We live in a dark time. Liberal democracy is in crisis. And liberals need all the friends they—we—can get. Sean Wilentz is a distinguished historian who is also a prolific and often polemical supporter of a certain kind of liberalism. I consider myself to be a kind of liberal, too, a left liberal, yet I am nonetheless mindful of the limits of all such terms, because they are complicated, and their meanings are deeply contested, and because, like all things, they can be helpful or harmful depending on how they are used.
Words matter greatly in politics, as Wilentz rightly points out. And sometimes it is important to clarify, and even fight, about their meaning. But clarification does not always require the accentuation of sharp distinctions where ambiguity or overlap is more appropriate. While I share Wilentz’s concern for the future of liberalism, I am troubled by his piece; both because it is historically misleading and because it is politically counterproductive at a time when what Michael Harrington used to call “the democratic left” desperately needs to find better ways of fostering honest and serious contention, as well as forms of bridge-building and political unification in the struggle against the real, obvious danger: Trumpism.
I have appreciated Wilentz’s recent critiques of Trump. Like him, I was unhappy with the bitter way the Sanders versus Clinton contest unfolded in the spring of 2016; the deplorable hostility some on the left have consistently displayed toward Hillary, then and now; as well as the very blasé ways some on the left have reacted to the victory of Trump and the damage he is inflicting on us all. (See, for example, Samuel Moyn and David Priestland’s New York Times piece entitled “Trump Isn’t A Threat to our Democracy. Hysteria Is.”) Yet while I agree with Wilentz that many self-identified “liberals” and “progressives” often speak in imprecise and sometimes muddled ways, I don’t understand why he insists on emphasizing these groups’ essential differences. For example, he says:
These shifts and attempted shifts are not of passing or merely semantic significance. Insisting on the proper meanings of terms is not divisive or sectarian bickering. . . . To merge basic concepts that are plainly distinct, such as socialism and New Deal liberalism, is not a useful step toward invigorating our politics.
As this text makes clear, Wilentz reads important rhetorical differences as a political morality tale.
On the one side are those self-styled “progressives” linked to Sanders, who misleadingly lay claim to the legacy of FDR and the New Deal while obscuring the radicalism of their own “socialism,” who deny any historical or contemporary virtue to liberalism. They pursue this project in a way that is deceptive, manipulative, and damaging to the Democratic Party, to its core constituencies, and to liberalism and its historical achievements.
On the other side are the authentic liberals, linked to the Democratic Party mainstream and to Clinton, who now find themselves the harassed and confused victims of the progressive “masquerade.” These liberals, to Wilentz, urgently need to be reminded of the historical distinctiveness of their liberalism so that they can better fight for it—against Trumpism to be sure, but also against the “progressives” who essentially threaten liberalism from within, thus weakening it and, whether deliberately or not, empowering Trumpism.
The “proof text” of Wilentz’s argument is Bernie Sanders’s November 2015 Georgetown speech, in which he laid claim to the mantle of FDR, likening Sanders’s “democratic socialism” to the New Deal, and noting that, at the time, the New Deal “was called socialist.” Wilentz objects to this characterization, insisting that only FDR’s right-wing enemies considered him a socialist; and that “In the face of all adversity, [FDR] was every inch a liberal” and, indeed, “an unabashed liberal.”
But, again, I fail to see why Wilentz is so intent on ramming home this point with descriptions like “unabashed” and “every inch.” He favorably quotes Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks on how the Depression “presented American radicals with their greatest opportunity to build a third party since World War I,” but by choosing to regard this as a failure, he fails to note that FDR’s cooptation of the left can also be read as a kind of partnership.
Consider the case of John Dewey, the most important American liberal philosopher of the twentieth century, whose 1935 book, Liberalism and Social Action, was widely regarded as an important justification for New Deal reform.
Dewey the liberal was also a progressive, and a sympathizer of socialism. And while he critically supported New Deal-type reforms, in 1932 and 1936 he backed socialist Norman Thomas for President. Dewey epitomized the complex and productive interplays between the identities that Wilentz seeks to pry apart. An important contributor to The New Republic since its inception in 1914 as the central organ of liberal progressivism, Dewey was involved with the founding of some of the most important liberal organizations of his time, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909), the American Association of University Professors (1915), and the American Civil Liberties Union (1920). At the same time, he brought together the founders of those groups—people such as W.E.B Du Bois, Roger Baldwin, and Charlotte Perkins Gillman—into a core organization he led called the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, founded in 1905 but renamed the League for Industrial Democracy in 1921. During the New Deal, Dewey wrote consistently in favor of forming a new third party. And though he did not at first support FDR, his writings helped inspire many self-styled progressives, such as A.A. Berle and Rexford Tugwell, to join FDR’s Administration and to justify New Deal reforms.
Wilentz knows all of this. But he chooses to downplay it in the name of supposed “realism” and “hard-nosed” party politics that he seeks to promote within the Democratic Party. Wilentz deplores what he considers to be an overemphasis by the left on the importance of radical insurgencies and social movements, and its under-appreciation of the role of elected politicians who seek realistic reforms according to a Weberian logic of compromise (here he overlaps with Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal). These themes were on display in his harsh 2012 New York Review of Books critique of Michael Kazin’s 2011 American Dreamers: How the Left Changed the Nation, entitled “The Left vs. the Liberals,” and are developed more fully in Wilentz’s 2017 book, The Politicians and the Egalitarians. As he puts it in his essay “Fighting Words,” [Issue #40] “[A]ccording to a familiar progressive interpretation of history, all reform is attributed to left-wing pressure.” Well, that view might be misleading, and warrant criticism. But it is equally fanciful to disparage the important role that has historically been played by “left-wing pressure” to drive a wedge between such groups and what counts as “liberalism.” And it’s also fanciful to insist that only party-oriented liberals are realistic, while the left’s critics are either dishonest or naïve for treating politics as “a religion.”
There has always been a productive synergy—characterized by contention, debate, dialogue, cooptation, and further contention—between “the left” and “liberalism,” as the examples of both the New Deal and the civil rights movement indicate. Indeed, many important thinkers such as Dewey have both straddled this divide and worked hard to bridge it. Wilentz notes that “The politics of the last 40 years and more may be regarded as a series of continuing struggles over liberalism’s fate,” and then proceeds to cast this as a battle between good “liberals” and bad “progressives,” who are really “socialists.” But that is just plain wrong.
Especially since the end of WWII, the American left has indeed developed a strong tradition of “democratic socialism.” In November 2015, Dissent magazine published a symposium called “What is Democratic Socialism?” which included essays ranging from Irving Howe and Lewis Coser’s 1954 “Images of Socialism” to Michael Walzer’s 2010 “Which Socialism?” The symposium demonstrated the sustained seriousness with which the topic has been treated on the democratic left. And as Irving Howe’s 1977 “Socialism and Liberalism: Articles of Conciliation?” showed, these arguments about democratic socialism have typically underscored the continuities between the socialist and the liberal traditions. In the same way, intellectuals associated with The American Prospect have long underscored the synergies between a vibrant liberalism and the left. (See especially Robert Kuttner’s 2001 “Why Liberals Need Radicals,” and his 2015 “The Dance of Liberals and Radicals.”)
There surely are groups that fall outside of the “democratic left” broadly construed—“black bloc” anarchists linked to “antifa,” certain activists who in 2016 sought to use the Sanders campaign to smash the Democratic Party (see, for example, “Occupy the Party: The Sanders Campaign as a Site of Struggle,” published at Public Seminar and TruthDig in February 2016). But there are also many other groups that warrant serious critical engagement by liberals, because they might be persuaded to move closer to a liberal position, or simply because one of the things that distinguishes liberalism is its commitment to rational persuasion rather than othering and denunciation.
I am personally concerned, for example, by certain anti-liberal tendencies within the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) (e.g., the disparaging way that some talk about “liberals,” and the solicitude some have expressed toward anti-liberal movements, such as Venezuela’s chavismo, which they associate with global anti-imperialism). In other words, the organization has moved far from the ideas espoused by Harrington in the 1970s in some important ways. At the same time, I recognize that this is an important organization, especially for millennials in the wake of the Sanders “revolution.” And so I rejoined last year, after a 30-year hiatus, and also agreed to become the faculty adviser of my campus’s Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter. I relate to the impatience expressed by Michael Tomasky in his 2016 Daily Beast piece, “You Damn Millennials Don’t Get Socialism,” which seeks to “school” young socialists about the lessons learned from previous experience. But I am also mindful of the limits of my own generational experience, and of the importance of trying to build, rather than burn, bridges whenever possible. If there ever were a time where this was necessary, it is now. This will not be easy, and there are no guarantees of success. But what is the alternative?
The August 11, 2016 issue of Rolling Stone contained a terrific essay entitled “Hillary’s New Deal: How a Clinton Presidency Could Transform America.” That piece concluded:
The political spectacle of the past year has turned the 2016 election into a chasm with profound historical significance. By nominating Donald Trump, the Republican Party has become the vehicle for an authoritarian, nativist nationalism that until now lurked at the fringes of modern American politics. Hillary Clinton has launched a mainstream progressive campaign, in an updated Democratic tradition that stretches back to Franklin D. Roosevelt. This is the choice Americans face—between alternatives as starkly opposed to each other as in any election in our history, excepting the one in 1860, which led to the Civil War.
. . . [At their convention] [t]he Democrats repeatedly entwined diversity and inclusion with their party’s old-time convictions about economic inequality and opportunity, convictions that have badly needed refurbishing and restating in the wake of the Great Recession, convictions that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ stunning primary challenge forced to the very center of the debate. There on the convention stage was Sanders himself, railing against “the 40-year decline of our middle class” and “the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality that we currently experience.” There was Sen. Elizabeth Warren, explaining how the system is rigged for CEOs and predators like Trump. And there, too, was Hillary Clinton, proclaiming that “Democrats are the party of working people,” but the party needed to show it better; then saying, “Our economy isn’t working the way it should because our democracy isn’t working the way it should”; and touting a government program funded by targeted tax hikes on the rich, the “biggest investment in new, good-paying jobs since World War II,” to rebuild America’s infrastructure.
The author of that piece was Sean Wilentz. In August of 2016 I shared his sense of possibility. And it might have been so with Hillary Clinton, had she won. But she lost. We lost. I, too, now experience moments of bitterness toward some on the left who refused to acknowledge the gravity of the choice in November 2016, and who even now refuse to acknowledge it. But because I am a liberal, I acknowledge that there is a difference between opinions and truths, just as there is a difference between private feelings and public acts.
What Wilentz said in August 2016 was true. Including the part about how Sanders’s insurgent campaign “forced” questions of inequality and insecurity “to the very center of the debate,” and how Sanders and Warren played—and continue to play—an important role in the party. The “resilience of the Democratic center” that Wilentz extols was possible because “the center” made real efforts to incorporate “the left,” and “the left” made real efforts to move to “the center” and to cooperate. But it must be acknowledged that the 2016 “resilience of the Democratic center” was not enough, even though Clinton won the popular vote and even though the Trump campaign surely benefited from improprieties. The Democratic Party remains a weak party in states and localities across the nation, even if its chances to “flip the House” in 2018 are good. Key Democratic constituencies remain either discouraged or excluded from elections by Republican-backed voter suppression laws. There is a great deal of hard work to do in the months and years ahead. There is no one way to be a “liberal” or “progressive” or “democratic socialist” or “left liberal.” Those of us who inhabit these identities, some more comfortably than others, will face challenges, and make difficult choices, and argue, and join together, and experience victories and defeats, and hopefully learn well enough to continue the hard work of building a democratic left.
John Rawls, the most important liberal political philosopher of the past half-century, famously argued that, in a broad historical sense, the thriving of liberalism required groups with deeply held value commitments to suspend their disbelief in the evil of those who see otherwise, and to develop an “overlapping consensus” about fundamental civil and political liberties. Liberalism is now under siege, and the “consensus” of the past is in disarray. We liberals need to fight for liberalism. Against real enemies. But in order to do it, we first need to distinguish between real enemies and those who simply think differently than we do. To do so, we need to learn how to better express our real differences, how to endure real challenges from one another, and then how to develop precarious but necessary forms of mutual understanding and common purpose.
There will be people to our left who despise liberalism and with whom we cannot work. But there will also be many with whom we can, in fact, work hand in hand, and from whom we can even learn. Instead of driving a wedge between “liberals” and “progressives,” we ought to do what we can to foster a left liberalism that is broad and pluralistic. The revival of liberalism, if it is to come, will emerge from the incorporation of new energies, not from the erection of new boundaries. If Trumpism has taught us anything, it should be this.