The American right thinks the country needs to be restored—made great again, whatever that means. The liberal center thinks it needs to be saved from right-wing barbarians—and maybe from some leftists whom liberals find alarming. The left thinks the country still needs to be built: as a stronger democracy, a more secure economy, and a more genuinely plural and inclusive nation.
In the March issue of the New Republic, I argue that the left sees things that others in U.S. politics prefer not to see: For workers, women, people of color, citizens and the undocumented alike, being “equal” in a technical sense—having equal rights and participating in democracy by voting in elections every few years—is not enough defense against deep inequality and vulnerability; we also need changes that will deepen the lived experience of liberty, equality, and democracy, so that people can become both safer and more powerful. The left—inasmuch as it’s even one thing, which of course it isn’t entirely—has always emphasized equality, democracy, and the challenges capitalism can pose for both. Those problems are now front and center in the United States and around the world.
But what would it be like to ask a charitable, deliberately credulous question: What do liberals and conservatives know that the left has trouble seeing? It’s easy to see the other side’s failings and bad faith; whole online industries are devoted to pointing these out, from any standpoint you can imagine. But what do others get right? How might a person today draw insights from each of these perspectives, to become, as the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once put it, a liberal-conservative-socialist?
As long as Trump is in power, we have a negative example of how strands of those ideologies can combine. The famous definition of anti-Semitism as “the socialism of idiots” hints at a picture of Trumpism’s ideological synthesis. His calls for “solidarity” in the form of America-first slogans, borders walls, and exclusion orders targeted at people who don’t “love us” in the right way are our very own American idiot socialism. His love of “winners” and the “best” and “smartest” people, his plutocratic meritocracy, is the (neo)liberalism of knaves, willing to embrace inequality as long as the market shows that it is deserved. (During the campaign, Hillary Clinton tried on the line that Trump’s pride in his partly inherited, wholly obscure wealth was an insult to real billionaires, a reminder of just how comfortable the Democratic Party has been with the self-congratulation of the very wealthy.) And his real fuel, of course, is the conservatism of thugs, from the constitutional vandalism of Mitch McConnell and the Republican Tea Party, willing to plug up or break whatever they cannot control, to the trolling and race-baiting of Breitbart. If nothing else, one would want to be the opposite of all these things.
A very different combination of values comes from the liberal centrists who believe the country needs to be saved from Trumpist barbarism and leftist excesses. What they see as needing to be saved is the moderating, stabilizing effect of institutions such as the Supreme Court, political norms such as basic bipartisan comity, and the practices of responsible, fact-based media like the New York Times. This position is a sort of conservative liberalism and it is the shared worldview of many Democratic party elites, centrist professionals, and other political moderates.
Indeed, the most genuine conservatives in the current political mix are the political moderates—Democrats and Republicans—who argue that Neil Gorsuch should move easily to the Supreme Court because, as law professor, Obama official, and elite Democratic lawyer Neal Katyal argued in the New York Times just after Gorsuch’s nomination, Gorsuch is very smart and personally decent, respects the institution and tradition of the Supreme Court, and believes in some version of “the rule of law.” This is what a non-thuggish conservative view looks like, in case Twitter has led one to forget: It makes a place for professional elites, insists that norms and character matter as much as party and ideology, and emphasizes preserving institutions that more or less work rather than risking political clashes that might change or damage them. This kind of conservatism was deeply at home in parts of the Obama administration, especially some of its legal offices. The choice of a richly qualified moderate liberal, Merrick Garland, for Obama’s doomed Supreme Court nomination, was an emblem of that spirit.
For some time this kind of cautious institutionalism has been the natural home of lawyerly elites who want to resist Republican radicalism. David Souter, the former Supreme Court justice who essentially switched parties during his time on the Court (nominated by George H.W. Bush, he stepped down in 2009 while in good health, so that Barack Obama could name his replacement), modeled this type. His opinions defended abortion rights, other controversial personal liberties, and the power of Congress to solve national problems. He wrote, however, not in the ringing moral language of liberalism militant, but in the cautious tones of jurisprudence, carefully preserving what had gone before him.
This type of conservatism is not just a political stance, but also a type of personality, combining the specific commitments of liberalism with a general posture that is almost courtly in its deference to inherited forms and customs, and the marble-clad institutions where those have been practiced. Although Justice Souter himself was a famously modest individual, the aesthetic of this political stance is often high-bourgeois, almost a middle-class idea of the kind of aristocracy a constitutional democracy could sustain.
The more seriously you take the thought that authoritative institutions, such as the Supreme Court and its constitutional rulings, are important bulwarks against destructive disorder and ever-worse abuses of power, the more this conservative style of liberalism makes sense. Its tragedy is that the institutions and practices that Katyal and others want to defend may already be too vandalized—too “politicized,” as they might say—to play the role this political stance assigns them. Chief Justice John Roberts’s court gutted Congress’s Medicaid expansion in 2012 and ripped out essential parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013; four conservative justices, including sometime liberal hero Anthony Kennedy, would have invalidated the entire Affordable Care Act on legal theories that were thoroughly activist. The Roberts Court gave us the Citizens United decision, widening the floodgates that admit private money into politics, and is on the verge of breaking the dues-based funding system of public-sector unions. It put the brakes on President Obama’s Clean Power Plan to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, and upheld the prosecution of American lawyers who trained a civilian Kurdish organization in conflict-resolution techniques, because the group had ties to the militant Kurdish Workers Party.
It might be an attractive thought, that a country could have a kind of Ivy-educated, professionally accomplished House of Lords to keep it on track. Especially if you belong to that class, or at least identify with it in your mind, the attraction may be hard to resist. But it might also be that this is more fantasy than the institution can sustain after decades of conservative activism. Why should people whose votes, health care, reproductive rights, and other hard-core concrete interests are at stake, and are also the Democratic Party’s base, feel any regard for a gauzy idea of the dignity and stability of the institution?
There are other problems with this kind of conservative liberalism. Because it is a philosophy of preserving the past, to be at all progressive in content it needs a history of progress behind it to preserve. It would work pretty well at the end of history, but when events pause in the middle of history’s arc, this small-c conservative institution tends to get blown backward into the future. We are very definitely in the middle of history, and right-wing activists have been blowing conservative liberals’ favorite institutions backward for decades.
So liberals do know—as I emphasized in my earlier piece—that basic personal rights have to be protected against political abuse, and that institutions that can do this are precious and not to be taken for granted. For my part, I am only at home on a Left that appreciates this; but I can only take seriously a liberalism that understands that, if you take the need for these protections seriously, you have to ask what other kinds of political economy are necessary to make them real: unions, police accountability, robust voting rights, and controls on money in politics. Identifying these values with the Supreme Court, an institution that has recently done a fair amount to erode them, is ironic at best, tragic at worst.
What about conservatives? There’s a long history of liberals proposing to give conservatism its due: John Stuart Mill wrote that Thomas Carlyle had shown him the need for emotional, symbolic, and imaginative kinds of loyalty and passion in politics. Many liberals admire conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s eloquent essay, “On Being Conservative,” an homage to a turn of mind that prefers the familiar to the unknown, repetition to experiment, a certain kind of comfort to risking oneself in existential or political adventure. The Carlyle-Oakeshott refrain persists because it names a real texture of experience, which bears on politics.
Karl Polanyi, the social-democratic critic of laissez-faire capitalism and diagnostician of fascism, argued that the worst of modern politics was a reaction to the loss of familiar worlds and settled roles and expectations that laissez-faire had uprooted. In other words, on his account, runaway capitalism contributes to fascism, but specifically because human beings are conservative, and capitalism, whatever else it is, is radical. (The late essayist Christopher Hitchens, after he had turned neo-conservative but still wanted the radical cachet of his Trotskyite past, asserted that capitalism was the only truly revolutionary force in world history—a one-eyed version of a premise of Marx’s.)
The social-democratic left of postwar Europe was conservative in this sense. Anyone who has a portion of conservative temperament will appreciate the impulse to protect community, the household, even the workplace and subcultures such as professions and universities from the “pure” market—even though these protections also tended to embed traditional gender roles, inherited ethnic and racial advantage, and other kinds of hierarchy into the “protected” spaces.
Much of what people value in their lives is not directly touched by the left’s engagements with economic power, inequality, and real self-rule, any more than by liberal rights and procedures. What people prize is protected, even nourished by these, but it is separate. For some people, personal life feels, in essence, inventive, cooperative, deliberately egalitarian, and so touches the themes of the left. For other people (including some professionals), the value of personal life may have much in common with liberal rights and rules. But for many people, the reasons lives and communities are so worth protecting are conservative kinds of reasons.
These reasons are vexed. To say something trite but still essential, fondness for a familiar life is no license to ignore, and may be entirely corrupted by, the ways that life was built on the backs of others whose descendants still carry inherited disadvantage. American history braids every familiar terrain with dispossession and exploitation. It is partly because of this history, and because those most involved in it are often the most disposed to downplay or ignore it, that both liberals and leftists often dismiss “nostalgia” in politics as an attitude somewhere between imbecility and evil. But the fact remains that people value a good deal of what they do simply because it is what they know. Even if this strikes you as a parochial or cowardly attitude, you cannot persuade people to scorn their treasures by calling them nostalgic.
But still there is more vexation. The political style of Trumpism, with its fearmongering, friend-enemy rhetoric, and relentless hyperbole, has accelerated the transformation of conservatism into reaction. Whatever the other valences, there was once, and still is to some extent, a rural tradition of gun-owning that prized continuity, craft, and responsibility. I know this because I nominally own a rifle and a shotgun that my dad received from his father and another older man, a mentor of his father’s generation. There is nothing unusual about this, or about the way I learned to oil them, to keep the safety lock on unless about to shoot, and to carry them always pointed at the ground in front of me. There is a gulf between that experience and much of “gun culture” today, with alarm-driven marketing pushing tactical weapons and artillery out to suburbanites and shooting ranges full of human-silhouette targets.
We would not have played those real-life-hot-lead video games any more than you would drive the family car in a crash-up derby. But that fearful, incipiently violent culture of mass consumption is what a certain kind of tradition has become at the intersection of profit-driven marketing and cultivated racial fear. This is a microcosm of a colonization of much of white rural life by the memes and tokens of mass-culture Confederate nostalgia: that battle flag; the paranoid and chest-puffing anthems of Hank Williams, Jr.; and a certain version of male swagger. Under some conditions, there is no decent expression of the conservative impulse. Much of American conservatism is reactionary and fantastical.
Another instance of the vexation of conservatism: Many academics who are liberals or even leftists in other respects make profoundly conservative arguments when it comes to graduate student unionization in their own institutions. They argue that the subtlety, flexibility, informality, and idiosyncrasy of scholarly mentorship cannot coexist with the bureaucracy and contestation of a union workplace, from wages-and-hours agreements to collective bargaining.
These arguments overlook the ways universities have changed, and with them graduate students’ roles and trajectories. Many are hard-working teachers already, and will become adjuncts or go on to other jobs that are not the tenure-track positions that the mentor-and-apprentice model supposes are waiting for them. Many have families. They—and the adjuncts some of them become—need health care, dental insurance, and a living wage now, especially if they are not looking toward tenure a decade from now. More basically, these arguments miss that informal, idiosyncratic relationships work best in circumstances of relative security and shared abundance, when power is not too unequal, whim is not too effective, and not too much is at stake. Mentorship within greater equality and security should be a better thing, not a worse.
Those inclined to conservative attitudes—and most people who value something familiar are likely to be so inclined from time to time, even if they think of themselves as being anything but right-wing—should realize that neither the market nor an exceptional institution like a university is, by itself, the right home for the customs and values they prize. They need protection from the disruption and colonizing effect of markets—the reason Donald Trump’s pro-market, pro-Wall Street, pro-employer politics makes such a grotesque of his appeal to traditionalism—and they need protection from both the old inequalities of tradition itself and markets’ acceleration of those into new realms of precarity.
Neither liberal nor conservative commitments need to fold into or give way to those of the left. Liberalism’s wariness of official power and devotion to minimal political principles remains essential. Conservatism’s attachment to the familiar is insurmountable and maybe indispensable. But without the left, none of these commitments is credible or viable. Trump’s opponents might update the old slogan: Liberal-conservative-socialism or barbarism!