In Australia a week ago, the party of the left lost an election it was supposed to win, to a conservative government headed by an evangelical Christian who won working-class votes by opposing liberal climate policies. In India last week, the Hindu-nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, won an overwhelming electoral victory. And as of this writing, Europeans are electing a Parliament that promises to have more populist representation than before.
The global fade of liberalism, in other words, appears to be continuing. Right-wing populism struggles to govern effectively, but it clearly has a durable political appeal — which, as Tyler Cowen points out in a Bloomberg column, has not yet been counteracted by the new socialism, the new new left.
The global context is useful for thinking about how American liberals understand their own situation. Since the shock of Donald Trump’s election, many liberals have decided that their own coalition is the real American majority, victimised by un-democratic institutions and an anti-democratic GOP. Their mood is one of anger at the System, and confidence in their unacknowledged, temporarily-impeded mandate: They’ve got the structures, but we’ve got the numbers.
But what if American liberals, while unfortunate in the Electoral College, are luckier than they think in other ways? The fact that populism is flourishing internationally, far from the Electoral College and Fox News, suggests that Trump’s specific faults might actually be propping up American liberalism. If we had a populist president who didn’t alienate so many persuadable voters, who took full advantage of a strong economy, and who had the political cunning displayed by Modi or Benjamin Netanyahu or Viktor Orban, the liberal belief in a hidden left-of-centre mandate might be exposed as a fond delusion.
That liberal belief may also misunderstand the real correlation of forces in our politics. We had an example this past week on our op-ed podcast, The Argument, where my colleague and co-host David Leonhardt interviewed Pete Buttigieg, the Midwestern mayor running for president with promises to build bridges between the heartland and the coasts. Leonhardt pressed Buttigieg on whether that bridge-building might include compromise on any social issues, and the answer seemed to be “no” — in part because Mayor Pete argued that on abortion and guns and immigration most middle Americans already agree with Democrats, that the liberal position is already the common ground.
The strategic flaw in this reading of the liberal situation is that politics isn’t about casually held opinions on a wide range of topics, but focused prioritisation of specifics. As the Democratic data analyst David Shor has noted, you can take a cluster of nine Democratic positions that each poll over 50% individually, and find that only 18% of Americans agree with all of them. And a single strong, focused disagreement can be enough to turn a voter against liberalism, especially if liberals seem uncompromising on that issue.
A pattern of narrow, issue-by-issue resistance is also what you’d expect in an era where the popular culture is more monolithically left-wing than before. That cultural dominance establishes a broad, shallow left-of-centre consensus, which then evaporates when people have some personal reason to reject liberalism, or confront the limits of its case.
None of this needs to spell doom for liberals; it just requires them to prioritise and compromise. If you want to put climate change at the centre of liberal politics, for instance, then you’ll keep losing voters in the Rust Belt, just as liberal parties have lost similar voters in Europe and Australia. In which case you would need to reassure some other group, be it suburban evangelicals or libertarians, that you’re willing to compromise on the issues that keep them from voting Democratic.
Alternatively, if you want to make crushing religious conservatives your mission, then you need to woo secular populists on guns or immigration, or peel off more of the tax-sensitive upper middle class by not going full socialist.
But the liberal impulse at the moment, Buttigiegian as well as Ocasio-Cortezan, is to insist that liberalism is a seamless garment, an indivisible agenda that need not be compromised on any front. And instead of recognising populism as a motley coalition united primarily by opposition to liberalism’s rule, liberals want to believe they’re facing a unitary enemy — a revanchist patriarchal white supremacy, infecting every branch and tributary of the right.
In this view, it’s not enough to see racial resentment as one important form of anti-liberalism (which it surely is); all anti-liberalism must fall under the canopy. Libertarianism is white supremacy, the NRA is white supremacy, immigration scepticism is white supremacy, tax-sensitive suburbia is white supremacy, the pro-life movement is white supremacy, anxiety about terrorism is white supremacy … and you can’t compromise with white supremacists, you can only crush them.
Which liberals may do in 2020, because Trump remains eminently beatable. But in the long run, the global trend suggests that a liberalism that remains inflexible in the face of variegated resistance is the ideology more likely to be crushed.
© 2019 New York Times News Service