The poverty of Liberalism

This essay was written about, and intended for, a group of friends I respect for their political engagement and civility. I hope this is received in the spirit of dialog.


I can’t believe it was fifty years ago that I first read Robert Paul Wolff’s “The Poverty of Liberalism.” Written in 1968, Wolff’s book took on the limitations (and poverty) of Liberalism — with its technocratic and individualistic utilitarianism, its grudging tolerance instead of full embrace of diverse community, and its acceptance of power dynamics instead of working toward shared values. Today, Liberalism continues to suffer a crisis of confidence, and its frequent conflation with democracy leads some people to believe that the crisis of Liberalism is really a crisis of democracy. Wolff’s book shows that this is not the case.

I have been attending a series of Wednesday night political dinners which, until last night, were mainly discussions of the Democratic presidential primary and current affairs — specifically impeachment and our descent into autocracy.

Most of my Liberal dinner companions support centrist Democrats. There are a couple of Progressives and a couple of conservative Republicans — though they are nothing like the MAGA-hatted racists seen behind Trump at his rallies. These are earnest, civil people trying to explain what they find wrong with American society and why they have embraced Donald John Trump.

Mind you, I don’t agree with their analysis — at all — and I haven’t been shy about saying so. But they know something that some of the others don’t — that a successful politician must passionately express a clear vision in terms voters understand. I don’t think any of the Democrats are doing that yet.

I’m no Republican, but I can still tell you all about Trump’s platform. Individual One ran on a platform of ridding the country of Mexicans and Muslims, building a wall that Mexico would pay for, bringing back dirty coal, eliminating regulations, giving billionaires tax breaks and padding his administration with them, making America Great (by which he meant White), privileging Evangelicals, outlawing abortion, and filling federal courts with extremists. That was Trump’s clear vision, as evil as it is.

But — quick! — without consulting an “on the issues” web page, tell me what Amy Klobuchar’s platform is. Or Biden’s or Buttigieg’s. No points if you say “Anybody but Trump.” That’s a phobia, not a platform.

Even Elizabeth Warren has the same problem of clarity, but it’s not because she hasn’t spelled out in great detail her many plans for healthcare, education, a 2% Wall Street tax, and other issues. It’s because Warren has drowned voters in a thousand policy memos — while failing to offer a stirring, coherent vision of a new America.

For the first time, last night’s discussion veered into Trump’s appeal to voters. Some at the table thought his simplistic, vague, and easily digested policy positions were absolutely the wrong approach for Democrats. Several said that radical policies of any kind would derail party unity (whatever that is), that what we really need is to simply focus on beating Donald Trump. And each of the centrist candidates my dinner companions support says the same.

One participant pointed out that even Bernie Sanders has failed to talk about deep structural injustices in America. Nobody is really talking about Native Americans. All of the candidates of color have been pushed out by the DNC and nobody is talking about racism. Now that Jay Inslee has exited the debate stage, climate change is scarcely mentioned. Another participant mentioned that no candidate has a coherent foreign policy. The White American Middle Class seems to care mainly about itself, its retirement, its health insurance. But there is a huge, forgotten America that centrist Democrats have never regarded as their natural constituents. If you haven’t read Thomas Frank’s “Listen Liberal,” buy yourself a copy.

First it was Republicans, but now Democrats have followed them in pandering to White America. And Democrats want to copy Republican success by focusing on regions like the Midwest, the South, and the Iron Range. This is a losing strategy. If you haven’t read Steve Phillips’ “Brown is the New White,” he argues that Democrats’ obsession with appealing to white centrists in Flyover Country will doom them in the 2020 election as it did in 2016.

Candidates who have tried to push past this limited view of the centrality of the White American Middle Class have been accused of being too strident or unwilling to compromise. There was a debate in the Democratic Party about identity politics, and the party elite decided to focus on white voters, not minorities. It was no coincidence that Democrats announced their “Better Deal” campaign in a white suburb in the South. Corporate media friendly to Democrats (there is also corporate media friendly to Republicans) red-baits Progressives or calls them brownshirts — and centrist Democrats take the bait.

Ignoring the fact that Republicans won the 2016 election on radical change, Liberals are only prepared to accept an extremely narrow range of acceptable socioeconomic values and reforms. This may explain the strangely familiar situation Progressives and Conservatives both value values. If there has ever been any affinity between Trump and Sanders supporters, it may center around values.

In the Liberal political landscape, where values are suspect and only “electability” has currency, it is no wonder that the DNC bent over backwards to accommodate a second billionaire candidate — Mayor “Stop and Frisk” Michael Bloomberg. It is alarming to me that Democrats who claim to hate an entitled, racist billionaire from New York have fallen in line behind another one of precisely the same species.

It is unlikely that the 40-45% of Democrats who identify as progressive will ever see their candidate on the ballot in November. The Democratic Party is a much smaller tent than previously thought. And it’s too bad. Because, until the Democratic Party sheds its hollow centrist policies, it can never hope to win the confidence of voters looking for a new vision for America.