The Liberal Cult of Reason

On January 21st, 2017, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the 320px-contemplating_the_headlines_at_the_newseum_283245120718529United States, over a million people took to the streets in women’s marches across the country. It was a remarkable demonstration of opposition to the new president and his right-wing agenda. The question remains, however, whether the emotion and energy that led to such widespread protests will sustain themselves, or if the marches were just fleeting acts of catharsis, a single day of activism to alleviate the severe distaste many American progressives felt following the swearing-in of a man whom they despise.

The realistic (if depressing) answer is that the latter is more likely. Like the Occupy Wall Street rallies and the Black Lives Matter campaign, the women’s marches signify a popular antagonism toward the status quo, but offer no clear road to major reforms. It is obvious to any observer that there is a national current of anger and anxiety, a reflection of global unrest aimed at elites over unaddressed grievances. The problem, however, especially among U.S. progressives, is how to create and sustain a unified social movement capable of affecting meaningful change. Sadly, one of the reasons the women’s marches were so successful is because they became empty vessels in which everyone could champion their favorite issue. Hillary Clinton Democrats, convinced Russia rigged the election against their candidate, marched alongside Bernie Sanders supporters arguing that Trump won because of his economic populism. Also present were left-wing radicals – socialists, communists, anarchists – who saw the election of Trump as a symptom rather than the disease. The “America is already great” crowd rubbed shoulders with the “America was never great” proponents because the march brought them together in their mutual rejection of Trump. It notably avoided asking the contentious but nonetheless important question: “Where do we go from here?”

320px-trump_protest_283075103129029It should be evident that the U.S. needs a radical break with the past. Unfortunately, for the liberal centrist, radicalism is anathema, regardless of its principles. A supporter of far-left causes is as harmful to the body politic as a fascist. Last year, moderate pundits decried Trump’s surging popularity on the back of his anti-immigrant, Islamophobic rhetoric, equating him with Adolf Hitler. These same pundits then lambasted anti-Trump protesters for disrupting pro-Trump rallies and fighting with Trump supporters. This seeming contradiction reached peak levels on Inauguration Day, when an anti-fascist protester punched prominent white nationalist and leader of the “alt-right,” Richard Spencer. Those same pundits started to debate whether it was acceptable to use violence against someone whose views are essentially synonymous with Nazism. For some political “experts,” the political sphere must preserve civility and decorum in the political sphere, even as advocates of racial hatred gain a worrying amount of mainstream credibility. While perfect parallels between the 1920s and the 2010s cannot be drawn, it is worth remembering that fascism did not flourish in Europe entirely by force, but by becoming normalized as a valid and respectable political force.

For many progressives, that liberals could so ardently defend the rights of fascists given the lessons of the early 20th century is maddening, but it is understandable. Cooperation and consensus lies at the heart of the liberal mindset. Liberalism opposes the reduction of individual liberty for the health of the community; the state only holds the power granted to it by the people, whose natural rights are inviolate. In a political environment of moderation and compromise, citizens employ reason to arrive at utilitarian outcomes, just as merchants negotiate mutually beneficial arrangements. The presence of a regulator interfering with the organic, rational transaction goes against the premium liberalism places on freedom. As such, a racist such as Richard Spencer must have the freedom to espouse his vitriol without the threat of physical harm. In the marketplace of ideas, the liberal argues, racism on its own will gain no currency; to remove it from the shelf sets us down the slippery slope of wanton censorship and eventually repression.

Of course, the marketplace of ideas is no more “free” than the “free market” of 186px-johnlockeeconomics. Liberal idealists, from the Enlightenment to the 20th century, did indeed claim that peace and prosperity was a natural result of human nature and economic interdependence. When World War I broke out, however, it demonstrated the necessity of enforcing peace and prosperity. This is why we now live in an age of international regimes that foster collaboration between states as well as transnational corporations, international non-governmental organizations, and so on. These regimes ostensibly serve to ensure that gains between those actors are evenly shared, but it is now indisputable that those regimes benefit some and exploit others. Inequalities are mounting in terms of power and wealth across the world, reaching unprecedented levels. The Global South has long suffered in a global political economy that extracts more resources than the industrialized world invests into it. What is novel about the current moment is how globalization finds itself under attack in places like Michigan and Yorkshire, in the center of the two most historically prominent Western empires.

We must also see domestic events through the same lens with which we view global ones. In the U.S., there is also a regime that enforces peace and prosperity. This regime is comprised not by the state primarily, but by civil society and the business world. These groups tell the population that capitalism, property rights and liberalized markets will create a wealthier, more technological and more open-minded world. “Regular folks” defer to these experts and accept their arguments as “common sense.” Just as international regimes sanction states that defect from certain norms, so too do domestic regimes punish groups or individuals who stray too far from orthodoxy. There heretics are not censured or thrown in jail, but by liberal standards they suffer a fate worse than death: they are branded as possessing a defect of reason. Accordingly, they are generally excluded from the mass media in favor of analysts and commentators who can regurgitate familiar talking points between commercial breaks. Although “alternative media” has blossomed in the Internet age, the consumers of such media typically already have the evidence such dissidents would have to offer. When Noam Chomsky and Glenn Greenwald appear on Democracy Now!, they are preaching to the choir.

Fact-checking sites have also sprung up on the Internet, but their reporting is often disingenuous. For example, when investigating a claim by Mike Pence that the Qatari government promised $1 million to the Clinton Foundation for a meeting with Bill Clinton, the PolitiFact Web site had no qualms citing leaked emails from Democratic Party officials as evidence that the charge was “mostly true.” When Democrats alleged that the emails contained false information without supporting evidence, however, PolitiFact hedged its 248px-pinnochio_28868670831229bets, not only remaining agnostic on the accusation of forgeries, but even speculating that the Hillary Clinton campaign did indeed possess evidence that emails had been doctored, but was choosing not to release it. Meanwhile, when a chart listing 13 Democratic senators who had voted against lower drug prices by importing drugs from Canada and the money they had received from the pharmaceutical lobby went viral, PolitiFact had no problem rating it deceptive. The site said that the measure the senators voted against would not necessarily have led to lower drug prices. The source for this was not an independent third party, but the communications director for Cory Booker, one of the senators who voted against the amendment. Essentially, of the possible explanations of the votes, PolitiFact went with the one less empirically provable – that is, the public relations spin released by the politicians themselves. This went mostly unnoticed, receiving not nearly as much of the press attention as the Trump administration has in the early days of its coming to grips with the levers of power.

Sites like PolitiFact derive authority not just from their trading in “facts,” but also because they claim absolute neutrality. They occupy a space uninfluenced by normative judgments that would cloud their slavish dedication to the unvarnished truth. This is a space also claimed by most of the press writ large (even the partisan political operations like MSNBC and Fox News), as well as the Beltway “wonks” who claim to be less interested in political theory and more so in the minutia of complex policy details. They gain influence precisely because they situate themselves as above the fray, able to make pronouncements about proposals and behavior because only observe them. They deal not in rhetoric and emotion, but in empirical data and statistical algorithms. Their role in the political process becomes, then, to scrutinize the words and actions of public figures, to catch them in lies and then expose them or to poke holes in their plans. Their cult of reason, the story goes, protects the republic from frauds and charlatans.

Unfortunately, as the rise of Trump proves, they cannot keep us safe from frauds and charlatans. We do not live in an idealized world that operates according to the rules of an Ivy League debate club, where merely pointing out the cognitive bias or logical fallacy beneath a specious argument makes you the “winner.” For example, many Democratic 320px-khizr_and_ghazala_khan_august_2016voters reveled in the speech given by Khizr Khan at the 2016 Democratic Convention because it contradicted the premise that U.S. Muslims are not patriotic. The speech, however, did absolutely nothing to change the minds of prejudiced Americans who supported Trump’s ban on Muslim immigrants. Their prejudice was not based on reason to begin with, just as their homophobia does not truly rest on adherence to religious text. They did not arrive at hate because of any real knowledge, but rather an interpretation of reality inserted into their minds by cultural institutions. No amount of exposure to data will convince them that Muslims or homosexuals are generally regular people who want to live like everybody else. Their fear and anger toward these groups find root not in knowledge but feeling. If the excuses used to justify these intolerances seem like clumsy fig leaves for purely visceral proclivities, it is because they are.

The Trump campaign succeeded because it accepted biases and prejudices without caring for the semblance of facts. As a candidate, he accepted wholesale the long-running but unsubstantiated conservative narrative of foreign hordes and unrestrained crime making the country weak and at risk. He even aligned himself with fringe groups on the far right, from neo-Nazis to conspiracy theorists. He shrugged off gaffe after gaffe, scandal after scandal, refusing to recognize the power of the media and political elites to shame him out of the race. As noted here before, Trump was an idea made manifest. He came to embody every resentment and anxiety held by U.S. conservatives, and his disdain of conforming to establishment rules and expectations became a merit rather than a flaw. The things that the political establishment could offer him – media exposure and wealth – he already claimed as a business mogul and celebrity. Unlike Barack Obama, who built momentum behind his political career with his eloquence, charm and erudition, Trump rode a wave of fame and populist outrage that never quite crashed upon the rocks of decency. Many of us wanted to believe – myself included – that Trump would elect on Election Day. For all his appeal to base hatreds, the worst demons of our nature, even the “deplorable” would think twice before voting for him.

The sad thing is, he could have lost. Yet, as we know, the Clinton campaign eschewed a strong ground game in favor of a computer program. It operated from the presumption that eight years of an Obama administration had produced a country familiar with (perhaps even partial to) enlightened rule by a proficient, rational managerial elite. They seem to have forgotten that Obama rose to stardom around a feeling, not a fact: hope. In the future, however, it cannot be more of the same symbolic messaging or empty rhetoric. If there is to be true opposition to Trump moving forward, it must make real commitments and commit itself to definite political change. Protests alone are not enough.

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