Like other key words of American political and cultural discourse, the term liberalism suffers from a frustrating, even maddening, degree of ambiguity and imprecision in the way it is used. It can provoke heated arguments in which the disputants seem agreed in embracing liberalism, according it high and even talismanic qualities—but then go on to use it in such manifestly divergent ways that the ensuing discussion hardly rises to the level of a coherent disagreement. Something of the same confusion occurs among those who start out arm-in-arm as staunch opponents of liberalism but soon find it hard to agree on exactly what it is they are opposing, let alone what they are for, and even harder to ferret out the extent to which they may be presuming liberal tenets even in the act of challenging them.
One can complain about this incorrigible untidiness of our discourse, but the untidiness reflects the nature of political speech in a democracy, which even at its best combines a boisterous and unregulated vitality with a curious but persistent preoccupation with abstract words. We cannot do without such abstractions, since they are carriers of our highest ideals and aspirations. But inspiring words may also deceive, and the use of these words—such as change or hope or promise or fairness, not to say freedom and social justice—plays an essential role in the acts of cultural sleight-of-hand to which democracies are so notoriously prone.
Before discussing liberalism more fully, however, I have to say a few words about the term after. Even that simple preposition can be tricky. When we speak in terms of before and after, we invoke a very different set of considerations from those that obtain when we speak of for and against. The two sets of binary opposites may be compatible but they are not always the same, and sometimes they point in highly divergent directions. By introducing the medium of historical time, the former set of opposites allows for certain discriminations, and certain ambiguities.