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Liberalism in Peril

One of the more perplexing idiosyncrasies of American political discussion is the tendency to conflate liberal and radical leftists. This confusion has – bizarrely – succeeded in turning ‘liberal’ into a term of partisan abuse, even though a commitment to personal liberty was one of the unalienable rights enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence. Besides which, in terms of what they think and – more importantly – how they think­­, the difference between liberals and radicals is large.

A reminder of just how large was provided last week by the reaction to an OpEd column, in which liberal journalist Bari Weiss offered stern criticism of the four leaders of the Women’s March, an ad hoc movement created to foment feminist defiance under the Trump administration. The January march itself, Weiss stressed, had been a necessary and inspiring demonstration of public dissent. Nevertheless, its leaders’ well-documented history of alliances with a litany of racist and criminal figures makes them poor advocates of liberal resistance. By using opposition to the illiberalism of Trump as a platform for their own illiberal politics, Weiss contended, the Women’s March was bringing an otherwise laudable cause into disrepute, and risked dragging the Democratic Party into a populist cul-de-sac of its own.

These criticisms of progressive protest politics are not new. But Weiss’s article was significant because it appeared, not in the pages of a conservative journal, but in the New York Times. By her own account, Weiss wanted to awaken Democrats to the reactionaries in their midst. This was not, then, an attack on the Left by the Right, but an attempt to prick the conscience of the march’s own progressive supporters with an appeal to liberal values.

Weiss’s column provoked a good deal of discussion across the political spectrum, and not a little consternation on the Left. Two days later, Bob Bland – one of the march organisers named in the article – wrote a bad-tempered letter to the Times in response. She might have responded by flatly denying the links Weiss alleged, or by repudiating them as errors of judgment, or even by defending them one by one. Instead, she opened as she meant to continue – by accusing Weiss of being uncooperative and advising her to fall back into line:

When Progressives Embrace Hate,” by Bari Weiss (Opinion, nytimes.com, Aug. 1), perpetuates a flawed narrative that is dangerous for many reasons, most fundamentally because it threatens to divide and distract progressives at a time when we need to stand united.

Which is to miss the point of Weiss’s article entirely. If you are appalled by Trump’s racism and male chauvinism then, Weiss’s article asked, should you not also be appalled by an the activist Left that professes support for unscrupulous demagogues like Louis Farrakhan?

Notice that Bland does not describe Weiss’s claims as ‘untrue’. This is because Bland and Weiss live in different epistemic universes. As an Enlightenment liberal, Weiss operates in a world where fact and reason are used to distinguish truth from falsehood, and she marshals her arguments accordingly. As a counter-Enlightenment radical, Bland rejects objectivity and evidence in favour of competing narratives that privilege how people feel. “As a cis-heterosexual white woman new to feminist activism,” she explains…

…I found that there were times in planning the January march that were uncomfortable, and times that even with as much empathy as I could muster, I couldn’t relate to someone else’s point of view. That is the nature of a movement as inclusive and intersectional as ours. Discomfort is often necessary for growth.

But if truth and argument are to be discarded in favour of empathy-mustering struggle sessions, there still needs to be some way of sorting out who’s right and who isn’t, and who ought to be offering moral instruction to whom.

In the narrative she has written for herself, Bland is a leader in the heroic effort to resist patriarchy, white supremacy, et cetera. But, cognizant of the benefits conferred by her original sins of white skin and heteronormativity, this requires her to defer to the testimony of those less fortunate souls she has adopted as her wards. This necessarily causes her discomfort (which she gratefully embraces), but it does not permit her to expect reciprocity of understanding or self-criticism.

Although Bland neglects to address the substance of Weiss’s charges, it is reasonable to infer from her letter that, were she to do so, she would produce the by-rote responses now familiar to such discussions. To wit: Fidel Castro persecuted gays and dissidents, but his veneration is okay because he has given asylum to American radicals of colour, and because he is a victim and sworn foe of neoliberal imperialism. Farrakhan’s misogyny and his tendency to make Hitlerian pronouncements may sound problematic to the untrained ear, but such things need to be understood in the context of the authentic black rage produced by American racism. As for convicted cop-killer and fugitive Assata Shakur, the Women’s March defended its support for her in a 20-part tweetstorm, the letter of which Bland presumably endorses.

And so the litany of dismal associations and endorsements recorded in Weiss’s article are dismissed with an impatient hand wave as “challenging discussions that our movement must continue to embrace” and a necessary part of “weaving the social fabric so needed to protect us as the Trump agenda advances.” I’m not entirely sure what that second part means, but at least it sounds open-minded and pluralistic and conducive to warmth and fuzziness. But even as Bland and her colleagues embrace the most reactionary voices on the Left, liberal voices are purged and denounced in the name of ideological conformity.

Weiss drew particular attention to the invective that the march’s co-organiser Linda Sarsour has directed at Somali dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali on social media. Hirsi Ali’s life story checks almost every identitarian box the intersectional Left likes to use as a yardstick of oppression: she is a woman, a person of colour, a refugee from the Global South, and a victim of horrifying patriarchal abuse. Unfortunately, she has erred in her opinions. Like Weiss, she is a liberal universalist who has attacked the retrogressive views and practices found among protected minority groups instead of offering them her indulgent ear. For her rejection of the uncritical condescension Bob Bland demands, Hirsi Ali stands accused of offering aid and comfort to white supremacists, and this inflammatory charge serves as the moral warrant for her public denigration.

For unhelpfully raising her voice in dissent and thereby perpetuating “a flawed narrative”, Bari Weiss learns that she too is “endorsing a sensational alt-right attack that aims to discredit the Women’s March movement and its leaders.” So unsurprising was this charge that Weiss anticipated it in her article. That did not deter Bland from pressing defiantly on to her predictable peroration, in which she contrasted her own high-minded and open-hearted politics with Weiss’s treacherous bigotry:

We are a movement grounded in love for all people, but especially for the vulnerable, the oppressed and the marginalized. For now, critics like Ms. Weiss are just critics from their seats. Until they get up, listen and do the work to understand those whose feelings have been shaped by injustices, they will remain apologists for the status quo, racist ideology and the white nationalist patriarchy.

Of course, Bari Weiss is nothing of the kind. She is a liberal Jew whose crime is to be more interested in what people say and do than in the feelings they express. As radical leftists see it, rationalism and universalism reflect the outdated views of the Democratic Party establishment and the despised ‘donor class’. The selective application of their own empathetic relativism, meanwhile, represents the future and the anguished cry of progressive grassroots social justice activism. Since the 2016 election, the Sanders Democrats, still hot with resentment, have only redoubled their attacks on the party elites they blame (incorrectly) for their candidate’s failure to secure the Democratic nomination.

The outcome of this internecine struggle remains unclear for the time being, but a great deal hangs in the balance. Domestically, American liberalism already finds itself squeezed between an aggressively authoritarian activist Left and an aggressively authoritarian activist Right, united by their boiling hatred of the liberal status quo and the elites who manage it.

Should the Democratic and Republican Parties both surrender to populist insurgencies, American political debate will dissolve into an endless contestation of identitarian grievance and scapegoating. Foreign policy, meanwhile, risks petrifying into bipartisan protectionism and isolationist Russophilia at a time when the postwar liberal order is menaced by the rise of European ethnonationalism, Russian expansion and disruption, belligerent North Korean paranoia, and the gathering strength of China and Iran. One of the major parties needs to defend the liberal and internationalist centre, and to make the case for free trade, free speech, free inquiry, liberal democracy, and universal human rights.

In a bitter article for The Week attacking the Democratic Party’s moderates from the radical Left, Ryan Cooper made reference to Weiss’s Times article and described her as “a neoconservative”. Cooper’s use of this term was intended to disparage and discredit Weiss, but it was partly correct, at least insofar as neoconservatives tend to be liberals too. It is for this reason that they are among the Republican Party’s most strident anti-Trumpers. While Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson invite Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald, Stephen F. Cohen, and Max Blumenthal onto Fox News to lament the mainstream media’s monstering of Putin, Assad, and Trump, former allies and security hawks like Commentary’s Max Boot are now the object of Fox’s derision and scorn.

On Saturday, CNN added to the prevailing confusion about political nomenclature when it reported that, “H. R. McMaster faces attacks from conservatives.” By ‘conservatives’, CNN seemed to mean the coalition of Intercept leftists and Breitbart nationalists in the Trump-sympathetic blogosphere, united by their hostility to Trump’s National Security Advisor. Jay Nordlinger – who recently wrote a wonderful defence of liberal universalism for the National Reviewresponded by remarking, “I wouldn’t call them that. But we are losing the word ‘conservative’ to the illiberal Right. That would mark a big ol’ foul change.” In the ensuing discussion, the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol mused that “Conservatives could ‘rebrand’ as liberals. Seriously. We’re for liberal democracy, liberal world order, liberal economy, liberal education.”

Such a rebranding exercise is not so implausible. A number of neoconservatives began their political lives as Democrats before being pushed out by the radicals of the New Left during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. As Joshua Muravchik drily observed in a reply to Kristol’s tweet, “Some of us were ‘liberals.’ McGovernites branded us ‘neocons,’ appropriated ‘liberal’ & made it so unpopular they changed to ‘progressive.’”

So, could the hostile takeover of the Republican Party by the nationalist Right see neoconservatives join a liberal and centrist Democratic Party? Stranger things have happened. After all, many anti-Trump Republicans have already broken a lifetime habit by voting for Hilary Clinton, a candidate they despised. With every new Trump outrage, an ever-growing number of Republican moderates are peeling away from the GOP into political no man’s land. As this lonely patch of ground becomes more crowded, they will start looking for a new home, and a realignment that united liberals of all kinds against the populist demagogy of the Left and the Right would certainly be clarifying.

Alas, as the orgy of cloth rending and teeth gnashing that greeted conservative Bret Stephens’s hire at the New York Times demonstrated, such a development doesn’t look likely for the time being. Tribal and partisan habits, as they say, die hard. The liberal Left has not forgiven neoconservatives for Iraq, and neoconservatives remain understandably irritated by the Democrats’ recklessly complacent Russia-Iran-Syria policy during the Obama years. On the other hand, the Times has not been brought to its knees by the row over Stephens’s appointment, and I suspect that most of the readers who paraded their cancelled subscriptions on social media like burning draft cards have made their peace with the hire and quietly returned to the fold.

Both sides have been taught sharp lessons by recent history. If the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have exposed the limits of America’s ability to reshape the Middle East in its own image, then the DNC hack has hopefully awoken Democrats to the hazards of accommodating ruthless geopolitical foes. The problems of – inter alia – Middle East instability and Russian revanchism remain, and the inclusion of neoconservative voices could bring some fortitude to bear on reflexively dovish Democratic foreign policy discussions. Liberal Keynesians and free marketeers would continue to squabble amongst themselves about healthcare provision and tax-and-spend policy and so on, of course, but so what? Such disagreements are the lifeblood of liberal democracy, and viewpoint diversity within political coalitions is essential to the mechanism of figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Meanwhile, the startling outbreak of congeniality between Fox News and the isolationist Left suggests that Jill Stein voters, Wikileaks disciples, and Bernie dead-enders would have little difficulty finding a new home in Trump’s GOP were the Democratic Party to become a bastion of the liberalism they despise. For most of them, such a move would constitute what the late American journalist Louis Fischer once called “a shift of loyalty, not a change of heart or mind.”

It is probably true that intersectional feminists like Bland and Sarsour will never reconcile with the Alt-Right – both sides justify their existence with reference to the threat posed by the other and are engaged in a zero-sum competition for attention. But the mutual antipathy is also somewhat illogical, since both sides are cut from the same relativist cloth and share a desire to balkanize America into its constituent identitarian parts. Certainly, neither the Alt-Right nor the intersectional Left wants anything to do with the Enlightenment or its values, which they hold in contempt.

America’s political kaleidoscope has been violently shaken over the past year, and while the pieces are still in flux, motion-sick members of both parties have been forced to reconsider what they stand for and why. At this critical juncture, Bari Weiss’s article offers a salutary moment of moral clarity. What unites liberal Republicans and Democrats is more valuable than what divides them and, in the coming months and years, they will be called upon to marshal their collective forces in defence of their shared ideas and values. For those who value free and rational discussion, the outcome could scarcely be more consequential. Should illiberalism prevail, there will be nothing left to discuss.