A Liberalism of Fear

From the Series: Crisis of Liberalism

Photo by Alfredo Gauro Ambrosi.

For more than a decade, I have been doing research with Venezuelan community media activists who were aligned with the late Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian revolutionary project. When I returned to Caracas in June 2015 to see how they were faring post-Chávez, I found that some of my key interlocutors were not giving up on their efforts to transform the Venezuelan state, despite a deepening political and economic crisis. One veteran activist in Caracas asked, “Why should we give up our claim on state resources? The right wing never will!” She insisted that the Venezuelan state was theirs to fight for.

In Caracas, I found among my informants a stubborn commitment to defending the gains of illiberal Bolivarianism and the utopian project of Venezuelan socialism. Despite the problems that my interlocutor—as well as her friends, family, and activist colleagues— faced, relinquishing the state to neoliberals made little sense to her.

This perspective stands in stark contrast to what I have heard back in New York. Among many American friends, family, and colleagues, I have observed a liberalism of fear that seeks to defend the United States and the world against Donald Trump’s proto-fascism. Liberals and many leftists advise: “Put aside your reservations and get on board with Hillary Clinton, or else the darkest of times are ahead.” This imperative is symptomatic of the most recent crisis of liberalism in the United States.

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In September 2015, Bernie Sanders called the late Hugo Chávez a “dead communist dictator.” Sanders’s need to denounce Chávez was not surprising. But his disparagement of Chávez as a dictator was remarkable, not only because it was inaccurate but also because, as Gabriel Hetland has written, Sanders and Chávez shared key political commitments to using the state to redistribute resources and in an attempt to create greater social equality. At the time of his comment, Sanders was making a unique, albeit surely limited, challenge to the American status quo. Despite many compromises over his long career, Sanders has never fully capitulated to the ideology of the market as a place of freedom. He has unabashedly embraced the state as an instrument for delivering health care and education.

Sanders’s need to be palatable to liberals encouraged him to draw a line between us—the good liberals— and liberalism’s others, those who don’t sufficiently value or understand freedom, toleration, or the threat of state power. Sanders thought he had to deny the complexity of political struggle in Venezuela to woo voters.

Despite Sanders’s best efforts, many saw him as unelectable. They feared he was advancing a fanciful politics that would precipitate massive state violence under a Trump presidency. “Get real,” many urged. “We like Bernie, but we all know he can’t win.” The imperative to be practical, a central plank of what Jed Purdy has called neoliberal realism, stifled Sanders’s campaign by “set[ting] and polic[ing] the boundaries of the possible while pretending to map them objectively.” Through their hostile rejection of Sanders and his supporters, leftist ideals and mass movements—rather than right-wing conservative politics—were framed as liberalism’s most despised antagonist.

The Clinton/Sanders primary struggle was a turning point that cleared the clutter and allowed us to see American liberalism’s latest crisis in full. A liberalism of fear became even more deeply entrenched. This kind of liberalism, as Corey Robin (2004) notes, first emerged in the post–Cold War period when liberals and many leftists concluded that grand utopist schemes to use the state or mass movements to reorganize social life for the better could only lead to violence. Embarrassed and demoralized, Robin argues, some liberals and leftists resigned themselves to defending the bare minimum of liberal principles: limited state power, rule of law, defense of freedom, and toleration.

This minimalist program—which easily accommodates privatization, extreme capitalist accumulation, and militarization—allows for the steady drift of the political center ever further to the right. Many deem a global politics of social justice too much to ask for and far too risky to promote.

For a realist liberal mind, Chávez’s (now Maduro’s) Venezuela is today’s Stalinist Soviet Union. Venezuela is certainly not alone on the list of liberalism’s others, but it provides particularly rich fodder—even for Sanders, who sought to renew liberalism by staking out a positive project of challenging business as usual. The press, politicians, and international governing bodies examine Venezuela’s ongoing troubles through a pinhole, cleanly disconnected from the global force of American liberal capitalism as it undergirds political and economic crisis, cautioning, “You see how utopian visions end up?”

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Months after Sanders’s repudiation of Chávez, a chorus of journalists and writers in prominent outlets like the New York Times, Guardian, Miami Herald, and Slate began to compare Trump to Chávez. They enumerated the ways that these two so-called strongmen are essentially the same: their informality, their direct appeals to supporters, and their savvy use of television. As John Pat Leary has suggested, writers invoke the racist trope of the strongman (caudillo) to telegraph that Trump represents a kind of cultural predisposition for authoritarianism that we are accustomed to seeing in primitive, illiberal places. These comparisons focus almost exclusively on authoritarian style. The politics of economic and racial justice and participatory democracy that Chávez represented to my informants and, in uneven ways, advanced, is completely evacuated from this equation, utterly denied as meaningful.

Where Sanders rejects any political affinity with Chávez to gain liberal credibility, liberal pundits aim to discredit Trump via comparisons to Chávez by denying that major political differences matter at all. There is only style, only personality, only the character you play on television. This is the evacuation of the politics of social justice and equality.

Once our liberalism of fear renders—as a kind of common sense—all other alternatives as the road to authoritarianism, Clinton’s brand of neoliberalism remains the only viable option. Many liberals and leftists feel that they have no choice but to cheer on a candidate whose long record reveals support for positions they abhor: unilateral intervention abroad, privatization, and protections for Wall Street. The alternatives, again, are worse.

The risks of refusing the “Clinton or else” narrative are real; a Trump presidency is a truly terrifying prospect. The risks of continuing to sanction the evacuation of a global social-justice politics are perhaps even greater.