Putting Liberal Democracy First

Putting Liberal Democracy First

Yanis Varoufakis speaking at Chatham House, London, 2015 (Chatham House)

Those of us who consider ourselves “left liberals” have expressed particular alarm about the symbolic and practical dangers posed by leaders such as Donald Trump and his supporters. To name but a few: mass rallies denouncing “the liberal media”; inciting and sometimes enacting violence against critics or protestors; calling for the imprisonment of political adversaries; racist and xenophobic rhetoric invoked to support Muslim bans, border walls, and mass deportations; conspiracy-mongering attacks on career civil servants as agents of “the deep state,” and on journalists as “enem[ies] of the American people”; and orchestrated campaigns of lying and disinformation under the banner of speaking “truth” directly to the people and opposing “fake news.” In many ways, these tactics and actions are all too reminiscent of the “origins of totalitarianism” discussed by Hannah Arendt in her 1951 classic of that title. To note this is not to deny the profound differences between the global crises of 1914–1945 and today. But it is to register profound fear for the future of liberal democracy.

Colleagues further to my left have been critical, sometimes harshly, of this liberal response. They insist that Trump is not quite so dangerous, and that the dangers he does pose are largely expressions of deeper tendencies of neoliberalism that require more fundamental challenge. It thus makes little sense, they argue, for the left to reflexively defend liberal democracy—liberal democracy itself is the problem, and the solution is its transformation. While tactically these arguments track the 2016 debates between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, they also run deeper. Some on the left—whether enthusiastic Bernie supporters, or unenthusiastic supporters who nonetheless saw his candidacy as an opening—reviled Clinton for her neoliberalism, and could not bring themselves to vote for her even once she won the Democratic nomination. They argued that the threat posed by Trump was overstated since both parties are oligarchical and capitalist (they are), and thus essentially similar (they are not). This contingent believed that the real danger is not Trumpism but the corruption, hypocrisy, inequality, and violence plaguing liberal democracy itself.

To be clear, the majority of Sanders supporters did vote for Clinton in the general election. Moreover, I have no interest in “blaming” people with such convictions for Clinton’s defeat, however they voted (and in a liberal democracy each individual has the fundamental right to vote as he or she chooses). Further, many Sanders activists have been involved in important long-term organizing efforts that are in no way reducible to the terms of a single election. At the same time, in the debates about the election and since Trump’s inauguration, there have been serious differences of opinion between those who are greatly alarmed by Trumpism and who regard t...


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