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Berkeley Talks: Adam Gopnik on what it takes to keep liberal democracies alive

“What makes liberalism distinct is a perpetual commitment to reform,” says the New Yorker writer and author of A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism.

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two photos side of side: on the left, the cover of the book, A Thousand Small Sanities; and on the right, a portrait of Adam Gopnik.
Adam Gopnik, New Yorker writer and author of the 2019 book, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism, gave a talk at UC Berkeley in April 2024.

Courtesy of Adam Gopnik

In Berkeley Talks episode 202, 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 UC Berkeley 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.