Twenty-four years ago, I published an essay titled “Liberals, I Do Despise” in the Village Voice, which Common Dreams reprinted as an enduring oldie in 2009. The title was a play on an old doggerel, in this case rendering it:
Liberals and flies, I do despise
The more I see liberals, the more I like flies.
I wrote the essay in disgust after Bill Clinton concluded his and other New Democrats’ deal with the devil by signing the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—welfare reform—that ended the federal government’s sixty-year commitment to direct income provision for the indigent. That emphatically punctuated Clinton’s bulldozing of the left in Democratic politics and ushered in the bipartisan neoliberal regime under which we’ve lived ever since. Welfare “deform,” as many characterized it at the time, was a culmination of the year that began with Clinton using his State of the Union address to declare that “The era of big government is over.” As New Labour neoliberal Tony Blair was, by her own account, Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement, Bill Clinton consolidated Reaganism as hegemonic in American politics, defined the neoliberal regime of upward redistribution and repression of the poor as the unchallengeable horizon of political aspiration. The essay comes to mind at this moment because so many liberal Democrats now in their dismissals and attacks regarding Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the party’s presidential nomination seem to be rehearsing the kind of smug, self-righteous, and backward arguments they made then about why it was necessary to sacrifice poor people—ultimately variants of a contention that commitment to egalitarian principles is naïve.
In the mid-1990s I reflected on how often it is liberals who enable, even abet, the rise of reactionary forces by accommodating them and treating them as legitimate, looking the other way at the dangerous aspects and implications of their agendas. Mass disfranchisement of black Americans in the South at the end of the nineteenth century was on its face in clear violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Southern Democrats used gossamer thin subterfuge—like the eight-box rule that required ballots to be deposited into as many different boxes; literacy tests, which could be waived if the registrar vouched for the registrant’s character or if the applicant had a grandfather who was eligible to vote before 1867 (found unconstitutional in 1915); and poll taxes—that enabled northern Republicans to take the violations of African Americans’ basic citizenship rights in stride with a wink and nod because those exclusions weren’t based explicitly on race. Or at least most of them; the white primary required a little more active denial.
Later in our history, proto-fascistic Cold War anticommunism got a sanitizing boost from liberals who, while wringing their hands, wrinkling their brows and privately tut-tutting about supposedly extraordinary “excesses,” validated persecution with their embrace of the notion that the dangers of “subversion” could necessitate denial of victims’ civil liberties, criminalization of ideas, and witch-hunting. Americans for Democratic Action, long the avatar of Democratic liberalism, was founded specifically as an engine of Cold War attack on the left, and high-minded liberal institutions like the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the ACLU, as well as most prominent liberal intellectuals, capitulated to and rationalized anticommunist witch-hunting, most of all by accepting the premise that a shadowy “subversion” threatened the republic, which then justified persecution of those held to endorse it. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and nominal end of the Cold War, and especially in the post-9/11 world, “subversion” has been recast as “terrorism,” and liberals’ concerns with process and appearance of judicious orderliness shifted accordingly, to parse such issues as how to occupy a country humanely, at what point aggressive interrogation becomes torture, under what conditions killing civilians is acceptable, etc.
Liberal complicity stands out especially in its unwavering support for American imperialism and denial of other nations’ sovereignty—most dramatically in the form of military intervention—notwithstanding a sleight of hand that can make support for war-making seem like opposition to it. Even before the genocidal Vietnam War, American liberals supported and rationalized U.S. interference and perpetration of coups in other nations across the globe, from Iran to Guatemala and elsewhere, well before “regime change” became a coinage. [For a more general compendium, see here and here.] Indeed, liberals played a central role in crafting the idea of humanitarian intervention, which, perversely, represents bombing people as somehow for their own good.
Mainstream liberals’ main criterion for assessing a military intervention is whether or not it can attain U.S. objectives neatly and with limited American casualties. Under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, they’ve supported and rationalized military adventurism and extrajudicial killing of non-combatants, among other horrors, in the Middle East and elsewhere. Closer to home, Democratic liberals in the post-9/11 period have colluded in fictions that U.S.-backed coups and coup attempts in Honduras and Venezuela were the product of popular uprisings, and that the constitutional coups—when reactionary plotters seized power through claiming bogus constitutional authority and levying bogus charges of corruption—in Brazil and Bolivia were also expressions of popular will. Liberals have embraced and rehearsed obviously false golpista narratives and accusations against legitimately elected leftist governments without hesitation or shame.
This history of liberal support for authoritarianism and dictatorship is especially significant at this moment as a tide of authoritarian neoliberalism has been rising all over the world. Orbán in Hungary, Erdoğan in Turkey, Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Salvini in Italy, Poroshenko in Ukraine, and for that matter Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom demonstrate that the neoliberal program of regressive transfer does not require popular democracy. Popular oversight instead has been a hindrance to regimes of neoliberalization since Reagan and Thatcher, and those pursuing such agendas have commonly sought to insulate their programs from popular democratic processes, behind special commissions and other unelected bodies.
Watching Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi proudly applauding and then standing for a photo-op with Venezuelan fraud and third-rate coup-plotter Juan Guaidó during and after Trump’s 2020 State of the Union message and recalling her and other liberal Democrats’ collusion in the boldfaced lie that duly elected President Nicolás Maduro is a ruthless dictator and their propagation of the preposterous fiction that Guaidó, though all but unknown in Venezuela, is somehow the country’s legitimate “interim president” (a title more recently claimed also by religio-fascist usurper Jeanine Áñez Chávez in Bolivia) underscores the lack of regard, even contempt, these Democratic neoliberals have for popular democracy. They’ve shown it before, of course.
Many of them remain livid to this day about what they perceive as Ralph Nader’s irresponsible third-party challenge 2000, when the Democrats put forth a Republican-in-all-but-name ticket of Al Gore and Joe Lieberman. Not only did Nader not cost Gore the election: the Vice-President would not fight for Florida because he didn’t want to be identified with the militant groups urging him to do so; even so, if he’d won Tennessee—his home state—Florida wouldn’t have mattered. Most telling about the Democrats’ outrage at Nader, though, is the astounding, profoundly anti-democratic sense of entitlement on which it rested, the idea that Democrats in effect own every left-of-center vote without having to do anything to earn them. Their outrage was very much of the “Who does he think he is to try to take our vote” variety, never acknowledging that the party’s having put forward the most conservative Democratic ticket since Woodrow Wilson may have influenced Nader’s decision to run. By that point in time, Democratic elites were already fully committed to their course of dismissing working people and their concerns only to say in effect, as a close comrade put it at the time: “Don’t worry; we’ll come back for you after we take care of the investor class; besides, what else can you do? Look at how terrible the other guy is!” Hillary Clinton and her confederates at the Democratic National Committee showed the same contemptuous, anti-democratic sense of entitlement in 2016.
This history is important for understanding the seriousness of the political moment that confronts us between now and November and beyond. In the past several weeks the level of hysteria in the nonstop corporate media and Democratic Party elite effort to dismiss or discredit Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the party’s presidential nomination has ratcheted up. This isn’t really a surprise, or it shouldn’t be. Since 2016, it has become ever clearer that much of the Democratic establishment and its propaganda organs—MSNBC first among them—are more worried about a victory of the left than about Trump’s re-election. As the Sanders campaign and the political movement propelling it continue to make headway, those forces have become more shrill and over-the-top, with many openly calling for coalescence around a need to stop Sanders from becoming the party’s nominee as the central Democratic objective for 2020. Corporate Democrat hacks and retainers like Chris Matthews, Chuck Todd, et al. have begun hysterically evoking paranoid Birchite fantasies, like Matthews’ recent assertion that Medicare for All will ensue in mass executions in Central Park. Second-string hack Maria Teresa Kumar put her finger on the neoliberal Democrats’ dilemma when she insisted that attacking the billionaire class will backfire on the party if it follows the Sanders line because “there’s not an American that wakes up every single morning and doesn’t say ‘I’m going to get up in the morning so that I someday either can be rich or my kid can be rich.’”
The problem for Kumar, Todd, et al. and the interests they serve is that no one is saying that any more—if many grown people ever did—because hegemonic neoliberalism has lost the confidence of masses of working-class people. As a moral economy, after forty years of false promises, scapegoating, and subterfuge, it has largely run out of steam. It delivers for fewer and fewer people, which after all was always the point, and the bromides of its free-market utopian ideology ring increasingly hollow. It doesn’t take long to recognize that what has been sold as sky’s-the-limit/you-can-be-as-rich-as-you-want-to-be flexible entrepreneurialism in the new gig economy is in reality precarious employment with no rights or benefits, or that promises to improve the quality of public goods and services from education to water and sanitation by introducing “choice” into vital public institutions means turning them into profit centers for private interests at the expense of the public good. People notice a health care system geared far more to profit-taking by insurance and pharmaceutical companies than to their own health and wellbeing.
We may be rapidly approaching a point at which there are only two credible roads forward electorally. Both authoritarian neoliberalism and the populist leftism represented by the Pink Tide in Latin America, Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K., and Bernie Sanders in the U.S. have emerged and gained momentum as alternative responses to the bankruptcy of the familiar neoliberal regime as both rhetoric and practice. It is understandable that corporate Democrats and investor class liberals will fight to preserve the current order with its shibboleths and flimflam, supported by the fictions of groupist identity politics, that present individual upward mobility as the equivalent of collective security. Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate, to be sure, but Trump’s victory, along with the advances made by authoritarian neoliberals elsewhere, points to something else as well, something far more sinister.
Just after the 2016 election, I reflected on the late labor leader Anthony Mazzocchi’s warning more than two decades prior that Democratic neoliberals would have nothing to offer those people who have been or fear being ground up by the decades of relentless capitalist attack on living and working conditions. He warned that if the left and the labor movement didn’t find ways to connect with that growing population of those hurting and to offer credible explanations of the sources of their condition and plausible strategies for fighting back, other, nasty and dangerous tendencies would. Here we are. Trump and Trumpism are committed to galvanizing the most reactionary and dangerous elements in the society and must be defeated. If not, things could become very ugly in this country.
I have no doubt that the Democratic liberals who fear that Sanders is “unelectable” are genuine in their belief. They also want and need for him to be unelectable because for them the really significant divisions in the society must not be those between economic classes. As Kumar puts it, “There’s plenty of billionaires that are actually aligned with this whole proposal of what America should look like,” by which she meant a country in which any one individual can become rich without regard to identity-group status. Todd picked up the baton to suggest that opposition to the billionaire class hurts Democrats with voters of color in particular, who in his mind aspire to be rich. (Neoliberal Democrats’ propensity for ventriloquizing black people is amazing, and often amazingly ridiculous.) From the standpoint of those liberals tied to investor-class interests, a Trump victory in 2020, even if it were to raise a serious threat of authoritarianism, could be less disturbing than a Sanders-led, left-tacking political realignment. And, much as the Clinton administration’s liberal architects of welfare reform dismissed their left critics as tendentious and naïve—until those critics were proven right—liberals’ insistence that Sanders can’t win preempts, at least for now, questions about what they would do if he were to win the nomination. Would they support him? Would they follow Bloomberg, or someone else, on a third-party ticket?
We don’t know the answers to those questions, but I have my suspicions. I suspect that there’s a decent likelihood that some neoliberal Democratic elites would try to bring Sanders’ candidacy down while blaming him for forcing them to do so by standing for a clear working-class agenda, which they “know” can’t win. Contrary to that view, my sense is that Sanders is the Democrat with the best chance to defeat Trump in November, not least because we know that in 2016 millions of Trump voters had previously voted for Sanders in the primaries and for Obama—no doubt under the same sort of mistaken identity from which they voted for Trump—at least once. And they voted for Sanders as a clear and uncompromising voice for working people’s concerns.
Here’s what it comes down to: to what extent are liberal Democrats’ commitments to democracy and democratic institutions greater than their commitments to current forms of capitalist hierarchy? That’s what we’ll determine between now and November, and the answer might have everything to say about the future of American politics and of the left within it. This may be a political moment when one or the other commitment must take precedence. Liberals characteristically embrace high-minded ideals of constitutionalism, due process, tolerance and “rule of law,” which they’ve been chattering about quite a bit lately.
We know as well, however, that, when they’ve perceived their class’s interests to be threatened, they’ve also found ways to justify suspension of the rule of law and due process and to tolerate death squads. I suppose we’ll just see.
Adolph Reed Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. For the March 2014 issue of Harper’s magazine, he wrote, “Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals.” His books include: “Class Notes: Posing As Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene,” and, with Julian Bond, “Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era.”