The house Jack couldn't build

Observations on liberalism (US definition)

Senior presidential advisers are turning for support for their tax plans to the late political philosopher John Rawls. Unfortunately for American liberals , they are the advisers to President Josiah Bartlett, in the latest episode of TV's The West Wing.

And that is the paradox of Rawls, honoured at a Harvard University memorial service on 27 February. Published in 1971, his A Theory of Justice, translated into 27 languages, is probably the most renowned book of political philosophy of the 20th century. It led to a renaissance of intellectual liberalism. As Ronald Dworkin, the distinguished political philosopher and legal theorist, told the 300 students and academics who attended the memorial service, scholars across the world now work in "the intellectual world that Jack [Rawls] built". In Europe, as the Dutch political theorist Percy Lehning reminded the gathering, Rawls's ideas have profound resonance for social democratic politicians because they combine a commitment to individual rights with the need for collective action.

Yet as Rawlsian liberalism rose intellectually, political liberalism in the US, his homeland, declined into oblivion. "Liberalism" as a term for activist government has gone from one of pride, in the era from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, to one of abuse (remember George Bush Sr's 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis) and now to one of irrelevance. No serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination would now openly claim the mantle of liberalism.

Why so? Rawls argued for equal basic liberties for all and equal opportunity for all. And inequalities, he said, were justified only if they helped the least advantaged. This was just, he argued, because it was what citizens would choose if they designed society under "a veil of ignorance", with no knowledge of their own abilities or circumstances.

The results of his veil of ignorance can be emulated in reality only if there is a high degree of altruism, which in turn depends on a strong and cohesive political community. And part of the problem for Rawlsian liberalism is that, although Americans may have a strong sense of nation and identity in matters of domestic policy, the US is a fragmented, not a single, political community.

This is being powerfully brought home in a new campaign by the Chicago congressman Jesse Jackson Jr (son of the famous Jackson) for a national constitutional right to high-quality education.

The Tenth Amendment guarantees states' rights over anything not elsewhere contained in the constitution. Hence, education is a local not a federal matter, especially in its funding. If you live in a wealthy state or suburb, you stand a fair chance of a good public high school, well-funded and maintained, while if you live in a poor state or an inner city, you are likely to attend a poorly funded school.

The Jackson scheme, and the Rawlsian one, seem utopian because the reasons for the federalism and fragmentation of the US are not accidental; they lie deep in the character and history of the nation. What they propose, in their different ways, would require not only a greater faith in government, but a stronger sense of solidarity between northern and southern states, urban and rural areas, and majority and minority ethnic communities.

The problem for American liberals is that, since Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act and the Great Society programme split the south apart from the New Deal coalition, the formation of a durable alliance for progressive politics has remained elusive.

Unless the divisions of place and race can be overcome, building the political house that Jack Rawls wanted for his country seems out of reach.

Edward Miliband, special adviser to Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is currently on leave from HM Treasury as a visiting scholar at the Centre for European Studies, Harvard; miliband@fas.harvard.edu