Liberals Having Second Thoughts?

While conservatives are looking up techniques for Hari-Kari in the moment of Trump’s triumph, curious things are happening among some liberals. Yale historian Beverly Gage (I’ve written about Gage before here, and we appeared together on the PBS News Hour back in 2013 here) has a very interesting review in the New York Times Book Review about two new books from liberal authors about the problem of liberal elitism:

In his new book, the social critic Thomas Frank ­poses another possibility: that liberals in general — and the Democratic Party in particular — should look inward to understand the sorry state of American politics. Too busy attending TED talks and ­vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, Frank argues, the Democratic elite has abandoned the party’s traditional commitments to the working class. In the process, they have helped to create the political despair and anger at the heart of today’s right-wing insurgencies. They may also have sown the seeds of their own demise. Frank’s recent columns argue that the Bernie Sanders campaign offers not merely a challenge to Hillary Clinton, but a last-ditch chance to save the corrupted soul of the Democratic Party. . .

In Frank’s view, liberal policy wonks are part of the problem, members of a well-educated elite that massages its own technocratic vanities while utterly missing the big question of the day. . .

Frank delights in skewering the sacred cows of coastal liberalism, including private universities, bike paths, microfinance, the Clinton Foundation, “well-meaning billionaires” and any public policy offering “innovation” or “education” as a solution to inequality. He spends almost an entire chapter mocking the true-blue city of Boston, with its “lab-coat and starched-shirt” economy and its “well-graduated” population of overconfident collegians.

Behind all of this nasty fun is a serious political critique. Echoing the historian Lily Geismer, Frank argues that the Democratic Party — once “the Party of the People” — now caters to the interests of a “professional-managerial class” consisting of lawyers, doctors, professors, scientists, programmers, even investment bankers.

As Gage presents Frank, he doesn’t sound much different from Joel Kotkin’s idea of “gentry liberalism,” or Fred Siegel’s account in Revolt Against the Masses.

There’s much more in Gage’s review worth taking in, but let’s switch focus again to the supremely annoying Andrew Sullivan, back from a long hiatus from blogging with . . . a pretty good article in New York magazine. Put aside some of Sullivan’s typical tics as you take in his lede:

As this dystopian election campaign has unfolded, my mind keeps being tugged by a passage in Plato’s Republic. It has unsettled — even surprised — me from the moment I first read it in graduate school. The passage is from the part of the dialogue where Socrates and his friends are talking about the nature of different political systems, how they change over time, and how one can slowly evolve into another. And Socrates seemed pretty clear on one sobering point: that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” What did Plato mean by that? Democracy, for him, I discovered, was a political system of maximal freedom and equality, where every lifestyle is allowed and public offices are filled by a lottery. And the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become. Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread. Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat; and multiculturalism and sexual freedom would create a city or a country like “a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues.”

From here, Sullivan makes a long and indirect case that, gee whiz, maybe the American Founders were right to have a suspicion about too much democracy—the goal of liberal reformers for so long:

Could it be that the Donald has emerged from the populist circuses of pro wrestling and New York City tabloids, via reality television and Twitter, to prove not just Plato but also James Madison right, that democracies “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention … and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths”? Is he testing democracy’s singular weakness — its susceptibility to the demagogue — by blasting through the firewalls we once had in place to prevent such a person from seizing power?

It was liberals who pushed for populist “reforms” to our republic, so I think Trump is what they deserve.

Finally, Michael Kinsley, whom I mostly regard as a high-class heckler, has an article in Vanity Fair that argues the heretical position that Citizens United was . . . correctly decided! This is going to get him crossed off a lot of party invitation lists:

The First Amendment right of free speech is generally considered to be a liberal cause. So it’s disappointing to see how quickly liberals abandon it when the speech is something they disagree with. Money isn’t speech? Ridiculous. Of course it is. The very act of spending money sends a message, like “liking” something on Facebook. Also, it takes money to “speak.” It’s precisely because people and organizations that have more money can speak more (more TV commercials, more lawn signs) and speak more loudly (perhaps a better class of political consultant) that the court’s conclusion in Citizens United bothers people so much. . .

The analogy I like (as did the Supreme Court in its ruling) is to a newspaper. Suppose Citizens United were reversed and President Trump decided one day that he was sick of The New York Times. So he proposes a law setting a ceiling on the amount any individual or organization can spend putting out a newspaper. Constitutional? I hope not. But it’s hard to see the difference in principle between this and a law limiting the amount a corporation or union may spend promoting a political candidate. . .

Citizens United, unlike the Second Amendment, is not an out-of-date decision that needs to be rehabbed. It was a good decision. It was correctly decided. It is not in there by historical accident. It should not be reversed.

A few more reversals like this and I almost might trust liberals to govern again.