What Liberalism Has Become

Liberalism, an endlessly perplexing beast. What exactly is it?

One interesting perspective is that of Domenico Losurdo. As a Italian left-winger, he doesn’t share the biases of mainstream Anglo-American thought. He takes liberalism as a larger worldview that appears to include even what Americans think of as conservatism. It’s not just a narrow ideology limited to a political party or social movement but an entire system, a paradigmatic worldview.

I found this a strange interpretation at first. It has since grown on me. This both explains the often reactionary nature of liberalism (anti-radicalism, anti-communism, etc) and explains the often liberal tendencies of conservatism (individualism, free markets, etc). They really are two varieties of the same post-Enlightenment social order, mainstream liberals and mainstream conservatives working in tandem to maintain the dominant system and worldview.

A main focus of mine has been on conservative(-minded) liberals. It’s common here in the Midwest, as part of the cultural norms. I particularly associate it with Democrats who are or were raised working class, typically having spent formative years in areas that included unionized factory towns and small farming towns.

It’s a weird mix of social liberalism and social conservatism, of workers’ rights and work ethic. It’s about taking care of those who deserve it, the emphasis being on who gets perceived as worthy and who doesn’t. In the Midwest, this takes shape through a heavy emphasis on family and community. But on social issues, it is mildly libertarian in having a live and let live sensibility, such that being perceived as lazy is worse than being perceived as gay. In the South, a person is praised by a statement that, He’s a good Christian. It’s different in the Midwest where the praise, instead, will be that, He’s a hard worker.

I personally associate it with the Midwest because that is where I’ve spent so much of my life. But I imagine it might be similar in other areas outside the South, such as the Northeast.

This isn’t a form of conservatism that is spoken about much in the mainstream. You won’t find it regularly discussed in the dominant spheres of politics, academia, and the media. It is a liberalism on the ground that remains largely hidden in plain sight. Few in the mainstream, left or right, want to acknowledge its existence. It doesn’t fit the established social and political narratives.

Still, some scholarship touches upon it, if you look for it. It’s fairly well known, for example, that mainstream liberalism when it was most dominant in the past more than relented to conservative tendencies, including working class racism such as in labor organizing and communist witch-hunts. Conservative liberalism often took the form of liberalism for whites, men, and the economically well off while maintaining a reactionary stance toward everyone else.

There was a class component to this, not just about working class but the right kind of working class, respectable and not radical (in a recent post about fascism, I quoted Barbara J. Steinson: “From its beginning in Indiana the Farm Bureau made it clear that the organization was composed of respectable members of the farming community and that it was not a bunch of radicals or troublemakers”). In the past, this was the working class aspiring to be middle class with hopes that their children would go to college and become professionals (and, yes, in the Midwest many farmers also sent their kids off to college). They sought bourgeois respectability, to be the right kind of people.

College-educated professionals have existed for centuries and they’ve played a pivotal role in the past. But something changed when college suddenly became available to large numbers of people. The once small professional class became significantly large. That new generation of mid-20th century professionals formed what others have called the liberal class (related to the recent category of the creative class, i.e., the knowledge workers). They are the ones that made it, the members of the self-perceived meritocracy.

Over time, this liberal class has become more and more disconnected from the working class they came from, specifically as upward mobility declined. The liberal class has increasingly turned into an inherited rather than achieved social status. The line between working class and middle class has become drawn sharply. There is no longer a respectable working class, according to mainstream society. Those who aren’t able to escape their humble beginnings, at best, might deserve pity and not much more. It is assumed that the losers of society represent a permanent underclass of Social Darwinian inferiors, the trash of society. The working class aspiring to middle class has been left behind, as I noted in a post about the demographics of supporters of the main presidential candidates:

“It would be reasonable to assume that Trump’s supporters have felt these changes in their lives, as have so many other Americans. Many people characterize these people as the white working class, sometimes even portraying them as outright poor and ignorant, but that is inaccurate. They aren’t that unusual. In fact, they were once the heart of the middle class. Their status in society has been downgraded. They have become the new broad working class, the downwardly mobile and the trapped. They are outraged because they’ve lost hope that the world will get better for them and for their children and grandchildren, and they are likely correct in their assessment.”

It’s not just that those people once were part of the middle class or perceived themselves as such. These people represented the broad base upon which was built the progressive movement, labor organizing, and the New Deal. These people proudly inhabited the vast stretches of suburbia, once the location of the American Dream but now a reactionary backwater. They are the despised losers of the neoliberal order. The good liberals look down upon them, as liberalism takes a Hamiltonian turn.

This liberal class is the focus of Thomas Frank’s new book: Listen, Liberal. I read some of it, but I quickly realized it wasn’t a book I needed to read. I’m already familiar with the subject.

It’s not new territory. Still, it’s important as it is presenting the issues in an accessible form that is getting widespread public attention at a time when it is needed more than ever. It’s part of a debate that finally is entering mainstream awareness. Frank is one of those authors that the liberal class can’t ignore and so his message is able to hit its mark. A thousand more academic tomes could describe the same problem in greater detail and they would be mostly ignored. What is needed is a popular writer who can communicate the obvious in straightforward language, and that is what Frank achieves. He simply explains what everyone should already know, if they were paying attention.

My curiosity was more about the response to Frank’s book. It’s only been out a couple of months and already has hundreds of reviews available online. One review that interested me is by Wojtek Sokolowski, “Excellent yet wanting“. One thing that the reviewer clarifies for me is that, despite his criticisms of the liberal class, Frank is coming at it from a liberal angle of attack. He isn’t a radical left-winger opining on the failures of liberalism. Rather, he is a disgruntled liberal. There are limitations to the liberal analysis of liberalism, as the reviewer points out:

“Yet this moral explanation and moral remedy that Frank offers is somewhat disappointing when we consider the fact that similar transformations occurred in socialist and social democratic parties in many European countries as well. This coincidence cannot be simply explained by the change of heart of the people leading those parties. We must look into the structural determinants.”

Structural determinants have always been a major weak point for liberalism, even among many liberal critics of liberalism. Standard liberalism by itself can’t go very far. There are old radical strains of liberalism that do deal more with the structural aspect, but you would hardly know that from the mainstream media and mainstream politics. Liberalism, at least in its primary American form, is a defanged ideology. And, though Frank is no radical, he would like to give some bite back to the political left. But it’s not clear that he succeeds.

The reviewer of Frank’s book asks, “What structural elements are missing from Frank’s narrative, then?” A great question and, in response to it, a great answer is offered:

“One clue can be found in his bibliography – despite impressive documentation of his claims, his bibliography misses a rather obscure, to be sure, work by Walter Karp titled “Indispensable Enemies”. This book attempts to answer the same question as Frank’s work does – why the US political parties do not represent the interests of their constituents – but the answer it provides emphasizes the structure of the party system rather than preferences of their leaders. Karp’s explanation is a variant of what is known as Robert Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” which in essence claims that the leadership of an institution is first and foremost concerned about its own power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. In case of US political parties, the party bosses are more concerned with keeping their control of their respective parties than with winning elections, and they tacitly cooperate by excluding any challenge to their leadership by dividing up their respective turfs in which they maintain their respective monopolies. Paradoxical as it may sound, such behavior is well known outside politics where it is referred to as oligopoly or niche seeking.

“Karp’s thesis offers a much better explanation of the abandonment of the working class and middle class constituents by both parties than the preference for meritocracy claimed by Frank. Even from Frank’s own account of the Democratic Party’s ‘soul searching’ in the aftermath of Humphrey’s defeat in 1968 it is evident that that the emerging party leadership was not afraid of losing a series of elections (McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis) before they could cement their hold on the party under Clinton. Clearly, a party whose leadership’s main goal is to win elections would not make such a cardinal mistake as losing elections for 20 consecutive years by abandoning their core constituency. Likewise, Obama’s abandonment of the “hope” promise led to a spectacular loss of both houses of Congress and numerous state legislatures, but that did not persuade the party leadership to change the course. Au contraire, they are determined to keep the course and undermine any challenge to the party leadership (cf. Sanders). This is not the behavior of a general who wants to win a war (cf. Robert E. Lee), but of one who wants to keep his position in his own army (cf. George Brinton McClellan).”

I have never before come across that exact explanation, although the general idea is familiar. It cuts straight to the heart of the matter. So much that didn’t make any sense suddenly makes perfect sense. I had been intuiting something like this for a while now. Early on in the campaign season it occurred to me that the establishments of both parties might rather lose the election than lose control of the respective party machines. But why might that be the case? Karp suggests a reason and I find it compelling.

As this campaign season goes on, I find this kind of viewpoint every more compelling. Standard narratives no longer make any sense, assuming they ever did. In particular, the actions of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the DNC only make sense when you think of a political party as a bureaucratic organization that first and foremost seeks to maintain its own existence, just as those who control it seek to maintain their power. All else is secondary. The blatant resistance to reform is a result of this, blatant not just in the party machine itself but also through its representatives in the mainstream media. The entire elite, public and private, works together so closely that they operate as a single entity.

Everyone knows that Clinton is the weaker candidate against Trump. She is one of the most unpopular candidates in US history. Everyone knows the only reason she did so well was because of a political establishment backing her, a media biased toward her, and a system rigged in her favor. Everyone knows that Sanders would have easily won the nomination if there were open primaries not excluding Independents. Everyone knows Sanders would win vastly more votes than Clinton in a general election.

So, if the DNC and Clinton don’t care about risking a Trump victory, why is it the responsibility of everyone else to bow down to their corruption out of fear? If Clinton gave a shit about either the Democrats or the country, then she would step down and hand the nomination to Sanders who is the only candidate certain to beat Trump. If she is that egotistic about winning and that cavalier toward the threat of Trump, then more power to her. But the point is she doesn’t care about any supposed threat from someone like Trump, a decades old friend and crony.

The elections are irrelevant except as controlling them represents power.

Corey Robin brought in another element to this, careerism. He posted about it on Facebook, in linking to a recent WP article that mentioned an old LRB piece by him. In that piece, he concludes that:

“The main reason for the contemporary evasion of Arendt’s critique of careerism, however, is that addressing it would force a confrontation with the dominant ethos of our time. In an era when capitalism is assumed to be not only efficient but also a source of freedom, the careerist seems like the agent of an easy-going tolerance and pluralism. Unlike the ideologue, whose great sin is to think too much and want too much from politics, the careerist is a genial caretaker of himself. He prefers the marketplace to the corridors of state power. He is realistic and pragmatic, not utopian or fanatic. That careerism may be as lethal as idealism, that ambition is an adjunct of barbarism, that some of the worst crimes are the result of ordinary vices rather than extraordinary ideas: these are the implications of Eichmann in Jerusalem that neo-cons and neoliberals alike find too troubling to acknowledge.”

I find it sad that liberalism is so caught up in careerism, along with the bureaucracy of party politics. There is an obvious class element to this, as careerism is the defining feature of the professional class, which has come to be seen as the liberal class. This society is becoming a technocracy where the highest praise to give someone is that they get things done. Pragmatic realpolitik is what rules. Constrained by this worldview, liberals end up being more conservative than conservatives. Liberals are now the ultimate defenders of the status quo.

That is what it means to live in this liberal age.