Saturday, October 8, 2016


Ross Douthat argues in his latest column that there just isn't any energy among liberals or centrists these days. The center is boring and unpopular, under assault by disaffected masses on the right (Trump, Brexit) and the left (Berniebros, social justice warriors). Starting with the left:
The first post-liberal school might be called the new radicals, a constellation of left-wing writers for whom the Marxist dream lives anew. In journals-of-ideas like Jacobin and n+1 and in the crucible of protest politics, they have tried to forge a unified critique of the liberal-capitalist order out of a diversity of issues: structural racism and sexism, climate change, economic inequality and more.

No full-spectrum agenda uniting Thomas Piketty and Naomi Klein and Ta-Nehisi Coates has yet emerged. But the left’s fractiousness, its complicated race-sexuality-class feuds, have an energy that’s conspicuously absent closer to the neoliberal center. And they are infused with an exasperation with procedural liberalism, an eagerness to purge and police and shame our way toward a more perfect justice than the post-Cold War order has produced.
And the right:
The illiberalism of these new radicals is mirrored among the new reactionaries, a group defined by skepticism of democracy and egalitarianism, admiration for more hierarchical orders, and a willingness to overthrow the Western status quo.

As on the left there is not yet a defining reactionary agenda, and neo-reaction looks different depending on whether you associate it with the white nationalism of the alt-right, the mordant European pessimism of Michel Houellebecq, or the techno-utopian impulses of Silicon Valley figures like Peter Thiel. But that very diversity means that the new reaction has appeal beyond anti-P.C. tweeters and Trumpist message boards.
Douthat also identifies a third anti-liberal trend among committed Christians:
Then finally there is a third group of post-liberals, less prominent but still culturally significant: Religious dissenters. These are Western Christians, especially, who regard both liberal and neoconservative styles of Christian politics as failed experiments, doomed because they sought reconciliation with a liberal project whose professed tolerance stacks the deck in favor of materialism and unbelief. Some of these religious dissenters are seeking a tactical retreat from liberal modernity, a subcultural resilience in the style of Orthodox Jews or Mennonites or Mormons. But others are interested in going on offense. In my own church, part of the younger generation seems disillusioned with post-Vatican II Catholic politics, and is drawn instead either to a revived Catholic integralism or a “tradinista” Catholic socialism — both of which affirm the “social kingship” of Jesus Christ, a phrase that attacks the modern liberal order at the root.
I wonder; is it really true that centrist liberalism is a fading wreck? Or is it just that Hillary and Jeb Bush are weak candidates and people are fed up after a 15 year period that has seen no meaningful growth in wages, unending wars, the Wall Street bailouts, and other assorted failures? I go back and forth about this in my mind all the time. It looks like Hillary will probably be the next president, and she is about as mainstream a liberal as you could ever want to see. So is talk of liberalism's demise all foolish hype? Or did we come within an inch of a campaign between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, in which they would compete to show who hates the system more? What would that have said about the state of mainstream American politics?

It does seem to me that the most interesting voices in the political debate come from the fringes; other than Obama there just aren't many eloquent voices defending things as they are. But is that normal? I mean, are out-of-the mainstream political writers more interesting for the same reasons all our movies are about bold loners at war with the system?

Is the center always fragile, the world always just a few steps away from civil war or anarchy? This belief seems to be all over in our culture, from The Purge to The Walking Dead to the Trump campaign. I don't buy it. Our civilization feels very stable to me.

And so does our political order. Nobody seems to love our neoliberal world very much, but what is the alternative? Neomarxism in particular seems ridiculous to me, and the appeal of Christian theological politics is obviously limited (not to mention divided between Christian socialists and Christian Republicans).

We may be in for another decade of intense partisanship and frequent gridlock, but I think the basic structure of democratic politics and the mixed economy will last out the century.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I likewise find it hard to imagine any of the illiberal groups he mentions gaining enough power to seriously threaten our system--unless some sort of external crisis leads to an opening. It's hard to imagine the Bolsheviks ever getting into a position to remake Russia, absent the First World War.

One of the current system's strengths is that it is very good at mitigating crises. But what if, for example, radical Republicans successfully block mitigation of the next financial crisis? I can imagine voters turning, not to traditional centrist Democrats, but to some sort of radical third force.