Essay

American Liberals Should Return to Social Democracy

by Anatol Lieven

US domestic politics and political culture 16 mins read

Trump deserved to be routed, but his base stayed loyal—largely because of the left’s perverse obsession with what divides, rather than unites, America’s economically downtrodden majority

The idea of the “Green New Deal,” adopted by the left of the Democratic Party and—belatedly—by President-elect Joe Biden, is a recognition both of the acute menace of climate change and that the scale of the challenges that the US now faces is coming to resemble that of the 1930s when the first New Deal was born. As in the 1930s, failure to carry out deep reforms will endanger US democracy—and liberal democracy in the world.

To achieve change on the scale required, the Democrats need to replicate Franklin D Roosevelt’s success in creating a “new dispensation,” so that for a generation or more even Republican presidents accept its basic premises. For almost four decades after FDR’s death, Republican leaders accepted the terms of the New Deal and governed in effect as moderate Democrats. Tragically, in the 1980s Reagan reversed this, and for almost four decades now Democratic presidents have behaved like moderate Republicans.

To bring about another such transformation, and to overcome the biases built into the US Constitution, the Democrats needed to win solidly and repeatedly as both FDR and Reagan did. As the November elections have demonstrated, the party is at present very far indeed from doing that—though faced with a rival as repellent as Trump amid an economic crisis such an historic victory should have been easy to achieve. Instead, Biden won “only” 51 per cent of the popular vote, and Trump a strikingly solid 47 per cent; meanwhile, the failure to win the Senate is likely to block any chance of serious change. Without the accident of the pandemic, it seems virtually certain that Trump would have won re-election, and the Republicans, if they can only avoid civil war, are very well placed to win in 2024. Truly, a Pyrrhic victory.

Class action

The sole electoral focus of the Democratic Party must therefore be to win and keep a large number of votes from the other side—just as FDR and Reagan did. This should not be such a difficult task. The vote for Trump was in large part an inchoate howl of protest against the abandonment of the white working classes by the elites of both parties; as economic change (now reinforced by the pandemic) immiserates large sections of the middle classes, this constituency can only grow. Even the Financial Times now recognises that the era of the Washington Consensus and Reaganite-Thatcherite economics is over. By the look of things however, in the US at least the rotten framework may stay standing for a long time, simply because progressives are too weak to kick it over—a weakness that is to a great extent their own fault.

In some respects, at least tonally, Trump broke with Reaganomics in a way that resonated strongly with this working-class constituency: he talked about creating jobs by building infrastructure, and vowed to maintain social security and “drain the swamp” of crony capitalism. Trump’s cynical and blatant failure to fulfil those promises creates a great opportunity for the Democrats. If they cannot—in today’s grim and extraordinary circumstances—craft a populist, anti-plutocratic programme capable of winning working-class votes from the Republicans in general and a draft-dodging, tax-evading hereditary billionaire in particular, they do not deserve to win.

A strong role for the left of the Democratic Party is essential to bring about serious change. For it has been made clear repeatedly that without strong pressure from the left, the Democratic establishment will never break with its donors and employers in Wall Street and Silicon Valley and adopt radical economic policies. This has been demonstrated yet again not only by some of Biden’s cabinet choices, but by his very limited plans for increased taxation of the rich.

Tragically, however, the left’s move from traditional social democracy to identity politics has destroyed its capacity to build the necessary national majority for reform. Too many leftists—in Europe as well as the US—have spent too long talking to themselves. They have forgotten that in a democracy, change needs votes; and like it or not, in the US today and for some while to come, this means winning a majority of white working-class votes as well as those of Latinos and black people—or rather, winning back those working-class votes that the Democrats have in recent decades lost through neglect. The fact that most impoverished former industrial towns now vote Republican should be a matter not just of concern but of shame to the American left.

American workers have suffered a double betrayal at the hands of the Democratic Party: by the Democratic establishment, which has been captured by the meritocratic ideology of the capitalist elites (who in effect propound a self-serving and hereditary pseudo-meritocracy), and by the left, which has too often directed its radicalism and capacity for mass protest into symbolic issues that neither threaten the elite nor serve the concrete interests of the poor. Moreover, as Wilfred Reilly, a former member of the Occupy Wall Street movement, pointed out in a November article in USA Today (“I Saw Identity Politics Tear the Occupy Movement Apart”), identity politics, by dividing every progressive movement into fractious squabbling sub-groups, has a disastrous effect on mass mobilisation.

Instead of seeking votes, the left, possessed by what can only be called a Kamikaze spirit, has gratuitously insulted working-class white voters (and in different ways, many Latinos and African Americans) while smugly presuming it could continue to rely on their votes. Given the deep dangers of accentuating racial divisions in an already racially divided and volatile society, this strategy would have been a very bad idea even if it had worked in creating a solid electoral majority for the Democrats.

But it hasn’t worked. “Intersectionality” has failed disastrously as an electoral strategy. Trump won almost a third of Latino votes, increased his vote among Latino women, and even won somewhat more support than expected among black men. It turns out that people will not vote according to the racial and sexual categories ascribed to them from above by the intersectional left.

Divide—and don’t rule

The chauvinism of Trump’s insults towards Mexican immigrants in particular is not in dispute. But Latinos from different backgrounds have different identities and interests and will vote accordingly, not according to a category imposed upon them. Many do not in fact identify as a separate “race.” They must be given a reason to vote Democrat, not told that they are bound to do so as some kind of racial duty. As a Pew survey demonstrated, Latinos and Latinas are also not impressed by being told by English-speaking intellectuals that they must call themselves “Latinx”— a ludicrous insult to anyone who knows and loves a Latin-based language.

Appealing to voters through symbolic appointments does not necessarily work either. Many African American voters do not see Kamala Harris—a Jamaican-Indian member of the Californian elite married to a white man—as one of them, in the way that Keisha Lance Bottoms and Stacey Abrams are.

Support for mass immigration, and especially illegal immigration, is obviously not a vote winner among the white working classes at a time of depressed wages and growing job insecurity. But for their own very good economic reasons, an overwhelming majority of black voters—according to a Harvard-Harris poll—are also strongly in favour of reducing immigration. A core shibboleth of contemporary liberalism is therefore rejected by what is supposed to be a core liberal constituency.

As for gender, Trump’s undeniably vile language and conduct is—again—not the automatic recruiting sergeant for the left that it lazily assumes. Women of all races are, of course, part of their local societies and on the whole vote accordingly.

After these elections—with the less-than-resounding vote for change in objectively dire circumstances, and in particular with the remarkable solidity of the vote for such a dire President—it is surely time to settle the debate that simmers on the left. For a long time, traditional social democrats (like Thomas Frank and Mark Lilla) have argued for a strategy based on class against a new left preoccupation with identity and intersectionality. It is—or should be—apparent to all that progressive electoral victory and radical reform require multiracial progressive coalitions that aim to transcend racial divisions, not accentuate them.

It is politically insane to insult the mass of working-class white voters (including many who are sinking further and further into destitution, social despair and early death) by describing them as innately “privileged” and racist. It is appalling politics to describe their economically threatened families as agencies of “heteronormative oppression” (something that also deeply offends religious black and Latino voters) and to preach “diversity” while ruthlessly suppressing opinions with any trace of the social conservatism and nostalgia which are routine among this electorally crucial group. It amounts to attacking their most cherished symbols and implying that they should get to the back of the queue in any programme to alleviate America’s ills.  

The recent elections have demonstrated, once again, that there is no evidence—and I mean no evidence—that these strategies have gained a single vote for the Democrats that they did not already have.

Everybody who knows the history of Christianity knows how very easily hysterical public admissions of personal guilt can actually become aggressive strategies of moral self-righteousness and superiority. A white CEO or professor may feel a glow of righteous pride (and perhaps moral justification for their individual position) in highlighting their own white privilege. For a semi-employed white worker, it is likely to be just one humiliation too many. Why on earth should they accept being lectured on their “white privilege” and “white fragility” by a perfectly prosperous white professor like Robin DiAngelo?

As Martin Luther King emphasised, while black people are especially badly damaged by America’s economic and social pathologies, they are not the only ones to be so damaged. If the white working classes are to be brought to think coherently about their own desperate need for reforms, it is absolutely essential to create movements based on multiracial class interests, and not racial and sexual identities.

This does not in any way harm real black interests and ambitions. Since black people are indeed disproportionately affected by poverty, police violence and poor access to education, genuinely colour-blind reformist programmes can disproportionately help them without this having to be made their official purpose.

It does not deny the real black suffering at the hands of the police or harm the defence of minorities’ civil rights in any way to point out that working class whites also need police reform, because police savagery and indiscipline can also claim white lives. Of course, there are specific issues of police racism which require a specific focus, but what is wrong with appeals for police reform carrying pictures of victims of police violence of different races? America’s first (but let us fervently hope, not last) black President twice won election by appealing to Americans of every race.

Pragmatism is, however, not the only reason to reject intersectionality as a political strategy. Every American citizen also has a duty not further to worsen racial tensions in a racially diverse and potentially very violent society. Speaking as a former journalist with experience of several civil wars, a future Yugoslav scenario for the US no longer seems to me unthinkable—and must at all costs be avoided. Looking at the last election results according to county, I seemed to see the very battle lines of such a future civil war. The fact that the Republicans have cynically and shamefully inflamed these tensions is no reason for the left to lapse into a similar sectarianism.

Prospect (London) December 2020