End Times for American Liberalism

The Continuing Dilemma from the Clinton / Obama Years and Why Liberalism Does Not Have a Home in Either Party

Despite the most blatant violations of civil liberties in American history by a Republican Southern evangelical president fighting a never-ending crusade against “evil” itself, the three leading Democratic candidates for the 2008 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards make almost no mention of civil liberties as a campaign issue on their websites. The most liberal candidate, the Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, does include it at the very bottom of his list of issues, just underneath animal rights. Senators Clinton, Obama, and Edwards outdo each other speaking of their faith in their Lord and Savior, without whom they couldn’t have gotten through difficult times, and bend over backwards to “respect” the different opinions of evangelical voters, on such issues as “intelligent design” or the preservation of adult stem-cell embryos. Clinton voted not only to authorize the Patriot Act (which gutted civil liberties in 2001), but to reauthorize it in 2006. The Democratic candidates vow to hunt down the terrorists and kill them, and to show no tolerance for illegal immigrants, as they speak a language of economic populism focused on the anxieties of the declining middle-class. And all this comes at a time when the self-destructive acts of the radical neo-conservatives in power couldn’t possibly have created a more propitious time for the revival of liberal individualism in America.

The label “liberal” is avoided like the plague by all the Democrats, who prefer to be called “progressives” these days. Turn-of-the-century Progressivism, whose two leading presidential avatars were Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, was a heady blend of moralistic intervention in public and private life, extending the reach of the regulatory state to areas well beyond the imagination of the nineteenth-century American laissez-faire state. It arose from the earlier Populist movement, which was nostalgic and backward-looking, harkening to a bygone era of agrarian independence no longer possible in rapidly industrializing late-nineteenth-century America.

American progressivism has always had a touch of the reactionary about it, seeking to control and discipline unruly human behavior to mobilize it toward the common good as defined by the elites. It is in many senses the antithesis of what common sense conjures by the word progressive. The regulatory and redistributive prescriptions with respect to tax policy, health care, corporate concentration, and foreign trade offered by leading Democrats today are little more than pale derivatives of what Democratic populists were offering in the early 1970s, after the peak moment of modern-day American liberalism, under Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, was already past.

In Fred R. Harris’s The New Populism (1973) and Jack Newfield and Jeff Greenfield’s A Populist Manifesto: The Making of a New Majority (1972), which came in the wake of Richard Nixon’s successful tarring of Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals more interested in protecting special privileges for the black underclass than in forward-looking programs for the white majority, one already detects a note of utopian fantasy presented more for the sake of form than as realistic dogma.

There is a gloomy tincture of defeatism and paralysis, an abject subjugation by concentrated capitalism that would soon become evident in the Carter administration’s futile efforts to extend the welfare state in even limited areas.

Since George W. Bush’s ascendancy, a number of academics have predicted an inevitable cyclical return to progressivism, as conservative forces spend themselves out and the pragmatism of the American people, geared more to pocketbook matters than ideology, reasserts itself. These academics derive much solace from what they perceive as the more tolerant attitudes of the exurban professional class, concentrated around high-tech enclaves throughout the country, and the expansion of the Hispanic voting population, whom they are quick to claim as natural Democrats. [1]

Of course, the real majority in American politics since 1968 has been the one presciently declared by Kevin P. Phillips in The Emerging Republican Majority (1970): once the center of demographic gravity moved to the South and the Southwest, the old New Deal coalition, linking white working-class ethnics with minorities and liberal elites, no longer held together. Only a conservative politics based on division and narrow class interests could then prosper. This diagnosis remains as valid today as it was in 1970.

Democrats have reacted by incorporating elements of neoliberalism (endorsement of unchecked extension of market forces to all realms of life), neoconservatism (rejection of narcissistic 1960s counter-culturalism in favor of a revived politics of virtue and national greatness), and communitarianism (critique of Rawlsian neutrality in favor of individualism embedded in locality, tribe, culture, and nation), so that by now their liberalism is really a lighter version of the radical conservatism of the Republicans, incorporating most of its worst assaults on classical liberalism.

In the 1950s at the peak of another similar era of liberal evisceration (in the face of McCarthyite conformism and national security fears), Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., in The Decline of American Liberalism (1955), offered a cogent analysis of liberalism having been in perpetual retreat since soon after the American Revolution.[2] When in power, the Jeffersonians accepted the basic nationalist, centralizing principles of the Hamiltonians, and since then each instance of crisis and war has only led to the attrition of individual rights in favor of state power. Ekirch understands that the talk of freedom being reiterated in legislative acts and court decisions ought not to distract us from the fact that the attention is lately all on civil rights (the entitlements of one group or another of presumably disadvantaged people) and not on civil liberties (Kantian universal freedoms presumed to accrue to all people, regardless of group or class affiliation). [3]

As some genuine liberal critics have also understood about Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal,” J. F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, regulation of business has been more a matter of legitimizing bigness and concentration than challenging it. [4] Thus the illusion that freedom is on the march (it is, if one takes as the criteria the tentacles of the regulatory state, which has over time shed the distinction between the public and the private), even as it is really in secular decline (if measured by the scope of an individual to lead a life of his own choice, free from interference).

This liberal reading of liberalism’s decline takes as its point of interest negative liberty, or “freedom from,” in Isaiah Berlin’s terms, as opposed to positive liberty, or “freedom to,” which tends to become a chimera in the absence of the first conditions of liberty. Whereas Berlin’s former pupil John Rawls, a Harvard political philosopher, in seeking to revive liberalism in the early 1970s, began with basic liberal rights as the precondition of the state’s intervention in alleviating the plight of its worst-off members, present-day apologists have turned his equation on the head—or rather, since their policies are geared to soothing the insecurities of the middle-class and not the poor, their dogma bears little resemblance to any theoretically sound liberal project. The whole preoccupation seems to be with justifying state power, and making skeptics believe that turning over more and more of the public and private realms to state jurisdiction is really what the liberal idea is all about.

A good example of this tendency is Paul Starr’s Freedom’s Power: The True Force of Liberalism (2007). Not only must today’s progressives explain away radical conservatism’s four-decade-long ascendancy as either against the American grain or a tragic misunderstanding based on the white working-class’s false consciousness (when conservatism is not being presented as having run its course), they must also look deep into the crystal ball to detect a luminous future for the liberal party in a continuous line of progress dating back not only to the American Revolution of 1776 but to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Starr, prominent sociologist and editor of The American Prospect, looks back and forward to wars and national emergencies as the catalyzing forces for progressive breakthroughs—one wonders if he isn’t deliriously pleased by the current war on terror without an end in sight, since it embodies the potential for endless extension of state power, which can be turned to the common good, of course, just as soon as the radical conservatives are out of office. As Starr states, “War forces states to create state power, but they do not simply leave them one way to do it.” The beauty of what Starr calls “the creative reluctance of liberal statecraft” is that it has always increased state power so that it may be turned to good ends. A weak state like the one which existed under the Articles of Confederation (which preceded the American Constitution) can’t protect liberty because it doesn’t have enough systemic capacity. The strength of liberalism, for Starr, is that it keeps adding to systemic power even as it shuns tyranny. It is no surprise that Starr’s icon is the nationalist Herbert Croly, author of the influential progressive tract The Promise of American Life (1909), and founder of The New Republic, which today is the epitome of the neoliberal, neoconservative, and communitarian Democratic party ideology. Like Croly, Starr is delighted by the opportunity for progressives “to pursue Jeffersonian ends by Hamiltonian means.”

Freedom’s Power, the latest in an unending stream of progressive manifestos of the last several years, cannot imagine “freedom from” in the absence of pervasive state power to authorize “freedom to.” Like its companion books, it welcomes a series of ad hoc grabs for power by Democratic administrations, wars and national crises providing the ultimate tools of legitimatization for freedom’s extension to newer areas. Of course, for Ekirch, this is precisely the story of liberalism’s steady decline. Like similar programmatic statements, Freedom’s Power seeks a return to the status quo ante, prevalent before George W. Bush’s potent combination of the Christian evangelical and neoconservative strands in modern conservatism to decimate the fragile progressive coalition still holding together under Bill Clinton. For Starr, Clinton’s presidency offers signposts for future Democratic leaders on how to cobble together the vital center for a new age of globalized anxiety; but in fact, the Clinton era, transitional and evanescent, is definitively over, as the war on terror, endorsed by leading Democrats with only a shade less heartiness than the Republican contenders, has replaced the decade-long post-Cold War interregnum. Even if in some future Democratic administration there is less of an emphasis on fighting the war on terror as Bush has fought it, there is no going back to a normality where the state retreats from its invasion of personal liberties.

In Starr’s book, there is no acknowledgment that there might be natural limits to perpetual American GDP growth, which is a prerequisite to staving off rebellion with the illusion of shared prosperity. Nor does he admit the existence of an American empire at any point in history or in the present (America only wants to spread freedom and democracy abroad, as the progressive Wilson would have had it, yet another instance of the creative reluctance of liberal statecraft), which in turn breeds antipathy to the American model of globalization. Perhaps the resentment of neoliberal globalization is nowhere greater now than in America itself, as entire segments of the middle-class find themselves bereft of job security with the erosion of manufacturing, a process that has greatly accelerated under the Bush regime. An earlier group of progressives, those who cut their teeth on public policy during the Carter and Clinton years, used to advocate something called “industrial policy,” recognizing that when the informal tripartite agreement among business, labor, and government fell apart during the early 1970s, it was only a matter of time before reactionary politics would feed on the festering resentments under conditions of low wages and rising inequality. Typical of this breed of interventionist progressives is Clinton’s labor secretary Robert B. Reich, who used to speak of a disturbing bifurcation between personal service workers and “symbolic analytic” workers (Kevin Phillips’s natural conservatives).

But lately academics like Reich have become entirely unrealistic in their analysis of the future of the kind of progressive politics they advocate. In Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America (2004), Reich makes his case for a resurgent economic populism (counting on anger stemming from Enron and other corporate scandals) to redefine the space for public morality currently taken up entirely by sex-obsessed conservative propagandists. The presumption seems to be that the public is misinformed about its real interests; as soon as corporate exploitation is exposed satisfactorily, the Democrats will find themselves in the majority, thereby to enact legislation ending excessive corporate power. Of course, it remains to be asked why Reich’s brief for economic populism would have a greater chance now, in a far more reactionary atmosphere, than when he was labor secretary himself and failed to see any part of his program become reality, even when he had the ear of a sympathetic president. [5]

Precisely this affliction of substituting professorial lecturing for political mobilization (quite incompatible spheres) ails Al Gore as well, in The Assault on Reason: How the Politics of Fear, Secrecy and Blind Faith Subvert Wise Decision-making and Democracy (2007). Gore himself promoted the communitarian virtues (railing with his wife Tipper against offensive rock lyrics in the 1980s, for instance, and taking on the tobacco industry as vice president) that have spawned the evangelical beast, and contributed to the neoliberal agenda of unrestrained corporate monopoly in the United States during the 1990s, so it is a wonder that he notes no incongruity between his own past and present. Gore bemoans the end of the Jeffersonian print culture (crucial to an informed citizenry), cannot get over the fact that the public so easily connects responsibility for 9/11 with Saddam Hussein (perhaps the public understood only too well that the war was about the American empire securing future supplies of oil in the Middle East), and, naïve as ever about reality, stakes his hopes on the internet to revive a moribund progressive politics. He seems to have become a virtual politician speaking entirely in the virtual realm, to recreate a politics of virtue all over again.[6] Anthony Giddens, in Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics (1994), spoke perspicuously of the conditions of “manufactured uncertainty” in postmodern societies. Increased social reflexivity under these conditions means that liberalism is a purely defensive venture (as we have seen in all the recent American academic and political apologetics), while conservatism is really the only radical force. Giddens, now Lord Giddens, was an important influence on Tony Blair’s “Third Way” programs.

George Soros, in The Age of Fallibility: The Consequences of the War on Terror (2006), far more than Gore or Reich, acknowledges the falseness of the metaphor of “war on terror,” which has resonated however, and led to a “far-from-equilibrium” social condition, liable to lead to sudden collapse at any moment. Soros, whose icon is Karl Popper, has propounded for years what he calls his “theory of reflexivity,” which seems to mean that human decisions are likely to be fallible because they include subjective considerations of the decision-maker’s own (perhaps irrational) interests. What happens when a combination of circumstances accelerates reflexivity, giving little time for course correction? Soros would seem to have a more realistic grasp of the extreme danger to basic liberties, the first Rawlsian condition before there can be any hope of justice and fairness, in the increasingly closed American society. Soros used to spend time and his vast wealth on his foundations to try to create open societies in the former Communist countries; having failed to drive an opening for a renewed liberalism (targeting, for instance, drug laws which unfairly deprive people of liberty) in the 2004 American presidential election, he is now pessimistically taking stock of the degree to which the “feel-good” American public, afraid of the reality of death, is empowering native “fascists” to dominate their deepest psychologies.

Such a condition is explored to great effect by Chris Hedges in American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2006). In his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis had wondered what form a “fascism” native to American soil might take. His Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip bears an uncanny resemblance to George W. Bush, as do Buzz’s followers to Bush’s armies of Christian evangelicals. Hedges has had the nerve to poke deeply into the darkness of the American soul, where an apocalyptic pessimism, born of the uncertainties of the globalized economy and the decline of class consciousness, makes a substantial portion of the electorate ripe to take their orders. [7] The “culture of despair” rampant in the American heartland creates fertile grounds for a rejuvenated “cult of masculinity.” As Hedges explains, “These believers have abandoned, in this despair, their trust and belief in the world of science, law, and rationality.” Whereas progressive optimists like Gore wish to reposition scientific truth and objectivity at the pinnacle of the polity, Hedges realizes that the foundations for reason to flourish simply don’t exist anymore. The believers seek to establish precisely what they claim to be fighting: the “culture of death.”

The family offered by the closed community of fellow evangelicals is the fateful realization of the wishes of 1980s and 1990s communitarians like Michael Sandel, Stephen Macedo, and William Galston, who railed against the impossibility of conceiving the Rawlsian “unencumbered self” as the foundation of liberal justice. Mere professional success, contrary to what the progressive manifesto-givers of the last decade have been claiming, is no guarantee of the pull of rational truth. Hedges correctly points to antipathy to homosexuality as a key barometer (and one would now have to add immigration as an even more potent reflector of the state of anxiety of the “Christofascists”) of the visions of apocalyptic violence popular among the believers.

Whereas Starr, Massey, Gore, Reich et al. merely list church-state separation as a renewed necessity (somewhere down there between yet another incremental solution to the health care crisis and the loss of pensions), Hedges realistically states: ‘Debate with the radical Christian Right is useless. We cannot reach this movement. It does not want a dialogue. It is a movement based on emotion and cares nothing for rational thought and discussion.” Instead, Democratic candidates at all levels (certainly including the crop of freshman representatives and senators elected in the 2006 Democratic wave) continue to reflexively incorporate the values of this group. Hedges warns: “In the event of a crisis, in the event of another catastrophic terrorist attack, an economic meltdown or huge environmental disaster, the movement stands poised to manipulate fear and chaos ruthlessly and reshape America in ways that have not been seen since the nation’s founding.” The only qualification would be that the catastrophic event and the apocalyptic reshaping have already occurred; only its far-reaching consequences are still playing out.

A similarly astute account of how Southern evangelicals are lost to the Democratic party was given by Thomas F. Schaller in Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South (2006) before the last election. Instead of showing fear, Schaller advises Democrats to “run against the conservative South.” This is advice clearly in contradiction to the blurry, all-inclusive vocabulary currently adopted by Democrats. Schaller only seems to have underestimated the degree to which mounting an offensive against the illiberalism of the South might bring home at least some disaffected whites to the Democratic party. But Schaller leaves the larger question of party victory to what purposes mostly unexplored.[8] Schaller also leaves unaddressed the question of the degree to which democracy has already been corrupted by the radical conservatives in power. Victory without commitment to liberalism means little.

The institutions of democracy, after a century of progressive-sanctioned acquisition of power, in the naïve belief that it would rest in safe hands, stand severely compromised. Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, in The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track (2006), have exposed the recent undemocratic methods of the Republican majority in congress; yet Democrats can be expected at best to moderate these undemocratic majoritarian tendencies somewhat, not to give up the delusions of power. Similarly, Thomas M. Keck, in The Most Activist Supreme Court in History: The Road to Modern Judicial Conservatism (2004), and before him Herman Schwartz, ed., in The Rehnquist Court: Judicial Activism on the Right (2002), have written about the erosion of rights under the conservative current Supreme Court.[9] But it is precisely this sort of top-down, unaccountable, elitist imposition of liberalism that progressives like Starr have counted on for generations; now that the unrepresentative power system endorsed by them is dismantling civil rights in favor of a highly corporatist philosophy, what reason do they have to complain? [10]

Progressives, it seems, beholden to the vital center as ever, seem to want it both ways: they want high concentrations of power, but in their hands only, and to fight the kinds of crusades they desire. They cry foul when the other side grabs the ball and outplays them. Nothing would seem to signal the incongruity of their advocacy of egalitarian improvements without taking care of civil liberties as the reinvention of Alan Wolfe, who at the peak of the culture wars (prelude to the political revolution soon to come), wrote in One Nation, After All (1998) of a basic agreement among Americans on fundamental values, and who now asks in Does Democracy Still Work? (2006) if in the “new politics of democracy” his previously admired citizenry is informed enough and represented by politicians disinterested enough for American democracy to deliver any of the promises it has kept in the past. Wolfe’s earlier book can now be read as a projective fantasy by a social scientist enamored of the vital center: he interviewed selected suburbanites to describe a consensus that accorded almost precisely with the actual fuzzy politics of the 1990s (a lot of praise for tolerance, and little commitment to actual liberties). His new book admits the erosion of professional disinterest, the sine qua non for a progressive politics based on the reliability of the expert, but hopes that trust in scientific rationality will soon return, as the electorate tires of ideological politics.

Contemporary American progressivism is the naïve twin sibling of the more honestly presented neoliberal and neoconservative ideologies, not to mention the newly empowered Christian Right. So much of the communitarian politics of virtue has been absorbed by this progressivism that it is difficult to see how it can all be flushed out. Ekirch and Brands seem to have it right after all. At the self-declared apogee of the American empire comes the very nadir of individualist liberalism. In her 1989 essay “The Liberalism of Fear,” Judith Shklar asserted that ‘What liberalism requires is the possibility of making the evil of cruelty and fear the basic norm of its political practices and prescriptions.” Defending classical individualist liberalism against its communitarian critics, she gave first priority to basic liberties, above considerations of fairness. Not a single powerful American voice can be heard defending this skeptical liberalism today.


1. See Ruy A. Teixeira and Joel Rogers, America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters (2001), and John B. Judis and Ruy A. Teixeira, The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002).

2. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (1949) was the bible for the liberals of that era bent on compromising freedoms under threat from the communist crisis. It retained scriptural value for 1990s liberals like Clinton and Gore, offering their own noxious concoction of neoliberalism, neoconservatism, and communitarianism to replace the vacuum of meaning after the end of the Cold War.

3. H. W. Brands’s perceptive The Strange Death of American Liberalism (2002) is written in the same vein as Ekirch, and comes to more or less the same conclusion, in this instance focusing on the period after World War II.

4. See, for instance, Paul Goodman’s People or Personnel: Decentralizing and the Mixed System (1965).

5. Douglas S. Massey’s Return of the “L” Word: A Liberal Vision for the New Century (2005) is typical of the slew of progressive manifestos. It calls for centralization, concentration, and regulation in all areas of life, public and private, without considering for a moment the erosion of liberties this has already caused. Massey’s explanation for the demise of liberalism, common to his fellow academics, is to blame the exploitation of the Democrats’ race-based programs by ill-motivated Republican politicians for demagogic purposes.

6. If Gore and Reich yearn for a return to enlightenment-era reason, Drew Westen, in The Political Brain: How People Vote and How to Change Their Minds: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (2007), advises Democratic politicians to recognize the degree to which unconscious networks of emotional association can be easily activated, and to shun the objective, policy-based, detailed, rationalistic counterarguments to conservative goals they have been so fond of in the past. The goal, as in so much other recent guidance offered by political consultants and academics enamored of the power of language in politics, is to imitate the conservatives and outdo them at their own game—presumably toward a politics even more empty of substance than we already see.

7. Sam Harris, in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004), and more recently in Letter to a Christian Nation: A Challenge to the Faith of America (2007), addresses an old-fashioned anti-religious polemic to the Christian warriors, but his effectiveness is severely diluted by his having swallowed the “war on terror” (or for him, the war against Islam) without any reservations: “We will continue to spill blood, in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas” (The End of Faith, p. 53).

8. This is like Kevin Phillips’s prognosis of an emerging republican majority for the 1970s and thereafter without probing to what purpose such a majority might work.

9. The trend seems likely to dramatically escalate in the years to come, under the enhanced conservative majority of the Roberts court.

10. John B. Judis, also of The New Republic, complains in The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of the Public Trust (2000) of business elites shunning their public responsibilities in the new era of conservative dominance, whereas they used to be civic-minded in the Progressive and New Deal eras. Again, the progressives have dug their own grave, and must now lie in it without screaming for the angels of mercy.

This essay appeared originally in The Contemporary Review (Oxford) and is excerpted from the book Confronting American Fascism: Essays on the Collapse of the Democratic Order, 2001-2017. Shivani is also the author of Why Did Trump Win? Chronicling the Stages of Neoliberal Reactionism and This Is the Only Way to Solve the Immigration Problem: A Radical Human Rights Approach. A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters: A Novel and Logography: A Poetry Omnibus are forthcoming in early 2019.

Anis Shivani is the author of many critically-acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. His recent political books include Why Did Trump Win?, A Radical Human Rights Approach to Immigration, and Confronting American Fascism