A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.—Robert Frost
Liberals have long prided themselves on their pragmatism and moderation. While radical movements on left and right indulge in authoritarian grandstanding, liberalism can be counted on to steer the ship of state down the secure middle course to prosperity. The price liberals have paid for this is being accused of being unprincipled, or—as Simone de Beauvior put it—committed to mediocrity as a matter of principle. After all, aspiring to moderation for its own sake isn’t just dogmatic in its own way—it’s a fallacy. If one person says the sky is blue and another says that it’s red, we won’t gain much insight into the truth of the matter if a Solomon-like party decides to compromise and call it purple.
Luke Savage’s stellar new book The Dead Center is a critical examination of liberalism. Savage is a democratic socialist and long-time contributor to Jacobin, and his book mostly consists of essays on liberal politics that were released in that magazine over the past decade. Most of these are ruminations on Savage’s disappointment with liberal icons like Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau and Aaron Sorkin—whose magnanimous rhetoric about progress contrasts sharply with their lack of material ambition. Savage’s essays are uniformly funny and well written. Unfortunately, Savage fails to define which basic liberal principles he thinks are worth fighting for (even if many centrist liberal politicians fail to uphold them) but the book does provide an important reminder that, when the gap between liberalism’s promises and its achievements grows too wide, disappointment sets in, and illiberalism can flourish.
As Raymond Geuss points out in his recent book Not Thinking Like a Liberal,
a certain kind of liberalism is the very air one breathes in most English-speaking countries, where a basic familiarity with Locke and J. S. Mill is very widely shared, and where features of what pass as their basic ideas are so deeply embedded in the political and social institutions and the public discourse that it can be difficult … to get an appropriate cognitive distance from them, and thus to see some of their deficiencies for what they are.
Over the past decades, many Anglo liberals have mistaken this familiarity for a universal acceptance of liberalism—forgetting that familiarity often breeds contempt, especially when disappointments become so frequent that they calcify into expectations.
Savage begins his book by ruminating on the 2008 election of Barack Obama, which he hoped would inaugurate a new progressive era in American politics. Obama is the tragic figure at the heart of The Dead Center. In 2008, he presented himself as a transformative figure: a representative of hope and change. He won an overwhelming electoral victory, securing both the presidency and a majority in both Houses, and enjoyed a groundswell of global good will that owed a lot to his simply not being a Republican. Yet once in office, Obama—who, as Samuel Moyn has pointed out, was conciliatory to a fault—was a big disappointment. He didn’t end the Sisyphean War on Terror but tried to whitewash its violence by transitioning to drone warfare. Guantanamo Bay—the emblematic site of the Bush regime’s moral failings—remained open. Obama also reneged on his campaign promise to codify Roe v Wade—a chilling decision in hindsight. And even his signature piece of legislation—the Affordable Care Act—was so compromised by concessions to private industry that it only made the Frankensteinian patchwork that is the extraordinarily expensive American health system even costlier and more unwieldy.
Savage connects these disappointments to more general failures of the centrist political imagination:
There are … many instances in which Obama made clear choices, and … those choices were wrong and … the way he presents them is dishonest. Take health care, for instance. Obama says that the Affordable Care Act was constructed the way it was because he needed to appease conservative senators. But he also says that he deliberately crafted his health care reform in a way that would appeal to Republicans, because he hoped that by securing bipartisan support he … would protect it from future attack. This is an admission that concessions were made that probably did not strictly need to be made to ensure the bill’s passage in a Democratic Congress. Instead, they were made on a theory of political pragmatism, the theory that bipartisan cooperation on health care reform is possible.
For Savage, this is symptomatic of the centrist tendency to view its own position as inherently rational and consequently to see any deviations from it as pathological expressions of radicalism or eccentricity. As a result, liberals have always struggled to deal with large-scale illiberal movements. For someone like Obama, Savage explains, the members of the Tea Party and the Republican right were either liberal rationalists that he’d yet to convince or eccentrics and cranks, to be dismissed for clinging to “guns and religion” like living anachronisms. He failed to recognise that they represented large and politically significant groups whose values and interests were irreconcilable with his own, and who would therefore never be reconciled with centrist liberalism. Indeed, many of Obama’s opponents despised him for his attempts at pragmatic compromise. They viewed his yearning to placate everyone as an ideological and personal weakness.
Why We Still Need Liberalism
In my view, Savage’s interpretation also explains why so many liberal pundits failed to account for the appeal of Trumpism and Brexit when they first emerged and instead tended to blame the electorate in articles with condescending titles like “It’s Time for Elites to Rise Up against the Ignorant Masses.” This displaced the blame for reactionary politics from liberal politicians to the people they sought to govern and absolved those liberals of the need to think hard about why millions might have found the neoliberalism of Hillary Clinton and David Cameron unappealing.
Liberals were also baffled by the fact that many comparatively affluent individuals found Trumpism or Bolsonarism sufficiently appealing to reject centrist liberalism—even characterizing themselves as victims who’d been trampled upon by smug liberals like Obama. But as Paul Elliott Johnson reminds us in I The People: The Rhetoric of Conservative Populism in the United States, the felt victimization of many conservatives flows from a sense that liberalism means a loss of status and wealth for the “real” people, who have to tolerate historically subordinate groups as equals and even pay for social services that they either don’t require or would prefer to reserve for themselves. From that perspective, it was very much in their interest to doggedly oppose Obama’s rainbow cultural politics and modest welfarism.
Savage’s interpretation would be enriched by a more sustained analysis of what aspects of liberalism progressives should remain committed to. The continuous demonization of liberalism as mere centrism shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that the liberal tradition has played a pivotal role in the struggle for equality and liberty for all. As even the Marxist philosopher Domenico Losurdo has put it, liberalism’s “merits are too significant for it to be necessary [to invent] … other, completely imaginary ones.” Liberalism wasn’t always part of the very air we breathe. It took centuries of efforts by radicals and republicans to bring about the liberal revolutions—and revolutions they were—that entrenched the view that all men are created equal into culture and law. Nor does liberalism need be committed to the most exploitative forms of capitalist creative destruction. Liberal-minded democratic socialist and social democratic parties helped construct the most egalitarian states in the world, in Scandinavia. While the Nordic countries are hardly utopias, their combination of respect for basic liberal rights with a comparatively high level of economic democracy and redistribution provides a good model for the world.
Liberals need to inspire people with the courage of their convictions, rather than just tout their toleration and moderation. Rather than assuming that every reactionary is just a failed liberal who needs to be placated, liberals need to rediscover the revolutionary project that made their movement appealing in the first place.