David Astin Walsh asked a question last week wondering “who is the most thoughtful liberal intellectual of our time?” with “thoughtful” specified to mean “genuinely trying to come to grips with our broader global social, political, and economic crises.”
Amidst the usual sea of unenlightening Twitter replies, the Canadian leftist and Substacker Jeet Heer said “trick question — you can’t be aware of the extent of the crisis and be a liberal.”
I think that’s insightful and in a way captured something I’ve been struggling to articulate, namely that I think there are a lot of writers around these days propagating a fundamentally false and unsubstantiated notion that we are living through some acute “global social, political, and economic crises.” But while Heer critiques liberals as incapable of reckoning with the extent and severity of the crisis, I think it’s just the opposite — the crisis-mongering outlook is fundamentally illiberal and harmful.
Though even here, I want to urge people not to overstate the case. Because I think a lot of liberals look at the crisis-mongering insanity from the left and right and say to themselves that we are living through a crisis of liberalism, but I don’t think that’s really true either. I would say that we are living through some problems that are both serious and difficult, but not necessarily any more serious or more difficult than the problems of the past, and certainly not serious in a way that should cause one to doubt the basic tenets of liberalism. And then on top of that, we are living through some pretty ordinary political contestation that, as is inevitable in the course of things, involves some people going overboard at times. But mostly I think we’re living through a time of toxic self-involved drama that threatens to make things worse through twitchy overreaction.
The middle children of history
Two things I’ve been reading recently are my friend Spencer Ackerman’s “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump” and Brian Rafferty’s “Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up The Big Screen.”
One thing about 1999 is that you had a lot of movies whose theme was on some level that a huge problem in contemporary American life was that your stable, decently-paying white-collar job might be a bit dull. That was the key idea of the derided-in-retrospect best picture winner American Beauty. But it’s also the key idea of the beloved comedy Office Space. And it’s heavily in the background of The Matrix. And fundamentally the same thematic content of American Beauty is treated in a cinematically more interesting and intellectually more sophisticated way in Fight Club.
Tyler Durden, during one of his big speeches, says:
We’re the middle children of history. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war, our Great Depression is our lives.
What makes the movie compelling is that this idea is just insightful enough to plausibly be the mantra of a charismatic leader who inspires people to follow him. But it’s also stupid enough to plausibly be the mantra of an insomnia-addled lunatic who’s losing his mind.
Exactly two years and one day after Fight Club’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, some guys hijacked airplanes and flew two of them into the twin towers in New York. They flew a third into the Pentagon. The fourth hijacked plane was brought down by its passengers, averting further catastrophe. And the United States responded largely like a group of people who agreed with Tyler Durden that it was bad to not be living through a major global war. So we addressed the problem of terrorism on a practical level with a mix of good and bad ideas, and we also went to war with the Taliban in Afghanistan, but then we also went to war in Iraq.
And all this was underwritten by the concept of a “global war on terror.” It was popular in intellectuals circles to further gas this up. People talked about “Islamofascism.” People wanted to spread democracy around the world. People wanted to believe they were living through a dramatic global event — a historic occurrence on a par with Pearl Harbor or the Berlin blockade. But while obviously, 9/11 was an important moment in history, the idea of an epoch-defining struggle against radical Islam just kind of petered out. Not that it went away exactly. After al-Qaeda, we got the Islamic State. We got Boko Haram. It seems like the Taliban will be overrunning major Afghan cities soon.
The whole thing just turns out to be fundamentally less significant than people said for a time, and now we’ve moved on. Indeed we’ve moved on to such an extent that I think when people give their takes about American politics, they unreasonably discount the odds that in any given year there might be a substantial mass-casualty terrorist attack committed by Islamists that rapidly becomes the focus of American political debate. We’ll have to see what happens.
But during the GWOT Era, the worst thing that happened was the conceptual overreach itself. Instead of kicking the tires on everything to ask what cost-effective changes we could make to reduce the odds of a terrorist attack, we did everything from operating a secret global network of torture prisons to waging an obscure, years-long war in Somalia. Nobody knows why most people are taking their shoes off at airports or why, if that’s important, you can just buy your way out of it getting TSA Precheck.
These days, of course, all the chic people on both the left and right are critics of GWOT overreach, which is sensible and commendable of them. But in a way that I don’t think they appreciate, they are heirs to the same middle children of history syndrome — basically bored and blowing things out of proportion.
Is America under siege from fascism?
I think that the United States is not under siege from a neo-fascist movement personified by Donald Trump. And I also think it is a sign of the distemper of our era that I am 100% certain me saying that will be read as apologizing for Trump or supporting Trump when genuinely all I mean is that in a normal political arena, you have a party that you support and a party that you don’t support. I think it is perfectly possible to simply not support the Republican Party because you think their policy ideas are bad.
And it’s important to understand that Republican Party presidents are always psychologically experienced by their most strident opponents as the leading edge of a fascist reaction, just as conservatives experience everything from FDR to Medicare to Barack Obama as the leading edge of a socialist takeover.
What I think is going on here is that both American political coalitions have one foot planted firmly in the liberal camp and then various tendrils extending into various non-liberal ideologies. The readiness with which each camp accuses the other of having completely abandoned liberalism is in a way simply a sign of how firm liberalism’s grasp over the American political tradition is. We don’t have robust traditions of Christian Democracy or Social Democracy in the United States, so every deviation from a narrow debate of market liberals versus social liberals plays as a defection to Hitler or Mao. But this basic tension is not new; today’s progressives are fighting Trumpian fascism in exactly the sense that the progressives of 15 years ago were fighting Bushian fascism. I think if you want to say we are perpetually teetering on the brink of toppling into right-wing authoritarianism but thanks to our heroic efforts we keep avoiding that outcome, that’s fine.
But I think a more enlightening interpretation of events would be to say that we have been living through strong directional progress toward more diversity and more cosmopolitanism but that when you push things forward, you end up with some overreach (both substantive and political) and then some blowback.
My guess is that future people will look back on the era of 2010-20 in LGBTQ rights and be struck by the extent to which Republicans abandoned all resistance to same-sex marriage equality rather than by the ferocity of debates over some fairly narrow questions about trans women’s participation in gender-segregated school sports teams.
By the same token, I think that if you read the better progressive interpretations of the rise of Trump-like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The First White President” or Adam Serwer’s “The Cruelty Is the Point,” one helpful thing they do by bringing history into view is showing it’s not unusual for eras of advancing racial equality to generate backlash. But the Trumpian backlash was fundamentally weak politically — putting up worse-than-Romney numbers with white voters and actually only staying in the game thanks to a somewhat unexpected bounceback of GOP Latino support to almost-as-good-as-2004 levels. I don’t have a super-strong prognostication for where we’re going to go from here, but the old post-2012 consensus that the GOP would either diversify or die remains intact. Exactly what diversifying looks like will maybe surprise us a bit, but the numbers genuinely aren’t there for narrowly white nationalist politics to win even in the face of skewed electoral maps.
The phantom of the left
Some of the most potent images produced by the political right in the 2020 cycle featured looters and rioters smashing stores and burning buildings in major American cities. Donald Trump and congressional Republicans, these ads warned, were the only thing standing between these rioters and your home. If you put Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi in charge, that chaos would spread uncontrolled.
Those were potent images. Anecdotally, they seem to have played a role in driving Latino voters to the right in 2020. And there’s pretty good data analysis showing a localized Biden underperformance around Kenosha, Wisconsin linked to riots. People were worried.
But Biden won anyway, and guess what — it’s not just that the rioters haven’t burned down your home, the whole problem seems to have vanished. I’m not going to promise you that there will never be a riot in an American city again, but it’s a good reminder that the world is full of opportunistic overstatements.
The ostensible motive for conservative pundits to embrace Hungarian nationalism and bargain-basement Portuguese fascism is that this is the only way for them to defeat the power of Wesley Yang’s “Successor Ideology” and Ibram Kendi’s proposed Department of Antiracism. In the real world, what I think is actually happening is that the Supreme Court is poised to greatly increase judicial scrutiny of affirmative action. That’s going to be met by a fair amount of institution foot-dragging, but affirmative action also fares terribly in referenda — even in California — and is just very unpopular. By winning in court, the right will get its way on this topic without resorting to the Salazar Option. But like progressives with their marriage equality win 10 years ago, they’ll also be depriving themselves of a potentially potent electoral issue by essentially forcing Democrats to stop arguing for a losing position. Beyond that, the secondary and tertiary consequences seem hard to predict, but I think the battles here are going to deflate rather than inflate in the coming years.
Similarly, the idea of defunding the police met its Waterloo in the New York City mayoral election. The people responsible for pushing this idea into the mainstream haven’t publicly admitted the error and probably never will, but they’re not pushing it anymore.
The actual problem facing the political right in America isn’t the massive power of the far-left it’s the continued institutional clout of sensible moderate Democrats and their own indecisiveness about welfare state rollback. And the threat posed by the far left isn’t that it might wreck America, it’s that it can’t win remotely competitive races. Now what I think troubles the die-hard rightists here is not the far-left movements that Yang talks about, but rather the sort of casual diversification of American society embodied by Barack Obama’s star-studded 60th birthday party. You really would need to go full fash to stop that, but there’s no constituency for that.
It’s a nonstarter politically. And by the same token, every time Republicans actually try to pare back Social Security (2006) or Medicaid (2018), they end up courting electoral disaster. American conservatism is very powerful as a conservative movement that pushes back on calls for progressive change, but it’s extremely weak at affirmative policymaking.
A warmer planet
Notwithstanding my beefs with leftist climate activists, I do think that climate change is a very serious issue. In my personal life, I live in a dense walkable neighborhood and commuted to work on foot back when I commuted at all. When I do drive, I drive a six-year-old Prius, and when I’m done with it I’ll replace it with an EV. My house has solar panels on the roof that generate roughly 110% of my household’s electricity usage. Amazingly, I had to actually fight uphill against the permitting process in a “progressive” jurisdiction (historic preservation, you see) to get them on there, but it’s done.
There’s a big tradition on the left dating back at least to Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs, the Climate” of insisting that building a zero-carbon future requires the adoption of radical anti-capitalist politics. And I think that people who insist that liberalism can’t reckon with contemporary crises are from that school of thought.
But it’s completely absurd.
Of course, pure laissez-faire can’t address pollution. But given a reasonable policy background, privately owned business corporations (“capitalism”) have done a great job bringing down the cost of photovoltaic panels, developing electric vehicles that people want to drive, creating promising fake meat substitutes, and otherwise creating the building blocks of a sustainable economy.
Liberal ideology is also very capable of grokking the most important complementary policy we haven’t had all these years — a price on carbon that would raise the price of greenhouse gas emissions to something closer to the real social cost of emissions. Pricing alone is not an adequate solution to the issue, but it would hypothetically be a huge force multiplier for other efforts. In the crudest terms, that’s by encouraging conservation which would have extended the life of our global carbon budget and given more time for innovation and deployment policies on other fronts to work. But pricing would also directly accelerate deployment by changing the cost-benefit ratio systematically in favor of clean technologies.
Now of course we don’t have carbon pricing, and I think we never will because it’s hideously unpopular.
But that’s the essence of the climate crisis — not an ideological crisis for liberalism, but tragically a crisis of mass indifference. If you delve into the Social Cost of Carbon debates, you see that it matters a lot what “discount rate” we use in the math. In other words, how much do we down-weight the interests of future people relative to present people? This is a huge deal because greenhouse gas emissions are long-lasting and the pollution’s harms are cumulative over time. So the social harm of today’s cheap gasoline is largely felt in the future. And what we see in the public response to the idea of paying more for the privilege of burning fossil fuels is that in practice, people discount the future very sharply. As long as we’re stuck doing policy constrained by that reality, we are bound to underdeliver on decarbonization relative to what we ought to be doing.
It’s a tragic situation, but the conceptual and technical resources to address it are all clearly present within liberalism.
A better tomorrow
Last but by no means least, just as I don’t want “Trump isn’t actually a fascist” to be taken as a pro-Trump utterance, I really want to be clear that while climate change is bad, we are to a large extent looking at a negative side effect of basically good trends.
Since 1990, emissions in the U.S./Europe/Canada have fallen even as our economies and population have grown. If emissions had not skyrocketed during that period in China, India, and other Asian nations, we would easily be on track to contain warming at a very modest level.
But it’s not as if China, India, etc. all just decided to start doing tons of pollution one day for no good reason. In fact, on a per capita level, China is doing less pollution than we are, and India is doing much less. The cause of the whole Asian pollution boom — which in turn is the entire source of the problem — is that Asia saw economic growth and rising living standards.
That’s really good! During this post-1990 period, we’ve seen an incredible reduction in the share of people living in extreme global poverty. If Asia had stayed poor, that would have conveniently averted the climate change problem. But it would have been worse all things considered.
That’s not to say that climate change is good. We should have had more aggressive mitigation efforts for the past 20-30 years, starting with pricing but including land use reforms and industrial policy and much larger R&D investments. We should have sunk a couple trillion into grid upgrades, wind farms, EV charging, and mass transit rather than into invading Iraq. Every day that passes with it easier to get a permit to drill for oil and gas on federal land than to drill for geothermal power is a day of insanity. Every physicist working at a hedge fund rather than on next-generation batteries or modular nuclear reactors is a tragedy. We should do tomorrow what we should have done yesterday.
But we are still fundamentally looking at a world that is better than the world of 1990, not worse. The point isn’t that there isn’t a serious problem here, but that there is no historically unique crisis. Deep poverty in Asia didn’t weigh on the psyches of western intellectuals in 1990 the way climate change does today because of status quo bias and parochialism. But the world has always had very serious problems, and there’s nothing uniquely serious about today’s issues, grave though they may be.
The case for keeping our shit together
I started with the middle children of history bit because I do think that Tyler Durden’s logic captures something important about the human psyche. We yearn for drama. The triumphalist “end of history” moment of the late 1990s struck lots of people as intolerably boring (which is exactly what Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” says will happen), and people put their creative energies to work evading the boredom.
But insisting that terrorism wasn’t just a problem (and we did indeed have many problems, from car crashes to ordinary murders to cirrhosis to particulate air pollution and beyond) worth addressing but an actual World Historical Crisis requiring Grand Struggle Against The Forces of Evil really came around to bite us in the ass. All along, people clearly knew that this wasn’t actually a moment of supreme emergency comparable to World War II that would genuinely induce everyone to put other considerations aside in order to work for victory. But the intellectual and political climate came to be that anyone explicitly saying that and calling for a clearer reckoning of costs and benefits or relative risks was heard as an apologist for murderers.
Today we don’t have a comparable externalizing hysteria. We’re instead being torn apart by a hysteria of mutual accusations against each other. It serves to make it difficult to do normal political things like agree to disagree about some stuff while collaborating on some other common problem. Or to horse-trade across issue areas in a way that delivers a win to progressives on something they care about in exchange for a win for conservatives on something they care about. We’re wasting incredible amounts of energy and brainpower on contemplating worst-case scenarios.
The intellectual climate has gotten so bad that the politicians — who at least are giving us bipartisan infrastructure and R&D bills — are doing better than the journalists. But the world really does not need the sharpest writers on the planet to be spending their days endlessly iterating on the theme “the people who are wrong about taxes and abortion are also a grave threat to the future of liberty.” Being wrong about taxes and abortion is a perfectly good reason not to vote for the other guys and to hope they lose elections! What would be interesting and useful is reporting and analysis on how to solve significant practical problems in the policy domain. But to get there, everyone needs to chill out a bit.