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High Anxiety

Can Liberalism Stop Being So Darn ... Liberal?

Needed: a liberalism that ceases to fear itself.

Demonstrators march with an American flag in St. Louis, Missouri, in November 2014 to protest the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager who had been shot by police earlier in the year in nearby Ferguson.
Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators march with an American flag in St. Louis, Missouri, in November 2014, to protest the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager who had been shot by police earlier in the year in nearby Ferguson.

Leftist critics of liberalism tend to take one of two positions: Either liberalism is a necessary but insufficient condition for achieving justice and fairness, or else liberalism is an active impediment to these aims, an “ideology,” in Marx’s sense, whose chimerical aspirations naturalize and perpetuate the status quo.

To the annoyance of my friends (liberal and radical alike), I often find myself flitting between these two propositions in my writings and commitments. To be frank, I hope the former is true: that universal rights and dignity not only are compatible with but require a scheme of material redistribution to be realized. But in my darker moments, I fear the latter is more true: that individual liberty will always be, first and foremost, the handmaiden of property, that exceptions to liberalism’s universal pretensions can always be found when they imperil the privileges of the propertied class. In like manner, I want very much to believe that something like socialist democracy can be achieved in this country through democratic means, i.e., without violent upheaval or the suspension of liberal norms; historical experience is not altogether encouraging. If ever another American revolution kicks off, I hope my motto would be something like: “Let’s be careful, but let’s go!” I’m certain no one would bother to listen.

Dispositionally, then, I couldn’t be more liberal, at least by the definition attributed to Robert Frost—“a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.” (I’m not sure even which side is my own!) I’ve often wondered whether there was some way to vindicate this constitutive timorousness in the liberal personality. One of my intellectual heroes, George Scialabba, has said that a person of the left must cultivate “discrimination” and “democratic passion” in equal measure. Passion without discrimination leads to unthinking fervor, the subordination of means to ends: tyranny. But discrimination without passion leads to paralysis, the extinguishing of hope. The timidity of liberals, our obsession with getting things right, our worry about going too far, could generously be categorized as thoughtful discrimination. More often than not, however, our wan, philosophical reticence is really some species of self-deception: a primal, conservative fear of disorder, masquerading as principle.

Not that the left can so easily be divided into factions of impotent worriers and righteously passionate doers. (After all, even the most committed revolutionist has encountered a comrade she wishes would do less.) A better path to vindicating liberal dis-ease can be found in contradiction. Perhaps what liberalism fears most is its own shadow: the aspirations it tends to unleash in the lower orders, among those who take liberalism’s guarantees all too seriously. This fretful dance can be seen at work in the historical examples furnished by the editors in the question they ask us to reflect on. The abolition amendments, for example, were championed by some of the same men who, several years later, would sow the seeds of Reconstruction’s demise. (Not incidentally, they called themselves Liberal Republicans.) “In their own eyes,” Eric Foner writes, “liberal reformers [of the postbellum years] stood above social divisions as disinterested spokesmen for the common good”—a signature liberal delusion: that we alone are untainted by interest or faction—“Yet at the same time, the ideology of reform helped crystalize a distinctive and increasingly conservative middle-class consciousness.”

For this incipient intelligentsia, a bone-deep conviction that they and their ilk represented the “best men”—endowed with the appropriate learning and temperament to rule—stirred an attendant suspicion of the febrile democratic passions of their lessers, Black and white alike. Class conflict and machine politics in the North and Radical Reconstruction in the South were, to them, flavors of the same alarming egalitarianism. In the heady postbellum ferment, words like freedom and liberty had acquired too capacious definitions; they needed to be recircumscribed. As Foner writes, “Freedom, [liberal] reformers insisted, meant not economic autonomy or the right to call upon the aid of the activist state, but the ability to compete in the marketplace and enjoy protection against an overbearing government.” As such, the government had done all it could for the Blacks; they should now fend for themselves. Reconstruction, per the liberal magazine The Nation, was “morally a more disastrous process than rebellion.” Ulysses S. Grant handily defeated his Liberal Republican opponent, Horace Greeley, in the 1872 election. But the cause of Reconstruction was permanently tarnished; liberal reformers had opened the door for white supremacy’s return to the South.

The New Deal years contain elements of this same stutter-step inhibition. It was FDR’s liberal reforms that facilitated a wave of militant unionism and the building of the radical Congress of Industrial Organizations. And it was FDR’s liberal successor, Harry Truman, who signed Executive Order 9835, the “Loyalty Order,” which jump-started the Second Red Scare and profoundly curtailed the transformative potential of the New Deal. Likewise, in the 1960s, liberal presidents backed civil rights reforms, expanded the welfare state, and encouraged a generation of young people to chart their own moral destiny. But as anti–Vietnam War protests spread and the Black freedom struggle entered its more militant phase, LBJ coordinated with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to root out domestic subversives and dispatched federal troops to put down riots in Democratic-run cities. As I write, liberals, including President Joe Biden, are wringing their hands—when they’re not ringing the police—over protests by young people who have taken all-too-seriously certain universal propositions: that Palestinian lives are as inviolable as Israeli ones, as worthy of dignity and protection, and as deserving of the right to self-determination.

If it is constitutive of liberalism to fear the liberatory energies it unleashes, so is it characteristic of liberal historiography to identify, retroactively, with the liberators and not the forces cracking their skulls. In the uplands of history, liberals tend to forget their trepidation and the sententious admonitions it inspires. I have little doubt that the same elisions will someday apply to this moment. To be a liberal is to be a protagonist of history, if sometimes only in retrospect.

So to come to the question at hand: Is today’s liberalism equipped to win “this battle” against Donald Trump and the forces of reaction? I’m not sure. Today’s liberalism seems to be afflicted by the same self-flattering anxieties as yesterday’s. Liberal leaders are eager to contain and stigmatize the energies of the left flank; this, they say, is what political maturity and prudence demands. And it may be so. (The best men know best!) But history suggests another possibility: that liberalism has never quite won a battle on its own trepidatious terms; that in every instance some unbridled force of impassioned will—of precisely the sort that liberals instinctively mistrust—has been necessary to defeat reaction; and that, all too often, when liberals have indulged uncritically in their fears of democratic passion, they have undermined the cause of justice.

Whether one is more intimately familiar with liberalism as advertised or as routinely practiced—that is, with liberalism’s exceptional modes—depends on where and how one lives. Suffice it to say, a strategy for saving liberalism premised on scolding Americans, left and right, for their insufficient gratitude for liberalism’s blessings is unlikely to succeed. Personally, I take liberalism to be a precious inheritance. Indeed, I was recently reminded of what it might mean to live without its protections while watching my political allies be beaten and jailed by police in the employ of a liberal mayor. Such experiences are not, I suspect, altogether rare in this country.

American liberalism, Irving Howe once wrote, cannot escape its “heritage of Protestant self-scrutiny, self-reliance, and self-salvation. Consequently, American liberalism has a strand of deep if implicit hostility to politics per se—a powerful kind of moral absolutism, a celebration of conscience above community, which forms both its glory and its curse.” This strikes me as remarkably true of today’s Democratic Party. Its loudest boosters take for granted that an aura of moral righteousness attends the party’s actions, and that it is every person’s solemn duty of conscience to walk, soberly and somehow alone, beneath its banner. Liberal politics divorces itself from interest, need, and passion; “from the soil of shared, material life,” as Howe put it. In Biden’s message, one hears a stultifying admixture of high moral panic with utter political banality and sloth. Our existential crisis demands prudent equanimity; we are called to frenzied urgency—but not like that.

Ezra Pound once called this sort of liberalism a “mess of mush.” And it can feel that way: liberalism as the politics of anti-politics, studiously vague and neutral about everything except its own superiority to every alternative. And yet, Irving Howe understood—as Pound, a fascist, did not—that there were “far worse things in the world than ‘a mess of mush.’” If the forces of reaction succeed, we may long for these days of mess and mush. A liberalism of fear, focused on minimizing cruelty above all else, is not an unworthy goal. Except that when liberals themselves are being cruel, the program resembles a protection racket. What we need, instead, is a liberalism that ceases to fear itself.