For decades, I’ve learned about America by studying Poland, and used my American experience to understand Poland, and worked to contribute to sociological and political theory along the way. By studying Polish alternative theater in the 1970s, I came to appreciate the importance of constituting alternative spaces of free public life, what I later called “the politics of small things.”When I examined the culture and language of totalitarianism and the development of radical alternatives “beyond glasnost,” I developed an understanding of the dangers of the development in the United States of “the cynical society,” which in turn informed my understanding of the role of the intellectual in democratic society (both long established, such as the United States and newly established, such as in Poland), through the practices of “civility and subversion.” Back and forth I thought about the relationship between political power and culture, and the possibilities of “reinventing political culture” in my writing.
I am thinking about such reinvention once again as I read The End of the Liberal Mind.
While each chapter of this collection provides important perspective and commentary on “Poland’s new politics” (the subtitle), I am particularly impressed by the way the collection as a whole provides wise counsel about the ongoing struggle for democracy not only in Poland but beyond its borders. The authors are democrats of the left, right and center responding to the authoritarian ways of Poland’s ruling party, PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, Law and Justice Party). Their chapters illuminate the authoritarian threat in different ways, suggesting alternative solutions. Their differences, both analytical and political, constitute a rich democratic intellectual and political terrain. As the chapter findings reveal deep problems, the inquiries taken together are a significant basis for hope. And as I read the chapters, I found myself thinking not simply about Poland but about the political challenges in the United States
As in the United States, Poland is deeply polarized. Media reinforce this, as Maciej Gdula considers in his chapter. As in the United States, those in opposition to authoritarianism must critically appraise the deficiencies of their past positions, both as they have been unable to reach across the political divide and unable to unite in opposition to the escalating authoritarianism, and also as their past positions have not delivered on their promises. All the authors–Gdula, Jarosław Kuisz, Rafał Matyja, Stefan Sękowski, Jarosław Kuisz, Rafał Matyja, Stefan Sękowski, Tomasz Sawczuk and Karolina Wigura– critically consider the limits of liberalism. For them, these limits are revealed around the legacies of the great transformation of 1989.
The generational accent of the book is notable. The contributors all critically appraise the significance of the great transformation of ‘89 and its false, or at least unfulfilled, promises. They collectively argue that history did not end then. They came of age after the transformation, and it appears to them less as a miracle–as it did to me and my Polish friends and colleagues at the time– and more as a problem. The years following 1989 have seen a Poland that is the most democratic, most prosperous and most independent in its modern history. Poland stands out as the one European country that escaped the Great Recession following the 2008 financial crisis. Yet, there has been widespread discontent.
The authors explain this paradox. Far from being the end of history, 1989 marked the beginning of their history. A viable and legitimate state was not successfully constituted (Kuisz). The conflict among traditionalist liberals and more modern liberals metastasized (Matyja). PiS’s promised policy changes proved to be empty, while it attacked constitutional principles (Sękowski). There is a new form of authoritarianism, built in the new (global) media environment, using democratic rhetoric to justify anti-democratic action (Gdula). This authoritarianism, as it provides at least gestures of popular material support for the less affluent, has an identitarian agenda that appeals to a significant part of the population: radically conservative on social issues, fearful of ethnic, sexual and religious difference, anti-pluralist and nationalist (Sawczuk).
I found Karolina Wigura’s contribution to be especially persuasive. Her focus on the emotions as an explanation for the challenges to liberal democracy and as means to respond to them is cogent and meaningful for all democrats that face authoritarian threats. Her position amplifies the arguments of her colleagues.
Wigura believes that the dominant emotion in politics today is a sense of loss and that:
“Populists have thus far displayed enormous sensitivity to this rather vague emotion, successfully translating it into other, more concrete feelings: among them resentment, hatred, and fear, none of which, obviously, can find any support among liberals. My key argument is that the liberal reaction should not be to dampen emotions, but the contrary: to take this sense of loss seriously and translate it into other feelings that are more conducive to liberal democracy.”
When I read this passage written with Poland on Wigura’s mind, my mind turned to the initial political successes of President Joe Biden and his promise for the U.S. I also thought about my colleagues in the broader circles of the Democracy Seminar in Europe, in North and South America, Africa and Asia. Wigura’s Polish reflections suggested to me the broad significance of Joe Biden’s politics of empathy. And the way he is proceeding, it seems to me, addresses the problems raised by all the contributors to The End of the Liberal Mind.
Emotions are important, to be sure, but in politics they become significant when and how they are expressed in public. Biden and Trump both demonstrate this.
Donald Trump, as explained by his son Don Jr., has been understood by his enthusiastic working class supporters as a “blue collar billionaire,” and somehow this ridiculous formulation makes sense. All that has repulsed me in my deep blue American world, among my friends and relatives, has appealed to his enthusiastic base, those who have attended his mass rallies, those who have subscribed to the wild conspiracy theories that feature him as the hero in apocalyptic battles, and those who stormed the U.S. Capitol. By being crude and boorish, breaking all rules of decorum, demonizing all but his most loyal supporters (the real Americans), transgressing the rules and norms of governance and attacking the media, he has confirmed to his supporters that he is a regular guy and will fight for regular guys and gals.
Trump speaks to the emotional needs of his base. He appears to know the causes of their fears. He appears to know that the world has gone awry, against them, and he appears to authentically assure them that he can make America great again. Only he can fix things for them. They don’t believe in his specific programs, but they commit to him. There is a genuine Trump cult of personality that addresses the fears of his supporters. His Republican rivals were and continue to be no match against the cult, given the enthusiasm and commitment of his base.
Hillary Clinton didn’t sufficiently overcome this. But Joe Biden did.
Put simply, Biden won last November because he was the better candidate in the eyes of a significant majority of American voters. His victory wasn’t even particularly close, with seven million more votes and a clear electoral college majority of 306 to 232. He presented a better grasp of the problems America faces, clearer ideas about how to address these problems and an alternative to what many perceived as Trump’s madness. With Wigura in mind, we can summarize that the majority felt better about him.
But this feeling is predicated upon the expressive dimension of his politics and its substance. If Biden is to successfully govern and provide a democratic alternative to the dark authoritarian forces of Trumpism, he must work with this feeling to address the problems of liberalism highlighted by the other contributors to the volume. Because while the expressive dimension and emotional appeal are necessary to Biden’s and the Democrat’s political success, it will not be enough unless it can deliver real change that can be experienced by a majority of Americans.
Biden forged a broad democratic alternative to Trump’s authoritarianism. It has three components: (1) the overwhelming majority of Democrats, (2) the majority of independents and (3) a significant number of Republicans. Together this coalition voted him in and Trump out. He needs to keep Democrats united despite their differences, split as they are by tensions between so-called “progressives” and “pragmatists.” He needs to show independents and Republicans that he is presenting a broad democratic (small “d”) coalition to the cult of personality, and that he is open to working with people and movements of good will across the political spectrum. And he needs to show respect for his conservative political opponents, working and negotiating with them when he can, being civil towards them when he can’t. There must be a broad democratic coalition against authoritarianism, and shifting coalitions addressing the problems of our times, the pandemic and its economic and social consequences, climate change, the enduring legacies of slavery and the persistent problems of racism and white supremacy, gender and sexual injustice, gross economic inequality and much more.
Though shifting, the coalitions can be linked to each other. And with the emotional intelligence of Joe Biden, they very well may be. His ability to express empathy for those who suffer and for those who think differently than he does is a notable strength, much commented upon (see for example here, here and here). This seems to be exactly what the American public needs, presenting a stark alternative to his predecessor and enabling the kind of broad democratic action addressing the profound problems of our times.
I think this effort has broader significance, given that the kind of coalition politics he is forging is required to address the new worldwide authoritarian threat and the global dangers of the pandemic, climate change, gross economic inequalities and racial, ethnic, gender and sexual injustices. As I read about this book on “Poland’s new politics,” I thought about America’s new politics, and then thought about the new authoritarianisms and the struggle to oppose them around the world.
But “the end of the liberal mind?” On this I’m happily ambivalent.
The phrases “the end of the liberal mind,” and “the end of history” are ambiguous. And after I finished reading this collection, I have been pondering how these ambiguous phrases are related to the new politics of Poland, the U.S. and beyond. Kuisz, Matyja, Sękowski, Kuisz, Matyja, Sękowski, Gdula, Sawczuk and Wigura together, as they think about 1989, reject Francis Fukuyama’s notion that history ended with the end of the cold war, with the collapse of the Soviet empire. The notion of the transition from dictatorship to liberal democracy that animated Poland’s politics after 1989 was simplistic. The notion that the telos of Polish politics was or should be simply to become a normal society, a normal liberal democracy, with a Western European or North American form of capitalist economy, overlooked many complexities of Poland’s history, in the authors’ collective judgment. As important, it was insufficiently critical of liberalism’s limits.
How the contributors to this volume understand the limits varies. Their diverse understandings lead them to their different political concerns, ranging from the perennial Polish problem of the absence of a legitimate state, to deeply polarized society, to an ineffective political system, prone to inconsequential romantic gestures, to a purported authoritarian political culture. Their concerns lead to a plurality of different political judgments and commitments, revealed in the biographical sketches that follow their essays.
I see an irony here. While the book’s title can be taken to imply a termination, the book indeed signals an opening. For it enacts the kind of mutually respectful, pluralistic praxis that is both a goal, an end, of the liberal mind, and a means of defending and advancing liberal democracy in these dark times in Poland, the United States and beyond.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research @delibconsidered.