Ideological turmoil in America has reached unprecedented heights. With conservatives falling into the unfalsifiable throws of populism and Liberals fetishizing 1960 solutions to 2020 problems, both appear lost in moving through the 21st century. What comes after Trump for the populist? What comes after liberals fail yet again to implement a child’s imitation of the Great Society?
Messaging is paramount in the age of social media and if 2016 proved anything, it’s that the non-incumbent populist and the liberal struggle to differentiate themselves on policy. But thankfully few people have patience for that anyway. Incumbency is a negative to the populist in much the same way historic dominance is a negative to the liberal. 2016 became an election about credibility which, to the rights credit, remains a key vulnerability to today’s liberal. But if we extend this ability to strip away credibility then we find a situation where we are hopelessly lacking in a coherent vision for the future.
While it is easier to throw stones at a glass house than it is to build one, there is a way forward that doesn’t involve devolving into mob rule. But it’ll take some time to understand how we get there.
Moving past a cross roads it never knew it crossed in 2016, deciding between an uncomfortable return to reganite dogma or to nestle itself in the uneasy embrace of economic nationalism rests our supposed conservative. The intellectual libertarian and high-minded principals of the tea-party deficit hawks have sat silent, voices drowned out by the chants of ‘make America great again’. The foreign policy ethos of free markets and intervention, of the impending revolution for capitalism to democratize the world has died in the halls of a Chinese politburo and withered away in Iraqi heat.Free markets and free trade, once considered sacrosanct are now revealed as convenient scapegoats to a not-so-secret globalist agenda. The credo of the conservative is that of protectionism, of tariffs as a marketing ploy and the abandonment of any pretense to professionalized foreign policy. In the age of the deal we will have to take what we can get.
Anti-intellectualism has always found a home in American politics but never before has theoretical backing been so flagrantly disregarded to propel the ethos of a personality cult. When economic nationalism attacks laisse faire as an elitist conspiracy abroad then simultaneously endorses it as a cure-all to domestic woe; the only solution is to trust in a cannibalistic intellectual vanguard represented by Steve Bannon to reconcile the contradictions.
In order to scrape by a few more electoral wins, conservatives have removed themselves from coherent policy. Day by day the electorate removes any credibility to its creed by disregarding convictions once held to be so indelible, aggressive foreign policy succumbs to surprise withdrawal announcements from the middle east, candidate family values dissolve between sexual assault admissions and five children split between three different women. The only remaining rallying cry which makes any sense remains abortion, immigration, and some vague fear of ‘socialism’. Conservatism made a devils bargain to trade credibility for conspiracy and thinly veiled racist dog-whistling. All justified, they continuously tell themselves, if it means stopping abortion (which they’ve still failed to do). Where can we possibly go from here?
Progressives and moderates haven’t had ideological evolution since the 60s. New ‘additions’ to the movement include political correctness and sexual assault bingo with our fingers crossed to see who escapes the arena unscathed. Social democracy and status-quo remain committed to leveraging ideas of welfare administration discredited in the public eye since the great society. They find hope in the death throes of clumsily framed feminism and racial capture politics. The anti-capitalist message is now subverted more adeptly by nationalists, reducing liberal electoral prospects into the crucible of lesser evil posturing.If it wasn’t for the outrageous luck of an incompetent right-wing figurehead (who managed, let’s not forget, to engineer his own government shutdown while controlling both houses of congress), the liberal alliance may have threatened to dissolved entirely. Progressives and liberals stay in a marriage of reluctant necessity. If continued economic nationalism doesn’t demand a critical re-examination of the democrat’s ideological future, what will? The liberal party seems to survive only on the fumes of spite as the nationalist threatens the progressive policy platforms of non-interventionism, anti-globalism, and at least lip service to the struggles of the working man with every passing day.
The liberal’s vision for the future is bifurcated between whatever European state is in vogue this year and a ‘return to normal’. A promise that, no matter who wins, they promise to repeat history in one form or another. Nothing in these grand visions brings us to standard necessary to govern in the 21st century. The party of, ‘what was promised in ‘08 again?’ drags us by force toward the allure of undoing all the things Trump did, who in turn undid all the things Obama did. Ignoring the mistakes made or the inability to enact those ’08 promises in the first place. Why should this time be any different? If we were to be so blessed as to be under their hegemony again, what exactly happens the day after we are done purging Trump from our political machinery? Do we return to free market internationalism while paying lip-service to labor unions? Do we return to the 1960s and attempt to waste vast quantities of time and energy on ineffective attempts at eliminating poverty? What unites liberals in the new age is their hatred for this tribalistic right wing. But hatred of an enemy has always taken a back seat to liberal Utopians. At some point the fear of a red resurgence will shatter our uneasy alliance and beg the question, where do we go from here?
A Path Forward
The saving grace for our world is that we haven’t yet suffered from economic calamity. If we were, then the situation would be worse than that of 1920-1930, because at least in those decades the bright promises of liberalism and competitor communism behaved as a lodestar. We find ourselves now lost, desperately searching through the pages of history and long dead philosophers to provide us guidance. The threat of Fascism should be impetus enough to preemptively create a fourth-way out of this mess. However, such ideological posturing has to, by necessity, be tainted by the political expedience of our age. It means subverting arguments in ways that are ultimately irrelevant to this grander vision but are essential in converting adherents.
It feels cheap to say that the next ten years are so critical; but the lessons of political catastrophe are that those who rebuild their broken world use the tools and ideas lying around them at the time. We can only hope that those ideas provide solutions to the issues we are actually facing (a global pandemic, the erosion of Liberal hegemony, the role of government in the age of data, and more), even if it is given an ideologically tainted wrapper of left or right.