I’m going to float a series of vast and off-the-cuff historical generalizations in order to try and get at something that is distinctive about the current moment in US politics.

Beginning in Europe in the 19th century, liberalism has been engaged in a two-front war—on-again, off-again—against the right and the left. Against the right’s revanchism and the left’s radicalism, liberalism has held itself up as the original Third Way. It is the reasonable and moderate alternative to the extremes, offering men and women the promise and payout of a capitalist, vaguely democratic, modernity but without its revolutionary perils or reactionary pitfalls.

Though it has on occasion entered into a more productive, albeit tension-filled, front with the left, liberalism has always been uneasy about the left. For a variety of reasons, among them a doubt about the left’s commitments to the rule of law, civil liberties, the norms and procedures of parliamentary democracy, and the institutions of the capitalist market. (Which is ironic since it was the left, at least in Western Europe and the US, that fought hardest for civil liberties and the right to vote, but I digress.) Liberalism and the left thus have been either uneasy partners or outright antagonists.

While liberalism has often loathed the right, it hasn’t always been sufficiently attuned to the shape-shifting power of the right. Its attentions have too often been focused in the other direction, so fraught has been its relationship to the left. Till it was too late.

The left has not been entirely blameless in this. It, too, has been engaged in a two-front war: against liberalism and the right. On the ground, and in the streets, the left has understood the power of the right, but up in the chambers of political theory, intellectual debate, and elite party argument, the left has sometimes, and catastrophically, construed liberalism (or its positional surrogate on the ideological spectrum) to be its greatest and only enemy. Even at a moment like the present in the United States—when liberalism, at least as it has been historically understood in the United States, has been in abeyance, or at best, has played second fiddle—the left has tended to focus on the power and betrayals of liberalism.

What liberalism and the left have in common, in other words, is an insufficient appreciation of the right. What made that lack of appreciation understandable, historically, was that the left—whether in the form of socialist parties, communist internationals, militant trade unions, social movements, and the like—had some real power and traction on the ground. It was understandable for liberals to be more focused upon—and fearful of—the left, which often seemed ready to march right over the liberals. So was it understandable for leftists to be more focused upon—and pissed off at—liberals, who often seemed ready to betray the left.

But that is not the situation we are in right now. In fact, we haven’t been in that situation for some time. [click to continue…]