In politics timing is everything. All intelligent political criticism proceeds from this premise. Unintelligent criticism not so much.
The next three months will be crucial for the fate of democracy in the U.S. And the outcome of the November election will determine whether the American system of government can furnish even minimally decent and effective responses to the pressing challenges of COVID-19 and racial and economic injustice.
As more people die and suffer, the Trump administration doubles down on its corrupt and feckless response to the pandemic, its racist and reactionary rhetoric, and its threats on the democratic electoral process itself.
Commentators across the political spectrum express growing fear about whether Trump will allow himself to be voted out of office, and about the future of the U.S. if Trump is not voted out of office.
As many understand, nurturing the kind of political alliances that can ensure a decisive Biden victory and Trump defeat in November is thus a moral and political imperative. This means that Democrats of different ideological stripes need to work together. And that they ought to welcome the support of those former Republican voters and leaders who are willing to join them. And that those on the left who are serious about progressive politics ought to understand such coalitional politics and to support it now. For it is obvious that without an overwhelming Biden victory, Trump will do everything in his power to delegitimize and contest the election. And that if Trump is successful, there will be dark times ahead.
And so, of course, Samuel Moyn has stepped forth, yet again, to throw shade on those lacking his strange sense of ideological purity, disparaging “Never Trumpers,” scholars who take them seriously, and liberals who welcome their interventions.
Moyn, you may recall, along with David Priestland, published a piece in the New York Times on August 11, 2017 that declared that “Trump Isn’t a Threat to Our Democracy. Hysteria Is.” Chastising diverse liberal critics of Trump for “tyrannophobia, the belief that the overwhelmingly important political issue is the threat to our liberal freedoms and institutions,” that piece concluded that “a little more than six months into the Trump presidency, though, it now seems clear that the most frightening threats to ordinary politics in the United States are empty or easily contained.”
One might think that such perspicuous political judgment would generate some sense of intellectual humility. But instead, as it has become increasingly obvious that Trump’s “most frightening threats to ordinary politics” are no more easily contained than the Novel Coronavirus, Moyn has continued to deride liberals for being alarmist, to self-righteously disparage very smart historians and political theorists concerned about tendencies towards “fascism,” and to stand by the view that Trumpism is nothing more than politics as usual. It of course follows from this that efforts to forge a broad coalition against Trumpism are either deluded or self-interested and in any case reactionary. For the “real” struggle is not against Trumpism, but against capitalism, and against all of those, presumably including Biden, who are not against capitalism.
“From Trump’s Inauguration Day onward, Never Trumpers have written a script of defending the status quo ante, by delegitimating alternatives to it. They joined a coalition of liberals for whom free-market depredations and imperial violence were acceptable parts of doing America’s business, but left-wing mobilization was seen as part of a Weimar-style harbinger of regime collapse, and a living wage and universal health insurance were totalitarian equivalents of racist marches and travel bans. . . Its significance, even if it was born on the right, is that it succeeded overwhelmingly in a centrist containment of the left. Its historic role turns out to be not among Republicans so far, but within a Democratic Party whose members have chosen to convert enemies into friends, setting up a guardrail against the capture of their party by the left. The legacy of Never Trump so far is stopping progress, rather than saving democracy.”
Moyn delivers this interpretation under the pretext of reviewing Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites, a fine new book by political scientists Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles. As Saldin and Teles point out in a rejoinder, Moyn’s analytical point is both hysterical and premature, the former because it begs credulity to believe that Biden’s nomination victory was somehow caused by the efforts of Never Trumpers, and the latter because it is simply much too early to offer serious judgments about how the Democratic party will move forward to November and beyond. But it is more than a little rich that while Moyn offers his tendentious account as a disappointed Sanders supporter, Sanders is saying, right now, that along every domain of public policy, “Joe Biden would be the most progressive president since FDR.”
Sadly, Moyn’s text is not a fair or serious review at all. It is a polemical attack leavened by reductive commentary about Teles’s links to the Niskanen Center (who pays Sam Moyn’s salary as Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School, the League of the Just?). Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites is a serious book of political science research, written by two respected scholars who have a strong track record of publishing on American political development. Saldin’s War, The American State, and Politics Since 1898 (2013) is a seminal account of the role of war and militarism in 20th century state formation in the U.S. And Teles’s The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for the Control of the Law (2010) is an important analysis of how the Federalist Society and other conservative legal groups were able to network their way to power in the Republican Party. The general approach of this book is very similar to the approach of Never Trump.
Over the course of 245 pages, Never Trump carefully traces the way “Never Trumpism” emerged among different kinds of Republican policy elites–national security elites, political consultants, and conservative intellectuals—who had played an important role in Republican party politics and public policy formation, and who in different ways were threatened by the rise of Trumpism. It is true that the book employs a method of interpretive generosity, and also true that the authors are more favorably disposed towards the two-party system than are most people on the left, myself included. But the book is not a celebration of “Never Trump” Republicans. It recognizes that there are different kinds of “Never Trumpers” and different directions in which “Never Trumpers” might head, and also notes that a similar kind of insurgency is brewing on the Democratic party’s left. And its principal concern is not with conservative or libertarian ideology, but with the future of liberal democracy in the U.S. Never Trump is a serious book about the importance of factionalization within both major U.S. parties, the flux that the party system currently faces, and the way that “asymmetrical polarization” has led some to defect from a Republican party that has become increasingly “anti-system” and hostile to constitutional democracy. Left intellectuals serious about political strategy should find much of interest here, whether or not they like Never Trumpers or agree with Saldin and Teles.
But Moyn is not serious about political strategy. He is serious about polemically scoring points against liberalism and in defending some conception of “democratic socialist” virtue.
He has nothing but contempt for the idea that any former Republicans might have learned from their own ideological illusions and past contempt for opponents, and might be serious about opposing Trumpism because they care about things like science or freedom of assembly, even if they don’t support Medicare for All.
He has similar contempt for the idea that the defense of liberal democracy is itself an important political task. He writes that “for Never Trumpers, a vote for Trump was a betrayal of democracy itself—not a judgment on policies that left many Americans scrambling to make ends meet and seeking refuge in a politics of rejection.” Read that again. If it sounds to you like Moyn has more sympathy for Trump supporters than Trump critics, and considers “a politics of rejection” more appealing than voting for Hillary, or for Biden—then you are probably right.
A lot has happened in the past four years, as Trump has taken a wrecking ball to American government. Even Noam Chomsky has come out strongly in support of Biden. But Moyn has remained steadfast. And just like in 2017, Moyn, considered by some to be an eminent historian of “human rights,” really has a problem with “tyrannophobia.” To put it more baldly, he can’t stand all of this talk about “tyranny” or “fascism” or “authoritarianism” or “the crisis of democracy.” He is too sophisticated a commentator to write about “base” and “superstructure.” But his bottom line is clear: liberal democracy is sham democracy, and the real struggle is the struggle between socialism and barbarism. Liberals might desire to “convert enemies into friends.” But Moyn will have no truck with such sentimentalism. For him it is important to choose a side in the class struggle, to uplift his “friends,” and to consider all others as “enemies” to be kept at bay. Leon Trotsky would be proud.
Meanwhile, serious democratic socialists are about the political business of actually doing the serious work of defeating a president, and a party, that is literally killing us with cruelty and indifference.
This week America’s Progressive Promise PAC, a group formed by Jeff Weaver and other former top officials of the Sanders campaign, dropped “Come Together,” a powerful 30 second ad for Joe Biden.
Beginning with the statement “Bernie Sanders endorses Joe Biden,” the ad features a voiceover of Sanders saying this: “Every person who voted for me and for the other candidates understands Donald Trump is the most dangerous president in the history of our country, and that it is absolutely imperative that we come together to defeat him — and defeat him badly . . . Joe Biden would be the most progressive president since FDR.” And it ends with these words: “Joe Biden for President.”
“Come together.” The meaning is clear: come together, now, to defeat Trump and elect Biden. Not “annoint Joe Biden.” Not “suspend all disagreements.” Not “forget your criticisms of capitalist inequality.” But rally together now, on behalf of one compelling and overriding common interest.
Weaver, who actually has rather stridently supported Sanders for years, explained clearly: “There are certainly policy differences between Senator Sanders and Vice President Biden, but as Bernie Sanders has made clear, we must all come together to defeat Donald Trump and elect Joe Biden. Those of us in the progressive movement will continue to push for transformative change after the election, but there won’t be any progress if Trump is re-elected.”
This seems like political good sense. The fact that the DNC just announced that both Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would be featured speakers at the upcoming convention would seem to confirm this. The fact that Biden just named Kamala Harris, an African-American woman, as his running mate would seem to confirm this. Now is the time to come together to defeat Trump.
Supporting a broad anti-Trump coalition does not mean ignoring important political differences that will surely be fought out, and worked out, in the future.
Welcoming the efforts, and the support, of “Never Trump” Republicans, does not mean celebrating their moral rectitude or embracing their policy positions or even liking them as people. It means welcoming their willingness to support a strong Democratic victory in November, and acknowledging, as I argued back in January, that while they have an agenda of their own, they are allies in the defense of democracy.
Do some of these people have more in common with Democratic centrists than with people farther to their right or to their left? Yes.
Might some of them move to the Democratic party and seek to influence it? Yes.
Is this nefarious? No. It is politics. Politics at a time of great instability and danger.
Back in January, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took some heat for observing that “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.” AOC is one of the savviest, and most compelling, politicians of our time. And her observation contains a kind of political science wisdom that eludes Moyn’s moralism about the Democrats.
Like Saldin and Teles, AOC understands that the U.S. has a distinctive party system; that both parties are unstable coalitions in some measure of flux; and that her role, as a serious progressive activist and elected official, is to work within the Democratic party to strengthen its progressive tendencies, with a realistic understanding that this is an uphill battle, and that under current conditions those with whom she contends are also her political compatriots. And so she agreed to co-chair Joe Biden’s Climate Task Force, and last month Tweeted support of its recommendations: “Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise. But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully & substantively improved Biden’s positions.” And so she has agreed to speak in prime time at next week’s Democratic national convention.
In the weeks to come, should we expect Bernie Sanders and AOC join hands with John Kasich and George Conway III and David Frum and sing Kumbaya? Of course not.
But we can be certain that they will not be focusing their criticism on these supporters of the campaign and the platform that they politically support and that they have had some role in advancing. Not now. After November 3 is another matter. In politics timing is everything. They know this, even if some of their benighted academic celebrants do not.
Trump and his Republican enablers are the enemy.
The enemies of this enemy may or may not be “friends.” But they are co-belligerents, and indeed allies.
Politics without alliances is sectarianism.
All who join in opposition to Trump’s attacks on health care and racial justice and peaceful protest and the legitimacy of the November election ought to be welcomed, now, as allies.
Democracy is on the ballot in November. And polemicizing now against Biden, liberals, or the Democratic party and its supporters, might be an effective form of sectarian virtue signaling, but it does not serve the cause of democracy.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. Editor in Chief of Perspectives on Politics, a flagship journal of the American Political Science Association, from 2009-2017. Author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One (2018), Professor Isaac has published in a range of public intellectual venues, including Public Seminar, Common Dreams, Dissent, the Nation, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Guardian.