There's been considerable chatter over the past few years about the crisis of democracy sometimes more clinically described as a "democratic recession" or "democratic deficit." And for good reason: When Donald Trump stripped the flesh off the American body politic, he revealed a disease that has become endemic throughout the so-called Western world.
Faith in the power and goodness of democratic self-governance, previously as unchallenged and ubiquitous as belief in God during the Middle Ages, has decayed into the empty, hopeful rituals of the Anglican Church. Even those who insist they still believe are clearly troubled: Supposedly democratic elections are too often won by overtly anti-democratic or authoritarian leaders, and too often result in governments that ignore what the public actually wants and pursue policies that blatantly favor the rich and powerful and make inequality worse. (As, in fairness, nearly all governments tend to do.)
But the important question is not whether this is happening the answer is obvious but why. Trump and Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbn and Jair Bolsonaro and Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte and all the other pseudo-democratic usurpers around the world didn't arise out of nothing. To suggest that they all simultaneously tapped into a current of know-nothing darkness and bigotry and moral weakness that has been there under the surface of society all along, like undiscovered crude oil, is not a remotely adequate historical or political explanation.
To see so many marginal democracies tumble into the abyss and a great many well-established ones tiptoe right to the edge suggests that something else is going on, a deeper pattern we aren't ready or willing to look at. That deeper pattern isn't just a crisis of democracy in the narrow sense, meaning a system or mechanism for selecting hypothetically representative leaders, because that itself is a symptom or symbol. It's about the failure of liberalism, which is an especially confusing word in the American context but in larger historical and philosophical terms describes the amorphous and often contradictory set of beliefs that supports democracy and without which democracy becomes impossible or meaningless.
Liberalism, in that broader sense, has dominated an increasing proportionof the world since the early 20th century and virtually the whole planet since the end of the Cold War. It's atradition that included (until very recently) both the conventional left and the conventional right in the United States and most other Western-style democratic nations. It's not so much a coherent philosophy as a basket of principles, many of which are frequently in conflict: Free trade and the primacy of the capitalist "free market," the expansion of civil rights and civil liberties, freedom of the press and artistic expression, universal equality before the law and a contested role for the state, which is sometimes highly interventionist and sometimes much more hands-off.
To put it mildly, there'sbeen a lot of disagreement within the liberal tradition about which of those principles is most important. Old-school "classical liberals," for example, eventually became known as conservatives or libertarians, while the "new liberals" divided into camps most often described today as moderates and progressives. In the wake of World War II and then the Cold War, liberalism writ large began to imagine itself as the end stage of human history, promising a world in the infamous (and false) words of Thomas Friedman in which no two countries with McDonald's franchises would ever go to war.
But as two important recentbooks about the liberal tradition Pankaj Mishra's "Bland Radicals" and Louis Menand's "The Free World" argue in different ways, that confidence was hubristic, and liberalism had already undermined itself at its moment of apparent total victory. The most generous thing we can say is that liberalism sometimes delivered on some of its promises (and only to some people), but never came close to fulfilling all of them. As for the liberal tradition's willingness to accommodate heated internal debate, as well as to wrestle with its own errors and blind spots, that was seen (with some justice) as a defining virtue and was also, from the beginning, a critical weakness.
Most of the invigorating essays in Mishra's collection revolve around the insight that the disastrous failures of liberal foreign policy so vividly illustrated in Afghanistan over the last few weeks cannot be understood as aberrations or even contradictions. From the beginning, the liberal promise of expansive civil rights and ever-increasing prosperity (for the citizens of liberal nations) relied on overseas imperialism and ruthless exploitation, what we might today call the outsourcing of inequality. Furthermore, imposing Western-style liberal democracy on other nations (who were understandably uncertain it was a good idea) through coercion and bribery and outright force, if necessary was built into the model all along, even if that became embarrassing in the 20th century and had to be described with euphemisms about "freedom" and "self-government."
Menand's book is a sprawling, ambitious study of Western (and mostly American) culture during the Cold War years from the avant-garde to Elvis Presley, from academic literary criticism to "The Feminine Mystique" which could fairly be described as the greatest accomplishment of the liberal era. One of the central threads running through his history is the way this amazing cultural explosion began to pull the postwar liberal consensus apart, such that by the end of the Vietnam War, most American writers, artists and intellectuals saw themselves as enemies (or at least critics) of the American state, especially in terms of its global-superpower role.
In other words, while the crisis of electoral democracy seems to have appeared suddenly in the Euro-American backyard over the last 5 to 10 years, like a nasty invasive weed and is still viewed by many observers as an almost inexplicable phenomenon the implosion of the liberal order has been a long time coming. It's hard to see that clearly through the ideological haze, given that the media and political classes in the U.S. and most other Western nations (outside the far right and far left) remain steeped in a post-World War II worldview where some version of liberalism however much amended, repaired and clarified is the natural, inevitable and desirable order of things.
If liberalism remains the only paradigm available to resist the rise of Trump-style autocracy, as generally seems to be the case, then we're in deep trouble, and the dread so many of us feel about the inexorable erosion of democracy is fully justified. Does anyone today literally anyone possess the kind of universalist, upward-trending faith in liberal progress that drove the mythology of John F. Kennedy's brief presidency or the moral clarity of the civil rights movement?
In bizarre, upside-down fashion, Donald Trump's entire "Make America Great Again" campaign can be understood as a half-conscious attempt to rekindle that kind of collective passion, if only as ghoulish racist parody the liberal soul, transplanted to a fascist body. (Trump's most insane followers in the QAnon cult briefly convinced themselves that John F. Kennedy Jr. was still alive and would return as Trump's running mate or spirit animal or something.)
Only someone with a time machine could tell us whether it will be possible to redeem or renew the better aspects of the liberal tradition as a vibrant force against the rising tide of jingoism, tribalism and autocracy. What we can say right now is that every few years someone emerges on the world stage who is embraced by the media and political caste as the savior of liberalism or, worse yet, as the "transformational figure" who will overcome political paralysis and division and it never ends well. No doubt Bill Clinton and Tony Blair think it's profoundly unfair that they have been consigned to the dustbin of history just because they made catastrophic compromises with the forces of evil. Emmanuel Macron actually believed he could make friends with Donald Trump, and that hubris may also pave the way for the far right's return to power in France, for the first time since the Nazi occupation.
Let's consider the most famous example, whose lessons "liberal" Americans (in all senses of the word) have not yet begun to understand. In the United States we have told ourselves a more sophisticated version of the above-mentioned narrative about how the current of ignorance and darkness running beneath our society has endangered democracy. It possesses some historical plausibility and, almost by accident, is a little bit true. In that story, the election of Barack Obama which seemed to inaugurate a new era in American history and to symbolize a fulfillment of America's democratic promise triggered the benighted racists in flyover country so badly that they all flocked to the banner of a TV con man who ran for president on a platform of blatant white-supremacist fantasy.
There's something to that, as public opinion research makes clear: Overt racial hostility is the decisive marker between white people who voted for Trump and white people who didn't. But to view that as a linear, limited cause-and-effect equation is the most mechanical and ahistorical kind of pop psychology, not to mention massively condescending. Like nearly all political analysis in our perishing republic, it's focused on symbols and signifiers, and not at all on the actual substance of politics. Obama himself would surely tell you that if his presidency had been successful, it would not have provoked such intense antipathy among many working-class and middle-class white people in the heartland groups among which he did reasonably well in the 2008 election.
Obama came to office hoping to put an end to the era of red-blue political division and change the terms of American public discourse. Even his extensive post-presidential fanbase doesn't talk about that too much now, because it makes his entire project sound hilarious and doomed, like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. His utter and complete failure to do those things like all other failures of all other liberal politicians usually gets blamed on Republican intransigence, entrenched public prejudice or his own lack of Beltway backroom negotiating prowess. (Or just on Joe Lieberman.)
Biographers and political historians will chew on those factors for decades, no doubt. But to suggest that if this or that tactical or strategic decision had been made differently the Obama presidency might have had a different outcome and a less gruesome aftermath is to deliberately miss the deeper and more uncomfortable lesson.
Barack Obama was the most charismatic and eloquent political leader most of us will ever see. He won a landslide election (over a widely respected conservative war hero) as the last great defender of liberalism. His presidency failed because he was the last great defender of liberalism maybe, in retrospect, something like the Mikhail Gorbachev of liberalism not because Mitch McConnell was mean to him or because Revolutionary War cosplayers terrorized members of Obama's party into pretending they didn't even know him. Or rather, all those things amount to the same thing: Obama believed he could make us believe in the promise of liberalism again, but he couldn't because we don't, and because none of these golden-boy savior-hero types can ever do that. He tried and we tried, andit was a nicer exercise in nostalgia than the one that came afterward. So at least there's that.
Read the original here:
- 8 times liberal media tried to ruin Thanksgiving, from ditching turkey to declaring genocide remains on menu - Fox News - November 28th, 2021
- Liberals introduce bill to provide sick pay, ban intimidation of patients and health-care workers - CBC.ca - November 28th, 2021
- Liberal MP crosses the floor to support independent bill for federal integrity commission - The Guardian - November 28th, 2021
- A 20-year spike in inflation could put the bite on the Trudeau Liberals - CBC.ca - November 28th, 2021
- John Rawls and Liberalism's Selective Conscience - The Nation - November 28th, 2021
- Liberal Party members running as independents, community candidates in local elections - The Sydney Morning Herald - November 28th, 2021
- No need for overdevelopment: Labor, Liberal councillors united in opposition to apartment towers - The Sydney Morning Herald - November 28th, 2021
- Harassment on rise in federal bureaucracy - Daily Liberal - November 28th, 2021
- Teen went to Byron bar before vanishing - Daily Liberal - November 28th, 2021
- Liberal dark money juggernaut raises $1.6 billion to flood left-wing groups with cash, tax forms reveal - Fox News - November 27th, 2021
- Justin Trudeau and Liberals inaugurate third term in officeausterity and mass infection at home, militarism and war abroad - WSWS - November 27th, 2021
- John Ivison: Liberals so focused on carbon taxes, they missed the flood coming in the back door - National Post - November 27th, 2021
- Liberal support is disintegrating but barely going to Hanson, Palmer or the LDP - The Spectator Australia - November 27th, 2021
- How Scott Morrison is trashing the Liberal brand - The Canberra Times - November 27th, 2021
- Man pranks conservative radio show by naming a ton of punk bands in his liberal bash - Boing Boing - November 27th, 2021
- NDP, Progressive Conservatives have provincial candidates for Niagara Falls; Liberal candidate to be announced soon - NiagaraFallsReview.ca - November 27th, 2021
- Careers - Liberal Party of Canada - November 25th, 2021
- Is the honeymoon period over for liberal arts in Asia? - Times Higher Education (THE) - November 25th, 2021
- Morrison accuses critics of wanting kangaroo court as Liberal MP crosses floor over integrity bill - The Guardian - November 25th, 2021
- Liberal economists got the memo: Build Back Better couldn't possibly worsen inflation | TheHill - The Hill - November 25th, 2021
- Early signs of Liberal leadership ambitions as Chrystia Freeland biography in works - The Globe and Mail - November 25th, 2021
- Its a bad culture: former Liberal treasurer calls for $200 cap on political donations to boost integrity - The Guardian - November 25th, 2021
- Justice minister urges new 'liberal' Constitution in Turkey | Daily Sabah - Daily Sabah - November 25th, 2021
- Politics Briefing: Erin O'Toole takes shot at Liberals, avoids internal party issues in caucus speech - The Globe and Mail - November 25th, 2021
- Bengal violence to farm protests: How liberal privilege shapes the way we think about what matters - Firstpost - November 25th, 2021
- Northern Ontario Liberal Anthony Rota re-elected as Speaker of the House of Commons - Globalnews.ca - November 25th, 2021
- Five years of struggle: Liberal backbencher warns national mental health will take time - The Sydney Morning Herald - November 25th, 2021
- Liberal storm over candidates to take on Steggall, Kelly in NSW seats - The Sydney Morning Herald - November 25th, 2021
- Opinion | Woke Went the Way of P.C. and Liberal - The New York Times - November 19th, 2021
- Liberal 'dark-money' behemoth funneled more than $400M in 2020 - Politico - November 19th, 2021
- Former Liberal leader to join forces with Labor veteran in bid to target Morrison ahead of election - The Guardian - November 19th, 2021
- The intellectual rights war on Americas institutions - Vox - November 19th, 2021
- Liberals push to speed up NSW preselections amid frustration at tactics of key Scott Morrison ally - The Guardian - November 19th, 2021
- Liberals to introduce tougher version of bill to ban conversion therapy - CBC.ca - November 19th, 2021
- Michelle Beckley, one of the Texas Houses most liberal members, joins Democratic primary for lieutenant governor - KPRC Click2Houston - November 19th, 2021
- Clock already ticking on Liberal promise to introduce host of bills in first 100 days - CBC.ca - November 19th, 2021
- The India that Vir Das and liberals want and the one they wont talk about - ThePrint - November 19th, 2021
- Britain's establishment has split into two, each convinced it is the underdog - The Economist - November 19th, 2021
- Meet the Liberal team running for Georges River Council - St George and Sutherland Shire Leader - November 19th, 2021
- Statement by Steven Del Duca on the 552nd Anniversary of the Birth of Guru Nanak Dev Ji - Ontario Liberal Party - November 19th, 2021
- The Liberals. The shrinking tribe - The Spectator Australia - November 15th, 2021
- Conservatives, NDP demand release of documents linked to 'troubling' claims Clerk of House favoured Liberals - CBC.ca - November 15th, 2021
- China Liberal Receives Recognition and Recommendation by Industry Experts for Its All-in-one Teaching Machine AI-Space - PRNewswire - November 15th, 2021
- What happened to woke: Liberal media blame Republicans for the term's downfall - Fox News - November 15th, 2021
- Clock already ticking on Liberal promise to introduce host of bills in first 100 days - Coast Reporter - November 15th, 2021
- Brad Wall: Nothing progressive about Liberal policies hiking the cost of living - National Post - November 15th, 2021
- Conservatives more effective than liberals on Twitter: study | The Asahi Shimbun: Breaking News, Japan News and Analysis - Asahi Shimbun - November 15th, 2021
- Harvard To Begin To Offer 'Young Liberal Leaders' Scholarship Which Will Grant Up To $100000 In Tuition Reimbursement To Young Democrats - ValueWalk - November 15th, 2021
- Hockey backs former journalist and calls for a contested Liberal preselection in Willoughby - Sydney Morning Herald - November 15th, 2021
- Federal Court dismisses bid to prevent reporting on alleged abuse of public resources - Sydney Morning Herald - November 15th, 2021
- BC Liberal critic Kirkpatrick presses the NDP to stop the clawback of autism funding - Voiceonline.com - November 15th, 2021
- CNN commentators fume after CNN report on Kamala Harris office dysfunction: 'I had to push back heavily' - Fox News - November 15th, 2021
- Garden a focus of William Tyrrell probe - Daily Liberal - November 15th, 2021
- Forbes evacuation order as flood threatens - Daily Liberal - November 15th, 2021
- Single-use plastics to be banned in NSW - Daily Liberal - November 15th, 2021
- The wealthy pay more than their 'fair share' and liberals know it | TheHill - The Hill - November 13th, 2021
- Emily Kaplan On The Rise of the Liberal Latter-day Saints - KUER 90.1 - November 13th, 2021
- Winsome Sears: The latest Black conservative to make liberals nervous | TheHill - The Hill - November 13th, 2021
- Discredited anti-Trump Steele dossier was embraced by liberal media: Here are five of the biggest offenders - Fox News - November 13th, 2021
- Newsweek editor accuses White, affluent liberals of 'using the pain of African Americans' to further goals - Fox News - November 13th, 2021
- Brazil: Bolsonaro joins Liberal Party ahead of 2022 election - DW (English) - November 13th, 2021
- Opinion: F.W. de Klerk was neither a liberal nor a reformer. But he was a pragmatist - The Globe and Mail - November 13th, 2021
- Protesting Alleged Liberal Bias in Higher Ed, Scholars Announce a University of Their Own - EdSurge - November 13th, 2021
- Betsy DeVos: Liberal 'wokeness' will always 'rename, rebrand, or repackage' 'insidious ideas' such as critical race theory to keep them alive - Denver... - November 13th, 2021
- Opinion: That Liberal-NDP deal in full: the NDP agree not to do what they weren't going to do anyway - The Globe and Mail - November 13th, 2021
- Liberal government vows to hire more staff to address veterans' backlog, caseloads - The Globe and Mail - November 13th, 2021
- Joe Concha: Only reason these liberal pundits have a job is to sow division in America - Fox News - November 13th, 2021
- Sen. Josh Hawley claims without evidence that liberals are attacking masculinity - NPR - November 13th, 2021
- Liberal Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Drive On College Campuses Is Becoming A Routine Part Of Hiring, No Evidence That Intellectual Talent Improves -... - November 13th, 2021
- How a grocery store visit highlights voters' fears that Kevin Vuong could be a lame duck MP - CBC.ca - November 13th, 2021
- Liberal media fawns over SNL skit about Goober the Clown who had an abortion when she was 23 - Fox News - November 13th, 2021
- Liberals leaving nuclear's future 'to the market' while other countries bet big - National Post - November 13th, 2021
- Thats ideology: City of Sydney Liberal team take on Moore over bike paths - Sydney Morning Herald - November 13th, 2021
- Rex Murphy: Stephen Harper is right how Liberals are treating the West is inexcusable - National Post - November 13th, 2021
- Talkin' Truthful Trash With Liberals And Conservatives - The Chattanoogan - November 5th, 2021
- The Limits of Liberal Science - The Bulwark - November 5th, 2021
- On abortion, Germany is not as liberal as you may think - Euronews - November 5th, 2021
- Churchill: New York isn't as liberal as everyone thinks - Times Union - November 5th, 2021
- Opinion: Is carbon pricing Liberal policy? For the most part, it's anything but - The Globe and Mail - November 5th, 2021
- Liberal, Green leaders withdraw from COVID commitee as striking health-care workers forced back - Globalnews.ca - November 5th, 2021