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How the have-it-both-ways "moderate" can begin to break out of the armchair

Writing in 1939, Max Lerner wrote this indictment of the typical "liberal." It would be a mistake to read this term using the 2020 American understanding of "liberal" vs. "conservative." It may refer to those who believe in liberal democracy (rather than any of its alternatives), but in context the best substitute term seems to be "moderate." The "liberal," here, is an armchair "moderate" who wants to have it both ways when it comes to judging others yet never taking firm action.

For to the public the liberal has become the caricature of the way he has presented himself. He is Mr. Janus Facing-Both-Ways. He sees two sides to every question (why only two?). He is Hamlet-like in his indecisiveness at a time when victory comes to those who can make up their minds. He is generous in his judgment of others and tolerant of their way of life. His principle is one of inclusiveness – not in the democratic sense of including his fellow-men in his orbit because of his camaraderie with them, but in the martyr-like sense of allowing others to say and do as they please even when he hates and is hurt by everything they stand for. He has an uneasy distrust of the capitalists, yet he feels that capitalism alone stands between him and anarchy. He is forever emphasizing the preciousness of the social heritage, the delicacy of the social fabric, and the danger of endangering either. His indignation at the denial of social justice mounts in direct proportion to its distance from himself. He will talk with unction about democracy, yet he fears the actions and passions of the democratic majorities. He is lofty in his attitude toward the masses and fluctuates among lip-service to their stereotypes (which he calls "public opinion"), uneasy fears when they begin to want something hard ("pressure groups"), and panic when they act to get it ("revolution"). His symbol is the swivel-chair, whether that of editor, columnist, or professor — and the best thing about it is that it can turn in so many directions. His ammunition is abstractions. His tenacity is nil. A purpose to him is like a work of art meticulously carved in butter.

The risk may be inherent to the intellectualization of politics. In 1941, Erich Fromm wrote that there is a type of "irrational doubt" that sticks with us until we achieve a "positive freedom," i.e. freedom that is not just "freedom from" something but is a "freedom to" be, do, or have something. And what that means is that we must achieve social connection and personal fulfillment before we can let go of a deep-seated sense (whether conscious or unconscious) of instability and insufficiency.

Doubt is the starting point of modern philosophy; the need to silence it had a most powerful stimulus on the development of modern philosophy and science. But although many rational doubts have been solved by rational answers, the irrational doubt has not disappeared and cannot disappear as long as man has not progressed from negative freedom to positive freedom. The modern attempts to silence it, whether they consist in a compulsive striving for success, in the belief that unlimited knowledge of facts can answer the quest for certainty, or in the submission to a leader who assumes the responsibility for 'certainty' — all these solutions can only eliminate the awareness of doubt. The doubt itself will not disappear as long as man does not overcome his isolation and as long as his place in the world has not become a meaningful one in terms of his human needs.

Peter Levine wrote in 2013:

The dangerous kind of ideology is highly intellectual. It proceeds from a few ideas — the fewer the better, for the sake of elegance. Its foundational principles are mutually consistent; contradictions would be embarrassing. Adherents of such ideologies make concrete, practical judgments by applying principles. * * * They are deadly when they seize control, because then people, organizations, and institutions that are inconsistent with their ideas are at grave risk. A healthy, helpful kind of ideology emerges in a different way.

Ideally, in politics, the goal "is never completely attainable because this politics is nothing more than a permanent challenge, a never-ending effort that can only in the best possible case leave behind it a certain trace of goodness," Levine said.

Of the best liberal activists, Levine said:

Their lives of struggle become compelling stories, enriched by their efforts to balance conflicting goals and values. Their disparate contributions are embraced by one or more political parties — or by other major political forces, such as coalitions within civil society. * * * By emphasizing liberalism’s pragmatic, experimental roots, I do not mean to deny its intellectual achievement. Jane Addams, for instance, was an extremely learned and insightful writer. But I suggest that in a healthy ideological movement, intellectual reflection follows practical experimentation, not the reverse.

Some limitations

Before we can begin to answer what kind of practical actions need to be taken, we have to recognize some parameters.

First of all, the type of pro-democracy activism that is most needed for you to do depends where you are.

"Most countries are neither full dictatorships nor consolidated democracies; they fall somewhere in the middle," Nicholas Cheeseman and Brian Klaas wrote in 2018. Thus, many countries "did not experience a moment of high-quality democracy and then gradually fall back into authoritarianism; rather, in most cases they simply shifted from one form of authoritarianism to another." For these countries, "it is more appropriate to talk about how we can strengthen or build democracy, rather than rescue or defend it.”

Or, to use Umair Haque's more specific suggestion from 2018: "The way to beat authoritarianism is to offer people a transformative new social contract." His point is that strengthening certain institutions can make the democratic system look more attractive than its authoritarian alternative.

The authoritarians have a radical plan to reconstruct society. Not a very thoughtful one — one based on hate and spite and fear. But the problem is that no one else offers an opposing one.

That is the difference between 'resistance' and opposition. Opposition says — radical change is coming, one way or the other, in a broken society. Here is the positive, beneficial kind, that creates the future, not just rewinds to the barbarities of the past. But if no such opposition exists, then a society can never beat authoritarianism....fighting authoritarians with cries of hypocrisy and evil does less than no good. You beat authoritarianism by repairing the broken society that gave rise to it.

Second, the more diverse a constituency, the more compromises the government must make to satisfy everyone's preferences, expectations, and needs. Homogeneous constituencies, by contrast, can tend towards extremism. What we may leap to criticize as mealy-mouthed moderateness may be a delicate line someone is treading, not primarily because they are an armchair philosopher who shies away from real debate, but because they are an actual political leader with diverse constituents to satisfy. Adam Serwer, in 2020:

The source of the GOP’s extremism, and the Democrats’ relative moderation, is not personal virtue. It is, rather, the fact that one party is relatively ideologically, religiously, and ethnically homogenous, while the other has to represent a constituency that is ideologically, religiously, and ethnically diverse. The Republican Party’s leadership and propaganda apparatus have trained their base to view Democratic voters not just as political rivals but as an existential threat, whose claims to American identity and therefore power are intrinsically invalid. This sense of being under siege allowed Trump to seize control of the party, to govern as though his voters are the only ones with legitimate claims to American citizenship, and to command absolute, unquestioning loyalty even as his ignorance and vanity prove lethal.

Because democracy is about compromise, most people in a democracy will not get everything they hoped for from their government. More pointedly, because democracy empowers majority coalitions to decide for minority populations, it means that some freedoms will be sacrificed to the system, generally in the hope that the system will, on the whole, preserve freedoms. This could be desirable on utilitarian grounds (i.e. the individual enjoys a net gain of freedom) or on deontological grounds (i.e. a democracy upholds certain freedoms that must be upheld at any price, even if the individual experiences a net loss of freedom). Jamie Bartlett, 2018:

Democracy is about individual liberty of course, but that’s only half the picture. It is also a system of coercion because your liberty must sometimes be taken away too....The moral basis for this control is the assertion that its laws and powers express the will of the people, and also protect certain fundamental rights.

Third, there is the recognition that mere knowledge doesn't always translate to power, and mere transparency isn't always activism. Garret Keizer, in 2012:

Even more than openness, the byword of the new prudery is information; its favorite motto, ‘Knowledge is power.’ You know you are in the presence of a confirmed knowledge-is-power type when your concerns about technologically enhanced surveillance are countered by the assertion that the same technologies are allowing citizens to watch the watchers. ‘Just the other day,’ you will be told, ‘some kid with a smartphone got pictures of these cops beating the crap out of a guy, and now they’re all over the Internet!’ I’ve gotten into the habit of remaining silent long enough for the speaker to grasp the implications of what he’s just said, but that can leave you speechless for the better part of a week. So what you’re telling me, I want to say, is that after more than two hundred years of constitutional government, police are still beating the crap out of citizens, but you feel empowered because somebody took a picture of it?

I don’t dispute that knowledge can lead to power or that access to information is essential to self-government, but I fear we have been bamboozled into believing that knowledge is itself power, that sitting in a coffee shop racking up ‘badges’ for your visits to muckraking websites makes you a revolutionary. For almost a decade now we have had the knowledge that there were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and I challenge anyone to stand with me next to the bed of a legless twenty-five-year-old Iraq War veteran and tell me that the knowledge was power. Power for whom?

In fact, the only sphere in which the mere possession of knowledge amounts to power is the sphere of individual privacy. If I know that my government has engaged in illegal wiretaps, that knowledge by itself is nothing but an illusion of power — and an illusion that the powerful may be quite happy for me to have. But if I know my neighbor is cheating on his wife, and he knows that I know, that is power, however pathetic and humiliating. Perhaps that is one reason for the voyeuristic streak in our culture: a bid for some kind of power on the part of otherwise impotent Peeping Toms.

Similarly, Jia Tolentino, in an essay reprinted in 2019, suggests that in observing the crimes of the rich and famous, we have access to imagine what it would be like to perpetrate those crimes. The real-life story is consumed almost in the way we consume fiction, for similar purposes.

The final, definitive scam for the millennial generation is the election of an open con artist to the presidency in 2016. Donald Trump is a lifelong scammer, out and proud and seemingly unstoppable. For decades before he entered politics, he peddled a magnificently fraudulent narrative about himself as a straight-talking, self-made, vaguely populist billionaire, and the fact that the lie was always in plain sight became a central part of his appeal. * * * As long as he’s rich and white and male and bigoted and rapacious, to many people he represents the most quintessentially American form of power and strength. He was elected for the same reason that people buy lottery tickets. It’s not the actual possibility of victory that you pay for; it’s the fleeting vision of victory. ... The pipe dream is becoming the dominant structure of aspiration, and its end-stage shadows — cruelty, carelessness, nihilism — are following close behind. After all, in becoming party to a scam, we access some of the hideous glory of scamming: we get to see, if not to actually experience, what it might be like to loot the place and emerge unscathed.

Fourth, it is usually neither our knowledge nor our virtue that determines whether we have war or peace. It is the dominant political "mood." Zat Rana in 2020:

...some philosopher or statesman between 500 or 2,500 years ago made an abstract, logical cause-and-effect argument that connected the idea of freedom (different from actually experiencing freedom) to our livelihood, and we spend most of our waking hours living under its banner, thinking that it is the real justification for why we do things today. And the fact that it isn't really why we do things in practice is, of course, very clear to anyone not living in our own little bubble. * * * Nations don't go to war based on some purified notion of freedom. That's either a post-hoc justification or a lie told to subdue the masses. Like any group, they go over the edge based on mood and momentum. * * * How much of your current outlook on the world is shaped by your own rational judgement of what is going on around us right now, and how much of it is simply opinions you externalize that were first absorbed and internalized from the cultural mood you predominantly identify with? The former isn't necessarily superior to the latter if the people you surround yourself with have strong collective judgement, but the question still provides good insight into whether your emotions actually reflect reality as they should or not.


Max Lerner. It Is Later Than You Think: The Need for a Militant Democracy. New York: The Viking Press, 1939. p 5.

Erich Fromm. Escape from Freedom. New York: Avon, 1941. pp. 97-98.

Peter Levine. We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Nicholas Cheeseman and Brian Klaas. How to Rig an Election. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018.

"Beating Authoritarianism Isn’t as Simple as You Think. It’s Even Simpler." Umair Haque. Eudaimonia (Medium). June 17, 2018.

“We Can Finally See the Real Source of Washington Gridlock.” Adam Serwer. The Atlantic. April 2, 2020. Accessed April 6, 2020.

Jamie Bartlett. The People Vs Tech: How the Internet Is Killing Democracy (and How We Save It). Dutton: April 5, 2018.

Garret Keizer. Privacy. New York: Picador, 2012. p. 38.

“The Election,” Jia Tolentino. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion. New York: Random House, 2019. pp. 215, 219-220.

Zat Rana. “Thinking Better, Together.” List email. 24 March 2020.


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