The Liberal-Radical Relationship
The radical and the liberal suffer from opposite afflictions.*
The radical, taking her distance from the mainstream as a measure of her probity, hastens the isolating slide. Existing in a brutally unjust world, her marginality, she reasons, is prima facie proof of her rectitude; if proximity to the center is a proxy for determining one’s rightness, the further one’s position from the middle the better. Powerlessness, to her, is desirable—the hallowed halls are in fact irredeemably sullied, irreversibly tarnished. Occupying the fringe is a badge of honor, so engagement with those to one’s right is suspect. Purity-induced paralysis, the radical finds, is comforting in its uncontaminated inaction.
The liberal, viewing pragmatism as a cardinal virtue, habituated to holding political power, likes to think of himself as results oriented. The radical can keep her purity. His singular focus is on delivering concrete victories. He’s willing to “dirty his hands” to achieve legislative success. In fact, he relishes this selfless prioritization of incremental progress over the radical’s puerile purity. If the radical’s occasional crime is sanctimony, the liberal’s sin is sheepishness, more apt to defend decorum than animating principles. An upstanding member of the political consensus—he’s one to tinker, not transform—he consorts with conservatives more frequently than leftists. His Sister Soujah moment isn’t a passing occurrence but a recurring episode, a deftly wielded weapon among the most frequently deployed in his arsenal: “I’m worth paying attention to, to debating, unlike those loons on my left.” Often this vitriol has turned into outright repression. As documented in the indispensable The Liberals and J. Edgar Hoover, postwar liberals, mostly out of political expediency, gave the state free reign to rein in radicals—a role the center-left, from German social democrats to ADA liberals, have played with startling frequency.
The liberal’s realism is a curious one, however. Left to his own devices, he doesn’t merely narrow the scope of social change, but undermines his own political aims. Busy preening before his pragmatic mirror, he overlooks the vital role of the radical in securing liberal ends. So spooked of appearing “extreme,” so convinced that demanding a full liberal loaf would have him tossed out of the legislative bakery, he forecloses the forward march he claims to champion.
The utility of the radical, to the liberal, is 1) She makes the unabashed liberal position seem moderate by comparison. This expansion of the Overton window opens up space to his left, giving liberals a better shot at realizing their ideals. Think 1930s radicalism serving, often unwittingly, as a propellant for the New Deal. 2) She anchors liberalism, tempering the natural tendency of its proponents to drift to the center. Unmoored and under attack, the liberal is wont to seek out safer pastures—and quickly finds himself apologizing for policies he previously declared anathema. In sum, radicals push liberals in periods of left potency and beckon them back in times of conservative dominance.
Over the last few decades, the lack of a sizable radical flank has been catastrophic: liberal victories reversed, labor decimated, a revanchist right emboldened. All predictable outcomes of a left without a genuine Left. Yet liberals have remained stubbornly unlettered in the precipitants of social change. They haven’t learned from their postwar myopia when, either overcome with delusions of omnipotence or consumed with contempt for radicals, they purged CIO only to discover that, absent a radical wing, business had little reason to bargain with labor and all the reason to bludgeon it.
The liberal’s incorrigible love for conciliatiation— to the detriment of their presumed principles—has again been on display throughout the immigration reform debate, especially since nativist House Republicans have dug in their heels. In an editorial earlier this month, the New York Times, that custodian of American liberalism, appealed to Republican “party leaders and moderates” to “push back against Tea Party no-dealers and hard-core members, like Steve King of Iowa, who want to kill any bill that allows undocumented immigrants to become Americans.” It was quintessential grand-bargain liberalism: appealing for sanity, lionizing compromise. Left unexamined was the malodorous state of the Senate bill, a militaristic, xenophobic, private prison-augmenting piece of legislation that should affront liberals and radicals alike. Critiques from the left exist, but they haven’t counterbalanced reactionary intransigence. With Republicans elites almost universally supportive of immigration reform, liberals should have been in a strong bargaining position. Instead they’re championing a bill whose “liberal” component is a “path to citizenship” in name only.
So the question for liberals, on immigration and every other issue, is whether sustaining the current consensus or burnishing their consensus credentials is more important than advancing liberal ends. For the realistic radical, it’s whether liberal gains should be disregarded, or expanded, extended, and pushed in a radical direction. Whether the liberal is someone to simply scorn, or to try to radicalize. I’m of the same opinion as Michael Harrington, who said in the early 70s,“It ill-behooves the radical to denounce the liberal, because the liberal is either going to be the radical of the future, or there will be no radicalism to think about in any serious way.”
The relationship between radicals and liberals is always going to be acrimonious and strained and tension-filled. But if the left is smart, it’s also symbiotic.
*Generalizations, sure, but I think astute observers will see more than a modicum of truth in them.