Recently Adam Serwer published a piece in The Atlantic characterizing the current conversation about liberalism amongst American conservatives as essentially being a sustained, intellectualized temper tantrum thrown over their loss of power. Ross Douthat has done the main work in critiquing that larger argument.
I want to take note of a particular strand in Serwer’s argument that further undermines his just-so story about liberalism and particularly liberal proceduralism, by which I mean the political norms and customs by which we essentially outsource conflict mediation to political processes.
Let’s start with Serwer. Here is his argument:
Black Americans did not abandon liberal democracy because of slavery, Jim Crow, and the systematic destruction of whatever wealth they managed to accumulate; instead they took up arms in two world wars to defend it. Japanese Americans did not reject liberal democracy because of internment or the racist humiliation of Asian exclusion; they risked life and limb to preserve it. Latinos did not abandon liberal democracy because of “Operation Wetback,” or Proposition 187, or because of a man who won a presidential election on the strength of his hostility toward Latino immigrants. Gay, lesbian, and trans Americans did not abandon liberal democracy over decades of discrimination and abandonment in the face of an epidemic. This is, in part, because doing so would be tantamount to giving the state permission to destroy them, a thought so foreign to these defenders of the supposedly endangered religious right that the possibility has not even occurred to them. But it is also because of a peculiar irony of American history: The American creed has no more devoted adherents than those who have been historically denied its promises, and no more fair-weather friends than those who have taken them for granted.
The argument, essentially, is that through all the far more egregious injustices experienced by various minorities in America (relative to the current issues facing religious conservatives), none of them lost faith in the liberal order.
Rather, they worked via the liberal order to plead their case and advance the cause of justice.
There is, however, a rather large gap in Serwer’s argument: I do not know the history of Latino activism in the US as well, so I can’t speak to those sources, but it is quite misleading to suggest that the legacy of African American activism in this country has always been in lockstep with proceduralism.
It would be news to W. E. B. Du Bois that the liberal order can be salvaged for black Americans. In The Souls of Black Folk, he critiques Booker T. Washington for being too accommodating to the liberal order.
The South ought to be led, by candid and honest criticism, to assert her better self and do her full duty to the race she has cruelly wronged and is still wronging. The North—her co-partner in guilt—cannot salve her conscience by plastering it with gold. We cannot settle this problem by diplomacy and suaveness, by ‘policy’ alone. If worse come to worst, can the moral fibre of this country survive the slow throttling and murder of nine millions of men?
While Du Bois did end his critique of Washington by citing the Declaration of Independence, foreshadowing King’s similar move in the “I Have a Dream” speech, he would eventually lose all faith in the American project. By the end of his life, Du Bois had become so pessimistic about liberal democracy that he moved to Ghana, then a one-party state ruled by the pan-Africanist leader Kwame Nkrumah.
This same move would be made not long after by Stokely Carmichael, once a Black Panther, who would also move to west Africa. By the time of Carmichael’s move Nkrumah had been overthrown in a US-backed coup and so he settled in Guinea and took the name Kwame Toure as an homage to both Nkrumah and Ahmed Sekou Toure, the Guinean head of state.
In making this move back to western Africa, both Du Bois and Toure were following the lead of many earlier African American leaders. Marcus Garvey was a major supporter of black Americans mass migrating to Africa in the early 20th century. Similarly, the novelist Sutton Griggs wrote the story of a separatist black nation state existing underground in America in his book Imperium in Imperio, published in 1899.
In the final pages of Griggs’s fictitious president of this country gives a speech, outlining the cause and its reasons, culminating in a call for violent revolution.
Oh! my Comrades, we cannot longer endure our shame and misery!
We can no longer lay supinely down upon our backs and let oppression dig his iron heel in our upturned pleading face until, perchance, the pity of a bystander may meekly request him to desist.
Fellow Countrymen, we must be free. The sun that bathes our land in light yet rises and sets upon a race of slaves.
The question remaining before us, then, is ‘How are we to obtain this freedom? In olden times, revolutions were effected by the sword and spear. In modern times the ballot has been used for that purpose. But the ballot has been snatched from our hands. The modern implement of revolutions has been denied us. I need not say more. Your minds will lead you to the only gate left open.
But this much I will say: let not so light, so common, so universal a thing as that which we call death be allowed to frighten you from the path that leads to true liberty and absolute equality. Let that which under any circumstances must come to one and all be no terror to you.
To the martyr, who perishes in freedom’s cause, death comes with a beauteous smile and with most tender touch. But to the man whose blood is nothing but sour swill; who prefers to stay like fattening swine until pronounced fit for the butcher’s knife; to such, death comes with a most horrifying visage, and seizing the victim with cold and clammy hands hurries with his disgusting load to some far away dumping ground.
How glad am I that I can glance over this audience and see written upon your faces utter disdain of death.
The early 19th century abolitionist David Walker wrote in his Appeal (published in 1829) that the American nation would be doomed if it did not repent of its racism. Note that Walker does this on explicitly Christian grounds:
Will not that very remarkable passage of Scripture be fulfilled on Christian Americans? Hear it Americans!! ‘He that is unjust, let him be unjust still:—and he which is filthy let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.’
I hope that the Americans may hear, but I am afraid that they have done us so much injury, and are so firm in the belief that our Creator made us to be an inheritance to them for ever, that their hearts will be hardened, so that their destruction may be sure. This language, perhaps is too harsh for the American’s delicate ears. But Oh Americans! Americans!! I warn you in the name of the Lord, (whether you will hear or forbear,) to repent and reform, or you are ruined!!!
I won’t spend much more time on the primary sources here, save to note that we have outlined anti-American revolutionary trends in black literature and have yet to quote Malcolm X, who is likely the best known exemplar of this tradition today.
But the point that needs to be made is that it is simply dishonest to frame the debate in the way Serwer does. There is a long history in this country of people criticizing liberalism on grounds that it cannot advance the social good of a people because it is either indifferent to them or because its proceduralism is simply a figleaf intended to legitimize gross injustice via the concealing mechanism of legal processes. Historically the people making that claim most effectively have not been white nationalists, but rather the people who have been trampled on by the white nationalists.
For Malcolm X the response to having “Plymouth Rock land on (you)” wasn’t a denatured liberal proceduralism, but an alternative nationalism that is ordered to a different good and that, yes, will seek to use political means to advance that particular vision rather than remaining agnostic as to “the good” and hoping that procedure and structure can do enough to make us behave according to some baseline standard of morality.
The point here is not that conservative religious post-liberals are facing injustices even remotely on the scale of those that confronted black Americans. There can be no equating of our nation’s long history of injustices with the current relatively meager challenges facing religious conservatives.
But that isn’t really what is at issue anyway, at least not amongst the more responsible post-liberal Christians. Christian post-liberalism is not premised in an attempt to reach back and recover a pre-Brown or even antebellum America. Rather, our critique actually overlaps with the critique of many black nationalists in that we would agree that the American project as defined by many of its key intellectuals is fundamentally incoherent because it is unable to offer a coherent account of the public good and so is unable to mount a credible defense against the naked ambition of the powerful on either side of the political spectrum.
The alliance that could be formed here is fraught for the obvious reason that white Christians have often failed in the call to love their black neighbors. Thus the danger of appropriating black leaders is real and should be recognized and fought against amongst white Christians. If our argument ends up being “David Walker is a proto post-liberal in the style of Patrick Deneen,” we will have made the wrong argument. But if the critique is that the cardinal problems that have always existed in America are now simply announcing themselves more loudly such that more and more of us are being caught in the blast radius, then the case can be made more credibly.
We should not fall into Serwer’s error and act as if the only options on offer are “white nationalist post-liberalism” or “liberal proceduralism.” To do so is to ignore the long and diverse testimony of many black leaders in American history.