America needs a vision of ‘the good life’
I used to care about ideologies. I think that’s because I used to care about my public image more than I do now. These days, I’m less interested in whether someone or something is liberal or conservative. I’m more interested in whether they stand for or against democracy.
Still, it’s worth discussing. The press corps tends to treat schools of thought as if they were trapped in amber. Liberals always do X and conservatives always do Y, and so on. But ideologies live in the stream of history, same as the rest of us. They are complex and contingent.
A liberal in 1968 is not a liberal in 2000 is not a liberal in 2022. Each is a product of their times. Those times, in turn, are products of their respective pasts. In 1968, liberals were champions of the New Deal and Great Society. In 2000, liberals were “socially progressive, but fiscally conservative.” In 2022, liberals are, well, that’s to be determined.
Certain is liberalism was the center prior to and including the 1960s. Actually, that's an understatement. Liberals had a monopoly on political legitimacy. But by 1980, it was clear liberalism was in retreat. Ronald Reagan cemented “conservatism” as the center of the spectrum with a double ass-kicking the likes of which most will never see again.
Our discourse gets a thrill out of picking over ideologies as if they were angels dancing on the heads of pins. What they are, however, isn’t as important as what they do. What they do isn’t as important and when they do it, where they do it and to whom they are doing it.
Even so, it’s important to know how they have changed and why. That’s why I got in touch with Samantha Hancox-Li. She’s a contributor to Liberal Currents, a magazine dedicated to debating the many strains of liberalism, including Samantha’s favorite, small-r republicanism. She started with a history lesson that her fellow millennials may not see.
For most of my life, “conservatism” has been considered the center of American politics. Our press and pundit corps reflect that. I think it began changing with Obama. Is liberalism moving to the center?
I agree that conservatism was, for a very long time, the center of American politics. For many millennials, I think it would be helpful to go and look at Ronald Reagan's electoral maps – blood red, across the country (1980, 1984) – to get a sense of how central conservatism was.
Clinton barely won in 1992. That took a substantial amount of "triangulation" — tacking to the right, basically — as well as Ross Perot running as a spoiler. For several decades, conservative politics — which is to say, the conservative coalition — has been central to American politics. A lot of our older politicians (e.g., Nancy Pelosi) and media personalities grew up in that time and are still in that mindset.
The election of Barack Obama marked a sea change. A Black man with strong progressive language assembled a multiethnic, young majority-female coalition. This worked because Obama was a generational, inspirational figure, but also because America had undergone a profound demographic change since 1980 — the Obama coalition had already been around. It just couldn't win elections.
Crucially, Obama's election touched off an immense racist backlash. This wasn't foreordained. (I think had Hillary Clinton won the 2008 Democratic primary, our politics today would be profoundly different.)
This meant the core of the conservative coalition — white Americans — began "going full racist" in ways that alienated most of the remaining members, specifically, conservative Latinx and Asian voters. Even during George W. Bush's presidency, Republicans believed in trying to win over those voters. The racism and rabid anti-immigrant sentiment of the Obama years drove them to the Democratic Party.
So yes, I think liberalism defined as a multiethnic, multireligious, female-driven coalition of the Democratic Party is moving toward the center of American politics, by weight of numbers if nothing else.
During the Reagan-Bush I-Clinton-Bush-II years, liberalism was very rights-oriented. That changed with Obama’s election, too. He was the first Democratic president in my lifetime to talk about the duties of citizenship, the responsibilities of a free society and the rights of communities. He might have been a small-r republican.
Obama was very good at putting a coat of soaring rhetorical paint on what were in fact standard centrist Democrat policies. It was easy to project your own imagined version of progressivism onto him (which is why I think so many progressives became disillusioned in the end.)
But these deeper questions — a liberalism of rights versus a liberalism of responsibilities, the individual versus the community — I think these are important questions with ongoing relevance to our politics.
I'll throw some things out there so we can talk about them.
First, I think the "liberalism of rights" during the Clinton years has been rightly identified with (caution: dirty word) neoliberalism. I take neoliberalism to be a disposition for individualistic and market-oriented solutions to public problems. It represents a marriage of so-called "freshwater economics" and liberalism's longstanding focus on individual rights against government interference.
What neoliberalism promised was that by "getting government out of the way," you could achieve many of the collective goods that liberals used to want to achieve through collective action. You can see why that took root among Democrats during their defensive-crouch years. But we're now all living among the ruins of neoliberalism’s failures.
Second, the emphasis on "community" has its own history in "communitarian" thinkers of the 20th century, many of whom reacted to the overarching ambitions of the liberal order. The thinking was that there's an irreducible value to communities and communal practices, something that goes beyond any one person’s rights or welfare.
Personally, I’m skeptical of this rhetoric. It is often used as cover for conservative communities to go on oppressing others. See, for instance, the ease of NIMBYs picking up language about "the unique nature of our community" to strangle new housing developments.
Third, there's that last word term mentioned — small-r republicanism.
This is a philosophical tendency that I am very much in favor of.
I take small-r republicanism to be focused on re-orienting liberal thought from a blinkered focus on the individual versus the government to a sharper focus on a) protecting individuals from the arbitrary power of private actors and b) how private associations between individuals are an essential aspect of a stable liberal order.
Let's pick up that strain. Is there anyone you can think of in the Democratic Party, in the press corps or among public intellectuals who’s carrying the mantle of small-r republicanism? And why?
First, let me say more about what I take as the republican ideal.
In 1790, George Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island. He exchanged letters with the Jewish communities there. They were anxious to know whether they’d be welcome in this new country.
Washington promised that in America (and I'm paraphrasing here), “each man shall have his own fig and his own vine, and no one shall make him afraid," a passage that appears in several places in the Torah.
It's an evocative phrase. I think it encompasses an essential aspect of the republican ideal: that to live a flourishing life, to fully exercise their autonomy, individuals need a degree of material security as well as a degree of protection from the arbitrary power of other people.
What we call “civic associations” are possible due to material security and protection. I have resources to devote to causes and associations, and I don't need to be afraid of (private) retaliation for doing so.
The government doesn't impose associations or give them "special consideration" — they grow naturally from a free society. They are the bulwarks of that free society when it’s stressed and challenged.
So who is carrying this torch today? On some level, I’d say nobody in particular but also the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Most politicians aren't articulating things in this lofty way. But progressives are the ones banging on about the particular forms of arbitrary power that Americans are subject to — fear of your boss, fear of poverty, fear of medical expenses, fear of losing your home.
Progressives are the ones who insist on providing this level of material security and protection against arbitrary power (especially that of the extremely wealthy, the corporations and your boss) for normal people.
Elizabeth Warren has made these basic questions fundamental. I think Paul Crider of Liberal Currents has written interesting stuff about this tradition. I wish I had more names for you, but sadly I do not.
A longstanding critique of liberalism among actual Marxists is that it does not provide a "utopian" vision to work toward. This tension is evident among members of the progressive wing. Talk about that.
There is a genuine disagreement between the liberal and Marxist traditions! Liberalism as a tradition dates back to Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, both of whom were writing in the context of the English civil war and European wars of religion. They both came away from these experiences extremely skeptical of, essentially, theocracy (society built on a single state-defining conception of “the good life”).
While that skepticism has played out in various ways among various liberal thinkers in history, I’d argue that it’s nearly definitional to the liberal project – that no one else should define what your sense of the good life is. Society should be organized around giving you the opportunity to pursue your conception of “the good life” as you see fit.
This contrasts straightforwardly with orthodox Marxism.
One of Marx's key concerns in Das Kapital is the relation between laborer and labor, and the distinction between "alienated" labor and “unalienated” labor. Labor under capitalism is alienated. In the utopia, it will be unalienated. That's what makes that utopia worth pursuing.
This is a specific conception of the good life tied to labor and production. I don't think that should be society’s defining goal. If your good life is watching Netflix and eating popcorn, more power to you.
That said, I take your point that liberalism has, for many years now, managed to be distinctly uninspiring. That it has offered piecemeal, technocratic, "invisible nudge" solutions intended to make people's lives better without anyone noticing. It does not make your heart sing.
Is the republican ideal a remedy for that? The answer is yes, sort of.
Offering Americans an opportunity to prosper — the hope of prospering and of achieving their dreams — that's a powerful ideal.
But the issue here isn't so much messaging as it is the fact that this ideal seems terribly out of reach for most Americans. If we want the republican ideal to inspire, we have to start by making it real again.