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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.

Clinton may have lost this election because of corruption allegations, but she was in a position to lose because many Americans are discovering that they do not accept the governing liberal consensus. While the Schmittian character of Clinton’s appeals to America was most evident in the “deplorables” gaffe, her campaign consistently stressed the distinction between the small group of vile Trump supporters who belonged outside of the social order and the misguided victims of Trumpian demagoguery who merely needed to be persuaded that Clinton understood their needs better than they did. The campaign’s insistence that most Trump supporters shared Hillary’s vision of America was on startling display at the Democratic National Convention, where a party that has sometimes seen itself as struggling against American injustice gave itself over to a celebration of Americanism. America is already great, the DNC speakers said. We love the same things you love. Trump represents the intolerable fringe; you belong to us.

But few were fooled. Perhaps, instead of building a wall between the good Trump supporters and the evil ones, the Clinton campaign should have recognized that Trumpists do not merely occupy a different position on the same continuum as Hillary sympathizers. Inasmuch as they are willing to tolerate their candidate, many and perhaps most Trump voters operate on political assumptions that differ radically from Clinton’s. Neutralizations, economic arguments, statistics and appeals to common decency cannot be persuasive to people who do not share the Democrats’ vision of the good society and the good life.

Schmitt, a man of the right who briefly worked in the Nazi Party’s legal apparatus, would probably have preferred Trumpism to anything the contemporary American left has to offer. But if he is still read on the left today it is because his arguments appeal to anyone who is frustrated by the liberal reduction of politics to a technocratic decision tree. If Schmitt were still around, he would advise the left to join the right in making politics political again. That could mean adopting a scorched-earth strategy—assigning every Trump voter to the basket of deplorables, as certain elements on the center-left have seemed to want to do in the last few days. But it could also mean something rather different: insisting on a substantive vision for what America ought to be while acknowledging that there are many patriotic Americans who do not share that vision—and seeking to persuade them to change their minds. It’s in just such a forthright clash of visions that the conflict of values that is for Schmitt the very definition of politics might reemerge.

But surely that would be the worst outcome of all! Wouldn’t such a conflict of values threaten democracy or ignite a civil war? It might. But Schmitt himself, despite his ambivalence about democracy, came to believe that democracy and liberalism were mutually opposed and that it was liberalism’s denial of the conflict of values, if anything, that makes pluralism impossible and leads to civil war. Certain responses to the present crisis hint that he may have been right. As the center-left has realized that a majority of white Americans are not on their side, they have been compelled by the logic of liberal hyperpoliticization to admit that tens of millions of their fellow citizens are nothing less than the sworn enemies of humanity. Trump’s victory dispelled the comfortable illusion that these enemies are merely a struggling remnant that can be stamped out within a few decades. Which might only encourage the argument that liberalism must now engage in what Schmitt called “the absolute last war of humanity.”

Surely there must be a less apocalyptic way of thinking about contemporary politics. In an early essay, “Roman Catholicism and Political Form,” Schmitt argued that one of liberal depoliticization’s casualties is the art of rhetoric, which is at bottom the art of persuading people to reexamine their fundamental assumptions about the good. Political argument under liberalism appeals to fixed ends (especially economic ones) and speaks to the brain. Rhetoric appeals to the soul, where our assumptions about the good have their origin. The possibility of rhetorical persuasion means that disagreements over final ends don’t always have to be settled by violence. In fact, a society in which we acknowledge our fundamental differences is one in which we might learn to speak to one another about them. Acknowledging the depth of our differences doesn’t have to mean ceasing to care about our neighbors’ souls.

Of course, rhetoric is not enough to win most political battles.[2] A center-left ideology that acknowledged the inescapable reality of the political would recognize that, insofar as its opponents remained unpersuaded and maintained commitments to values that were hostile to their own, it would have to regard them as adversaries. But other than in the exceptional cases where democratic legitimacy breaks down, this substantive liberalism’s conflict with its political rivals could still be settled through the democratic methods of campaigning, policy and protest. In fact, a politics that acknowledged the depth of the philosophical differences between contestants would be more authentically democratic than the techno-solutionist variety, because it would be more honest about what was at stake.

Learning how to win purely democratic battles would be a good start for the Democratic Party, which, over the past few decades, has become strikingly ineffectual as a political organization. Despite winning the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential elections, the Democrats only control thirteen statehouses. They also just lost to Donald Trump. Some of that is probably due to organizational dysfunction that has nothing to do with ideology. But some of it is surely related to the liberal distaste for what Schmitt would call politics. Centrist Democrats avoid politics because they’re convinced that facts and logic are on their side. They often refer to white Americans’ “irrational” fears about immigrants and refugees. But fearing immigrants and refugees is only irrational if you share the Democrats’ premises about what makes for a good society. No one denies that an influx of foreigners will change America, at least a little; if you believe that sort of change is necessarily bad, then fearing mass immigration is perfectly rational.

The Democrats’ withdrawal from the political arena may also be motivated by a sense that some of their opponents are simply too loathsome to engage. American elites have come to regard racism (and attendant evils like fear of Islam) as a sin for which nothing can atone. But their insistence on regarding racist attitudes as outside the sphere of politics has made persuasion impossible. A return to politics in the Schmittian sense would not mean minimizing the evils of racism. It would mean bringing racism down from the pedestal where it sits high above every other kind of iniquity in the American consciousness. In particular, it would mean bringing racism into the realm of politics, where it can be struggled against rather than blindly loathed. This is not a call for more discussion and debate, those venerable liberal tactics that failed so spectacularly this year. It is a call for us to acknowledge that we are fighting a culture war—but also that a culture war need not become the absolute last war of humanity.

As a matter of fact, much of the racism that swept Trump to victory is essentially political, by which I mean that it involves beliefs about groups in general and society at large rather than beliefs about individual people. Mistrust of Muslims or condescension toward black people can coexist quite comfortably with respect for individual Muslims and individual black people. Trump himself hires and befriends Latinos and Jews while spouting ethnic hatred at his rallies. And if his racism, and the racism that made his campaign successful, is political, it cannot be fought through appeals to supposedly universal values its supporters and enablers do not share. Entering a political fight is, of course, a risky proposition: you might lose, with catastrophic consequences. But it is becoming increasingly clear that Trumpism’s opponents have no alternative.

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    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Schmitt’s disdain for liberal theorists of political legitimacy and his enthusiastic embrace of National Socialism suggest that he believed political conflict found its ultimate expression in physical violence. But he also appealed to certain minimal notions of procedural justice in the supremely anarchic realm of international relations, which was the main focus of his analysis in Concept of the Political. If he could admit that relations between sovereign states should be governed by norms, his framework cannot rule out the possibility that the domestic conflict between political parties might be confined to the semi-regulated context of democratic politics.
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