My favorite part of a favorite book (Philip Gorski’s American Covenant, published last year) involves competing concepts of political time. Liberals understand political time as linear, pointing onward and upward on a graph (x = time; y = progress) – time as never-ending progress. In contrast, many conservatives understand political time as cyclical. For them, no new thing appears under the sun, and the future eventually leads back to the past.
Timothy Snyder’s book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, released two weeks ago, is largely structured around these time concepts. In Russia over the past decade, though, a cyclical cycle became “the politics of eternity” as Putin sought to keep power by way of creating crises and pretending that outside forces were acting to challenge the Russian people’s inherent innocence. Eternity is in the present; there is no political future — no plan of succession and no plan for a polity’s self-correction.
Russia has, therefore, already arrived in the political millennium. Putin’s millennium is different than the end of history Marx envisioned and the Soviet Union was working toward. Marx was, after all, a “Left Hegelian,” while the white nationalist philosopher championed by Putin, Ivan Ilyin, was a “Right Hegelian.” But all political eternities involve magical thinking as a replacement for history and facts, so Putin, in championing the old Soviet Union as an ideology-free Russia, can ignore Ilyin’s detestation of the Soviet model. Ilyin, as Snyder points out, would have loved Putin’s revisionism.
The ease by which Russia switched from cyclical to “eternal” thinking may explain how easily virulent nationalism has infected American conservatism over the past two years.
True American conservatives, mostly known by reference to their conquerer as “Never Trumps,” are already reassessing what went wrong and exploring how their political understanding was so quickly routed from the nation’s consciousness. Liberals, though preoccupied in opposing to Trump, need to reassess how their worldview also aided Trump’s rise.
How was liberalism complicit in the political atmosphere that gave rise to Trump’s election? Three things come to mind. First, American liberals failed to see how their “politics of inevitability,” as Snyder characterizes it, blinded them to Russia’s response to the failure of its own “politics of inevitability” in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Russia is, in this sense, thirty years ahead of us, Snyder argues. Our purblind politics is evident in retrospect: we laughed in 2012, for instance, when Mitt Romney declared Russia as our greatest adversary.
Second, American liberals failed to understand how their lockstep pro-choice position on abortion has for decades alienated half of the American electorate and undercut their fundamental argument about the primacy of life as a moral guide in crafting other areas of public policy. For many pro-life voters, national elections have for years represented a deflating contest between their hearts (morality) and their heads (middle- and lower-class oriented policies; financial regulations; steps to combat global warming, etc.).
Third, both the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity purport to be irresistible. In this sense, both deny agency, and therefore both have little need of or care for a vibrant public sphere. Because the politics of inevitability is irresistible only in the long run, it better protects the public sphere and the positive freedom that the public sphere requires. But not much better. This failure to regard public freedom (i.e., positive freedom, as opposed to negative and private, First-Amendment freedoms, generally understood as freedom from politics) should be a matter of liberal self-reflection, too.
If liberals take up self-examination along with the conservatives, self-examination could become, to a large extent, a joint conversation, maybe the first sane and extended one between the two factions in generations. The means by which such a conversation would occur could p0int to the rebirth of the public sphere.
[Photo of Timothy Snyder taken in 1996. By Frauemacht – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47883997 ]