Washington correspondent of the Economist
|SEPTEMBER 3RD 2021|
|Checks and Balance — The best of our coverage of American politics, delivered to your inbox every Friday|
|The Economist’s cover article this week is on the perilous state of liberalism in America. |
The attack from the authoritarian right is obvious and unrelenting. Donald Trump is still the de facto leader of the Republican Party; fealty to him remains the litmus test for the country’s conservative party, which has abandoned much of its former principles while under his spell. Abroad, China remains committed to the defense of authoritarian technocracy, emboldened by its economic success.
That might leave defenders of the classical liberal principles that this newspaper was founded to advance—individual liberties, open markets and free expression—within the American left. Increasingly, a vocal portion of the left is hostile to these values. Precisely because the threat is not as well-defined, it is hard to discuss.
Our cover focuses on the last decade of transformation in the American left, tracing the development of a set of ideas, originating in the post-modern tradition and hostile to liberalism, within elite universities and how it managed to roil other major institutions, including newsrooms and the Democratic Party.
Various instigating events—the financial crisis, the election of Donald Trump and police killings of unarmed black men, especially that of George Floyd—have propelled this amorphous and abstruse body of theory into the mainstream.
A young generation of college students disenchanted with what they feel is liberalism’s complacency, apathy and inability to correct long-run inequities hastened its adoption.
After upending elite university life years ago, its ramifications are now being felt among other repositories of left-leaning elites: the media, the Democratic Party, and, most recently, businesses and primary and secondary schools. There is no agreed upon name for what it is that is roiling the American left: social-justice activism, wokeness and anti-racism are some of the names it has been given.
Clarity has never been more required. These ideas are fracturing an already fractious body politic. Among educated, cosmopolitan Democrats, attitudes towards the existence of systemic racism and how aggressively it ought to be rectified looks to be one of the biggest emerging fault lines in American politics.
Long-running social surveys show that Democrats and Republicans have never been further apart on their attitudes towards race and its role in limiting opportunity for minorities, especially African-Americans. This divergence seems to be due almost entirely to changing attitudes among white, college-educated liberals.
With Trumpism having wrecked much of the old tenets of the GOP, the conservative movement in this country seem more unified in its opposition to the woke agenda (or at least their caricature of it) than anything else. Whatever “critical race theory” is taken to mean, its existence or non-existence in schools seems poised to be a major campaign issue in the mid-term elections of 2022.
I am personally sceptical of this movement. I do not think the ends justify illiberal means. Specifically, I object to the primacy given to group identity above the individual, the treatment of all interpersonal interactions as microcosms for grander forces of marginalisation and oppression, the rating of the worthiness of speech because of the identity of the speaker.
As a mode of analysis, too, I find it too narrow. Disparities along racial lines are seen as prima facie evidence of continued, systemic discrimination—a monocausal account that ignores the complicated changes in American life.
And in the obsession over discourse and language, an old concern of the left—correcting disparities that emerge from income and class through policy—is left to the wayside.
So much of the well-intentioned enthusiasm for ameliorating race relations comes from the existence of these long-running disparities: doing something about it is ultimately a bit harder than enforcing a precise vocabulary and ideological fealty among fellow elites.
Another spot on article from the Economist bureau correspondent in Washington DC,
By the esteemed journalist, Mr Idrees Kahloon