I hadn't encountered John Lukacs before reading the excerpt from his latest book, of many, in the April Harper's. A bit of Googling turns up a related essay from December in The Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled "The Triumph and Collapse of Liberalism."
That essay contains, in a slightly different context, a version of the same paragraph quoted in the previous post. It also includes Lukacs' description of himself as "a historian who has never been a liberal," along with a bit of evidence that this is accurate. But like the Harper's excerpt, it offers a vigorous defense of the word liberal and the ideals it embodies:
… the political label of "liberal" has become soiled, outdated, torn at its edges.
That is a pity …
When it came to the formation of the democracies of the West, the concepts of liberalism and democracy, while not inseparable, were surely complementary, with the emphasis on the former. Among the founders of the American republic were serious men who were more dubious about democracy than about liberty. They certainly did not believe in – indeed, they feared – populism; populism that, unlike a century ago, has now become (and not only in the United States) the political instrument of "conservatives," of so-called men of the "Right."
Yes, democracy is the rule of the majority; but there liberalism must enter. Majority rule must be tempered by the rights of minorities and of individual men and women; but when that temperance is weak, or unenforced, or unpopular, then democracy is nothing else than populism. More precisely: Then it is nationalist populism. It may be that the degeneration of liberal democracy to populism will be the fundamental problem of the future.
In Harper's, Lukacs expounds on what he means by "nationalist populism," offering a helpful distinction between nationalism and patriotism:
The terms "nationalist" and "nationalism" appeared only in the late 19th century because "patriot" and "patriotism" already existed, and, at least for a while, it seemed that these were sufficient. When, a century earlier, Samuel Johnson uttered his famous dictum that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," he meant nationalism, but that word did not yet exist. These two inclinations, patriotism and nationalism, divergent as they are, still often overlap in people's minds. (When, for example, Americans criticize a "superpatriot," what they really mean is an extreme nationalist.)
Patriotism is defensive, nationalism is aggressive. Patriotism is the love of a particular land with its particular traditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a "people," and is often a political and ideological substitute for religion. …
Let me provide one more example to illustrate the distinction: Swift Boat Veterans for Nationalism Against Patriotism. A nationalist will always attack a patriot, for the same reason that a hypocrite will always attack a saint.
Lukacs may not consider himself a "liberal," but he fears its opposite enough to defend the word and the idea. He concludes his Chronicle essay by saying that "the acceptance of the word 'liberal' as a connotation of something damnable, unhealthy, and odious is to be deplored." It is to be deplored because the erosion of the word is related to the erosion of the thing itself.
One way to defend the word, and therefore the ideal, is to point out again that the opposite of liberal is not conservative — and certainly not "values voter." The opposite of liberal is illiberal.