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Enemies at the Liberal Democratic Gates

Is America living in the shadow of the post-Cold War liberalism? Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins argues that some liberal intellectuals are still looking for an enemy who can give a cause to their political actions.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a historian of modern political and intellectual thought with a specific focus on Western Europe and the United States from the Cold War to the present. He primarily concentrates on such topics as liberalism, conservatism, populism, secularism and religion. He serves as the managing editor of Modern Intellectual History.


Kasia Krzyżanowska: The years of the Trump presidency proliferated with outspoken critical voices about liberalism delivered by diverse conservatives, integralists or identitarians, but also by scholars trying to reinvigorate liberalism. Why did liberalism become the enemy, but also a carrier of hope for many intellectuals in the Trump era? And if liberalism played so many different roles in diverse spectacles, does it still have some core features? 

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: The reason I think there is an explosion of interest in liberalism is obviously concerned with Donald Trump’s election. Of course many of the scholars who were focused on the crisis of liberalism literature that emerged after Trump’s election had already been long interested in the history of liberalism. Nevertheless, Trump’s election provided a moment to vent their concerns with contemporary liberalism. 

You are right, there was a wide spectrum. You mention integralists and certain non-liberal critics of liberalism, someone like Patrick Deneen for instance. He and others like him were able to use this moment as an opportunity to show the fundamental limitations of liberalism. According to his reading, it’s ultimately individualistic and anti-communal and as such shows why American society is decaying and breaking down. But there are other people as well, like Helena Rosenblatt for instance. She is a liberal, and in her book ‘The Lost History of Liberalism’ she wanted to say that

there is an alternative tradition of liberalism that is not focused on negative liberty and not a Cold War version of liberalism, but rather on certain characters and virtues. 

Of course, other people would stress the connection between liberalism and the welfare state. I think really it was a kind of proxy debate for getting out on the table what, on all sides of the political spectrum, what many saw as the wrong direction that liberalism had taken even under the Obama administration.

But what are the core features of liberalism, how can we unpack them if there were so many critical voices from diverse angles?

It seems to me that liberalism is very difficult to reduce to one school of thought. There is a tradition of liberalism that we associate with negative liberty. It will involve just the basic rights that individuals have in civil society to act in certain ways, as long as those action do not violate the rights of others. Then there is a view of liberalism as a kind of virtuous character — I mentioned Helena’s book. There is another kind of liberalism, cold-war liberalism, which tries to reconcile classical liberal doctrines of human reason, science and truth, with grand ideologies and the possibility of nuclear war. 

I think now in 2016, when we are moved a few decades from the Cold War and with the rise of Trump, the question was posed: 

Which liberalism is going to win and which one do we need? 

And what does Trump’s election tell us about the weaknesses of liberalism? I think the way forward now is kind of a fight as to which school of liberalism, or emphasis in the liberal tradition will be the dominant one in years to come. 

You already mentioned twice this special category of liberalism, a post-Cold War one. Recently you also published a piece on that with Michael Brenes. You claim that after the great battle was over, the liberals felt intellectually homeless because there was no event that could give them meaning, no principles that they could drive the shape of foreign policy. This was visible in the Obama’s memoirs as you reviewed them, that he was not so much concerned with the fulfilment of the expectations that his campaign awakened, but only focused on moderate goals. How can you explain this post-Cold War liberalism based on the Obama’s memoirs?

Yes, ‘A Promised Land’ is the title of his new memoirs, with others to follow, and covers the first two years of his presidency. I was intrigued by the title of the book, which is interesting: why call your memoire ‘A Promised Land’? Of course, this notion evokes for many a kind of civil religious tradition in the United States, and refers to the language Obama used in his 2008 campaign that galvanized the masses with hope and change. But you are right, if you read the book ‘A Promised Land’ and especially if you read ‘Audacity of Hope’, it seems quite clear that 

with the Clinton administration in particular, and with end of the Cold War, the great ideological divides were no longer strong enough to be the basis for politics. 

They had been defeated. And now you could overcome the traditional division between left and right and establish consensus politics. Obama, who seems to be very much influenced by John Rawls in the notion of finding an overlapping consensus, was the embodiment of 1990’s optimism. And this optimism is inseparable from a Cold War triumphalism. 

In some ways that form of liberalism is the one which is being promoted today under Joe Biden. Joe Biden is known as ‘moderate Joe’ whose whole idea is to have reconciliation and unite the country. But it seems to me that what happened with Trump was a judgement on that very form of liberalism. Given the political economy which we have today, the question is whether the conditions are in place for ideology to be marginalized to the point where we can even have what Obama or Biden aspire for? And if you do not think like that, you might go for a more welfarist liberal tradition which suggests that we have to focus much more than Obama did on a much more progressive social economic agenda to avoid these right-wing extremisms that we are seeing today. 

I find it interesting that after Trump’s win the Biden revival of Obamaism will be the direction that many people want to go. 

You can see this with how many of Biden’s nominated Cabinet members are former Obama’s Cabinet members. Perhaps it is too early to know if Biden will be much more progressive, and certain things that he seems to be suggesting doing might indicate that, than some of the moderation that defined the Obama presidency.

You mentioned the role of an overlapping consensus, which is an interesting notion. On one hand we can criticize it because of its failure to engage more citizens, but on the other hand, can it be a promise for defeating the current social polarisation that is currently in the American society so pressing?

There is a German legal theorist and political philosopher who was very much influenced by Carl Schmitt: Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, who famously said that there are certain preconditions that liberal democracy has to assume and cannot really justify, thus has to look outside. These external conditions have to do with culture. I think in order for Rawl’s overlapping consensus to even be a possibility you must have certain background conditions in place, namely certain liberal values that are widely shared across society. 

It’s clearly the case that those are not shared by many Americans. If those conditions are not in place, and you are pursuing a politics of moderation and a politics of consensus, who is it really for? Only for others who are like minded? And the question is, what is the strategy for getting people who are not into those values into the fold: can you really do that? This is why so many people are critical of the fascism analogy which suggests that we have to re-educate or somehow have a civilization mission, or have some kind of anti-fascist movement to defeat these illiberal, fascist citizens in the United States. There are some who are a little more circumspect, but often the problem with this view is that it is not circumspect enough in terms of thinking about what conditions were within liberalism itself that are connected to this disillusion that so many people have with liberalism. 

So Rawlsian overlapping consensus doctrine applies in this country to the requirements that a professor reads on a syllabus in terms of how students are engaged and how they treat each other in class – I do not know if there is much of a reality of it beyond that. 

Would you agree that the fascism analogy that appeared so many times in different books and articles in the US is somehow inherent in the post-Cold War liberalism? 

I don’t know if I would blame it on liberalism of itself. I do think, however, that there is long structural continuation between some of the sentiment that we are seeing today, although many people have not seen it at this level: Trump did a great deal to encourage it. It could be that the Cold War kept some of this at bay, it required alliances between groups who really did not like each other but had to get along because there was a greater enemy: communism or radicalism. Now that we are no longer in this pressure-cooker and there is détente and a relaxation in terms of foreign threats, we turn on ourselves and these fault lines that have been covered up are now exposed, creating domestic ideological incommensurability. 

I do not think it is by coincidence that a number of Catholic and conservative thinkers, after the Cold War, became strong critics of liberalism. During the Cold War and totalitarianism, communism was the great threat, and now that has been put to the side, we go back to the threat that existed before, which is liberalism. In some ways, the West winning the Cold War allowed for a return to some of the older fights that existed before the rise of these grand ideologies – by that I mean some of the nineteenth century conflicts between church and state and between different groups that were forced to get along in the 1930s and 1940s because of the greater threat. 

The question would be: do you need an enemy? 

There is a strand of thought, mainly neo-conservative, that says that you need an foreign enemy to rally the people and for solidarity. Is there a way beyond that? It is a pretty cynical view which I discussed in an aforementioned paper I wrote with Michael Brenes. If you are coming from the left, the point would be to overcome these divisions by looking at the socio-economic factors that create them. But the emphasis does not seem to be on that, at least with the consensus approach, which focuses on the politics of citizenship, the politics of consensus, and usually involves a political philosophy of representation and the party system functioning properly, rather than making major New Deal era advances in terms of welfare. 

As you mentioned, looking for enemies is present in many books published by liberals. For example, when Ivan Krastev wrote a review of the latest book by Anne Applebaum he mentioned that she is much influenced by this Cold War thinking. Perhaps the end of the Cold War could be compared with the current situation: Trump is gone and so are the hard times for democracy. With Biden in office there is no other cause for liberal intellectuals to fight for. Would you agree with this comparison?

No, because I do think they have a cause to fight for. It’s the war on terror being domesticated and coming home to the United States, the storming of the Capitol on 6th January, and the reaction to it. I do think there is a politics of fear that has emerged amongst the center of the Democratic Party, and I do think there is a push to radically approach this extremism. 

I do think there is a new enemy. But at the same time, if you are a liberal internationalist, there are enemies that have been in place for a while now, like Russia and of course China. 

It is almost a three-front war at this point for liberals of this perspective, because there is a great anxiety about post-Trump right wing terrorism. There is great anxiety about China, and there is the continuing anxiety about Putin. My colleague, Samuel Moyn, in his forthcoming work on ‘Forever War’ says when you have this kind of mentality, it creates the mindset that enemies are forever on the horizon and must be delt with. Which in turn involves distributing money towards the military, money that could be used for other purposes. 

You are right, in this context we should perhaps appreciate any attempt to reinvigorate liberalism, like for example Jan-Werner Muller. He tries to turn to liberalism of fear offered by Harvard political theorist Judith Shklar which relies on welcoming civil ethics making us more sympathetic to other people’s harms. Apart from his proposal, do you think there are different strains of liberalism that focus on solidarity rather than looking for enemies?

Absolutely. I mentioned one in the Rawlsian notion of overlapping consensus figuring out a way of engaging with each other in the public sphere where we are able to put to the side what he describes as comprehensive doctrines, and reason with each other in a way that we can arrive at reasonable agreements on policies.

There are different traditions in this country and a big one is the tradition of American pragmatism. John Dewey and others, there is a neo-pragmatist movement in the eighties, Richard Rorty and others, that was also relying on this tradition. There are the Habermasians that are from this point of view liberals, and they cherish high view of human reason and what it can accomplish in terms of achieving consensus. Jan-Werner Muller early work was on Carl Schmitt and I think he has written some new pieces on militant democracy, that tradition does seem to be appealing for a certain kind of liberal today who is concerned with domestic terror threats and the groups who are opposed to liberal constitutional democracy. And with militant democracy you can use illiberal means to achieve liberal ends, right? And that has risk and we saw that with the Patriot Act, risk to privacy, risk to long standing liberal freedoms. 

You mentioned the politics of fear. 

A lot of the discontent today that many have towards liberalism, whether they are liberals but feel like the tradition is problematic, or they are anti-liberals is perhaps not critical of liberalism as a whole. 

Maybe what they are really criticizing is the version of liberalism that was born in the Cold War and made into a triumphalist doctrine of ‘End of History’, a third way consensus, and they are discontent with what they see around them on many different levels, economic, socio-economic or moral.

How should liberals approach this crisis of their intellectual idea? 

Again I must quote Helena Rosenblatt’s new book, and so many critiques of liberalism by scholars on the left and on the right today are targeting specific versions of liberalism, a major one is neo-liberalism or Cold War liberalism, for being too connected with security concerns. Others are much more self-reflective when it comes to liberalism’s exclusions based on race and gender, focusing on traditions of liberalism that are welfarist or involve concerns about community, and liberalism as a moral character. 

I would be hesitant to promote a view that all we need is a better system of political representation, and all we need is to reform the party system. I think the only way that really works is if it makes significant concessions to the need for Labor Parties within the liberal parliamentary system. Typically the political explanation says nothing about socio-economic conditions. Maybe one way to reconcile the two would be to do that very thing that many liberals did after WWII. That time people like Ramon Aron argued that in order to ensure that ideology isn’t attracted to by the working classes in particular, there has to be an acceptance of Labor Parties. This way working classes can plead their cause through Labor Parties, who work through a system of parliamentary liberal democracy. 


Collaboration: Karen Culver, Robert Nemeth

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