The failures of conservatism are painfully obvious at this moment; the movement’s standard-bearer is a walking infomercial for nepotism and bankruptcy who believes he can treat the Constitution the way he treated his first two wives.
No American conservative can ever say that “character counts” again without the world laughing.
But as we head into this new era, I want to focus for a moment on the failures of American liberalism. Because while conservatives need only read the president-elect’s Twitter feed to know where they went horribly wrong, it seems increasingly apparent that American liberals don’t understand their mistakes at all, and many are having a hard time believing they ever made any. Their conversations repeat the same platitudes they were repeating before the election, only at greater speeds and in higher registers. As though the problem with liberalism is that it was never shrill enough.
American liberalism has had great successes in the 20th century — it can take credit for improved worker safety, food safety, the expansion of education and, of course, for both the civil rights movement and the expansion of equal rights for women.
But when you look at the most “successful” bastions of liberalism today — the places where liberalism has full sway governing — what do you see?
You see that they are every bit as segregated as other parts of the country, and maybe more. As John Oliver explained, the most segregated school district in America is New York City. Far from being welcoming to black people, San Francisco has seen an absolute exodus of them from its city limits. Liberalism’s most successful bastions in the private sector — Wall Street, tech companies, legal firms, Hollywood — are not only lily white, but hostile to women, and Silicon Valley is the center of age discrimination to boot.
You see cities that are incredibly hard to live in. They have the highest wealth disparities in the nation. They have the most expensive housing markets in the country. In some ways this is a measure of success — Look, everybody wants to live in a liberal city! — but it is in fact a glaring failure, because in practical terms it means that liberal enclaves only welcome the rich. For all that they pay lip service to the needs of the working class and the poor, it is harder to have a decent standard of living as a teacher or police officer or construction worker in a major liberal city than anywhere else.
You see that liberalism only thrives in cities. Which is to say that 21st century American liberalism has not figured out how to create communities in new kinds of places, only to try and replicate the success of the major city model, which when it works leads to increased segregation and gentrification until the people American liberalism pays homage to are forced out.
You see that if somebody doesn’t want to move to the big city, liberalism has not figured out how to take root in their community — even when it offers tangible government assistance — and offer people the kind of lives they want to live.
You see, in other words, that for all its many successes, the only successful kinds of communities that American liberalism knows how to create right now are ones with high barriers to entry which, if successful, eventually replicate the very problems that they berate other people for perpetuating.
You don’t have to be a conservative to see why such places might not appeal to everyone. If the liberal answer to racism and income inequality is to make the world more like San Francisco, Hollywood and New York, then American liberalism has no successful model for making the kind of communities that work for most people.
This isn’t to say that conservatives know how to do any better, this isn’t to suggest conservatives, or whatever Donald Trump is, have any good answers, at all. But American liberals need to understand that they don’t actually have a working model for solving the problems they accuse others of perpetuating, or building workable communities that people who don’t dream of running off to the big city to become a tech or Wall Street gazillionaire would want to live in, or could even if they would.
Contemporary American liberalism has tended to see its major goal as righting the wrongs of the past. This is a noble effort, but it turns out that it’s far more urgent task is to create vibrant, open communities. Figuring out how to create communities that have their acts together enough to make people of all kinds want build something like it where they live — and doing it so that everyone can see — is the fundamental challenge of American liberalism now. It’s about finding models that work and are welcoming.