I wrote this article over four years ago in 2016 for the purpose of challenging left liberals to face the fact that they have no party. In re-reading it today, everything I said in the original article remains true. In fact, the Democratic Party has leaned even further to the right over the last four years.
In the face of the protests against the police killing of George Floyd and many other black Americans, the Democratic Party has done nothing. Even worse, in the face of these uprisings the Democratic Party candidate for president has named a vice-president who might be labelled the Queen of Prosecutions. Kamala Harris would be one of the first to prosecute the very blacks who are part of the uprising.
The only thing I want to add to this article is to define the term “left liberal” more precisely. The old liberals of the Enlightenment were committed to a constitution under law. They were against monarchies, for tolerance of divergent views and for separation of church and state. Left liberals during the FDR era have the following characteristics:
- They were for Keynesian economic policies which admit that free market capitalism does not work and has to be monitored by state policies.
- They supported what I call the “matriarchal” state. This means robust free public education, pensions and unemployment insurance. In the 1960s food stamps were added to social programs, and today there is strong liberal support for universal healthcare. The FDR liberals also supported infrastructure through building mass transportation systems, bridges and roads as well as maintaining those systems.
- They were active in their support of science and technology. They believed science was the best way to understand the world and that building technologies would make life easier and better for most people.
- They supported the existence of the military as a defensive measure only. They did not believe in imperial wars or overthrowing other governments.
- They recognized and supported unions, which allowed for collective bargaining and strikes in support of the working class.
- They made a distinction between communism and fascism. For example, liberals like John Dewey and Bertrand Russell actively gave the Soviet Union a chance before rejecting it.
- Left liberals were committed to more economic equality in relation to gender and race.
Most people I know who consider themselves liberal support all or most of these characteristics, though they might not be able to name them all. Yet they ignore the fact that the Democratic Party, in practice, for the last 50 years, has had little or nothing to do with any of these core beliefs.
Liberal Slide Toward Centralism
In the periphery of the circles in which I travel, people do not actively defend what it means to be a member of the Democratic Party. They come on much stronger when they say they are against the Republican Party. And why not? The Republican Party is the party of old money, inheritance, white supremacy and fundamentalist Christianity. Republicans and their followers are up front about this and don’t apologize. By implication, a Democrat is supposed to be opposed to such extremes. But what Democrats are for is simply left implied, and dissolves into a mist before the end of the conversation.
The case of the relationship between liberals and conservatives is pretty much similar. Long before political parties, the conservatives were considered to be the “Party of Order”, proudly supporting class, race and gender hierarchies, obedience to authority and respect for tradition. In the time of French Revolution, to be liberal also meant to take a firm stand by opposing conservatives. But in the United States today, to be liberal does not seem to stand for much. For example, today’s liberals are a bit more willing to recognize racial inequality than conservatives, and are more tolerant of differences in religions. But on the issues of social class and capitalism they are one party.
Above all, to be a Democrat or a liberal means that you are not extreme in your views. In fact, liberals have abandoned so many of the traditions they once fought for historically that the socialist movement has, unfortunately, taken over the causes of liberals. These include state intervention in the economy, raising the minimum wage, and introducing single payer healthcare as if this were the core of socialism. The fact that Bernie Sanders can claim to be a “democratic socialist”, promoting a program that is not even the equal of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s liberalism, demonstrates the failure of liberalism to defend its own best heritage.
Academic socialist leftists add more confusion to the mix by blithely calling the economic and political organization in the United States “neo-liberal” as if this term explained everything. The term neoliberal does not describe the state of the economy very well. It is not simply a return to Adam Smith’s economic liberalism of the “invisible hand” of the market. More importantly, liberalism is primarily a political stance that has undergone at least eight changes in the last 220 years. The fact that the general public has no understanding of this term, “neo-liberal”, doesn’t seem to phase these academics. The term does little to help the public understand the slide of liberalism into a morass.
Democracy Slides Towards Centralism
Just as the Democratic Party and liberalism have allowed themselves to be defined by the Republican Party on the one hand and the conservatives on the other, the same fate has occurred in the case of what democracy is. During the 1920s and 1930s there was genuine concern that the American and Europe masses of people did not seem to act as democratically as Alexander Tocqueville had imagined. A few political theorists started asking questions about the political structure of electoral politics because so many people didn’t seem to show much of an interest in the candidates or the way issues were framed. But a not-so-funny thing happened to most political scientists in the 1930s, at least in the United States. Instead of challenging the set-up of these so-called democratic electoral processes, U.S. political scientists ignored their internal problems and turned outward. They compared their democracy to the newly invented term “totalitarianism” to describe both fascism and Stalinism. The term totalitarian was toned down during World War II because the Soviets were on the side of the U.S., but the term “totalitarian” returned with a vengeance after the war to describe communist societies.
In the late 1940s political scientists abandoned the very serious study of the problems of democracy, which were pointed out by left-liberals like philosopher John Dewey, cultural critic Upton Sinclair and historian Charles Beard in the twenties and thirties. Instead, they accepted a new right-wing, elitist theory of democracy first championed by Joseph Schumpeter. Democracy was all about voting for the circulation of elites.
To sum up, in the case of Democratic Party, the political tradition of liberals, as well as democratic theory, the pattern is the same. All three concepts in practice have slid to the center-right of the political spectrum. This rightward slide has occurred behind the scenes because each has been contrasted favorably with the extreme right, the Republican Party – conservative elites or fascists. The Democratic Party, liberals and elite democratic theory have also been favorably compared to the extreme left – communism. In fact a Cold War Liberal like Daniel Bell could even dissolve the term liberal altogether in the book The End of Ideology. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. would write a book called The Vital Center. Liberals for him were synonymous with centrists.
What I’m going to argue is that the best of the left-wing liberal tradition is worth preserving and, as Ralph Nader might say, has nothing in common with the Democratic Party. The practice and politics of the Democratic Party are not liberal and never have been. Left-wing liberals have to face the fact they have no party.
A Whirlwind Tour of Liberalism
It is safe to say that what it means to be liberal has had different political meanings in different historical periods. According to political philosopher Stephen Holmes, in the glory days of the French Revolution being liberal meant being against monarchies and aristocratic privilege. Liberals were militant against the church, claiming it was corrupt and filled with superstition, even as they defended religious tolerance. Liberals were opposed to censorship, and promoted freedom of assembly. They defended free trade against monopolistic trading companies before the working class and poor were driven into the mines and factories as industrial capitalism showed its full face.
In the early 19th century liberalism became entangled with the industrial revolution and moved towards the center of the political spectrum. Liberalism leaned to the right in the second half of the 19th century, buying into philosopher Herbert Spencer’s concept of “rugged individualism” and then slid into bed with social Darwinism. The early part of 20th century liberalism started moving left again with the progressive movement in the United States. For a while, some liberals were even open to hearing the communist case, with philosophers Bertrand Russell and John Dewey being sympathetic for a while.
Then in the 1930s, catalyzed by the Great Depression, liberalism came to grips with the fact that free-market capitalism wasn’t working and it embraced the economic policies of John Maynard Keynes. After World War II, Cold War liberals turned rightward, embracing the ideology of the Cold War. The Civil Rights and the anti-war movements of the 60s drove liberalism leftward again in the form of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
As the growth rate of the capitalist economy slowed in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, left-liberalism slid rightward and has never recovered. At least since the late 1970s what has stood for liberalism was defined by neo-conservatives in the early 1980s and by right-wing Democrats in the late 1980s (the Democratic Leadership Council).
It’s not as if liberals are alone in using words that have little relation to a concrete policy. As many of us know, much fraternal blood has been spilled for well over 170 years between social democrats, Marxist-Leninists, council communists and anarchists over what socialism should and shouldn’t be. But at least we socialists understand that in the United States, we simply have no party. Left liberals are still in denial.
Is the Democratic Party Left-Liberal?
Back in the days of the French Revolution, no liberal government would put up with monarchies, even if they existed in other countries. For a short while after the French Revolution, the French government unsuccessfully tried to destabilize monarchies in other countries. But today Democratic presidents have no problems meeting with kings or queens and hammering out diplomatic agreements with them. Claiming to be a “democracy”, the Democratic Party forms alliances with states that would be condemned as ultra-royalists 200 years ago.
Nor does the Democratic Party have any problem with inherited wealth. We see no bills in Congress coming from Democrats seeking to limit inheritance or tax the inheritance of many of its members. These days, members of the Democratic Party do not attack the Catholic Church for its wealth or call for the jailing of priests for child molestation. Separation of church and state? How many Democrats are there who don’t support the religious theocracy of Israel?
Protection of free speech? No Democratic presidents had any trouble with raiding homes (the Palmer Raids), McCarthy witch-hunts, or involvement with the CIA and its anti-communist operations. As for free market policy, the Democratic Party has ignored what the best of liberals understood 80 years ago – a free market doesn’t work very well. Drone warfare, militarization of the police? Liberals of the Enlightenment would be appalled by these practices.
The Republican Party is my class enemy. But sometimes I respect my enemies. Republicans form in clear tendencies, they fight, undermine each other and violate virtually every one of Aristotle’s fallacies. However, one thing I admire is that they don’t swear allegiance to each other before, during or after the primaries the way Bernie Sanders did with Hillary.
How obvious does it have to be that the left-liberals have no party? Is the coming genuflection of Bernie Sanders to the neo-con in waiting, Queen Hillary, not enough to convince you? The Democratic Party stands for nothing but capitalism – before and during the primaries. It does what it has done for as long as I can remember: it presents a boogeyman Republican – whether it be Trump, McCain, Bush or whoever else. It then defends itself not by the sweet dreams it promises to deliver, but by the Republican nightmares it promises to forestall.
Why Bother Writing About Left-Liberals?
I do not make these criticisms because I hope that if left-liberals build a “Tea Party of the Left” that I would join. We socialists have our own work to do. I consider the pessimism of the Frankfurt School, structuralism, post-structuralism and the nihilist and relativist posings of postmodernism as a 50 year embarrassment, and it is these folks who blithely paint right, center and left-liberalism with the same brush. I think the ideas, programs and skepticism of John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell and John Dewey are just as relevant today as they were at the time they were written. Anyone who thinks these left liberals are worth defending should have nothing to do with the Democratic Party.
Neither do I think that liberals and socialists are ultimately “on the same side” as the term “progressive” seems to imply. Liberals are closer to conservatives than they are to left-socialists because both liberals and conservatives are committed to capitalism. In the long run, left socialists and left liberals will differ. But in the short run, it would be good to have a left-liberal party for company while we hopefully build our revolutionary socialist party.
One last way to make my point is by naming names. I trust Ralph Nader more than I trust Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky or Cornel West. Ralph Nader is a straight-up New Deal liberal. He knows the Democratic Party is the graveyard for left-liberals. Neither does he play games with the term “socialism”. He is against it and he says so. On the other hand, while I see little or no difference between Bernie Sanders’ program and anything Ralph Nader proposes, Bernie insists on calling his New Deal program “democratic socialism” – and he joins the Democratic Party to implement it! Why would I trust him? Then there are the Left Gatekeepers who are also untrustworthy. Noam Chomsky writes about workers’ councils between elections, then every four years tells us to vote for a Democrat. Cornel West talks about democratic socialism, yet he too, instructs us to vote for a Democrat when push turns to shove.
Why doesn’t the socialist left have a party? We have good reasons. Socialist organizations were crushed in the 40s and 50s in the US by corporations, Cold War liberals, McCarthyism and spy agencies. In addition, to the extent that the socialist parties are really a party of the poor, working class and some middle class, building a party costs money, is time consuming and takes years. Most of us have little time and not much money.
But what excuse do left-liberals have? Most left liberals are upper middle-class. They have the resources to build a party. Why don’t they? What keeps left liberals from pouring resources into the Green Party, which has always been at least truly left-liberal? Clearly the number of people in the United States who are for Bernie Sanders convinces me that the population would welcome such as party. For decades surveys have shown that Americans say there should be more than two parties. What is the hold up? It’s past time.
Conclusion: I can imagine those who support the “lesser of two evils” telling me “you are undermining us, and weakening our commitment to Biden and Harris and this article will help deliver the election to Trump”. On the contrary, nothing in this article is suggesting that you vote any differently than you already intend to. In fact, I am completely cynical that I can convince any of the “Vote Blue No Matter Who” folks to change their minds about the upcoming election. Rather, I hope to convince you that your support of the Democratic Party has nothing to do with being liberal. After the election if you want to rebuild liberalism get out of the Democratic Party and build your own party.