Tag: strategy

“The Once And Future Liberal”-How Does the Left Move Forward?

Craig Axford | United States

The upcoming 2018 midterms may be about to prove that Donald Trump has been good for the left and the Democratic Party, at least in the short-term. However, he’s still a far cry from a cure for what ails it. His abusive style and bull in a china shop approach to governance have merely provided a shot of adrenaline to an institution that’s been increasingly showing signs of exhaustion for decades.

Trump has consistently given the appearance of an easy foil that, like the ancient Sirens, has the perpetual potential to lure America’s left onto the rocks. Adrenaline wears off quickly once we’re convinced the crisis has passed. Between the danger of Trump fatigue and the very real chance that the Democratic Party will once again decide to take a collective nap as soon as the current administration has been dealt with, midterm victories and success in 2020 could prove short-lived. While the left sleeps off the bad trip of the Trump era, we can be sure that other far more savvy demagogues will be busy working to seize upon America’s discontent to launch their own attempts to take power.

The essayist and Columbia University professor of Humanities, Mark Lilla, picked up his pen and wrote a short but powerful antidote to the American left’s malaise. Unfortunately, his obvious understanding of the problem and how we got here leaves Lilla at best only a very mildly reassuring read.

While the efforts at organizing by those that commonly refer to themselves as “the resistance” have potential, Lilla warns us that these efforts need to lead us somewhere other than simply removing Trump from office and winning the elections of 2018 and 2020. “So it’s encouraging to see how quickly liberals have organized to resist Trump,” Lilla writes. “But resistance is by nature reactive, it is not forward-looking.”

Lilla does not dismiss or treat lightly the post-1960s habit by the left to ignore down-ballot races. Its increasingly presidential focus all but ceded school boards, city councils, state legislatures, and even governorships to the Republican Party. By 2016 Democrats were in worse shape than at any time since the 1920s. Indeed, the Obama years were particularly bad ones for the Democratic Party, with losses far exceeding those experienced under any previous Democratic president.

Lilla isn’t the first to chastise Democrats for putting most of their eggs in the presidential basket and, unfortunately, he probably won’t be the last. We still occasionally hear commentators feel the need to remind Democrats to pay attention more often than just once every four years, but oddly the party that supposedly believes most in government continues to generally find local and state races pretty unimportant.

With regard to the vision question, there’s some movement around issues like universal health care. Senator Sanders has demonstrated that ideas like Medicare for all and a tuition-free education can generate a high enough turnout in at least some districts to win elections and enough energy to fill large arenas virtually anywhere.

But there’s still an elephant in the room by the name of identity politics and the left simply doesn’t know how to navigate around it without upsetting its fragile ego. Indeed, the left has spent decades nurturing that ego by fostering an environment in which debates are increasingly seen as synonymous with confrontation and more attention is paid to policing speech than to regulating corporations or reporting campaign donations.

Identity politics, according to Lilla, represents the brand of individualism the left adopted to counter the Reagan revolution’s own distinct identification with rugged ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ libertarian individualism. America doesn’t have citizens so much as it has individuals, interests, and groups that identify themselves this way or that.

“The most important lesson is this,” Lilla tells us on the opening page of the third and final chapter of his short treatise, “that for two generations America has been without a political vision of its destiny. There is no conservative one, there is no liberal one. There are just two tired individualistic ideologies intrinsically incapable of discerning the common good and drawing the country together to secure it under present circumstances.”

Lilla isn’t wrong. The problem, as I see it, is that this describes America throughout most of its history. It has never shown much interest in abandoning this character flaw. It has always been a nation that preferred to see its people’s isolated dreams as a substitute for an overarching philosophy that saw the whole as greater than the sum of its parts.

The periods when it has enjoyed a “vision of its destiny” have been the exception rather than the rule. The only reason to think that America might be ready to enter one of these exceptional periods now is that it again finds itself in a crisis. It’s always been an emergency of fairly significant proportions that’s precipitated the emergence of such a shared vision in the past. This vision lingers for a while after the crisis has passed but it inevitably fades within a generation or so.

On the opening page of his book’s first chapter, Lilla himself recognizes this very American tendency by providing two quotes from two very different men separated by nearly two centuries:

I see an immense crowd of similar and equal men who spin restlessly around themselves, seeking vulgar little pleasures to fill their souls. Living apart, each is like a foreigner to the fate of others. His children and friends are for him the entire human race. As for his fellow citizens, his is next to them but does not see them, he touches them but does not feel them. He exists only in and for himself, alone. And though he may still have a family, he no longer has a country. ~ Alexis de Tocqueville

My ideal citizen is the self-employed, homeschooling, IRA-owning guy with a concealed-carry permit. Because that person doesn’t need the goddamn government for anything. ~ Grover Norquist

While Bill Clinton’s rhetoric is certainly imbued with greater empathy than Grover Norquist’s, his 1992 campaign was nonetheless intended to prove de Tocqueville’s point regarding America’s true character. Lincoln’s emancipatory vision or FDR’s commitment to fairness and economic justice were the sorts of things the country would only swallow after two years of civil war or 20 plus percent unemployment. Even then, Bill Clinton and his centrist fellow travelers warned Democrats that articulating grand ideas was risky at best in the post-Reagan era and they would be wise to steer clear of them if they wanted to win elections.

Clinton won in 1992, but in 1994 the GOP took the House for the first time in four decades and the rest, as they say, is history. Democrats have been out of power in the House and Senate more often than not ever since. In spite of these mounting losses, however, they’ve generally just kept doubling down on Bill Clinton’s insistence on moderation. In lieu of a grand vision for the country, the “first black president” together with his fellow baby boomers ardently embraced identity politics and small initiatives that could be fairly quickly undone by the next Republican president.

Lilla’s suggestion for revitalizing the left is a radical departure from identity politics, though it is by no means a new or radical idea: bring back the concept of citizenship. Citizens are part of a community, whereas individuals are merely unbonded social atoms that keep bumping into one another, sometimes with great force.

The only adversary left is ourselves. And we have mastered the art of self-sabotage. At a time when we liberals need to speak in a way that convinces people from very different walks of life, in every part of the country, that they share a common destiny and need to stand together, our rhetoric encourages self-righteous narcissism. At a moment when political consciousness and strategizing need to be developed, we are expending our energies on symbolic dramas over identity. ~ Mark Lilla

Lilla doesn’t argue that the left should abandon the minorities that have struggled or are still struggling to gain access to everything from voting rights to the use of the bathroom but he does believe the left needs to reframe the way we discuss these problems. Equal treatment under the law is a human rights issue first and foremost. The word human is all-inclusive. Identity politics, on the other hand, demands equality by drawing attention to what we are that others are not, inviting potential allies to make some other concern their top priority on the grounds that they cannot possibly understand our own. No wonder Steve Bannon openly hopes the left will be stupid enough to continue meandering drunkenly down this divisive road.

Lilla is part of a small but (hopefully) growing group of liberal thinkers arguing that all anyone ultimately needs to understand is that the dignity and worth we all possess entitle each of us to equality under the law. This is not a difficult concept to grasp. It does not require a degree in gender studies or regular staff meetings to address our unconscious biases.

Neither the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. nor the abolitionists 100 years before him described the problem in the narrow language of minority rights or the angry hopelessness of those who claim that people outside their cherished tribe simply can’t get it. King, as well as the suffragettes and abolitionists before him, were simply demanding everyone be given an equal opportunity to sit at humanity’s table.

Lilla calls upon liberalism to return to a larger more inclusive rhetoric that excludes no one; a liberalism that embraces diversity not because it has a list of interests and identity groups that need to be checked off but because it recognizes everyone’s humanity. True liberalism doesn’t care about the color of your skin, your gender, or your sexual orientation. Humanity and character are the only things that matter. Liberalism embraces Martin Luther King’s dream. Identity politics rejects it.

It remains to be seen whether Lilla and others like him will be heard. A small but vocal segment of the Democratic Party seems to enjoy spending their time getting mad at professors who don’t share their particular worldview or typing angry tweets about Google employees who wrote a memo most of them never bothered to read. None of this fosters dialogue and compassion let alone brings America any closer to providing health care to all its citizens, eliminating the growing burden of student debt, reforming the justice system, or providing an income to a working class facing increasing pressures from automation. Such debates are as divisive in their own way as Trumpism is.

Mark Lilla’s book is worthy of the few hours it takes to read. His argument needs thoughtful consideration and debate within liberal circles everywhere. Unfortunately, it’s hard for this Democrat to ignore his personal experience of the past four decades. The signs that America’s left — a movement that is already centrist by contemporary Western democratic standards — will respond to the need to abandon identity politics in favor of the more inclusive and shared commitment that citizenship demands are tentative at best.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on Medium.com

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In Favor of Radical Libertarianism

By Mason Mohon | USA

One criticism I have received from my peers is that I am “too radical.” When I was first faced with that accusation, I asked for elaboration, and the critic stated that I “have strong views on everything, and they’re kinda crazy sometimes.” I was first taken aback, trying to evaluate whether or not I was actually too radical. I decided to quiet down a bit for a while and not be as vocal about my libertarian leanings in my personal life. This was a mistake.

Take a brief look at recent history and look at what dominated the pre-U.S. hegemonic world, particularly during the cold war. Communism had a greater influence on the hearts and minds of every individual than any ideology ever had before. It was global, and even Americans feared for the future of the United States due to the “Red Scare.”

In 1949, the Soviet Union successfully tested a nuclear bomb and communist forces led by Mao Zedong (1893-1976) took control of China. The following year saw the start of the Korean War (1950-53), which engaged U.S. troops in combat against the communist-supported forces of North Korea. The advances of communism around the world convinced many U.S. citizens that there was a real danger of “Reds” taking over their own country.

This global communist uprising left a lasting imprint, and the ideas are still practiced by many countries today. Most notably is Venezuela, which collapsed under its own socialist weight and now has to feed its people rabbits. These radical leftist ideas of state control took a grip on the world, and we still haven’t pried it off.

As strange as it sounds, the libertarians should take a page out of the Marxist playbook. Clearly, it has worked for the left in the past, and it seems to be taking a new form in the Antifa movement, but what is it that gives them such great impact, and what can we take from the left’s playbook to further libertarianism?

Many members of the liberty movement like to be “less radical,” aiming to be more socially acceptable at the expense of their principles. This is what is described as “opportunism,” or the belief that we should wait for opportunities to insert our principles, rather than always being active and pushing. Murray Rothbard had a few things to say about that in his writing The Case for Radical Idealism.

The major problem with the opportunists is that by confining themselves strictly to gradual and “practical” programs, programs that stand a good chance of immediate adoption, they are in grave danger of completely losing sight of the ultimate objective, the libertarian goal.

This is where we need to look at the left’s actions. Their unrelenting push for their end goal of total socialism is what gives them so much ground. They don’t sacrifice their principles, and it is effective. We should do the same.

Murray Rothbard then goes on to describe the sad case of a man named Robert, who decided to focus less on the libertarian goal and began to slowly make friends with the state, all for the sake of becoming more appealing. As great as it would be to not be seen as outlandish when advocating for the end of all taxes rather than a slight decrease, focusing on the slight decrease results in freedom fighters losing sight of their goal.

A more recent case of this would be the curious one of former VP of the Cato Institute, who made the case that libertarians and conservatives should tone down their opposition to the welfare state. While of course, the liberty movement should look to find new recruits, abandonment of principles and advocacy for a devastating program that is destroying minority communities is not the way to do it. This dilutes the message of libertarianism and will only result in creating a fake libertarian movement that will hurt the true fighters for freedom.

Libertarians need to say what the masses see as crazy. These wars are murderous, taxation is theft, and the government is phenomenally oversized. The best part about this is that it works. Ron Paul was radical, voicing sympathy for anarchist ideas and openly stating that cocaine should be legal (and being met with applause nonetheless), and his movement grew. More people came to radical libertarianism through him than probably any other libertarian icon through history.

But saying radical things isn’t the only aspect to libertarian success. We need to act. We can do this by building platforms and talking to people. We need to spread our message to the masses, through culture, conversation, debate, and academia. The state only has power over us because we act as opportunists, rolling over belly-up and letting it stomp on us. Etienne de la Boetie said:

He [the state] thus domineers over you…has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you.

The state is able to walk over us because we let it. We need to act against them. Hans Hermann Hoppe laid out a way to do so:

If compelled by them, one complies, out of prudence and no other reason than self-preservation, but one does nothing to support or facilitate their operations.

What Hoppe is saying here is that we should not assist the state. Like a child doing something obnoxious, do not encourage it. Avoid it when you can and do not use its faculties, and openly act against it. One way to avoid using its faculties is to trade in cryptocurrencies, avoid its taxes, and help the poor through private charities or in private groups. Spread the message by talking to friends and family, or connect through culture, such as comedian Dave Smith and band Backwordz have done.

The fight against the state’s oppression must not be a passive one. Do not sit alone at home and mope that the state exists, band together and act. The state will not decrease until we gather the masses and turn popular support against them. Then we can be free.