On the Bad Faith of Liberals

Judging from the Twitter-sphere, the presidential election is an addiction for some: akin to alcoholism, but a lot less fun. This affliction actually runs much deeper than the election itself, though it presents its symptoms most acutely in these final weeks of the bullshit extravaganza. Its subjects are likely to engage in incessantly vacuous chatter in this arrogant “have you heard?” tone. They prattle on, eventually driven to hysterics about the assured doom the country will face if their perceived foe prevails.

They fail to realize that we are already muddling through the muck. Furthermore, the election offers little chance of addressing our malaise, as issues of economy, foreign policy and national security are largely insulated from public purview.  One can make a reasonable argument for voting Obama in swing states as a strategic defense move, though that is it. Otherwise, it seems that the self-professed liberal should be busying himself with social movement activism. The manifold nature of injustice in this country leaves little time for the well-intentioned to descend into the pathetic stupor of electoral obsession. From student debt relief to stopping the private prison racket to defending public schools and libraries from the ravages of austerity, we need our collective intellect and imagination focused on public betterment.

However, a large segment of liberals are not genuinely motivated by concerns of social justice. For them, politics is bourgeois social activity. They vote for Democrats as a demonstration of how cultured and swank they are. Some even use politics as a means of assuaging the guilt they feel about their position of relative privilege. This tendency descends, in large part, from Thomas Jefferson: the original American liberal. The slave-owner who decried the evils of that institution. The “small-government” advocate who helped greatly expand the size and scope of the federal government. The champion of individual rights, except for the “noble savages” in our midst. Jefferson was a walking contradiction, and so too are his ideological descendants, whom I term the “Bad Faith Liberals.”

They appear to be that which they are not: a living contrivance. On the topic of “bad faith,” Sartre alluded to the deception of the waiter at a Parisian cafe, trying too hard to play his role, herky-jerky in motion: visibly outside of his skin. He is inauthentic, but realizes this to some degree. His free will is compromised by circumstance. Perhaps the waiter fears for the security of his job if he behaves differently. The liberal, likewise, fears the consequences of making far-reaching criticisms. He knows it will jeopardize his relative comfort in the world. He fears it will alienate him from friends and family, who collectively choose to not think critically about politics. His career might suffer as well as his social status, as ours is a superficial culture where nonconformity renders one “crazy.”

This thinking represents the psychological underpinnings of authoritarianism. And have no illusions about it: this is an authoritarian country by any reasonable measure. Having the world’s highest incarceration rate is enough evidence. Further confirmation is the fact that a sizeable portion of the population believes that the rich have intrinsic qualities, and merit their wealth regardless of how it was attained. Liberals, too, believe it cliché, even trite, to suggest that social democracy might have some intellectual value. To speak of a common good renders one old-fashioned and “narrow minded.” Ours is a society that worships the rich and powerful, even to the point of providing excuse for their voracity.

This is important because politics is a reflection of society (the two do not exist in a vacuum). Our culture is obsessed with individual: from sports phenoms to movie and music stars to political figures. As such, the national conversation is generally about personalities and petty dramas rather than ideals. Meanwhile, much of what does pass for meaningful discourse amongst liberals serves merely to provide a veneer for the inherent contradiction of their existence.

The bad-faith liberal pretends to be a humanitarian, whilst actually an enabler of the American military machinery that has devastating consequences for civilian populations in affected regions. He poses as anti-racist, despite allowing for a national security policy that explicitly targets Muslim and Arab populations for special surveillance and judicial treatment. He has also permitted the proliferation of private prison gulags that prey on minority and poor populations so as to maintain a positive balance sheet. These represent just a smattering of the issues not discussed at any of the debates. Even the foreign policy debate is pure platitude, no substance. These are the realities the Blind Faith Liberals disregard, because it is easier to live a contradiction than to demonstrate the agency to address systemic injustices.

One can argue that it is unfair to pin these crimes on liberals, as they are not the primary promulgators. However, they have the capacity to do something, and have instead continued on with their merry lives. Many bourgeois liberals have yet to be significantly impacted by the economic and social decline of the country. Working-class and poor populations, largely minorities, have obviously been the most profoundly inured by the neo-liberal authoritarianism that now predominates. The bad-faith liberal has only caught a whiff thus far. Perhaps they feel the stress of a workplace that has been stripped of job security, reasonable vacation time and health care provisions. They might be joining the growing numbers of people suffering from depression and other psychological disorders associated with stress and feelings of inadequacy. Maybe their adult-age children are having problems finding jobs and making student debt payments. Nonetheless, the Bad Faith Liberal remains committed to the existent political superstructure, and his contradictory role within it.

In so doing, he undercuts his own freedom, by limiting his role to cheerleading for one side of the boxing match. The two permitted parties define themselves in opposition to one another, and this delineation ultimately encompasses the culture of the country writ large. Americans often judge one another in reference to a liberal-conservative dichotomy. The red state vs. blue state rhetoric is ubiquitous. Liberals decry gun-toting, god-fearing southerners, and conservatives complain of a threat from amorphous “outsiders.” The two sides invariably play the role assigned, out of fear of freedom. And it is ultimately this fear that unites them, together in the muck.

They keep each other down through this culture of oppositionalism. The fear breeds resentment and guilt, which leads the American to hate himself and thus his compatriot. It is this process that informs the lack of a robust social safety network in this country, as failure is almost invariably blamed solely on the individual. This further leads to a juvenile tendency to disparage and demean others for trivial and superficial reasons. The net result is the destruction of confidence and dignity, rendering the American unlikely to stand up for himself against the rapacious and regressive forces of organized money.

Indeed, the Bad Faith Liberal stands up to no one. He merely externalizes his lack of confidence through the politics of oppositionalism. He believes that the country would be better off without the angry, resentful, small-town conservative. He sees not that he shares those first two traits. If the two would overcome these drains on the soul, and speak civilly to one another, we could recommence the task of nation building in the United States. We might even regain the passion necessary to function as a democratic polity.

This requires realizing our free will. We are not cogs in a machine. We are not restrained to playing a tightly-defined role in some convoluted national narrative. We needn’t choose team red or team blue. We have the ability, like all humans, to be dynamic and thoughtful individuals. And if we demonstrate that dynamism in a collective effort aimed at addressing the ever-expanding authoritarianism in our midst, we will arise from the muck one day.

Matt Reichel is a freelance writer living in New Orleans. He can be reached at: mereichel@gmail.com