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Reimagining Liberalism

Liberals have become so accustomed to worshipping their icons at the temples of liberalism that they have lost touch with the fundamental tenets of their faith.

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Reimagining  Liberalism

Liberals have become so accustomed to worshipping their icons at the temples of liberalism that they have lost touch with the fundamental tenets of their faith.

Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the U.S. presidential elections last month has, predictably, sent shock waves in liberal and progressive circles. It seems beyond comprehension, sickening even, that such a misogynistic, narcissistic, bigoted, and pathological liar — and Trump is all those things even in the eyes of many who voted for him — could ascend to the highest office in the country, just when it seemed that liberalism was on the cusp of historical and enduring triumph.

Not only was the liberal set expecting Hillary Clinton to steamroll over Trump — after all, the public opinion polls they devoured so religiously on Huffington Post, Real Clear Politics, Fivethirtyeight, etc., were all reassuring them of that, both individually and collectively — but the relative ease and swiftness with which the latest victories on gay and LGBT rights were won demonstrated just how close they had come to the promised land. All that remained for the triumphant liberal armies was to mop up the last vestiges of reactionary holdouts — the “basket of deplorables,” in Clinton’s memorable turn of the phrase — in the wildernesses of Oklahoma and North Dakota.

What a difference an election makes.

The electoral debacle should prompt liberals and progressives to undertake a critical self-examination of their fault lines. Why did so many in the working class and the poor — and not just Whites, mind you — abandon their natural allies in the Democrats to follow a crass and loony billionaire pied piper with a 40-year record of stiffing them at every turn?

Perhaps liberals have become so accustomed to worshipping their icons at the temples of liberalism that they have lost touch, not just with people, but also the fundamental tenets of their faith. In recent decades, the liberal and progressive movements, ostensibly pursuing the interests of the poor and disadvantaged, have been overrun by billionaires and celebrities — George Soros, George Clooney, the Clintons, the Obamas. They have lost their earthly roots in Harlem, New York, and Youngstown, Ohio, and discovered instead their greatest potency and fire in gilded fundraisers in the Hamptons and Martha’s Vineyard.

Bred on the scriptures of professionalism and globalism espoused by technocratic high priests, they have sidelined “the people” — you know those tunnel vision union workers, uninformed, uneducated poor, and their ilk — for their power slide and spreadsheet elixirs.

The new liberal establishment — and its even more elevated progressive counterpart — comprises of highly successful and networked professionals and their even more enlightened children who take collective pride in their humanity, social consciousness and philanthropy. They bask in the glory of their sheltered children sacrificing years of their professional lives for heart wrenching social causes. The epitome of their achievement arrives in the stock 15-minute video of their earth-shattering idea worth sharing on a TEDtalk.

In these technocratic circles, politics, progressivism and philanthropy have been imbued with a new and urgent corporate ethic. “Enlightened businesses” have embraced environmentalism as an economic virtue — opportunities for overpriced organic food, encouraging guests to recycle towels and bedsheets to save on laundry costs, carbon credits, and other such profitable socially progressive innovations.

Individual social good has progressed beyond making financial donations, volunteering personal time or political activism. Stanford, Harvard and Wharton MBAs have deployed their skills to elevate philanthropy to the stature of social entrepreneurship, with the noble aim of imbuing nonprofits with their financial savvy to make them “sustainable.”

The project has since evolved — mutated if you will — into the social enterprise, which serves social goals, at least so far, but can also be financially lucrative for its managers and investors. In the larger public interest, of course, with all the trappings and nods to Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) Karl Marx, E. F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful), so that they can attract our best and brightest talent in the service of the public good.

The day to day grittiness of political campaigns has likewise been reduced to powerful algorithms, mobile apps, polls, and the like (like in social media like), which only the tech savvy can comprehend and mobilize.

Whatever the merits and the motivations for this professional ingenuity in humanitarian service, it is divorcing and alienating liberals from the realities and the lexicon of the people they claim to represent. Increasingly, in these enlightened circles, it is easier to mobilize battle cries for gender neutral bathrooms (a cause celebre for Hollywood) than it is for addressing such mundane issues as malnourished children, exploitation of undocumented immigrants, or the homeless.

Celebrities, billionaires and successful entrepreneurs pontificate endlessly on social and economic policy at star studded galas. Enlightenment and liberalism have become their own intoxicants and virtues, sundered from the lives of real people on main street.

From their lofty goody-me-good perches, liberals and progressives may find criticism of their complicity in the political failure during this election cycle painful to accept. But perhaps they may be more receptive to Prof Roger Antonsen, of the Department of Informatics at the University of Oslo, who revealed in a fascinating talk on the power of mathematics to comprehend the world on their favorite forum, TED: “Understanding something really deeply has to do with the ability to change your perspective.”

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Commentary | Commentary | Poliitcs | December 2016

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