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Battle Tested

Don’t Be Fooled By Liberalism’s Modesty

Is the creed that’s always reexamining itself up to the task of stopping authoritarianism? In a word—yes.

Demonstrators hold signs during a rally against a ban on Muslim immigration on January 28, 2017 in San Francisco, California.
Stephen Lam/Getty Images
Demonstrators at a rally protesting Trump’s Muslim immigration ban, on January 28, 2017, in San Francisco

Don’t count liberalism out in 2024. I know it’s a Rodney Dangerfield political philosophy—meek and mild, self-deprecating, it gets no respect—but battle-hardened post-Trump liberals have proved tough as nails and ready to fight all necessary battles for freedom and democracy in these days of resurgent authoritarianism.

To be sure, American liberals exist for the most part implicitly—in our work, our arguments, and our values, and not so much in terms of explicit, much less exclusive, political self-identification. The Democrats fighting to stop Trumpism have to cover a lot more ground than just the theories of John Stuart Mill. We are indeed emphatically liberals because we defend individual liberty, but we are equally progressives because we champion progress for everyone; and these days, we are the closest thing America has to conservatives, too, because we want to conserve the land, the air, the water, the climate system, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, public integrity, judicial independence—everything in society and nature that the party of nihilists and authoritarians wants to destroy.

I’ve traveled to 19 states in this campaign, and I find old-fashioned Enlightenment liberalism alive and well at ground level in the surging party of democracy. The abortion issue catalyzing activism everywhere has become a fight not just for women’s access to health care but an organizing juggernaut for the rights of women and men to make their own life decisions free from the designs of the misogynist theocrats, billionaire plutocrats, and plundering kleptocrats who make up the sinister autocratic cult of Trump.

Local activists, ACLU lawyers, and teachers are defending books and libraries against book-banners and government censors with gusto. Liberal feminists are defending birth control and IVF against nasty puritan scolds in state capitols. A surging movement of secular citizens is defending the separation of church and state against cultists and the local bosses of right-wing megachurches. And everyone from the League of Women Voters to the NAACP is fighting for our voting rights against the mutating tactics of voter suppression, the endless cycles of gerrymandering and the straight-up disenfranchisement of millions of people, including former prisoners in at least eight states, 3.3 million Americans in Puerto Rico, and around 689,000 Americans living in Washington, D.C.

Meantime, online progressive liberals with an attitude are zealously fighting for free expression and reason in the cyber-trenches against high-tech fundamentalism, racism, antisemitism, fanaticism, fascism, and tribalism, as well as the disinformation and propaganda interjections of foreign state actors like Vladimir Putin.

Ordinarily a live-and-let-live philosophy, liberalism fights hard when it’s up against the ropes. And here we are—in the fight of our lives ever since Florida Man came down the escalator to run a new nationwide grift. The good news is that the post–Donald Trump networks of liberals and progressives are ready for battle, strategically focused, and plentiful in the land. We are committed unswervingly to defend both the negative liberties of early liberals like John Locke and the pragmatic changes in society, law, and government that have dramatically expanded our freedom over the last two centuries, the structural social changes and positive rights that people in the civilizing movements of the last century fought and died for.

What has become clear in this troubled century is the essential and necessary relationship between liberalism and strong democracy. In 1861, President Lincoln observed this link when he made a private note about the relationship between constitutional democracy in practice and the liberal and egalitarian ideals that Thomas Jefferson had inscribed in the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln said that constitutional democracy is like the beautiful silver frame upon which rests the “apple of gold” of freedom promised in the Declaration. In other words, there must be a democratic structure or frame in place to center and keep safe the freedoms of the people.

But even a democratic structure is no guarantee of freedom. For, as we have seen throughout American history, the procedural forms of democracy, including elections and the separation of powers, can co-exist with massive deprivations of liberty, including the institutions of slavery, Jim Crow apartheid, the subordination and disenfranchisement of women.

A state engaged in institutionalized assault on social freedom will produce only a cheap, counterfeit, and cosmetic form of “democracy” that becomes psychologically and politically unsustainable for the population. This is why the struggle for freedom against oppression, like Jim Crow segregation, almost always doubles as a struggle for voting rights, responsive democracy, and popular control over government.

There’s an old saying, commonly attributed to John Dewey, that the only cure to the ills of democracy is more democracy, and what we are suffering from today is not democracy but all the structural impediments to it, like gerrymandering, voter suppression, right-wing judicial activism, the filibuster, and the antiquated, anti-democratic, and manipulable Electoral College system. The system of anti-democracy, the GOP’s bulging bag of tricks, thwarts our democracy and our freedom at the same time.

The struggle for democracy has always been a freedom struggle. When Bob Moses and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee went farm-to-farm and door-to-door in Jim Crow Mississippi in the early 1960s, registering voters in the face of every form of brutal violence and intimidation, they coined the expression “one man, one vote,” which became not only the aspirational statement of moral and political equality at the heart of the civil rights movement’s “beloved community,” but the “radical equation” that transformed the Supreme Court’s equal protection jurisprudence in the Warren court—and which, of course, has grown to become “one person, one vote,” as Moses said it would. This belief in the freedom and equality of every man and, eventually, every woman remains the commanding impulse of progressive liberalism in America: the determination that every person, every voice, must count and count equally, which is why the next great wave of liberal democracy will insist on ranked-choice voting and other forms of proportional representation to replace winner-take-all elections and empower the whole electorate.

Liberals know in our bones today that there will be no freedom without democracy because the autocrats in Moscow, the kleptocrats in Mar-a-Lago, and the theocrats in MAGA-world will never willingly grant people, especially women, our basic liberties and freedoms. Also, the technologies of domination and surveillance are becoming more totalitarian all the time, and we must take urgent care that artificial intelligence does not usher in artificial democracy. The autocratic parties and states will use every technology available to be all-powerful and all-seeing over the people to subdue and control restless majorities.

But the converse is equally true: There will be no real democracy without freedom. Authoritarian despots like Putin and Viktor Orbán, who start by shutting down newspapers and closing LGBTQ nightclubs, inevitably turn to harassing and jailing opposition leaders and using the state to crush political competition. Tyrants depend not just on scapegoating of specific minorities but on suppression of voting rights and democratic participation for the whole populace and the fail-safe manipulation and break-glass stealing of popular elections when all else fails.

The times now call upon us, the liberal enemies of fascism, to defend freedom and democracy together. Fraternal twins, liberalism and modern democracy were born together in the Enlightenment and have won all their major battles for humanity together. They have weathered the opposition of British monarchy, feudalism, and theocracy; slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and political white supremacy; and corporate oligarchy, economic monopoly, and tyrannical class power. They now stand shoulder to shoulder again and face all the dictators and despots of the world.

Liberalism must pull democracy back from the clutches of authoritarian populists. The enemies of freedom gather happily under the banner of Orbán’s “illiberal democracy,” which means elections without freedoms, mob control of government without minority rights, and authoritarian “culture war” against dissent and difference.

Because of its essential modesty—it does not purport to have the keys to the iron laws of history—and its long-distance focus on simple human freedom, liberal democracy has never been a showy political ideology. But today progressive liberalism is a resilient fighting creed that has given us in America everything from massive infrastructure investment to muscular defense of the people of Ukraine to insistence upon human rights and civil liberties against all the despots and terrorists of the world.

We have our work cut out for us with the Florida Man’s scapegoating and immigrant-bashing, the undeniable lure for many Trump voters of political violence, and the dizzying effects of election denialism. The democracy and freedom project in 2024 requires not just fundraising, which seems to be the main default activity of our political campaigns these days, but organizing. And that means we have to go to every neighborhood in America and “bounce a ball,” as Bob Moses recommended in Radical Equations. When you bounce a ball outside, the little kids will come to play, and then their big brothers and sisters will come along to meet you, and pretty soon the whole family arrives to talk and have dinner. That’s the imperative this year: Take time to bounce a ball. Meet some new people. Let’s use our time to organize America.