Who owns US Liberalism? (And why it matters)

July 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

The conflation of liberalism with centrism is a topic I’ve discussed before and no doubt will again. Like with all arguments about political terminology it’s an unwinnable argument, by its very nature; I can use “liberal” to mean a certain thing and someone else can attach a very different meaning and there’s no ultimate arbitration on the matter available. Language is arbitrary – but vitally important, nonetheless. In this post, though, I want to look at the

Liberalism is on the rise in the US. Nearly 10% more of the population self-ID as “liberal” today as they did when I was born (Gallup), up to 26%. That’s less than identify as conservative or moderate, but it’s still a large chunk of the population and a plurality if not a majority of the Democratic party’s vote. One can reasonably assume that self-identified socialists make up a small subset of the “liberal” wing in a liberal/moderate/conservative choice poll, though I’ve not found any reliable numbers to give an estimate of how small. What over a quarter of the US population identify as, to put it mildly, matters. This is doubly the case because people don’t just hold opinions en bloc: if someone identifies with a political movement or faction, they’re generally more favourable to literally any political viewpoint if it comes from one of their own tribe (as has been well attested from various studies)

This is why the question of who owns liberalism matters, and why the fact that two specific interest groups within the Democratic party have effectively come upon a mutually agreeable answer they want to push hard on this subject is important. Especially when those groups are the Democratic Socialists of America and the financially powerful centrist bloc within the Democrats. Both of these groups want to push the same answer for different reasons – that liberalism is the ideology of the old guard, to be associated predominantly with figures like Pelosi and the Clintons. In today’s heavily partisan system, being seen as what authentic liberalism means is a bonus for the Democrat establishment with voters where a generation ago it might not have been, and it helps separate them from the more electorally risky DSA. Meanwhile, the DSA benefits too. By pushing a manufactured binary between “establishment centrist liberals” (conflating those otherwise not at all necessarily connected words) and “socialists” on the other hand, they can position themselves and thus socialism specifically as the only route to a more radical, transformative political solution, giving socialism more traction on the progressive wing of US discourse and harnessing the energy of many younger activists whose activism can then be shaped to have a distinctively socialist flavour.

So far, so good for everyone – but there’s a catch, and the catch is that neat binary splits, in political rhetoric as everywhere else, are a really bad way of resolving reality. Both sides of this particular split have particular sets of key policy goals and long-held opinions that may not fit an ideal route for the Democrats.

The DSA is a democratic socialist party – its heroes include people like Sanders and Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, and the policy solutions include (along with a wide range of mainstream reforms like the introduction of single-payer healthcare), classic socialist ones like a job guarantee. The Sanders/Corbyn model, however, isn’t always especially radical on some areas, including hot-button topics like border control: Sanders has called open border policies a gimmick and attacked them for “doing away with the concept of a nation state”, and even Ocasio-Cortez, the charismatic and talented younger face of the movement, has couched her calls to abolish ICE in terms of reminding people of the pre-ICE system rather than calling for permanent loosening of immigration controls. There is no leftist pride that can be taken in Sanders-style blanket opposition to trade deals, either; reducing tariff barriers and similar has been a huge force in lifting people worldwide out of poverty. It would be unfair of me to tie the DSA and the new socialists too heavily to Sanders, of course, but at the same time it’s clear that the political tradition upon which the new movement is building is that of a social-democratic, ultimately statist, left; the new US left does not talk so much about cooperativism, open borders, unconditional minimum incomes, disarmament, and other hallmarks of what in other countries might be liberal-radical or ecosocialist-green progressives. Needless to say, the Democratic establishment aren’t all jumping on those bandwagons either.

To put it a different way, drawing the divides between a simple “socialist” grouping which gets to solely represent “the left” and a “liberal” grouping which gets to be run by the establishment may be mutually pleasing to partisans of both of those groups but bad for radical and progressive politics in the USA. Taking away people’s linguistic space to describe themselves as both liberal and radically progressive should be seen as a deliberate railroading tactic, and one that members of all groups involved should see as beneath them. The US’ political structure is pretty bad for permitting difference and fluidity between parties: it would be an especially great shame if the socialist movement, so often in the past losers from exactly that system, were to work towards building a new pole in a polarised system rather than embracing the need for a wide range of progressive stances, some of which will fit more and some less well into their specific movement ideals.

All liberals should in many ways applaud a number of things that groups like the DSA have achieved, such as their effectiveness in pushing single-payer healthcare firmly onto TV screens. Brave calls by Ocasio-Cortez to take the necessary steps to abolish ICE should also give liberal radicals hope that DSA-backed candidates will in the coming years be persuadable away from a Sanders-type isolationist model and prove allies on most of the immediate substantive political fights. It is, however, I think important to avoid a situation where the only sort of progressive you can be is a DSA progressive and the only sort of liberal you can be is a centrist liberal. If partisans are allowed to keep pursuing that sort of political wedge-forming, it will do a great disservice to any sort of forward-looking democratic politics in America at a time when radical ideas to build a better United States are likely to be more needed than ever.

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