The great liberal thinkers who devised our constitutional order were responding to a seventeenth-century problem, most sharply diagnosed by Thomas Hobbes. The English, Hobbes said, were “seeing double”—divided, both personally and politically, by conflicting allegiances to Christ and King. A generation later, John Locke offered what would become the classical liberal remedy to this disorder. He articulated a way to compartmentalize those loyalties, showing how we might be good Christians and good citizens at the same time.
The impatience with liberalism now observable across the political spectrum has arisen because we no longer are the bifurcated selves the liberal prescription was designed to treat. Twenty-first-century Americans are not earnest Englishmen, torn by powerful allegiances to holy church and sovereign liege. Liberalism today is neither the malady nor the cure.
We may still learn, though, from the great liberal thinkers. For they were good clinicians, prescribing remedies on the basis of careful observation of their patient. The people of their time were suffering from what one might call a “psycho-political problem”: a malaise at once public and personal. Today we have a parallel problem, as competing public demands pull us apart—making us distracted, restless, unable to get ourselves or anything else together. To treat our disorder, we must learn the art of diagnostic perception practiced by the early modern liberal thinkers. We must start by asking: What is the psycho-political problem of our time?