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Samuel Moyn on the Abandonment of Revolutionary Liberalism

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Samuel Moyn on the Abandonment of Revolutionary Liberalism

As Alan Ryan reminds us in his gigantic The Making of Modern Liberalism it is in many ways more sensible to talk about a family of liberalisms than to suggest there is one, singular liberal doctrine which is the same everywhere and always. Liberalism in theory and in practice have endorsed capitalism and socialism, been pessimists and optimists, hawks and pacifists, and everything in between. For those of us who identify as liberals, many liberals of other formulations will seem deeply unattractive—a bit like that family member you have to spend time with at reunions even though you wonder how you can possibly be related.

I felt this way a lot while reading Samuel Moyn’s excellent new book Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times. Moyn has been a sagacious figure in American letters since the publication of his pioneering The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. This early book argued that, contrary to the triumphalist discourse of rights so ubiquitous throughout the 1990s and 2000s, in fact the political emphasis on universal rights was very modern and in many ways constituted a cautious withdrawal from the more ambitious dreams of liberals and socialists past. This theme resurfaced in Moyn’s spiritual sequel Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World. Here Moyn stressed how rights became popular as a way of framing a very minimal standard of obligations states and international organizations assumed towards their citizens (and others). This was a retreat from the ambitions of earlier radicals who led the charge in demanding ever higher standards of equality, dignity, and freedom for all. In Humane Moyn makes a similar set of charges, but along different lines: chastising proponents of international humanitarian law for trying to humanize war while giving up on the aspiration for peace. Indeed, some neoconservatives and liberal hawks even appealed to the notion of a humane war to license a never ending series of military interventions and adventurism.

I’ve been an admirer of Moyn’s work ever since I read The Last Utopia while completing my graduate work in international human rights law. His frustrating counter-histories deflated our comforting hagiographies; but in doing so they opened up entirely new ways of seeing the history of the 20th century. Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times is his crowning achievement so far. It is distinct in Moyn’s oeuvre for providing the clearest ideological explanation for all the retreats and concessions traced in his other books: that liberalism traded its once radical soul for victory in the Cold War. It did so by internalizing a host of conservative ideas that reduced liberalism’s world historical ambition to secure liberty, equality, and fraternity for all to a thin shell of what it once was. It’s a startling thesis, and only a historian and scholar as principled and original as Moyn could make it convincingly.

The history of Cold War liberalism

Many of liberalism’s central features before the Cold War came—above all its perfectionism and its progressivism—are worth a second look. Perfectionists offer a controversial public commitment to the highest life. As opposed to thinking of liberalism as neutral among competing faiths, before the Cold War many liberals counseled creative and empowered free action as the highest prize for individuals, groups, and humanity. Progressivism, meanwhile, casts history as a forum of opportunity for the achievement and exercise of that ability to act creatively in the world. (The intellectual sin that the Cold War liberal Karl Popper dubbed “historicism,” which treats history as if it obeyed lawlike processes, is a version of progressivism—but a deviant one.) Equally important, across the nineteenth century, liberals were forced to accept the coming of democratic self-government and understood that liberalism’s practical associations with market freedom required a complete overhaul. Before Cold War liberalism, efforts to grapple with those challenges eventually helped make universal suffrage credible, and the mid-twentieth century welfare state conceivable. Cold War liberals changed all that. -Samuel Moyn, Liberalism Against Itself

Moyn reminds us that liberalism entered the world as a revolutionary fighting creed—one that was deeply flawed, snobbish in its protagonists, and often selective in the application of its principles. Nevertheless from Locke onwards liberals were committed to overthrowing the ancien régimes of Europe, advancing arguments that—contra the claims of conservatives from Robert Filmer to Edmund Burke—all people were morally equal and entitled to be treated as such by their governments. This was an explosive position, and understood to be so, with Burke lamenting how the “new conquering empire of light and reason” was advancing everywhere and destroying “all the pleasing illusions” that made subordination easier.

Not just an empty revolutionary credo, liberalism inspired genuine revolutions in the United States, France, and Haiti before sweeping Europe in the 19th century. And for many liberals this was just the beginning; Thomas Paine’s dictum that we had it in our power to make the world anew and better was taken as a sign of hope rather than reservation. Figures like the early Hegel and J.S. Mill hypothesized that new projects of empowerment and emancipation would follow the successful experiments of the past, with Mill even presenting the first fully fledged account of liberal socialism.

How things change. Moyn points out that many liberals were both hostile to, and even embarrassed by socialism when it emerged as a rival for political support in the mid-19th century. This was in no small part because, while liberals had long experience confronting conservatives, they were less prepared to deal with another modernist doctrine which promised to carry on the Enlightenment spirit of liberalism but take it to its more radical conclusions. With the defeat of the far right in the Second World War, liberals confronted both authoritarian and democratic socialist movements which claimed to be more consistent partisans of progress than liberalism itself. At the level of practical politics, the early to mid-century was a time of great experimentation and hope for many liberal politicians. Pushed leftwards by the popularity of socialism, iconic figures like Franklin Roosevelt, William Beveridge, and Willy Brandt spearheaded the creation of extensive welfare states across many developed states. Welfarism sought to combine support for liberal political institutions with a fairer redistribution of economic goods. They were in many ways imperfect, but as Moyn reminds us they came closer than most any other alternative to realizing the more ambitious liberal (and for that matter socialist) dream of social order characterized by freedom and equality for all.

Ironically a very different attitude prevailed amongst the leading liberal intellectuals and philosophers, who responded to the Cold War with great pessimism and even fear. Surveying the tyranny wrought by authoritarian utopianism, for many Cold War liberals the root of the problem lay in such quintessentially Enlightenment convictions as the belief in unending progress. For them, limitless faith in progress achievable by the state was a tool used to disastrous effect by Bolsheviks and fascists. Consequently, faith in progress had to give way to resignation in the face of immutable imperfection.

Much of Moyn’s book is a chronicle of these transitions in the thought and writings of Cold War liberals like Isaiah Berlin and Judith Sklar, along with fellow travelers like Hannah Arendt. Horrified by the rise of Nazi and Stalinist authoritarianism, Cold War liberals largely came to embrace the pessimistic view of human nature and ordinary people that had once been the purview of conservatism in its own epic battle with liberal optimism. Many of the authors Moyn discusses experienced a pronounced sense of disenchantment with the world, though some never grew comfortable settling into their role as skeptics and moderates.

Moyn points out how Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated “Two Concepts of Liberty” came to be taken as a seminal work of Cold War liberalism. In his essay Berlin distinguishes between negative and positive liberty, and argues that while each has its place any attempt to secure positive liberty for all is inherently dangerous. The safer bet was to rest content with securing negative liberty for all. While Berlin sometimes acknowledged that the safer bet wasn’t necessarily the smarter or just one, the anxious bifurcation he drew was sufficiently powerful to bulldoze through his personal ambivalences and provide enduring ammunition for those who believed the liberal state should be as minimal as possible.

Less admirable was Karl Popper, whose gigantic The Open Society and Its Enemies became the Bible of those opposed to notions of historical progress. Popper was of course a tremendous philosopher of science, and thought he’d detected in figures from Plato to Hegel and Marx a resolutely anti-scientific attitude which ended in calls for a closed society modeled on a utopian ideal. Hegel and Marx were especially dangerous for putting forward pseudo-scientific theories of history which implied that the arc of the moral universe was long, but it would bend inexorably towards utopian emancipation. Moyn acknowledges how Popper was right to criticize the more vulgar followers of Hegel and Marx, who could put forward teleological views of their philosophers of history. But he chastises the sparsity of Popper’s knowledge of either thinker, pointing out that “the second volume of The Open Society, on Hegel and Marx, relied on the spottiest possible knowledge of their works.” A deeper knowledge would have revealed how little either Hegel or Marx in their mature works resembled the vulgar historicists Popper painted them as. Popper’s caricatures of Hegel and Marx inhibited thoughtful liberals from drawing profitably on their insights. More importantly Moyn points out how Popper’s relentless attacks on historicism eventually led liberals to abandon more down to earth hopes in human progress.

Another liberalism?

One of the most striking paradoxes in Moyn’s story is how Cold War liberalism became intellectually hegemonic at the very moment when liberal politicians and activists, often cooperating with and learning from democratic socialists, were building the very welfare states that constituted the most ambitious attempt yet to achieve freedom and equality for all. In Moyn’s telling this left the welfare state with shockingly thin intellectual defenses when conservatives like Thatcher and Reagan attacked it, often deploying very similar arguments to those the Cold War liberals themselves had advanced. The result was that liberalism’s crowning achievement was halted, and in some places even rolled back, with minimal outcry or even the tacit support of the very figures who should have rushed to its defense.

This is where I think Moyn’s story needs to be complemented with the flip side of the coin. The specter haunting Liberalism Against Itself, and I’d argue much of his work as a whole, is the specter of liberal egalitarianism. This liberal tradition, going back to Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and J.S. Mill embodies precisely the ambitious progressive spirit and intellectual rigor that Moyn thinks was essential to liberalism in its vital years and which it lost through its mutation into Cold War liberalism. But this isn’t entirely accurate. With the publication of Rawls’s Theory of Justice in 1971, liberal egalitarianism blossomed intellectually even as the prospects of realizing its ambitions in practice wilted. What’s more, Moyn is well aware of this fact, even if he acknowledges the points begrudgingly:

The more venturesome liberals of the 1960s understood that the Cold War competition required not just stigmatizing despotism abroad, but providing fairness at home. John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, published in 1971, is a fruit of this impulse. For all its powerful and telling incorporation of Cold War liberalism (notably what Rawls called the priority of liberty over other ends), the book was most remarkable in its defense of some modicum of distributional egalitarianism. But the greatest historical irony of Rawls’ innovative liberalism compounded that of Cold War liberalism itself. Redressing the earlier mismatch between the libertarianism of Cold War thought and the emergence of the welfare state, A Theory of Justice was only a prelude to a new mismatch, in which egalitarian justice was defended in principle while neoliberal inequality ascended in practice.

The question then becomes how this mismatch occurred. Why did liberal egalitarianism reach new levels of sophistication, depth and egalitarian ambition in the acclaimed writings of Rawls, Sen, Dworkin, Nussbaum, Mills, Benhabib, Anderson and others and yet fail so dismally to establish itself in politics? And here I think the method of intellectual genealogy provided by Moyn runs into its explanatory limitations and must be complemented by many of the very authors he encourages us to explore. Namely Hegel and Marx. From a purely ideational standpoint liberal egalitarianism remains an extraordinarily attractive ideal; especially in its liberal socialist forms. But offering strong historical and normative arguments for liberal egalitarianism needs to be aligned with a cold awareness of how power and domination operates within modern capitalism. Sometimes the operation of power and domination assume subtle forms by instantiating ideological and cognitive barriers to conceiving new forms of social life, as Tony Smith stresses in his excellent Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism. But sometimes it is far more overt. Social scientists such as Martin Gilens and Thomas Piketty have stressed how there is broad and even majority support for various egalitarian policies. But these have little likelihood of being implemented in a political context where gratifying the interests of the rich quantifiably matter so much more to lawmakers.

Moyn’s book ends with some of his most thoughtful ruminations. He observes how liberalism has retreated across much of the world as its Cold War mutation came to be distrusted, despaired and, and eventually despised. Rather than provoking reflection of what led to this point, many Cold War liberals doubled down on their doctrine by insisting that sooner or later things must go back to the status quo, ergo obviating any need to once more creatively reinvent liberalism through recommitting ourselves to its most inspiring principles. Moyn ends his book with the imperative that “the task for liberals in our time is to imagine a form of liberalism that is altogether original. If they don’t it does not seem likely that they will see their creed survive—and anyway survival is not good enough.” He is absolutely right. The most destructive influence of Cold War liberalism is precisely convincing liberals that survival was good enough—never mind inequality, plutocratic rule, environmental decay and so much more. But the hope inspiring liberal egalitarianism would be good enough. It is worthy not only of survival, but loyalty, and that is far more than Cold War liberalism can say for itself.

Featured Image is The Burning of the Throne of Louis Philippe, by Hermann Raunheim

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22 days ago
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Western Liberals Need to Extend the Same Humanity to Gaza as they Did to Ukraine

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Western Liberals Need to Extend the Same Humanity to Gaza as they Did to Ukraine

Although it came after months of warnings by US intelligence agencies and even President Biden, the Russian invasion of Ukraine shocked many who assumed that such an event was not possible on the borders of the EU. Ukrainian flags popped up around the world—projected onto buildings, sprouting from homes and lawns, and flown atop landmarks around the world. After the West got its footing, plans were drawn up first to give Ukrainians what they needed to protect Kyiv and then to help Ukraine liberate its territory—a goal which at the time enjoyed bipartisan support in the United States, with only a few extremes on the left and right seriously questioning Ukrainians’ right to self-determination. Images of executed bodies in Bucha and destroyed cities like Mariupol only strengthened this resolve. President Zelenksyy became an overnight household name and his speeches were broadcast around the world. The US, Western Europe, and much of the rest of the world embraced Ukrainian resistance to occupation as a worthy cause. 

But this fall, we Western liberals have not extended the same solidarity to the Palestinian people, who are suffering a fate much like that of the Ukrainians subjected to the initial Russian onslaught. This is a failure which will cost us if not remedied. Not only is the suffering of Gazan civilians a moral stain on the world order and especially the American conscience, but it also undermines liberals’ claim to abide by universal principles and the rules-based international order. The situations are not identical, but similar enough for both a self-reflective public and a critical global audience to see. Where Ukrainians needed and still need weapons and aid to defend themselves and rebuild their country, Palestinians need a humanitarian pause and negotiated ceasefire now, and sweeping structural changes to enjoy free and dignified lives in the long term.

It is of course important not to overstate the similarities between the two situations. Ukraine and Russia have a centuries-longer history than Israel and Palestine, and a more complex one, featuring periods of relative cooperation as well as attempted outright destruction of the Ukrainian people. By contrast, the history of the Israeli state is much shorter, and its relation with the Palestinian people since the 1948 war of independence has almost universally been one of dispossession and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. And while Ukraine has never fully escaped from Russian meddling in its politics and economy, it has enjoyed at least a de jure independence that has eluded Palestinians for their entire existence as a people. 

On the other hand, many, especially liberals, would be quick to point out that whatever the flaws in Ukraine’s democracy, it has managed peaceful elections and a transfer of power, leading to the administration of a popular president. By contrast, Hamas was last elected with a slim plurality of Palestinian voters 17 years ago and has ruled as an effective one party state—despite a lack of apparent popularity—in Gaza ever since. Moreover, even the most politically extreme elements of Ukraine’s military never invaded Russia, and the years leading up to the 2022 invasion were mostly free of the kind of atrocities visited by Hamas on Israel in October of this year. The brutality of these attacks, which fell primarily on Israeli civilians, broadly discredited Hamas as a partner in peace negotiations, and the shock has provided a great deal of cover for the worst Israeli excesses in the following weeks. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine lacked any kind of comparable provocation. But these differences and earned hostility towards Hamas ought not distract us from our humanistic obligations to Palestinian civilians.

Indeed, despite the differences in situation, there are striking similarities that should make supporters of Ukraine recoil at the scale and ferocity of the current Israeli response. Russia’s destruction of Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities, for example, was consistently justified by rooting out ‘terrorists’ and ‘Neo-Nazis’; in the same way, Israel’s pursuit of Hamas has justified the deaths of thousands of children. One needn’t dive into the relative virtues and villainy of Azov and Hamas to determine that these death tolls cannot possibly be justified by a mission to root out a fraction of a percent of the population. In each case the invading army has used deeply emotional and ethno-religiously charged comparisons—Hamas to ISIS, Azov to collaborators from the Second World War—to shut down reasoned discussion of proportionality. Airstrikes performed by both Russia and Israel are ostensibly justified by the close proximity of civilian and military targets in Gaza and Ukraine, leading in both cases to thousands of avoidable civilian casualties. 

It is high time to recognize the humanity of all victims of warfare. The images of bombed-out high rises and shattered hospitals coming out of Gaza could just have easily come out of Mariupol or Severodonetsk a year ago. But the response of too many liberals has been strikingly different. Many of us have extended the benefit of the doubt to the Israeli Defense Forces as they explained the apparent necessity of destroying civilian objects in a way that we wisely did not to the Russian Armed Forces. The affinity for a state that looks much more like our own liberal democracies in the west is understandable, but liberals with a sense of history should understand that militarism and the desire for territorial expansion can lead institutions ostensibly rooted in liberal values to commit atrocities.

There are obstacles, of course. One is that American voters have long sympathized with Israel over Palestine, and even as this sentiment undergoes generational shifts it is not reflected in Congress. Changing that will require lobbying and political pressure—and it will require working with people and organizations who have spent the last twenty months actively working against the effort to defend Ukraine. For example, though the Democratic Socialists of America has been at best lukewarm on defending Ukraine, and even as their International Committee has openly called for an end to US aid in Ukraine’s defense, DSA-linked politicians are still largely at the forefront of calling for restraint in Gaza and need support from the liberal majority in the Democratic party. Fortunately, the two causes, far from competing, are complementary. Right now, what the Palestinian people need is simply a pause to bombing to blunt the impact of epidemic disease and malnutrition that is inevitably going to strike Gazans who count in the dozens the trucks trying to supply their enclave of two million people and struggle to maintain even the basic necessities of life, such as an adequate flow of clean water. In the coming months Palestinians need the US to be willing to use its aid to Israel—and the possibility of suspending it—as leverage to demand a humanitarian pause to aerial bombings, especially of ‘safe zones’, provision of humanitarian supplies, and an emphasis on proportionality and adherence to international law. None of these goals require giving an inch on Ukraine; indeed, is it those demanding unlimited support to Israel that would see the two causes compete for artillery shells, rockets, and the like. The sooner Israel ceases its bombing and shelling in Gaza, the more ammunition can be sent to Ukraine. Beyond the question of materiel, moving the foreign policy of western countries in the direction of greater consistency in applying international law and the basic demands of humanity would advance all of our other diplomatic interests. The overwhelming majority of states in the UN voted to support a ceasefire in Gaza—aligning US and European policy better with this position will make finding allies in future diplomacy easier. 

In the longer term, of course, Ukraine and Palestine are qualitatively different in terms of their complexity. Ukraine’s allies have a simple task—give it the supplies and economic support it needs for conventional victory. Success in Palestine requires more nuance—Israel’s allies need to be more willing to tie repeated rounds of military aid to Israel, as well as cooperation in cutting-edge military systems and veto protection in the UN security council, to a systemic shift in how Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank are treated by the Israeli state. The carte blanche approach adopted up until now has only moved us further from the stated US policy of a two state solution. While the end state for the conflict is harder to both imagine and achieve than that of Ukraine—where the solution is simply a return of occupied territory to an already functional government—we should view Palestinian lives and aspiration as deserving the same respect and legitimacy that most westerners have seen in Ukrainian ones over the last two years.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine was met with a show of strength and solidarity on the part of western liberalism. Protecting the safety and dignity of the Palestinian people will require a very different kind of effort, but it should be animated by the same sense of humanity and ideals of international cooperation.

Featured Image is Damage in Gaza Strip in October 2023


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27 days ago
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The Liberal Centrist Trap

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Right-wing populists and the advocates of the identity synthesis see each other as mortal enemies. In truth, each is the yin to the other’s yang. The best way to beat one is to oppose the other—and that’s why everyone who cares about the survival of free societies should vow to fight both.
The Liberal Centrist Trap

Classrooms in America are once again segregated, not because of racism but because racial minorities deserve spaces free of whiteness where they “can be their authentic selves.” Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs have fully colonized corporate spaces, government offices, and university administrations, enforcing strict controls on speech on pain of reeducation or outright termination. This “consequence culture” aims to protect minorities from cultural appropriation, microaggressions, and the tyranny of white, cis male concepts like merit and political neutrality. Progressive segregation simply acknowledges what standpoint epistemology has taught us: members of different identity groups cannot begin to understand one another and thus shouldn’t try; instead the member of the more privileged group should defer to the lived experience of the member of the more oppressed group.

Meanwhile incomes and comprehensive well-being have begun secular declines as redistributive programs have forsaken the interests of the least well off individuals in favor of group equity. Politically, the anti-whiteness of the identity revolution has turbo-charged white identity politics, as overt racism and white nationalism have been normalized to a degree not seen since the Civil Rights Era. Zero-sum conflict prevails as the white male elite defends itself and as different minority groups scuffle over who is the most oppressed and thus deserving of a greater portion of a shriveling husk of an erstwhile cornucopia.

This bleak vision of America in the grip of wokeness—what he calls the “identity synthesis” and others have called identity politics—haunts Yascha Mounk and animates his most recent book, The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time. The founding editor of Persuasion explains the philosophical origins of wokeness, illustrates its influence on American culture and politics, and offers a defense of liberalism as an antidote to the woke malignancy.

The nightmare above truly is illiberal. If identity politics led inexorably to this bizarro dimension then it would be incumbent on liberals and all freedom-lovers to oppose it, root and branch. Yet despite his apparently broad reading of the identity politics literature and his occasional piercing anecdote, Mounk fails to persuade a critical liberal reader that identity politics must lead to his extreme conclusions, nor that the vices of identity politics outweigh its virtues, and certainly not that the key to defeating rightwing populism lies in vanquishing identity politics. 

The Identity Synthesis

Mounk distills the “identity synthesis” to three principles.

1. The key to understanding the world is to examine it through the prism of group identities like race, gender, and sexual orientation.
2. Supposedly universal values and neutral rules merely serve to obscure the ways in which privileged groups dominate those that are marginalized.
3. To build a just world, we must adopt norms and laws that explicitly make the way the state treats each citizen—and how citizens treat each other—depend on the identity group to which they belong.

“Identity synthesis” is just a new term for the conservative or centrist interpretation of identity politics, which is the term I will tend to use. The first problem jumps out even from this summary, and that is the totalizing of the concepts in question. Mounk declares identity politics is seen as the key to understanding, rather than, say, one essential prism among others. Do identity politics practitioners claim universal values and neutral rules “merely” obscure group domination or that they often do and it’s a dynamic we should prepare for?

This totalizing tendency pervades the book. Michel Foucault—the fountainhead in Mounk’s genealogy—saw all institutions and social relations as fundamentally reducible to power relations. Standpoint epistemology—a feminist innovation that explores how the ways we perceive and understand the world depend on our social positions—implies thoroughgoing mutual unintelligibility, that we can neither learn anything from nor communicate anything meaningful to those in other identity groups. Critical race theory (CRT), an academic movement which centers race as a fulcrum for understanding politics and the law, implies that a person’s race is the single most important thing about them. The move to advance racial and gender equity—equality at the level of identity groups—means we no longer care about equality at the individual scale, and certainly not about equality of treatment or measures of outcomes.

But this is all deeply silly. One can appreciate how Foucault perceived power in every social relation without believing that power is the only variable. Our social locations can shape the contours of our understanding without implying anything like mutual unintelligibility. Indeed such an interpretation of standpoint epistemology is perverse and peculiar. It certainly flies in the face of feminist consciousness raising, which depends on spreading awareness of how oppression manifests under patriarchy along with strategies to oppose it. The indisputable fact that race has profoundly shaped American history and even today powerfully influences an individual’s life prospects hardly implies that race is the only or even the most important aspect of an individual’s life. And of course the idea that those who advance racial or gender equity have thereby stopped caring about economic deprivation or inequality is absurd.

Mounk knows all this. Indeed one admirable feature of The Identity Trap is the author’s engagement with those he (dubiously) considers pioneers of wokeness: Foucault, the postcolonial theorists Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak, and the founding architects of CRT. Mounk argues that all these figures would disavow the “identity synthesis” and that there are nuanced interpretations of their ideas that liberals can appreciate. Foucault would remind his readers that identity politics will merely reconfigure power structures while Said admonished that “marginality and homelessness are not, in my opinion, to be gloried in; they are to be brought to an end,” which Mounk curiously takes to be a statement against identity politics. Mounk relates how CRT scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw often feels alienated from “intersectionality” (a term she coined) as it’s used in popular discourse, implying leftist misuses. She was likelier bemoaning malicious misrepresentations by the right. Mounk interviews feminist scholar Rachel Fraser about standpoint epistemology and acknowledges the core legitimacy—even usefulness—of the concept.

Mounk thus recognizes sophisticated versions of virtually every element of his “identity synthesis,” from Foucault to Said, standpoint theory to intersectionality. What then is the purpose of writing an entire book about the dangers of identity politics if its fundamentals are sound? Mounk insinuates that the reasonable application of identity politics is rare, and the implementation in the everyday world, especially on university campuses and in corporate DEI programs, is increasingly illiberal.

Mounk is at his strongest when dealing with shocking anecdata. It really does seem illiberal to—as in one of his first anecdotes—ensure that the little Black child always goes with the Black public school teacher. I wholeheartedly agree that cultural appropriation is a dicey concept, and his example of an “ethnically ambiguous” (but half-Chinese) student being admonished for recreating a Chinese work of art for a museum project is reprehensible. Cringy conversations on college campuses is a renewable resource.

Yet many of his carefully curated anecdotes are less alarming on close inspection. It doesn’t seem so illiberal for a university to reserve one floor of one residence hall for Black students on an opt-in basis. Even Mounk’s workhorse example, returned to repeatedly, falls short of ominous. Mounk is appalled that the Center for Disease Control would factor in social justice when determining how to roll out the first Covid vaccines. The initial recommendation was to introduce the second phase (after essential medical personnel) to Essential Workers, narrowly chosen over Adults Aged 65 and Over, even though the model suggested more lives would be saved by favoring adults over 65. Weighing against the extra lives were a greater vaccine uptake, a faster reduction of virus transmission, a consequent “multiplier effect” to more speedily return to normal social functioning, and—to Mounk’s horror—racial, ethnic, and class considerations. Access to life-saving medicine should not depend on skin color, Mounk piously intones.

Maybe Mounk is right. It’s a thorny public health ethics problem. The ethics are just more complicated than Mounk’s colorblind approach admits. On his logic, any positive number of lives saved should categorically outweigh any consideration of disparate racial impact. The thought experiments write themselves: if marginally more lives overall would be saved by giving  (by some proxy) white people the vaccine first even though a disproportionate number of racial minorities would perish, would that be the appropriate course of action? What of the social dynamics and the magnification of various wealth and well-being gaps that would ensue? As it happens, the increased burden on women due to juggling domestic and remunerated labor during the lockdowns was a major concern. But it’s unclear whether Mounk “sees gender” in pandemic response policy.

Pious indignation bears much of the argumentative load in The Identity Trap. There’s a lengthy stretch lamenting the proliferation of popular feminist websites like and A major thrust against CRT is that it denies racial progress generally and allegedly asserts the impossibility of racial progress except where it converges with white interests. Mounk quotes founding CRT scholar Derek Bell, for whom even successful efforts “will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.” Away from the Ivory Tower, Mounk laments that uses of terms like “racist” and “systemic racism” in major newspapers increased by multiples during the 2010s, as if such shifts can only mean we are getting oversensitive about racism, and that it is irrational to do so in light of our racial progress.

But shock at the belief that racism continues to be a defining institutional feature of American life is a poor argument against CRT and racial justice activism generally. Mounk fails to really countenance the possibility that CRT is correct or useful. The existence of a Black middle class or survey results showing that Americans largely no longer think that interracial marriage should be illegal don’t speak to the charges of CRT at all. Mass incarceration is racialized and the Black-white racial wealth gap doggedly persists. The election of the first Black president has to be understood alongside what followed: the swelling of white nationalist activity and violence and the election of an undeniably racist president riding a popular wave of white racial resentment. Whether or not there has been net racial progress does seem to “slide into irrelevance” as the backlash against the perceived decline of white male status forces us to drop everything else and fight like hell just to keep democracy on life support.

This cuts to the heart of why Mounk’s intellectual “origins of woke”thesis is not only dubious—more plausible genealogies start from the Romantic era nationalist movements and Hegelian recognition—but largely irrelevant. Racial justice, feminist activism, and LGBTQ liberation do not arise from Foucault or even CRT. They spring from the natural human impulse to seek freedom from inequality and oppression. People seeking to understand and overcome their own oppression will use what tools are available in the existing ideological milieu, as well as invent their own concepts and practices. Just as Frederick Douglass was an early exponent of standpoint epistemology, Sojourner Truth expressed an early version of intersectionality. And Martin Luther King Jr articulated the concept and the danger of the “white moderate” (MLK’s color-sighted phrase for the reactionary centrists of his time, more concerned with reducing tension than achieving justice). The many facets of identity politics find expression independently from any single genealogy, pull from multiple traditions at once, and often look nothing like the sampled source material. Mounk himself recognizes this when he rightly downplays Marx in his "identity synthesis." Abolition and suffrage movements long preceded Foucault, and there is little reason to think Mounk’s version of identity-blind liberalism is the rightful heir of these traditions.

Liberal identity politics

Mounk positions identity politics as fundamentally in opposition to liberalism and liberal values. Often this comes from the mouths the accused, as when CRT scholars claim “complacent, backsliding liberals represented the principal impediment to racial progress” and “liberal democracy and racial subordination go hand in hand,” or when they reject objectivity, meritocracy, and color-blindness. Some of this is simple calumny. The purpose of skepticism toward objectivity and meritocracy is—obviously—to strengthen rather than erode democracy. Distrust of liberals comes not from an intention to promote illiberalism but from disappointment with the long history of liberal accommodation with racial, gender, and other hierarchies.

Despite the tendency for many thinkers Mounk would place within the “identity synthesis” to reject the liberal moniker and for many centrist liberals to condemn the illiberalism of identity politics, there is no fundamental opposition between identity politics and philosophical liberalism. Indeed, for liberalism to approach its ambitions of universal freedom, liberals must embrace identity politics.

Political scientist Jacob T. Levy, noting the political energy for freedom the Black Lives Matter movement provided, argues that identity politics isn’t about “being on some group’s side” but about “fighting for political justice by drawing on the commitment that arises out of targeted injustice,” and leveraging the intellectual resources to recognize and diagnose oppression. Identity politics is vital for liberalism precisely because oppression is never neutral, color-blind, or universal.

Journalist Ian Dunt, author of How To Be a Liberal, offers a refreshing alternative for how liberals can think about identity politics. It can be a source of learning about freedom itself. Dunt fruitfully engages with identity politics from the Black feminist Combahee River Collective to queer and gender studies. Dunt’s observations of the liberal potential of queer theory are moving. Questioning the nature of terms like heterosexual and homosexual and presenting human sexuality as fluid and evolving opened up new frontiers of freedom. 

How many people silently suffered, too afraid to confess their feelings, under the terrible weight of that false choice? And now here was a theory that was offering liberals a solution. This was a whole new arena of human flourishing through free choices, without the anchored-down simplifications of old brute categories. It was rich, fertile terrain for liberalism, which it proceeded to almost completely ignore.

Like countless liberal centrists before him, Mounk accuses identity politics of zero-sum thinking, of retreating from universalism, and of corroding solidarity. As Black feminists have articulated since long before Crenshaw coined “intersectionality,” the entire purpose of reorienting ethics and politics from “margin to center”—from the most oppressed of various kinds inward to the privileged—is not to invert status hierarchies but to ensure universal well-being. We are more likely to achieve universal freedom by focusing on securing freedom for the most unfree first. Identity politics doesn’t pit groups against each other in an all-against-all mélée but cultivates solidarity across difference. 

Mounk treats society as essentially static. Social justice activism perturbs liberal society from its natural tendency to gradually bend along an arc of progress. Identity politics disrupts the trend toward justice by introducing illiberal practices into American society and provokes a rightwing reaction. This is what Mounk means by describing identity politics as the yin to the yang of right-wing authoritarianism. Right-wing authoritarians need the identity left to justify their own antiliberal ambitions. If the left would just abjure identity politics it would deprive fascism of oxygen. 

Liberal centrist reaction

This is an illusion. The authoritarian right only appears dormant when the dominance of traditional hierarchies—men over women; whites at the top and Blacks at the bottom; queers, sex workers, and other deviants in the closet; and trans people non-existent—is secure, when the unfreedom of disfavored groups enjoys broad support across party lines. This was the case when Jim Crow enjoyed significant support in both the Republican and Democratic parties. When some progress is made toward equality, rightwing resentment activates and racism, misogyny, and authoritarianism turn very impolitely overt. Under such circumstances any activism for freedom for the marginalized are relentlessly recast by reactionary narratives as aggressive, as overreactions, as illiberal.

This is how defenders of segregation described the Civil Rights Movement. And the always guaranteed presence of unsympathetic social justice advocates—college students, actual far left extremists, and academics unprepared for sound bite warfare—is presented as evidence of the illiberalism and overreach of social justice as such. The yin-yang of rightwing authoritarianism and identity politics is only plausible if, like Mounk, you naïvely assume the political right is not always hard at work defending traditional hierarchies and opposing equality.

The Identity Trap is somewhat better than similar books of the anti-woke genre. Mounk does engage with serious scholars in social justice traditions. My hope is that at least some readers will find their way to original source material, to which Mounk has left some trails of breadcrumbs. Mounk mercifully repudiates the far worse “cultural Marxism” yarn. Yet in the final analysis Mounk’s argument is reactionary. Mounk demands that those seeking freedom from oppression follow his playbook, and when they fail to do so they are condemned for sowing the wind and reaping the fascist whirlwind. Instead of highlighting the many liberal possibilities of identity politics and guiding his readers around pitfalls amidst tricky ideas and complicated thinkers, Mounk presents identity politics as inevitably illiberal. Mounk thus nudges his readers closer to the antiliberalism of Christopher Rufo and Richard Hanania—whose own antiwoke volumes could snuggle comfortably next to The Identity Trap on the shelf—than to any liberalism worth fighting for.

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Fascism and the Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century

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Fascism and the Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century

The lessons of the twentieth century have not been learned. From Russia to China, from Azerbaijan to Israel and Palestine, fascist political projects are gaining strength. Vladimir Putin maunders about "Russkiy mir;" and already the casualties from the ongoing war in Ukraine are measured in the hundreds of thousands. In Baku they issue postage stamps depicting an exterminator "disinfecting" Nagorno-Karabakh; a hundred and twenty thousand Armenians have just fled those exterminators, and it is not clear that Azerbaijan intends to stop there. In Israel Ariel Kallner calls for a "second Nakba" while ostensible leftists cheer the slaughter of more than a thousand innocent people, even babies in their cribs, because "this is what decolonization looks like." And in Beijing Xi Xinping speaks about "the rejuvenation of the Chinese people"—with more than a million Uyghurs in camps, and his eye firmly fixed on Taiwan and its twenty-three million free people.

These are fascist political projects. I say that in full awareness of the weight of those words. These projects assume that ethnic homogeneity is the path to peace and prosperity. They assume that "ethnically correct" borders are the way to safety and security. Where fascism goes beyond simple conservatism is in its willingness to pay in blood for these goals. Revanchist, revisionist, irredentist, call it what you will: fascists intended to redraw the map with the sword in order to secure their vision of an ethnically pure and strong nation. This logic inexorably leads to the reorientation of their own civilian societies around the needs of war. For in pursuit of these ethnonational projects they are willing to countenance great suffering not just of others but of their own people. Putin feeds hundreds of thousands of Russians into his meat grinder. Netanyahu props up Hamas because undermining Palestinian statehood ranks higher than the safety of his own people. Xi suppresses domestic consumption in order to maintain the heavy industries he needs for war in the Taiwan Strait. But Russia must have its empire and Israel its Jewish character and China its place in the sun. Fascism is the idea that people exist for the sake of the nation, not the state for the sake of its people. Fascism is the project of slaughtering your way to glory.

These goals are all based on a zero-sum view of the world. Fascists view the world as composed of nations—peoples, in some nationalist-ethnic sense—that are always struggling against one another for a fixed pie of land, natural resources, and preeminent power. There is only so much to go around, and for us to have enough they must have less. It was this imperialist logic that led Fascist Italy into Africa, Nazi Germany into Eastern Europe, Imperial Japan into Southeast Asia—and to all the horrors that followed. A logic of limited resources and violent extraction.

It is no surprise that conservatives across the Western world have embraced these ideas. What is shocking is how many Western leftists have done the same. They too see a zero-sum world in which peace will only be achieved once "the wrong people" have been ethnically cleansed. They may dress it up in the language of liberation or decolonization, but these days you can hear the old chants of blut und boden echoing beneath. Meanwhile, old ecofascist rhetoric only barely cleaned up from The Population Bomb now circulates under the name of "degrowth." Too many on the left share the right's fundamentally zero-sum view of the world, differing only in who they want on top of the pile. "Decolonization is not a metaphor," you say—well, you will forgive me for taking you at your word.

Fascism in the twentieth century emerged at a time when it seemed that liberal democracy was collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions—when liberal democracy seemed to consist of nothing more than teetering colonial empires and economic catastrophe. The twenty-first century has seen nothing to equal the catastrophes of the Great Depression or the Congo Free State or the First World War. And yet in the twenty-first as in the twentieth, for many people around the world, it seems that liberal democracy has run out of steam. The century's first twenty years can hardly be claimed as great victories for liberal democracy. We have lived through the ravages of the Great Recession, seen ever-growing homeless encampments in our richest cities, police brutality against our citizens, border brutality against refugees, the steady erosion of our democratic rights and freedoms, the rich growing ever richer and the middle class ever more precarious—and meanwhile abroad a foreign policy of unaccountable torture, unaccountable murder, unaccountable occupation, on and on without end. It's understandable to believe that liberal democracy cannot deliver on its promises—that indeed these promises are nothing but smokescreens over the domination and exploitation underneath—that "prosperity" is just code for hard-fisted capitalists dominating and exploiting the 99%, "freedom" just a cover for drone strikes and Abu Ghraib, "democracy" just a facade over border camps and minority rule. Not "liberal democracy" but "late capitalism," the zero-sum truth showing through liberalism's lies.

And maybe you believe that. Perhaps you're on the right and you think the nature of the world is an irreconcilable Struggle between the Races. Perhaps you're on the left and you think the same thing, you just differ on which races you want to see on top. Either way, this essay is not for you. This essay is for those who still believe in liberalism—in the idea that bent the arc of history—that freedom, democracy, and prosperity for all is not a pipe dream but a fighting faith.

In the twenty-first century as in the twentieth, the only thing strong enough to stop this fascist tide is liberal democracy—a genuine liberal democracy that lives up to its own highest ideals of universal human dignity, equal rights, and shared prosperity.  But for too long we have acted like we are living in the end of history, like all that's needed is a little tinkering around the edges, like all that's necessary is to build a retirement home for our own nostalgia. We need a liberalism that shakes the rust off: a liberalism that builds the future. We need a liberalism that builds a future of green technology and abundant housing. We need a liberalism that can reject unjust foreign adventures while standing for free nations defending themselves from tyranny. We need a liberalism that does not just restore the democratic rights and the rule of law that Republicans have worked so hard to tear down, but that goes further and goes forward: a new voting rights act, new states in Puerto Rico and Washington DC, reform of the Senate and the Electoral College, fundamental rights to bodily autonomy. We need a liberalism that welcomes immigrants from all across an increasingly unstable world.

The lessons of the twentieth century have not been learned. You cannot genocide your way to peace. You cannot conquer your way to prosperity. You cannot oppress your way to freedom. But the sun has not gone down yet. It is not 1933 yet. This time, we have a chance to make different choices. Let us, as liberals, be the proof that liberal democracy works—that pluralist, multiethnic liberal democracy works—that liberalism can create a world of not domination but mutual respect, not extraction but shared prosperity, not irreconcilable war but genuine peace. My neighbor's freedom is my freedom. My neighbor's prosperity is my prosperity. We must not retreat, not today, not ever, from those truths.

Featured Image is Vladimir Putin

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Statement on the Events in Israel and Gaza

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To be a liberal is to be for the party of humanity: For human rights and human dignity for all persons regardless of nation, color, or creed.

Last Saturday, Hamas perpetrated a horrific attack on civilians, in violation of these universal rights. Hamas should immediately free its hostages without condition. The state of Israel has responded in horrifying fashion, indiscriminately attacking civilians.

Any just path forward will begin from respect for the human dignity of all. Right now, this requires Israel to cease its indiscriminate attacks, end its inhumane blockade, and honor the laws of war.

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54 days ago
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Taking Inclusion Seriously: Kevin Elliott’s Democracy for Busy People

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“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” This question, asked by English writer Samuel Johnson in 1775, still touches a nerve today. Americans on the one hand carry the pride of one of the oldest sets of representative institutions in the world. On the other, we carry the shame of centuries of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, Chinese exclusion, and the genocide of Native Americans, to offer but an incomplete list. How democratic could a country be that exhibited such obvious social hierarchies?

Jacob Levy answered the question as follows:

The early American republic, and especially the Jacksonian republic, was at once much more democratic than any European state of the same era and much more racist, and these were not unrelated. A hierarchical society with countless small social gradations can treat racial subordination as continuous with many other kinds of subordination. A levelled hierarchy among whites sharpens the distinction at the edges of that category; a social hill is replaced by a social plateau that ends in cliffs. The expanding rights and proud equal dignity of lower-class whites came to consist precisely in their equal claim to whiteness; this became a foundational fact of American democratic equality.

Levy’s remarks about the early American republic are clarifying precisely because it is far too common to assume that a single value, democratic equality, undergirds a democratic political system. What Levy’s analysis suggests instead is that this value is not singular, but has components, and those components have historically often been at odds with one another. Democratic institutions that offer a great deal of equality among political participants may be sharply exclusionary against broad segments of the population. Highly inclusive institutions may enable wide variation in degrees of participation and influence. These two dimensions need not always be entirely in tension—the early republic was in fact more politically inclusive than many of its contemporaries—but there are certainly specific ways in which increasing political equality necessarily trades off with political inclusion, and vice versa.

Though the variations in its implementation matter a great deal, in general universal suffrage in liberal democracies is the most inclusive institutional arrangement in history. Critics of this arrangement do not, in general, argue against the moral virtue of democracy—for democracy has overwhelmingly won the moral argument against its alternatives, even outside of actually democratic countries. Instead, one set of critics—democratic skeptics—argue that it is impractical. Another set of critics—democratic theorists—argue that elections and universal suffrage do not do enough to maximize true democratic equality.

Each of these critics runs into the trade-off between political equality and political inclusion. The skeptics do so more or less explicitly. The philosopher Jason Brennan, for example, revived the age-old argument for political equality among the smart and educated through the exclusion of the foolish and ignorant. The democratic theorists, by contrast, minimize inclusion by accident. They recommend a series of participatory institutions that are in practice too burdensome for ordinary citizens—and especially the most vulnerable and lowest income citizens—to use effectively.

This dichotomy between political equality and political inclusion as components of the larger ideal of democratic equality was formulated by the political theorist Kevin Elliott in his new book, Democracy for Busy People. Elliott takes on the skeptics and the democratic theorists and argues for the primacy of inclusion for any democratic arrangement. He grounds his analysis in people like his mother, “a single working mother without a college degree” who was disengaged from politics for many years not “due to any infirmity or lack of ability” but fundamentally because “she was busy.”[1]

Not busy the way a high-powered lawyer or other successful professional is. She was not plowed under with work imposed by a demanding work ethic and culture. She was busy in more mundane ways—if she didn’t pick up the child, shop for groceries, cook the meal, do the dishes, pay the bills, clean the house, tend the child, track the household budget, etc.—it simply wouldn’t get done. And after doing all of this every day, day after day, without break or assistance, she also had to find time to rest and recuperate her energies to prevent depression and burnout, at which she was only ever partly successful. She was busy the way millions of people around the world are: swamped by meeting the everyday demands of life while maintaining a modicum of sanity.[2]

Elliott seeks to articulate a vision of democracy that can include people as busy as his mother was. His critique of democratic theorists is that demandingness is exclusionary, specifically for people like her. His critique of the skeptics is that people like his mother are capable of participation—indeed, eventually she herself became politically engaged. He poses the questions:

What institutional conditions generate the most conducive circumstances to encourage citizens like my mother was to become citizens like my mother is? How can we chart a course from apathy to attention using institutions? Moreover, how can we do so while making sure to leave no one behind?[3]

He articulates the normative goal of his program as “stand-by citizenship,” which provides a floor with “upward flexibility” on participation by all. He then goes on to discuss institutional conditions which might promote and maintain stand-by citizenship as broadly as possible.


Skeptics of democracy often rest their arguments on the apathy of the masses. Some go so far as to defend that apathy as a positive good. Elliott argues that political apathy is neither inevitable, nor normatively defensible.

One of the book’s most interesting discussions in this area concerns political stability. There is a line of argument he traces to Bernard Berelson and Samuel Huntington which maintains that too much political engagement can be destabilizing. The former, along with his colleagues, argued that:

Apathy among some citizens, then, allows for compromises to be struck because apathetic citizens are not wedded to intransigence on policy in the way extremely interested partisans are. Representatives know they can make compromises because not all of their supporters are strongly interested in the specifics of the result.[4]

Huntington argued that “because democracy cannot meet all the demands made of it by the groups who became politically mobilized in the 1960s and 1970s,” that broad mobilization would ultimately prove anathema to democracy, as disappointment would lead to disenchantment and delegitimization.[5]

Elliott provides a strong counterargument, pointing out that authoritarians and Trump-style populists often draw precisely on those previously indifferent, apathetic, or apolitical: “Political apathy also threatens democracy by creating a class of citizens who are not politically socialized. Politically non-socialized citizens are a menace to democracy because they may come crashing into the system with unrealistic expectations and a vulnerability to demagoguery, which can empower anti-democratic actors and threaten democratic stability.”[6]

Rather than mobilization serving to destabilize democracy in the manner that Huntington envisioned, “exclusion is potentially more disruptive of stability since it is effectively impossible for groups to remain durably passive in politics. Events always transpire to mobilize them. Far from apathy serving as a reliable guarantor of stability, it could just as often serve as political dynamite packed around the foundations of democracy, waiting only for a spark.”[7]

It was one thing to exclude the great mass of peasants from politics in pre-modern agrarian societies. But modern citizens are literate, can communicate nearly instantly across any distance (and therefore coordinate across any distance as well), and have access to resources and technology that either did not exist or were far out of reach for the underclasses of old. As Elliott rightly points out, even where significant portions of modern citizens are disengaged for a period of time, it’s impossible to guarantee they will remain so. Indeed, this is precisely why democracy is a more practical arrangement than its alternatives, and why the most stable non-democracies get as close to liberal democratic arrangements as they can without putting their incumbents at too much risk of losing power.

Rather than exclusion or apathy, then, “A better response is therefore to mobilize everyone and get them effectively heard and included in the political system.”[8]

Elections are good, actually

To a non-academic, it is a bit stunning to read that “Elections are the neglected misfits of democratic theory today.” Yet the very people who are supposedly theorizing the basis of democracy do turn their noses up at the single most important institution distinguishing democracy from its alternatives. They argue that “elections have an ineradicable oligarchic or aristocratic bias”[9] and propose a smorgasbord of alternatives.

As a political theorist attempting to persuade other theorists, it makes sense that Elliott would spend time attempting to make democratic theorists live up to their moniker, but from the outside it feels difficult to take democratic theorists seriously. Now, among political scientists—who study systems that really exist—the conceptual distinction between democracy and non-democracy rests entirely on whether or not the top political authorities are held to free and fair elections which they stand a credible chance of losing.[10]

Ever focused on busy people, Elliott points out that voting in elections “is the quintessential example of participation that is simple, easy, and undemanding.” More than this, as a “large, society-wide event that simulates media coverage and widespread public discussion,” they are a force for broader mobilization.[11] Crucially, “Elections remain the most inclusive participatory institution by a comically wide margin. More people vote than have even heard of a citizens’ assembly, let alone than have actually participated in any deliberative institution.”[12]

Elliott goes further than merely defending elections, articulating a “Paradox of Empowerment”: “increasing opportunities for greater participation may often perversely function to further empower existing elites and empowered groups rather than broadening access to power to marginalized groups.”[13]

Here, the value of grounding his analysis in busy people really comes to the fore. The citizen voice and participatory institutions implemented in the Progressive Era, and pushed by democratic theorists today, are in principle open to all, or all within the relevant jurisdiction. The practical impediments to making full use of those mechanisms, however, means that those who do make use of them are disproportionately drawn from groups that already come from the high end of social power and influence. Political equality among participants in these institutions may be increased, but at the cost of drastically less inclusivity.

Stand-by citizenship

Elliott follows his response to democracy’s critics with a normative model which he calls “stand-by citizenship.” This standard is more demanding than simply having universal suffrage laws or even having very few hurdles to voting in practice. It consists of “critical attention,” “the civic skills needed for participation,” and “upward flexibility.”[14]

Critical attention has two components, having “the habit of paying attention to politics.” and actively exercising “one’s judgment through critically reflecting on what one sees.”[15] Going from paying attention and judging to taking action, however, requires a specific set of civic skills, “the nuts-and-bolts questions of how and when to register, how and when to vote, who the candidates and parties are and what they stand for,” and similar details that “help supply reasonable expectations regarding how the political system works and what to expect from it,” and how to participate in it.[16]

Somewhat surprisingly, Elliott does not insist that stand-by citizens must exercise these skills regularly in order to meet his minimum normative standard. For a variety of reasons, a citizen who knows how to participate in politics and regularly observes and judges it may decide to sit out an election, or even several elections. On the flipside, however, they may see opportunities to participate beyond elections and judge that they ought to pursue them. Critical attention and civic skills thus provide a floor for participation, but upward flexibility entails an openness to deepening that participation beyond the minimum, without normative limit.

Maintaining critical attention and civic skills is no small task on its own, and it is not something we should treat as a matter of individual responsibility. Both are “a product of habit or unconscious absorption from those around us, as well as incidentally through actual participation.”[17]

Institutions and culture produce and maintain stand-by citizenship, which “makes us poised for participation, like an arrow drawn back on a bowstring, tensed for action. We may remain in that state of preparedness indefinitely, or launch ourselves into the political arena, as far and as intensely as we choose. In this conception, the sky’s the limit.”[18]

Upward flexibility allows stand-by citizenship to encompass both the political heroism of the mid century civil rights activists and the ordinary citizenship of those too busy to do more than vote in elections. What Elliott cannot abide is a citizen body that is not able to participate or even to form an opinion on whether they want to participate more fully. Critical attention combined with the civic skills required to participate leave stand-by citizens ready to respond to situations they themselves judge to be worth responding to, and within their capabilities to do so.

Politics as a social process

How, then, might we foster stand-by citizenship?

First and foremost, against the democratic theorists, it is important to “concentrate power in the institutions in which it is the cheapest and easiest to participate.”[19] In a word: elections. Moreover, elections are:

a large, society-wide event that stimulates media coverage and widespread public discussion. This event focuses and concentrates society’s attention, collectively, on politics, granting even the most pluralistic society a unifying focal point.[20]

Elections are both inclusive and by their nature produce what political scientists refer to as political interest, a crucial component of both critical attention and for motivating the maintenance of civic skills. Not all elections are created equal, however. Wide variance in turnout rates across democratic countries indicates that some arrangements or cultural environments are better at mobilizing citizens than others. Differences may arise from barriers to participation, such as the difficulty of registering to vote in some places in America or long wait times at polling centers on election day. Or they may arise from a failure to cultivate the habits of paying attention or participating (even to a minimum extent); irregular and poorly advertised elections for example might cause people’s civic skills to atrophy.

Elliott suggests we maximize the mobilizing potential of elections by holding them every year, and enacting mandatory voting. By the latter he specifically means “a strictly enforced legal requirement that every eligible voter attend a polling place or submit a mail-in ballot during an election, on pain of a small monetary fine unless an adequate excuse, including conscientious objection, is provided.” He sees these reforms as “tutelary” institutions “that can help induce the kind of cognitive political engagement characteristic of stand-by citizenship” as well as “improve democracy’s responsiveness.”[21]

He also suggests a number of practical measures to reduce the barriers to voting that currently exist in America specifically. Rather than putting the onus on citizens to register to vote, the government ought to do so automatically, given that it already has the information it needs to do so. Pairing this with same-day registration by anyone that was missed by automatic registration would do away with the entirely self-imposed burdens of voter registration in the several forms it exists in America today.

Contrary to the anti-party sentiments that are endemic in political theory and democratic theory in particular, Elliott emphasizes how crucial political parties are for democratic participation in general, and the encouraging of stand-by citizenship in particular. In a healthy liberal democracy, parties serve to mitigate against political disengagement. “Parties’ democratic superpower is that their greed for power drives them to reach these citizens where they are and turn them into active supporters, along the way bringing them up out of apathy and transforming them into stand-by citizens. No other democratic institution can make this same claim, with the possible exception of mandatory voting.”[22]

For the various efforts to reach and organize such citizens, which Elliott documents[23], provide them with “a scaffolding or foundation to support their developing political identity.”

Party identification can help citizens to situate themselves in politics, learning whom to ally themselves with and whom to oppose. It helps them align their affinities and antipathies; it helps socialize them into politics, in other words. This new social identity then serves as the motivational core of their activities as citizens.[24]

Of course, parties will only behave this way in an actually competitive party system. Here in America, we have, to some extent, a competitive two-party system at the federal level. But our system as a whole would better be classified as a two-at-most party system, with many quite powerful state and local governments totally dominated by only one party each. The direct primary, both a method for mitigating the downsides of this arrangement and one of its primary causes, does away with those facets of parties and partisanship that Elliott rightly notes help to politically integrate busy citizens.

Elliott favors multipartyism rather than two-partyism, as the former “allows for greater dimensionality in political competition,”[25] more party brands that can target the formation of a greater array of distinct political identities. The path to multipartyism is well known: legislatures that are apportioned through multi-seat proportional representation methods, rather than the single-seat plurality-winner method currently used for nearly every elected office in America today. To this I would add the abolition of the direct primary as it currently exists, as this has served to institutionalize two-at-most partyism by providing an open venue for capturing a party label by political talents who, in other systems, would have opted to form their own parties.[26]

This would also be furthered by another of Elliott’s proposals, to deal with the “long ballot” of numerous local and state offices that are up for election. It may be that “Centralizing power into fewer high profile electoral contests actually boosts inclusion by making it easier and more cognitively tractable for ordinary citizens,”[27] but increasing the centrality of legislatures specifically also facilitates the creation of a competitive multiparty system.

Elliott meets the theoretical challenges to democracy head-on and provides a workable normative model to judge real-world examples by. He goes on to provide an institutional analysis and reform package in detail that is unusual for what is chiefly a work of political theory rather than political science or political activism. The theorist, the empiricist, and the activist alike will all find something of value to take away from Democracy for Busy People.

[1] Kevin J. Elliott, Democracy for Busy People (pp. 3–4). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 14.

[4] Ibid., 31.

[5] Ibid., 32.

[6] Ibid., 46.

[7] Ibid., 50.

[8] Ibid., 50.

[9] Ibid., 120.

[10] “In particular, the countries we today call ‘democratic’ display a specific pattern of political competition for control of states. Roughly speaking, in democracies multiple organized groups compete for the support of large publics (in theory, all adults) in electoral contests in order to gain control of key offices of the state (for example, the presidency, a majority of seats in the legislature). One important feature of this form of political competition is that formal ‘barriers to entry’ into the competition for power are relatively low: incumbents (the current group or groups controlling the state) have limited abilities to prevent groups with different views about the proper uses of state power from forming, organizing, appealing to the electorate, or assuming office if they win an election, much less physically harming the membership of these groups. In the pithy formulation of political scientist Adam Przeworski, democracies are political systems in which ‘parties lose elections’, precisely because they cannot systematically prevent their opponents from winning them.” Xavier Márquez, Non-Democratic Politics (pp. 1–2). Palgrave Macmillan.

[11] Kevin J. Elliott, Democracy for Busy People (pp. 122–123). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

[12] Ibid., 79.

[13] Ibid., 72.

[14] Ibid., 104.

[15] Ibid., 101–102.

[16] Ibid., 102–103.

[17] Ibid., 103.

[18] Ibid., 104.

[19] Ibid., 119.

[20] Ibid, 123.

[21] Ibid, 134-135.

[22] Ibid, 162.

[23] “So how do parties help to make new, stand-by citizens? First and most directly, they do so through organizing groups politically, particularly new and politically disconnected individuals. This is perhaps the most direct means by which parties mobilize, other than actual get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts. Political organizing is the process of articulating connections between the party and groups or individuals. This process often occurs through mediating institutions, such as unions or churches. Some of the most effective types of organizing seem to involve long-term engagement in the community, including providing ordinary forms of social (nonpolitical) support and service. Another common vector of organizing is canvassing, where supporters knock on doors or otherwise engage people in public spaces to urge their support. Such canvassing is often part of conventional GOTV efforts, yet these effrots shade into organizing when targeted at habitually disengaged citizens because of how they serve to transform these citizens’ view of themselves and their relationship to politics. Lisa García Bedolla and Melissa Michelson explain how this process works using what they call a Sociocultural Cognition model of mobilization that works by tapping into ideas that the individual already has to encourage them to adopt “a new cognitive schema as ‘voter'”—or active democratic citizen. Focused canvassing efforts induce these individuals to develop new understandings of themselves and of their relationship to the wider political community, one in which they take an active role.” Ibid, 163-164.

[24] Ibid, 164.

[25] Ibid, 170.

[26] See the discussion in Taylor, S. L., Shugart, M. S., Lijphart, A., & Grofman, B. (2015). A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-country perspective (pp. 181-184). Yale University Press.

[27] Kevin J. Elliott, Democracy for Busy People (pp. 133). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

Featured image is The first colored senator and representatives – in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States

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