The Alcove

Liberalism Now More Than Ever

Why some progressives are wrong to reduce all concerns about democratic procedure and Russia to the self-interest of so-called “liberal class” elites.

By Kevin Mattson

Tagged Donald TrumpLiberalismprogressivismRussia

There’s a myth out there right now that we need to address: that the presidency of Donald Trump has unified progressives who are ready to fight him every step of the way without any need for debate, as they join hands together in the “Resistance.” What some seem to have forgotten, however, is the legacy of the Sanders-Clinton split during the not actually so far-off Democratic primary. Recently, Hillary Clinton began speaking in public again, and laying a good deal of the blame for her loss in the general election on now former FBI director, James Comey (who, a little while ago, the President accused of letting Hillary Clinton get a “pass” on her email crisis). Nonetheless, Clinton’s explanation has only highlighted, once again, to some Bernie fans, that she simply doesn’t get it. Her “Third Way Liberalism,” they say, just didn’t appeal enough to angry white working-class voters who cast their ballot twice for Obama and then switched to Trump, or to the grievances of many leftists, particularly young ones. That’s a rift that, unfortunately, progressives must continue to contend with.

Over at The Baffler, J.M. Bernays has rearticulated this anger shared by the Sanders wing toward the Democratic Party. He has written a takedown of a so-called “Liberal Melancholia,” which refers to a lingering inability to accept blame for political defeat and instead to hunt for other actors to castigate. Bernays’s argument centers around the existence of a “liberal class,” a group of elites who are looking for a way to rationalize and recover from their continued shock and distress over Trump’s victory. And the answer that this “liberal class” has come up with is that all roads lead back to Russia, as it should be pointed out at the time of this writing, is a fair concern. “For almost five full months now,” Bernays writes, “in a weird pastiche-simulation that is equal parts Cold War intrigue, Watergate high drama, and addled, patriotic self-parody…the Democratic elite has struggled to heroically uncover the truth, connect the dots, and unravel the conspiracy that could topple a presidency.” This desire to uncover a Russian conspiracy, in Bernays’s mind, simply “deflects blame for a historic, humiliating failure” and provides a “rationale to continue ignoring criticism from the political left.” Meanwhile, they even continue holding on to the lingering hope of kicking the Donald out of office. Bernays’s essay was published just prior to Trump’s firing of Comey, but this line of argument would still likely suggest that this episode is just one of many little glimmerings of hope to pull the “liberal class” out of its doldrums.

What this class of liberal voters ignores, according to Bernays and many others, is the deep-seated failure of the existing “system” of global elites, the one being propped up by “Third-Way liberalism” which champions “technocratically managed economic growth” and that overused notion, “neoliberalism.” In making this argument, Bernays goes as far as to credit Steve Bannon for thinking along more systemic lines than those gooey liberals: “However deranged Bannon’s assumptions, this willingness to call the system into question goes a long way toward explaining Trump’s political success.”

Bernays’s piece frequently avoids the question of Russia’s role in the election, which is understandable seeing as the investigation into Russian meddling in the election was still under way, at least until Comey’s firing. But Bernays also turns legitimate fear about Russia into a psychological, self-defense mechanism, even citing Sigmund Freud and his theory of “melancholia,” psychologizing opponents rather than trying to engage them in real discussion. He concludes that, “In their reveries of heroic agency and frenzies of conspiratorial speculation, the urban cadres of the liberal class work through this loss via an imago of figures drawn from the febrile anxiety dreams of a terminal social order.” In other words, liberals have major issues.

My response to all this? Hold on just a second. Without a doubt Hillary Clinton ran a bad, technocratic campaign based upon the perception of her own superior intelligence compared to Trump’s bluster and ignorance. But here’s the rub. Notably, or perhaps not so much considering our attention-deficit culture, is that so few political critics have pointed out just how much Trump himself talked about Putin during the campaign. Therefore, is it really even necessary to make sense of  inevitable “liberal melancholia”? The fact is that Trump himself was brazen about Russia throughout his quest for the presidency. First of all, he went so far as to say openly that he hoped Russia would find Hillary’s emails and expose them to the world. But, worse still, Trump claimed that Putin was a “leader far more than our President [Obama].” That’s the sort of statement that simply can’t be discounted in the way that Bernays would like it to be.

Trump might have symbolized, to a number of voters, an alternative to the apologia for global capitalism (although in fact he’s much more a globalist—as is Bannon—than was recognized). What he offers instead is a kind of authoritarianism (in addition to the possibility of catastrophic policy choices, like the destruction of the Affordable Care Act). And his threat is not, as has been made highlighted by his actions in office, to “neoliberalism” but instead toward the more classical conception of liberalism—that political theory of “rights,” of the defense of the individual against an over-extended state power. By his very own admission, Trump didn’t like Obama’s leadership,  preferring that of Putin; this is telling. The fact that he has decided to fire an FBI director he once praised on rather dubious grounds is also quite telling. Trump glories in strong leaders, even fierce tyrants.  He has also recently embraced other strongmen, including Turkey’s Erdogan and President Duterte of the Philippines. Trump cherishes unadulterated power and enjoys governing by executive order.

Reince Preibus has admitted that discussions have taken place in the White House about revising the country’s libel laws in order to allow Trump (and others) to sue media outlets that report whatever he might consider “fake news.” (In other words, the facts.) He treats any and all dissent against his leadership as the work of paid agitators, both illegitimate and unnecessary. He prefers action over deliberation—as the recent health-care vote reminds us.

And these are just some of the important details that writers like Bernays don’t seem to fully grasp. Bernays’s brand of Marxism—explicit or not—reduces all concerns about democratic procedure to the self-interest of this so-called “liberal class.” And, in certain cases, that’s indeed a legitimate argument. But it runs the non-negligible risk of blinding us to the serious threat that a leader like Donald Trump poses to our republic. This is not (only) about economic self-interest but also a grave a concern about the fragility of our constitutional republicanism. The desire of our current President to brush aside all dissent and rush forward on any and all possible action fundamentally endangers our procedural processes. Critics like Bernays are too quick to ignore the perils of the far-right authoritarian-inclined government we currently face, including the possibility of continued support from below, as has been exemplified also in countries from Turkey to France.

We need, therefore, to renew and nourish a progressivism that, unlike its conservative counterpart, truly cherishes the principles of deliberation and transparency. We need to articulate a style of leadership that doesn’t look like a fist and doesn’t try to simply sweep aside figures on a board game and then bluster its way to victory. No doubt liberals have too often ignored underlying issues of class power. But that doesn’t mean that we should do away with classic liberal ideals like open deliberation or the right to free speech. We have to get back at the difficult work of balancing rights and a diversity of opinions against the desire for political  “efficiency” at all costs. It’s a tough job, but the imperative lies with progressives to get to work.

Read more about Donald TrumpLiberalismprogressivismRussia

Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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