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Ballot Question

Defend Liberalism? Let’s Fight for Democracy First

America never really was liberal, and that’s not the right fight anyway. The fight now is for democracy.

Participants holding a banner reading: "EVERY VOTE COUNTS/COUNT EVERY VOTE" at a protest in New York on November 4, 2020.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty
A rally and march in New York City demanding that every vote be counted in the general election, despite Trump’s premature claim of victory, on November 4, 2020.

There are words we know, and there are words we argue about, working our way to a shared meaning. And then there is that unique category of terms that, once they appear, stubbornly refuse to succumb to any mutual understanding no matter how belabored the discussion. Such is the boggy terrain known as “American liberalism.” At best it carries meaning through its modifiers—but then, there are just way too many of those. Lockean? Rawlsian? Jeffersonian? Social? New Deal? Libertarian? Pragmatic? Great Society? Keynesian? Feminist? Muscular? Patriotic? Neo? The mind reels.

Hardly a snapping pennant of faith, American liberalism is one hot American mess.

American liberals would like to see U.S. history bursting forth from its Jeffersonian roots, launched on a steady march from monarchy to democracy, from slavery to freedom, from rapacious Gilded Age capitalism to robust regulatory state. Instead, confusion reigns. By the time I get to the 1980s in my history classes, for instance, it takes me a 45-minute slog of a lecture just to explain the etymology of “neoliberalism.” The root of the term is a nineteenth-century Manchester-style economic “liberalism” deployed to overturn a twentieth-century New Deal and Great Society “liberalism.” That nineteenth-century version was a very selective implementation of a more abstract liberal idea—one that highlighted free trade (a total myth in the U.S. case) while often ignoring the liberties of free citizens, the rights of workers, or the process of democratic government. When I suggest to my students that the individualism of their generation’s identity-based liberalism could be said to feed the hypercapitalism of neoliberalism, their heads are spinning.

Given that the term lacks depth, coherence, and precision, let alone a fighting creed, allow me to introduce a multipart political puzzle. First, nobody can truly agree on what the term means, partially because it has rarely existed in the first place in the United States. “American liberalism,” therefore, has proved to be as much of a nostalgia trap as a forward-thinking enlightenment project. And, when liberalism did work in a politically progressive way, it tended to do so best when it transcended its own logic, ironically achieving liberal ends through illiberal means.

So, while the question today might be, “How to make America liberal again?” the problem is that it never really was. That’s not the right fight. By the time this is over, I hope to draw your attention more narrowly to one part of the liberal idea that is most important and most contested: democracy.

We begin with the nostalgia trap. The best proof of the fact that we don’t know what we are even talking about is the belief that some classical version once defined American history. What must be regarded as, at best, the most blinkered and, at worst, most pernicious interpretation of American history is Louis Hartz’s staggeringly influential The Liberal Tradition in America (1955). Hartz argues that Americans enjoyed the absence of a class-structured feudal past, which also meant little tradition of militant revolution or reaction. Americans were born free, capitalist, and committed to the liberal ideal. Hartz’s flat, conflictless version of history was always in conversation with European socialism more than the American historical record. It stands as a document of its postwar moment, when the United States needed to make sense of itself as hegemon of the “free” world.

Yet the persistence of the Hartzian idea, even if only fumes remain, has prevented us from understanding the frequent failure of our own political systems. This holds especially true for the question of democracy, because the Founding Fathers had a tortured, suspicious relationship to the people, which we have yet to overcome. This makes liberalism more of a longing for that which never existed than it is a useful guide for democratic values.

Thankfully, this year, Steven Hahn finally wielded his hefty historian’s hammer, sinking nails in the coffin of liberalism by separating Hartz from fact in his perfectly titled book, Illiberal America: A History. Hahn writes “not of the country’s recent departure from long-established and entrenched ‘norms,’” but instead “how our present-day reckoning with the rise of a militant and illiberal set of movements has lengthy and constantly ramifying roots.” He also shows how the mythology of liberalism has been sustained less by its proponents than by its anxious critics. The right attacks it, while the left defends some kind of imaginary norm to fight off the new assault on great (mythical) American values.

Individual freedom is often seen as the core of liberalism (root: liber, free), that most cherished of American values. Yet the practice of freedom hardly holds up to any litmus test of American liberalism. In my recent book, Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power (2022), I found a near two-century history of the practice of Jeffersonian-Jacksonian freedom wielded by white elites to dominate the land, labor, and political power of other people. Freedom for white Americans meant the freedom to control, exploit, subjugate, deny, and even murder. When, for instance, the federal government intervened militarily to back the political rights of formerly enslaved people, elite Alabamians fought the feds with a twisted but enduring version of the liberal ideal. Whites saw federal intervention as a “flagrant and dangerous invasion of the ancient conservative principles of personal liberty and free government.”

Annelien de Dijn’s Freedom: An Unruly History (2020) has a similar finding. As democracy broke out across the North Atlantic, the liberal idea of freedom was mobilized to control the unruly democratic expressions of the people. Freedom, she shows, was not deployed as a source of liberation but as a “formidable reaction against democracy.” In his book Bind Us Apart (2016), Nicholas Guyatt further problematizes Enlightenment liberal values by showing how the founding generations invented, and were committed to, the logic of separate but equal. There never was a place for a multiracial, multicultural (liberal) republic. Men may have been created equal, as some claimed, but they’d have to go be equal somewhere else—for American Indians it was out West, for slaves it was “back” to Africa.

A contemporary “liberal” view looks to foundational moments of expanding access to democracy and economic prosperity—signposts of the American reform tradition. Eras like Reconstruction, the New Deal, and the civil rights era may have been partially inspired by liberalism, but their most salient victories were fostered by forceful departures from it. This is the mobilization of illiberal means for liberal ends.

Consider Reconstruction. Eric Foner aptly calls it The Second Founding, but we ought never forget that it was a product of military subjugation followed by what former Confederate states regarded as the “forced ratification” of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Given the rather unliberal, albeit overdue, military means of statecraft, the old Confederacy cried foul on the “forced ratification” necessary for them to rejoin the Union as federal bayonets ruled their land. Even the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, barely met the two-thirds majority to pass, and that was without the Southern delegations voting (suggesting it would have had a hard time in any other circumstances besides those born of military subjugation).

Not so ironically, the party that grew in opposition to the Radical Republican agenda was called, of course, the Liberal Republicans, who fetishized civil service reforms and proper procedures while whites seized power in the South. Then, in the tradition of what Richard Hofstadter called “a democracy in cupidity rather than a democracy of fraternity,” the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing equal protection under the law, became a tool for supporting corporate personhood while Black people sought their rights in the streets.

When the New Deal came along during nation’s second great moment of peril and reform, Roosevelt’s Brain Trust also abandoned the core values of liberalism by creating the corporatist National Recovery Administration. Here FDR saved liberal capitalism by suspending its rules, selecting to call his project “liberal” because the individual rights inflection of the word provided useful cover for the NRA’s collective tendencies. While the NRA was found both unworkable in real life and unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, it nonetheless opened the way for the great and semi-enduring breakthroughs in controlling and managing capitalism: Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the National Labor Relations Act (upheld after FDR’s threat to pack the court and the autoworkers’ rather illiberal seizing of General Motors). I’ve called the era “The Great Exception” because it was based on the muting of the American love affair with the ideology of individualism and the bolstering of organized class power—at least for a few decades.

When it comes to the modern civil rights era, it is worth mentioning that the brave actions of the Little Rock Nine integrated Little Rock High School, but it also took the illiberal means of Eisenhower’s executive order and a show of force by the 101st Airborne Division to make sure the job got done. This is an age in which liberal stalwart Hubert Humphrey, segregationist Senator Richard Russell, and master manipulator Lyndon Johnson—and perhaps even Eisenhower himself—were all liberals. How can that be?

I suspend my caustic take on liberalism when it comes to the momentous achievements of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. They may have been the most liberal pieces of legislation ever passed in the United States. For the first time in American history, the United States legally declared itself to be a democracy and did so by parliamentary (not military) means. That makes the United States a very young republic indeed. Yet those great historical breakthroughs, “the liberal hour,” now seem fleeting, tactical, and so propulsive of anti-liberal reaction that they generated what can only parallel the post-Reconstruction era of white “redemption” from the grip of federal power (known in the 1960s and beyond by the more populist term “backlash”).

This delivers us to the missing piece of the liberal story. As the historian James Kloppenberg noted in a 2001 retrospective essay on Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition, we need to stop debating liberalism and “turn our attention toward democracy.” In this time of political crisis, the path forward should be focusing on the single definable dimension of liberalism, democracy, and promoting a robust expansion of the franchise, through very active federal intervention, ideally a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote for all citizens—full stop—and some system of equal representation of that vote (say, getting rid of the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and other tricks of the trade).

Our current political system is based on who gets to vote and which states’ votes matter, not what the policies or ideas could or should be. That is a failure. The clarion call of “Democracy Now!” is a lot more attractive than “Vague Culturally Relative and Historically Defined Liberalism at Some Point if It’s Convenient and Procedurally Correct!”

Authoritarian conservatives now own nearly every political value—liberal (as a pejorative), freedom (a scary version), patriotism (the white nationalist variety). But confront them with the one concept that remains up for grabs, democracy, and they buckle. It’s the key dividing line. The real American history is a contest over whether this will be a democracy—culturally, institutionally, and participatorily—or will be something else: authoritarian, oligarchical, white nationalist, fascist, segregationist, elitist, or some other.

The question of democracy was there at the founding. And, sure, it is part of liberalism. But it is the part that is clear and makes sense. It was there at Reconstruction, the New Deal, and the Great Society. As Louis Menand paraphrases the essence of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address: “democracy is an experiment the goal of which is to keep the experiment going. The purpose of democracy is to enable people to live democratically. That’s it.”

The confusion inherent in liberalism risks drowning its most urgently needed value: democracy. Clearly, if you’re not some kind of liberal at this moment in history, you are not helping. That’s fine, but let’s define our aims more precisely, with a vision that is more energizing, more inclusive, and yet still identifiable within some kind of American tradition. A system of a federally enforced and equally weighted right to vote for all citizens would be the best and most unifying place to begin. Despite everything, if the system is run right and aggressively so, the people can be trusted. Let’s gamble not on the chimera of liberalism but on pursuing the unfinished vision of an American democracy.