The eclipse of liberalism—interchangeable with what are often referred to as the values of a free society, the American creed, or American exceptionalism—is, in many narratives, the central historical fact of our time. Laments over the eclipse of liberal first principles are regularly heard by the chorus shouting into the wind that the election of President Trump and other political phenomena represent developments that are either “authoritarian” or “fascist” or, in any event, “not normal.”
The definition of liberalism and a free society behind the great majority of these cries would be unrecognizable to American liberals only a generation ago, however, never mind conservatives. The host of deeply illiberal tendencies now animating the American left-of-center—all greater and lesser manifestations of the fully formed ideology of “intersectionality” from the more nebulous “political correctness” of a prior generation—have precious little to do with the value system derived from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. They are concerned far less with the principles of democracy and civil liberty than the dogmatically cosmopolitan ethos of the transnational Western elite, which is increasingly promoted at the expense of liberal and democratic principles. In his prophetic diagnosis of our age, published posthumously at the dawn of the post–Cold War era as The Revolt of the Elites, Christopher Lasch explained that “The word [democracy] has come to serve simply as a description of the therapeutic state. When we speak of democracy today, we refer, more often than not, to the democratization of ‘self-esteem.’ . . . the wistful hope that deep divisions in American society can be bridged by goodwill and sanitized speech.”
This is more obvious in Europe than America, where the European Union and its apologists are more or less frank in their contempt for traditional liberal and civil libertarian values, and their expression through the ballot box, from Brexit to Greece in only two of the most dramatic cases. But the same first principles are evident in the progressive response to the rise of Trump. The values to which he is alleged to pose such an existential threat are far more readily identified with the pieties of meritocracy and multiculturalism than with the democratic process and civil liberty. The upholders of those pieties are especially contemptuous of the suggestion that the menacing of the latter by elite cultural institutions bears significant responsibility for the backlash that Trump rode to power. The insistence of elite progressives to the contrary notwithstanding, the incompetence, corruption, and vulgarity of Donald Trump are mere symptoms, and not the disease, of the American republic and the historic values of liberalism.
For indeed, it is in opposition to the duly elected president of the United States that said establishment has been able to impose such an oppressive national mood, leaving one to shudder at how they would behave had their candidate actually won. The deranging effects of the election of Trump on the elite, propelled by the mainstreaming of the critical theory entrenched in the universities for at least a generation, has led Trump’s enemies to become increasingly open in their contempt for the very concept of Western civilization. This is perhaps the most revealing expression of how profoundly at odds progressive elites’ current concept of liberalism is with the historic concept of a free society. Consider the following excerpt that many, if not most, present-day progressives would likely identify with the so-called alt-right:
The sins of the West are no worse than the sins of Asia or of the Middle East or of Africa. There remains, however, a crucial difference between the Western tradition and the others. Unlike other cultures, the West has conceived and acted upon ideals that expose and combat its own misdeeds. No other culture has built self-criticism into the very fabric of its being. The crimes of the West in time generated their own antidotes. They have provoked great movements to end slavery, to raise the status of women, to abolish torture, to combat racism, to promote religious tolerance, to defend freedom of inquiry and expression, to advance personal liberty and human rights. Whatever the particular crimes of Europe, that continent is also the source—the unique source—of those liberating ideas of individual liberty, political democracy, equality before the law, freedom of worship, human rights, and cultural freedom that constitute our most precious legacy and to which the world today aspires. These are European ideas, not Asian, nor African, nor Middle Eastern ideas, except by adoption. The freedoms of inquiry and of artistic creation, for example, are Western values. . . . Individualism itself is looked on with abhorrence and dread by collectivist cultures in which loyalty to the group overrides personal goals—cultures that, social scientists say, comprise about 70 percent of the world’s population. There is surely no reason for Western civilization to have guilt trips laid on it by champions of cultures based on despotism, superstition, tribalism, and fanaticism. . . . The Western commitment to human rights has unquestionably been intermittent and imperfect. Yet the ideal remains—and movement toward it has been real, if sporadic. Today it is the Western democratic tradition that attracts and empowers people of all continents, creeds, and colors.
The author of these words was Arthur Schlesinger, the intellectual godfather of Cold War liberalism. They appear in his final book written in the 1990s, The Disuniting of America, an unheeded warning against the first principles of present-day progressivism. They reveal it to be no accident that hatred for the idea of Western civilization goes hand in glove with the contempt for democracy growing within the transnational progressive elite. The central task, then, of any politics that can successfully overcome the failed if not deranged bipartisan American elite of the last generation is the reclamation of liberalism.
Liberalism and Progressivism during the Cold War
The definition and semantics of political labels, of course, can be notoriously opaque and unhelpful. But there is much to be said in the present context for the semantic distinction that was paradigmatic to the founding of Cold War liberalism, when “liberal” was contrasted to a word more in vogue today—“progressive.” At the beginning of the Cold War, the term “liberal” was fastidiously claimed by the founders of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the flagship activist organization of Cold War liberalism, to oppose the short-lived, Communist-directed Progressive Citizens of America that would morph into the Progressive Party that ran former Vice President Henry Wallace for president on a pro-Soviet platform in 1948. It was against this backdrop that Arthur Schlesinger became the leading intellectual voice of Cold War liberalism, culminating in the publication of The Vital Center in 1949. The liberal and civil libertarian values of the American creed perhaps reached their fullest expression in Cold War liberalism, through the concept of “the vital center” against the backdrop of the defeat of Nazi Germany and the dawning of the long struggle against Communism.
Thus has the eclipse of liberalism been, at bottom, a perverse consequence of the fall of Communism. A defining paradigm shift of the post–Cold War era, in short, has been the eclipse of the positive values of anti-communism and their replacement, in a purported successor to the Cold War against some or other faction of the Islamic world, by the very different positive values of anticlericalism. As seen in the zeal of most self-identified progressives to continue prosecuting a culture war long ago won, liberty of conscience has been displaced by the fulfillment of personal desire as the highest good and most exalted value of a free society. Even in most public diplomacy for the last decade, the promotion of democratic institutions has been overshadowed by feminism, gay rights, and transgender rights, as the central message of what America stands for in the world.
For many, the legacy of the founding of Cold War liberalism and its formative battles has been marred, if not discredited, by their exaltation in the senile simulacrum of the postwar struggle for the values of a free society that set the intellectual tone for the final decade of the Cold War—from the neoconservatives at Commentary under Norman Podhoretz to their liberal Democrat fellow travelers at the New Republic under Marty Peretz. With this baggage, the present-day liberal-left can hardly be blamed for not giving any credit to the early Cold War distinction between “liberal” and “progressive,” and largely assenting to the greater vogue for the latter. But the continuing, and far more transcendent relevance of the liberal-progressive distinction was thoughtfully elaborated by Damon Linker, in his June 2016 column upbraiding widespread hysteria over Brexit:
A faith has been shaken, illusions shattered, pieties punctured. The name of that shattered system of belief? Progressivism. I used to be a conservative. I now call myself a liberal. But I have never called myself a progressive. There’s a reason why, and it has nothing to do with policy. Liberals believe in the rule of law; in individual rights to speech, worship, assembly, and private property; an independent judiciary and civilian control of the military; in representative institutions founded on the consent of the governed. . . . Progressives believe in all of that too, but they add something else: a quasi-eschatological faith in historical progress that gives the movement its name. [could probably end quote here] This belief has many sources, and it takes many forms. One stream flows from liberal Protestantism down through Woodrow Wilson’s hopes for moral advances at home and an end to armed conflict abroad—with both of them realized by an elite class of public-spirited experts. The same theologically infused faith informs Barack Obama’s frequent invocation of an “arc of history” that “bends toward justice.” . . . Whether or not it’s expressed in explicitly theological terms, progressivism holds out a very specific moral vision of the future. It will be a world beyond particular attachments, beyond ethnic or linguistic or racial or religious or national forms of solidarity. In their place will be the only acceptable form of solidarity: humanitarian universalism. . . . It would be one thing if progressives understood their universalistic moral and political convictions to constitute one legitimate partisan position among many. But they don’t understand them in this way. They believe not only that their views deserve to prevail in the fullness of time, but also that they are bound to prevail.
It is especially striking that Linker’s definitions, building on those that characterized the founding of Cold War liberalism, line up precisely with how the words “liberal” and “liberalism” are used as terms of derision by self-identified radical leftists in recent years. It is liberalism’s respect for human nature and particular attachments, as axiomatic to the defense and celebration of human freedom and flourishing, that offends progressives. This is most explicitly and deliberately argued by critical race theorists, who frankly denounce liberalism on the grounds of first principles, and not merely of the taint of slavery on its early theorists, as a rationalization of “white privilege” or “whiteness.” It is echoed most aggressively by the self-styled “dirtbag Left” that sets much of the tone of the vaunted hipster Marxism of recent vogue, whose particular fixation on the “liberal” enemy reveals their vintage Stalinoid core (as opposed to the more unambiguously “Stalinist,” in the memorable technical distinction coined by Dwight Macdonald) behind their defiant yet paper thin politically incorrect veneer.
The obvious debt this attitude owes to vintage Communist denunciations of “bourgeois liberalism” illustrates that the early Cold War context of the original liberal-progressive distinction remains highly relevant to the present struggle to reclaim liberal values. Cold War liberalism, to be sure, had its better and worse halves. Such “consensus school” authors as Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Richard Hofstadter, however insightful at times, were beguiled by the psychoanalytical approach to political analysis that fatefully merged with the cult of “the best and the brightest” responsible for the debacle of Vietnam. Their story is very well told by the distinguished historian Leo Ribuffo, in a recent paper for the International Security Studies Forum, lambasting the appropriation of Hofstadter in particular for a historical narrative to explain the rise of Trump. The better half was well represented by ADA who, among other things, opposed the Vietnam War from the start. Their high-minded politics were the fragile product of their quite brief historical moment: implacably anti-communist but profoundly realist, suspicious of the radical pose yet deeply committed to civil liberties and democratic fairness, retaining a Depression-era commitment to social justice yet highly elitist.
Of special significance was that the founders of ADA had almost without exception cut their political teeth in the Socialist Party of the 1930s, much as the many liberals and radicals who organized or worked with the maligned Congress for Cultural Freedom also came out of the broader noncommunist Left of that era. The memory of the last self-identified “progressive” president, Woodrow Wilson, and the messianic framing for his war policies and brutal suppressions of civil liberty, left deep and lasting scars on the collective memory of American radicals. This was even reflected in the work of some of the consensus scholars, notably Hofstadter in his famous work The Paranoid Style of American Politics. Hofstadter’s recent revisionist interpreter Jesse Walker has emphasized that the psychological profile Hofstadter insightfully illustrated—“the paranoid style”—should by no means be limited to the politically marginal, and has very often been a mainstream and elite phenomenon.
Hofstadter did, in fairness, identify as important examples of the paranoid style such phenomena that were both mainstream and shared by elites as the Puritan witch hunts and the anti-Catholic paranoia of their nineteenth-century descendants. Especially following more historically sensitive writers like Arthur Schlesinger, Cold War liberalism saw a direct line from the Puritans and anti-Catholic “Know Nothings” to the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson with its frank anti-individualism, suppression of basic freedoms of speech and assembly, and passion for eugenics and scientific racism, and finally, to the Communist-aligned progressivism of Henry Wallace. Schlesinger was a partisan and mediocre scholar, but his passion for American history and the ideals of American civilization was deep and profound. So it is especially revealing that perhaps the most pointed effort to read Schlesinger out of the contemporary liberal left comes not from a left-wing academic but from the journalist Jonathan Chait.
Chait’s abiding nostalgia for the New Republic under Marty Peretz makes him vocal in asserting an arbitrary and self-serving “liberal-left” dichotomy as opposed to the liberal-progressive distinction. Chait’s “liberal-left” distinction was most pronounced when he first spoke out with a widely read essay on the rise of intersectionality he couched in familiar terms as “the return of PC” in early 2015, yet since has adamantly refused to acknowledge its role in the election of Donald Trump. Chait has been frank about seeking to refute and renounce the historic link of American liberalism to the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson as claimed by Schlesinger, in favor of identifying it with that tradition’s frankly elitist enemies beginning with Alexander Hamilton (who some contemporaries of Schlesinger even identified as a forerunner of fascism). The mirror image of this one-dimensional history that mindlessly claims Jefferson and Jackson for the contemporary right certainly exists, most recently elaborated by Robert Merry in the American Conservative.
Liberalism and Progressivism Today
Yet at New York magazine, Chait’s “usable past” for progressivism has been perfectly suited to the intellectual bodyguard of Hillary Clinton and her remaining bitter-enders, who answer a resounding “Yes!” to the core question that was posed by the Bernie Sanders campaign: is the Democratic Party truly prepared to abandon the one remaining constant of its identity after 200 years, as the party of the people? Indeed, it should not come as a surprise that contrary to the mindless stereotypes animating most commentary on the present divisions in the Democratic Party, the Brooklyn-bred democratic socialist Bernie Sanders to a great extent was the “liberal” in the late campaign against the Midwestern Methodist “progressive” Hillary Clinton. Sanders is a living relic of the most radical edge of the democratic socialist Left of the civil rights era that was comfortably allied with Americans for Democratic Action, while on at least one occasion, during the 2008 campaign, Clinton made a point of making it known that she has always preferred to think of herself as a progressive rather than a liberal.
Sanders, of course, for offering standard fare from a candidate of ADA in its heyday, was mercilessly subjected to the illiberal identity politics demands of the corporate liberal class and their professional activist shock troops. While it was axiomatic for those same arbiters of respectability to attribute Sanders’ defeat to the minority vote, more decisive was Clinton’s rock-solid support in the primaries from upscale liberals voting primarily on culture war issues. The Clinton-Sanders primary fight and its anticipated sequel, in exposing the diminishing political rewards and moral bankruptcy of the elite-minority alliance that grew to dominate the Democratic Party over the last generation, might indeed be best understood as the revenge of the founders of Cold War liberalism, and their one-nation social democratic ethos, against the defining paradigm of contemporary progressivism:
In which the embittered case against the American Revolution, based on an ahistorical fantasy of developing along the lines of present-day Canada, is entertained from Vox to the New Yorker. In which the Atlantic seamlessly carries side by side the respective cranky identity politics of Jeffrey Goldberg and Ta-Nehisi Coates. In which transgender bathrooms and overturning the Religious Freedom Restoration Act are the paramount civil rights issues of our time, while unrepentant and belligerent neoconservatives such as David Frum and Max Boot are hailed as great principled exemplars of American values. Indeed, in which the warmongering and violence to civil liberty of the George W. Bush administration is considered less menacing than, or even worthy of rehabilitation against, Donald Trump and his supporters because, for all their countless failings, they profess to believe (if profess only indeed) in the Western civilization described and celebrated by Arthur Schlesinger.
Contemporary Progressivism and Foreign Policy
Nearly a decade after his untimely death, there has been no worthy successor to the late Tony Judt as a liberal and social democratic critic of post–Cold War American progressivism. Judt’s 2006 London Review of Books essay “Bush’s Useful Idiots” remains the pillar of his witness, with the single paragraph establishing the premise of the title enduringly poignant:
It is particularly ironic that the “Clinton generation” of American liberals take special pride in their “tough-mindedness,” in their success in casting aside the myths and illusions of the old left, for these same “tough” new liberals reproduce some of that old left’s worst characteristics. They may see themselves as having migrated to the opposite shore, but they display precisely the same mixture of dogmatic faith and cultural provincialism, not to mention the exuberant enthusiasm for violent political transformation at other people’s expense, that marked their fellow-traveling predecessors across the Cold War ideological divide. The use value of such persons to ambitious, radical regimes is indeed an old story. Indeed, intellectual camp followers of this kind were first identified by Lenin himself, who coined the term that still describes them best. Today, America’s liberal armchair warriors are the “useful idiots” of the war on terror.
The class of intellectuals, policy makers, and media professionals, that spent most of a decade staking their careers and reputations on an eventual Hillary Clinton presidency, could hardly be better defined than as the attempt of Bush’s useful idiots to occupy the heights from which his neoconservative cadre fell over the course of the Obama years.
It is, indeed, “precisely the same mixture of dogmatic faith and cultural provincialism, not to mention the exuberant enthusiasm for violent political transformation at other people’s expense” evident in the Iraq debate that led the progressive intelligentsia to embrace the political mainstreaming of illiberal culture war posturing rooted in the doctrine of intersectionality. Consider how upbraiding over insufficient attention to identity politics has become so seamlessly integrated into the elite centrist pose against the strategy and platform symbolized by Bernie Sanders. It is precisely the same irony of the “tough-mindedness” of the Clinton generation that led it to embrace the foreign policy Jacobinism of George W. Bush, on the one hand, and that led it, after politically coming of age in the 1992 Clinton campaign that was in great measure defined by the so-called “Sister Souljah moment,” to later embrace the cultural Jacobinism of Obama-Trump era prestige media.
The depth of betrayal of the conscientious liberalism that Tony Judt struggled to give voice to during the Iraq War years was recently illustrated in a political science paper by Doug Kriner and Francis Shen, showing that the critical swing vote that gave the presidency to Donald Trump came from communities that experienced especially high casualty rates in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Democratic Party shamefully betrayed these voters, who returned them to power in 2006 and 2008, in the extraordinary lengths to which it consolidated behind Hillary Clinton in 2016, with her congenital hawkishness giving way over the course of that campaign to a foul blend of belligerence and paranoia against Syria and Russia. Most outrageously of all, the campaign to spread the myth, if not outright lies, that Donald Trump only won the election thanks to a Kremlin conspiracy, shamelessly compounds this insult by not merely ignoring but doubling down on the very policies that provoked the actual cause of his victory, branding as illegitimate the democratically registered grievances of the American public.
The hysteria against Russia that has characterized much of the American left-of-center since the election of Trump, if not earlier, perfectly fits the mold of past moments of illiberal paranoid mass politics in American history, with Vladimir Putin in the same imagined role as the Pope in the 1850s or Kaiser Wilhelm in the 1910s. Indeed, the irreconcilables and bitter-enders of the Clinton machine bear an especially striking resemblance to the defenders over multiple generations of Alger Hiss, particularly their reliance on conspiracy theory. Whittaker Chambers himself reflected on this in words that echo powerfully in describing the present efforts of a spurned elite to delegitimize the 2016 election:
No feature of the Hiss Case is more obvious, or more troubling as history, than the jagged fissure, which it did not so much open as reveal, between the plain men and women of the nation, and those who affected to act, think and speak for them. It was not, invariably, but in general, the “best people” who were for Alger Hiss and who were prepared to go to almost any length to protect and defend him. It was the enlightened and the powerful, the clamorous proponents of the open mind and the common man, who snapped their minds shut in a pro-Hiss psychosis, of a kind which, in an individual patient, means the simple failure of the ability to distinguish between reality and unreality, and, in a nation, is a warning of the end.
But the most ominous echo of elitist progressivism past has been the tactic of declaring journalism to be “espionage” or “treason,” and the unsolved hacking or phishing of the emails of one member of the senior staff of a political campaign “an act of war”—directly attributable to the methods and madness of the wartime progressive partisans of Woodrow Wilson. These tactics of repression were later perfected, of course, by the totalitarian regimes so admired a generation later by the Communist fellow-traveling progressive followers of Henry Wallace. It was in response to the crimes and horrors of these two progressivisms alike that the whole modern concept of civil liberties emerged, the indispensable foundation of the positive values of anticommunism generally and of Cold War liberalism specifically. And yet as communism fades ever further into history, the progressivism that displaced those positive values in our own time is on a clear path toward fulfilling all the dystopian prophecies of the anticommunist literary canon, from the works of proud democratic socialists all.
George Orwell, of course, bequeathed both 1984 and Politics and the English Language, whose relevance to both the age of intersectionality, and the preceding neoconservative age, should hardly need mentioning and yet demands a whole book. There are perhaps few more ominous indicators of the eclipse of liberalism in general, and liberal-left amnesia of the Bush era in particular, than the progressive embrace of so many Bush/neocon habits of newspeak. Not only has Orwell’s warning that “fascism” means little more than “something not desirable” been recklessly discarded in connection to the rise of Trump, but the headlong embrace of the same development with the word “terrorism” has led to anti-Muslim bigotry being mindlessly met by bigotry in kind, denoting every deranged mass gun crime as “white male” or “white Christian” terrorism. The asinine neocon fixation on uttering the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” or some variation thereof, is doubled down on in the vocabulary obsessions of so-called “social justice warriors” who treat and perform politics as an exercise in evangelism.
Beyond conceiving until the campus madness of recent years, but now all too recognizable, is the path to Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopia of absolute equality, Harrison Bergeron: From the puritanical revolt against Halloween costumes in the name of the racialist doctrine of “cultural appropriation,” to the application of its severe premises not only toward its inverted gender and sexuality orthodoxies but to a “disability rights” movement, to the ubiquitous appearance of plus-size advertising in response to the newly minted concept of “fat-shaming.” The key role of the pleasure principle and sexual libertinism in ensuring broad public consent to authoritarianism and the eclipse of liberalism was ominously foreseen by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. And half a century before them all in The Iron Heel, Jack London foresaw that it would all be brought about not by the armed Leninist party but by the capitalist class, most fully realized by the Silicon Valley elite who exalt diversity dogma and the fulfillment of personal desire at the conscious expense of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, both at home and abroad.
Progressivism and the American Creedal Passion
How did this happen? The beginning of the answer comes from Samuel Huntington in one of his obscurer works published in 1981, American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony. “Creedal passion” was the term Huntington devised in his effort to understand the upheavals of the 1960s in historical context. Huntington defined the years from 1960 to 1975 as the most recent of recurring periods of creedal passion roughly every six decades—preceded by the Great Awakening and American Revolution; the Second Awakening, abolitionism, and the Civil War; and the Progressive Era—in which the gap between the ideals of American society and the practices of American institutions becomes untenable. Huntington saw those ideals as remaining consistent throughout all four periods of creedal passion, namely, the value system derived from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, whose fullest expression was in the positive values of anticommunism that animated Cold War liberalism.
But Huntington lacked sufficient hindsight, writing at the end of the 1970s, to recognize that the 1960s New Left represented a momentous break with this pattern. The beginnings of the New Left, illustrated by the Port Huron Statement of 1962, certainly adhered to the consistent historic values of the American Creed as argued by Huntington. What Huntington did not reckon with was how fully the domestic consequences of Vietnam were shaping the course of the whole political era to come—most fundamentally, that in discrediting anticommunism, Vietnam further discredited the positive values of anticommunism, ultimately meaning historic American ideals themselves. Taking their place were the values of the so-called “new class” whose initial rise in the 1970s was first documented by the sociologist David Bazelon and later by Christopher Lasch—in short, the value system of the transnational elite that has been the subject of the pan-Western populist revolt that is defining the second half of this decade.
The various campus and prestige media movements that adhere to the doctrine of intersectionality, therefore, are best understood as the first “creedal passion” period of the value system of the new class. Because this is occurring within the relatively contained world of the so-called “blue tribe” during a broad national crisis of social and economic inequality, it has explosively collided with the populist upsurge that was given expression in the last election by both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
In the near term, signs may seem hopeful enough that American liberalism and the Democratic Party may right themselves. The immigration plan in Congress endorsed by President Trump was anticipated over a month earlier by Peter Beinart (a penetrating and principled critic of at least one establishment he has served in the past who might hopefully serve that role once again), calling for a return to the one-nation liberalism advocated for in the 1990s by Arthur Schlesinger and the civil rights icon Barbara Jordan. And perhaps the most interesting Democrat in national politics today is Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, an Iraq War veteran and leading heir apparent to Bernie Sanders, whose exceptional political talent is evident in the equal enthusiasm she inspires from former voters of both Dennis Kucinich and Jim Webb. But the far more daunting challenge, of course, is to more deeply renew liberalism—the civil libertarian value system of the historic American creed—in both politics and culture. The arguments that America and the West suffer a more profound civilizational exhaustion are compelling, as are those that insist it can only come from a spiritual if not religious renewal that liberalism cannot and must not itself provide.
Renewing American Liberalism
It has been said that every generation must confront and reject the arguments against a free society for themselves. This past generation has met more than its share—from the intersectionalist Left rejecting the whole liberal project out of blind hatred for the inheritance of Western civilization, to its equal and opposite reaction in the so-called alt-right. The best thing any movement to reclaim liberalism has going for it today is something that would have been unimaginable at almost any time in the past, save perhaps the darkest days of Popular Front liberalism in the 1940s. Against a popular culture best embodied by Stephen Colbert as a more arrogant and hateful version of the Bush-era pundits he became a star satirizing—with no acknowledged alternative to that zeitgeist other than the alt-right and intersectionalist Left—to believe in social democracy, the vital center, and the historic American creed is not just edgy but downright subversive. It is a welcome and auspicious irony that in the present internal struggle of the American left-of-center, the radical, antiestablishment position is plainly both more in touch with the broad center of American public opinion, and more squarely on the side of responsible government and the legitimacy of our elected leaders.
In a recent essay on Arthur Schlesinger for The Nation, David Marcus explains that, “If liberals and social democrats were to beat back communists abroad and right-wing conservatives at home, they needed a more realistic view of politics. . . . This is what he meant by a vital center—not a politics of accommodation, but one of all-out attack.” At its core, the populist surge throughout the West is a fight to save liberalism from the decadence of the transnational progressive elite, on the one hand, and the scattered antidemocratic ideologues on both the right and left who have made their menace known on the other. Perhaps it can only be a beginning, but the reclamation of liberalism remains the essential, deeply rewarding task where ensuring a future for Western civilization must begin.