At around 11 p.m. on November 8th, Americans discovered that we’re still living in Carl Schmitt’s world. Schmitt, a German legal theorist, argued in the years leading up to the Second World War that political liberalism—defined for him as the governing philosophy that takes individual freedom as the supreme political value—was bankrupt. At the time, fascism was spreading across Europe and South America and communism was beginning to assert itself internationally. Empirically, Schmitt’s thesis was hard to contest. But then something strange happened. Liberalism turned into a political juggernaut. The Allies, a military coalition that included basically every liberal power on earth, defeated the authoritarian Axis. Then the United States, the greatest of the liberal powers, outlasted the illiberal Soviet Union to become the guarantor of what looked like a liberal world order.
Now, as everyone knows, liberalism is in trouble. Until recently, the trouble seemed to be confined to countries that had never fully committed to the liberal triad of democracy, human rights, and free-market economics. But countries that used to be bastions of liberalism have now begun to explore other options. France continues to flirt with the anti-immigrant, anti-E.U. National Front. In July, Britain voted to leave the E.U., forcing neoliberal conservative David Cameron to step down in favor of Theresa May, who immediately expressed a desire for an interventionist industrial policy. In the Scandinavian countries, far-right parties are still growing in prominence. And of course last week the U.S. made its own lunge away from liberalism by electing Donald Trump as president. Trump himself may not be familiar with the political-theoretical narrative in which he has come to play such a central role, but his signature issues—trade protectionism, immigration restrictionism and military anti-interventionism—are all direct affronts to the liberal-internationalist order.
You don’t have to be any great lover of liberalism to believe that Rodrigo Duterte, Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump represent a cure that is worse than the disease. So if you want to make sure that the governments of the near future combat racism and protect certain basic civil liberties, then you need to learn the old rules of engagement. You need to learn how to play politics. You might start by reading Carl Schmitt.
In The Concept of the Political, which remains his most famous work, Schmitt suggests that liberalism gives rise to a paradox. On the one hand, a state that unconditionally affirms individual liberty must believe that conflict over values is destructive and unnecessary—that it is possible to build a society that is agnostic about transcendent values and allows everyone to pursue her own idea of the good life without state interference. But conflict over fundamental commitments, including value-commitments, is for Schmitt the whole basis of politics. That means that liberalism is committed to a program of what he calls “depoliticization.” By setting disputes over values and identity aside, liberalism reduces politics to a series of technical disputes over the best means for reaching universally agreed-upon ends. The ultimate agreed-upon end is material prosperity, so liberal “politics” tends to reduce to debates over how we can maximize economic growth.
It’s not difficult to recognize depoliticization at work in our own politics. Think of the well-rehearsed argument that one or another form of bigotry is bad for business. The phrase is meant to communicate a sort of brusque pragmatism. “It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re a racist,” it says, “because as long as you care about making money, you won’t act like one.” The liberals who argue that discrimination is unbusinesslike are implicitly setting aside the value-conflict over whether it’s bad. For Schmitt, they’ve abandoned the political debate over the good for the economic debate over the efficient.
The paradox is that when nothing is political, everything is political. This is because, as Schmitt noted, liberalism’s embrace of economic growth and human autonomy is, in fact, a substantive ideological commitment that has to be defended polemically. Liberals assume that their apolitical politics must necessarily be agreeable to all of humanity, so anyone who dissents from the liberal order is not merely dissenting from a particular conception of the human good; he is defying a political order that purports to encompass all political orders. The state that ceases to recognize the possibility of conflict over ends, Schmitt wrote in an essay called “The Age of Neutralizations and Depoliticizations,” “immerse[s] itself into every realm, into every sphere of human existence” in an attempt to stamp out its intolerable antithesis. Depoliticization turns into hyperpoliticization. Especially when liberalism believes it is under threat, every action becomes political and every individual has the responsibility to punish the dissenters in her own life.
The more humane alternative is for liberals to come out and acknowledge that they are committed to substantive, controversial claims about the good—in particular, the claim that every human being is worthy of some degree of respect. This would allow liberals to be honest about their intentions, and it would help them resist the temptation to reduce all their arguments to technical economic claims. Take Hillary Clinton’s attack on stop-and-frisk policing in this year’s first presidential debate. She made three claims against the practice: it’s ineffective in stopping crime; it has been found unconstitutional in federal court; and it damages police relations with members of minority groups. Conservatives found grounds on which to contest all three claims, but that shouldn’t have mattered. Even if stop-and-frisk were capable of ending violent crime, had been explicitly approved of by the Founding Fathers, and somehow improved relations between police and minority groups, it would still be inconsistent with a truly liberal value system. Clinton’s inclination to oppose stop-and-frisk on purely pragmatic grounds actually obscured the depth of the opposition between her position and Trump’s. Strange though it seems, real pluralism might only be possible among people who are willing to assert their differences.
It has become a cliché to say that Clinton represents the global liberal elite. But perhaps the cliché is true in more ways than we immediately realize. Clinton’s over-parsed “basket of deplorables” comment represents an interesting case study for Schmitt’s theses on liberalism. Half of Donald Trump’s supporters, Clinton said, “feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change.” In that part of her comments, we can sense liberal depoliticization at work. Trump supporters want most of the same things we do, she was saying; they only disagree with us on the technical means for getting them. For Schmitt, making that sort of inclusive claim is always risky. The Trump campaign presented itself as culturally (and not merely technically) opposed to Clintonite liberalism. Clinton’s suggestion that half of Trump’s base actually shared her basic cultural commitments was at least a little condescending and probably inaccurate as well.
What got the most attention, of course, was the corollary to those comments: Clinton’s claim that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables’ … racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.” Here we can see the other face of liberalism: the hyperpoliticization that is the necessary consequence of depoliticization. The naked racism of many Trump supporters—and the thinly veiled racism of their candidate—forced Clinton and her advisers to the conclusion that many Americans really do reject the liberal governing consensus that is supposed to unite all races, colors and creeds. With such deplorables, they argued, there could be no possibility of debate.