I’ve just discovered the website for the magazine “Democracy: A Journal of Ideas”. The website is http://democracyjournal.org/ and both it and the print magazine are chockful of goodies for those of a left-wing bent. Not surprisingly, the magazine’s latest issue is all about the triumph of Trump and its immediate aftermath.
In the wake of the election, for instance, Arthur Goldhammer asks “Can Truth Survive Trump?” He admits that the evidence at the moment is not encouraging:
Donald Trump…embodies “the temper of the true liar” like no politician before him. The full catalog of his superb irresponsibility need not be rehearsed here. Everyone knows about his excursions into the birtherist fun house, his phantasmagoric evocation of Jersey City Muslims cheering the destruction of the Twin Towers, his baseless insinuation that an opponent’s father abetted the assassination of John F. Kennedy, his contemptuous confidence that Mexico would pay for the wall he would build to cut it off from the United States, and his jaw-dropping assertion that President Obama was “the founder” of ISIS, to mention only a few of his lunatic ravings—the mind boggles at the merest enumeration. Yet this man [has] become the President of the United States.
We losers mistakenly believe that political debate consists in the critical examination of propositions concerning future probabilities: Will fewer people likely be unemployed two years from now if the government today spends more than it collects? Even if increased government spending contributes to growth, won’t it also accelerate inflation? Will it matter if it does?
For Trump and his followers, debate about such matters is meaningless wonkery, a devious tapestry of words whose twin purposes are to perpetuate the power of elites and to distract patriots from their gut certainty that everything has gone to hell. Deliberation cannot fix anything; wonkery is itself the lie. Only a strongman in possession of his own incontrovertible truth can put things right.
To his credit, Mr. Goldhammer does not avoid the obvious conclusion:
Trump’s success has demonstrated the potential for an illiberal democracy predicated on denial of unwelcome truths. Liberal democracy cannot endure if such denial goes unchallenged. But first we must reckon with our own denial. We refused to believe that this could happen. We too were blind; disaster has forced us to see. To cope with this catastrophe, we will need an amazing grace, which I am not at all sure we are capable of mustering. For all our misgivings, we believed that, in the end, truth would overcome. It did not. The realization that this could happen here will cast a pall over us for quite some time. I doubt I will live to see its end.
Meanwhile, Susie Linfield calls for “Humility Time” among smug liberals who (she says) contributed to Trump’s rise:
Though I am not devolving into moral equivalency or relativism, it is time for some introspection, some humility, on our part. We have been far more dedicated to shouting “out now!” and brandishing our anti-imperialist credentials than to addressing the wounds and despair of our veterans—a large majority of whom support Trump, according to a New York Times article published just days before the election. (And by the way, what kind of democracy is it where only 1 percent of the adult population serves in the armed forces?) We mock Sarah Palin’s pregnant unwed daughter as white trash, but would never disparage a black teenage girl in the same situation. Indeed, the pathologies that have flourished in the black underclass—teenage motherhood, functional illiteracy, crime, drug addiction—are called pathologies only because they now characterize the white underclass too.
We celebrate our diversity and cosmopolitanism, without understanding that those who value community, continuity, roots, and love of place may know something that we don’t. We rail at “white privilege”—among white workers, of course—yet we are among the most privileged people in the country and, therefore, the world. We celebrate every kind of identity politics, slicing ourselves into smaller and smaller groups, and then decry the emergence of white identity politics, which is what Trumpism represents. We assume that anyone who is afraid of Syrian refugees is a bad person if not an outright racist. We mistake bathroom access as the great civil rights struggle of our time. We decry the bubble of alt-right media, with its toxic irrationality, 24/7 nastiness, and fact-free conspiracy theories, without understanding that we live in a bubble of our own, albeit one that is far more fact-based. 1 It has occurred to me, for instance, that I don’t know even one person who lost either their home or their job in the great recession of 2008, though this was the fate of millions of Americans. It has occurred to me that aside from my father, my uncle, and their friends—the World War II generation—I don’t know anyone who has ever served in the Army. It has occurred to me that I’ve never heard a friend say that she loves America or is grateful to be a citizen of it.
I happen to think Ms. Linfield is overdoing the breast-beating; but I can’t deny that Trump won the election, so I suppose some self-examination and even a certain amount of self-mortification by the Left is appropriate. But let’s get that over with quickly so we can move on to the business at hand: our focus must be (a) to build an effective resistance to Trump and (b) to get that man and his Republican cronies the hell out of office. Ms. Linfield herself recognizes the need for such steps, though she is far from sanguine about our ability to accomplish them:
The biggest mistake we could now make would be to think that a house (this) divided will continue to stand—or, at least, will continue to be a house that we can or want to live in. Many tasks await us—tasks upon which our lives and our democracy depend. I hope we are up to the challenge.
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.
Where liberals will find “centrist” Republicans is anyone’s guess, though Daniel Rodgers seems to think they exist. Rodgers also thinks it’s time for us to say goodbye to globalism, which will at least please the Bernie Bros among us:
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.
Also on Rodgers’ “discard” list is liberal social engineering:
Liberal ambitions to manage and reengineer a society as complex as the United States may need to be tempered as well. The nexus between liberals, academic experts, and policy think tanks is one of liberalism’s great strengths. The much more ideologically policed conservative “think tanks” have nothing comparable. But for too many voters in this election, the liberal-expert connection had grown too close; it gave too little voice to others. The gap between academic economists’ consensus that freer trade works for the greater aggregate good of all and the experience of those caught in the creases of the global economy’s dislocations was a particularly striking example: a wedge issue waiting for someone like Trump to ride it to victory.
Christopher Lasch would approve, and he would likely agree with this assessment as well:
More wrenchingly still, liberalism must come to terms with the fact that the base on which it has rested since the 1940s in this election fell almost completely apart. The effectiveness of the Republican Party’s Southern strategy of the late 1960s in peeling off Southern whites was the beginning of the New Deal coalition’s breakup. The desertion of the northern, white, working class in the 2016 election, should it persist, would leave liberalism without a viable electoral base. Unless the Trump victory literally splits apart the Republican Party, liberalism threatens to become a permanent minority of the educated, the bi-coastal, the urban, the nonwhite, and the poor. Despite changing demographics, national elections cannot be won on that basis alone.
Is there any good news to be had for liberals? Not according to Rodgers:
Perhaps it is time to abandon the idea that all of America will respond to the ideas of equality, decency, inclusivity, respect, justice, and care for one another to which liberals are committed. Or perhaps an awful blow-up, economic or global, will precipitate yet another momentous realignment in which liberalism, this time, emerges with the better hand.
In other words: give up your liberal ideals and ambitions or hope for some catastrophe to give liberalism a boost. Those choices are not appealing.
Fortunately, Daniel Rodgers ends by offering something a bit more encouraging:
Cities were the seedbeds of democracy, progressives preached in the early years of the twentieth century. States were heralded as laboratories of public policy. Liberal policies in the Progressive Era filtered up, as they still do. But presidential primary elections—costly, noisy, spectator-riveting, and emotionally wrenching—soak up almost unlimited amounts of energy. If liberalism is to survive the kind of challenges that Trump’s voters threw at it, it will have to come back, with energy, imagination, and still greater investment, to its origin points. It will have to think and act locally as well.
Though I’m not sure Rodgers’ pessimism is entirely warranted, it’s worth considering the possibility that liberalism has for now exhausted what it can achieve via the federal government, and that now is the time to regroup and reorganize at the grassroots level. If that’s the case, then those of us on the Left will be wise to keep two words in mind as we rethink our options: “human scale”. Promethean dreams, even liberal ones, are in the long run as dehumanizing as they are in the short run exhilarating. Let’s not be afraid to dream small—as E.F. Schumacher taught us, small is beautiful.
Check out Democracy: A Journal of Ideas for yourself. It might make you think.
1 I don't deny that liberals have their own epistemological bubble--I've made that point myself over the years--but let's acknowledge the difference between being in a "fact-based" bubble and one made of "alternative facts" and outright lies.