Tuesday, January 3, 2017

DANIEL T. RODGERS: What Next for Liberalism?

The Americans who brought the Obama era so suddenly to an end were a mixed lot. Many were straight-ticket Republicans who would have voted for any nominee the party put forward. Others were moral traditionalists for whom the chance to vote on the Supreme Court’s composition was the only thing that counted. Some were racists, empowered by the taunts of the nominee and the fury of his rallies. But what impassioned the core of those who swung the Electoral College balance, it is clear in retrospect, was a sense of being outsiders in their own land.

Those alienated voters saw themselves as the bone and sinew of the nation: white men who did not have college educations but who made things and were loyal to the nation, who thought they had acted out the American dream only to find themselves shunted aside by an African-American President whom they had come to loathe, by women who are more successful than they are, by nonwhite and immigrant competitors for jobs and public favor, by global capitalists, distant government officials, and cosmopolitan intellectuals who scorned them, and by the poor who lived on their tax dollars. They had been waiting in line for years for their time to arrive only to see others cut in line ahead of them, what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls the “deep story” they tell themselves. 

They are the resentful because whiteness and patriotism no longer pay out as they used to. Although they live in an echo chamber of self-confirming social messages, they feel themselves voiceless. That is why, in spite of their anger at the global capitalism that made Donald Trump’s fortune, they felt empowered when a man of his super-wealth and media stardom spoke the words they know they are not supposed to say in public themselves.

A reckless right-wing media gave them a crucially important boost to victory. So did the utter trivialization of issues as the lines between politics, news, and entertainment virtually disappeared. In hindsight it is clear that liberal mistakes also mattered. The most important success of the Obama Administration, stemming the potentially catastrophic effects of the 2008 Wall Street crash by co-opting its major players, fed into a story that the Democratic Party and big money had become all but inseparable. Hillary Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speaking fees only reinforced a narrative in which the big institutions called the tune and other people paid. Obamacare, so hopefully begun, turned out to hold vastly more political liabilities than any of its architects imagined. The speed at which gay rights moved through the courts generated far more backlash than almost any liberals anticipated, alienating not only those unnerved by the threat to the family ideal they themselves were struggling to hold onto but those who felt there was no room for conscientious dissent from a centrally imposed juggernaut.

The family leave and welfare policies that Hillary Clinton championed so passionately couldn’t salve Trump’s supporters’ sense that the family as they knew it was under siege: that the culture wars had finally come home. Many of the economic planks in the Democratic Party program were not pitched for them. The new high tech, energy-efficient, solar-powered economy that liberals promise to promote didn’t have obvious room in it for workers like themselves.

Liberals’ assumption that their political destiny lay assured in the demographic remaking of the population turned out to be a self-wounding illusion. White rural and small town Americans with high school degrees but not a college education may be a diminishing fraction of the population. But there were enough of them to turn the election. And every whiff of evidence suggesting that the Democratic Party had written them off to care more about minority lives than their own added fuel to their resentments.

The result was a vote in which anger overrode optimism, a corrosive sense of failure overrode hope, and in which the very impracticality of a Donald Trump presidency proved one of his strongest drawing cards. He would not improve politics, his supporters told interviewers. He would blow it up.
hat will liberalism do in the new, terrifying world these resentments have made? At the congressional level there is urgent work to be done to block the most reckless, punitive efforts of a Trump presidency. Obstruction is essential, but it must also be combined with liberal alliance with enough Republican Party centrists to shape an agenda that could possibly forestall the economic and social disaster that Trumpism portends. For the short run, a temporary centrist coalition in Congress is an imperative, hard as it may be to achieve.

For the long run, liberalism will have to moderate some of its ambitions. Donald Trump’s America will be more insular than any since World War II. It promises a fortress nation, drawn back from hopes of alleviating the turmoil of the world, back from the global economy, back from concern for what others, outside America, might think. The cosmopolitan, globally ambitious liberalism that has been a backbone of Democratic Party policies since 1942 will have to readjust. 

Liberal internationalism was already in trouble before 2016, torn between reliance on force and reliance on diplomacy, unable to make the dream of universal democracy and human rights take root in a world of recurrent chaos and perpetual war. “Make us safe” was the Trump campaign’s radically simplified answer.

Liberal ambitions to manage and reengineer a society as complex as the United States may need to be tempered as well. .. read more: