The future of American democracy is in the power of the liberal imagination
In 1992, the Hofstra University Law professor, Monroe Freedman, dedicated his entire column in the Legal Times newspaper to a counter-assessment of the heroism of the idea that is Atticus Finch. Freedman would put forward a near-sacrilegious contrarian argument: Finch is not really a good man.
Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, had not only enjoyed four decades of uninterrupted worship and adulation but was held as a model for legal scholars America-wide. They touted Finch’s moral courage in representing an accused Black man in backward Maycomb; the clarity of his argumentation; the tireless appeal to compassion as well as to holding a jurisprudence that necessitates the common humanity of all.
But Freedman begged to differ. He advises critical distancing from the supposed merits of Lee’s hero who Freedman thought was at best, a morally ambivalent actor. Freedman wrote:
“Atticus Finch does, indeed, act heroically in his representation of Robinson. But he does so from an elitist sense of noblesse oblige. Except under compulsion of a court appointment, Finch never attempts to change the racism and sexism that permeate life in Macomb [sic], Ala. On the contrary, he lives his own life as the passive participant in that pervasive injustice. And that is not my idea of a role model for young lawyers…”
Freedman explained that Finch would have served a better example “if he had never been compelled by the court to represent Robinson, but if, instead, he had undertaken voluntarily to establish the right of the black citizens of Macomb [sic] to sit freely in their county courthouse…That Atticus Finch would, indeed have been a model for young lawyers to emulate.”
Expectedly, the law professor was labeled an iconoclast, one accused of launching an assault on the moral figment of popular acclaim. The backlash was instant and fierce; suffices to say that Freedman’s pessimism was largely despised.
These days, the lesson I draw out of that episode – which frankly, played out only among the literati and lawyers rather than wider American society – for the sake of today’s political reckoning is that all of the criticisms that were thrown at Freedman seemed to condemn his audacity to have hoped for a better icon. The professor’s critics wondered why he had not found himself adjusted to the limits set by Finch and why Freedman wanted a more righteous man.
For me, Freedman’s critique is the situational equivalent of the Americans of today who have not been impressed with the self-congratulatory character of liberal politicking. Self-advertised vessels of America’s liberal unfolding have turned out to be a congress of piecemeal proponents, afraid, if not unwilling, of pushing the boundary further from the status quo.
It has been four years since a capably rational Black man handed over the American presidency to an unapologetic race-baiting demagogue, who is sometimes the color of orange. In 2017, the focus of well-wishers of America was rightly fixed on the dangers Donald Trump posed to American democracy. He had sold himself as the anti-establishment candidate, having no time or temperament for the rules of the game.
I am not about to give a chronicle of Trump’s transgressions. We saw as he tried, successfully in some cases, to undo so much of what little good America came to represent for people within and without. He was a threat to racial justice, much in the same way Bob Ewell was unhappy about being revealed as a shameless racist in Mockingbird.
All postmortem analyses of Trump’s problematic four years would do well to admit that white supremacy, America’s preexisting condition, was afforded the avenue to express the different flavors it is made of. Alienating people based on prejudices of ethnicity shows itself in how we organize and distribute the material needs of our existence, which values we raise our children according to as well as who gets to choose a leader and who gets to lead.
Trump went after the weakest links of the American populace: Muslims, Mexicans and all other Hispanics, women (of color) and Black people generally, etc. When he could, he hurt them, like separating their families and undoing executive orders that protected the integrity of their livelihoods, homes, and schools.
Other times, it seemed like the evils that befell these groups of people were out of Trump’s hands, not that he was interested in solving any of them. Like when the coronavirus struck and we ascertained as far back as March of 2020 that Black people were destined to be hit the hardest. That was not Trump’s doing but that was the effect of the socio-economic architecture of the country, and it took years of deliberate efforts to never have it better.
The GOP decided that Trump was incorrigible and that that was a good thing. Among those who decided to keep the president in check, there were competing visions of what future the American people had a right to. The vision that won is personified by Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.
The 46th president of the United States, if you believe former challenger Bernard Sanders, is probably going to be the most progressive president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Sanders is oft-accused as a myopic rambler who believes all of America’s domestic problems would be solved if the last man and woman can afford food, a home, and their medicines.
But Sanders’ aggressive economic justice campaign has been credited with the pressure on Biden to acquiesce to the demands of progressive Democrats. The Mitch McConnell-led Senate which, for the most part of the last decade, stood as a terrifying impediment to Democratic ambitions will now be switching over to Chuck Schumer, thanks to the electorate of Georgia who elected the south’s and the state’s first Black senator and another confident young man who happens to be Jewish.
Suddenly, Democrats are confronted by the weight of that ominous Oscar Wilde quote – when the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers. Suddenly, the liberal half of American politics is the faction big enough to stand in their own way. They are the ones capable enough to undo the promised mission. And with what we have witnessed in the last four decades, the liberal track record in these moments is not stellar.
For so long, polite American society has spoken, with exaggerated reflectional cadence, about “how far we have come”. That sentiment and all it stands for seems to console that section of the population who may be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task ahead. This is not to say that the present is not preferable to the horrors of the 1960s when Martin Luther King Jr. and others marched in the south. But the echelon that sets both the timeline and tools of progress has never looked adoringly at social change.
Many a time, it is forgotten that the scorn and opposition directed at 18th-century abolitionists did not come only from the presumably conservative southern bourgeois. In the north too, feet were dragged in the corridors of power on the amount and kind of support to offer private organizations and individual abolitionists. This was even after 1790 when all northern states had banned the international slave trade. The contemplative crawling of these liberal northerners did not even yield the sort of emancipation that was asked of the southerners. When we look back, the states of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania stood alone as the states with the most progressive outcomes on the matter even though the former did not even pass an anti-slavery bill. In New York, slaves were not automatically manumitted – they became indentured servants until 1827.
Intuitively, one would opine that the technological advantage of the northerners (they needed fewer hands because they had machines) made them open to the end of slavery. As opposed to the fundamental place of the African slave in the southern economy which did not make southerners welcome abolitionist calls. But some historians, like Sven Beckert (Empire of Cotton), found no connection that the pace of industrialization in the American northeast was directly proportional to northern bourgeois aid for the abolitionist cause.
In fact, what Beckert and others found rather intriguingly, was that southern slavery was actually quite beneficial to northern American capitalism for a while. This fact, now known as “The Alliance of the Lash and the Loom”, shows us that when demand for American textiles and other processed goods shot through the roof in Europe, it was southern slaves at the inception point of that supply chain. The more textile that was needed, the harder slaves had to work on cotton plantations.
The above may not necessarily be true of British abolition history but what we learned, apart from the lack of moral production and consumption in capitalism, is the conclusion that American abolitionism occurred on a higher plane than everyday economics. Northerners wanted to liberate enslaved African people because of the force of the moral arguments of organizations such as the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.
This is what I speak of when I talk about the imagination of the American liberal. It has been demonstrated that when they desire, the forces in favor of human emancipation according to economic, scientific, philosophical, and technological advancements, at least try to win. History tells us that when in action, liberal politics, armed with the right moral reasoning, can serve to liberate people from the harmful prescriptions of tradition and docility.
What does it mean to entrust the citizenry with liberty, the core belief of liberalism, in the 21st century? Granted that the term does not mean what it did in the days of James Madison and John Locke, the principle which invites the concerned to approach politics with the aim of liberating individuals from the negative conditions of their personhood still remains.
The pains I have taken to construe the liberal imagination can only prove worthwhile when we remind ourselves that those we call Liberals in the American political space have hardly been doing any liberating lately. Unfortunately, they are the disciples of self-congratulations I introduced above. They have instead assumed the status quo and moderate positions. They have made up the power bloc in the Democratic Party since Jimmy Carter and energized by the neoliberalism of Bill Clinton.
If we consider that the intellectual defense of social changes like abolition and the Union’s casus bellum emanated from a place of moral humanism, we would have to confront the moral reasoning of those who claim to have the moral high ground. We should demand to see how far they are willing to position society towards the ideal if there is one. This should not even be controversial because we wield the evidence of documented history.
In many ways, Trumpian politics revealed the lack of imagination that the liberal order has hidden over the last 40 or more years. Whenever it is dismissed that economic anxiety contributed to the rise of Trump, very little is asked of the status quo. The dismissal of such talking points saves the liberal establishment the introspection we need for progress to be made. The point here is that instead of pushing the boundaries of liberation for all, liberal politics spent these decades patronizing Black people and other minorities with tokens and neglected the anxieties of a white population whose world, whether we like it or not, is changing.
It was noted within the perimeters of permitted discourse that the likes of Trump could not happen. The notion that he could even win the Republican ticket in 2016 was laughed off by the most seasoned writers, presenters, and thinkers. That is the self-congratulation I have highlighted. Through the neoliberal consensus which absolves government of people-focused responsibility in favor of private capital, polite society deluded itself that the elasticity of the political process was never going to be compromised. Polite America told itself that Nazism, fascism, and all of the other evils were in the distant past.
It is an extremely difficult and complex task to begin to answer what Americans today need liberation from. There are three reasons I have thought about. First, Americans, and indeed much of the world’s population cannot seem to detach our humanity and its necessary ends from the capitalistic prism that conceived us. In some quarters, it is irrational to even suggest a critique of capitalism and capitalist reality. Very few are open to a dialogue that finds fault with these aspects of our existence.
One of the complexities of this problem for Black people is the celebration of the nouveau-riche such as Oprah, Jay-Z, and the thousands who are finding their feet in tech, finance, and other aspects of the economy. This celebration has been compelled by centuries of not winning at any of the games white America played. It, therefore, becomes harder, if not impossible, to dissuade the glorification of capitalism in the community that has so long been sidelined by white capital. In spite of the rich body of capitalist critiques from Black authors including W.E.B. DuBois, the project of actually changing minds is more daunting.
The second reason is shorter and has been previewed already. America is a de facto two-party state where there is not much in the way of economic disagreements. Furthermore, both parties embrace the a priori goodness of American government and imperial enterprise. This being the case, it has been prudent for the last half a century, to overlook and even quash threats to this understanding of a priori goodness. Look no further than when J. Edgar Hoover‘s FBI cast civil rights activists as the enemies within.
What Hoover was disturbed by was not so much the clamoring of King and others but rather, by their cry that went to the heart of the founding constitutional belief. If this was the greatest democracy where all are presumably created equal, why are Black folk treated the way they were? This question sliced apart the farce of American democracy.
Lastly, fighting white supremacy in America is almost akin to fighting America itself. It is inconceivable for more than half of the country, even including some Black people and other minorities.
When Trump unsuccessfully incited an insurrection, the neoliberal consensus was given another opportunity to reacquaint itself with how deep the well runs. It is the bottomless depth of white resentment piloted according to the unconscionable capital that backs the hell-raisers at Fox News and other conservative news outlets, and the treacherous irresponsibility on the part of elected officials like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. To their credit, liberals have been calling for a purge and do not seem like backing down.
Far from representing a conservative philosophy of government, what Republicans have stood for is the forestalling of what has been inevitable for a while; that white patriarchal power will have to give way to hopefully, a rainbow nation. The election of Trump was, in the title of that X-Men movie, the last stand. What Republicans now face is a choice between revitalizing the shamelessness of Trumpism or advising themselves on how to react to said change.
This process of Republican reconstruction will be happening in the full glare of American liberals. But what would also be happening unlike other times in recent memory is that the terms of redemption for Trump supporters will also be set by liberals. This is has been my fear since it became apparent that Trump lost the House and the Senate as leader of the GOP.
It is not my fear because I weep for Trump. It is my fear because as I have innumerably stated, the American liberal imagination can be so strategically limited it is embarrassing.