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Reclaiming Liberalism from the Wilderness

Murali Balaji is director of Education and Curriculum Reform at the Hindu American Foundation. A Fulbright Specialist and former journalist, he had previously taught at Temple University, Lincoln University and Penn State University
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The history of populism shows that such movements often attack conventional wisdom on liberal and conservative norms of governance

Last November, the United States experienced one of the most ground-shifting moments in its modern political history when Donald Trump won the electoral college, making him America’s 45th president.

In the months that followed, many liberal intellectuals - and conservative ones - began writing postmortems for America’s liberal state, one that has largely been in place since the New Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s. After all, with a Republican Party seemingly weaponized over the past decade by a far right donor class and activists now in power, everything that defined the modern pillars of liberalism in America - affordable/accessible healthcare, social safety nets, and domestic spending - was on the chopping block. And it still could be, even as Democrats hope that an incompetent president and a feuding Republican-controlled Congress can forestall any worst-case scenarios for the left.

The transparency of his party’s desire to lurch the country rightward with the revocation of entitlements and regressive taxation schemes, coupled with Trump’s sheer incompetence and self-victimizing, has emboldened liberals to begin plotting a post-Trump political agenda. But before they plan their comeback celebration, Democrats - and the liberal intelligentsia - must realize that modern liberalism grew apart from those it claimed to speak for.

They must also realize that Trump’s problems, or even what went wrong for Hillary Clinton on Election Day, misses the larger point: the idea of liberalism in America has long gone past the traditional left-right binaries, even as liberal policies have largely maintained their hold on American society. This has as much to do with changing demographics in the United States and other industrialized Western nations as it does with increasing malleability in ideological positions among electorates.

Writers like Pankaj Mishra and David Goodhart have focused on global populism, highlighting liberalism’s failures as part of the rise of a populist right. Others have wondered if, in the grand arc of history, liberals tend to be on the wrong side, their advances fleeting and often steamrolled by returns to the status quo. In the United States, large portions of the country that were once strongholds of the Democratic party - and formed the backbone of its voting coalition - have now seemingly turned irreversibly Republican. Author JD Vance notes that the GOP’s gains in Appalachia, for example, coincide with both economic and cultural anxieties exacerbated by the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president.

These are all good points, but those who try to make connections between the rise of cultural nationalism to the success of right-wing movements and the prevalence of conservative governance. That seems to overlook a very obvious fact: in none of the most recent right-led populist movements has the liberal policy state been undone, or even overturned. In fact, in Europe, the right-wing populism that took the United Kingdom out of the European Union and led to near scares in countries like the Netherlands and France actually did not seek to overturn the bedrocks of a liberal state: a strong social safety net, regulated markets, and a free exchange of ideas (in theory).

Take, for example, the Netherlands. Even as liberals feared the rise of Geert Wilders, his xenophobia and cultural nationalism often played louder on television and the Internet than his push for Dutch secularism and expansion of social safety nets for the Dutch (qualified, of course, by his desire to deny those privileges to those deemed Others). In France, Marine Le Pen’s economic message aligned with France’s longstanding socialist ethos, and many outside of France seemed to miss the point that on many economic issues, she was to the left of Emmanuel Macron. Le Pen’s toxic racism, and the hate-filled legacy of the National Front, unraveled her candidacy.

The history of populism shows that such movements often attack conventional wisdom on liberal and conservative norms of governance. They also are defined by what they are against as much as what they are for. The progressive movement in the United States at the turn of the 20th century was led by Louisiana politician Huey “Kingfish” Long, who advanced the idea of a generous state marked by wealth redistribution and worker rights. But Long was also staunchly anti-immigrant, and his movement made him a hero among working-class Americans who had become uneasy with the influx of new immigrants. Ironically, the essence of Long’s platform became co-opted into Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, providing the enduring platform of America’s liberal state.

Even as Trump and the GOP lurch forward in their attempts to destroy social safety net programs, the reclamation of the liberal project in the United States might not take as long as some thought it would in the weeks after Trump’s election. That’s in part due to the fact that liberal programs are still very popular, even if the Democratic Party isn't. Additionally, the development of its liberal state took over a quarter of a century starting with Roosevelt, and continued by his Democratic successor Harry Truman, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. They were able to build strong infrastructure and social welfare programs while (mostly) muzzling the power of wealthy elites. Yet the right’s assault on the liberal state has been unrelenting since the 1960s, and in many ways, they have been able to chip away at its pillars by relying on economic and racial grievances of the Democratic Party’s former base. Trump campaigned as a populist who could upend the social, cultural, and economic status quo.

Trump exploited liberals’ inability to make their policies connect emotionally with voters, even as they hung onto paradigms that may no longer be as relevant to today’s voting trends as they once were. As Goodhart notes in Open, “Liberal thinking still tends to be dominated by the centrality of socio-economic politics and the old Left-Right argument, rooted in disputes about the size of the state, and equality. This has not disappeared but it has been supplemented, and in some places even been eclipsed by, a much stronger socio-cultural politics in which issues of ‘security and identity’ have become more prominent.”

Even as liberalism has become an intellectual exercise that often serves as a litmus test for one’s social tolerance, its core economic messages have been drowned out. The Democrats mistakenly believed that social and demographic changes were the only driving force in sustaining an Obama coalition, when in reality, it is and always will be “the economy, stupid,” that looms larger for many. Dancing with Wall Street and winning plaudits from Silicon Valley might make for good fundraising, but as Hillary Clinton’s campaign showed, they can prove disastrous to convincing voters that liberals speak for them. Ironically, liberal thought is predicated on the complexity of human nature, yet, in recent years, many liberals have treated those whom they claim to speak for as a monolith, or worse, as simpletons. If liberalism is to make a quick rebound after a long fall, liberals must realize that the battle over ideas starts with what resonates most with voters. Embracing marriage equality and immigrant rights are necessary in cultivating a pluralistic society, but these issues are often outweighed by the challenges of large-scale job loss across the country.

The irony of modern liberal thought is that in its exhortation of the freedom of ideas, many liberals have cocooned themselves from understanding the practical impacts of our country’s various changes. Expanding our social welfare programs, including Medicaid, and pushing for robust public K-12 and higher education aren’t just politically popular - they actually work. Yet explaining these programs is often an exercise in wonkery, and the liberal case for good governance is often lost in translation, leaving them without a clear base. Even as conservative ideas languish, and the Republicans are led by a man with no ideological impetus or political conviction, Democrats must not trick themselves into believing that anti-Trump sentiment alone will catapult them back into power. Reclaiming the bully pulpit when it comes to ideas - and charting a clearly understood way of implementing them - is the only path forward for liberals. They should get their chance soon enough.