Adam Gopnik at Townsend Center: what it takes to keep liberal democracies alive

June 14, 2024

In episode 202 of the Berkeley Talks podcast series, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik discusses liberalism — what it means, why we need it and the endless dedication it requires to maintain. 

Liberal democracy, he said at a Townsend Center event in April, depends on two pillars: free and fair elections and the practice of open institutions, places where people can meet and debate without the pressures of overt supervision. 

Gopnik said these spaces of “commonplace civilization” — coffeehouses, parks, even zoos — enable democratic elections to “reform, accelerate and improve.”  

“These secondary institutions … are not in themselves explicitly political at all, but provide little arenas in which we learn the habits of coexistence, mutual toleration and the difficult, but necessary, business of collaborating with those who come from vastly different backgrounds, classes, castes and creeds from ourselves.”

And what makes liberalism unique, he said, is that it requires a commitment to constant reform. 

“People get exhausted by the search for perpetual reform,” he said. “But we have to be committed to reform because our circles of compassion, no matter how we try to broaden them, come to an end.”

So it’s up to each of us, he said, to always refocus our attention on the other, to re-understand and expand our circles of compassion.

This April 24 event was sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Townsend Center for the Humanities and made possible by the support of Humanities West, San Francisco.

Berkeley News