What Does a Mature and Reliable Liberal Sound Like Today?

Enlightenment about American politics is always welcome, especially now. The noted political scientist Alan Wolfe, who retired recently as director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, has written a book to try to explain how we got here and what it means.

The starting point of The Politics of Petulance: America in an Age of Immaturity is an analogy between the Trump phenomenon and the McCarthyism of the early 1950s. Wolfe grounds the comparison not so much in McCarthyism itself, as in the response to it by the leading liberal intellectuals of the postwar period. He returns to his teachers, a sober and impressive group, like Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, Lionel Trilling, and Reinhold Niebuhr. He relies chiefly on Daniel Bell and Richard Hofstadter. Non-liberal critics of liberalism like Leo Strauss and Erich Voegelin get passing mention, but only that. “If there is any key to understanding just how Donald Trump became our president,” writes Wolfe, “it can be found among the ideas of Hofstadter and his friends, colleagues and contemporaries,” who were “the wisest group of political thinkers to appear in this country” since the Founders.

This brief book thus has a somewhat elegiac and monumental character. It reads like a bearing of witness by a representative of a sane time on the madness of posterity. Of course, in assuming this apostolic mantle, Wolfe implicitly claims to offer us the same medicines that helped cure the disease of McCarthyism, which is demagoguery. The demagogue, Wolfe explains, is a charlatan to whom people turn when they become “obsessed with demons that do not exist” in order to “make them go away.” Thus, Wolfe is not prepared to take very seriously the concerns of those who voted for Trump, or the notion that the story is bigger than Trump, or that  Obama in large measure prepared the way. Thus, “Barack Obama, whatever else one thinks of him, with his heightened sense of irony and innate political centrism, was the very opposite of a demagogue (except to critics on the right such as Charles Krauthammer).” (So much for critics on the Right.)

The perspective Wolfe assumes thus allows him to treat the phenomenon of Trumpism without going deeply into the social and cultural history of the last 60 years. For Wolfe, populism as such can be understood as a recurrent and largely independent phenomenon, to be analyzed from the reliable standpoint of the perennial center-Left.

Political Immaturity, a.k.a. Populism

Wolfe begins with an invocation of the “mature liberalism” of his heroes. They were not progressives, but were friendly to progressivism. Wolfe describes them as “chastened by adversity, tempered by time and modulated by a growing sense of reality,” and he quotes Hofstadter on the Hofstadterian mission: to “wean the reform influence from ‘its sentimentalities and complacencies.’”[1] That is what Wolfe would like to do today.

Having identified demagoguery as the problem, Wolfe, as a mature liberal, explains that it is produced by political immaturity. That has now broken out because “seemingly uncontrollable globalizing forces” left behind “pockets of the white working class” whose members are “filled with resentment.” He does not specify what those forces are and why they are only seemingly uncontrollable. But throughout, weaving among his other explanations, Wolfe blames white racism. Thus, Trump voters are those who “feel so strongly that their country has been taken away from them because some of its leaders look different from them.” The argument seems to be that much of white America is in a latent state of racist hatred that bad times bring to the surface. Wolfe doesn’t make the argument clearly but it could be read to claim that racist, political immaturity is a fundamental fact of American democracy, which erupts in bad times. Youngstown, Ohio might vote for Obama, but when things get bad it turns racist.

Another term for political immaturity is populism. The next chapter provides a rather canned  account of the phenomenon in America and the world. But here as elsewhere Wolfe allows himself considerable leeway to make (often interesting) observations in passing. He thus notes the clash between populisms of both Left and Right and “the procedural practices that make liberal democracy possible.” Mostly, though, he warns against the Right. After all, current Republicans make Barry Goldwater look relatively liberal and the “radical Left is no longer much of a force.” In the context of itemizing the Republican threat, Wolfe bemoans the politicization of the judiciary. But the main argument is that rightist populism has produced “epistemic closure” and produced a demonized world in which “Democrats are Socialists, President Obama is an illegal immigrant, Hillary Clinton is a felon,” and Trump, the epitome of narcissism, is a savior.

Following Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Wolfe rehearses the dangers of mass society. This leads him not to a Tocquevillian call for decentralization and mediating structures, but to a somewhat Burkean critique of “the wrong kind” (illiberal, anti-procedural) of democracy. He seems to be nostalgic for what Dwight MacDonald called “Midcult,” the high culture ambitions of the mid-century American upper middle class, as something that moderated the yahoos. He bemoans foolish Trump supporters who vote against their own best interests. Evangelicals elect a “thrice married man with no discernible spirituality” and oppose liberal environmental policies that would save many of them from early death. But why? Are they ignorant? No, these are “not low information voters.” 

Like the fascist base Arendt described, “they know exactly what demagogues are doing and support them anyway.” The poor vote for politicians who show no compassion to the poor “because they really believe that the plight of poor people and minorities imposes an obligation on themselves—even if they are poor.” And if this sounds suspiciously as though Wolfe were convicting lower class Republican voters of having principles they adhere to even against their own self-interest, he hastens to add that “if racism, moreover, lies at the bottom of their preferences, perhaps their racism is explained by the fact that they genuinely do not care for people of color.” Not ignorance, not ideology then explains irrational voting, but “perhaps” racism? Anyway, racists are racists because . . . they are racists.

From this somewhat indecisive engagement with the heart of American darkness, Wolfe rises to potential cures. They are remarkably non-institutional and unpolitical. One is irony—which, if cultivated by our paranoid masses, would make them less naively conspiratorial. But in the process of making the case for irony, Wolfe allows himself the liberty of general lamentation about the sins of Republican administrations. Thus, did not the Bush administration claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction?

After irony comes the medicine of comedy, especially Jewish comedy. Much could be said about the development of American comedy from the straightforward and largely affectionate mockery of human types we had in, say, Jack Benny or Walt Kelly, to the current style of adolescent sneering in Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and Saturday Night Live. Instead, Wolfe diverges into a history of postwar American conservatism and, more interestingly, Mark Lilla’s critique of the identity politics of the Left. While granting Lilla’s argument some force, and warning against  political correctness, which “makes for bad politics,” Wolfe in the end—like the Hofstadterian progressive who just wants to tone down the frolicking pups—supports identity politics “as a step to national citizenship.”

All rivers eventually run to the sea, and so does Wolfe. Why did Trump win? “If there is a deep story, it may tell no more than the tale of white Americans losing any empathy towards people different from themselves.” But “perhaps the reason Donald Trump is so ignorant of the world is that his supporters are.” (So maybe the problem really is ignorance after all. Or it is racism. Who knows?) Whatever the cause, ignorance or ineradicable evil, the answer, we are again told, is political maturity. He fills us in a bit more about what he means by that when he finds examples of it in the young, who support Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. (In Wolfe’s view, it appears, the politically immature vote for demagogues and the mature vote for . . . Jeremy Corbyn.)

The book wraps up with the big question, namely, “whether the American people will be ready to act like adults.” Wolfe offers us lessons for the future. Among the headings in bold are “Avoid Petulance,” “Recognize the Nobility of Politics,” “Trust Experts,” “Do Not Listen to Those who Speak Too Loudly,” and, conversely, “Don’t Listen to Those Who Speak Too Nicely,” and (a tough one) “Admire and Learn from Political Debates.”

This summary will no doubt suggest that the argument of the book is not entirely coherent. The more’s the pity, for The Politics of Petulance touches on some really important issues.

Civil Rights and the Mid-Cult Blues

Wolfe’s most significant insight is the danger for liberal democracy posed by populist contempt for due process. Wolfe here echoes Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote: “Thus democratic peoples naturally have more need of forms than other peoples, and they naturally respect them less,” and added: “that merits very serious attention.”[2] Wolfe simply sees this disrespect for forms as a sign of political immaturity. But contempt for due process has a modern history.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 seemed like the final triumph of form—of due process, of rights—over policy preference. It was followed in very short order, however, by affirmative action, which preached, in the fashion of any populist mob (though in more decorous language), “result-orientation.” In other words, contempt for due process came from the top, disguised as sophistication. Politically it was, or presented itself as, center-Left.

Wolfe’s inability to see the connection between regulations undermining due process 50 years ago and the loss of respect for it now reveals a blindness he shares with those who, half a century ago, threw away the hard-won gains of due process rights for the sake of gains that even Wolfe acknowledges were small.[3] Instead of even noticing, much less taking responsibility for, the damage done to liberal democratic proceduralism by his own elite, the author is content to blame the less educated, less sophisticated populists who, after 50 years of liberal (in fact profoundly anti-liberal) indoctrination, learned the lesson that due process matters less than satisfying policy ends.

Then there is Wolfe’s concern about the stridency and vulgarity of our political culture and its origins in the collapse of the connection between the bourgeoisie and high culture. That position was unhip even when Dwight MacDonald was sneering at the “Midcult” whose passing Wolfe mourns. Now it is antediluvian.

For all that, Wolfe’s argument has something to it. Tocqueville was reassured that churchgoing would at least remind American go-getters of something more elevated than the pettiness of daily business life. The replacement of religion by art and culture as the agents of nobility was already on its last legs in Europe when it hit America, and high culture was never quite up to the job, but it did some good.

A serious defense of the moderating effects of high culture on our political life, though,  would require the defender to inquire into the history and causes of its demise—specifically the form that this demise took (except as a niche taste) in America. That would necessarily have led Wolfe to America in the 1960s, that crucial period between McCarthyism and Trump, a time he largely neglects. He would have had to engage with the cultural progressives of that era who despised the stuffy, inauthentic formalism of high culture and made catchwords of “authenticity” and “transgression.” Put crudely, the ideology of expressivism came from the cultural Left.

Similarly, the author draws a straight line between Christopher Lasch’s warnings against that expressive, narcissistic culture and Donald Trump. Fair enough. But the “therapeutic model”  that Philip Rieff dissected before Lasch, also came out of the bourgeois Left. When he deplores the politicization of the Supreme Court, he makes no mention whatsoever of the Bork and Thomas hearings. Nor does he say much about the original Progressives, whose contempt for the Constitution and constitutionalism in the name of expert-guided policy taught Wolfe’s center-left allies the usefulness of the politicization of the judiciary he laments. (Recall that Wolfe himself echoes Herbert Croly when he teaches, “Trust Experts.”)

The point here is not to play “Gotcha.” It is to notice Wolfe’s inability to deal with the phenomena he often rightly points to, because of his own “epistemic closure.” His choice to treat populism as a thing-in-itself, and to skip over the historical developments that have led to our version of it, makes it easy for him to neglect the vital role that his own causes and allies have played in producing it. That is why his explanations of the phenomena are so empty and incoherent, why, for instance, he explains the hypothetical racism of Trump supporters by saying that they don’t like people of color. When one can’t allow oneself to think beyond partisan limits, tautological tire-spinning is the likely result. No traction.

A serious engagement with the sources of our current political immaturity would have to explore how things have changed since Joe McCarthy. An example is the loss of practical political experience for most Americans. Tocqueville would have predicted the demoralizing results. What about the long-term effects of enormous wealth and security? One of those effects may be the taste for political posturing as a luxury good and the reduction of politics to symbol, identity, and fashion—first for the elites, then the media and the academy and then, finally, the rest of us.

What about the role of the market in debasing tastes by constantly legitimating newer and baser desires? Finally, what about the dumbing down of serious political thought by a series of simplifying fashions in the universities, from pluralism and behaviorism, through the clever emptiness of postmodernism, to today’s naïve rediscovery of collectivism, and with it (seemingly inevitably), intersectionality and leftwing anti-Semitism?

The Better Model: Arguing the World

Wolfe writes in the name of an older generation but he does not live up to his models. Still, he looks better than many of his contemporaries. Arguing the World, a documentary from 1997, featured a number of these revered figures, specifically Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and Irving Howe. It is well worth watching. One scene that does not involve them is perhaps the most significant. It shows a number of middle-aged progressives from Berkeley recalling that Howe, the famous democratic socialist and editor of Dissent magazine, let them down in those glory days of 1964. Unlike the four older debaters, who treated ideas seriously and followed arguments wherever they led, the younger progressives in the film never rise to a level beyond personal pique and their still-cherished feelings of having been offended.

The idiotic slogan “the personal is the political” is implicated here. This is what the progressives brought us and, I suggest, it is a stance that has finally spread to the working classes—who to their credit had been resisting it for a long time. It has likely shaped the cultural style that now so horrifies Wolfe. Of course it is also (as Wolfe sort of admits but mostly downplays) at its most virulent today in the progressive academy, with its calls for safe spaces and “deplatforming” of those who allegedly engage in “verbal violence.” All the great figures of the past whom Wolfe invokes were products of the old, hard Left that argued ideas on their own terms. Most of our public intellectuals either can’t or won’t.

That is true of Trump and his followers, but it is also true of their Democratic counterparts. Consider the Kavanaugh hearings and how they were covered in the media, not to mention the real demagogues, the Tamika Mallorys and Linda Sarsours, who win plaudits every day from the respectable Left despite, if not because of, their racial bigotry.

Wolfe is not one of them, not a mere ideologue. But partisan blindness makes him unable to carry through on the urgent task he has undertaken. That’s disappointing.

[1] Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform From Bryan to F.D.R. (Knopf, 1955) p. 15.

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II, Section 4, Chapter VII (University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 669.

[3] Alan Wolfe, “Affirmative Action: The Fact Gap,” New York Times, October 25, 1998. In this article Wolfe treats affirmative action simply as a practical policy issue and sneers a bit at those who “argue it from positions of high principle.”