The Shipwreck of All Hopes
As the presidential primaries reach a fever pitch, the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders lay bare the limits of liberalism’s postwar consensus, and demand a reimagined agenda for progressive politics in the twenty-first century.
American politics has a knack for finding antinomies in antagonisms. Patterns of social conflict flare up as conflicts of political principle: Lincoln’s second inaugural ordained the struggle between North and South as divine retribution for the moral paradox of our founding; FDR’s first cashed in on financial crisis to produce a discourse on “fear itself”; RFK married MLK’s murder to his own brother’s for a meditation on human savagery; Reagan decreed the Soviet Union an “evil empire” incommensurate with the ideals of the free world.
This knack can fuel our sense of collective purpose and clarify our national character. But it can also lead us astray from and obscure the actual political stakes of our present moment.
The 2016 Presidential primaries are undergoing such a transmutation. Amid the general chaos of the Republican field and the possibility of a Trump-led populist revolt, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders now portray their own opposition as a referendum on the nature of political and social progress in America. You might say both candidates profess liberalism, but one would embrace compromise rather than let the status quo perpetuate, while the other would rather risk defeat than let hope for a real revolution perish.
We should have seen this coming. Shortly before the Iowa caucuses Paul Krugman characterized Sanders and Clinton as the respective legacies of “Obama the candidate” and “Obama the President,” castigating anyone who endorsed the former as misunderstanding the nature of progress. Democratic socialism, it is claimed, represents an impassioned but naïve grasp of the ugly work of politics. Ezra Klein issued an ambivalent response contrasting Clinton’s pragmatic but unsexy doctrine of realism against Sanders’ successful inheritance of Obama’s 2008 campaign themes of hope and change. Meanwhile, Christopher Cook in The Atlantic has offered a “pragmatic case” for Sanders in that no progress can be made for a more just social order without a candidate willing to fight for the best of all possible ones. Adam Hilton in Jacobin seems to agree, portraying the Sanders candidacy as an exercise in “raising consciousness” that makes socialism safe for mainstream politics, however impeded by the Democratic Party’s calcification after scuttling the New Politics movement decades ago.
For the chattering class, and unfortunately for many voters as well, the stakes have at least been demarcated. Progressives must choose between pragmatism (through the establishment coronation of Clinton) and idealism (in Sanders’ call for a political revolution).
Such narratives are entertaining, and make campaigns more ideologically tractable in the face of enigmatic election returns. But this story betrays a sophomoric grasp of the driving forces and stakes of this election and its significance as a sequel to the Obama presidency, one that voters must overcome if the primaries are to have lasting political significance.
The dance of idealism and pragmatism is well worn in the history of American progressivism. We might have expected this primary campaign to follow a predictable empirical pattern: the Clinton machine would rack up endorsements, secure a juggernaut of campaign financing, and win primary after primary until Sanders’ moral crusade is extinguished with a peroration at the national convention. This rather boring story has several precedents (e.g. Ted Kennedy 1980, Mario Cuomo 1984, Bill Bradley 2000), but has spectacularly failed to manifest itself: Sanders has matched Clinton’s fundraising and demolished her with small donors; the Iowa caucus was fought to a virtual coin toss; his victory in the New Hampshire primary was a blowout despite Clinton’s monopoly on party support. And all this while Democratic voters under 30 flaunt the Reagan realignment by identifying as majority “liberal” for the first time since before they were born. We appear headed not for an orderly convention, but a conflagration.
Contrary to pundits’ claims, the Sanders-Clinton conflict is not a manifestation of a timeless dichotomy of how progress is achieved, but a moment of transition for an ever-evolving political movement.
How can we explain this unexpected fervor? Clearly not through Sanders’ charisma (already the subject of Saturday Night Live parody), generational schisms (Sanders, six years Clinton’s senior, has locked up the youth vote), Clinton’s perceived weaknesses (by this point a badge of honor), the excuse of identity politics (does anyone care that Sanders is a secular Jew?), or the eternal flame of a liberal silent majority.
But it is also not about the degree of compromise voters should accept on liberalism’s behalf. The triumphs of the Obama presidency have liberated the left’s political imagination from the quagmire brought on by years of habitual triangulation against a now-floundering conservative movement, and compelled a re-imagination of our politics. It is not just greater ambition that the left is now both able and compelled to contemplate, but the underlying imaginary of liberalism itself—an imaginary shaping the reliability of polls, the judgment of elites, the expectations of party brass, and the engagement of the polity. Whatever one’s grounds for supporting Sanders or Clinton, this outdated discourse is marred by its refusal to let our own ideals run aground in the face of political reality, directly impeding our capacity to remake them. This is our claim: for the first time in over eighty years, the definition of “liberalism” has been unmoored from the institutional matrix underpinning American progressive politics, and the future of the progressive movement is up for grabs.
Contrary to pundits’ claims, the Sanders-Clinton conflict is not a manifestation of a timeless dichotomy of how progress is achieved, but a moment of transition for an ever-evolving political movement.We are ideologically in irons. What is needed is not resolution of a phony opposition between pragmatism and idealism but a clear-eyed genealogy of the irruption of contemporary liberalism, its reassertion and partial climax under Obama, its role in constituting the Sanders-Clinton suppuration, and a cool re-appraisal of its tenets in the context of 21st century political action. We know we are ready for a debate of this scale when the left’s two major candidates are practically septuagenarians while the national Democratic field under 50, sacrificed on the altar of Obamacare, is almost nonexistent.
A Specter is Haunting America—The Specter of Progress
Progressives do not reject history. We treat it not as a futile march of mistakes, nor the fatalistic certainty of human nature, nor the normative confirmation of law and order, but as a series of lessons in how to realize collective goals.
It is easy to forget that the rubric of modern liberalism was born in the smoke-filled boardrooms of Harvard, MIT, and other intellectual feeders of the New Deal, and that this collusion was possible only after nearly four years of Republican policy jetsam in the headwinds of unprecedented financial shock. Neither its realization nor its ideological contours were inevitable.
FDR’s first hundred days, now the model for any successful Presidential administration, were made possible only after jettisoning all policy alternatives amid the desperation of the country’s financial elite. Legal historians have documented this anxiety in detail—FDR was seen as conservative by his own Democrat-controlled Congress for failing to implement martial law—and his contemporary fetishization by Republicans as a court-packing activist dictator is itself a residue of the genuine historical possibility of suspended separation of government powers, had his administration been so inclined. Here it was not demographics that were destiny, but the dispositions of a single Presidential crew.
The decision to save capitalism from itself was not a commitment to political moderation so much as a strategy for maintaining the constitutional structure of the federal government while subtly recalibrating its relationship to the alchemy of high finance, whose ad hoc legality we have elided under the euphemism of “government regulation.”
Almost every piece of social policy undertaken in that era—the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Works Progress Administration, the now decrepit Glass-Steagall Act, the transformation of America’s workforce into the world’s arsenal for democracy—began as Ivy League brainstorming sessions with no proven track record and completely uncertain long term social implications. And so America was set ablaze with federal governance; the alternatives, so far as we knew, were the darkness of outright communism or the whirlpool of fascism.
These blistering improvisations in the art of governmentality defined the game of postwar Democratic politics, serving as metrics of social mobilization atop recovered (if totally reforged) conditions of economic predictability. One could gin up votes only if they were taken from this totally reconfigured model of the American voter, now the product of assembly line Fordism and mass union membership. The social fabric incompletely realized by the New Deal was transposed into an ideal towards which American society was to set sail on the rising tide of unprecedented economic growth. Democratic candidates correspondingly strove to position themselves as most likely to serve, protect, and defend the conditions of entry into the burgeoning middle class their wartime policies had created, speaking to unimplemented academic policy memos while navigating Cold War geopolitics, suppressing mutinies in the Third World via the Washington Consensus, and braving the squalls of an ever-critical New Left.
Our contextualization of the messiness of mid to late century liberalism does not devalue its significance or legitimacy. Liberalism worked. Progress tends to happen no sooner than it has to, and its ideological contours always retain the smoky flavor of the historical crises from which it was sparked. We look at previous fires as guides for igniting a new one; we cannot make kindling from their ash, but must use it as fertilizer for any subsequent renewal, and mark progress by our measured distance from the glow of their last embers.
There are two lessons to draw from this history.
First, the achievements of FDR and midcentury liberalism were neither a revolutionary implementation of eternal ideals nor a pragmatic reshuffling of an extant technocratic toolkit. They did not surrender potential in the interest of expediency nor resist realities in favor of long-held ideals. They mobilized the challenges and resources of the moment in an experimental approach to progressive change that redefined the ideological space of liberalism itself. They were successes simultaneously idealistic and pragmatic, a detail not incidental but central to their meaning and lasting value.
Second, the social outcomes and political strategies the New Deal made possible—labor mobilization, protracted economic growth, generational Baby Booms—gave us a new map for political engagement that could only ever approximate ideals rooted in the American firmament. The specifics of the its unimplemented policy goals were never guiding stars for political progress. They are the leftover cinders of a bivouac set up to solve specific problems en route to a projected destination of collective interest. It is that destination we must keep in mind, and perhaps reconceive, now that we have steered ourselves closer to it.
The parallelism with Obama cannot go unnoticed. Be you a Blue Dog Democrat or a triangulating Clintonian, a diary-fueled Kossack or a moveon.org contributor, a hibernating Boll Weevil or a scion of Camelot, one thing is certain: it was Barack Obama’s pot of progressive policies that lay at the end of the twentieth century’s long moral arc. While his 2008 candidacy represented, in the words of John McCain’s campaign manager Steve Schmidt, the unfinished campaign of RFK in 1968, the trajectory of his presidency mirrors FDR’s quite closely: unprecedented financial crisis, a deliberate refusal to federalize the banking system, drastic but economically reasonable stimulus legislation, the birth of right-wing oppositional movements, and prolonged economic stagnation paired with novel conditions for institutional change, most directly reflected in the Affordable Care Act.
Obama, by directly building on and surpassing the legacies of his predecessors, has embodied the unification of liberal ideals with pragmatic realism. The careful student of the Obama presidency knows better than to mistake the stylistic shift from candidate to President Obama as a difference in substance. His policies have consistently, if imperfectly, transcended any postwar antinomy of pragmatism and idealism by recognizing pragmatism itself as a guiding principle of governance.
As a candidate, facing ridicule from both neoconservatives and Clinton herself, Obama advocated direct negotiation with America’s geopolitical adversaries as well as native sources of disagreement out of realism as much as idealism.
This vision was finally consummated last summer through the Iran nuclear deal and grounded in the articulated but unimplemented foreign policy of JFK. Iran was neither embraced nor shunned, but reintegrated into the international order through a mix of stringent economic sanctions, geopolitical surveillance, eleventh hour diplomacy, and the prognosticated interests of Iran’s own future middle class.
The reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba furnishes another resounding example of this charter. When the Cuba embargo was finally lifted, it was not any profound historical or political principle Obama invoked but the sheer empirical fact that the status quo “hasn’t worked.” In fact he scolded the “ideological barrier” preventing us from transcending our history with Cuba, tarnished by JFK’s embarrassing Bay of Pigs fiasco and the near disastrous missile crisis. As President, he did not let our charred memories of that firestorm impede the liberal vision of the world progressives strive for.
Obama’s rhetoric, from his inauguration on, has consistently kept an even keel between allegiance to the foundational documents of American society, in which our highest ideals are enshrined, and executing their values through novel policy implementations:
“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers…faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man—a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
On the domestic front, Obama has embraced legislation that reflected the highest aims of 20th century liberalism, in particular the dream of universal healthcare pursued through LBJ’s Great Society and the abortive efforts of Carter and Clinton, but realized these aims through more eclectic and improvisational methods (implementing private health care exchanges, surrendering the public option to the realities of the legislative process, passing executive orders for immigration reform and climate change policy through appeal to national security interests). He “evolved” to support gay marriage as fast as politically possible, and no faster, unlike the Clintonian overreach responsible for nearly two awkward decades of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Under Obama, neoconservative foreign policy and supply-side economics have not been intellectually refuted so much as rendered irrelevant through the implementation of international realpolitik and policy investment in long-term economic transformations such as renewable energy, domestic oil production, and deficit control via the Affordable Care Act and a selective rollback of the Bush tax cuts. Right-wing social engineering fell to astute policy wonkery that tracked precisely with the swell of rising political and cultural waves.
Why should such pragmatism offend our ideals? This is how change actually happens. To Obama, compromise is not a partial surrender but a virtue itself, a way of dragging the world as it is closer to the world we imagine should be, a confidence that we can change our tack against unexpected gusts and currents without losing sight of our ultimate goals. Many were let down by Obama when he entered office and made the fabled transition from game changer to master player. Whether from an expediency born of crisis or personal political skill, his Presidency transcended this hype and has been transformational on almost every policy front.
This is by no means a blanket endorsement. The Obama Presidency has had its fair share of domestic and foreign missteps, such as inconsistent (and perhaps hypocritical) military endeavors in the Middle East, legally dubious drone warfare, and the scuttling of a supposed “grand bargain” with Boehner’s Republican-controlled Congress (the most rightwing since, well, FDR).
But these actions comprise instances of failed experimentation beyond the framework of New Deal liberalism, not a policy schizophrenia born of flitting around the buoys of idealism and realism. Whatever the legacy of this presidency, it is a chapter in American history qualitatively beyond those of the New Deal or the Great Society. Its own antinomy has yet to obtain mature social expression. In that sense, Obama’s greatest accomplishment is how widely the playing field has been opened for a discursive reinvention of progressivism for the 21st century.
Conservatives go into the intellectual wilderness when they lose. Progressives do it when they win. And so a specter is haunting the American left. Not the specter of a phony contradiction, but the specter of progress old and new: the lingering letdowns of an older epoch, an emerging sense of possibilities, and the disorienting authenticity that comes with finding oneself in a place not down on any map. What fire can now light the way forward?
Some Men Just Want to Watch the World Bern
The Sanders-Clinton conflict is evidence that we know neither what we want nor how we should realize it now that Obama has recalibrated the compass of progressivism. In fact, our ability to re-articulate progressive values remains impeded by a decades-old institutional edifice whose ideological furnace has been left obsolete by the accomplishments of the present administration. The result is that our political oratory, searching for heat to match rising ambitions, has regressed to what it was before the postwar consensus: an unproductive dialectic between socialism and elitist centrism.
These candidacies must be dissected in detail. Feeling at once refreshingly honest and rhetorically atavistic, the economic debate in this campaign has centered on the legacy of the New Deal, the Great Recession, and the unpleasant realities of modern capitalism. Sanders, ever-sanguine and fired up even when dissecting the ooziness of Wall Street, his wisps of hair and charcoal-black wardrobe evoking a used match head, is a walking embodiment of red-meat social liberalism. He is right to emphasize the triumphs of FDR, to illuminate our failure to live up to that programmatic legacy, and to give voice to the already half-forgotten grievances of the Occupy movement. But he is wrong, and in an important sense deeply conservative, to suggest that progressive solutions to the problems of a bygone era should be our solutions now. Liberal principles transcend historical exemplars, and our policymaking should as well.
The popularity of his platform is not a sign of liberalism’s resurgence but of its conceptual paucity relative to the needs and hungers of the public. His program is as intellectually, if not morally, bankrupt as the flat tax proposals of Republican opponents for ignoring the hard economic lessons of globalization and financialization that have qualitatively transformed the U.S. economy over the past forty years. His commitment to the Europeanization of American society blatantly ignores both the profound cultural differences between American entrepreneurialism and Scandinavian statism as well as the historical reality that modern European socioeconomic systems are derived from the ashes of FDR’s proposed Second Bill of Rights, a point expressed smarmily by Michael Moore, the major European fetishist of the Bush years. We must not confuse the wake of our own legislative proposals with a possible groundswell for political action, however suitable they have been in mobilizing international actors to pursue social change.
Our strengths have always flowed from our distinctiveness. Americans are more diverse, harder working, and culturally pluralistic than the citizenry of any European nation. These traits comprise both their own set of challenges to confront and resources upon which political strategies must rest: whatever the future of liberalism, it will always be pursued differently around the world, as its ideals are contextually laced with the cultural concerns and economic conditions of local actors.
The insistence of Sanders’ own Iowa precinct captains to vote with one’s heart and not one’s mind reveals the immaturity and resentment underpinning one’s shrilly professed sentiment to “feel the Bern.” The motivations underlying liberalism—belief in the possibility of creating a more just, equitable, and sustainable social order—would not be well served by a Sanders presidency, which would hypostatize the pipe dreams of academicized postwar Keynesians into Platonic universals.
As has been noted, Sanders’ strength as a candidate is derived from Obama’s success at liberating without completely redefining the expectations of progressive voters. For this constituency the rhetoric of the center left’s old guard has no currency. His perceived qualities of authenticity and ideological consistency (evidence in the proliferation of YouTube videos dedicated to them) are charismatic only for their ability to dissociate Sanders from willingness to compromise, which is the essence of all politics. Any clear-eyed assessment of his pontifications and positions, born from decades of maneuvering the incestuous congressional estuaries of New England, are every bit as positioned and focus-group tested as Clinton’s, as has been especially clear on the issue of gun control. Regardless of his status of authenticity, his candidacy will have appeal for exactly as long as it monopolizes the promise of an alternative and radically democratized political order without the responsibility of delivering on it.
Clinton’s candidacy, which wears its cynicism on its sleeve, requires a less systematic rebuttal. For Clinton, whether as Secretary of State or as presidential candidate, government seems nothing more than a contested pelagic bureaucracy, and we need only steer it more effectively to achieve change. There are many philosophical reasons—normative, legal, aesthetic—why we would never want politics to work that way. But more pressing and disturbing is the manifest disrespect this standpoint holds for her very supporters. One is expected to buy into the system just enough to pull her lever in the ballot box, and otherwise leave all the work of political change to her own opaque bureaucratic judgment. Whatever one thinks of her email scandal and the political machinations of the Benghazi probe, resignation appears built into her wooden policy platform and sodden presentation of political self. Her barnacled defensiveness in presidential debates, whose limited number is evidence of her repression of sincere political engagement as well as the Democratic Party’s fear of open policy mutiny, reveals her resistance to challenge. As Obama famously recognized back in 2007, these are the qualities of a technocratic first mate, not a political leader.
Sanders has a vision and Clinton has a plan, but we are not supposed to have to choose between these things. Liberalism qua philosophy presupposes that there is a political can to every ought, just as politics is the art of the possible in the interest of the desirable. To claim that Sanders’ supporters need only wise up and switch to Clinton for the left to have a fighting chance, or that Clinton’s are blind to the systemic corruption of our political process, says more about the unworkable nature of our present ideological calculus than it does about the “choice” before us, which carves up the body politic to suit the political opportunism of yesteryear’s liberalism.
Is there anything impressive, from a progressive standpoint, about holding the same opinions for thirty years, however left wing? Or blind triangulation in the interest of racking up points on a bureaucratic scoreboard? That’s laughable.
We dissect these candidates’ limitations not out of cynicism but to uncover the tremendous opportunity of the present moment. We need not and cannot choose between the lamplight of our hopes and the tiller of our policy proposals. Elites are scared right now because whoever wins this primary fight will not end this debate, as its terms are no longer clearly defined.
There is no real contradiction between idealism and pragmatism for the American left; there is instead the incontrovertible tension, established at our nation’s founding, between progressivism and liberalism.
Sanders and his enthusiastic supporters deserve credit for shifting the Overton window on inequality, for proving the Obama coalition was fueled by more than the President’s personal popularity, and for rejecting a Democratic Party status quo that will never live up to either our ambitions or the needs of the country. Clinton is rightfully viewed as a progressive champion on social issues, while her flaws reflect scars earned by opposing a relentless right wing assault on her character and family that has gone on longer than the up-and-coming progressive generation has been alive. Both candidates offer inspiring, if profoundly different, examples of resilience that should instill hope in all of us.
We instead seek to scrub off a corrosive narrative whose journalistic buoyancy the candidates share responsibility for but which coerces them in turn. There is no real contradiction between idealism and pragmatism for the American left; there is instead the incontrovertible tension, established at our nation’s founding, between progressivism and liberalism. The slaughterhouse of history leaves us ever in need of new leviathans to hunt. We know we are living in a truly progressive moment because no one—not the ivory tower of academe nor the hipster enthusiasm of Jacobin—knows what a new model of liberalism might look like.
The Party Decides or the Party Abides?
It is all the harder to disentangle the rigging of our ship of state now that journalists have given themselves a crash course in political science. The Sanders-Clinton media narrative misinforming the primary elections can be traced to an extremely narrow interpretation of the recent book The Party Decides, on the grounds that predicting the outcome of primary elections depends more on the preferences of party elites than actual voters. It has become a parroted truism that these elites exert near total influence over candidate selection by means of an extended “invisible primary.”
Rather than reacting with horror to this supposed reality, the media has embraced it as yet another metric for extending the banality of horserace political coverage—a disservice to the public we have sharply criticized before. Nate Silver, his own aggressiveness in this wheelhouse notwithstanding, offered up a thoughtful appraisal of this narrative after actually reading and reviewing this book. Silver’s critique rests on viewing the work’s title as less a thesis statement than a broad description of subject matter: it is a tautology that the party picks its own candidates, and the correlation of election results with elite preferences says very little about true causality. It may simply be that elites’ informational advantages and greater stature allow them to make the smart political investment of jumping on the right bandwagon early; the party would therefore not so much decide, as predict.
Regardless, with Donald Trump demolishing the GOP’s chosen few and a democratic socialist offering a real challenge to the candidate with the most establishment backing in modern primary history, it is clear that whatever purchase elites had in previous election cycles is of decreasing relevance today. New political narratives remake the conditions under which politics is waged; our own awareness of the party’s “invisible” influence leads candidates to openly mock it (as reflected in Trump’s mantric recitation of poll numbers) and voters to flaunt it both at the polling station and the withering gaze of viral social media.
Neither Clinton nor Sanders, nor the party’s immanence, can be relied on to supply our antinomies for us; to do so would be the antithesis of progressivism. To move beyond Obama’s successes, and by extension the legacy of everything we once took to comprise political progress in America, we can trust only in ourselves. As with the Constitutional Convention, as with Jacksonian Democracy, as with Tammany Hall, as with the New Deal, as with the Civil Rights Movement, and as of now, to reimagine representative politics requires an examination of the conditions under which any organized party can act to serve collective interests, as well as expanding them using tools of the present moment.
We sketch a partial blueprint here out of due diligence. While inevitably incomplete and perhaps misguided, we make no pretention of anything more than an authentic attempt to make sense of the curriculum of liberalism’s faltering history. Only a full hearing of the grievances and preferences of all constituencies of a progressive coalition, and of those currently excluded, could offer a meaningful contribution, resolution, or even full delineation of outstanding issues. The tide of expectations raised and lowered demands a multitudinous vessel.
We need an economic debate that acknowledges the century we live in. Throughout the 20th century liberal economics meant a careful dialectic between capitalism and socialism. This made sense given the underlying tension between capital and labor that underlay a modern industrial economy. But we now live in an information age. Though we may lament the demise of organized labor and blue-collar jobs, it is a reality with which we must contend. Any revitalization of liberal economics will require, just as it did in the 1930s, a wider set of policy tools and the mobilization of new constituencies. Consumers and regulatory agencies have a transformative role to play here. For example, Occupy’s Bank Transfer day and other possible boycotts based in social grievances (with the stale moniker of “fair trade” just one of a manifold of possibilities) have shown that a social media-empowered “organized consumer” may offer future opportunities to check the hegemony of capital. This was a practical impossibility a century prior, when liberals undertook a transition from laissez-faire to government regulation. The Consumer Financial Protection Agency has been a resounding success that should be replicated, but it is only a first step in rerouting progressive economic policymaking into the hands of consumers themselves and away from both the politicians who nominally represent them and challenger movements that occupy the extreme end of an outdated political spectrum.
We need a debate on identity politics that acknowledges the unintended ripples of any effort to confront racism, sexism, and other presently unknown forms of systemic social inequality. Do black lives matter or do all lives matter? The left knows black lives matter (as reflected in the recent rhetorical shifts of Sanders and Clinton), and of course that racism will not go away if we simply ignore it, as Stephen Colbert’s conservative persona claimed to have achieved on a biological level. We have to actively confront prejudice as we find it, but in so doing we must never reify racial, gender, or other categories which have only historical origins and which we are working to resign to history. But further, liberals know that our prejudices always run deeper and wider than we are consciously aware. For this reason, we must never let our attention to the indignities of prejudice restrict our adaptation to emerging understandings of prejudice and the expressed standpoints of newly congealed social groups. Should we forget this, we risk losses to the faux-activism of political correctness, whose artificiality has become increasingly clear and discursively brittle (Trump’s parry of Clinton’s accusation of sexism—how dare she lecture him after systematically denigrating and silencing the conquests of her husband?—was nothing if not masterful).
We need to re-evaluate the profound liberalizing potential and innovative capacity of free markets as a vehicle for social progress. Liberals would do well not to forget that the liberation of women from the kitchen began with their mass entrance into the workforce following the harsh economic realities of the 1930s and subsequent wartime mobilization. We do a disservice to liberalism by mistaking the efficiency and lack of prejudice of the invisible hand with the prejudiced hands of historical white men—though acknowledging that legacy is a necessary first step. We maintain a healthy critique of command economy and institutionalized sexism for the same reason: they are just different flavors of totalitarian economics.
The recent #Where’sRey controversy illustrates this issue in a contemporary context. Fans of the new Star Wars movie were incensed that Rey, the trilogy’s new (and female) lead character, was noticeably absent from toy sets and much other merchandise from the film. Hasbro subsequently came under Twitter-fire for sexism. But, as has been pointed out, Hasbro employees were motivated not by simple bigotry but rather outdated assumptions about the preferences of consumers, and a desire to avoid self-competition with other products they were marketing to young girls. Organized consumers punished Hasbro, mobilizing the market to score a win for progressive values by defying producers’ expectations and rejecting their economic planning. Social media, in short, can be the market’s handmaiden by helping to keep the invisible hand untethered. Neoliberalism has created a reality to which we must adapt: in the 21st century, markets are as much a domain for political struggle and moral action as the state was in the 20th, or the church in prior epochs.
We need a debate about white America that transcends the “What’s the Matter with Kansas” framing implicit in both Sanders’ and Clinton’s candidacies. It remains imperative that the white working class be relieved of any delusion that the GOP has their economic interests at heart, but progressives must ensure that the new cultural paradigm of a diverse and tolerant America makes room for their own grievances, specific hopes, and causes of concern, including the inherent dignity and deeply American sentiment of gun ownership. We cannot expect to buy off Appalachia and the South with economic aid even as we strip-mine them of any cultural validation for their enduring contributions to American society and character. It is an old truth often forgotten that no region or group bears the sole weight of America’s collective sins. Only once individual virtues are acknowledged can our differences in priority be respectfully resolved. Correspondingly, progress on gun control can proceed only after we learn self-control by restricting the impulse for cultural judgment and moral sanctimony, and learn to embrace regional solutions to systemic problems.
Likewise, we need to avoid the trap of trading away economic fairness for social progress. In the face of Sanders’ fire and brimstone, and given his weak support from minority groups, Clinton has begun a campaign of distraction meant to divert the eyes of liberals from Sanders’ economic promises to her own lifelong championship of racial and social justice. Meanwhile, governors such as Andrew Cuomo offer progress on gay marriage legislation while cutting taxes on the rich. Never mind that a moment’s reflection points out the hypocrisies and inconsistencies internal to these strategies; voters crave a new progressive narrative integrating 20th century accomplishments and pointing to possible future ones enacted by marginal groups of every stripe, not an old story with rhetorical emphasis added for key constituencies. The latter makes sausage out of our shared liberal imagination, and must be snuffed out lest we sacrifice another half century of widening economic equality to continue needless cultural turf wars.
And finally, we need a foreign policy open to public scrutiny and married to the ambition of a cosmopolitan and just international order. Obama’s decision to make his administration a “team of rivals” did not save him from diplomatic missteps regarding Syria, Iran, and the ongoing contagion of ISIS. But the weighing of opposed liberal dispositions against each other (with Biden and Clinton in particular comprising the respectively dovish and hawkish poles) ensured that these failures are politically interesting, and get added to the historical lessons we may learn from when constructing future policies in times of war and peace (in the case of ISIS, the emerging consensus may be a more surgical than outright interventionist form of struggle). Liberalism should work in the direction of an experimental governmentality, particularly when at an ideological turning point.
Liberals find themselves on a new philosophical shoreline. The light of our hopes can illuminate this dark continent and give shape to our expectations, but not before taking stock of our provisions.
The Shipwreck of All Hopes
In one of his most famous essays, Max Weber, drawing on a tremendous knowledge of history and social change, summed up the temperament necessary for all political action:
“It is perfectly true, and confirmed by all historical experience, that the possible cannot be achieved without continually reaching out towards that which is impossible in this world. But to do that a man must be a leader, and furthermore, in a very straightforward sense of the word, a hero. Even those who are not both must arm themselves with that stoutness of heart which is able to confront even the shipwreck of all their hopes, and they must do this now—otherwise they will not be in a position even to accomplish what is possible today. Only someone who is confident that he will not be shattered if the world, seen from his point of view, is too stupid or too vulgar for what he wants to offer it; someone who can say, in spite of that, ‘but still!’—only he has the vocation for politics.”
Disregarding the messianic individualism in these closing lines of “Politics as a Vocation,” Weber is getting at a profound truth: anyone who does politics has to face up to the possibility that their ideals will be tested, and possibly destroyed, in the face of adversity. But one could respond to Weber that progressivism, as an ideology, already accounts for this. It depends on a kind of intellectual creative destruction, because when it succeeds we have to go back to the drawing board. If politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards, a true progressive is always scouting for new forests, wood to chop, axes to grind, and a new captain to steer the rebuilt ship of state.
This twilight period of Obama’s presidency is remarkable for failing to conform to lame duck clichés. Amidst the lowest approval ratings in Congress’s history, perennially weak economic growth, near total legislation inaction, one of the most vitriolic primary campaigns in American history, and a Supreme Court vacancy that threatens the constitutional fabric of the federal government, Obama recently returned to his old legislative haunt of Springfield, Illinois to articulate a progressive case for remaking American politics from the ground up:
“[I]t’s important for us to understand that the situation we find ourselves in today is not somehow unique or hopeless. We’ve always gone through periods when our democracy seems stuck…We’re in one of those moments. We’ve got to build a better politics, one that’s less of a spectacle and more a battle of ideas. One that’s less of a business and more of a mission, one that understands the success of the American experiment rests on our willingness to engage all our citizens in this work.”
If our present political calculus appears useless for navigating ourselves out of this morass, we can at least gain succor from our shared philosophical commitments. Liberalism is committed to a stable set of core values and motivations: freedom of expression, individual autonomy, a right to equal citizenship, ensuring the capacity of free men and women to self-realize, and a government robust enough to safeguard these values but limited enough to let them obtain expression. This philosophy can be enacted in many different ways, and has been in different centuries and across different countries. Contemporary European liberalism is more often associated with “conservative” policies such as free markets, low taxes, and a pruning of the welfare state.
But American liberalism is distinctive because, almost by historical accident, it was married to a belief in progressivism. Embedded in the institutional transformations of Wilson, FDR, and Truman (with analogues going back to Lincoln, Jackson, and the founding fathers) was the idea that history can be made to move in the direction of our own values. If liberalism represents a belief in some ideal promised land of equality, freedom, and opportunity, progressivism is concerned with the nitty-gritty details of getting there—hashing out a plan of action, making a map, stocking up for the journey, and asking for directions when necessary. The history of the American left should be understood as a sometimes productive, sometimes dysfunctional tension between these two ideologies: to paraphrase Kant, liberalism without progressivism is empty of institutional content, while progressivism without liberalism is blind to the true stakes of political struggle. It follows from this that the most transformative moments in the left’s history stem from both fundamentally new strategies of political engagement as well as a reimagining and expansion of what we mean by individual freedom and self-realization.
We need new ideas about what liberalism means for the 21st century—and we can get them only through the laborious, piecemeal, cosmically hard work of organizing ourselves in unprecedented ways.
Liberalism and progressivism are distinct belief systems. They do not enjoy a pre-established harmony, and the creative tension between them—intrinsic to the social fabric of America—can be realized only in the hands of historical agents willing to sacrifice their own idealized hopes on the altar of the possible, an altar that itself must be continually scrutinized and remade with the values we hold dear. Neither hope nor resilience is audacious in itself. Any true politics of the left is painful, because this brand of politics can succeed only if these contradictions—of holding on and letting go, of acceptance and indignation, of righteousness and prudence—are resolved within ourselves in an act of collective self-reinvention, and a policing of our assumptions about the nature of progress. The torch of liberalism must be gripped in the seaworthy hand of progressivism if we are to light a path worthy of being traversed and capable of bearing ourselves upon, and we must have confidence in turn that whatever whales harpooned or driftwood found will provide fuel for new destinations beyond any yet known.
If we truly want to live up to the promise of social and political liberalism, we have to be comfortable reinventing it. We must challenge its own reifications, reject the fetishization of radicalism, and remain strong enough to be self-critical. Viewing the Sanders-Clinton conflict as the latest battlefront between idealism and realism is erroneous because they in fact both represent the exhausted postwar dialectic between liberalism and progressivism. Clinton focuses excessively on strategy while neglecting our capacity to reimagine a just social order. Sanders monopolizes purity to democratic socialism while remaining frustratingly vague about realizing this vision within our current institutional configuration. They are talking past each other in the now empty echo chamber of the 20th century American left.
Real political transformation comes not from dismissing the game (as Sanders the “democratic socialist” would have it), nor winning the game (as Clinton the “fighter” would have it), but from remaking the game on new ground—and of all extant candidates, the otherwise reactionary Donald Trump appears the only one with the bravura and tenacity to pull it off. Liberalism must be as future-oriented about itself as it is about our politics and culture. We must reimagine the game in a way that makes progressive change achievable. Part of what distinguishes progressivism from conservatism is that this act of ideological reinvention is itself deeply progressive—we are comfortable reinventing our own political imaginary. Until the left can put forward leaders who will challenge the implicit terms of debate, and not just demarcate the existing boundaries of its contents, we will continue to treat socialism and compromise as two sides of a coin whose conceptual groove is fitted only to the pinball machine of neoliberal America.
To view such a conflict as inevitable or rooted in human nature would be to fall off into conservatism. We need fundamentally new ideas about what liberalism means for the 21st century—and we can get them only through the laborious, piecemeal, cosmically hard work of organizing ourselves and supporters in unprecedented ways. Welcome aboard.
References and Footnotes
- We thank Ruoxi Li, professor of political science at Cal State San Marcos, for clarifying this point. ↩