Posts Tagged ‘liberals’


Much has been made of the rise of populism in recent years and the threat it poses to liberal democracy.

My view is that liberal critics of populism, standing on their heads, get it wrong. If made to stand on their feet, they’d have to admit that populism actually represents the failure of liberal democracy.

Populism has experienced a resurgence of late—in Hungary, Britain, France, Turkey, the United States, and elsewhere—especially the form of populism variously characterized as right-wing, nationalist, or authoritarian. It has attracted increasing support and achieved notable political victories within the institutions and procedures of liberal democracy.

The problem is that liberal democracy has failed to confront, much less solve, the problems that have led to the rise of populism in the first place.



Consider, for example, the history of populism in the United States. The three notable periods—in the late nineteenth century (with the rise of the People’s Party, which was also known as the Populist Party), the first Great Depression (around such figures as Father Charles Coughlin and Huey P. Long), and then during the second Great Depression (starting with the Tea Party and culminating in the election of Donald Trump)—all coincided with obscene levels of inequality and severe economic crises that decimated American workers and other classes (including farmers and small businesses) across the country.

Populism has been one of the principal responses to the complex and shifting layers of discontent and resentment that the ideas and policies of the leading political parties, economic elites, and mainstream intellectuals within American democracy first created and then failed to respond to. As I explained last November,

The paradox of the 2016 presidential race is that both major party candidates claim (or at least are identified by those in the media with) support of portions of the U.S. working-class and yet neither campaign offers anything in the way of concrete policies or strategies that actually respond to the real issues and problems faced by the members of the working-class. . .

It’s no wonder, then, that over the course of the past year and a half American workers have rejected establishment politics—as offered by both Democrats and Republicans—and voted in large numbers for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. They’re simply fed up with an economic system that has been rigged to benefit only a small group at the top and frustrated by a set of political candidates (not to mention economists and economic pundits) who pronounce fundamental change to be undesirable and unrealistic. Better to stay the course, so the elites preach, and eventually trickledown economics will work.

A different response was, of course, possible in all three circumstances. Instead of populism, marginalized classes in the United States might have been persuaded by and coalesced into a movement with utopian impulses—an association, organization, or political party that combines a critique of the existing order, including the elites that defend it, with an agenda that seeks to radically transform economic and social institutions in a progressive direction.**

As I see it, both right-wing populism and left-wing utopian movements see the existing system as “rigged” against the vast majority of people and level an indictment against “elites” that both benefit from and defend the existing system. Both responses therefore represent a failure of liberal democracy.

But the two reactions are not at all similar, even when both attempt to represent the grievances of workers and other classes that have been left behind.

There are, it seems to me, two key differences between right-wing populist and left-wing utopian movements. First, they approach the matter of alliance and opposition quite differently. Utopian movements identify a basic conflict between the people and an elite or establishment, and then challenge the claims to universality of those on top in order to form a different universality, a set of changes that will create a new humanity and realm of freedom for everyone, including the existing elites. As John Judis explains, right-wing populists exhibit a radically different approach. They

champion the people against an elite that they accuse of favouring a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants. Rightwing populism is triadic: it looks upward, but also down upon an out group.

The second major difference is that right-wing populists look backward, conjuring up and then offering a return to a time that is conceived to be better. For Trump, that time is the 1950s, when a much larger share of workers was employed in manufacturing, American industry successfully competed against businesses in other countries, and Wall Street played a much smaller role in the U.S. economy.***

That time was, of course, exceptional—in terms of both U.S. and world history. And it’s a vision that conveniently forgets about many other aspects of that lost time, such as worker exploitation, Jim Crow racism, and widespread patriarchy inside and outside households.

Instead of looking backward, left-wing utopian movements look forward—criticizing the existing order but also understanding that it creates some of the economic and social conditions for a better, more just society.

Liberal critics of populism understand neither their own role in producing the circumstances within which populism emerged nor the senses of injustice—especially class injustice—that fuel populism’s gathering strength.

The Left should be able to do better, both in analyzing the rise of populism as a failure of liberal democracy and in offering a utopian alternative to the status quo. But for that, it will have to look beyond the idea that populism alone represents a threat to liberal democracy.

If liberal democracy is under threat it is because of its own failures.


*The chart illustrating the wealth shares of the top ten percent and top one percent is from Richard Sutch, “The One Percent across Two Centuries: A Replication of Thomas Piketty’s Data on the Concentration of Wealth in the United States,” Social Science History 41 (Winter 2017): 587-613.

**Such a movement did in fact gather strength during the first Great Depression, the Thunder from the Left, which is precisely what led to the second New Deal in 1935 (after the 1934 midterm elections and before Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 reelection campaign).

***Joshua Zeitz argues that the Populists of the late nineteenth century also looked backward and that the parallels between then and now are striking:

Ordinary citizens chafed at growing economic inequality and identified powerful interests—railroads, banks, financial speculators—that seemed to control the levers of power. Many came to believe that the two major political parties, despite certain differences, were fundamentally in the pockets of the same interests and equally unresponsive to popular concerns.


Last week, Thomas Frank welcomed Paul Krugman to the ranks of those who believe that the American working-class in recent decades has often voted against its fundamental economic interests by supporting conservative Republicans.

Appropriately enough, Frank then chastises Krugman for having repeatedly used his New York Times column to argue exactly the opposite, denying the idea that working-class Americans had defected to the Republican Party.

Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? then draws the appropriate conclusion: that the tendency on the part of Krugman and other liberals to underestimate working-class conservatism, in both southern and northern states, prepared the way for Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election of November 2016.

To be clear, we’re not talking about the entire American working-class. Working-class whites have been more likely to vote against their economic interests and to be persuaded by the kinds of cultural, identity issues raised by Trump and other Republican politicians. Not so with Hispanics, latinos, and other members of the American working-class—although, according to Stephen Morgan and Jiwon Lee, minorities did have lower turnout in competitive states in 2016.

But I think Frank and Krugman have it only half right. Their view is that the working-class, if it voted according to its economic interests, would stop supporting Republicans and return to the Democratic Party fold.

The problem is, as is clear from the chart at the top of the post, the American working-class has lost out under a long series of both Republican and Democratic administrations. Neither party—conservative or liberal—has reflected the interests of working-class Americans in recent decades.

For example, between 1970 and 2014, the share of wages in national income plummeted from 51.5 percent to 42.3 percent.* As a result, the share of income going to the bottom 50 percent of Americans has literally collapsed, falling from 17.8 percent in 1970 to only 12.5 percent in 2014.

Meanwhile, the top 1 percent has enjoyed enormous success: its share of pre-tax income has soared in the past four and a half decades, rising from 12.5 percent to over 20 percent.

The problem for the American working-class is that neither party represents its interests—and no new party has emerged, at least on a national level, to take their place. So, working-class voters are left to float, under increasingly precarious economic conditions, in support of politicians from both parties who have pandered to a variety of identities and issues but have done nothing to effectively reverse the insults and injuries inflicted upon the American working-class in recent decades.

That’s what’s the matter with the United States.


*And, remember (as I explained in 2015), the wage share includes the salaries of CEOs and others at the top of the scale, which should rightly be excluded as distributions of the surplus. If they were subtracted, the share going to working-class Americans would have fallen even further.

China Financial Crisis Art

Chen Wenling, “What You See Might Not Be Real” (2009)

I’ll admit, there are times when I regret the fact that I’m a relativist. Wouldn’t it be nice, I say to myself on occasion, to be able to claim—beyond a shadow of a doubt, to my students, colleagues, or readers of this blog—that something or other (neoclassical economics or capitalism or name your poison) is wrong and that the alternative (Marxian economics or socialism or what have you) is absolutely correct.

But then I read a defense of capital-T truth—such as David Roberts’s [ht: ja] attack on the alt-right and fake news and his presumption that the liberal mainstream is uniquely capable of upholding “truth, justice, and the American way”—and I thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to make such outlandish, embarrassing arguments. Fortunately, my relativism means I’m not saddled with the mainstream liberals’ delusion that they have, if not God, at least Superman on their side.

I’ve been over this epistemological terrain before (e.g., here, here, and here). But it seems, in the current conjuncture, mainstream liberals—in their zeal to attack Donald Trump and the right-wing media’s defense of his administration’s outlandish claims about a wide variety of issues, from climate change to the Mueller investigation—increasingly invoke and rely on an absolutist theory of knowledge. And then, of course, claim for themselves the correct side in the current debates.

As Roberts sees it, the United States

is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening.

The primary source of this breach, to make a long story short, is the US conservative movement’s rejection of the mainstream institutions devoted to gathering and disseminating knowledge (journalism, science, the academy) — the ones society has appointed as referees in matters of factual dispute.

In their place, the right has created its own parallel set of institutions, most notably its own media ecosystem.

Consider the assumptions built into those statements for a moment. Roberts believes that society has appointed a unique set of mainstream institutions—journalism, science, the academy—to serve as referees when it comes to adjudicating the facts in play. Nowhere does he discuss how, historically, those institutions came to occupy such an exalted position. Perhaps even more important, he never considers the disputes—about the facts and much else—that exist among journalists, scientists, and academics. And, finally, Roberts never mentions all the times, in recent years and over the centuries, the members of those institutions who got it wrong.

What about the reporting on the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Or the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male? Or the university professors and presidents, at Yale, Harvard, and elsewhere, who supported and helped devise the U.S. war in Vietnam?

The list could go on.

There is, in fact, good reason not to simply accept the “facts” as gathered and disseminated by mainstream institutions. Historically, we have often been misled, and even mangled and killed, by those supposed facts. And, epistemologically, the members of those institutions—not to mention others, located in different institutions—produce and disseminate alternative sets of facts.

Maybe that’s Roberts’s problem. He actually thinks facts are gathered, as if they’re just out there in the world, waiting to be plucked, harvested, or dug up like fruits and vegetables by people who have no particular interest in which facts find their way into their baskets.

Alternatively, we might see those facts as being created and manufactured, through a process of knowledge-production, which relies on concepts and theories that are set to work on the raw materials generated by still other concepts and theories. The implication is that different sets of concepts and theories lead to the production of different knowledges—different sets of facts and their discursive and social conditions of existence.

I have no doubt that many journalists, scientists, and academics “see themselves as beholden to values and standards that transcend party or faction.” But that doesn’t mean they actually operate that way, somehow above and apart from the paradigms they use and the social influences exerted on them and the institutions where they work.

As for as Roberts is concerned, only the “far right” rejects the “very idea of neutral, binding arbiters” and adheres to a “tribal epistemology.” And mainstream liberals? Well, supposedly, they have the facts on their side.

If one side rejects the epistemic authority of society’s core institutions and practices, there’s just nothing left to be done. Truth cannot speak for itself, like the voice of God from above. It can only speak through human institutions and practices.

For Roberts, it’s either epistemic authority or nihilism. Absolute truth or an “epistemic gulf” that separates an “increasingly large chunk of Americans,” who believe “a whole bunch of crazy things,” from liberal Democrats.

What Roberts can’t abide is that we “live in different worlds, with different stories and facts shaping our lives.” But, from a relativist perspective, that’s all we’ve ever had, inside and outside the institutions of journalism, science, and the academy. Throughout their entire history. Different stories and different sets of facts.

And that hasn’t stopped the conversation—the discussion and debate within and between those different, often incommensurable, stories and facts. The only time the conversation ends is when one set of stories and facts is imposed on and used to stamp out all the others. A project always carried out in the name of Truth.

Clearly, Roberts mourns the passing of a time of epistemological certainty and universal agreement that never existed.

Roberts instead should mourn the effects of a Superman theory of knowledge that got him and other mainstream liberals into trouble in the first place. In recent years, they and their cherished facts simply haven’t been persuasive to a large and perhaps growing part of the population.

And the rest of us are suffering the consequences.



Special mention



Special mention



As I argued a couple of days ago, recent events—such as Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency, and the rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn—have surprised many experts and shaken up the existing common sense. In short, they’ve rocked the neoliberal boat.

The question is, where does this leave us?

Thomas Edsall thinks it means we’ve reached the end of class-based politics. I’m not convinced.

Yes, the response to the problems with neoliberal globalization has challenged and cut across traditional party families and their positions on domestic matters, in the United States as in Western Europe. But that doesn’t mean the differences between the Left and the Right have disintegrated or that class politics have become irrelevant.

To take but one of Edsall’s examples, just because there’s no one-to-one correspondence between people who have lost and gained from existing forms of globalization and those who voted for or against Donald Trump doesn’t mean class has declined in political importance, much less that it’s been displaced by a simple “globalism versus nationalism” opposition. Plenty of voters in economic distress voted for Trump and for Clinton—in part because of their different ways of framing class issues, but also because class politics have always been overlain with other, salient identities, resentments, and desires. The 2016 presidential election was no exception.

What this means is battles take place not only between political parties, including newly resurgent ones, but also within those parties. Thus, for example, the mainstream of the Democratic Party was and remains wholly committed to a liberal version of neoliberalism, and its inability to respond to the “economic distress”—the class grievances—of large sections of the American working-class led to its loss last November (which means, of course, the battle inside the Democratic Party has become even more intense). Similarly, Trump’s campaign rhetoric—although certainly not his actual economic and social program—galvanized many who were dissatisfied with “business as usual” in Washington. And, of course, the response to those different positions was affected by the framing of the issue of globalization (for example, Trump’s focus on job losses versus Clinton’s call for more education and reskilling), race (Trump’s dog-whistle invoking of the “inner city” and the need to build a wall in contrast to Clinton’s calls for diversity and inclusion), and much else.

But, in contrast to what Edsall sees, the future of the American left does not lie in mimicking Emmanuel Macron’s defeat of France’s National Front. While Macron’s campaign did represent a rejection of the “racialized and xenophobic politics” that served as one of the pillars of Trump’s victory, there is nothing in Macron’s proposed domestic policy reforms that represent anything other than a French version of “left neoliberalism,” and therefore a real threat to the French working-class.

No, we’re going to have to look elsewhere for an alternative common sense.

Espen Hammer suggests we return to the “rocking of the boat” that has been the underlying aim of the great utopias that have shaped Western culture.

It has animated and informed progressive thinking, providing direction and a sense of purpose to struggles for social change and emancipation.

It is a tradition, beginning with Thomas More, that involves not only thought experiments, of what might be, but also—and perhaps even more important—a critique of the existing order, and therefore what needs to be changed.

Finally, Bhaskar Sunkara suggests that the history of socialism suggests the way forward.

Stripped down to its essence, and returned to its roots, socialism is an ideology of radical democracy. In an era when liberties are under attack, it seeks to empower civil society to allow participation in the decisions that affect our lives. A huge state bureaucracy, of course, can be just as alienating and undemocratic as corporate boardrooms, so we need to think hard about the new forms that social ownership could take.

Some broad outlines should already be clear: Worker-owned cooperatives, still competing in a regulated market; government services coordinated with the aid of citizen planning; and the provision of the basics necessary to live a good life (education, housing and health care) guaranteed as social rights. In other words, a world where people have the freedom to reach their potentials, whatever the circumstances of their birth.

As I see it, that conception of socialism—an expansion of democracy that capitalism promises but simply can’t permit—is capable of satisfying both Edsall’s aversion to a “racialized and xenophobic politics” and Hammer’s utopian “rocking of the boat.”

It’s the start of something new precisely because, in Sunkara’s words, it “allows so many now crushed by inequity to participate in the creation of a new world.”


It should perhaps come as no surprise that Sunkara’s view of the contemporary relevance of socialism, appearing as it did in the New York Times, should invite a backlash reminiscent of the kind of red-baiting and ahistorical analysis that socialists and Marxists were often subjected to during the Cold War. In this case, Jonathan Chait [ht: sm] uses Venezuela as his whipping-boy, decrying the authoritarian elements of the left-wing governments of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, without any mention of the upper-class roots of the contemporary opposition or of the crisis in Venezuelan society (exemplified in El Caracazo, in 1989) and the subsequent election of Chávez a decade later. No, Chait can’t let actual political and historical analysis get in the way of his broad-brush indictment of what he, echoing generations of liberal anticommunists, considers to be “the inherent authoritarianism that is embedded in an illiberal thought system.”


Emily Badger is right:

The new White House budget proposal is built on a deep-rooted conservative belief: The government should help those who are willing to work, and cull from benefit rolls those who aren’t.

But it’s also a deep-rooted liberal belief. Lest we forget, it was Bill Clinton who signed the original let-them-work-or-starve welfare reform in 1996 (two years after signing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime bill in history).*

As I argued back in March,

liberals and conservatives agree on very little these days, especially now that we find ourselves in the era of Donald Trump. But they do seem to find common ground on one thing: the so-called dignity of labor.

Basically, liberals and conservatives have long shared the view that government programs should be redesigned to make sure people—especially the members of the working-class, white, black, and Hispanic—are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to someone else.

Donald Trump’s first budget is merely the latest proposal to implement this view, held by liberals and conservatives alike.


*In general, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, work requirements have done little to reduce poverty, and in some cases, they push families deeper into it:

Work requirements rest on the assumption that disadvantaged individuals will work only if they’re forced to do so, despite the intensive efforts that many poor individuals and families put into working at low-wage jobs that offer unpredictable hours and schedules and don’t pay enough for them to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads without public assistance of some kind.  Too many disadvantaged individuals want to work but can’t find jobs for reasons that work requirements don’t solve:  they lack the skills or work experience that employers want, they lack child care assistance, they lack the social connections that would help them identify job openings and get hired, or they have criminal records or have other personal challenges that keep employers from hiring them.  In addition, when parents can’t meet work requirements, their children can end up in highly stressful, unstable situations that can negatively affect their health and their prospects for upward mobility and long-term success.