Upon Donald Trump’s election in 2016, a new cottage industry concerning the ‘crisis of liberalism’ has emerged. Between a rise of ethnonationalism in the Republican base and an out and proud socialist running a nearly successful campaign in the Democratic party, the field of ideological possibility opened up dramatically following the 2016 election. What is liberalism to do as its natural constituents move both left and right?
As for the left, socialists, anarchists, and other radicals have been criticizing liberalism since at least the French Revolution, with history of both intense antagonism and powerful coalitions throughout the world. The left critique is pretty straightforward: how do you balance democracy and individual rights, which necessitates equality, with capitalism, which tends towards inequality? Socialists and other leftists believe that capitalism can be deconstructed by giving workers greater control. Inherently, this cultivates a scenario wherein ideals around democracy are removed from the bourgeois ghetto of electoral politics and brought into all sectors of our lives. It is a project built around the ideal of liberation for everyone because we want the freedom to live in community with our fellow humans without oppression. While it is utopian in its design, the goal is a multi-generational struggle towards democracy beyond the ballot box.
The mainstream critiques of liberalism does not address this contradiction. For the right leaning members of the liberal class, the left critique of liberalism is impossible to believe. Not just because of an ideological persuasion or belief in the power of business, but because the force of solidarity the left wants to harness doesn’t exist in their world. In essence, many libertarians, conservatives, and liberals have the same fundamental social ideal: the individual. Mass movements and politics built outside of personal self interest are simply historical constructs, which have been made inert through modern technology and social relations. Through this worldview, Margaret Thatcher’s most famous quotes claiming “there is no alternative” to capitalism and that “there is no society,” shift from ahistorical propaganda to instead being read as natural law.
All of this culminates into a plethora of assessments of the crisis of liberalism, like the one written up in the New York Times by Gerard Alexander, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. As a tool for understanding power, political science has been an imperfect discipline for a long time and is limited by the amoral groupthink of elite social science discourse. However, I will give Alexander plenty of credentialed respect as an expert on politics.
Alexander starts the article by making an important observation that much of the world is waking up to: liberalism has a brand problem. Liberals are annoying. Liberals view late-night comedy as the battleground of democracy. Liberals are smug. All of this, especially in an interpersonal sense is vaguely true, although there are plenty of conservatives and leftists who exhibit the same brand of shallowly smug righteousness. It’s a personality type, but for a professor of political science one would expect a little more than just complaining about the people at his local Whole Foods.
As with every argument about liberalism in 2018, there is a critique of ‘identity politics’, which is now a phrase I am so allergic to I have to start a breathing exercise I hear it. Like the phrase ‘free speech’, ‘identity politics’ has become a reactionary dog whistle. It is a guttural reactionary revulsion from the growing mainstreams acceptance of basic social justice terms, such as “privilege”. What is lost in this argument is that white supremacy is the ultimate form of identity politics and how it was through white supremacy that our modern conceptions of race were formed. By creating a hierarchy based on skin tone and gender roles, the ruling class is able to control and oppress those below them on the hierarchy.
Alexander’s critique of identity politics is very much in the Mark Lilla or Steven Pinker school of institutionally privileged concern trolling. According to Alexander, it is not a question of righteousness or power, but a question of tone and presentation. To the people who are critical of offensive and reactionary speakers invited on college campuses he says, “Maybe don’t pick a fight.” Alexander does this without noting that the cohort of young people in college are now more open to freedom of speech and hearing different ideas than ever before. What Alexander doesn’t understand is that these kids are more interested in moving the conversation to the left and towards egalitarian social justice oriented politics rather than the cold technocracy that has dominated liberal politics of the past 40 years.
Professor Alexander, you are right: liberals are annoying. However, the annoyance felt among the growing leftist political movements across the country is not from liberalism itself, but by noticing the contradictionbetween the nature of democracy and capitalism. Young people are being raised in a society where the cultural values of equality, inclusion, and positive group identity is infused in so many of our cultural products. From the music we listen to and movies we watch, our cultural artifacts are in contrast with the material realities that continue to worsen at the hands of capitalist exploitation and uneven resource distribution.
So yes, liberals are scolds and jerks a lot of the time, especially if you disagree with them on an issue. But for many of us, the question is not about them treating us kindly. It is because we can clearly see that while many upper class liberals insist on their cultural rightness, they do not have a material project to create the kind of economic equality for the groups they insist they are the greatest fighters for. Trans lives do matter, but simply saying that you like Laverne Cox and knowing to do a pronoun check is only going to go so far. However, if you can offer a universal healthcare program that guarantees easy and free access to trans-specific medical services or offer programs like universal basic income or guaranteed employment, then your politics are more than just words.
Alexander doesn’t talk about this. He never says the word ‘economy’, ‘solidarity’, ‘organize’ or ‘class’. He doesn’t speak of the contradiction of broad social emancipation in an economic system that grinds up workers and pits them against each other. He doesn’t even address changing gender and harassment dynamics that have fueled the #metoo movement. No, the way for liberals to regain power is to be less annoying about social justice and not assume people are racist just because they voted for Trump, all while maintaining the economic status quo. It is all in the domain of the personal interaction and manners.
So I guess what I have to say is: Gerard Alexander, You’re Not That Smart, Either. If Democrats end up losing to Trump in 2020, as Alexander predicts, it won’t be because of political correctness or that Dems went to far left, but rather because liberals were unwilling to address their own political movement’s contradiction. By at least acknowledging this disparity, liberals can build a lot of goodwill for a left/liberal alliance in the electoral sphere, building a cohesive vision for the world to engage the non-voting public and build a new political majority.