by Chris R. Morgan
I spent a good portion of the summer of 2016 trying to write something that should never have been written.
For much of the year, many of my friends and a few publications with which their sympathies were aligned, in one way or another, were burning rhetorical funeral pyers for liberalism. Some on the left erred on the side of tragic heroism, but only barely; while many on the right were more triumphal, perhaps a little too much. But those slight differences did not diminish the force of illiberalism’s oncoming tide. And having resolved to take Trump’s candidacy seriously upon watching his extremely persuasive convention speech last July, my concern that liberalism was imperiled had become similarly resolute, and required defending. And of course the person to defend it was myself. Never mind the fact that I’ve never written for a liberal publication, that I don’t count very many liberals among my friends, and that I spent much of my 20s bemoaning the vanity politics with which Aaron Sorkin, Jon Stewart, etc. had infused it. I was John Dos Passos in the ambulance coming to liberalism’s aid on the ideological western front; or more provocatively I was going to be liberalism’s Joseph de Maistre thundering fire, brimstone, and blood for the old order. Whatever the case I was very stupid and I’m sorry I even brought it up.
Summer lurched into fall, and it looked quite plain that no amount of written persuasion was going to prop up liberalism, or what was broadly being called “liberalism.” And to be frank, little was indicated to me that it was deserving of my or anyone’s energy for its reinforcement. It wasn’t so much that its most popular media avatars, having been so long emboldened by their opposition’s cluelessness that they were caught off guard by a new opposition that just didn’t care about their “norms,” but that there wasn’t much there for me to defend with a straight face. Liberalism is not without merit. Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Wayne Morse, and Jimmy Carter are people I consider positive political role models; men of principle, sincere paragons of peace, freedom, and American moral authority. They were also tremendous failures.
Instead Bill Clinton harvested the fruits of liberal power, completing what the rest of his political generation started in the 1970s: its transition into a kind of secular prosperity gospel. The success of liberalism, henceforth, was inextricably linked with economic plenty and hazy “triangulation.” Though it had well-meaning roots in the antiwar movement and the blowback against Nixonian paranoiac excess, its political adulthood had the heart of Henry David Thoreau and the brain and muscle of William Graham Sumner. That, anyway, is how I’ve come to understand “neoliberalism,” a premium plan for Voltairean enlightenment; on-demand Millsian “experiments in living.” And the Democrats were wrestling with that legacy. In fact for the first half of 2016 I was convinced Hillary Clinton was going to coast into the White House solely on the ‘90s nostalgia of my parents, pining for a time before anemic job markets, empty McMansion developments, and heroin.
Earlier last year, Azealia Banks burned through all the good will she earned from her critiques of Iggy Azalea by endorsing Donald Trump in a series of tweets. It generated an expectant amount of outrage, and her Twitter account has since been suspended for some unrelated controversy; but of course the attention did a disservice to what I actually saw on her feed. “I am very pro-Africa and pro-africana,” she tweeted, “but American exceptionalism and the American paradigm is super fascinating to me.” She goes on: “I have no hope for America. It is what it is. Capitalist, consumerist, racist, land of make believe.” And finally: “I think Donald trump [sic] is evil like America is evil and in order for America to keep up with itself it needs him.” Donald Trump’s election has been celebrated and scorned as a revolution, what Jeet Heer called “regime change … at home.” But Banks’s subversive endorsement saw it differently, not as revolution but revelation. Trump was a lifting of Lon Chaney’s mask on a national scale, revealing the scarring of policies long predating Trump, which had been on the radar of libertarians, the left, and some conservatives, but not Clintonian liberals.
The outrage was understandable. Given that the Clinton campaign was framing itself on earnest optimism, irony, let alone suggesting America was evil, was flatly unacceptable. Perhaps evil is not the right word. After all, Clinton’s proposed criminal justice platform admitted that “more than half of prison and jail inmates suffer from a mental health problem” and that a Clinton administration “will ensure law enforcement is properly trained for crisis intervention and referral to treatment as appropriate.” The problem here, however is that criminal justice reform is not centralized, and that some states will be harder to bring to heel than others. Such as Florida, whose abominable treatment of mentally ill prisoners was laid bare in the New Yorker last spring:
When Krzykowski told her that she’d heard “guys aren’t getting fed,” Perez did not seem especially concerned. “You can’t trust what inmates say,” she responded. Krzykowski noted that complaints were coming from disparate wings of the T.C.U. This was not unusual, Perez said, since inmates often devised innovative methods to “kite” messages across the facility.
Krzykowski mentioned that she had overheard security guards heckling prisoners. One officer had told an inmate, “Go ahead and kill yourself—no one will miss you.” Again, Perez seemed unfazed. “It’s just words,” she said. Then, as Krzykowski recalls it, Perez leaned forward and gave her some advice: “You have to remember that we have to have a good working relationship with security.”
Banks’s breakdown of American exceptionalism was one of the more salient points made in a noisier than average election year. It echoed Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me. “I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously,” he writes, “subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists … an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much.” Though he, too, uses the word evil, and clearly there is a case for it, I’d again argue for something different. Being generous, I’d go with naivety, being less so I’d say indifference.
Talking about the election with committed supporters of Trump or Clinton was identically challenging. Particular issues that concerned me—war policy, the perpetual and many-leveled institutional rot, etc.—were of little interest compared to the moments the election of these individuals would usher in. Certainly each campaign was broadly geared toward bringing outsiders in from the cold. But their ideas of outsiders were abstract and conflicting. The Trump order sees itself in the mold of a Zarathustran Caddyshack 2, the Clinton order sought to be more like a Unitarian Burning Man. My interests were really not going to be heard. And so despite numerous egregious (and probably unsolicited) shame attempts by Democratic sympathizers, I voted for Gary Johnson.
In seeking to defend liberalism, I became less interested in calling into question the sentiments of illiberalism, and more into pushing back against the Sorkinization of American democracy, which both campaigns embodied, though Trump’s was the more effective one. It’s not a new gripe, to be sure, but one I wanted to counter with a call for humility and mercy in the face of mass indifference to suffering, to the brokenness and disorder of our system which can’t quit seeing its mentally ill as a storage problem, or any number of other broad interest groups as threats or burdens. More ambitiously and more quixotically I became interested in making the moral, and not merely practical, case for communitarianism as a boon rather than a barrier to inclusion of people any of the campaigns considered “outside society.” I wanted a liberalism less concerned with grand exceptionalism or vision and more concerned with the thankless task of living with one another. After a while I came to see my defense being further away from liberalism and much closer to Christianity.
Whether this project would ever have had legs shall remain forever a mystery. But with the funeral procession for liberalism behind us, I come away with it somehow more hopeful than when it was in its death throes. Maybe hopeful is still too strong a feeling, but, again, taking the claims of the most earnest Trump supporters seriously: that this moment is the positive unseating of elite control on the gears of power allowing for more popular influence, as opposed to a nationwide suicide mission, this would lend much weight to my hope that we may get beyond the stultifying left-right binary in favor of more experimental concoctions of social existence. (Such as what we’re seeing with the emergence of pro-life feminism.) I could also be very, very wrong. I’m no seer, and it’s much simpler to predict everything crumbling into ashes. But this should no longer be about the ugliness or brilliance of one person, as it should never have been to begin with. We’ve moved beyond liberalism into uncharted and (possibly) more fascinating territory.