Trump and the Fall of Liberalism

Democrats showed a hubris in recent years that was at odds with the party's ascendance in the 1950s to 1970s.

Time for soul-searching.

Photographer: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Let’s be frank. After this week’s electoral explosion, liberalism faces years in the wilderness. It’s not just that the president-elect is Donald Trump. It’s that a Democratic Party that as recently as Monday imagined it had forged an electoral coalition sufficiently solid to stand for decades now lies in shambles. In 2018, the party must defend an astonishing 25 seats 1 in their Senate caucus, many of them in states that Trump carried. “It’s going to be a disaster,” said one Democratic strategist -- and that was back when people thought Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in. Republicans control a record 69 of 99 state legislative chambers, and wound up with at least 33 governorships, the most since 1922. In short, the Democrats’ exile is likely to be lengthy.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing -- not if the time out of power is put to proper use. Naturally there will be period of backbiting and recrimination -- the racists are having their revenge, Facebook should have censored Trump supporters -- but one hopes the tantrum will be brief. Liberalism, for all its virtues, has begun to develop a sense of entitlement, and needs time to rediscover its soul. That may not be what the voters intended -- probably they thought they were delivering a kick in the pants -- but a reminder was nevertheless needed. Tell yourself whatever story you like about why Trump was able to pull off his stunning victory, but consider that exile may do the Democrats some good.


Yes, Trump ran an often ugly campaign. Yes, I am among those worried about his unpredictability. But the left has work to do, not only on policy and organization but also on attitude. Too many of my progressive friends seem to have forgotten how to make actual arguments, and have become expert instead at condemnation, derision and mockery. On issue after issue, they’re very good at explaining why no one could oppose their policy positions except for the basest of motives. As to those positions themselves, they are too often announced with a zealous solemnity suggesting that their views are Holy Writ -- and those who disagree are cast into the outer political darkness. In short, the left has lately been dripping with hubris, which in classic literature always portends a fall.

My friends on the left have come to resemble a little too closely my friends on the right, and the Republican Party has also received well-justified kicks in the pants from time to time. But it’s liberalism that has thought itself ascendant of late, while conservatives have found themselves scrambling for an identity.

Why do I say that time in the wilderness will do the Democrats some good? Clinton didn’t actually lose by much, and probably won the popular vote. Yet the blue firewall was demolished. Democrats should think seriously about why.

I often suggest to my students that liberalism in its political instantiation, for all of its appeal, is so powerful a theory that it probably works better in opposition than in government. Modern liberalism has become what liberal philosophers not long ago would have derided as a “comprehensive view” -- a theory that believes itself able to give an account of how every institution of the society should operate, and even, alas, how people should think. Add to that a dash of triumphalism, and you wind up with a government impatient with the tendency of human beings to resist having too much forced on them at once.

What I hope Democrats will learn from this defeat is not that the American people are irredeemably racist, or, as I heard someone say the other night, that all they have to do is wait a few years for millions of senior citizens who vote Republican to die. I hope they won’t spend much time muttering about how the U.S. should now be classed as a failed state or how we have to dump the system because the voters are too stupid to be trusted. I certainly hope they won’t blame their candidate for being centrist and lurch further to the left.

What I hope happens instead is that liberals of the present day rediscover the virtues of the ascendant liberalism of the 1950s through the 1970s that Democrats seem to want to emulate. These virtues included a toleration for disagreement, an effort to avoid reducing complex issues to applause lines, and a fundamental humility as they went about governing. This doesn’t mean the old-style liberals didn’t believe, earnestly, that they were right on the issues. But they accepted that their nation was a diverse place, that their opponents were entitled to their say, that government should not try to do everything at once, and that policy should be made in a way that could create a working consensus.

One might object that Trump has not yet shown the ability to accept any of those principles. Fair enough. His campaign was divisive and caused a great deal of pain and fear. The next few weeks will be a critical time for him to establish a mood of conciliation in an angry nation. His subdued victory speech and cordial meeting with President Barack Obama were only the first of many steps that tradition, morality and good old-fashioned courtesy require him to take.

But whether or not the president-elect does what he should, the lesson for liberals is that they have to get serious again -- not just about winning elections but also about taking opposition as a mark of an energetic politics rather than the Manichean manipulations of the forces of evil. The mark of a healthy democracy is the preference for argument rather than invective. Those are the roots the left must reclaim. True, we live in an era when serious debate isn’t much valued. Perhaps a Democratic Party that spends a few years out of power can find its way back by reminding all of us how it is done.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Two of the 25 are independents who caucus with the Democrats.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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