By Martin Eiermann
The great achievement of liberalism has been the conceptual severing of ties between values and institutions: We do not have to believe in free speech to enjoy freedom of speech. We can rail against the excesses of the welfare state without being denied social security. We can question the basic legitimacy of the state even as we huddle under its mantle.
This is historically unique: Illiberal regimes tend to, and have always tended to, make adherence to a particular set of values a prerequisite for political participation and institutional protection. When liberal societies have succumbed to authoritarian impulses, the rescinding of institutionally backed guarantees for social, cultural, or ethnic minorities has generally preceded state-sponsored marginalization and violence. First you take away the shield, then you draw the sword.
The great tragedy of liberalism has been the abysmal realization of this achievement. Too often, in too many places, the rhetoric of liberalism has provided cover for profoundly illiberal institutions. During World War II, black US Army privates were shipped overseas to act as a human defense against fascism. When they returned, they found that they could still not eat in the same restaurants or drink from the same water fountains as their white comrades-in-arms. More recently, equal rights protections existed in détente with laws that criminalized homosexuality as sodomy and interracial marriage as miscegenation. And until today, legal protections and the enforcement of legal rules differ starkly across populations: If you are non-white, you are still more likely to be stopped-and-frisked by police, more likely to be found guilty than white defendants, and more likely to receive higher punishment for the same crimes. Even during elections, the limits of soaring liberal rhetoric shine subtly through: The outsized influence of money over politics, restrictive voter ID laws at the state level, voting restrictions for formerly incarcerated felons, and the apportionment of Congressional districts have effectively undermined the principle of one-person-one-vote in the United States. The historical ubiquity of these types of disenfranchisement do not make them any less troublesome in the present.
In other cases, the implementation of seemingly liberal ideas has led to perverted and profoundly illiberal consequences (neoliberalism is perhaps the most recent and most consequential example of this). Sociologists frequently use the term “structural violence” to describe this state of affairs: The accumulation of advantage and disadvantage for particular social and racial groups, facilitated through the institutions of ostensibly liberal states. Take just one example, the school system in America: Schools are largely funded through local tax revenues; public school eligibility – where you will go to school – also depends on place of residence. School curricula are frequently written at the state level and sanctioned by elected boards. Neoliberal defenders of this system emphasize the devolution of power away from a powerful central government, race-blind admissions policies, citizen influence over the content of basic education, and meritocratic achievement as the engine of status attainment. The sociological story foregrounds the historical concentration of minorities in poor districts, where low tax revenue leads to underfunded schools that inadequately support students and dismiss them into a job market where race, gender, and socioeconomic background (rather than merit) continue to shape access to professional opportunities.
Frequently, outrage over structural violence – couched in the language of neoliberal critique – has contributed to a wholesale rejection of liberalism. But one of the lessons of this election is the danger of abandoning liberal institutions. They are often imperfect and frequently inadequate, and yet they constitute, in the words of the political theorist Chantal Mouffe, the greatest bulwark against antagonistic politics. They are, so far, the best response we have developed to the threat of essentialist politics precisely because they mediate conflict over values. As Mouffe writes, ”There will always be antagonism, struggles, and division of the social, and the need for institutions to deal with them will never disappear.” We can disagree over the content of policies and we can reject neoliberal values in favor of egalitarian ones without abandoning the basic institutions of the democratic state. The disagreements will not vanish, as Carl Schmitt already knew when he described politics as the drawing of boundaries between “us” and “them”, but the consequences of disagreement can be channeled into the direction of pluralism rather than authoritarianism. The radical democratic project thus suggests a quest for more perfect institutions rather than their rejection – to live up to the promise if not the history of liberalism, and to rescue it from its perversions.
Yet the containment of discontent reaches its limits when the institutional foundations of democracy are called into question, when politicians proclaim (without evidence) that elections are rigged, parliaments are corrupt, and courts are mere appendices of the state. Yet this is precisely the logic and rhetoric that has been encouraged by the demagogue who will now occupy the White House. Its thrust – most evident in the countless proclamations of people like Steve Bannon, who finds himself in the unique position of having dragged the far-right fringe into the heart of Washington – is directed not towards institutional reform but institutional dismantling. Donald Trump himself is probably a demagogue with bellicose rhetoric rather than an ideologue with coherent ideas, and it is far from evident that the United States has just taken the exit towards fascism. But as David Redneck just wrote in The New Yorker, “… this is surely the way fascism can begin”: With attacks on the institutional bedrock upon which the edifice of liberal democracy stands.
When Karl Polanyi wrote his monumental work on the rise of market capitalism in The Great Transformation, he observed that social dislocation invites a counter-movement, but that this counter-movement can take either progressive or reactionary forms. Trump clearly represents the latter possibility. Whether this possibility becomes realized and whether attacks on progressive policies are preceded by attacks on liberal institutions will partially depend on the coalition that can mobilize against it. It will have to be a broad coalition of people and groups – a “hegemonic bloc” in Antonio Gramsci’s terms – united not just by their opposition to Trump and by their steadfast refusal to normalize him as just another politician, but by their commitment to basic rights and to the institutions that enshrine and uphold them.
Martin Eiermann is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UC Berkeley, former managing editor and editor-at-large of the political magazine The European, and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and OpenDemocracy. His current work focuses on the dynamics of collective action and on the political salience of privacy.