What’s at stake in the struggle between Nancy Pelosi and the four progressive House members known as the squad? Partly it’s just the perpetual conflict between younger members who want change fast and older members who say you have to deal with political reality.
But deep down it’s a conflict of worldviews. No matter how moderate or left, Democrats of a certain age were raised in an atmosphere of liberalism. I don’t mean the political liberalism of George McGovern. I mean the philosophic liberalism of people like Montaigne, John Stuart Mill, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas — people who witnessed religious and civil wars and built structures to restrain fanaticism.
Philosophic liberalism, Adam Gopnik explains in his essential book, begins with intellectual humility. There’s more we don’t know than we do know, so public life is a constant conversation that has no end. In the liberal view, each person contains opposites and contradictions. You flatten and dehumanize complex individuals when you see people according to crude dichotomies and assign them to tribal teams.
Liberals prefer constant incremental reform to sudden revolution. “Liberal reform, like evolutionary change, being incremental, is open to the evidence of experience,” Gopnik writes. Liberals place great emphasis on context. The question is not: What do I want? It’s: What good can I do in this specific circumstance?
Liberalism loves sympathy, suspects rage and detests cruelty. Politics is inevitably a dialogue between partial truths. Compromise is a virtue, not a sign of cowardice. Moreover, means determine ends. If you win power through rhetorical violence, and by hating those who disagree, your regime will be angry and destructive. Liberalism arose out of the fact that political revolutions, while exciting at the outset, usually end up in brutality, dictatorship and blood. Working within the system is best.
People who came of age in the past few decades did not grow up in an atmosphere of assumed liberalism. They often grew up in an atmosphere that critiques it.
Critics on the right argue that liberal pluralism creates a society that is too thin. It lacks the tight bonds of clan. It lacks a single coherent moral culture. When you take away the idea of a single divine order, you create a fluid world in which a few shrewd elites may thrive, but everybody else falls into chaos.
Critics on the left argue that liberalism is a set of seemingly neutral procedures that the privileged adopt to mask their underlying grip on power. Left-wing critics detest liberalism’s incrementalism and argue that only a complete revolution will uproot injustice.
They do not share liberalism’s belief in the primacy of free speech. They argue that free speech sometimes has to be restricted because incorrect words can trap our thinking. Bad words, like insensitive gender pronouns, preserve oppression.
They embrace essentialism, which is the antithesis of liberalism. Essentialism is the belief that people are defined by a single identity that never changes. A cisgender white male is always and only a cisgender white male.
In short, many of today’s young leaders, and their older allies, don’t want to work within the liberal system. They want to blow it up.
So which side will prevail?
Over the short term, I’d put my money on the anti-liberals. Liberalism suffers from a series of weaknesses. First, many Americans have already betrayed it. The adventure of liberalism is constantly encountering people and ideas that are new and different. But Americans of both left and right moved into lifestyle enclaves with people like themselves. Americans have stopped seeing each other accurately. Conversation, the very lifeblood of liberalism, is blocked.
Second, liberal institutions have deteriorated. A liberal society needs universities where ideas are openly debated, it needs media outlets that strive to be objective, it needs political institutions, like the Senate, that are governed by procedures designed to keep the process fair to both sides. It needs people who put the rules of fair play above short-term partisan passion. Those people scarcely exist.
Third, Donald Trump. Trump marshaled illiberal groups in the G.O.P. and easily defeated the old guard. He turned the G.O.P. into an illiberal force. It’s very hard for Democrats to play by the rules of liberalism when the other party won’t.
Furthermore, Trump has a vested interest in keeping the progressives atop the Democratic Party, and he powerfully influences that party. When Pelosi tried to marginalize the squad, Trump issued a racist tweet against the squad’s members. Democrats responded predictably, and the squad was back as the party’s defining element. Expect this pattern to recur.
Liberalism’s ultimate problem is that its achievements have been taken for granted. It’s moderate in an age made for reality TV. It’s an attempt to restrain passions, not inflame them. Liberalism is about treasuring your opponents, not calling them racists or traitors.
In the current moment, “Let’s not get carried away” and “Let’s play by the rules” are not great campaign slogans. Trump’s primary opponents learned that the hard way in 2016. Pelosi, Biden and the other Democratic liberals, I’m afraid, may learn that in the months ahead.