EssaysFeatureThe Left and the Crisis of Democracy: A Symposium

Further Thoughts on Putting Liberal Democracy First

Why we need consensus on the democratic left to defend liberal institutions

This symposium contains essays by Michael Walzer, Sheri Berman, Leo Casey, and Jeffrey C. Isaac that reflect on the principles and possibilities of social democracy and liberal democracy in our current political times. The pieces constitute extensions of the authors’ presentations in the “Crisis of Democracy” panel that took place at the American Political Science Association 2018 Annual Meeting, organized by Leo Casey and originally convened to respond to pieces published in a special issue of Dissent magazine

I’ve been obsessively writing about the dangers of Trump and Trumpism for the past two years. This obsession has taken over my Facebook feed, originally intended as a way to showcase my band; has completely hijacked my first sabbatical leave in 20 years; has transformed me into a very active blogger and writer at Public Seminar; and has resulted in the publication of a book– #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One — that is currently available as a free PDF download, and will soon be available in print, through an experimental collaboration with Public Seminar Books and OR Books.

Truth be told, I am no Pollyanna about liberal democracy. My first book was a neo-Marxist critique of pluralist approaches to power. My third, Democracy in Dark Times, was . . . about the dark times confronting liberal democracy. It was published 20 years ago. I think it holds up well, and I stand by the basic, and rather pessimistic, approach laid out there, with two caveats: (i) while I predicted a protracted decline or erosion or stasis of liberal democracy, and saw right-wing populism as one symptom of this decline, I did not anticipate the severity of the crisis currently facing liberal democracy, nor did I anticipate the extent to which far-right political forces would come to power in many European societies and especially in the U.S.; (ii) and for this reason, I was pretty adamant that the kind of “radical democratic” initiatives about which I was writing, while they were not anti-liberal, were not liberal either.

The danger from the right to the basic institutions of liberal democracy is now very great.

And as I contemplate the political scene, and especially the emergence of forces on the right but also to some extent on the left that are rhetorically averse to or even hostile toward “liberalism,” I have come to believe that it is essential to defend (and then extend) the core values and institutions of liberal democracy, however flawed they are, and to see myself as a kind of liberal. A left liberal to be sure.

As a left-leaning liberal, I consider our political system deeply flawed and plagued by social and economic injustices, and I identify in many ways with those socialist and radical traditions that have historically contested these injustices. As a liberal on the left, I am a strong and principled supporter of core liberal values — individual autonomy; freedom of inquiry, speech, expression, and association; intellectual and political pluralism — and believe that all legitimate efforts to promote greater justice or popular empowerment must be consistent with these values. I thus regard liberal democracy as an imperfect, precarious, and indispensable achievement of twentieth century political struggles whose defense and improvement is essential at a time when it is under assault from the right, by free market fundamentalists opposed to almost all forms of public policy designed to remedy injustice, and by right-wing populists committed to a form of nationalism that is xenophobic, masculinist, strongly authoritarian, and fanatically anti-liberal.

To say that liberal democracy is under assault from the right is not to say that the left is beyond reproach.

And indeed, my Dissent piece was an effort to explain why I could not share the enthusiastic embrace of “democratic socialism” expressed in the pages of Jacobin by Bhaskar Sunkara and my friend Joe Schwartz, and in the pages of Dissent by Sarah Leonard and others. I think it is very important to be as clear as possible about what one stands for and how it relates to other positions out there in public. And this often involves using, and arguing about, identity markers, such as “liberal” or “liberal democrat” or “left liberal” or “democratic socialist” or “social democrat”—that are both necessary and also often very imprecise, reductive, and even unhelpful.

As a political theorist, I believe it is important to use the knowledge and perspectives developed over decades of reading, writing, teaching, and learning, to clarify public issues to the best of my ability. As a public intellectual, I think it is important to do this with a sense of judiciousness, as well as with an awareness that whatever I say will surely come up against other interpretations that will require a real public wrestling with complicated matters about which there will never be consensus.

That said, in these dark times, I think it is very important to avoid what Freud, in a different context, called “the narcissism of small differences.” “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them,” Freud wrote.

I fear that we on the broad democratic left might be falling into such a trap.

And so, from the left, a number of writers in Jacobin are intent on making clear that they are socialists, if democratic socialists, and not social democrats or liberals.

And from the “right of this left,” social democrats such as my colleague Sheri Berman, and in a different way Conor Friedsdorf, are intent on validating the left claim, though with a different valence, insisting that the Jacobin people, many now associated with DSA — which used to be situated rather squarely within the Dissent orbit — are socialists but not social democrats and perhaps not democrats at all — and that this should count against them.

If, for example, Sunkara and Schwartz want to claim the mantle of “left” for themselves, Berman wants to make sure that unless they make moves toward the center left, they should just stay where they are, for it is on the center-left that progress has in the past been achieved, and where hope for the future lies.

Meanwhile, writing in Democracy Journal, Sean Wilentz insists that it is liberalism, and not socialism of any kind — whether “democratic socialism” or “social democracy” — that has been and remains the source of redemption of the promise of America.

These discussions highlight real differences. But how important are these differences, especially now?

I think they are much less important than they are being made out to be.

My “Putting Liberal Democracy First” was an effort to promote a better mutual understanding, and a kind of “overlapping consensus” on the democratic left. The Dissent editors wanted to change the title to “Why I am No Longer a Socialist.” I refused. It is probably true that I am no longer a socialist. Or at least I do not find this label very suitable to my political sense of self. But that was not my point. My point was not to distance myself from self-styled socialist interlocutors, but dialogically to explain why I thought it is important now to join together in defense of liberal democratic institutions that are the only real institutional means of further justice. I do not imagine that Bhaskar Sunkara or Sarah Leonard will ever see the world the way that I do. I imagine that in the best of all possible worlds, there would be many parties, and they might well work for one different than the one that I would be inclined to support. But we do not, and probably never will, live in such a world. And in this world, now, it is important to work together.

I have real problems with aspects of DSA, and with what some of its leaders and some of its candidates say. It is important for me to express these concerns. At the same time, when Trump was elected I rejoined DSA after a 20 year hiatus; I serve as the faculty adviser to the Young Democratic Socialist group on my campus; and I have written two pieces supporting the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez victory, and have given money to her campaign. Because her campaign, and the DSA revival it portends, are an important part of the broad democratic left that will hopefully join together and grow together.

For the same reason, in Democracy Journal, I wrote about “Truce Time.” It is very important that the Democratic party mainstream understand that forces to its left have an important role to play, and always have had an important role to play. For Wilentz to lay claim to a pristine “liberalism” that excludes this left is both wrong and foolish — a foolishness mirrored on the left by the many who denounce liberalism and do not realize that just as liberals need radicals, radicals need liberals. Especially now.

This is why I think it would be a good thing for us to be a little less fastidious about our labels, and a little more open to each other. This involves a real discussion of differences, done in a spirit of agonistic respect; but also a real willingness to work together across those differences, which of course is only possible if those differences are kept in their proper place.

Wilentz, Berman, Sunkara, Leonard, Walzer, Casey, Isaac — the differences between us are not that great, especially now. And in a political sense, these differences are irrelevant to our very powerful opponents, who are indeed enemies, and who would laugh at our tortuous efforts to draw fine distinctions among ourselves.

I am not a Rawlsian. Nor am I a fan of the writing of Cass Sunstein. But Sunstein, in a Rawlsian vein, once wrote about the importance of “incompletely theorized agreements.” Right now, I think it is important for the people and groups of the democratic left to work together without completely theorizing the “ground” of the work. Such collaboration won’t simply happen on its own. It needs to be promoted. That’s why we need to argue, but also identify common ground, however tentative and fragile it might be, and to cultivate this ground.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One,  just published by Public Seminar Books/OR Books.

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