in maximum freedom for each individual, when other people are being deprived of their freedom, being oppressed in ways that it makes them unable to exercise their freedom, your freedom is limited definitionally, right? You're living in a world in which the possibility of personal fulfillment is far more limited. So that's the great project. When I call this book the moral adventure of liberalism, that's exactly the moral adventure I have in mind, the possibility that we could be both free to fulfill ourselves as individuals and believe in ever greater social equality among different peoples.

What I wanted to do in this book immediately for the sake of explaining it to my daughter, but also more broadly in terms of trying to reintroduce liberalism, advocate for liberalism in a new way. So I wanted to make a bit more of the temperamental side. I wanted it to be about liberal people. You know, when we talk about liberalism, it can often seem drained of individuals. It's a temperament and a program that doesn't have obvious heroes the way that radical leftism does, or the way that the right does in the same way. Because it's all about, in many ways, the heroism of compromise. It doesn't present heroic figures and epic figures quite the same way. And yet I think that the history of liberalism has been filled with absolutely heroic human beings, men and women both. And I wanted to emphasize that part of it.

There's not a lot of commonality between, say Adam Smith and Bayard Rustin-

CHRIS HAYES: I was just going to say yes, Bayard Rustin.

ADAM GOPNIK: Bayard Rustin, and yet Adam Smith's, which you will never get by reading the pages of Forbes or the Wall Street Journal, Adam Smith's key insight was not that markets make men free, it's that free people move towards markets. It's that social sympathy, our ability to feel, we would now say empathetically for people with whom we don't share genes, who are not part of our clan, not part of our tribe, that that's the key thing that enables us to live social beings. And that if you don't have broad social sympathy, markets won't take. This is not an abstract idea, Chris. This is exactly what we've seen throughout Eastern Europe in since the fall of communism. That it's not enough just to introduce free market institutions if you don't have social capital already in place, that can enable you to have the habits of trust of being law abiding, this experience of working in conditions of trust with people who you don't know, with strangers, and if you don't have those things in place, then capitalism very quickly becomes kleptocracy.

CHRIS HAYES: There's a bunch of places to go on the sort of left critique of this. You devote a chapter to the kind of right critique, left critique of liberalism. You and I were just talking before we put the recorders on about reconstruction, because I think that's interesting place where these two things are in tension. So they were called the radical republicans and they were kind of, they were temperamentally radical.

ADAM GOPNIK: They were embattled certainly.

CHRIS HAYES: They were embattled, but what they were calling for, which was genuine, multiracial democracy in America, was essentially liberal.

ADAM GOPNIK: To my mind, it was entirely liberal and, as you know, I wrote a long piece about reconstruction.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Yeah. That's a very good piece.

ADAM GOPNIK: Thank you. For the New Yorker, not that long ago. One of the tragedies of that time is that exactly the people who were designated radicals were calling for liberal change. They were calling for nonviolent agrarian reform. They were calling for the accession to citizenship of the ex-slaves. They were calling for fair elections and open procedures. That's what they-

CHRIS HAYES: Constitutional protections.

ADAM GOPNIK: Exactly right. They were not calling it that and perhaps they should have.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, they were calling for some redistribution of land.

ADAM GOPNIK: Yes, absolutely, but done on by constitutional measures, not by a simple requisition, and they were not calling for as a radical leftist civic always called in every other circumstance of that kind, China, Soviet Union, let alone Cambodia, they were not calling for the removal of the ruling classes of the South. They were calling for the expansion of opportunity of property. They weren't saying, let's kill all the confederate generals. That was never even remotely part of the program. And I say that because it often is.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. There were voices back then who thought that a lot more folks should've been swinging from the lampposts.

ADAM GOPNIK: They might even conceivably have been right. One of the great failures of that period, I've always thought, Chris, is the failure of Robert E. Lee and the rest of the Confederate leadership to say, look, the war is over, we've lost, the only thing we can accept is that black people will have the vote and black men, if we can't treat them as brothers, we can treat them as fellow citizens. Longstreet, great Confederate general, did say that, said exactly that and was a pariah because of it. The United States would have been a different place.

So to my mind, what we're talking about there is the liberal tradition. Those are liberal goals achieved by liberal means and it's not accidental that those are, in effect, the followers of the late Lincoln. Lincoln goes through a long complicated evolution. I wrote a book about Lincoln and Darwin a decade ago. But at the end of it, Lincoln is clearly for black enfranchisement. That's why John Wilkes Booth hears him speak up for the vote for black veterans and he says, now I have to put him over because that's N-word enfranchisement.

And that's the immediate cause of Lincoln getting killed is because he stands up for black enfranchisement. So I think that in that sense they are radicals, but they're Lincolnian radicals.

CHRIS HAYES: But here's the thing that stocks me as someone who I think is sort of the perfect target audience for this book because I think I generally, I'm a liberal, but I have these kinds of sympathies for certain kinds of radicalism. And the sympathies are strongest when I have the sort of hindsight view, right, of a moment of history where the people who are the radicals were calling for things that were-

ADAM GOPNIK: Completely reasonable-

CHRIS HAYES: Completely reasonable-

ADAM GOPNIK: And self-evidently right.

CHRIS HAYES: Self-evidently right. I mean even Marx says universal suffrage, right? This is a position of Marx. Marx also was on the right side and understands perfectly well the civil war, understands the stakes of it as well. And I guess the question then becomes, do you go in your head about like well what am I missing now, right? If I'm in the place of a kind of temperamental reformist inclination, am I missing the great moral prophecy of this moment in the way that those people who got tagged as radicals back then were able to see?

ADAM GOPNIK: I tried to describe what the moral project of liberalism is and now you've defined what the moral test of liberalism is. Are you ready to make that leap when it's essential? We're living through one right now with the Trump administration and, specifically, with the question of Trump's impeachment. That's a good example of what you mean.

There's a strong prudential argument to be made against it. We might benefit by not pursuing Trump's impeachment, but there's a very, even stronger, in my mind, principled argument to make that say, you know what, the radical argument here. Say to hell with the consequences. This is unquestionably the right thing to do constitutionally is even stronger to my mind. For me, that's a local and immediate question.

CHRIS HAYES: But I mean something even bigger, right? I mean a vision of a society that doesn't have internal combustion engines and is radically reoriented around say the question of climate change. It's like there's just this worry I always have, even because I'm dispositionally pulled towards exactly the incrementalism being described and also a defender of it. Just to put my cards on the table, I'm a liberal, that I'm missing in this moment the kind of moral prophecy that only a certain kind of zealotry provides.

ADAM GOPNIK: Sure. Two things about it. Let's deal with the specifics first. Global warming. If we are to have that kind of moral zealotry in office, in operation and let's just imagine for the moment that the green new dealers, it's entirely improbable, one the presidency and majority in the senate and all that, too. I know your point is we don't even need that. We just have to act. What's going to happen inevitably in the nature of human societies?

People are going to dissent. People are going to object. There are going to be a lot of them. This is exactly what we've lived through in France in the past year. Macron brought through what by most standards would be a radical green project which involved raising taxes on gasoline, President Emmanuel Macron did. Relatively small tax hike. It created an enormous social conflagration. Not on the part of large extractive energy industries, but on the part of rural workers who need their cars to get to work and who didn't want to pay more money for gasoline. And you have a major social upheaval.

The question is there's always going to be resistance and there's always going to be dissent against any radical project we put in. The question for radicalism is what do you do with the dissenters? And the record of radicalism in power about what you do with the dissenters is not good. You take the kulaks who don't want to live on collective farms and you starve them out.

Look, I believe that liberalism has to go through an intensive moral accountancy and I try to do some of it in this book. I talk at length in the chapter on the left critique of liberalism about things like the Congo genocide. How is it that you and I, not our children so much, were raised not to see the genocide in the Congo on the part of the Belgians in the early 1900s as a human crime on par with, well not on par with, but the same kind as the Jewish genocide in Germany?

That was a failure of liberal vision. It was a failure of liberal practice, both in having it happen and then forgetting that it had. We need to do that kind of moral accounting all of the time. The radical left has to do the same kind of moral accounting, I think even more grievously and even more extensively. Because that question of what if you believe in radial action you're going to do about all the people who inevitably and certainly are going to dissent and oppose your radical action is a question that to my mind doesn't have a real principled answer. Liberalism has.

The liberal tradition does have a good principled answer for that, and it says you're going to try and persuade, placate and you're going to accept that incrementalism is not a thing good in itself, Chris, but incrementalism is a necessary consequence of pluralism. It's built-in that way.

CHRIS HAYES: So let's talk a little bit about this moment and the sort of rise of the illiberal right, which I think is a real specter.

ADAM GOPNIK: It's real. It's not hypothetical, what if.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. It's very real. I mean you make an interesting argument in the book about of two minds, right? That there's actually a kind of a ubiquitous throughout history presence of this kind of thinking and appeal, the appeal of the strongman. You write about how that sort of always looms there.

ADAM GOPNIK: The majority of the history of mankind is the history of strongman politics.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. I mean that's right, exactly. Most of human organization, civilization is massively hierarchical, massively inegalitarian and essentially uses the power of brute force to enforce hierarchy. That's most of human history.

ADAM GOPNIK: Donald Trump is the American exception, but he's the human historical norm, tragically.

CHRIS HAYES: But there's a sort of deeper thing about kind of what the, which I think is really heady stuff right now, which is the kind of blood and soil call. This question about liberalism is weak and thin and gruel. It's like drinking broth. It can't compete with the hardiness of fully-realized, sort of reactionary populism that talks about your rootedness to a place and that place belonging to you and you belonging to it. And the thickness of that is proving to be in a just sort of political sense when you look at the elections across Europe, the kind of wishy-washy, social democratic center left is getting it's ass kicked all over the place by the blood and soil right-wing populous.

ADAM GOPNIK: No question about it, and I try to give as empathetic reading again to blood and soil populous in their highest kinds. You know, I make something in the chapter on the right-wing attack on liberalism of someone who is not a right-winger really, the great Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor.

CHRIS HAYES: Charles Taylor, yeah.

ADAM GOPNIK: Charles Taylor, who says that he's actually a social democrat, but he's a Catholic, he's a Roman Catholic and his point is liberals ask the question always who am I? And the real human question is where am I? Where am I located? What is my -

CHRIS HAYES: What am I rooted into.

ADAM GOPNIK: Right. Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: What's the nexus of being that I am as opposed to me as the individual walking through the world seeking some sort of liberatory project.

ADAM GOPNIK: Exactly. Seeking my utilities and utilities perhaps for my children.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Yeah.

ADAM GOPNIK: That's a big question. That's a totally legitimate line of inquiry and it's a powerful reminder of some of the intellectual and even more importantly, the emotional weaknesses of liberalism. What liberals, I think, would say in response, what my liberalism would say in response, is first of all, liberalism has actually been very good at the project of making community. It's why we live in New York. You know, I never get over the miracle of New York. We live in a city in which Lubavitchers and Satmars and atheists and Muslims really do live together. That's a community.

A tolerant community is another kind of community. A pluralistic community is another kind of community. I delight exactly in the variety of kinds that I can find every time in New York. That's not an absence of community. It's a particular kind of community that we relish.

And the other thing I'd say is that traditionally, liberalism has been a unifying project. You know, the great liberal nations. Forgive me, but Canada is where I come from, right?


ADAM GOPNIK: And Canada came together because liberals, properly so-called, said, "You know what? There are ways in which two radically different peoples, French-speaking Catholics and English-speaking Protestants can share in a common national project, that what unites us is greater than what divides us. That's the question. You say where am I? You say, well I'm in Canada. That means that I extend my sense of citizenship to a French-speaking Catholic, and I include the Jews who have just come off the boat or the Ukrainians or the Icelanders in it.

CHRIS HAYES: And yet it's been a remarkably fraught project. I mean part of what's fascinating to me, and I've been thinking about this because I was having a conversation with Patrick Radden Keefe recently.

ADAM GOPNIK: Sure. Right.

CHRIS HAYES: We had him on the show, writes for the New Yorker as well, about Say Nothing. And I was talking to him and I was talking to a British journalist friend of mine about the DUP, which is the sort of unionist, loyalist Protestant party in Northern Ireland, right?

ADAM GOPNIK: In Northern Ireland.

CHRIS HAYES: And they're right now part of the conservative coalition. They make it up. And I was trying to sort of mine, I was like, "Well what are the politics there on the left-right spectrum?" He said, "It's kind of hard and complicated and hard to say because the issue they care about is orthogonal to that." And what he compared it to is the Bloc Québécois. Which is Bloc Québécois? Left? Is it right?

ADAM GOPNIK: It's nationalist.

CHRIS HAYES: It's a nationalist party. There's some traditionally left projects they go for. There's some traditionally right-wing rhetoric and tropes they use, but fundamentally, it's interesting the way that kind of politics sits strangely in the vector of how we've come to think of that left/right spectrum.

ADAM GOPNIK: Well look. Politics will never always be defined where people were sitting at the national assembly -

CHRIS HAYES: In the French Revolution, right.

ADAM GOPNIK: In 1790. So obviously, left and right are going to be impoverished concepts or somewhat impoverished concepts. I'm of the view that it's a huge temptation and a great danger for, call us what you will, liberal-minded people to think oh well, we can benefit from the ambiguities of those kinds of nationalist politics and we'll be able to benefit from it. You know, you see it even now. People do say sometimes well look, Trump is horrible, right? But he's exploded the norms of American government and that's a good thing because we on the progressive side will benefit in the next cycle. We'll benefit from having those norms exploded because we won't have to pay the same kind of attention to the impediments of democratic process.

That's the kind of thing that's said every time. I feel passionately about this so forgive me because every time authoritarians come to power, there's an opportunistic left response and oh we can ... That'll be good in the long run. That'll heighten the contradictions. We'll be able to take advantage of that. That never happens. What happens is that only that kind of passivity and that kind of opportunism only feeds the right-wing autocrats.

Nationalism isn't something that you can play games with or you can play dice with. It's always a huge danger. So the question is what does liberalism do with? What do we make of that kind of nationalist fervor? We can't deny it. And I say at the end of the chapter on the right, you know, Goya's great statement, "Sleep of reason begets monsters." Those monsters are not going away. We can't master them, but we can manage them. And that's part of the political project of liberalism.

It's something that I think that Obama was good at, at his finest moments. It's finding a way of having a credible way to talk about patriotism and talk patriotically without falling into the trap of nationalism. They're different things and they can be defined differently.

Quick story. My son, Luke, worked on the Max Rose campaign in Staten Island.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Max is going to be on this podcast in a few weeks.

ADAM GOPNIK: Oh wow! Fantastic!

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. He's a fascinating guy.

ADAM GOPNIK: Totally fascinating guy. Now everybody talked about AOC and, well, they should. And she represents all kinds of positive and fascinating things, but she was running in a district where you or I could win with a democratic pin on. Maybe no surprise that you would win. It would be startling if I could. Max Rose was running in the most republican district in New York City by far and one where they were behind by 40 points when they started. What did the kids who were working for Max Rose have to learn to do?

They had to learn to talk a credible language of patriotic commitment to people who had two American flags on their porch when you came in and whose family define their value by how many people have been in the service and by their history of service. Now that's not the history of social milieu that a lot of the kids who were working for Max Rose came from, but they had to learn to respect another milieu and they had to learn to talk a language that was credible to them. And they won. And they learned it and they won.

Now that's a positive model it seems to me of how liberalism deals with the perpetual temptation of nationalism, of blood and soil nationalism. It isn't something historically that is undefeatable. It isn't something that doesn't have ways of being raised and channeled into a positive and benevolent direction. Historically it can be, it just requires a lot of work and that's, once again, that's the work or politics rather than the invocation of ideology.

CHRIS HAYES: I want to talk about what happens when the lessons of illiberalism, the dangers of illiberalism are forgotten. We'll do that right after this.

What is your understanding of the moment? I have, I think, part of me has an extremely Occam's razor vision of the rise of the menace of sort of right-wing blood and soil authoritarian populism, which is essentially just the generation that fought fascism and experienced fascism first hand has essentially died out and with it, the kind of living memory of what this politics does to people, what it does to a society, the hell on Earth that it wrought. And a huge part of what we're dealing with is just that.


CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Just amnesia. The world, the Western world fought this great battle against this great monster and so many people were swept up into it as either advocates or complicit in it, so many people died at its hands. The war that ultimately defeated it killed what, 20 million people.




CHRIS HAYES: That memory is just visceral, woven into the building of institutions, all of it, and on the continent, particularly in Europe and has essentially faded.

ADAM GOPNIK: I think that's true. And I think it's significant by the way that in France, so the national front, has a great deal of power. I would say that it's almost impossible for the national front ever to win a presidential election. That because France is one place where the memory of the catastrophe because it took the role of an occupation rather than of a national movement, well it was actually both, but they remember it as a brutal occupation.

CHRIS HAYES: So this precise question is currently shaping Polish politics. We should know literally that historical question.

ADAM GOPNIK: Yes. And as a consequence when a national front candidate has even a chance of winning the presidency, all of the respectable right, all of our republican party and they call themselves republicans now, come together against the national front. The disaster we've seen happening here, right? Where the supposedly respectable constitutional conservatives have coalesced around an authoritarian nationalist. I think it would be harder to have it happen in France, exactly because of that historical memory. But that's an aside in this larger story.

But let me say something challenging on that, Chris, then. I also think that there's been a companion amnesia and that is an amnesia about the experience of Soviet Marxism and what happened in Eastern Europe. That's easily forgotten, in part because and let's be honest about this, because the reconstruction of Russia and of Eastern Europe was so catastrophic and failed so badly to do the things that were promised and that were expected. But nonetheless, as a consequence it's very often hard.

I have a lot of 20-something friends who are deeply drawn to the tone and the rhetoric of radical Marxism. What they don't have is a very clear specific idea of what it was like in power, what actually happened in power. And of course, the standard answer to that is to say oh well, those were the bad accidents of the wrong people putting it into power, right? It was just, it was unlucky that it happened in Russia. It was unfortunate that it happened in China. It was a terrible job in Eastern Germany and so on, right?


ADAM GOPNIK: And the point I was trying to make earlier is when you believe you have a monopoly on virtue and truth and you have to deal, as anyone who is in power anywhere has to deal with dissent, it's very, very hard to deal with it in the humane way that liberal institutions attempt to guarantee.

CHRIS HAYES: Attempt to guarantee is the key qualifier there.

ADAM GOPNIK: Yes. There's never been a time in the history of modern liberalism in the modern liberal state. You know I talked a moment ago about what for me is one of the great stains on the history of liberalism and that is the Congo genocide of the early 1900s. A horrific story. It wasn't Great Britain or France, it was Belgium, but it was part of the consort of Europe and it was a genocide and horrific.

Nonetheless, the way the world found out about it was because there was a free press in Britain and in France, a guy named Morel began reporting on it. And he was able to talk about it and finally get it to Parliament, not entirely unlike the way that American atrocities in Vietnam, My Lai actually came into Life Magazine. You're too young to recall, but I remember the issue. Now, does that suddenly make the evils dissolve or go away? No. Not at all.

But liberalism is the one form of government that I know of that implants a corrective conscience at the heart of its institution. It doesn't always operate as we would want it to, but it's there. It's part of our responsibility.

CHRIS HAYES: Isn't there, though, a degree to which again, there's a sort of definitional question. We're chasing our tails around with the definition of Western socialism recently and the degree to which that sort of necessarily connects to much more authoritarian modes of governance like, you know, Stalin's Russia for instance.

ADAM GOPNIK: It doesn't have to be Stalin's Russia. You could just make it mediocre governance like in Eastern Europe.

CHRIS HAYES: Sure. Right.

ADAM GOPNIK: After ...

CHRIS HAYES: I guess the question is the critics of liberalism both on the left and right share this in common which they don't ... I think they all think that liberals are either ridiculous in what they say they believe or lying about what they believe, right? I mean the Marxist critique, obviously, but this sort of original radical left critique is that it is essentially an invented language to mask power relations and the relations of property.

ADAM GOPNIK: I talk about that at length.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, but you talk head-on in that chapter and that it essentially is used. And I think part of what drives people crazy is they do see very often and I'm now speaking from a left perspective, people using the temperamental invocations you're using and the linguistic invocations of liberalism as means of pursuing what is essentially this kind of pro status quo project.

ADAM GOPNIK: Right. That can happen. And let's add right there, there's nothing illegal about a pro status quo project. You know, that's one of the things that you have to accept. My point is that ...

CHRIS HAYES: Well I'm not saying ban the pro status quo.

ADAM GOPNIK: Right. Well, but you know, that's not a trivial point in the sense, Chris, that might be the case and it would be one of the voices in the choir that you're going to have to deal with. The liberal tradition that I'm talking about is one in which is always trying to move for reform and it's been responsible for the most radical reforms in history.

That's one thing that I do feel passionately about, Chris, is that when you look at the condition of contemporary modern liberal democracy that in one way or another adhere to this temperament ideology philosophy, way of practice maybe a better word, called liberalism, they have achieved on the whole greater prosperity and without question greater pluralism than any other societies known to human history. That's just a fact.

Now they are imperfect in a thousand ways. They have a million faults and there are a thousand million things that are in need of reform. But when if what you value is the possibility of pluralism, if you value the idea that you can be a sexual minority and still live a fulfilled life, choose your partner, marry, that has never happened before in human history. That's a unique ... And you can argue that there were antique examples of men, but as a legal principle, that's never ...

CHRIS HAYES: As a legal principal in sort of modern life.

ADAM GOPNIK: Yes. That has never happened before in history. That's not accidental. That's something that's produced by the working out of liberal institutions, of ground swells from below, of the possibility of building communities that are outside the control of the state, but they're no more than stonewalled, right?


ADAM GOPNIK: Right. All of those things. It enables people to speak freely, propose new things. All of that enables John Stuart Mills' great dream of both greater social equality and greater capacity for individual fulfillment to take place. They really do take place.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. But you've just put your finger on to me what's the paradox, right, and the paradox of liberalism. And you do talk about this in the book is that Stonewall was a militant moment driven by people who were militant who threw bottles at the cops when the cops tried to arrest them. That moment and many of the movements that have produced the kinds of things, it feels like a little bit of this thing of where you have these militant people who are kind of zealots who may have ideologies that are a little bit orthogonal or even opposed to liberalism and because of the way liberalism has functioned, right, they're able to sort of get their claims ...

ADAM GOPNIK: They're able to take advantage of ...

CHRIS HAYES: Right. But the point I want to make is without that militancy, then the project dies.

ADAM GOPNIK: Sure. Absolutely. But without the liberal institution, the project dies, as well.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I guess my point is that they need each other.

ADAM GOPNIK: And that's why the hero, one of the heroes of this book is Frederick Douglass, who I called the greatest American and I believe was the greatest American. On of the things that makes ... And Douglass, I do not include in this book as a liberal -

CHRIS HAYES: As a liberal. Which I think is interesting.

ADAM GOPNIK: Right, because I don't think that's a good way of seeing Douglass. Douglass is fascinating because he embodies in one personhood the radical prophet and liberal politician. He includes both. He was uncompromising, obviously, in his abolitionism, but in the fullness of the sense ... it's the last thing in the world you'd call Frederick Douglass, was a centrist, right? Or even an incrementalist-


ADAM GOPNIK: In that way. But, he was totally committed to constitutional means. Totally committed to constitutional means.

CHRIS HAYES: That's true.

ADAM GOPNIK: He believed that the United States Constitution was a liberty document. Those are his words, and that it had yet to be fulfilled. It's the beginning of Obama-ism, is in Frederick Douglass. He chose to align himself with Lincoln instead of John Brown. He had that choice. He could go in the direction of extreme, essentially, terrorist violence, or in the direction of democratic politics and the Republican party and knowing both choices directly, he chose the path of Lincoln and democratic party politics, Republican party, as it was then. And he never changed. Even through the horrors of Reconstruction, he remained devoted to the Republican party as it was then, and to the project of building social capital for black people, banks, and universities, and the rest of it.

CHRIS HAYES: And the full sort of institutional panoply of the protection of law, equal citizenship, that entire suite-

ADAM GOPNIK: Liberal institutions.


ADAM GOPNIK: Guarantees. Liberal guarantees. So Douglass is a fascinating character because he combines both. Do we need both historically? Of course we do. Of course we do. My point is that without the liberal institutions that enable those radical impulses to actually find a broad coalition of consent, they tend to be nothing. And in societies ... let's point to two. Look at contemporary Iran. Those impulses towards self-liberation for gay people — among others, but gay people particularly, who are particularly brutalized and persecuted there — have the same impulses and they're just brutally shut down, time and time again. There are no liberal institutions in Iran that can take that radical kindling and turn it into a safe illumination, a broad illumination.

CHRIS HAYES: I go back and forth on this, about the degree to which there's been some shift internally in the American right, away from the broad project of liberalism. You know, there's conservative liberal within the project of liberal democracy, but, I don't know, Trump is supposed to be generous. Do you think there's a broader shared authoritarianism throughout the American conservative movement? Does it predate Trump?

ADAM GOPNIK: Yeah, I think so. Obviously, American conservatism's a complicated phenomenon. God help me using the word "phenomenon." I swore I never would use that. Look, one of the things I say in the book ... I'm using the Obama-ite "look," right?


ADAM GOPNIK: Rather than the Ivy League "so," but-



CHRIS HAYES: Or right-

ADAM GOPNIK: Or right. Yes, exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: That's the one I do all the time. I also say "kinda" and "sorta." By the way, if you've emailed me about how much I say "kinda" and "sorta," I've received your emails and you're correct.

ADAM GOPNIK: One of the things that's clear, and it's become particularly clear in the last couple of days, tragically, is that the right-wing American self-accounting that we're for limited government, is clearly absurd, right? There's never been more of a big government initiative than what's going on with abortion rights right now. And I say this in the book, before it happened, that you're going to have to have a pregnancy police. You're going to literally have to have a policeman in an obstetrician's office to police both the doctor and the pregnant woman. You cannot imagine anything that represents the intrusion of the state into people's lives more than that.

They believe in it, they justify it, but the notion that conservatism in America stands for limited government, I think, is false. I do think that the key things about conservatism in America, often overlooked, is that it involves reverence for religions, which is clearly the core thing. It's why evangelicals vote for Trump. Trump is the least religious man imaginable, but he offers them protection for their practice, which they feel is threatened. And the other thing is reverence for the military. I think that's a huge part. That combination, the American combination of militarism and religiosity.

CHRIS HAYES: But what's amazing about that, right? This is the thing I think about. You know, I think Corey Robin on this is, I think, one of the more persuasive about what the project of conservatism is and he sort of views it as reaction to projects of-

ADAM GOPNIK: Liberation.

CHRIS HAYES: ... liberation, is basically how he sees it. It drives me crazy, this idea of limited government as even a useful framework or even something that's observed in the breach. It has nothing-


CHRIS HAYES: ... to do with anything having ... No American politics turns on the axis of limited government, what the state and ... It all has to do with different interests. They're fighting with each other-

ADAM GOPNIK: Different interests, but I would emphasize different ideas. Different ideas. It's not just-

CHRIS HAYES: Right, but not the ideal of limited government.


CHRIS HAYES: That's the thing. There's like, 17 people who went to some libertarian day camp-

ADAM GOPNIK: Right, yes.

CHRIS HAYES: ... and really believe that but-

ADAM GOPNIK: I say that in the book but there are different ideals. There are different ideals about the role of God and religion and one's-


ADAM GOPNIK: ... that we can't wish away because they're there. I don't think ... and I try to say it in the book. I think there's genuine distinguished and important, truly conservative tradition in political thought. It is not merely reactionary. It isn't just in an attempt to break programs of liberation, and it rests exactly on the recognition that our hunger for identity, our need for connection, is overwhelming and that liberalism impedes it. Liberalism acts as a stopper on it. I come back again to Chuck Taylor's point: We need to ask, "Where am I?" and liberalism doesn't seem to give a good answer to that. That's not a reactionary ... that's not just saying, "I don't want black people to have the vote or get welfare." That's saying, "What I'm being offered by my social arrangement fails to satisfy my deepest needs."

And as I say in the book — and it's actually my favorite part of the book, though I don't think anybody has ever mentioned it yet — is that that's deeply tied to the reality of the tragic nature of our circumstances. We are mortal creatures. If we got the best government imaginable, with national health care and with actually fair voting democratic voting procedures — we abolished the electoral college and Roe v. Wade was saved — we still would be stuck with the fact of mortality, with the misery of human life, with our inability to get everything we want.

I once did a profile of Willy Nelson, a very great man, and Willy Nelson would say, "What you've got to understand is, everybody in the audience is out there with their second choice, and that's what makes the juke box play." And that's true. Human life has a deep, deep sadness and the liberal project of reform can seem fatuous compared with the full enormity of human suffering and human unhappiness. That's not a trivial observation; that's deep in the richest kind of conservative political philosophy. I don't think it's right. I think the project that we can have of-

CHRIS HAYES: This was my reading of this chapter from yours, because you use Taylor a lot, which is interesting ... you're trying very hard to find something that you could wrestle with amiably. But the redeemable core there is this sort of an idea of rootedness and the project of human life being transcendent past the thousand small sanities-


CHRIS HAYES: ... that liberalism offers for our brief little wink of existence on this planet.

ADAM GOPNIK: Now, obviously, I'm a thousand small sanities guy. I think that the liberal project of campaigning against cruelty is a noble one because we can recognize cruelty when we see it. We can't solve the existential horror of human existence. We can keep people from torturing other people, we can keep people from locking up people in solitary confinement for 40 years at a time. There's lots of specific things, specific cruelties that we can cure, and liberalism has been very successful in curing a lot of those specific cruelties. So I don't share that view, but I do think it's a distinguished view and it's a view that can't simply be relegated to, "Oh, they want to stop somebody else from being liberated."

CHRIS HAYES: Do you view this in epochal terms or as eternal recurrence terms? Meaning, there are modes of human organization and human domination that characterize broad swathes of different parts of history of different parts of the world. Global history's complicated. The way that Incan society was set up is very different than, say, Belgian society, et cetera. However, there was obviously this idea that we've ... post-Cold War, sort of all agreed on liberal democracy. We're moving towards a world in which that's the case. The number of democratic states shoots up. There's a sense now, I think, of both backsliding and also the idea that maybe the future belongs to the Chinese model. Humans have tried different kind of things and-

ADAM GOPNIK: And an authoritarian model married to a free market model actually works. When you and I were growing up, Chris, one of the axioms of the American right was that free markets necessarily produce civic freedom, right? You can't have-


ADAM GOPNIK: ... entrepreneurial energies without having broadly individualistic pursuits. That's turned out to be totally false.


ADAM GOPNIK: Turned out to be totally false. Now, maybe it won't turn out to be totally false. Maybe 50 years from now, we'll say, "There was so much social capital being built up in China at that time that of course the Chinese revolution was bound to happen," right?

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Right.

ADAM GOPNIK: That could happen too. I make no predictions about it, but it certainly doesn't seem to be the case right now. I'd see it in two different ways. I'd say that the struggle between what Karl Popper called "closed and open societies" is a permanent one. There will always be a move towards openness, pluralism, cosmopolitanism, and that will always be met, in any historical moment with a move not always equal, but very strong towards tribalism, community, safety, familiarity, the closed society. It's certainly in every historical moment. We know that that's what's happened.

And if you want to look more locally, at the United States, one of the shocking things about it, as I say, is we all are hyper-sensitive to economic causes, right? Akron no longer has a tire plant and therefore, the people in Akron vote for Donald Trump. Remember, at the height of American prosperity, huge numbers of Americans believed that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist.


ADAM GOPNIK: Or that John Kennedy was a communist.


ADAM GOPNIK: They really did believe that. When John Kennedy arrived in Dallas, all the billboards said or several billboards said, "Arrest him for treason. He's a communist." John Kennedy. So in that sense, it's a permanent feature, certainly, of American politics. What I would say — and this is my passion, this is my belief, it's why I wrote this book — is that liberalism, in that broad, temperamental sense we've been talking about today, a belief in a campaign against cruelty, a belief that compassion for other people's suffering is the most important social emotion that we can have, and a belief that we can actually build societies and institutions that seek to implant those sympathetic emotions in our social institutions.

That's kind of unique in human history. That's not something you find replicated over and over again. What is true, I think — and this is where the book ends, actually — is that on the whole, and it's a kind of weirdly cheering thing when you're in a dark, apocalyptic mood, which I am almost all the time these days, is that human beings are pretty good at daily coexistence. I did a lecture when the Metropolitan Museum had this great show called "Jerusalem 1000." And what was so tragic about that was that in the year 1000, in Jerusalem, Jews and Muslims and Christians actually managed to get along reasonably well. They actually coexisted quite well, but they had no practice with pluralism. It was all just improvisational coexistence, which worked until the Crusades came and then the Muslims massacred the Christians, the Christians massacred the Muslims, and everybody massacred the Jews. That's the classic thing that happens.

And what I said at the end of that lecture is that the dream of liberal societies is to make that practice of coexistence into a principle of pluralism, into a principled practice that we can follow. And that's why I say in the book that a liberalism is not an ideology applied to life; it's what we know about life applied to political ideology. It's saying, "We really are capable of coexistence, but we have to try and see what enables us to coexist and make that into a permanent political practice." That, for me, is the part of liberalism that is at once ... to use your phrase, is permanent, but is also part of modernity. It's also part of modern times.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, although, there's this question to me ... the question that sits at the heart of all of this is that we've got this thing called the nation state that is a historically contingent creation. Humans have not always organized themselves this way. It's the case that particularly nation states as ethno-nationalist categories, which is largely, in the European continent, the ... I learned this from Tony Judt's amazing book, "Postwar," which is basically that all the ethnic cleansing that happens at the end of World War II essentially sorts all the countries for the first time into, like, "Oh, it's all the German-speaking people go here and all the ..."

ADAM GOPNIK: And polyglot countries like Hungary suddenly get cosmeticized too.

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly. So you've got this situation where ... I guess my point is, there's a historically contingent institution at the center of this whole thing, which is the nation-


CHRIS HAYES: ... the nation state, that we're all dealing with and we're all trying to figure out how to define this era. And it's the question of how much that category is fixed and how immovable it is. There were moments, I think, where a lot of people thought that it was obviously an outdated notion that would fade away.

ADAM GOPNIK: End in the European Union and-

CHRIS HAYES: Yes, and that just seems further and further away, that dream of that. Something supernational or something sub-national, like, return to city states, whatever. It's just very hard to conceptualize your way out of this fundamental building block that there is this extremely big fight about right now.

ADAM GOPNIK: I think this is true. Listen, if I ruled the world, we'd all be city states, because I don't think it's possible to have real patriotic feelings about anything much bigger than a city. I am a total patriot of New York, somewhat of Paris, but that's where my identity resides. It's in New York.

CHRIS HAYES: You definitely couldn't have won Max Rose's district

ADAM GOPNIK: No, I could not have won. I couldn't win a district in Massachusetts. That would be too alien to me. There's too many trees up there. That's where I live and I could easily imagine never leaving New York City for a lifetime, right?


ADAM GOPNIK: But that's where my patriotism resides, so the nation state, I think you're right, is an artificial construct in all those ways. What I'd say is that the liberal tradition I'm talking about ... it's funny you mentioned Tony Judt because he's one of the two men I dedicate the book to in the end. I knew him well and thought he was a heroic figure, and at the end of that book and throughout Tony's life, he took a sort of Orwellian view of it.

We can't fix those huge things. We can't suddenly ... history makes nation states. History makes China more powerful than us and all those things. We're not in control of history and we can't hope to be. We are in control of our own campaign against cruelty. We are in control of our own appetite for specific reform. Those are the things we can actually do. We can look around the world and say, "This is wrong, this is cruel, this is evil, and we can fix it."

What we can't do is say, "I have a vision of what the 21st Century can be and I will somehow be able to instantiate that vision because of the power of my imagination." That's where the bad stuff happens, and where the good stuff happens is exactly in the more modest and yet very, very potent form of a thousand small sanities, he said pulling in his slogan again at the end, but I really do believe that's true.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, Tony, who obviously has best passed and is a great intellectual hero of mine and I think was a model of … ultimately, his philosophical orientation's very much in line with yours.

ADAM GOPNIK: Yes, absolutely.

CHRIS HAYES: And in some ways, Postwar is a historical treatment of precisely why we ended up essentially agreeing on a thousand small sanities-


CHRIS HAYES: ... as the project.

ADAM GOPNIK: As the only ... Yes, exactly. That's one of the reasons why he's one of the two thinkers I dedicated this book to.

CHRIS HAYES: Adam Gopnik is a staff writer for the New Yorker. He's written At the Stranger's Gate: Arrivals in New York,The Table Comes First, along with, I think, a dozen other books at this point.

ADAM GOPNIK: [crosstalk 00:54:14].

CHRIS HAYES: His latest book is called A Thousand Small Sanities. It's a great book about liberalism. You will read it in about a day. Highly recommend it. Adam Gopnik, thank you very much.

ADAM GOPNIK: Chris, it's a wonderful conversation. Thank you.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to Adam Gopnik, author, staff writer for the New Yorker. The book is called "A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism." He's also written a bunch of other books, including "A Stranger's Gate: Arrivals in New York," "Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin," "Lincoln and Modern Life." You can check out his works on our webpage. We have a link to that. As always, we love to hear from you. You can tweet us, #WITHpod, email us WITHpod@gmail.com. We've gotten a bunch of feedback in the wake of the mailbag episode and a lot of great suggestions recently for guests who we are pursuing.

Related links:

"A Thousand Small Sanities," by Adam Gopnik

"On Liberty," by John Stuart Mill

"On the Subjection of Women," by John Stuart Mill

"How the South Won the Civil War," by Adam Gopnik

"Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945," by Tony Judt

"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team, and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mention here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.