By Christopher Sarjeant

Students of intellectual and political history, interested in the modern American left, face an acute ambiguity. In thinking about the modern American left, what metrics should we select when attempting to distinguish true believers from liberals? A commitment to the traditional logics of class inequality or an emphasis on identity politics? Protection for workers or open borders? The pursuit of common values or the celebration of cultural difference? We frequently find ourselves dealing with terminologies and ideological labels that contain both historical and analytical valence.

In the case of my own research, focused on the recent history of a group of what many scholars continue to refer to as “left-liberals”, matters continue to remain complicated. Here I find myself in a double bind — hampered not only by competing interpretations of the left but also by the ever evolving characteristics of what historian Gary Gerstle famously described as the uniquely “protean” traditions of American liberalism. While on the one hand, the notion of a “left-liberal” might make perfect historical sense — think back to an era in which liberals and leftists were clearly divided over the big questions of the day, most of which tended to revolve around the economy and the role of the state — its analytical or descriptive currency has been largely devalued in an age in which a different set of questions have become predominant and in which scholars and pundits alike, argue over the extent to which the two parties still exist in any kind of adversarial relationship, if at all.

It is in this context that I have found myself drawn to the somewhat overlooked category of social democracy in an effort to re-establish key ideological and intellectual anchor points capable of tethering the thematic strands of my research whilst preserving the political contours of the left/liberal debate themselves. While historians of the U.S. may once have had good cause to dismiss the typically European-inflected traditions of social democracy in favour of more Americanised hybrid forms, the moment to reassess its utility as a descriptive device has arrived.

Whatever the historically evolving complexities of American liberalism, the principle causes of today’s taxonomic confusion lies in recent transformations within the left. Many—like the celebrated essayist and academic Louis Menand—locate the origins of these transformations in the rise of the New Left during the 1960s, a time when “individual freedom and authenticity” became primary goals of “political action”. Historian Rhodri Jeffries-Jones on the other hand, places greater emphasis on a moment sometime during the early 1970s when the New Left itself was forced to give way to an even “Newer Left” determined to “diversif[y] beyond the goals of socialism, opposition to the Vietnam War, antipoverty and civil rights”. In either case, as these changes took hold, so the effects were the same: the older distinguishing characteristics of the left — its emphasis on class solidarity, its faith in nation-building — were gradually joined, or displaced, by new categories and commitments.

Writing in 1998, the cultural historian Eric Lott gave explicit voice to the primacy of these new commitments. “[B]lacks, Latinos, women, queers and others”, he argued, had “transformed the very meaning of “the poor””. Activists engaged in the politics of the resulting “new social movements” had in fact not given up on economic justice as some critics arguedrather they had recognised that any attempt to line said groups up behind the universalist nostrums of the old left risked divesting them of the very autonomy they had fought so long to establish. Those that chose not to confront this paradox head on, Lott argued, revealed themselves to be heirs to that peculiar American religion that preached universalism on the one hand whilst jealously guarding the privileges of a select few on the other. In the hands of “Boomer liberals” as he branded a particular set of opponents, “class solidarity” functioned like “colorblindness”: as a rallying cry for a group of ex-radical white males engaged in a rear-guard action to protect not only their influence at the intellectual apex of the post-war left itself but also their new found status as court intellectuals for a new Democratic establishment wholly set against substantive reform.

Whatever the force of Lott’s accusations — and it is certainly true that the movement he sought to skewer was predominantly both white and male — twenty years later, not all historians perceive much distance between traditional liberal values and the aims and assumptions of Lott’s radical left itself. Doug Rossinow, for instance, notes that however hard radicals railed against the various Enlightenment-derived axioms in which American liberals have traditionally placed their trust, they themselves consistently struggled to find alternative grounds upon which to stake out their own campaigns. Fellow historian Andrew Hartman, a committed Marxist, has taken this a stage further. The very reason that the left was so successful in “radicaliz[ing]…the culture” in the wake of the 1960s, he has argued, is precisely because its aims “aligned” so readily with the “liberal tradition” against which it set itself up in putative opposition. For Hartman, this alignment possesses disturbing consequences, diverting attention within the left away from collective notions of the “social good” and training them instead on questions of “individual ascent”. He argues that this process has intensified with the rise of modern identity politics and consequently, the left’s appetite and ability to resist the “neoliberal dismantling of the social welfare state” has receded.

Support for at least some aspect of Hartman’s interpretation comes from a different point on the ideological spectrum: not all who perceive the connection between identity-based politics and the traditions of American liberalism are critical of the relationship. For historian Kevin Mattson, it is quite the reverse: in his eyes, modern campaigns to end racial, gendered and sexual injustice ground themselves in the very best of an American liberal tradition. In its rejection of overly simplistic solutions— the reductive economic populism promoted by Richard Rorty, Todd Gitlin, whom Eric Lott places squarely in the “Boomer Liberal camp”, and more recently Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders— the post-war liberal tradition underwrites the kind of pluralistic space in which alternative viewpoints and analysis can be heard. In Mattson’s view, these figures belong to the left precisely because they construe power as operating “purely on a socioeconomic axis”. It is the mark of the liberal, Mattson argues, to observe that questions of power are in reality a good deal more complex and multifaceted than that.

It is here, that the somewhat schizophrenic contemporary nature of what were once comparatively solid categories comes into view. We are not simply dealing with divergent political viewpoints, rather we are encountering profoundly different linguistic approaches to political history. When Eric Lott invokes a term like “Boomer liberal”, it is not in an attempt to highlight the general openness and pluralism of his chosen subject, but rather an effort to associate them historically with a tradition that, according to many critics, has repeatedly failed to live up to the weight of its own promises. Both Hartman and Mattson meanwhile, despite their divergent aims, base their definitions on a more analytical interpretation; they define the category of liberalism in accordance with the varying promises (openness, pluralism, individual freedom) made on behalf of liberalism itself.

The shift from the analytical to the historical is well illustrated by dwelling further on Rorty, Gitlin and at least some of those others whom Lott described as “Boomer Liberals”.  In their case, a signature preference for at least some form of socialist-inspired economic organization, on the one hand, combined with a strong defense of the legitimating moral force of democracy on the other, has led many historians to continue to refer to the group as “left-liberal” — a choice which does benefit at least from the virtue of taking this particular subset of historical actors at their word.

Nevertheless, a problem remains. Were we discussing the group in relation to debates within the left occurring prior to the process of diversification, when — to paraphrase Andrew Hartman’s underlying historical conceit — an explicitly Marxist left continued to work to establish itself in direct “tension” with the very traditions (as opposed to historical failures) of American liberalism, we would probably raise little objection. But, in relation to debates that occurred some two decades after the cultural turn of the 1970s — debates that in one guise or another spoke directly to the formation of new cleavages and diversification of interests that followed — we are liable to experience a sense of disorientation. It is by no means necessary to embrace the full, critical implications of Andrew Hartman’s analysis to ask in what sense Todd Gitlin’s call for a reaffirmation of “liberal” patriotism, Richard Rorty’s ethnocentric pragmatism, the political theorist Michael Walzer’s thinking on the various cultural and structural limits of equality, or the critic Susan Linfield’s defense of value judgement in the arts as metaphor for their application in the sphere of public ethics, can be usefully located on the “liberal” left of a contemporary radical movement likely to perceive such positions as markedly less liberal than their own views on corresponding issues? What we may at very least have to concede at this point is that in its diversification, the political and ideological landscape around us has outpaced the vocabulary available to describe it.

It is here that the turn to social democracy offers a solution. Despite the fact that a number of Lott’s “Boomers” themselves used terms like liberalism and social democracy interchangeably on occasion, rarely did they consider the two traditions one and the same. It is precisely here, in the points at which social democracy departs from the liberal creed that we can plant ideological stakes in the ground and attempt to resolve the potential contemporary paradoxes invoked by use of the term “left-liberalism”.  

Writing for the political quarterly Dissent in 2013, the former Princeton philosopher, Avishai Margalit laid out some of social democracy’s core distinguishing characteristics: its faith in community; its commitment to institution building; its belief that national borders continue to represent the tangible limits of “effective” solidarity. This moves us beyond the contentious dichotomy between class and identity politics and trains our attentions to more analytical themes. For Margalit, what, above all, singles out the social democratic worldview and underpins all other commitments, is its insistence that the pursuit of the good life should be thought of as a profoundly “intersubjective” process – one neither formulated according to any “objective” standard, nor left entirely up to the “subjective” conscience of the individual. Within this framework, he explains, “equality” is to be seen as a “means” rather than an “end”. 

Margalit’s taxonomy is, naturally, a subjective one. We should be careful not to overdetermine the distinctions between social democracy and other left-leaning ideological traditions, and we should be alert to the fact that not all self-identifying social democrats ascribe to precisely the same ways of thinking. Nevertheless, taken as a starting point for moving beyond the somewhat restrictive left/liberal dualism familiar to historians of US political and intellectual history, a reconsideration of ideo-political categories like social democracy offer compelling ways of navigating the otherwise complex range of caveats required to switch between the historical and analytical idioms with fluency and precision. In the effort to make sense of the shifting sands of recent progressive debate in the United States, it becomes clear that whatever the varied responses to the “diversification” of the left from a political standpoint, for historians and other dispassionate observers, a parallel diversification of the language used to talk about and observe the left is long overdue.

Christopher Sarjeant is currently a PhD candidate at University College London’s Institute of the Americas. His core research interests focus on the modern intellectual history of the American left with a particular emphasis on both the domestic and foreign policy debates of the 1990s.

Featured Image: The United States Capitol. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.