The Crisis of Liberalism, Part I
By Henry WismayerJanuary 9, 2017
HOW DID LIBERALISM become a dirty word? In the cold pre-dawn of Trump presidency, it’s a question that many on the American left, still puzzling over how their side could have lost to a proto-fascist reality TV star, have been forced to ponder.
The short explanation of how the dominant political philosophy of the last 30 years lost its way goes like this. The anti-liberal movement now believes that the liberal elite, embodied by the politicians of traditionally left-wing parties, has grown aloof and complacent and abandoned “the people” whom it was supposed to champion. Like Orwell’s pigs in Animal Farm, they have turned their backs on the poor and imposed a dogma of political correctness and identity politics that brooks no dissent, tyrannizing honest working people, dissolving their culture, and sending their jobs overseas. In the tweets and speeches of Trump, and in the rising tide of right-wing demagoguery across Europe and beyond, this liberal conspiracy has become an overarching justification for the biggest political upheaval in living memory.
But this narrative, like so much in politics nowadays, is a criminal oversimplification of the true picture. Pull apart the arguments, and the anti-liberal odium starts to shatter in our hands. Consider, for a moment, the nature of the antipathy that helped carry Trump to victory. The type of liberal disdained by his supporters is a confusing and paradoxical creature. This liberal is a lefty; a shrill social justice warrior; an effete, wishy-washy “libtard.” That same liberal is also the personification of elite metropolitan power, in control of every apparatus of government, along with the judiciary, media, and big business.
It’s as if liberal were a catch-all term for people who, Masters of the Universe by day, transmute into virtue-signaling professional protestors kicking in bank and estate agent windows at the weekend.
There are distinct strands of liberalism, of course. The first is social liberalism, a political doctrine built around the central tenets of equality and representative democracy. The argument against this form of liberalism, and its pejorative byword “political correctness,” contends that it has mutated over time into a form of moral absolutism. To question its orthodoxies, critics point out, earns you instantaneous opprobrium and comparisons to Hitler. This has marginalized large sections of the electorate, and political earthquakes like Trump and Brexit are their revenge.
Economic liberalism is different. Rooted in the idea of open markets, it’s a 19th-century market theory that advocates free trade and the pursuit of material self-interest. Advocates of economic liberalism tend to believe in small government and low taxation, maintaining instead that forces of supply and demand — what Adam Smith called the “invisible hand” — would automatically yield benefits for society at large. Its contemporary offspring, neoliberalism, formulated by radical academics like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, later turned into concrete government policy by Reagan and Thatcher, is a form of libertarian capitalism that has shaped our globalized world. It has seen corporations grow omnipotent, worker wages stagnate, unions hobbled, and jobs outsourced overseas. It has delivered record levels of economic inequality, fueling the growth of a super-rich class even as huge portions of the middle class have slipped into the precariat, one wage-slip from disaster.
As long ago as 1999, Noam Chomsky was arguing, in Profit Over People, that neoliberalism produces an economic reality that is the antithesis of social liberalism, rejecting as it does the tenets of equality and meritocracy that social liberals hold sacrosanct. “Instead of citizens, it produces consumers,” Chomsky wrote. “Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless.”
To argue that neoliberalism represents the more malignant force in 21st-century America, as many left-wing observers are inclined to do, is not to exculpate social liberalism from its own role in provoking today’s populist backlash. The tendency of liberal policy makers to prioritize ethical crusades over the needs of ordinary Americans inarguably alienated millions of voters. In his Listen Liberal, a critique of Democratic Party elitism and hypocrisy, published in early 2016, Thomas Frank writes: “The party’s deficit in relevance to average citizens was more than made up by its massive surplus in moral virtue.”
However, only the most mulish contrarian — or xenophobe (there are plenty of both on Twitter) — would argue that social resentment was the sole mobilizer of the Trump constituency. Exit polls conducted by CNN in the wake of the United States’s presidential election suggest that Trump’s victory had as much to do with perceived economic anxiety as emotional displacement. In data compiled from over 24,000 respondents, 52 percent said that the economy was the most important electoral issue. Trump voters constituted 77 percent of those who felt that their own financial situation had worsened compared to four years ago; 79 percent of those who rated the condition of the national economy as “poor” also sided with Trump, whose promise to restore jobs was a keystone of his Make America Great Again campaign.
From this, it is tempting to speculate that Trump’s extraordinary victory owed at least something to a simple nominative ambiguity. Social liberalism, neoliberalism — po-ta-to, po-tah-to. In this election, there was no ideological distinction. For Trump supporters, liberalism was a single target, and a fall-theory for all that ails modern Western democracies.
How did this happen? In the case of the two seismic events of 2016, Brexit and the election of Trump, the origins of this conflation are easy to trace. In the 1990s, on both sides of the Atlantic, the governments of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, both intent on moving left-wing politics into the center ground, adopted aggressively deregulatory economic policies, thereby tying traditionally left-wing parties — the Democrats in the United States, Labour in the United Kingdom — to a neoliberal agenda.
This “third way” politics pursued both socially and economically liberal values not because the two philosophies were ideologically of a piece, but because both were politically expedient in discrete ways.
More recently, in the wake of the 2008 crash, as the tax-avoiding millionaires doubled their wealth while banks asked for bailouts from the public purse, the sick underbelly of neoliberalism was exposed. For right-wing populists seeking a unifying enemy, this presented an opportunity to blur the lines between the two types of liberalism as part of a concerted project to demonize the status quo. Social and economic liberalism became a single entity, and suddenly, the left could be blamed for the damage wrought by a right-wing agenda, with establishment figures like Hillary Clinton portrayed as architects (rather than the inheritors) of an unforgivable betrayal.
By conflating social liberalism with its invidious economic namesake, populists in the United States and Europe have been able to condense the whole seething polity into a simple picture of us versus them. In that one word, “liberal,” the enemy now had a name. Liberalism had, in Trump’s words, become “the swamp” — while the opportunity to get revenge on the liberal elite has become a rallying cry.
This is not merely a political divergence, but a cultural war. It is little wonder that the propagandists most keen to present liberalism as a villain for the ages — the largely anonymous foot-soldiers of the alt-right movement — come across as outcasts pursuing a vendetta against the cultural hegemony. In their version of events, peddled in the murkier, sophistry-steeped recesses of the right-wing ether, the enemy constitutes every person who belongs in the world that’s shunned them. Theirs is a scattergun rage that anathematizes anybody they perceive to be liberally minded or to have benefited from liberal thinking. In the process, some of the most disadvantaged members of society, not to mention the most vociferous voices for social justice, have been recast as oppressors — in cahoots with the one percent.
For those in the liberal coalition now trying to fight back against this rampant anti-liberal sentiment, the hypocrisies of the opposition present giant problems. For how do you fight a movement so riddled with contradictions?
Social liberals are stuck between a rock and a hard place, morally unable to negotiate hard-won progress with white supremacists, but determined to do something to win back the millions of disaffected voters who’ve abandoned them. They know that the portion of anti-liberal resentment not rooted exclusively in bigotry should be venting its frustrations on a man like Trump. Instead, it has elevated him to the highest office in the land.
Which brings us back to the ancient lament of postwar liberals: Why aren’t our attempts to help the economically disadvantaged rewarded with their gratitude? Why do they hate us so much? There seems to be no way for social liberals to square this hole.
What does seem certain, however, is that any redefinition of left-wing politics in the United States and Europe must start with a disavowal of an economic system rigged in favor of the few. Neoliberalism is a right-wing project in all but name. Social liberals must ensure that this is how it is remembered.
Henry Wismayer is a writer based in London. His features and essays have appeared in over 70 publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Aeon, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.
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