Beyond Trumpism, Wokeism, & Neoliberalism
Better alternatives aren't ready-made, but can and should be constructed
Shattered, Shattered (Shadoobie, Shattered)
Events of the past five or so years hit my progressive liberal identity with a shattering 1-2-3 punch. Looking back, I can now see that cracks in the foundation of my longstanding political faith had been growing for decades. Through the Obama era, though, I was able to paper them over. Part of Obama’s political brilliance was, in fact, his exceptional ability to convince wavering yet credulous progressive liberal believers like myself to keep the faith. When his Presidency ended, however, this became impossible for me, as well as for many others, to do.
What happened? First, of course, came the trauma of Trump’s 2016 victory. Like almost everyone I knew, I found the Trump regime shocking, disorienting, horrifying. This sense of revulsion went far deeper than any specific policy issues (which, in any case, were hard to follow given Trump’s non-stop culture war gamesmanship and the rotten response of the corporate news media ). On a more subliminal level, “our” overarching yet undercover sense of assurance in the progressive course of history had been badly shaken. The common feeling was palpable: This wasn’t supposed to happen. But, of course, it did.
At first, I found solace in joining “the Resistance.” I went to the Women’s March and the Science March. I joined Indivisible and Swing Left. But this initial sense of solidarity didn’t last long. Like many in my circles, I was obsessed with the question of why Trump had won. But the explanations I found most compelling were putting me increasingly at odds with #Resistance culture.
After over a decade-long hiatus, I started studying politics more closely again. Quickly, I became much more critical of the Democratic Party and elite liberal media. When it came to explaining Trumpism, I didn’t find the Russiagate narrative they were pushing so heavily convincing. Reading around more widely, what I did find persuasive were such damning takes on their own institutional credibility as Nancy Fraser on the Democrats’ progressive neoliberalism and Matt Taibbi on the mutual left-right mendacity of the corporate news complex.
Meanwhile, my #Resistance comrades were zealously reaffirming their faith in the self-evident righteousness of these same institutions. Of course, it’s impossible to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind unless you’re close enough friends that they can tell you honestly. But, as far as I could see, the overwhelming majority of my fellow progressive liberals didn’t even consider, let alone share my view that elite liberal media outlets (most notably, The New York Times and NPR) were consistently pushing a one-sided, one-dimensional narrative. Instead, they seemed to share an axiomatic faith that such media outlets could only be properly regarded as trusted, honored, and courageous Beacons of Truth.
Similarly, they didn’t seem to see it as acceptable, let alone useful, to critique the Democratic Party. Instead, there was a fierce insistence “we” needed to form a united front against the supposedly rising tide of “fascism” — an undefined term that quickly expanded to include anyone who’d voted for Trump or had the audacity to reject whatever woke meme du jour was trending on Twitter. The contention that decades of bipartisan neoliberalism may have said the groundwork for Trumpism — while commonly made on both the democratic socialist left and pro-working class populist right — was unknown, unthinkable, and, if encountered, reflexively rejected.
From Bad to Worse
Feeling pressured to rally uncritically around the same institutional flags I’d started heavily questioning was profoundly alienating. But my sense of disaffection from progressive liberal culture was exponentially compounded by the rapid ascension of what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call wokeism. This second blow to my progressive liberal priors was even more devastating than Trumpism per se, as it put me even more directly at odds with my own tribe.
Back in 2017-18, almost everyone I knew seemed to either eagerly embrace the new woke dispensation or at least dutifully accept it without question. (Happily, that’s starting to change somewhat, although not as much as I’d like.) Particularly on social media, but also in certain “real life” social gatherings, I felt pressured either to affirm the latest totemic meme (“believe all women,” “defund the police,” etc.) or, at the very least, never convey the slightest hint of questioning it in any way whatsoever. A new regime of groupthink had suddenly descended like a bell jar over social life. I found this shift in the cultural climate disorienting, uncomfortable, and vaguely threatening.
It was also intellectually confusing. Issues of racial and gender equity that I’d long believed in and in some cases, actively worked on, had been reconfigured into something markedly different from what I’d previously understood and experienced. In the past, I’d supported feminism, affirmative action, and identity politics as needed correctives to excessively narrow forms of liberal individualism and class-based progressivism. As a progressive liberal committed to a more equalitarian politics, I understood that narrowly individualist or exclusively class-based policies couldn’t adequately address inequities rooted in race, gender, and sexuality. Liberalism needed to evolve so that this could be done.
Back in the 1990s when I worked on such issues, such a project seemed difficult yet still doable. I saw the push for greater racial, gender, and sexual equality in late 20th century American liberalism as at least potentially analogous to New Deal liberalism’s earlier incorporation of such socialist-inflected ideas and practices as social security, unemployment insurance, and labor union protections. Of course, it’s now widely recognized that such New Deal policies were commonly implemented in racially discriminatory ways. The obvious next step for progressives, in my view, was to remedy that.
Given my academic background, I knew that a lot of the social and political theory associated with feminism and identity politics had strong anti-liberal elements. I’d also seen a growing tendency within the relevant literatures to conceptualize politics in terms of subjective feeling, quasi-essentialist identities, and cultural discourse, while sidelining structural issues of economics, policy, and governance. I’d naively assumed, though, that such academic theory would never gain serious traction in everyday life. The new woke dispensation proved me wrong.
During the past five years, I’ve been stunned that so many people I’d thought were progressive liberals seemed perfectly happy to endorse or ignore wokeism’s powerful attacks on core liberal values (e.g., due process, free speech, civil discourse). At the same time, I’ve been beyond dismayed by the ease with which woke discourse has diminished, dismissed, and/or delegitimized what used to be the core progressive commitment to class-based socio-economic equity.
To my mind, the most politically powerful currents of woke politics are neither progressive nor liberal. (And yes, I know there are exceptions. That’s not my focus here.) Yet, the overwhelming majority of people I’d formerly seen as progressive liberals either embraced or accepted them readily.
This included not only people I knew personally, but – much more significantly – many powerful, prominent, and influential leaders in academia, K-12 education, journalism, business, government, and the arts. The result is a rapidly escalating institutionalization of a largely unpopular ideology that overtly attacks civil liberties and due process protections while covertly sustaining a political balance of power that’s produced decades of growing socio-economic inequality.
You Can’t Go Home Again
The third and final blow to my old political faith was my realization that I didn’t buy the emerging “centrist” narrative that there was some sort of viable political “normal” that “we” need to “return” to. If the progressive liberalism I once had such faith in had truly been what I believed it was, then neither Trumpism nor wokeism would have emerged so forcefully – let alone both at once. At the very least, the progressive liberalism I’d imagined would not have reacted to Trump’s 2016 upset victory with a woke-fueled rejection of liberal principles and class-based politics, on the one hand, and a #Resistance-driven fealty to the Democratic establishment and corporate media, on the other. Yet, that’s essentially what happened.
Attempts to resurrect “classical liberalism” on the center-right or engineer a “return to normalcy” on the center-left strike me as equally futile and myopic. There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark. These new movements didn’t come out of nowhere. Most fundamentally, the twinned emergence of wokeism and Trumpism is rooted in the unhealthy ground developed by decades of bipartisan neoliberalism. Whether progressive liberals and their conservative counterparts want to admit it or not, both the Democratic and Republican parties and their accompanying constellations of elites contributed to the growth of the pernicious political, economic, and cultural conditions that so many Americans are struggling with now.
Of course, the contention that both parties contributed to today’s widely shared sense of institutional mistrust, political alienation, and cultural pessimism is anathema to partisans on both sides. Loyal Democrats and Republicans are equally fierce in their conviction that the “other side” is wholly to blame for whatever they think is wrong with their country and the world. If any deviations from this pattern are ever admitted at all, they’re written off in the next breath as inconsequential in the bigger picture. Of course, this situation isn’t surprising, given that the leadership of both parties, in concert with the corporate news media and big tech algorithms, relentlessly push their side of the same polarized narrative, hyping — or, in some cases, fabricating — whatever supports it and dismissing, downplaying, and ignoring everything else.
The most interesting and potentially valuable political discussions today are often generated by people who are willing to leave these information silos and think into the positions of others who don’t share their political identity, but are grappling with similar concerns nonetheless. (This is precisely the set-up of my favorite political news and commentary show, Breaking Points, which I highly recommend.) Beyond the willfully shallow and deliberately divisive rhetoric of the dominant Blue-versus-Red divide, there’s an encouraging amount of worthwhile discussion happening. And it’s happening within a wide variety of traditions including democratic socialism, Burkean conservatism, Catholic social thought, and both left- and right-leaning varieties of populism, among others.
As someone who has invested a lot of time, thought, and energy into progressive liberalism, I have no interest in throwing that baby out with its bathwater. There’s zero doubt in my mind that there’s still enormous value to be found in this tradition. That said, regardless of whatever I thought progressive liberalism was in the past (and I’ll unpack that in future posts), I’ve come to realize that I can’t support what it has evolved into today.
I’m also convinced that the most viable way to preserve the best of what progressive liberalism still might have to offer is to critically reassess its proximate genesis, historical development, and current incarnation. That doesn’t mean demonizing the Democratic Party, jumping on the Fox bandwagon, rejecting feminism across the board, or anything like that. But it does require being willing to break with the New York Times/NPR narrative, question woke pieties, listen to alternative perspectives, and think critically about Democratic failures and hypocrisies — ideally, without losing sight of the vision of a better small-”d” democratic future in which everyone has a meaningful opportunity to thrive.