Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on the rights of the individual, liberty, consent of the governed, political equality, and equality before the law. Liberals espouse various views depending on their understanding of these principles. However, they generally support private property, market economies, individual rights (including civil rights and human rights), liberal democracy, secularism, rule of law, economic and political freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion.-Wikipedia
For decades in America, the political left, liberals, and Democrats were roughly synonymous, but that hasn’t always been the case. The following is taken and lightly condensed from Balaji Srivanasan’s most excellent The Network State:
Most Americans know vaguely that the Republican and Democrat parties “switched sides,” that Republicans were on the left in 1865 and on the right by 1965, but not exactly how that happened.
How did the GOP move from the “Radical Republicans” of Lincoln’s time, to the conservative Republicans of mid-century, to the proletarian truckers of the post-Trump party? And how did Democrats go from secessionist Confederates to anti-anti-communist liberals to woke capitalists?
Let’s warp back to 1865. Immediately after the Civil War, the Republicans had total moral authority — and total command of the country. During the process of Reconstruction and what followed, they turned that moral authority into economic authority, and became rich by the late 1800s. After all, you wouldn’t want to have a Confederate-sympathizing Democrat traitor as head of your railroad company, would you?
Gradually, the Democrats began repositioning from the party of the South to the party of the poor. A major moment was William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896. Another huge move was FDR’s re-election in 1936, when black voters shifted 50 points from Republican to Democrat, though they still voted Republican at the municipal level. The wrap up was in 1965 when black voters moved another 10-15 points towards Democrats, though the civil rights era was really just the culmination of a multi-decadal trend.
After 1965 the Democrats had complete moral authority. And over the next 50 years, from 1965-2015, the Democrats converted their moral authority into economic authority. You wouldn’t want a Republican bigot as CEO of your tech company, would you?
Now that cycle has reached its zenith, and a critical mass of high income and status positions in the US are held by Democrats. Some stats and graphs will show the story. Democrats have:
- 97% of journalists’ political donations
- 98% of Twitter employees’ political donations
- >91% of professors in the top US universities
- 26 out of 27 of the richest congressional districts
- >77% of political donations from Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google
Meanwhile, the Republicans have by many measures become the party of the economic and cultural proletariat. There are of course exceptions like the Supreme Court and state legislatures which are majority Republican, but see this chart from the Brookings Institute, which shows that >70% of US GDP is now in Democrat counties. See also this set of graphs from 2019, and that’s before the money printing and small business destruction that occurred during COVID. The dominance is even more total when one thinks about cultural institutions.98 What’s the Republican Harvard — is it Bob Jones University? What’s the Republican Hollywood — some guys on 4chan making memes?
So, Democrats have become the party of the ruling class, of the establishment. And the Republicans are repositioning as the party of the proles, of the revolutionary class. This is why you see Democrats doing things like:
- tearing up over the Capitol six months after tearing down George Washington
- denouncing free speech
- setting up disinformation offices
- shifting from investigating the government to “investigating” the citizenry
- putting Pride flags on attack helicopters
- advocating for corporations to fire people at will
- defending deplatforming as a private property right
- embracing the national security establishment
- allocating two billion dollars for the Capitol Police
- approving 40 billion dollars for war
It’s like the quote from Dune: “When I am weaker than you, I ask you for freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles.” Now that the Democrats are strong, they are acting like rightists. And now that the Republicans are weak, you see them acting like leftists:
- criticizing America’s imperial influence in the world
- opposing war and military aid
- not trusting the FBI or the police
- expressing qualified sympathy for America’s current rivals
- talking positively about unions
- introducing anti-discrimination laws to protect Republicans
- lobbying for free speech
This explains the weird flip-flops of American politics over the last few years. We’re in a realigning time where many institutional things are flipping from blue to red and back before finally going bright blue or red. Free speech is now coded red, while the FBI is now blue. Because Democrats are the ruling class now.
Note that this isn’t an endorsement of either side, just an observation that two ultra-long-timeframe sine and cosine waves have now shifted into the opposite relative phase. The parties that many identify with and implicitly think of as constant were not constant. The radical Republicans attained socioeconomic power and their defense of this order made them conservative; the reactionary Democrats lost socioeconomic power and gradually repositioned as revolutionary. Now they’re flipping again.
This doesn’t mean everything is flipping, of course. Democrats are still pro-choice, Republicans still pro-life. Republicans still have an institution or two, like the Supreme Court and some states. Just as Democrats after the Civil War were very weak, but not eradicated, and able to serve as spoilers.
However, the two parties have flipped on all the institutional bits, even if many Republicans maintain the Monty-Python-like pretense that the conservative America of their youth has just suffered a flesh wound, and many Democrats maintain the Soviet-like pretense that the ruling class is still a revolutionary party. Mexico has a great name for this kind of thing, the PRI or “institutional revolutionary party,” but there’s a more familiar metaphor: the startup.
A successful startup wants to think it’s still the scrappy underdog, because that’s good for recruiting and morale. But now the Democrats are no longer a startup. The party has completed a 155 year arc from the defeated faction in the Civil War to America’s ruling class.
There’s a Ship of Theseus aspect to this, though. All the parts got swapped out, and the parties switched sides, but somehow the triumphant Democrat coalition of 2021 ended up geographically and demographically similar to the Republican lineup of 1865: Northeastern-centric liberals arrayed against conservative Southerners in the name of defending minorities.
At the surface level, the symbols remain intact: Democrats and Republicans still use the same logos, just like the Chinese Communist Party has kept the hammer and sickle more than 40 years after Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist revolution. On a policy level, as noted, not everything has flipped: Democrats remain pro-choice, Republicans remain pro-life. But on an ideological level, that’s worth a bit of discussion.
Certain kinds of people are born revolutionaries. So when the Democrats flipped over from revolutionary class to ruling class, when they shifted from (say) “defunding the police” to funding the Capitol Police, the born revolutionaries got off the bus. It’s not necessarily any one issue like the police, or military, or COVID restrictions, or regulations – the trigger is different for each person – but the common theme is that the born revolutionary just has a problem with what they perceive as irrational authority.
Visualize the startup founder who just cannot adjust to a big company after an acquisition, or the writer who just refuses to hold back a story because of his editor’s political demurrals. Born revolutionaries of this stripe include Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Jack Dorsey, Elon Musk, and many Substackers and tech founders. They just can’t bend to the establishment. But they also have real disagreements with each other, which is why they’re independents, and why they can’t mouth a party line. So the born revolutionary is really far more anti-establishment, and hence today anti-Democrat, than pro-Republican. Many of the most accomplished in tech and media share this characteristic – they don’t want to listen to authority because they think they know better, and in their case they often actually do. They’re fundamentally insubordinate and disobedient, rule breakers and novelty seekers, ideological rather than tribal, founders rather than followers — and thus sand in the gears of any establishment.
Other kinds of people are ideologically predisposed in the opposite direction, to what some might call “imperialism” and others could call “national greatness.” As the Republicans fully flipped over from ruling class to revolutionary class, and went from organizing the invasion of Iraq to disorganizedly invading the Capitol, the neocon types like David Frum and Liz Cheney switched sides. In our tech analogy, these are the big company executives who only join a company once it has 1000+ people and leave out the back when the writing is on the wall. They’ll take less upside in return for less downside, and are more focused on guaranteed salary and prestige. They’re cyclical, as opposed to counter-cyclical like the revolutionaries. They follow the school-of-fish strategy, going with the crowd at all times. And in this context, their animating characteristic is not so much that they’re “pro-Democrat” but that they’re anti-revolutionary. Much of the national security state and military establishment is also like this; they are fundamentally rule-followers, institutional loyalists, and top-down in their thinking.
So that means that right now, immediately after the American realignment, we see all four types: (a) revolutionary class Democrats who still think of their party as the underdog, (b) ruling class Republicans who similarly (as David Reaboi would put it) “don’t know what time it is,” (c) revolutionary anti-establishment types like Greenwald, and (d) ruling class anti-revolutionaries like Frum and Cheney.
Over time, if history is any guide, the independent thinkers will move away from the ruling class to the revolutionary class, while a much larger group of herd-minded followers will join the ruling class. Returning to our tech analogy, think about how a few of the most independent-minded people have left Google, while many more risk-averse people have joined it. At Google, there isn’t much of the early startup spirit left, but there is a paycheck and stability. That’s similar to the dynamic that characterizes the Democrats in their formal role as America’s ruling class: they largely control the establishment, but they’re losing the talent.
Two factions consistently arise because coalition-forming behavior is game-theoretically optimal. That is, when fighting over any scarce resource, if one group teams up and the other doesn’t, the first group tends to win.
This is a fundamental reason why humans tend to consolidate into two factions that fight each other over scarce resources till one wins. The winning team enjoys a brief honeymoon, after which it usually then breaks up internally into left and right factions again, and the battle begins anew. After the French Revolution, factions famously arose. After World War 2, the once-allied US and USSR went to Cold War. And after the end of the Cold War, the victorious US faction broke down into internal hyperpolarization. A strong leader might keep this from happening for a while, but the breakdown of a victorious side into left and right factions is almost a law of societal physics.
Balaji argues that rather than Left and Right, a far more useful lens to understand the two sides of the culture war are Revolutionary Tribe vs. Dominant Tribe.
The revolutionary tactic is to delegitimize the existing order, argue it is unjust, and angle for redistributing the scarce resource (power, money, status, land), while the dominant tactic is to argue that the current order is fair, that the revolutionaries are causing chaos, and that the ensuing conflict will destroy the scarce resource and not simply redistribute it.
But when the revolutionary tribe wins out over the dominant tribe they become the dominant tribe and adopt dominant tactics, forcing the losing now revolutionary tribe to adopt revolutionary tactics.
Repeating the important distinction that the tribes don’t flip on every last issue – Democrats are still pro-choice and Republicans are still pro-life – over the last ten years what was the Left has secured its position as the dominant political tribe in America and has adopted increasingly authoritarian tactics and thus looks increasingly Right-like. Likewise the Right has become increasingly more liberal.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the issue of Free Speech, which is now firmly coded Red, and I shall take up the issue of Free Speech in the Age of Social Media in another post.
I share all of this because I think accuracy of language is important. I think it is very important for Leftists who now espouse authoritarian tactics and ideology to be confronted with the fact that in doing so they are no longer liberals. I want to reclaim the label “liberal” for actual liberalism.
Furthermore, and most importantly, this is an attempt to deflate the culture war. I think most Americans agree to a large degree with classical liberalism, which is after all the ideology that the USA was founded out of. This is an opportunity for Leftists to reflect upon the increasingly authoritarian tactics used by their team. This is an opportunity for Rightists to see how it feels to have the self-same authoritarian tactics they once used turned upon them. My hope is that we collectively engage in less authoritarianism.
It is human to want our side to win. The perennial danger is that in winning we often come to be that which we initially sought to stand against.
Me? I stand for most of the classically liberal values. I stand for freedom, autonomy, consent, and equality before the law. I believe in freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, and of assembly. The one I struggle most with is the idea of personal property, which on a small scale (personal belongings) I support but on a large scale (one person owning tens of thousands of acres) find problematic.