Two Dogmas of Liberals Nowadays

Photo by Rich Misner | CC BY 2.0

Among the reasons why MSNBC, CNN, NPR (its slogan should be: “my choice for conventional wisdom and pro-regime propaganda|”), the handful of comparatively progressive columnists whom The New York Timesand Washington Postdeign to publish, and other exponents of “liberal” thought have become harder than usual to listen to or read since Donald Trump became president is that they are in the thrall of two dogmas – two deeply entrenched, superficially plausible but ultimately indefensible beliefs, too obvious, they think, even to warrant discussion.

Trump’s role in this should not be underestimated, but he did not cause these dogmas to take hold of liberal minds.  The Democratic Party is the principal villain there.

With our duopoly party system holding fast, and with the GOP led by and largely comprised of reactionaries (or worse), the Democratic Party is the only non-marginalized political vehicle that welcomes liberals into its fold.

Anodyne social liberals, the kind that focus on being high-minded and nice, and whose affinities with the militant, reforming liberalism of the Progressive, New Deal, and Great Society eras are effectively nil, have nowhere else to go.  Neither do old school liberals  — whether or not they still have fire in their bellies.

Incisive political analysis was never the Democratic Party’s forte. This flaw has become increasingly acute as the party has veered rightward over the past four decades, creating propitious conditions for the dogmas afflicting liberals nowadays to take hold and thrive.

At some point during the Carter administration, as liberals began to morph into neoliberals and to forget the lessons many of them had learned while the Vietnam War raged on, the Democratic Party stopped even trying to deal with the social and economic problems afflicting the poor, the working class, and everyone else who is not obscenely well-off.

Democrats sometimes still would wage rear-guard defensive efforts to keep gains won earlier from becoming undone; but their attention was focused on winning over the hearts and minds of corporate and financial elites.  This was largely a fool’s errand; the Republican Party has long had the market on the “economic royalists” FDR chastised pretty much sown up.

But this fact of political life didn’t keep the Clintons and others of their ilk from trying.  What they did transformed the party for the worse, making formerly useless Democrats effectively pernicious.

In the nineties, when Clintonite neoliberals finally succeeded in taking the Democratic Party over entirely, dispatching what remained of the Democrats’ (never very left) left wing, the party of the New Deal and Great Society became, for all practical purposes, a lost cause.

Add on the Cold War revivalism that the 2016 Clinton campaign got underway and that now consumes the entire political class — except perhaps for the president himself — and the combination is lethal.

Nevertheless, for want of a viable alternative, the Democratic Party survives, as much or more than ever, it is the liberal’s “homeland.”

Thanks to Trump’s ineptitude and sheer awfulness, Democrats are now in the early stages of a “blue wave” that is likely to put the House of Representatives and perhaps even the Senate, along with many state and local governments, back under Democratic control.

Whether this will change the party radically for the better remains to be seen.  So long as liberals remain mired in dogmatic slumber, the prospects for this are, at best, only fair.

Trump incites fear and loathing in liberals and in everyone else whose head is properly attached; the maelstrom he churns up degrades everything in its path.  Under such conditions, it is more than usually difficult to face reality squarely.

On the other hand, the same circumstances create opportunities that would not exist under, say, a Mitt Romney or a John McCain.

For the first time in living memory, what C. Wright Mills called the “power structure” is profoundly, perhaps even irreconcilably, divided.  On the one side, there is the Republican Party, rightwing media, and a sizeable number of especially venal corporate moguls, drawn mainly from industries (oil, gas, coal, and so on) that are leading the planet to ruin.  On the other, are all the rest, including even the “intelligence community” and the FBI, our national police.  Not since the New Deal have economic, political and media elites been so profoundly at odds with “that man in the White House.”

There would be less chance that these opportunities would be squandered, if we had an opposition led by a progressive political party.  What we have instead are Democrats.  Trump is not our only national disgrace, they are too; and there seems to be no way to shake them off.

For this, blame the institutional arrangements concocted in Philadelphia in 1787 by a colonial elite comprised of men in powdered wigs — slave-owning Southern planters and northern merchants and financiers, many of whom also benefited from the slave trade.

Some of the more anti-democratic institutions they concocted have been reformed over the years. Others remain virtually unchanged.

Blame also lies with the duopoly party system itself.  The founding fathers (there was not a woman among them) cannot be held accountable for this; it has been, and continues to be, a work of later generations.

And so now there are administrative obstacles of various kinds and ways of thinking that have grown up alongside them that make “third party” and independent electoral efforts at the national level effectively futile.

The dogmas that derange and stultify liberal thinking nowadays add to the problem. Media that keep them going are culpable too.  They have much to answer for.

Dogma #1: that my enemy’s enemy is always my friend.

At a tactical level, this much-celebrated precept plainly has merit.  At a strategic level, the situation is sometimes more complicated.

What self-respecting, old school liberal wouldn’t be at least a tad wary of  — and hostile towards — Comcast (MSNBC), Time Warner (CNN), Amazon (The Washington Post) and other corporate media titans?

But they hate Trump. Thus they are the enemy’s enemy, and therefore the friend not only of liberals, but also of everyone with any sense at all.

To be sure, there often are compelling reasons, all things considered, to make common cause with them.

This is especially the case when the media outlets they own are not tightly controlled or much constrained by their owners’ class interests.  This is how it is with MSNBC and the others nowadays.

In general, what their executives care the most about is generating advertising and other revenue. Trump is so thoroughly despised by everyone outside the Fox News demographic that media operations that target decent, thoughtful people could hardly not allow or even encourage their pundits and “journalists” to dump on him.  Anything less would not make business sense.

Therefore, on Trump and some (hardly all) other matters as well, self-respecting liberals and “respectable” corporate media are on the same side.

In principle, therefore, there is no harm, in warily joining forces with them.

They don’t make it easy, however – not with all the military and intelligence “experts” they trot out. What a wretched crew — Barry McCaffrey, James Clapper, John Brennan, John McLaughlin, to name just a few of the more preposterous examples.  MSNBC and CNN have a neocon or, insofar as there is a difference, a former Bush official for every occasion; and, at NPR these days, when they want intelligent and critical commentary, they look first to The National Review.

Liberal media nowadays defend the FBI and CIA and even the NSA zealously.  What an appalling state of affairs!  Yet today’s liberals lap it up, even turning such masters of domestic surveillance and repression as James Comey and the “sainted” Robert Mueller into (small-d) democratic heroes.  Why? Because they are their enemy’s enemy and therefore their friend.

Add that onto their perennial vices – for example, the distinction they draw, as a matter of course, between what the late Ed Herman called  “worthy” and “unworthy” victims.  Yemenis are unworthy victims and, so, of course, are Palestinians.

When the Saudis slaughter the former, and the Israel Defense Forces, the “most moral army in the world,” according to Israeli propagandists, shoots more than seven hundred peaceful demonstrators in Gaza with live ammunition, killing at least seventeen of them, corporate media, when not ignoring these atrocities altogether, can do no better than blame the victims.

Let an Israeli soldier be slapped by a courageous sixteen year old Palestinian girl, Ahed Tamimi, and corporate media are all over it, making the girl the villain of the story.

Hypocrisy is another perennial vice; it is wondrous to behold the self-righteous fervor of propagandists for the world’s premier serial meddler in the political affairs of other countries go after hapless (and maybe non-existent) Russian meddlers in our 2016 election, as if our own politicians and plutocrats were not already guilty as sin of corrupting and degrading what little (small-d) democracy we have.

Or let a former Russian spy be poisoned, under dubious circumstances, in the UK and corporate media are ready to start World War III over the incident.  Never mind the rush to judgment or the foolishness of taking American or British intelligence services at their word, or believing anything that Theresa May or, worse, Boris Johnson say.

Even if we suppose that the Russian government was responsible for the Skripal poisonings, what the United States and other Western countries do – and, of course, also what Israel, where poisoning is a high art and “extra-territorial eliminations” are almost a national pastime, does – are as bad or worse.

Yet, somehow, Israel gets to use the get-out-of-jail-free card our media give it, and Barack Obama comes off as if his Nobel Prize was deserved, no matter how much blood he has on his hands from drones under his command.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin cannot be demonized enough.  Yes, he is bad news.  But so are they all.

Taking on two enemies at once – Trump and the Republicans, but also the Clintonized Democratic Party – is more difficult than walking down the street and chewing gum at the same time. But not by much.

It used to be as clear as could be that the less odious duopoly party was also the less evil.  But with Democrats and their media flunkies hell-bent on stoking the flames of a Cold War that could easily turn hot, the GOP is getting a good run for its money.

If only liberals were a tad less ready to assume that their enemy’s enemy is their friend, the formerly incontestable lesser evil status of the party that still allows them entry might at least be restored.

Dogma #2: that anything is better than Trump, even what would come to pass were he to quit or be removed.

What would come to pass is Mike Pence.  Blame for that lies with our founders.  According to the Constitution they wrote, we elect presidents only and always at four year intervals.   If Trump were to go, we would therefore be stuck with Pence until Inauguration Day, 2021.

Thanks to the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 as subsequently amended, after the Vice President, the presidency would go to the Speaker of the House, then the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General and so on.

Read the list and weep: Paul Ryan, Orin Hatch, Mike Pompeo (if he is confirmed, otherwise to John J. Sullivan, the Acting Secretary), Steven Mnuchin, Mad Dog Mattis, and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions.  It gets even more absurd, but no less scary, farther down the line.

Pence would be an improvement over Trump in one extremely important respect — he would be less likely to unleash Armageddon after listening to Fox News.  On the other hand, as a self-described “Christian first” – and conservative and Republican, second and third — he would be more likely than Trump to welcome the end of the world.

Trump is neither a Christian nor a conservative nor even a Republican – he just plays those roles at rallies and on TV when it suits his purpose, as it has ever since he began to run for president on the Republican ticket.

In New York, he was, more often than not, a Democrat.  But once he decided to go national, he dropped that because the competition was too stiff and because and because, as he is reported to have said, Republicans are dumber than Democrats and more easily bamboozled.

He was shrewd enough to realize that to start at the top, the only place he could see himself being, he would have to do a lot of bamboozling.  No problem there: conning marks is the one thing he is genuinely good at.

Trump is a Republican of convenience.  He has no convictions or even settled views, only racist, nativist and otherwise vile attitudes. He is an egotist, a chronic liar, and, in the opinion of many informed observers, a sociopath, but he is not an ideologue.  His commitment to the rightwing agenda he is currently promoting is, to put the point as politely as I can, insincere.

Pence is sincere; he is a bona fide theocrat and all around reactionary.  He is also not the type to induce fear and loathing.  For that, he would have to have a personality, a strong one; he has hardly any personality at all.

Trump is a godsend for late night comedians; Pence would leave them high and dry.  They might even be reduced to scrounging up old quips of the kind that Winston Churchill leveled against Clement Attlee, his very admirable, but seriously shy, rival, the Leader of the Labor Party during and after World War II  – for example, the one about an empty taxi driving up to 10 Downing Street and Atlee getting out.

The milquetoast “resistance” Trump inspired would likely wither away were Pence in Trump’s place.

When Gerald Ford took over from Richard Nixon, he famously said: “…our long national nightmare is over.” Were Pence to assume Trump’s office, a similar feeling would likely spread across the political landscape.

So would emotional exhaustion and a concomitant desire to restore “normalcy.”   Therefore, Pence would have an easier time than Trump getting Congress to do his bidding, and he would encounter less militant opposition.

Much of the harm that Trump has already done is the work of the ignoramuses and reactionaries he put in his cabinet and in other top government offices.  There is no reason to think that this would change fundamentally if Trump were to go away.

With the possible exceptions of Jared and Ivanka, no one’s tenure in the Trump administration is secure; and when someone goes, someone even worse generally takes his (or her, but mostly his) place.

Pence might actually keep more Trump staffers on board longer than Trump would.  Worse, he would be a magnet for genuine reactionaries interested in government “service.”  Worse still, were turbulence within the White House and around it to subside, his subordinates would likely feel more emboldened than Trump’s, and would therefore likely do more harm.

Would Pence therefore be an even worse president than Trump?  Surely not, I think, unless Trump is hobbled and effectively disarmed while remaining in office.  Otherwise, the clear and present danger he poses makes him worse.

But the best of all feasible outcomes would not be for him to be removed from office – not with Pence waiting in the wings.  It would be for him to hang in there, unable to do much of anything, while Pence bides his time and the next presidential election draws closer.

If Congress could at least see its way clear to reinforcing the War Powers Act or if it would undertake some other initiative that would diminish the likelihood of Trump acting out and taking the world down with him, that preferable outcome might actually become achievable.

Reactionary Republicans – is there any other kind! – have the most to gain were Pence to replace Trump; they could get more of their agenda through, and more of themselves elected. So far, though, their leaders have lacked the courage or wits or both to do what would be best for them.  Their cowardice and stupidity is why the Republican Party today is only accidentally a reactionary’s party. What it is essentially is the party of Trump.

Democrats, angling for electoral advantages, also have much to gain from keeping a hobbled Trump in and Pence out.  The liberals among them have even more reason insofar as they want to maintain as much of the social progress of the past century as they can.

But they are too much under the sway of the second dogma for this understanding, obvious as it is, to register in their thinking, much less to control their practice.

The only other plausible explanation is that they think that even a hobbled Trump needs to be kept entirely away from the nuclear codes.

This is a reasonable concern, but it gives Democrats, including the liberals among them, too much credit to think that what accounts for their obtuseness is an overriding commitment to avoiding nuclear war.

Human beings are bundles of contradictions.  Even so, it is hard to ascribe that concern to people as susceptible as they evidently are to being swept up into the Russophobic war mongering that the Democratic Party and the media that serve it have been actively promoting since the summer of 2016.

Blind anti-Trumpian dogmatism is a more likely explanation.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).