In the periphery of the circles in which I travel, people do not actively defend what it means to be a member of the Democratic Party. They come on much stronger when they say they are against the Republican Party. And why not? The Republican Party is the party of old money, inheritance, white supremacy and fundamentalist Christianity. Republicans and their followers are up front about it and don’t apologize. By implication, a Democrat is supposed to be opposed to such extremes. But what Democrats are for is simply left implied, and dissolves into a mist before the end of the conversation.
The case of the relationship between liberals and conservatives is pretty much similar. Long before political parties, the conservatives were considered to be the Party of Order, proudly supporting class, race and gender hierarchies, while proudly supporting obedience to authority and respecting tradition. In the time of French Revolution, to be liberal also meant taking a firm stand by opposing conservatives. But today, in the United States, to be liberal seems to be a weak program: more toleration, less inequality and less openness to experiment.
Above all, to be a Democrat or a liberal means you are not extreme. In fact, liberals have abandoned so many of the traditions they once fought for historically that the socialist movement has, unfortunately, taken over the causes of liberals ranging from state intervention in the economy, to raising the minimum wage, and introducing single payer healthcare as if this were the core of socialism. The fact that Bernie Sanders can claim to be a “democratic socialist”, promoting a program that is not even the equal of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s liberalism, demonstrates the failure of liberalism to defend its own best heritage.
Academic socialist leftists add more confusion to the mix by blithely calling the economic and political organization in the United States “neo-liberal” as if this term explained everything. The term neoliberal does not describe the state of the economy very well. It is not simply a return to Adam Smith’s economic liberalism. More importantly, liberalism is primarily a political stance that has undergone at least eight changes in the last 220 years. The fact that the general public has no understanding of this term, “neo-liberal”, doesn’t seem to phase these academics. The term does little to help the public understand the slide of liberalism into a morass.
Just as the Democratic Party and liberalism have allowed themselves to be defined by the Republican Party on the one hand and the conservatives on the other, the same fate has occurred in the case of what democracy is. During the 1920’s and 1930’s there was genuine concern that the American and Europe masses of people did not seem to act as democratically as Alexander Tocqueville had imagined. A few political theorists started asking questions about the political structure of electoral politics because so many people didn’t seem to show much of an interest in the candidates or the way issues were framed. But a not-so-funny thing happened to most political scientists in the 1930’s, at least in the United States. Instead of challenging the set-up of these electoral processes, political scientists turned outward, put on their best anti-communist face and instead invented the term “totalitarianism” to describe both fascism and Stalinism. The term totalitarian was toned down during World War II because the Soviets were on the side of the U.S., but the term “totalitarian” returned with a vengeance after the war to describe communist societies.
In the late 1940’s political scientists abandoned the very serious study of the problems of democracy, which were pointed out by left liberals like philosopher John Dewey, cultural critic Upton Sinclair and historian Charles Beard in the twenties and thirties. Instead they accepted a new right wing, elitist theory of democracy first championed by Joseph Schumpeter. Democracy was all about voting for the circulation of elites.
To sum up, in the case of Democratic Party, the political tradition of liberals and democratic theory the pattern is the same. All three words in practice have slid to the center right of the political spectrum. This rightward slide has occurred behind the scenes because it they have been contrasted favorably with the extreme right – Republican Party, conservative elites or fascists. The Democratic Party, liberals and elite democratic theory have also been favorably been compared to the extreme left – communism. In fact a Cold War Liberal like Daniel Bell could even dissolve the term liberal altogether in the book The End of Ideology. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. would write a book called The Vital Center. Liberals for him were synonymous with centrists.
What I’m going to argue is that the best of the left wing liberal tradition is worth preserving and, as Ralph Nader might say, has nothing in common with the Democratic Party. The practice and politics of the Democratic Party is not liberal and never has been. Left-wing liberals have to face the fact they have no party.
A Whirlwind Tour of Liberalism
It is safe to say that what it means to be liberal has had different political meanings in different historical periods. According to political philosopher Stephen Holmes, in the glory days of the French Revolution, being liberal meant being against monarchies and aristocratic privilege. Liberals were militant against the church, claiming it was corrupt and filled with superstition, even as they defended religious tolerance. Liberals were opposed to censorship, and promoted freedom of assembly. They defended free trade against monopolistic trading companies before the working class and poor were driven into the mines and factories as industrial capitalism showed its full face.
In the early 19th century liberalism became entangled with the industrial revolution and moved towards the center of the political spectrum. Liberalism leaned right in the second half of the 19th century, buying into philosopher Herbert Spencer’s concept of “rugged individualism” and then slid into bed with social Darwinism. The early part of 20th century liberalism started moving left again with the progressive movement in the United States. For a while, some liberals were even open to hearing the communist case, with philosophers Bertrand Russell and John Dewey being sympathetic for a while.
Then in the 1930’s, catalyzed by the Depression, liberalism came to grips with the fact that free market capitalism wasn’t working and it embraced the economic policies of John Maynard Keynes. After World War II, Cold War liberals turned rightward, embracing the ideology of the Cold War. The Civil Rights and the anti-war movements of the 60’s drove liberalism leftward again in the form of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
As the growth rate of the capitalist economy slowed in the late 1960’s and the early 1970s, left liberalism slid rightward and has never recovered. For at least since the late 1970’s what has stood for liberalism was defined by neo-conservatives in the early 1980s and by right wing Democrats in the late 1980’s (the Democratic Leadership Council)
It’s not as if liberals are alone in using words that have little relation to a concrete policy. As many of us know, much fraternal blood has been spilled for well over 250 years between social democrats, Marxist Leninists, council communists and anarchists over what socialism should and shouldn’t be. But at least we socialists understand that in the United States, we simply have no party. Left liberals are still in denial.
Is the Democratic Party Left Liberal?
Back in the days of the French Revolution, no liberal government would put up with monarchies, even if they existed in other countries. For a short while after the French Revolution, the French government unsuccessfully tried to destabilize monarchies in other counties. Today Democratic presidents have no problems meeting with kings or queens and hammering out diplomatic agreements with them. Claiming to be a “democracy” it forms alliances with states that would be condemned as ultra-royalists 200 years ago.
Neither does the Democratic Party have any problems with inherited wealth. We see no bills in Congress coming from Democrats seeking to abolish inheritance or tax the inheritance of many of its members. These days, members of the Democratic Party do not attack the Catholic Church for its wealth or call for the jailing of priests for child molestation. Separation of church and state? How many Democrats are there who don’t support the religious theocracy of Israel?
Protection of free speech? No Democratic presidents had any trouble with raiding homes (the Palmer Raids), McCarthy witch-hunts, or involvement with the CIA and its anti-communist operations. As for free market policy, the Democratic Party has ignored what the best of liberals understood 80 years ago – a free market doesn’t work very well. Drone warfare, militarization of the police: these wouldn’t be problems for left liberals of the Enlightenment?
The Republican Party is my class enemy. But sometimes I respect my enemies. Republicans form in clear tendencies; they fight, undermine each other and violate virtually every one of Aristotle’s fallacies. However, one thing I admire is that they don’t swear allegiance to each other before, during or after the primaries the way Bernie Sanders has done to Hillary.
How obvious does it have to be that the left liberals have no party? Is the coming genuflection of Bernie Sanders to the neo-con in waiting, Queen Hillary, not enough to convince you? The Democratic Party stands for nothing but capitalism – before and during the primaries. It does what it has done for as long as I can remember: it presents a boogieman Republican – whether it be Trump, McCain, Bush or whoever else. It then defends itself not by the sweet dreams it promises to deliver, but the Republican nightmares it promises to forestall.
Why Bother Writing About Left Liberals?
I do not make these criticisms because I hope that if left liberals build a “Tea Party of the Left” that I would join. We socialists have our own work to do. I consider the pessimism of the Frankfort School, structuralism, post-structuralism and the nihilist and relativist posing of post modernism as a 50 year embarrassment, and it is these folks who blithely paint right, center and left liberalism with the same brush. I think the ideas, programs and skepticism of John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell and John Dewey are just as relevant today as they were at the time they were written. Anyone who thinks these left liberals are worth defending should have nothing to do with the Democratic Party.
Neither do I think that liberals and socialists are ultimately “on the same side” as the term “progressive” seems to imply. Liberals are closer to conservatives than liberals are to left socialists because both liberals and conservatives are committed to capitalism. In the long run, left socialists and left liberals will differ. But in the short run, it would be good to have a left liberal party for company while we hopefully build our revolutionary socialist party.
One last way to make my point is by naming names. I trust Ralph Nader more than I trust Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky or Cornell West. Ralph Nader is a straight up New Deal Liberal. He knows the Democratic Party is the graveyard for left liberals. Neither does he play games with the term “socialism”. He is against it and he says so. On the other hand, while I see little or no difference between Bernie Sanders’ program and anything Ralph Nader proposes, Bernie insists on calling his New Deal program “democratic socialism” – and he joins the Democratic Party to implement it! Why would I trust that? Then there are the Left Gatekeepers who are also untrustworthy. Noam Chomsky writes about workers’ councils between elections then every four years tells us to vote for a Democrat. Cornell West talks about democratic socialism, yet he too, instructs us to vote for a Democrat when push turns to shove.
Why doesn’t the socialist left have a party? We have good reasons. Socialist organizations were crushed in the 40’s and 50 in the US by corporations, Cold War liberals, and spy agencies. In addition, to the extent that the socialist parties are really a party of the poor, working class and some middle class, building a party costs money, is time consuming and takes years. Most of us have little time and not much money.
But what excuse do left liberals have? Most left liberals are upper middle class. They have the resources to build a party. Why don’t they? What keeps left liberals from pouring resources into the Green Party, which has always been at least truly left liberal? Clearly the number of people in the United States who are for Bernie Sanders convinces me that the population would welcome such as party. For decades surveys have shown that Americans say there should be more than two parties. What is the hold-up? It’s past time.
Bruce Lerro has taught for over 25 years as an adjunct Professor of Psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to the three books he’s written, found on Amazon Read more of his articles and get involved atPlanning Beyond CapitalismFollow us on FacebookandTwitter. He can be reached at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org