What’s next? In search of a new liberalism

The American populace is now more civically engaged in large-scale social movements than at any time since the 1960s. Over the last decade movements on both sides of the traditional Left/Right divide have emerged to offer stinging critiques of the status quo. These movements see an America in crisis, increasingly unable to sustain the promise of the American Dream.

This creates a huge opportunity to articulate a unifying vision, one capable of addressing the challenges we face in a 21st century globalized world. And yet no one — on either the Right or the Left — has been able to offer a serious coherent ideology commensurate to the challenge, much less one capable of bridging the partisan divide.

Before substantiating this claim, a quick review of the five major American social movements of the last decade.

The Tea Party (2008-?)

To my surprise, the first mass movement that emerged did so on the Right, in the form of the Tea Party. There were two precipitating events: the TARP bailout, and the election of Barack Obama. Politically the movement focused primarily on rising public debt and a concern over the size and perceived intrusiveness of government. There are obviously other motivating factors: much of the reaction to Obama’s election and the health care debates seemed rooted less in legitimate concerns than in unfounded fears (death panels!). And of course the movement was almost exclusively a white phenomenon and an American one; the name itself harkens to a uniquely American experience. Issues disproportionately affecting communities of color found no home in the Tea Party platform.

Occupy Wall Street (2011–2012)

The second major movement followed several years later, this time decidedly on the Left, in the form of Occupy Wall Street (a successor, in some ways, to the WTO protests a decade previous). Interestingly, there wasn’t a specific catalytic event for Occupy. Rather, it seemed to build on isolated outbursts of social justice activism, and unlike the Tea Party it quickly mushroomed into a global phenomenon. As with the Tea Party it shared a critique of plutocratic politics, but diagnosed it as a misdirection of government priorities rather than a fundamental overreach of government. Though Occupy articulated a much more inclusive agenda than the Tea Party — particularly in its various international manifestations — at least in America it never quite succeeded in mobilizing communities of color at scale.

[I’m not going to address the Arab Awakening in this space given that it wasn’t an American phenomenon, though I do think there are fascinating parallels to much of what is happening here. I also don’t speak to the climate change movement, which though important and fascinating in its own right is not instructive in understanding the concerns animating the American and global electorate].

Black Lives Matter (2012-present)

The third major movement arrived on the heels of Occupy in 2012, with the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of a young black boy named Trayvon Martin. Like Occupy, BLM embraced an explicitly social justice agenda, but more sharply attuned to specific grievances too long ignored by mainstream (read: white) society. It also deliberately chose to include and elevate the voices of other historically marginalized groups (the LGBT+ community, people with disabilities, immigrants, etc.). It remains a phenomenon of the Left, albeit less by design than because much of the Right prefers not to acknowledge the very existence of the systemic race-based oppression that BLM seeks to highlight. Though BLM has been successful in attracting allies on the social justice left, including other racial groups and white liberals, it has struggled to reach the mainstream.

Trumpism (2015-present)

The fourth major movement arrived with the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. In many ways it is the direct successor to the Tea Party movement, and to some extent a response to Black Lives Matter and the broader national discussion on issues of race, multiculturalism, and intersectionality — what Trumpists deride as “political correctness”. Trumpism is more explicit than the Tea Party in both its embrace of economic populism and white nationalism. Still an overwhelmingly white phenomenon, but no longer such an explicitly “Right” phenomenon: working class and middle class voters who traditionally vote Democrat may ultimately have proven decisive on election night. Though in America this movement thus far seems specific to Donald Trump, it has echoes across the Western world in the resurgence of nationalist populist movements (albeit generally lacking any formal links to each other).

Anti-Trumpism… Indivisible? (2016-present)

And in direct response we have the fifth mass movement in the last decade. What started as opposition to Trump but has quickly mushroomed and took prominent shape as a global phenomenon with the post-inauguration Women’s Marches. Like Trumpism (which takes its clearest form as a rejection of immigration, of free trade, of elites), it is thus far largely defined in opposition… to Trump and Trumpism. Early organizing efforts beyond the women’s marches have largely occurred under the umbrella of “Indivisible”, adopting the Tea Party playbook to target members of Congress in their home districts. This nascent movement — heir apparent to a variety of movements under the broad heading of global justice — is still in search of a defining ethos. Indeed, that is the defining question of the moment, bestirring progressive parlors across the country: how to channel the enormous wellspring of discretionary energy among social justice advocates unleashed by Trump?

Searching for a unifying ethos

Ironically, elements of the same core critique are found on both sides of the traditional Left/Right partisan divide — deliberately defined broadly but generally synonymous with liberalism and conservatism — and across these various movements:

  • Distrust of governing elites (both official, in the form of political parties and politicians, and presumed, in the form of corporate chieftains)
  • Discontent with the economy, and a perception that the American Dream is slipping farther out of reach for the majority of Americans
  • A feeling that the global order itself is fraying, and that American foreign policy lacks clear direction in the face of diverse threats
  • A perception that the core ideals for which America stands — and the Constitution itself — are under attack

It is this shared perception of the problem we face that gives me hope. Of course, there are profound cleavages as well: around the diagnosis of root causes, around specific issues, around culture, and of course around policy prescriptions. Each side is convinced of its own rectitude and to some extent regards the other side with contempt. Articulating a coherent vision that can unite these two sides, or at least a substantial enough majority to command political power at the ballot box, is the fundamental task of the moment. And so far, no one has an answer. I want to highlight two articles — one recent, one from 2012 — to make this point.

The Right doesn’t have an answer…

The most articulate “scholar” of Trumpism yet to emerge is Michael Anton, who wrote an inflammatory defense of Trump last September in The Flight 93 Election (under a pseudonym). It’s a hyperbolic piece from the outset: the titular metaphor compares a Clinton presidency to a terrorist plane heading for the White House. He sees an America beset by “the ceaseless importation of Third World [sic] foreigners”, a middle class hollowed out by globalization and free trade, and an ever-expanding government bureaucracy choking off American freedoms.

But embedded within the histrionics is a powerful critique of modern conservatism as fundamentally bereft of any serious governing ideology (understood as a combination of a coherent political philosophy and an associated economic platform). He ridicules modern conservatism for playing small ball: tinkering around the edges with smaller government, lower marginal tax rates, and fewer regulations. This approach, he contends, is completely inadequate to the nature of the threat and does not offer a recipe for any sustainable form of political or economic governance. In its place Anton offers three core planks that the modern conservative platform must address: immigration, trade, and war. But his vision for Trumpism — close the borders, undo trade agreements, and withdraw from global security arrangements — is not a serious answer to the serious problems he has identified.

The broader takeaway is an important one: modern conservatism does not have an answer to the fundamental challenges facing Western democracies. The nationalist populism that thus far has passed for an ideology does not offer a vision for a future, but rather nostalgia for a past (and sometimes a very distant past: Walter Russell Mead had a brilliant piece last month in Foreign Affairs noting that Trump’s presidential precedent is Andrew Jackson, who came to power in 1828). As such it is doomed to fail.

… But neither does the Left

In 2012 Francis Fukuyama published a thoughtful post-Occupy reflection called “The Future of History.” In pondering why a populist left had yet to emerge (in the face of the Tea Party), he concluded:

“But the deeper reason a broad-based populist left has failed to materialize is an intellectual one. It has been several decades since anyone on the left has been able to articulate, first, a coherent analysis of what happens to the structure of advanced societies as they undergo economic change and, second, a realistic agenda that has any hope of protecting a middle-class society.”

He goes on to contend that the modern agenda of the Left relies essentially on the provision of State services for an increasing range of issues to an increasing list of marginalized groups. And while that is undeniably good for those hitherto ignored groups/issues, it is neither a sustainable governing model nor a compelling narrative that speaks to the core of a healthy democracy: the middle class. As Fukuyama wryly notes: “Ideas do not become powerful unless they speak to the concerns of large numbers of ordinary people.”

This critique resonates for me personally, because it’s one I’ve struggled with both in my international development work overseas and in my analysis of the challenge facing American society. To focus domestically: I have not yet seen an answer for how to address the challenges facing rural communities. Where do reliable middle-class jobs come from in a globalized world dominated by technology? Outside of agriculture — itself under threat —there aren’t obvious paths to economic development. Those who are inclined to (or can afford to) leave for the cities, farther cutting off future economic lifeblood. Alana Semuels has a beautifully written — and painful to read — piece on this in the Atlantic focusing on Indiana. The money quote: “There are not many solutions to closing the gap between the two Americas.”

[A caveat in defense of the Left here. I do think the embrace of “middle-out economics” and the associated policy prescriptions that flow from it are much closer to where we need to be than the discredited-but-still-dominant narrative of “trickle-down” that has governed American economic policy since the 1980s. But though a marked improvement over the status quo, I don’t think it fundamentally addresses the “divided Americas” dilemma, offers a compelling answer to the challenges posed by immigration and globalization, or provides a universalizing ethos for the global Left. After all, much of what is proposed here is already happening in European “welfare states” that nonetheless are facing great strain.]

Culture matters

While this search for an organizing ethos is often cast in political/economic terms — and rightfully so — it is also a cultural challenge. Indeed, the American culture wars have been a powerful force in preventing a political/economic rapprochement that could transcend party lines among the populace. The social movements described above have been largely partisan phenomena — despite in many cases shared political/economic grievances — in large part due to divergent cultural narratives. Americans no longer have a common cultural referent point. Even football — perhaps the last forum capable of bringing together people across class and party lines, uniting factor workers and managerial elites — is under attack… and increasingly politicized.

The challenge then is not solely identifying a new ideology. Yes, Fukuyama is right that we need “an exciting agenda around which to rally the masses.” But that agenda must acknowledge Anton’s call for “civic renewal”, something that can bring people together around unifying rituals.

Where do we go from here?

Of course liberals should continue to care about — and advocate for — the rights and needs of traditionally marginalized communities. But our empathy and concern should extend to fellow citizens in the middle class, particularly in rural communities, who are following a reverse trend: formerly centered and celebrated in American life and now increasingly marginalized. They are a huge segment of the population, and in many communities they are suffering: despair and the drugs and deaths that inevitably follow. Liberalism has answers (even if we haven’t effectively implemented them) to the plight of the urban poor: addressing systems of racial oppression, particularly in the criminal justice system; revitalizing public education; integrating neighborhoods and schools; connecting the cradle to college pipeline; etc. But what do we say to the residents of Connersville, Indiana?

Liberals have tended to either deny the severity of the crisis (pointing to the low unemployment rate, recent increases in average wages, etc), or to claim that if only liberal policies were in place (higher minimum wage, paid family leave, quality public education) then the underlying problems would resolve themselves. This Pollyanna vision explains electoral defeat as either a comprehension problem (voters simply didn’t understand our economic agenda) or a communication problem (we didn’t effectively explain our economic agenda). Both explanations ignore a perhaps more obvious third possibility, one which has the benefit of returning agency to these participants in our democracy: we don’t have an effective economic agenda that speaks to their concerns, and they know it.

Re-imagining capitalism

There are two challenges here: rebuilding a sustainable electoral majority, and rebuilding a sustainable and thriving middle class. There is reason to be optimistic about the former. The surprising strength of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy — and his ability to attract interest across the partisan divide — testifies to the resonance of his message of economic populism, one divorced from the less savory elements of xenophobic nationalism. The early successes of Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s Syriza also hint at broader appeal. But actually sustaining a vibrant middle class? That’s a taller order, and one that I fear our leading lights aren’t giving sufficient thought.

I don’t have an answer. But I do agree with Fukuyama that constructing a new ideology requires not only re-imagining liberalism, but re-imagining capitalism. The key difference, in my mind, is re-conceiving capitalism as a means, not an end in itself. It is only good to the extent that it enables us to lead meaningful and dignified lives.

This means redefining success and the end we seek: at both a national level and an individual level. This is not a new idea: the Social Progress Imperative is one global effort focused on elevating concerns of human development alongside a more traditional narrow focus on GDP. It also illuminates alternative paths. Though the American Right is deeply suspicious of the Nordic Model, there are elements that should be attractive: an abiding respect for property rights and ease of doing business, for example. And other elements that may not appeal to conservative elites but should prove attractive to working and middle class voters: cooperative ownership models, a shared commitment among labor and capital to ensure equitable gains from business growth, high union membership. This is not a panacea, nor is the Nordic model the exclusive answer; the far right is alive and well in Denmark, after all.

But it does begin to point the way toward a new vision for structuring society. Indeed, individual experiments within the American economy lend some support to key aspects of this model: witness the success of Patagonia, Costco, and even explicit cooperatives like REI. Other start-ups have pushed this philosophy to non-traditional sectors like corporate cleaning services. There is an entire movement now around so-called B Corps, elevating social good alongside profit as a guiding business principle.

More than a list of policy prescriptions, however, this vision needs to be couched within a framework that resonates across the major social/political movements currently active in the American body politic. We already have the playbook for political mobilization. It is a powerful rallying cry that speaks to our vision for the last thing that unifies Americans: America. Obama played to this masterfully at the 2004 Democratic convention, and it provided the core message for his successful campaign. Trump took this aspirational sentiment of unity as a nation in a much darker direction, but the appeal was even more explicit: Make America Great Again. Both rightly located the animating impulse in the nation itself, channeling national pride to political success. Both agree that the central task is to make America great: Trumpism sees the answer in reverting to an earlier era, where the anti-Trump left imagines a brighter future, seeing America as a perpetual work in progress toward a more perfect union.

But both sides lack substance to support rhetoric. Both remain powerfully mobilized and most articulate in opposition, but have yet to articulate a proactive prescription. As Fukuyama wrote five years ago: “The alternative narrative is out there, waiting to be born.”

This should be the task of the global and American Left today: constructing not just a communications strategy, but a coherent ideology that speaks to the concerns of the significant number of voters that just elected Donald Trump. If such an ideology is not forthcoming (and there are good reasons to be skeptical, since no such vision has yet emerged from either side), then we will need to figure out how to empower citizens to lead dignified lives in the face of economic upheaval. Trump may have won in the short-term by playing to fears and promising the moon, but reality will soon give the lie to those bold claims. Will the Left be there to offer an alternative?