Why Liberalism Disappoints

Walter Lippmann, Randolph Bourne, and the enduring debate over the power of idealism

Charlotte Delarue

In the summer of 1917, Walter Lippmann strutted into Washington as it prepared for war. Both he and his young country were ready to prove their worth as superpowers. He was 27 and newly married, recruited to whisper into the ear of Newton Baker, the secretary of war. Lippmann’s reputation already prefigured the heights to which it would ultimately ascend. None other than Teddy Roosevelt had anointed him “the most brilliant young man of his age.”

Following the timeless capital tradition of communal living, the Lippmanns moved into a group house just off Dupont Circle. Their residence—which they shared with a coterie of other fast-talking, quick-thinking, precociously influential 20-somethings—instantly became the stuff of legend, the wonkish frat house of American liberalism. Denizens included Felix Frankfurter, the Harvard Law professor who went on to make his mark with forceful crusades on behalf of unpopular causes, and then with Supreme Court opinions and a wide array of well-placed protégés.

Dinner conversations at the rowhouse extended late into the night. Older minds gravitated to these meals, eager to watch a new vision of government being hammered out. Among the eminent guests who welcomed a respite from stuffy, self-important Washington were Herbert Hoover, Louis Brandeis, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. It was Holmes, a regular and enthusiastic presence at the table, who gave the place a name—the House of Truth.


The legal historian Brad Snyder has reconstructed the glories of this group house in a bulging, careful study of its inhabitants. Though The House of Truth drowns in detail, Snyder’s account usefully maps a hinge moment in American political history. Progressivism, that amorphous explosion of reformism in the early years of the century, had come and gone. Thinkers like Lippmann and Frankfurter increasingly referred to themselves as “liberals,” by which they didn’t mean advocates of laissez-faire governance. Their use of the label connoted something closer to its present-day meaning, and their faith in government’s capacity to improve the world was boosted by the war. Liberals believed that America’s entry into the global conflagration would transform their country. The experience, they hoped, would rouse a new spirit of solidarity. It would corrode the ingrained Jeffersonian hostility to the state, and would permit America to exert a beneficent influence beyond its borders.

These messianic hopes were quickly shredded by brutal realities: the savage nature of martial nationalism, the suppression of dissenting opinions, the way their hero Woodrow Wilson permitted the imposition of vindictive terms on vanquished Germany. The pessimism acquired during those harsh years became foundational to liberalism, too, endowing it with a newfound passion for civil liberties and the rights of minorities. Liberalism’s enthusiasm for the state was painfully tempered.

One of the essential qualities of liberalism is that it always disappoints. To its champions, this is among its greatest virtues. It embraces a realistic sense of human limits and an unillusioned view of political constraints. It shies away from utopian schemes and imprudent idealism. To its critics, this modesty and meliorism represent cowardice. Every generation of leftists angrily vents about liberalism’s slim ambitions and its paucity of pugilism. Bernie Sanders and his followers join a long line of predecessors in wanting liberalism to be something that it most distinctly is not: radical.

Liberalism’s enemies on the right cultivate precisely this confusion. They have always tried to smudge liberalism’s identity, to insinuate that it exists on the same continuum as communism and other terrifying ideologies. And, in truth, liberalism wasn’t always entirely clear about the gap that separated it from the left. Before the disappointments of World War I, many of the earliest liberals styled themselves as radicals. They shared the primary concerns of the activist left (women’s suffrage, the labor movement) and championed the same assault on the repressive mores of Victorian culture. For a brief, Edenic moment, liberals and radicals carried an almost identical sense of possibility about the world.

Random House

In Young Radicals, Jeremy McCarter (with whom I briefly worked at the New Republic, the magazine Lippmann helped establish in 1914) has written an extremely readable, theatrically narrated group biography of the men and women swept up in the optimistic prewar spirit. It’s a romantic account of a romantic period. Among McCarter’s subjects is a young Lippmann, back before his Washington group-house days. Fresh from Harvard, he went to work for the socialist mayor of Schenectady, New York, and mingled with poets and revolutionaries in Greenwich Village. He became a favorite of the heiress Mabel Dodge, who presided over bohemia’s preeminent salon in her lower–Fifth Avenue apartment.

Young Radicals isn’t intended as an intellectual history—it’s a study of the politically engaged life. McCarter sets out to answer the urgent questions that preoccupy critics of liberal expediency: “Where do idealists come by their galvanizing visions of a better world? Why do they give up health, safety, comfort, status to see those visions made real?” In the process, his book helps chart the emergence of a sharp divide between staunch radicals and ambitious liberals, as Walter Lippmann and his old comrades go their separate ways. Over the course of McCarter’s narrative, Lippmann assumes his role as the archetypal liberal thinker—or, from the perspective of his leftist former friends, the epitome of the self-satisfied establishment.

The hero of McCarter’s cast of radicals (which also includes Alice Paul, John Reed, and Max Eastman) is the most formidable of Lippmann’s critics, and in almost every way his antithesis. While Lippmann exuded the suavity of his Upper East Side breeding, Randolph Bourne was rough-hewn, emotive, and winningly vulnerable. He described himself as a “puny, timid, lazy, hypochondriacal wretch.” An obstetrician’s forceps deformed his face at birth; a childhood bout with tuberculosis twisted his spine and wrecked his gait. When Ellery Sedgwick, the editor of The Atlantic, invited Bourne to lunch at the Century Club, he canceled upon Bourne’s arrival, terrified at the prospect of being seen with him. (That didn’t stop Sedgwick from assigning Bourne pieces.) A self-styled outsider, Bourne wrote beautifully about the comforts of friendship and the value of marginalized opinion.

Overcoming abandonment by his alcoholic father, Bourne studied at Columbia with John Dewey and imbibed his mentor’s ecstatic faith in democracy. His most lasting essay, “Trans-national America,” was published in this magazine in 1916. It poetically celebrated what we now call “identity politics.” Bourne shunned the idea of the melting pot. Instead, he imagined a cosmopolitan nation in which new arrivals would resist assimilation and inhabit their ancestral traditions. “America is coming to be, not a nationality but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and color.” Freed of the pressure to fit into a monolithic American mold, immigrants would help create a new national culture. Bourne dreamed that it would be more creative, more tightly bound by mutual understanding. A “beloved community” was the phrase he borrowed (from the philosopher Josiah Royce) to describe his vision.

Bourne and Lippmann, nearly exact contemporaries, were never close friends. But Lippmann encouraged Bourne to write for the New Republic. And Bourne looked at Lippmann’s intellectual ease and sweep with admiration bordering on envy, even if his own thinking propelled him in quite a different direction. He called Lippmann’s Drift and Mastery, his 1914 case for imposing scientific order on society, “a book one would have given one’s soul to have written.”

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War brought an end to Bourne’s idolization. Although he never publicly attacked Lippmann by name, he hurled spears at him, excoriating liberal intellectuals for dragging America into the conflict. It was “a war made deliberately by intellectuals,” Bourne fumed, arguing that they championed the war only so they could exploit the mobilization efforts in order to build the national government of their dreams. (“War is the health of the state,” Bourne aphoristically argued in a manuscript found after his death.) In the proximity of power, the intellectuals felt the thrill of being “on the craft, in the stream,” even though they didn’t fully believe in the war’s underlying justifications.

When Bourne denounced Lippmann and his ilk, he leveled a charge that has dogged liberal elites ever since. He skewered them as disingenuous and greedy for power. They supported immoral policies for their own purposes—which they considered lofty—when they should have known better. Decades later, the broadsides against the liberal hawks who lent their imprimatur to the Iraq War echoed this sentiment. And Bourne’s indictment anticipated the accusation of callous cynicism directed at Bill Clinton’s criminal-justice policy, seen as a ploy to win back white working-class voters. Barack Obama’s response to the financial crisis, which let bankers slip away unpunished for their misdeeds, roused similar ire.

Over his career, Lippmann provided plenty of examples that validated the core of Bourne’s critique. As Snyder tells the story, Felix Frankfurter turned on his roommate from the House of Truth for similar reasons. Frankfurter worked tirelessly to save the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti from the accusations that sent them to death row. He eloquently transformed their fate into the quintessential liberal crusade of the ’20s—and was apoplectic that when he tried to enlist Lippmann in his effort, he struggled to rouse him from his icy evenhandedness.

Yet however valid Bourne’s reasons for scything Lippmann and the liberal intellectuals were, there was also something juvenile about his attack. Indeed, Bourne himself might have described his defiance that way. His earliest essays advocated youthful rebellion—and denounced the oppressive hold that the middle-aged exerted over society. “Youth is the incarnation of reason pitted against the rigidity of tradition,” he wrote. His beef with his seniors had some of the glibness of a teenage tantrum, and so did his attack on the liberal intellectuals. He simply couldn’t countenance the notion that Lippmann might want to lead American policy in a more humane, internationalist direction out of motives that were public-minded as well as vainglorious. It’s true that Lippmann took smug satisfaction in his audiences with the president and in the attentions of Wilson’s most trusted adviser, Colonel Edward House. Yet he didn’t hesitate to brutally—and influentially—turn against Wilson for botching the aftermath of the war.

Bourne will always make a readier hero than Lippmann. In the last days of 1918, as the war drew to a close, he died of the Spanish flu—a tragic end that had nothing to do with the intellectual exile he endured during the war, but that added to his aura of martyrdom. Bourne spent the last year of his life pushed out of magazines that had once welcomed him, with hardly any outlets for his thunderous denunciations. His death froze him in the fresh-faced state of youthful rebelliousness that he celebrated.

The radicals of the prewar years are good grist for inspiring yarns. But to what end? Many of the protests of these years were aesthetic gestures, statements of nonconformity rather than expressions of a political program. John Reed, Lippmann’s Harvard classmate and another of McCarter’s protagonists, was a burly adventurer who went off to chronicle the Russian Revolution. The thrilling firsthand account he produced, Ten Days That Shook the World, was romantic and admiring. Lenin, who blurbed the book, rewarded Reed for his powerful propaganda by burying him in the wall of the Kremlin. Though you would hardly guess it from McCarter’s tender treatment, Reed’s career is a cautionary tale of the reasons to fear idealism and high-profile protest merely for the sake of rebellion.

What makes Lippmann unappealing is his detachment, the cool logic that prevented him from shaking his fist at the status quo with Reed-esque fury. (Lippmann mocked Reed in a witty hatchet job in the New Republic, “Legendary John Reed.”) At the same time, that detachment produced enduring results. His hastily written books might not always thrill like a Bourne essay, but to watch him wrestle with the deepest questions about mass psychology, the behavior of corporations, and the value of tradition is to discover punditry as a philosophical discipline capable of lasting value.

Take the essays that Lippmann published in The Atlantic just after the war, collected in the slim book Liberty and the News. Lippmann wrote anxiously about the rise of what we have come to call “fake news.” He drew attention to the way the media spread rumors and deliberate lies, and he sounded the alarm about a public ill-equipped to sort through conflicting “facts.” He was concerned about filter bubbles and the power of gatekeepers. He tried to rally journalists to rise to the challenge, exhorting them toward greater professionalism and a higher sense of purpose. Preserving liberty, he argued, required redefining the concept. Liberty is “the name we give to measures by which we protect and increase the veracity of the information upon which we act.”

In the midst of our current convulsions, Lippmann has returned as an object of disdain. Not Lippmann the man, of course, but the technocratic spirit he once championed and embodied. To counter the rising authoritarian tide, the temptation is to run far away from that spirit. Indeed, protest and anger are essential bulwarks of democracy. And there’s no doubting the moral blind spots of the reigning elite. But a truly radical solution to our crisis is actually the old liberal one, to reestablish the legitimacy of disinterested experts, to restore the institutions that provide a basis for common conversation. The path to Bourne’s beloved community now runs through Lippmann.