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Fear is the Mind Killer… of Liberalism

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WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 06: Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Trump supporters gathered in the nation’s capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

In case you forgot, the same Yale professor whose rambling, semi-coherent op-ed Paul highlighted today also brought us 2017’s New York Times clickbait, “The Real Threat to U.S. Democracy isn’t Trump, it’s Hysterical Liberals.” Yes, the very same left-wing intellectual who once pointed to lower court injunctions against the “Muslim Ban” as evidence that the Trump administration posed no threat to liberty now attacks liberals for, in his words, “betting their success less on a positive vision for America’s future and more on the ability of courts to protect the nation.”

At least we can say Moyn is consistent: the underlying argument he made in 2017 is identical to the one he makes today. Here’s Moyn in 2023:

During the Cold War, concern for liberty from tyranny and self-defense against enemies sometimes led not just to the loss of the very freedom liberals were supposed to care about at home, it also prompted violent reigns of terror abroad as liberals backed authoritarians or went to war in the name of fighting Communism. Millions died in the killing fields of this brutal global conflict, many of them at the hands of America and its proxies fighting in the name of “freedom.”

Here he is, writing with David Priestland in 2017:

If there is one lesson from the 20th century worth learning, it is that an exclusive focus on the defense of liberal fundamentals against a supposed totalitarian peril often exacerbates the social and international conflicts it seeks to resolve. This approach to politics threatens to widen the already yawning gulf between liberal groups and their opponents, while distracting from the deeply rooted forces that have been fueling right-wing populist politics, notably economic inequalities and status resentments.

Now, “data” is not the plural of “anecdote,” but I still feel compelled to note that I know literally zero self-identifying “liberals” who are “betting” on any courts—national or local—to protect liberal democracy.

I’m also pretty confident that the reason Biden isn’t implementing New Deal 2.0 isn’t because he’s failed to “internalize” a quotation from Roosevelt. It might have something more to do with having 50 seats in the U.S. Senate, and less that 50 votes for any New Deal 2.0, when the Democrats controlled the House.

But maybe I just don’t spend enough time at Yale Law School.

Now Moyn’s not wrong about the dangers of sliding into “Cold War 2.0.” But that concern doesn’t require some kind of sweeping argument about the “liberalism of fear.” Nor does it require pretending that FDR’s brand of liberalism wasn’t prone to exactly the same kinds of pathologies—including support for murderous authoritarian regimes—that Moyn attributes to “Cold War Liberalism.”

When I think of “problems with Cold War Liberalism” I don’t usually count among them a lack of faith in the ability of the state to achieve economic and social progress.. I’m sure Moyn’s book will make an extended case that distance between 1930s liberalism and 1950s liberalism is greater than the one between 1950s liberalism and 1990s neoliberalism. I just doubt that he’ll succeed.

Anyway, I had planned on a post looking back at that weird moment in 2020 when Republicans started talking about how, first, “Color Revolutions” are illegitimate anti-democratic coups and, second, the Democrats are planning to do one after the election. It seems like a good time to revisit that. Perhaps soon.

ETA: this blogpost has been edited since it was first published.

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