After The Election Smoke Clears
Via the Browser, the English political theorist John Gray has some wide-ranging reflections on the demise of liberalism. It’s written primarily about the UK political situation, but there are some obvious parallels to the US scene. Note well that by “liberalism,” Gray is not strictly talking about the meaning of the term as commonly used in the US, i.e., the philosophy of the Democratic Party. He’s talking about the consensus governing philosophy of both the left and the right parties in liberal democracies. In that sense, in the essay, Gray spends a lot of time discussing how the Labour Party is dismantling its support for liberalism — a process that, at this point, can be primarily observed within the Republican Party, as the party base revolts against its elites. Here’s some Gray:
The liberal pageant is fading, yet liberals find it hard to get by without believing they are on what they like to think is the right side of history. The trouble is that they can only envision the future as a continuation of the recent past. This is so whether their liberalism comes from the right or the left. Whether they are George Osborne’s City-based “liberal mainstream”, or Thatcherite think tanks, baffled and seething because Brexit hasn’t taken us closer to a free-market utopia, or egalitarian social democrats who favour redistribution or “predistribution”, an entire generation is finding its view of the world melting away under the impact of events.
Today’s liberals differ widely about how the wealth and opportunities of a market economy should be shared. What none of them question is the type of market globalisation that has developed over the past three decades. Writing in Tribune in 1943 after reviewing a batch of “progressive” books, George Orwell observed: “I was struck by the automatic way in which people go on repeating certain phrases that were fashionable before 1914. Two great favourites are ‘the abolition of distance’ and ‘the disappearance of frontiers’.” More than 70 years later, the same empty formulae are again being repeated. At present, the liberal mind can function only to the extent that it shuts out reality.
In our country, it’s easier to see this process advanced within the GOP than within the Democratic Party. After Trump loses, as appears to be his fate, expect to see the Republican Establishment — party leaders and officials, think tankers, conservative media figures — rally around a “we told you so!” stance, and proceed to club the Trumpkins. It’s not going to work. If the GOP had nominated a figure who had Trump’s stances on issues without Trump’s massive personal liabilities, it would be on the verge of winning the White House. Personally, I know people who would have voted for a Trump platform, minus Trump. I am one of those people. The idea that people who voted Trump, and people who didn’t vote Trump but are otherwise sympathetic to what he represents, are going to be satisfied with a return to the Republican status quo (e.g., a revived Bushism) is daft.
One problem is that Trump will have left no obvious successors. It will be easier than it ought to be to dismiss the ideas that animated his campaign because there will be no one there to advocate for them, or at least we can’t see a person like that on the horizon. Trump’s crude nativism won’t ever be a majority position in the US, given how we are changing demographically (and will change, even if the border were closed tight tomorrow), but it is not hard to envision a non-toxic, non-ethnic form of national solidarity coming from a right-of-center politician who was charismatic and likable.
The economic front is the main one, though, and given that Trump’s position, popular though it is among Republican voters, is anathema to the party’s deep-pocketed donors, it is hard to see how it gains much traction among the GOP elites. The one thing it has going for it, though, is that it’s popular, and, if Gray is right, will only grow more popular. One thing against its prospects for success, though, is its ideological incoherence (this, says Gray, is a big problem for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party). On Gray’s account, Labour is now little more than a mustering of the aggrieved.
Corbyn’s “inclusive” attitude towards Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA fits in with a left-liberal world-view that supports anti-colonial struggles in a general embrace of identity politics. Fashionable nonsense about cultural appropriation may not matter much, as it has been largely confined to increasingly marginal universities. However, it expresses what has come to be seen as a liberal principle: the right of everyone to assert what they take to be their identity – particularly if it can be represented as that of an oppressed minority – by whatever means are judged necessary. If free speech stands in the way, the practice must be discarded. It terrorism is required, so be it. This represents a fundamental shift in liberal thinking.
We are seeing this sentiment gain respectability in the Democratic Party. It is powerful on college campuses, as we see, and there is no reason to think that it will not take hold, and eventually take over, the Democrats themselves. I don’t think Hillary Clinton and her Establishment Democrats believe these things, but I also think they lack the conviction to stop it. Whatever comes after Hillary for the Democrats, the militant, anti-liberal politics of identity is going to be much stronger. You can see it now in the Democrats’ hostility to religious liberty. You will also see it become more entrenched in the US Establishment with a series of decisions made by a Supreme Court dominated by Democratic appointees — as will be the case after four years of Clinton — who have absorbed the identity politics ethos of the law schools.
What this is likely to do to American politics is not clear, but it can’t be good. Aside from educated, self-hating liberals, white voters will not acquiesce in the injustice of their own racially-motivated dispossession. And we will probably see fierce clashes erupt between Latinos and African-Americans within the Democratic Party, which will have defined itself by anti-liberal identity politics. All of this is in the future, but it’s a future that’s much closer than people think.
Popular revulsion against established elites has produced some curious responses. There is constant talk about reason being junked in an emotional rejection of experts, as was supposed to have happened in this year’s EU referendum campaign. Yet the record hardly justifies any strong claims on behalf of those who claim special insight into economics or politics. Much of what has passed for expert knowledge consists of speculative or discredited theories, such as the sub-Keynesian ideas that support quantitative easing as a permanent regime and the notion that globalisation benefits everybody in the long run. When rattled liberals talk of the triumph of emotion over reason, what they mean is that voters are ignoring the intellectual detritus that has guided their leaders and are responding instead to facts and their own experiences.
In our country, Trump voters are responding to their own experiences of insecurity. These are real. What is much harder to discern by voters is the extent to which the causes of their insecurity are external (and therefore addressable by politics) or internal — that is to say, their own fault, and addressable not by politics, but only by personal reform. Kevin D. Williamson and I have publicly disagreed on what you might call “J.D. Vance issues,” but he’s not wrong here:
Beyond your own endowments, a great deal of your happiness and advancement in life is going to be influenced in one way or another by the family in which you are raised. How much money your family has is a part of that, but it is not the only part, or even the most important part. Some of you have wonderful families that will encourage and advise you intelligently, helping you to make good decisions and to make the most of the gifts you have. Some of you have horrifying families marred by addiction, neglect, abuse, and worse. Government can step in and remove minors from the most extreme situations — putting them into foster homes or institutions that may or may not prove an improvement — but, for most people, the family you have is the family you have, a lifelong blessing or burden.
In other words, many of our problems are pre-political, and the idea that we can successfully ameliorate them through politics is a dead end. This is simply true, but it is a truth that very many of us, both on the left and the right, will fight hard to avoid acknowledging.
Meanwhile, the wisest among us will do what we can politically to create conditions in which small countercultural communities of virtue can flourish. Apparently the Radical Orthodoxy folks in the UK are advocating something more explicitly political. From Gray:
What British voters are not doing is repudiating the society in which they live. For some critics of liberalism, what is needed is a rejection of individualism in economics and culture. This is the message of John Milbank and Adrian Pabst in The Politics of Virtue (reviewed by Rowan Williams in this paper on 14 October). The book promotes a neo-medievalist vision of organic community that would be familiar to Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton, whom Milbank and Pabst cite approvingly. Post-liberalism of this kind is, in my view, a dead end in politics. Most people in Britain do not want to live in organic communities. They are not nostalgic for an imaginary past, and show little fondness for the claustrophobic intimacy of unchanging, homogeneous neighbourhoods. They want what Thomas Hobbes called commodious living – in other words, the amenities of modern economy – without the chronic insecurity that is produced by unfettered market forces. Rather than rejecting market individualism, they are demanding that it be constrained. They would like to inhabit a common culture but are happy for it to contain diverse beliefs and lifestyles.
I am far more interested in reading the Milbank and Pabst book than Gray is, and my interest is piqued by Rowan Williams’ review of it. That said, I suspect that Gray is correct about the short-term political feasibility of the (crunchy-connish, Benedict-Optiony) proposals Milbank and Pabst are said to promote. People want what they — what we — cannot have: all the material blessings of the free market and maximal liberty to determine one’s own values, without having to make any sacrifices. It can’t happen. But this is a topic for another day.
Gray has an undefined vision for the post-liberal society, one in which the best the state can do is to manage the economic disruptions ahead:
New technologies will disrupt settled patterns of working and living whatever governments may do. Popular demands cannot be met in full, but parties that do not curb the market in the interests of social cohesion are consigning themselves to the memory hole. The type of globalisation that has developed over the past decades is not politically sustainable.
To expect liberals to comprehend this situation would be unreasonable. For them, it is not only the liberal order that is melting away, but any sense of their own place in history. From being the vanguard of human progress, they find themselves powerless spectators of events. But they insist that the solution to the crisis of liberalism is clear. What is needed is more of the same: a stronger infusion of idealism; an unyielding determination to renew the liberal projects of the past. The notion that any of these projects needs to be revised or abandoned – global free trade, say, or the free movement of labour across national borders – is unthinkable. The only thing wrong with past policies, they will say, is that they were not liberal enough.
Read the whole thing. That final paragraph predicts the recriminations debate that is about to overtake the Republican Party, and that at some point will engulf the Democrats, once they realize that the answer to the nation’s problems is not more Clintonism, and more “diversity.”