The Problem With Liberalism

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In Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, Josh Atwater (TD ’24, Herald staff) examines how his left-wing convictions are at odds with American liberalism.

Upon first developing political consciousness, circa 2014, I identified as a Democrat. Like many Americans coming of age after the Great Recession, I was drawn to Democratic politicians who promised that reform is possible with sufficient faith in the gradual mechanisms of electoral politics. But as I watched Democrats continually fumble every opportunity they had to enact any meaningful change, I began to grow disillusioned. I thought that perhaps I was just a liberal, if not a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party. In college, I encountered Marx, whose theories seemed agreeable enough, though somewhat complicated and a bit too outdated for viable implementation in today’s America. Only upon reading an excerpt from Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Modern World-System could I pinpoint exactly what I now accept to be the driving force that is stagnating change in America: liberalism itself.

Wallerstein traces the origins of liberalism to the period following the French Revolution. By the end of the revolution, no longer would the average person tolerate arbitrary rule by the “notables,” or the aristocratic elite; rather, the impetus of sovereignty had shifted to that oft-referenced group known as “the people.” The fundamental challenge associated with this shift was how to incorporate working-class people into the system of governance—how to reconcile the new demand for popular sovereignty with the desire of the notables to retain power and, as Wallerstein puts it, “ensure [the notables’] continuing ability to accumulate capital endlessly.”

Wallerstein outlines three ideologies that arose in response to this problem. Conservatism, which exalts tradition as a means of ensuring stability, aims to impede, halt, or even reverse societal change. Liberalism, arising soon thereafter, accepts that change is inevitable, and seeks to regulate change such that it occurs at an “optimal” rate. Finally, Wallerstein identifies a third ideology, which he refers to interchangeably as socialism and radicalism. Socialism not only accepts the inevitability of societal change but considers it urgently necessary, arguing that the state’s primary purpose is to construct a society that is maximally favorable to the people. 

Though their names take on vastly different meanings in the countless contexts in which they’re used, I think these categories provide a useful heuristic for understanding contemporary American politics. Under Wallerstein’s definitions, the average American is a liberal: an individual who at least somewhat accepts the potential for change, even if at an excruciatingly slow rate. In this sense, most Republican voters are right-leaning liberals, and most Democrats are left-leaning liberals. Americans who take an interest in equity and social justice often tout liberal Democratic politics as a necessary instrument of reform in pursuit of a society that is good and just; being “a liberal” is, at least according to liberals, synonymous with being a morally “good” person. Having long identified as a liberal myself, I see a variety of reasons why liberalism, as advertised by the Democratic party, might seem promising: because it offers inclusion for all who subscribe to its values; because it is vocally in favor of supporting marginalized populations on a cultural level; because it protects and refines—but never revolutionizes—the status quo.

And this, the status quo, is exactly where the problem lies when we begin to understand liberalism on Wallerstein’s terms. In theory, maintaining society at a relative equilibrium sounds ideal; change is arduous, uncomfortable, and often dangerous. But in America, I do not believe that we have ever achieved a status quo that is worth preserving. In a nation founded on liberty for “the people,” it seems that the only true freedom we have is to suffer the throes of capital. Our nation still fails in nearly every regard to legitimately integrate all people, to truly protect them. Despite our country’s immense wealth, many still suffer poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Despite our advanced medicine, it is still possible to succumb to a treatable illness due to exorbitant healthcare costs. 

Liberalism alleges that it can tactfully “reconcile” the demands of the notables and the masses, integrating the people’s will at a tempered pace that prevents significant disturbances in the status quo. However, as Wallerstein explains, such integration is inherently contradictory to the notables’ continued hoarding of capital—it challenges the status quo. Though a liberal state should be an impartial mediator between these two opposing forces, capital and labor, American liberalism has all but unequivocally taken the side of capital. For practically every ill in our society, a line of causality traces back to capital’s leveraging of American liberal indifference. America’s disproportionate COVID deaths accompanied massive wealth increases for American billionaires. Recent inflation and the rising cost of living are associated with unprecedented profits for CEOs. Appeasing the avarice of the wealthy elite is now a basic function of the American economy. While conservatism denies that these trends are problematic, liberalism acknowledges them with a Tweet and then proceeds to stick its thumb up its own ass.

For all its purported virtues, its promises of impartial justice and its pledges to protect our most vulnerable, American liberalism still falls short because it is beholden to the interests of capital. American liberal politicians will readily agree to surface-level cultural changes that do not interfere with the ruling class’s ability to continue accumulating capital. When it comes to substantial changes—anything that would improve the average American’s material conditions—liberalism is painfully and deliberately ineffectual.

To those concerned with America’s growing inequity, I would argue that we cannot salvage an ideology that makes concessions to the insatiable demands of capital—let alone the especially nefarious brand of liberalism espoused by American Democrats. We need to reimagine our politics so that they are in alignment with our convictions. Are we willing to accept surface-level changes? Can we tolerate politicians who preach false sympathy while pilfering from the working class? And are we bold enough to turn away from American liberalism—to jump off the ship before it finally sinks?

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