Staring Into the Abyss


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April 25, 2022

Staring Into the Abyss

Reflections on the value of alliances for supporters of democracy and their enemies

  • allies
  • coalitions
  • Liberal Democracy
  • Social justice
  • Todd Gitlin
  • Trumpism
  • Ukraine
  • war
"Serious Discussion" - sculpture by Tejosh Halder - Faculty of Fine Arts - University of Dhaka - Dhaka Bangladesh. Photo by Biswarup Ganguly. Source: WikiCommons.
“Serious Discussion” – sculpture by Tejosh Halder – Faculty of Fine Arts – University of Dhaka – Dhaka Bangladesh. Photo by Biswarup Ganguly. Source: WikiCommons.

Abyss: The great deep or bottomless gulf believed in old cosmogonies to lie beneath the earth; the infernal pit, the abode of the dead, hell. figurative. An extremity of some condition or quality (usually a negative one); a condition from which recovery is impossible or unlikely.

–from the Oxford English Dictionary

A few weeks ago, I was embroiled in some pretty heated controversies, enacted on Facebook, about that most widely-discussed event in recent American cultural life: actor Will Smith’s blow to the face of comedian Chris Rock on the stage of the Academy Awards ceremony, an event that has come to be known as “The Slap.”

Having expressed incredulity and revulsion at Smith’s act, I found myself arguing with many people who I like and respect about whether I sufficiently understood the racial meanings of the episode and whether as “a cis-White man” I was even entitled to articulate a strong opinion. Many friends lined up on my “side,” and others lined up against this “side.” Each “side” was somewhat diverse, and people on each could cite well-known Black commentators to support their view.

I spoke, I listened, I insisted, I received public and private remonstrances. The entire episode took place among my Facebook friends, people with whom I share much in common.

At some point it became clear to me that I was rehearsing a set of arguments articulated most powerfully in a book by my late friend Todd Gitlin that was published over a quarter-century ago: The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked By Culture Wars. When that book came out, I criticized it for being too harsh towards various forms of so-called “identity politics” and too simplistic about the possibility of recovering “common dreams.” I argued that it was naïve to imagine that post-sixties “culture wars” could easily be surmounted, and that these conflicts had opened up fractures within liberalism that were irreparable. I don’t regret my criticisms. At the same time, the world has changed since then, and so have I. I continue to believe that a certain kind of liberal critique of “identity politics” is very wrong in its easy dismissal of “identity” claims—I have in mind here not Todd’s argument, but the argument advanced by Mark Lilla in his 2017 The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, a book I harshly reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

At the same time, many recent events– including major attacks on liberalism from the right, and comparatively minor but still troubling attacks from the so-called “Woke” left—have convinced me that Todd’s book was prescient and that there is even a grain of truth in Lilla’s book. In short, if all of us who care about the future of liberal democracy, social justice, public education, and the fate of the world do not work much harder to resist secondary divisions (or at least divisions that we can render secondary if we choose to) and to create real coalitions, then we will simply help to fuel Trumpism as it destroys us and what we most value.

In what follows I will expand on this theme. First, by reflecting briefly on “The Slap,” I will explain why I think bridge-building in defense of liberal democracy is so important, especially at this moment of peril. I will then turn to a different kind of bridge-building: the “red-brown” alliance against “liberalism” represented by the newly-established political journal called Compact, and especially by the Open Letter published there on March 31 under the title of “Away From The Abyss.” The point of the comparison is a simple one: those of us who believe that the defense and deepening of liberal democracy is a pressing political task before us need to pay attention not only to the challenges associated with our own bridge-building, but with the challenges associated with those who, for different reasons to be sure, have disdain for our efforts, and are quite pleased to see them fail.

1. Rethinking “The Slap”: The Importance of Agonistic Respect Among Allies 

I regret my part in some of the acrimony connected to discussion of “the Slap.” I became caught up very quickly, with the help of Facebook, in some arguments that really did not need to happen, especially since the immediate topic at hand—what to make of “The Slap?”—was a matter of no practical consequence whatsoever. At the same time, I do not regret my refusal to defer to the understandable but also dangerous logic of “White people ought to think hard before they speak about us.” This logic is understandable, for many of those in the “us” so referenced, i.e., Black Americans, have long been marginalized, and of course their voices should be welcomed and their perspectives listened to and understood. 

But the demand for deference is also dangerous in a few ways. Because no “us” speaks with a single voice, but also because saying that public violence performed by celebrities is wrong is not a statement about anyone but the celebrities in question. It is probably wrong to read into such statements any general observations about race. And it is definitely wrong to say to anyone who is not an actual enemy or a threat that they have no real right to speak and be heard. Because there are many subject positions from which people can speak about the things that matter to them. And because it is unwise to treat people who are not enemies but allies as if they are antagonists to be put in their place or silenced, however gently they are invited to step to the back of the line (and while I surely think there are times to make way for people at the front, I think there is no time when anyone ought to be told they belong in the back).

My point is a simple one: we all ought to work harder to work together about the things that matter.

This involves a willingness to listen better. It also involves a willingness to avoid treating differences of opinion as mortal wounds or offenses to deep identity connections, and a determination to prevent our own inner wounds—and we all have inner wounds—from fueling increasingly acrimonious conflict (and to be clear, I am a human, which means I have inner wounds that lead me to never be quiet when I am told to hush up, and I can sometimes do a better job in such situations). 

Part of what motivated my interventions was a very real and very strong disagreement with a New York Times commentary by Roxanne Gay, who insisted that some people, most notably Black people, should embrace their “thin skins,” should feel comfortable taking offense, and indeed should resent being expected to ever constrain their sense of grievance. 

To be clear, Ms. Gay is an acclaimed writer, she speaks from an experience different from—though no “better” than—my own, and she ought to be treated with respect and her voice welcomed. (Indeed, it is worth noting that she writes regularly for the New York Times, while I hold forth on my private blog and my Facebook feed; I do believe her voice is being welcomed, and to the extent that this is not true, I am alas without any power at the major media outlets and cannot be held responsible.) 

Further, I would wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Gay if she were writing in her piece about lynching, or Republican voter restrictions, or police killings like the murder of George Floyd, or the vile mistreatment of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson by Republican Senators during her SCOTUS confirmation hearings. Indeed, I too am offended by those things, because I am a fellow citizen of Black American citizens and because I am a citizen myself who strongly believes in democracy and equality. To say this is not to deny the specific power of Ms. Gay’s experiences as the Black woman that she is. But neither is it to deny the power of my experiences, which in this case converge with and support hers.

But Ms. Gay’s argument was not about egregious instances of racial injustice. It was occasioned by “The Slap,” and she seemed to be saying that Will Smith was somehow acting on behalf of all Black people who objected to the mistreatment of Judge Brown (and indeed of all Black women) when he smacked Chris Rock, and also seemed to be saying that White people who didn’t appreciate this were also committing a kind of racism, and just as Smith’s taking offense at Rock was a blow against racism, taking offense at white critics of Smith was also a justified form of anti-racism.

This is what she seemed to say to me. Perhaps I misread her. Like all texts, her essay was subject to different readings. 

Regardless of what she intended to say, I am saying this: taking offense, and offending, are both essential to robust democratic politics. But so too is a certain “thickness of skin” capable of absorbing some of the pain one can feel, and protecting some of the vital force one must contain, if one is to enter the public realm and participate in the pluralistic, and agonistic, politics that is democracy. The political theorist William Connolly long ago referred to this as an ethic of “agonistic respect.” I have long argued that such an ethic is crucial, especially for those who are serious about democracy at a time when we face real political enemies.

I believe that a proper balance between defending oneself—always legitimate– and being on the defensive is especially important now, because liberal democracy, imperfect as it is, is now in danger in a way not seen since the 1930’s. In jeopardy are some very important things that are widely valued by many of us, including voting rights, relatively free and fair elections, civil rights enforcement, and public education itself. It is thus very important now to be able to distinguish between levels of discomfort, and to be able to discern when it is possible to make common cause, especially in situations where such common cause might seem unlikely and might once have been unimaginable.

Or so I think. And so I’m saying, with no coercive force beyond the rhetorical force of my words.

2. Coming Together for Liberal Democracy, Not Against It

It is with this sentiment in mind that back in November of 2021 I worked, along with Todd Gitlin, my friend and ideological compatriot, and Bill Kristol, a veritable stranger and longtime ideological adversary, to craft an “Open Letter in Defense of Democracy.” The 48 writers, journalists, and public intellectuals who signed the “Letter” disagreed about many things, as the “Letter” itself noted. But at a moment of serious decision, and amidst a generalized crisis of liberal democracy, they came together to focus attention on an important point of agreement: the need to defend democracy from the efforts of right-wing authoritarians and Trumpists to weaken and to undermine it. We strove to bring together people from “left” and “right,” from Noam Chomsky to Max Boot, and we deliberately chose to publish the Letter simultaneously in both the liberal New Republic and the formerly-conservative The Bulwark. We attempted to include a wide range of people across the demographic spectrum. Jelani Cobb, Randall Kennedy, John McWhorter, Nell Irvin Painter, Adolph Reed, and Dorian Warren all signed the letter. The members of this diverse group of distinguished Black intellectuals have long publicly disagreed about many important issues. We can be certain that among them there was also a range of opinions about “The Slap.” 

But everyone who signed the “Letter” was by this simple act committing themselves to a simple proposition: that at this moment and for this matter it is our commonalities rather than our differences that must come to the fore. This was a choice. No one was pressured to sign. And no one was expected to commit themselves to denying or suppressing differences of experience and opinion that are in other ways important. The signatories were simply invited to come together, publicly, behind democracy, in part because it seemed pretty obvious that democracy was the best institutional framework for our very real differences to be worked out short of civil war.

Such alliances have always been central to democratic politics, whether they be undertaken by organizations or by relatively freely floating “intellectuals.” They are fragile and difficult to maintain. The tendency to revert back to sometimes bitter arguments about disagreements that really matter may be inevitable and may even sometimes be productive. But such arguments can also easily get out of hand, and thereby stand in the way of important work that can only be done together.

How to proceed? Anyone who claims to have a blueprint, or who presumes to hold forth from on high about the special virtuousness of their own choices, is deluding themselves. That kind of hubris has done too much harm, especially in the last century, and those of us who have experienced this harm, or who have studied it, do the world a favor by keeping those historical memories and their lessons alive.

I regard the alliance behind that “Open Letter in Defense of Democracy” as a good thing, in part because of the range of others—some familiar, some strange, some friends, some adversaries—who joined in. It mattered to me that some prominent people significantly to my “left,” including Noam Chomsky and Adolph Reed, were willing to sign on. It mattered that others to my “right” joined as well.

At the same time, some of those on the right who participated were supporters of things I have strongly opposed and/or consider truly and deeply wrong. Bill Kristol and those of his colleagues at The Bulwark who also signed the “Letter” are prominent (former?) neoconservatives who cut their political teeth during the Reagan years, came of age during the first Bush administration, and played an important role in George W. Bush’s (SCOTUS-decided) 2000 victory and Bush’s Iraq War. I believe that many of these people, including my friend Bill, helped to lay the foundation for the current, Trumpist, Republican party that they now rightly decry—and with a passion and focus that I consider indispensable right now. They are responsible, indeed in some sense culpable, for those earlier involvements and the current consequences of those involvements. At the same time, I do not believe their actions then were “evil,” that they are now “beyond the pale,” or that their past actions disqualify them from acting with integrity now. 

If I thought they were “Nazis” or even merely “war criminals,” even if repentant ones, it would be hard for me to justify associating with them in defense of liberal democracy, because I would not believe they cared about democracy, and because I would consider it morally wrong for me to make light of their “crimes” or to lend them any credibility. But while the “war criminal” rhetoric may have a certain point for some seeking to emphasize the injustice and destructiveness of that war, I do not believe they are “war criminals” any more than I think the many Democrats–including some so-called “liberal hawks” and even some members of the Dissent editorial board– who supported the war were “war criminals.” Indeed, while I now see the Iraq war as in almost every way a terrible thing, I was not an outspoken opponent at the time, and in my only published piece on the topic, in the Summer 2003 Dissent, I expressed ambivalence. Am I a “war criminal” too?

I believe we are all responsible for our moral and political judgments, and especially when they turn out to have been mistaken or harmful—and it is typically only after the fact that it is possible to determine this. And in my opinion, it is for those who made serious moral and political mistakes supporting the Iraq war to reckon with them, and to reckon with the consequences of those mistakes, which include their own current political homelessness, the disrepute in which some hold them, and the harsh judgments already recorded by many historians. I judge them responsible for their pasts, as I am for mine. At the same time, we are not stuck in time. And I judge them worth joining with now, because the situation is grave, and they are saying and doing the right things in the face of the danger we now face together. 

One of the most important sections of Hannah Arendt’s classic The Human Condition is the discussion of “irreversibility and the power to forgive.” Arendt argues that precisely because our actions necessarily elude our intentions and escape us in ways we can never anticipate– and yet we cannot retrieve actions once done–it is important for us to be able to politically let go of certain kinds of past wrong. For the alternative is a never-ending cycle of recrimination and injury. To be sure, Arendt does not treat forgiveness as a categorical imperative. Neither does she treat it as an act of beneficence freely bestowed by those who are injured on those who harmed them. It is, rather, a form of political prudence all too often foresworn out of a misplaced sense of righteous indignation.

Furthermore, she allows that there is an alternative to forgiveness that is often situationally required–punishment. Arendt says too little about this, as she does about so many of the provocative comments that she offers her readers. But her political point here seems pretty clear: a principal political virtue is the ability to discern when one is dealing with genuine criminals or enemies and when one is dealing with opponents, or even former enemies, who are now simply adversaries and perhaps even allies. Being stuck on the misdeeds of the past is a recipe for a kind of vindictiveness that inhibits the ability to move forward. Or, as Arendt put it, “forgiving . . . is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew.”

The above comments represent some effort to “think what I am doing” (Arendt) in my recent efforts to generate forms of mutual trust, and collaboration, between once and future political adversaries, left, right, and center, who now work together to critique Trumpism and its global allies, and to defend the institutions and principles of liberal democracy.

But it is not only friends of liberal democracy who now seem drawn to cross-ideological collaboration. And the newly-formed journal Compact is a case in point.

While the formation of this journal has received much journalistic attention, I only learned of its existence when the Open Letter entitled “Away From The Abyss” crossed my Facebook feed. The Letter is an intervention in current arguments about the proper forms of response to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. From the Letters’ opening paragraph, it makes clear that it is the response, and not the invasion itself, that most concerns the signatories:

Leading interventionists in the United States and Europe are goading the West into an abyss of war and suffering, from which there can be no easy return. We, the undersigned, inhabit a wide range of political opinions and disagree about many things. But on this one urgent point, we speak as one: the crisis created by Russia’s war on Ukraine demands de-escalation, not imperial aggrandizement and schemes of regime change.”

The second paragraph strikes a similar rhetorical tone, noting that “Russia’s wrongful invasion of Ukraine has the potential to spark a wider European conflict . . . Yet too many in the West pursue escalation.” 

The entire piece articulates a tone of feigned moderation, never excusing the invasion, always cautioning against “escalation,” never actually stating who is responsible for the “imperial aggrandizement and schemes of regime change,” but making pretty clear that the real danger is NATO—which is by implication responsible for the entire situation. Reversing the Russian invasion is not addressed as a possibility. And indeed, it is not hard to notice the affinities between the letter’s view of NATO and the West, and the rhetoric of Putin himself, who has long justified his authoritarian regime as a “defense” against “Western democracy promotion” and has justified his seizures of Crimea and the Donbas as efforts to “prevent Western encroachment.” Claiming concern for the people of Ukraine–who seem pretty strongly united in their determination to defend their country from a brutal invasion, and could do without such concern–the signers of the Letter criticize sanctions, arms transfers, military support, and any form of ideological opposition to Putinism.

A generous interpretation of the letter is that it is trying to introduce caution into a perilous situation in which there is a danger of escalation and even of nuclear war—a danger that is very real. But there are reasons to resist such a generous interpretation. One is the way the entire letter is rhetorically framed as a critique of “the West” at a time that it is Russia that is laying waste to Ukraine. But the second relates less to the content of the letter than to its signers and the broader context of its publication.

There are 33 signers. The first one is Sohrab Ahmari, one of Compact’s founders, the author most recently of an American Conservative piece entitled “J.D. Vance, You’re Hired,” which argues that “Former President Donald Trump made the most courageous decision of his post-presidency so far by endorsing J.D. Vance . . . an authentic representative of America’s populist tradition.” Next on the list is Helen Andrews, the editor of said American Conservative, a journal that has published a consistent thread of articles defending Trumpism and arguing that January 6 is simply “our ruling class’s favorite talking point.”

But it is the third signer that took my breath away—Michael Anton. Anton, as is well known, was the author the notorious 2016 essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” that presented Donald Trump as the rescuer storming the “cockpit” of the republic in order to defend America against a hostile takeover by Hillary Clinton and the terrorist Democrats. He is also the author of a number of 2020 pieces in the fatuously entitled American Mind that laid the rhetorical foundations for Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign and for the January 6 insurrection itself. Among the Claremont Institute crowd, there is probably no one more responsible than Anton for promoting the idea that the Democratic election victory was a coup. Michael Anton the voice of restraint and civil amity?

The signatories of “Away From The Abyss” consist mainly of far-right ideologists, such as Patrick Deneen—celebrant of Orban and of Russian anti-liberalism–Daniel J. Mahoney, Gladden Pippin, and Christopher Rufo, the ”writer and activist” almost single-handedly responsible for organizing a national campaign of lies about the takeover of American public schools by “critical race theory.” But there is also a smattering of people typically associated with the “left,” including Vivek Chibber, Freddie DeBoer, Tucker Carlson-admiring Glenn Greenwald and, most notably, Samuel Moyn. The signatories ought to be taken at their word: while they may disagree on many things, they share a common hostility to “imperial aggrandizement and schemes of regime change” that is, in fact, a common hostility to liberal internationalism, and indeed to liberal democracy itself.

Compact’s mission statement makes clear that it is a journal committed to opposing liberalism, supposedly in the name of “liberality,” and that it represents a challenge to the “overclass that controls government, culture, and capital” (along with “deep state,” “overclass” is a rhetorical staple of the far-right). The actual force of these commitments is rendered explicit in founding-editor Sohrab Amari’s inaugural essay, “The Return of the Hawks.” Like the Open Letter, this piece rails against any form of liberal internationalism, bemoaning that the response of many in the West to the invasion of Ukraine represents what Amari cynically calls “springtime for the democracy export industry.” Unlike the Open Letter, the piece is not limited to foreign policy cliches.

Denouncing the human rights rhetoric of what he calls “Democracy, Inc.,” Amari notes that

“This all sounds innocuous until you realize that by ‘democracy,’ Democracy, Inc. means the liberal imperium, at home and abroad. And ‘authoritarianism’ refers to Trumpism and similar ballot-box movements across the Atlantic channeling popular discontent with the imperium.”

Amari is clear: for him, and for the journal he has founded, it is “Western imperium” that is the danger, and Trumpism and “similar ballot-box movements”—Marine Le Pen’s National Rally? Viktor Orban’s Fidesz? Perhaps even Vladimir Putin’s plebiscitarian Presidency?—that represents the “popular” solution.

It is not a reach to believe that a similar sensibility led the handful of “left” intellectuals to sign on to the Letter (while Slavoj Zizek’s name is curiously absent from the list of signatories, he has gone even further, by apparently agreeing to serve as a Compact “Contributing Editor”). One dimension of this is an outrage at the very real hypocrisies of U.S. foreign policy and of liberal human rights activism more generally, hypocrisies that are very real and sometimes truly harmful (though, as I argued back in Social Research in 2002, with reference to Kosovo, I do not think that hypocrisy is a form of evil nor do I consider its exposure to be a form of civic virtue). 

But the other is a spiteful hostility toward the very effort to defend liberal democracy in the face of the so-called “ballot-box movements” referenced above. In this regard Yale legal scholar Samuel Moyn is unsurpassed.

Back in 2017, roughly six months into Trump’s presidency, Moyn co-authored a widely discussed New York Times op-ed entitled “Trump Isn’t a Threat to Our Democracy. Hysteria Is.” U.S. intellectuals, he argued, were suffering from a debilitating malady: “tyrannophobia,” defined as “the belief that the overwhelmingly important political issue is the threat to our liberal freedoms and institutions.” To the contrary, Moyn and his colleague David Priestland argued, the dangers posed by Trump “are empty or easily contained.” While liberals may fear Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric and his hostility towards all critics and political opponents, “there is no real evidence that Mr. Trump wants to seize power unconstitutionally, and there is no reason to think he could succeed.” Far from being a threat to constitutional democracy, Trump is in fact a product of this very system. And so instead of an “excessive focus on liberal fundamentals, like basic freedoms or the rule of law,” it is necessary to focus on “underlying social and economic problems.” The problem, in short, is not Trump, but capitalism. “A dysfunctional economy, not lurking tyranny, is what needs attention.”

Moyn continued to toe this line through the November 2020 election and even in its aftermath. On November 9 he went so far as to publish a New York Review of Books essay perversely entitled “How Trump Won,” arguing that “Trump is leaving the stage not with a bang but with a whimper.” The object of Moyn’s ire was not Trump but those damned people on the democratic left who feared how might not accept the results of the election, and that he might continue to do real damage to even a semblance of constitutional democracy. He thus maintained that what was most remarkable was how flimsy Trump’s presidency was, how easily he was obstructed and stalled. . . American democracy was never under systemic threat from so fickle and hamstrung a wannabe authoritarian,” and that Trump “was often blocked, or was not interested in treading where they feared, even before his parodic attempt to steal the election that did not even get off the ground.”

Many of Moyn’s criticisms of liberal democracy are good ones. The states that fall under the rubric of “liberal democracy” are characterized by much injustice and corruption, and their claim to promote human rights in the world are often empty or worse. But the imperfections of liberal democracy have long been well understood by many critics who are yet not ready to “throw out” the proverbial “baby with the bathwater” (I explored this issues in a 2018 Dissent essay on “Putting Liberal Democracy First”).

And Moyn’s valid criticisms are always overwhelmed by his anathema to liberalism. His very recent piece, “How to Stop a New Cold War,” is a good example. Moyn rightly challenges an overly melodramatic framing of the current war in Ukraine, arguing that “among western politicians, policymakers and pundits, a Cold War dichotomy—lionising ourselves as free and the rest of the world as unfree—has summoned the spectre of a singular autocratic enemy.”

But it is one thing to insist that “a multipolar world is coming no matter what the west does,” and that more attention ought to be paid to the politics of creating a more just global order. And it is another to issue blanket denunciations of the Western response to Putin’s invasion as “frenzied,” bellicose, and a cover for “our own constant violence and market unfairness.” Moyn himself notes that “Putin’s war has rained destruction and terror on Ukraine and its people.” But he focuses his outrage not on “Putin’s war” but on the response to it that has been undertaken in solidarity with Ukraine and its people. And he writes as if more attention to a “Green New Deal” or the U.S. minimum wage would have anything to do with the need to support the defense of Ukraine right now.

What most concerns Moyn is that “Putin provides a convenient external scapegoat—useful to those who insist that democracies must rouse themselves to the defence of the idea of democracy itself, and who refuse to accept that many citizens no longer feel it deserves their support.” And returning to his bete noire, the liberal democratic fear of Trumpism, he claims that: “Instead of diagnosing what had gone wrong to incite millions of our fellow citizens to back such causes, it was easier to pretend that democracy was on the brink and its enemies were teeming not only abroad, but also at home. For five years, abetted by the frightening ‘insurrection’ at the US Capitol on 6th January 2021, fears that democracy would fall have swept the governing class. The truth is, of course, that democracy has always been beleaguered, compromised and partial.”

“Pretend.” “Insurrection” in scare quotes. “The governing class.”

With these words, Moyn makes clear how he has come to join with Amari, Anton, and their colleagues at the far-right Claremont Institute in signing onto Compact’s Open Letter. For the letter is much more than a foreign policy document. And it does much more than criticize efforts to aid a Ukrainian government, and its people, fighting against the destruction, conquest, and occupation of their country. It announces nothing less than a new alliance of “national conservatives” and self-appointed paragons of leftist virtue against liberal democracy and those who are now trying to defend it. 

It is one thing to criticize liberal democratic hypocrisy or to advocate for greater social justice. It is something else entirely to align with longtime supporters of Trumpism, propagandists of the January 6 insurrection, proponents of conspiracy theories about “CRT” and “Antifa,” and advocates of immigrant restriction and Christian nationalism.

It is one thing to raise questions about U.S. foreign policy and global governance. But it is something else entirely to join together with people who celebrate the anti-liberalism of Viktor Orban and until yesterday praised Putin and who regard the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity to score debating points with liberal internationalists rather than as the atrocity that it is.

Writing in 1940 about the tendency of many on the left to be so relentlessly critical of “bourgeois democracy” that they failed to see the danger of totalitarianism, George Orwell wrote: “For two hundred years we sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on. And in the end, much more suddenly than anyone had foreseen, our efforts were rewarded, and down we came. But unfortunately there had been a little mistake. The thing at the bottom was not a bed of roses after all, it was a cesspool full of barbed wire.”

The signers of “Away From The Abyss” claim that they seek to warn us away from “an abyss of war and suffering, from which there can be no easy return.” And they claim that they “inhabit a wide range of political opinions and disagree about many things,” agreeing only on the danger of Western “imperial aggrandizement.” But it is not only their opposition to the opposition to the Russian invasion that joins them. It is their seemingly bottomless contempt for the very idea that liberal democracy is worth defending, a contempt both abyssal and abysmal.

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.


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