Liberalism without the left

Lately – and probably in no small part due to the US presidential race – I’ve been thinking about the extent to which the robustness of liberalism as a political ideology depends on the forces pressuring it from the left.

Today, when pressed on questions of economic justice, many liberals respond with tired market dogma, redbait, or simply wilt. Some try and conflate a caricatured “political correctness” with “cultural Marxism”, as if class politics are just an organic extension of the cultural politics found today on many campuses (or vise versa).

In the 1960s liberalism was deeply engaged with questions of economic and distributive justice. The patron saint of liberal political theory, John Rawls, wrote a hugely influential book on the subject which even conceded some ground to socialist theories of public ownership (revealingly, Rawls’ second major book – published more than two decades later – virtually abandoned economic issues and instead attempted to reconcile liberal and communitarian identity politics).

The political and economic backdrop for Rawls’ thinking was very different from what exists today: the US (and most liberal democracies) still had relatively powerful labour movements; the civil rights and antiwar movements loomed large; New Deal welfarism had yet to collapse; Keynesianism was still the economic orthodoxy du jour; a good portion of the world was officially committed to communism and Western socialist parties were still present as both a political and ideological force.


The British general strike, 1926

By the 1990s liberals no longer had to engage with communism, socialism, or social democracy out of necessity and responded to the right instead. The resulting political settlement combined the neoliberal economic theories ascendent since the 1970s with a cultural politics that broke with conservatives in some respects around issues of pluralism and identity, while globalization and the resulting upward redistribution of wealth continued apace. The social bases and institutional structures that had sustained and empowered the left for generations, so brutally and effectively assaulted by the right throughout the 1980s, withered.

In other words, liberalism seems to be at its most robust when it’s been forced to grapple with a strong and mobilized left for an extended period of time: In the absence of one, it sets itself in opposition to the right (a much easier and more comfortable task); when suddenly confronted with one (as it’s starting to be now), it is unprepared and retreats into tired old truisms and cliches.


Nothing left

Thanks to the emerging debate (if you can call it that) among the American liberal punditry prompted by the Bernie Sanders surge, I’m reminded of this evergreen passage of Adolph Reed’s from his Harper’s cover story “Nothing Left” (written in 2014):

If the left is tied to a Democratic strategy that, at least since the Clinton Administration, tries to win elections by absorbing much of the right’s social vision and agenda, before long the notion of a political left will have no meaning. For all intents and purposes, that is what has occurred. If the right sets the terms of debate for the Democrats, and the Democrats set the terms of debate for the left, then what can it mean to be on the political left? The terms “left” and “progressive” — and in practical usage the latter is only a milquetoast version of the former — now signify a cultural sensibility rather than a reasoned critique of the existing social order. Because only the right proceeds from a clear, practical utopian vision, “left” has come to mean little more than “not right.

Watching the liberal commentariat (and the Clinton campaign) spin tales about how Sanders’ plans are “unrealistic” – while all the while claiming to fidelity to the ideals they represent – is like witnessing a re-run of the “third way” politics that dominated the 1990s and early 2000s.


Politicians like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton didn’t oppose their own bases outright, because that would have been too obvious. Instead they claimed, in increasingly absurd terms, to be broadly supportive of social democratic goals while all the while chipping away at their institutional and ideological foundations. This was very often done on electoral grounds: i.e. “We have to triangulate to win, and winning is the only way to preserve the things we care about…”.

The result was predictable.

The “Overton Window” – which describes the frame inside which political debate is permitted to play out in mainstream discourse – shifted ever further to the right.

The Clinton camp’s latest line of attack is that pursuing a new healthcare goal- as Sanders wants to do – will be “divisive” and put the Affordable Care Act at risk because the Republicans will resist. The implication is that, even at an early stage in the primary season, the DNC and its base should dilute their aspirations to more or less whatever the right will permit in some unknowable political future. (It’s an especially ironic position, since defenders of the ACA’s inadequacies often claimed it would be a stepping stone to true universality, but I digress…)

If your actual goal is to make life qualitatively better for people – even gradually – conceding your opponents’ arguments before the fight has even begun is not a constructive position: it’s downright reactionary.


Notes on “Stop Hillary”

I just finished Doug Henwood’s cover essay in this month’s edition of Harper’s Magazine, which makes a strong case against a Hillary Clinton presidency (and has quite a few liberals riled up). A few bits of amusing or interesting miscellany I learned:

  • Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham crossed a picket line on their first date, with Bill apparently smooth-talking his way past a guard at Yale Law School’s art gallery (where unionized workers were on strike).
  • Hillary Rodham campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and has been a right-leaning liberal more or less from the outset (once self identifying as an “agnostic intellectual liberal and emotional conservative”).
  • Ms. Clinton’s legislative achievements as a Senator for New York were incredibly modest. Having been elected to the Democratic stronghold despite never having lived there, many of her sponsored bills concerned purely symbolic issues.



Henwood isn’t as tough on the Clintons as Christopher Hitchens in his lethal polemic No One Left To Lie To (2000) but the general picture he paints is the same. The Clintons, in this left wing counternarrative, function more or less as a kind of self-serving political corporation: opportunistic, triangulating, and instinctively conservative. This last point is key, because it separates them from other Democrats of the same generation who embraced the post-Keynesian, Reaganite consensus with less ease.

Henwood’s narrative is hard to disagree with. Having shunned anything remotely radical as undergraduates, both the Clintons pursued solidly MOR careers in politics and law. Early on, Bill embraced a tactic which would later be a mainstay of revisionist 1990s liberalism (and New Labour under Tony Blair) which involved carefully picking battles with individuals or groups on the left – often unions – to shore up “bipartisan” credentials and capture “the centre” by peeling away votes from the right. Hillary practiced law in a notoriously pro-business Arkansas firm and served on a number of corporate boards, including Wal-Mart’s. As Secretary of State, Henwood suggests H.Clinton was marginalized by the White House (this may go some way towards explaining her notably hawkish posturing since 2012, though this appears to be as much ideological as it does tactical).

The clincher comes towards the end of the piece, when Henwood describes the Clintons’ post-2012 manoeuvring and speculates about the future:

Since leaving the State Department, Hillary has devoted herself to what we can only call “Clinton Inc”. This fund-raising, favour dispensing machine is key to understanding her joint enterprise with Bill. Unlike the Bush family, an old-style WASP dynasty for all W’s populist bluster and blunder, the Clintons are arrivistes who approach politics in a highly neoliberal manner. That means non-stop promotion, huge book advances, and fat speaking fees…It means various Clinton foundations, which were first led by Bill, but now include Hillary and Chelsea. According to a Wall Street Journal investigation, they’ve collectively raised $2 to $3 billion since 1992, three quarters of it from business interests, with finance the leading sector. 

H. Clinton’s neoconservative posturing, illustrated most effectively by this devilishly difficult Mother Jones quiz, is already attracting support from right wingers like Robert Kagan and Max Boot who, keen to stave off the isolationist streak growing in the Republican Party, may be willing to go blue if it means getting a “muscular” foreign policy in return.

In a very prescient-seeming conclusion, Dick Morris – an apostate liberal who once worked for the Clintons – predicts for Henwood that Hillary’s 2016 campaign will run itself against the Obama record, depicting it as a “beautiful” but ineffectual and toothless vision in need of revision by a firmer hand. Only a credible figure on the populist left of the Democratic Party, argues Morris, could arrest Hillary Clinton’s march to the White House (as Barack Obama, once believed to be on that wing of the party, did successfully in 2008).

Who knows what will transpire in American politics between now and the 2016 presidential election? But with the current frontrunner for the Democrats a figure decidedly to the right of their current leader (who is hardly the hard left “socialist” his most hysterical critics have branded him), American progressives who are concerned with growing inequality, poverty, and an increasingly hawkish approach abroad should pick up this month’s Harper’s and give Henwood’s essay a read. (Some loud words of encouragement to figures like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Saunders probably wouldn’t hurt either…)

Henwood’s essay “Stop Hillary: Vote No to a Clinton Dynasty” can be read in full here [paywalled]: