The Politics of Petulance: A Spirited Defense of “Mature Liberalism”

By Wade Lee Hudson

The Politics of Immaturity: America in an Age of Immaturity
Alan Wolfe
University of Chicago Press, 2016  

Donald Trump is another Joe McCarthy. So says Alan Wolfe in The Politics of Immaturity: America in an Age of Immaturity. Wolfe’s passionate, eloquent affirmation of “mature liberalism” is not uncritical of post-war liberals who challenged McCarthyism. But Wolfe urges us to remember “what they got right.”

Trump loved McCarthy’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, who was “notoriously malicious” and practised “the dark arts of American politics.” They became close friends and Cohn greatly influenced Trump.  When James Comey and Jeff Sessions frustrated Trump, he famously declared, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” His link to Cohn was more than personal. They shared the same worldview: demagoguery. Trumpism parallels McCarthyism .

Concerning many of the liberals who criticized McCarthyism and the radical right that emerged from it, Wolfe acknowledges:

Their rightful hostility toward the Soviet Union translated itself into a rigid anti-communism that became, for some, an ideology unto itself. Seeing fascism in unexpected places, they exaggerated the dangers posed by both the student movements and the black protest of the 1960s. Equality for women was the furthest thing from their minds…. Indeed, most of them, with the exception of Richard Wright and Reinhold Niebuhr, seemed to have not all that much interest in the question of race at all…. There may have been an antidemocratic tinge….

Nevertheless, Wolfe insists

for all their flaws, these thinkers stand redeemed today because they brought both the classical and the Enlightenment understandings of politics back to life and thereby offered a starting point for trying to understand why Americans, who profess to love democracy and freedom, elected as their president in 2016 a man and a party that seemed to respect neither….

One could dismiss or even attack their positions so long as American politics showed some signs of stability. Alas, such complacency, given the right-wing demagoguery shaking both the world and this country, is no longer affordable…. That is why, despite their occasional blind spots, it makes sense to return to what these intellectuals had to say…. If Trump’s accession to the presidency does not cause intense introspection, nothing can. It is, furthermore, not an explanation of one rogue election we need. It is a discussion of what kind of nation we have become.

Wolfe recounts Americans’ periodic vulnerability to demagogues—politicians who appeal “to people’s unreflective emotions and rely on a simplistic worldview to win and hold office by any means necessary.” Wolfe considers demagoguery to be “a near-perfect expression of what I am calling the politics of petulance.”

Like a snake oil salesman, the demagogue discovers the susceptibility of the people to nostrums of relief designed to distract them from the real causes of their worries. In the demagogue’s world, emotions take precedence over facts, remedies are hastily assembled, policies are promoted irrespective of their consequences, enemies are identified, scores are settled, crimes become common, distractions are offered, and when none of these remedies seem to work, as they invariably do not, the leader and the people, joined together in mutual frustration, lash out like six-year-olds at a world beyond their ability to comprehend.

The extensive study of demagoguery undertaken by many scholars reveals that “a well-functioning political system requires an ability to say no to unfiltered desires.” But with Joe McCarthy and the Goldwater right, “their impulsivity, their search for scapegoats, their simplicity, and above all else their irredeemable petulance—all reveal an approach to politics lacking in personal and political growth.”

Aristotle and others after him wrote about the dangers posed by demagogues. The American Founders studied those writers when they established their system of “checks and balances,” which guarded against that threat. But Joe McCarthy offered “living proof” that the threat was still real.

The McCarthy period and the radical right posed a fundamental challenge to those whose business it was to understand America…. Richard Hofstadter’s [The Age of Reform (1955); Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963),The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964)] search for an explanation of the historical roots of the frenzy that characterized American politics during the 1950s and 1960s…remains essential reading to us today….  If there is any key to understanding just how Donald Trump became our president, it can be found among the ideas of Hofstadter and his friends, colleagues, and contemporaries.

These writers, including Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm, Daniel Bell, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, Diana and Lionel Trilling, Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Wright, David Riesman, Seymour Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer, and Arthur Schelsinger, Jr. possessed “a respect for concrete data, a concern for the everyday lives of ordinary citizens, and a facility with the English language that could at times produce gripping prose.”

But now

our top universities, preoccupied with the training of specialized graduate students, no longer make much room for broadly educated public intellectuals….. [Our] deeply divided country has produced deeply divided thinkers, no longer able or willing to respect those on the other side. When McCarthy attacked, first-class intellectuals were there to respond. When Trump assumed power, although many newspaper columnists have much to say, academic forces can barely make themselves heard—or did not want to be heard…. The “thought leaders” of today…flourish in age of TED Talks, PowerPoint, and global consulting. Rather than write broadly about many issues, they concentrate on one or two, hammering their message home in a series of books, many co-authored, and YouTube appearances. They seem always to be attending a conference somewhere and are often featured, dressed to the nines, in the latest issue of The Economist or the New York Times magazine…. Ideas have never been more present in American life. Whether they are deep ones is another question.

Sixties radicals strongly criticized post-war liberals for not distinguishing between affluent right-wingers who opposed the New Deal and small farmers and wage earners who struggled to survive. Wolfe supports that criticism. He agrees with Alfred Kazin’s belief that “whatever their flaws…movements on behalf of social justice make the world a better place.” Wolfe considers that conviction “a truth that the post-war political intellectuals, always wary of extremists, had, to their discredit, neglected.”

But Richard Nixon, his “Southern Strategy,” George Wallace, Patrick Buchanan, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump have demonstrated that the post-war liberals

knew something about the dangers to democracy posed by charlatans claiming to be speaking in the name of the people…. McCarthy and the new right…grew so far and so fast because there was an insufficient number of grown-ups around to put a stop to their antics.

Many of these liberals focused on the notion of “maturity.” Lionel Trilling, for example, wrote:

A society is a modern society when it maintains a condition of repose, confidence, free activity of the mind, and tolerance for divergent views. A society is modern when it affords sufficient well-being for the convenience of life and the development of taste.  And, finally, a society is modern when its members are intellectually mature,… willing to judge by reason, to observe facts in a critical spirit, and to search for the law of things.

The post-war liberal analysis of the reasons for right-wing demagoguery remains relevant. They insisted the causes could not reduced to economics.

We learn little, they argued, by looking at the class positions of McCarthy’s supporters. The more important factor was a subjective sense of having lost ground:  the WASP elite to a rising meritocratic and professional upper-middle-class; small town businessmen and farmers to city folks; and old-fashioned generals to technocrats with graduate degrees from MIT…. Frustrated by a society they no longer could recognize, ”the dispossessed,” as [Daniel] Bell called them in 1962, brought to America a sharper, more dangerous tone than previous movements of protest such as the Jacksonians and the Populists. The radical right, in the view of these thinkers, was not just an elite reaction but a movement with significant support from below. This made it much more powerful and that much more dangerous.

Even a summary as brief as this makes it clear that scholars such as Bell and Hofstadter were trying to replace the politics of class with a politics of status…[rooted in] feelings of alienation.

Sound familiar?

One manifestation was Prohibitionism, whose goal “was to protest the emergence of a culture that did not value hard work, family solidarity, and American patriotism as strongly as they thought it should.” Hofstadter speculated that within this cultural environment, “It is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active, and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.”

Concerned about that underlying alienation, Reisman feared not so much ”total destruction” as “total meaninglessness.” In 1957, he wrote, “There are few channels, political or economic, for translating these as yet undefined shades of feeling into a program which could give us alternatives both to spending for defense and to spending for spending’s sake.”

According to Wolfe, for these liberals,

economics was never enough…. Given their emphasis on culture, the mature liberals are best not characterized as progressives. It would certainly be nice if history amounted to one progressive victory over another. But the complexities of human nature disallows such a happy conclusion: no direct line to a better world can be found in the mature liberals’ books and articles. His, Daniel Bell concluded, was a twice-born generation, and it found its wisdom in “pessimism, evil, tragedy, and despair.”  Such pessimism is why Hofstadter, writing of the Goldwater campaign of 1964, cited the work of his colleague Fritz Stern on the turn to authoritarianism in German political thought before Hitler. The unhappiness of these writers could become too extreme, certainly for my taste. I prefer Hofstadter’s more temperate language when he wrote in favor of a worldview ”chastened by adversity, tempered by the time, and modulated by a growing sense of reality” that would wean the reform impulse from “its sentimentalities and complacencies.”

Wolfe argues that C. Wright Mills, “the godfather of post-war academic leftism,” is an example of excessive focus on economics.

Curiously, however, Mills, who wrote about many things, never wrote anything about McCarthy…. It is as if McCarthy’s messiness, his inconsistencies and irrationalities, interfered with Mill’s preference for an ordered world of elite dominance in which the powerful always act to preserve and expand their power.

…For him, culture was a distraction, a kind of bread-and-circuses way to keep people’s minds off the plans that the power elite had in store for them. We increasingly live, Mills believed, in a society that renders impossible the ideal that people can shape the cultural institutions that matter to them…. Mills could easily border on the conspiratorial…. [He] might have avoided the issue of McCarthy because he could sound so much like him.

The presidential election of John F. Kennedy gave the post-war liberals hope. “He was open not only to ideas in general but to the specific ideas of the participants in the debate over McCarthy.” (When he was President-elect, Kennedy helped to end the Hollywood blacklist by crossing an American Legion picket line to view the film “Spartacus,” after which he praised it.)

But “all that went into abeyance with Kennedy’s assassination, for Lyndon Johnson preferred to hang out with other kinds of people.”

Mature liberalism, it turned out, lacked the sense of rage appropriate to the developing Vietnam War and America’s continued inability to deal with the issue of race. The end of ideology, in addition, seemed like an absurd idea when Communists were in power in Cuba and the Soviet Union, and the student rebels, myself included, found wisdom in the Marxist classics. Under conditions of such turmoil, mature liberalism became senescent:  it found himself transformed into a sclerotic centrism, resting on its laurels and no longer inspiring.

Demagogic appeals are alive and well in the United States. Contemporary right wing populists rely on political immaturity, as have left wing populists.  

A sustained redistribution of income from the poorest to the wealthiest, along with seemingly uncontrollable globalizing forces, has left behind pockets of the white working-class so filled with resentment that it was only a matter of time before they made an impact on American democracy. One can characterize this phenomenon any way one wishes. For me, Daniel Bell’s term “the dispossessed” is as good as it gets.

The post-war concern about demagogues’ lack of maturity remains cogent. In 2009, Barack Obama, “an avid reader of Reinhold Niebuhr,” reminded Americans in his first inaugural address that “the time has come to put away childish things.” But as Trump has tried to “repudiate everything his predecessor said and did,” he is “taking the childish things back out of the closet.”  

As insightful as they were, the early post-war liberals could never have imagined anything like the petulant child who now occupies the Oval Office. It is our curse, but perhaps also our blessing, that we have no choice but to see through the glass of American politics darkly.

The way forward is difficult.

People secure in their status and democratic in their sensibilities do not need demagogues to lead them. People who feel threatened by their loss of status do. If they relied more on themselves than the hysterical admonitions of their would-be politicians— very much like David Riesman’s “inner-directed people”—they would be in a better position to know what was best for them and their country.

But it’s not clear how to nurture individual and communal self-reliance.

Wolfe writes that despite its flaws, democracy demands “distance and discernment, the one to make judgments and the other to achieve them.” But there’s no widely agreed-on strategy for how to develop balanced detachment and rational analysis.

We certainly need to cultivate awareness that “there is more to life than economics and more to a good life than consumption.” But it’s not clear how to do so while being conditioned by a culture that is so materialistic.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wanted to energize “the vital center.” To do that, he and his allies recommended “a greater appreciation for an old-fashioned conservative sensibility.” And Hofstadter wrote that liberals “can better serve ourselves in the calculable future by holding on to what we have gained and learned.” But I see no major effort to integrate “liberal” and “conservative” positions—terms whose meaning has become increasingly suspect.

Wolfe’s concluding chapter offers these suggestions:

  • Avoid petulance.
  • Recognize the nobility of politics.
  • Trust experts.
  • Do not listen to those who speak too loudly.
  • Don’t listen to those who speak too nicely.
  • Avoid any hint of conspiracy theorizing.
  • Do not vote for candidates who promise only good news.
  • Admire and learn from political debates.
  • Pay as much respect to informal norms as to binding laws.
  • Treat threats properly.
  • Treat every vote as if the future of democracy depends on it.

He also recommends that Democrats avoid a simplistic populism that proposes “bromides they could never fulfill,” as well as a centrism that lacks fire and outrage. Rather, he wants them to treat the American people as “fellow adults.” Wolfe’s final passage reads:

When one looks at the rapport between the infantile Trump and so many of his politically immature followers, replacing the people may be out of the question, but asking the people to grow up does not seem unreasonable. There, I believe, lies the key to a politics capable of avoiding the worst of the Trump years.  

But one element that’s missing from Wolfe’s book is any consideration of concrete steps the American people might take to help each other grow up.

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