The Limit of Jonathan Chait's Cold War Liberalism

By David Duhalde

It is difficult to tell if Jonathan Chait is intellectually dishonest or just lazy. Either way, his latest article is a prime example of how as successful liberal legislation plateaus, some rely on tired tropes to defend liberalism instead of introspection. 

In his Wednesday piece in New York Magazine, “Reminder: Liberalism Is Working, and Marxism Has Always Failed,” he conveniently fails to distinguish between the Marxist roots of both democratic socialism/social democracy and those of Leninist regimes such as China and Cuba. Of course, he does praise a strong welfare state such as Denmark, but credits the market - not socialist and working class struggles – for making that country egalitarian. 

It is transparent in the following paragraph that his prime target is not Marxism, however he defines it, but actually democratic Marxists and socialists:

It is on politics, not economics, where the influence of Marxist ideas has been most keenly felt. Enough time has passed since the demise of the Soviet Union to allow Marxist models to thrive without answering for communist regimes. In his fascinating profile of Jacobin, Dylan Matthews notes, “The magazine is not going to defend Stalin's collectivizations or Mao's Great Leap Forward or really any other aspect of ‘actually existing communism.’” But the fact that every communist country in world history quickly turned into a repressive nightmare is kind of important.

Chait is clear, even as he is logically flawed: no matter how much the democratic Left rejects totalitarianism, we are still responsible for its crimes.

Does Chait apply the same standard to himself and other proponents of the Iraq war? Are they culpable for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis? My guess is he does not.

But the liberals Chait wishes to defend is almost as fascinating as the democratic anti-capitalists he wishes to destroy. He added:

Nor do realistic advocates of social and economic equality have any reason to share or accept the left’s desperation. The popular, sitting liberal president has enacted the most important egalitarian social reforms in half a century, including higher taxes on the rich, lower taxes on the poor, and significant new income transfers to poor and working-class Americans through health-care reform and other measures. All of this has happened without the alliance with white supremacy that compromised the New Deal, or the disastrous war that accompanied the Great Society. The case for democratic, pluralistic, incremental, market-friendly governance rooted in empiricism — i.e., liberalism — has never been stronger than now. What an odd time to abandon a successful program for an ideology that has failed everywhere it has been tried.

In many ways, the opposite of his second to last sentence is true. Just look how the two Democratic presidential candidates debated the Affordable Care Act. Senator Bernie Sanders voted for the healthcare reform, but now calls for our country to move beyond it toward a single-payer system. Secretary Hillary Clinton bluntly “reminded” Sanders (and us) that such a reform is “impossible” and we should be happy with Obamacare. It is this kind of “incremental” liberals that is hitting its limits – and this why more and more people are gravitating towards socialism.

Socialists understand, as people such as Chait do not, that policy struggles are about power and resources, just as much as they are about ideas. If progressives – both liberals and leftists – are not willing to challenge corporate power of the healthcare industry, then yes, Hillary Clinton is correct that the ACA is the best we can have. But if we want to build a democratic and mass movement like the one Sanders calls for, we can have Medicare-for-all.

These choices represent the nuance that Chait wishes to avoid. This is why he painstakingly avoids crediting democratic socialists with any gains in liberal democracies he so praises. Doing so would crush the old paradigm of Marxist dictatorships and capitalist democracies his Cold War liberalism clings onto. Lucky for us, the voters are showing this red-baiting is less effective than ever. And people will increasingly turn to democratic socialism as the best way to achieve social justice in public policy.

David Duhalde is the Deputy Director of the Democratic Socialists of America.

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