During the Trump years, while many were relishing the carnivalesque thrill of “owning the libs”, the libs were rethinking themselves and plotting their route back to power. Within four years they had consolidated the elites into a united front, while American elites have become more united than ever. They also helpfully described to us how they captured and activated the major institutions, including a nationwide NGO-activist network, big unions and others, in a Time article called “The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election”.
What the liberals have done is to synthesize appealing elements of each of their rivals once in power while also appearing more moderate than either. Their policy proposals have included major national infrastructure spending, including expanding the train system, a capital gains tax increase and a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Whether they fulfill these promises is another question, I know. I have to be honest though. These are good policies. Sorry.
This does leave the remaining Trump inspired populist right in a new and somewhat awkward position. While they have spent the last four years talking about abandoning Reaganomics and becoming critics of the free market, the libs have already adopted national economic revival policies you might have hoped or expected from Trump himself and have gone much further with them. It also leaves the left in a different position that I think hasn’t yet sunk in. To me the most potent analysis the socialist left has offered about liberals since the days of the 90s Third Way has been some variation on a critique of “progressive neoliberalism”. The liberal elites employed cultural politics as a kind of ersatz egalitarianism, our argument went, while they hoarded economic wealth and power as real economic inequality grew. I’ve noticed this line of criticism becoming common since Bernie lost, right at the moment it became kind of inaccurate. Now that the liberal mainstream has broken with neoliberalism and has offered a comparatively dialed down version of the left’s misguided ultra-woke cultural turn, the once vital criticism of “progressive neoliberalism” no longer makes that much sense. These might be coping narratives to avoid seeing that the libs have eaten everyone’s lunch.
To get an insight into what liberals were thinking about privately all this time, I’m reminded of Obama’s reading list from 2018. One of the books he mentioned was Matthew Stewart’s analysis of the growing class divide and in particular the privilege of the educated professionals of what he called the 9.9%. The analysis was likely read primarily by the 9.9% and it warned of the instability, resentment and potential violent backlash being produced by the gap in wealth, education and power. “As the population of the resentful expands” he wrote “we are next in line for the chopping block”. Mobs storming the Capitol a few years later and hanging a noose outside was probably something close enough to what he and his readers imagined. So they were thinking about this kind of eventuality.
Another book on the list was Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. In one way, you could read this as not being that surprising. Obama’s politics have always had a communitarian tinge. But Deneen’s criticisms were fundamental and civilizational. He was arguing that America and the entire liberal Western order could not replenish the dwindling civilizational fuel that had kept it going this far. The fact that the very liberals it critiqued were reading and thinking seriously about these ideas shows that they were always more pragmatic and flexible than the caricature of the libs suggested.
I was thinking about this while watching Adam Curtis’s latest documentary when he told the story of Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao, who was brought out of a long exile to lead the Cultural Revolution during a time when Mao’s leadership was suffering a crisis. She brutally swept away his opponents using the theatre of mobs and public moral shaming and when she was done, she herself, along with the Gang of Four, were swept away too. She was put on trial, sentenced and committed suicide.
In the same way during this populist period of liberal crisis, the radical left, the anarchists in particular, were unleashed as a fanatical vigilante force, permitted to indulge all of their sadistic and violent fantasies on a proscribed Trump-voting white working class, to enact a campaign of terror and de-Trumpification on behalf of the elites. This came in the form of rioting, burning things down, getting people fired, getting the media to attack ordinary citizens and so on. The whole “cancel culture” phenomena was also a form of purging the non-compliant within the elite institutions. Now that their services are no longer required however, because the libs are back in power, you can already see signs that they’re being decommissioned. This is why you saw Jim Clyburn and others criticizing “abolish the police” as soon as the Dems got back into power and why you’ll probably see an increased clamp down on antifa vigilanteism and a lot of Trump-era money draining out of the media hit-piece outlets and the anti-extremist projects of the foundations and NGOs.
With a bit of recalibrating, I still think the more economic populist wing of the right will be successful in reforming the institutional right in the years ahead. My reason is that American policy history shows that contrary to how the oppositional tribal hatreds of the two party system may make us feel, what usually happens is a broad policy shift among the technocrats that lasts, just as neoliberalism did, for several decades and influences both parties. That means that everyone will likely be moving in this general economic direction, the libs just got to be the first to see it through.
At this point it feels like you are more likely to see a Macron-style Thermidor within liberalism than an “anti-woke left”. I already hear more and more unapologetic criticisms of the excesses of the cultural revolution among mainstream liberals these days. Ultimately the managers need stability at some point and as Biden himself has said in his own way, they have to prove that this experiment of a secular multi-racial democracy, built on a shaky foundation of consumerism and economic growth, can still hold itself together. Remember from the failed attempt to #metoo Biden, the libs have the magical powers to change the rules at any time and I suspect they’d quite like to go back to brunch without an anarchist with fleas spitting in their food and trying to burn the place down. For right now though, the Dems are offering greater economic redistribution than their national-populist rivals on the right and they are somewhat less ridiculously and incurably woke than the left have become over the last few years. And they’re also in power. So they’re really owning their critics and rivals and everyone all around. Think about that and feel ashamed.