Reading Hannah Arendt’s Crises of the Republic in the Age of Trump: A Symposium

Hannah Arendt’s Crises of the Republic is not so much a book as a collection, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1972, of three essays and an interview that first appeared, individually, in the years between 1969 and 1971. Three of the pieces were first published in The New York Review of Books, and the fourth, the essay on civil disobedience, was first published in the New Yorker. Even though the words “crisis” or “crises” do not appear in the titles of any of these pieces, all of them clearly address what Arendt considered to be a constellation of forces that together represented a severe test of “the American Republic.”

This symposium contains essays by Mary Dietz, William E. Scheuerman, Christian Volk, Seyla Benhabib, and Jeffrey C. Isaac that engage with the obvious and meaningful resonances between Crises of the Republic and the present. They were originally presented in August at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting in Boston, in a panel organized by William Scheuerman and moderated by Cidgem Cidam.

We are currently living in dark times that have been considerably darkened by the rise of right-wing, authoritarian populist movements, parties and leaders that many believe signal a serious crisis of liberal democracy. The presidency of Donald Trump represents a particularly noxious, and distinctively American, version of this tendency. Arendt’s Crises of the Republic engages an earlier crisis in which many of our current concerns were foreshadowed.

Arendt was in many ways a “radical republican,” and her 1963 On Revolution offered a very powerful critique of what Louis Hartz had called “the liberal tradition in America.” At the same time, this critique of American liberalism was both sympathetic and immanent. What was “the Republic” that Arendt believed was in “crisis” during the period of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s? A clue can be found, of all places, in a much earlier essay attacking McCarthyism, Arendt’s “The Ex-Communists,” published in Commonweal (March 20, 1953, p. 599):

America, this republic, the democracy in which we are, is a living thing which cannot be contemplated or categorized, like the image of a thing which I can make; it cannot be fabricated. It is not and never will be perfect because the standard of perfection does not apply here. Dissent belongs to this living matter as much as consent does. The limitations on dissent are the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and no one else. If you try to “make America more American” or a model of democracy according to any preconceived idea, you can only destroy it. Your methods, finally, are the justified methods of the police, and only of the police.

By the late 1960’s, Arendt’s fears about the fate of “this republic, the democracy in which we are,” were heightened by a set of overlapping crises:

(1) The sphere of political agency, political deliberation, and political negotiation seemed overwhelmed by the pervasive and seemingly systemic outbreak of violence:

  • A series of shocking, demoralizing, and delegitimizing political assassinations, the most notable of which were the killings of Medgar Evers (June 1963), President John F. Kennedy (November 1963), Malcolm X (February 1965), Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 1968), and Robert F. Kennedy (June 1968), though it is worth noting that dozens of civil rights workers were killed, and hundreds brutalized, by racist police forces and the KKK during this period.
  • An intense outbreak of civil violence in American cities, some of it in reaction to the latter two killings, but much of it taking place well before those events. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, was appointed by President Johnson in 1967; it focused on the wave of police brutality, rioting, militarization of cities, and mass casualties and destruction, during the period 1965-67, and it issued its report in March 1968, before the wave of violence in the wake of the 1968 assassinations of King and Kennedy.
  • A broader climate of violence, and enactment of violence, connected to the increasingly murderous, destructive, and controversial Vietnam war.
  • The angry and violent turn of the student, antiwar, and Black liberation movements, in response to the repression, infiltration, and provocation practiced by police and by the FBI, symbolized by the violent repression of protestors during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the trial of the Chicago Eight; and the “Days of Rage” organized by the Weathermen on the streets of Chicago in 1969.

(2) The systematic mendacity and deceit regularly practiced at the highest levels of the government to justify its violence, as a tool of domestic repression but more so as a means of waging a vicious, unjust, and unwinnable war had generated a real crisis of credibility and legitimacy, neatly summed up by the title of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr’s 1969 The Crisis of Confidence.

(3) The failure of the normal forms of parliamentary politics, and the normal practices of “consent” and “dissent” organized through electoral politics, had led to a crisis of political authority characterized on the one hand by the forms of violence and incivility noted above, and on the other hand by the spread of political protest and the practices of direct action, nonviolent resistance, and civil disobedience.

(4) In the face of these interlocking crises, questions arose as to whether the U.S., and the liberal democratic world more generally, faced “a revolutionary situation.” The January 30, 1969 issue of The New York Review of Books contained a very serious, and historically telling, essay by Barrington Moore, Jr., bearing the title “Revolution in America?”. Moore was skeptical that the U.S. was experiencing a full-scale revolutionary situation capable of producing a change of regime. But he considered the question serious enough to write a substantial essay for a premiere journal of liberal public opinion.

These were Arendt’s overriding concerns during this period; each of the four pieces collected in Crises of the Republic centers on one of these concerns with a mind to all of them. And each of them speaks to challenges we currently face in the age of Trump.

  • The rhetorical violence of Trumpism; the forms of extremist, fascist violence that have sometimes accompanied it, the forms of reactive “antifa” this violence has sometimes engendered, and broader questions about the relationship between means and ends in politics.
  • The delegitimation of both “truth” and elemental “facticity” by Trumpist prevarication and lying, which exploits the no-longer-so-new digital communications technologies, and deploys rhetoric of “fake news,” to promote a “post-truth” environment, and to attack press freedom, to confuse citizens, and to cover up dangerous and corrupt activities.
  • Violations of human rights and civil rights, performed, abetted and justified by agencies of the federal government such as the Justice Department, Homeland Security, ICE, and by local police forces, that raise profound questions about the limits of normal politics and the justifications for direct action and civil disobedience, in connection with immigrant rights, Black Lives Matter, environmental justice, etc.
  • Questions being posed by a substantial number of millennials about the very legitimacy of capitalism and liberal democracy, and about the possibilities and justifications for “socialism” and even for “revolution”; journals such as the revealingly-entitled Jacobin represent an important space for such discussions.

At the same time, I’d like to focus on what separates us from Arendt’s time and her reflections; why our own time is perhaps more dangerous; and what this means for us.

Arendt was a New Yorker and her views about the political challenges presented by the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were shaped by her experiences as such, at a time when New York loomed especially large in the politics of establishment liberalism. It is no coincidence that all of the essays in question were published in periodicals bearing the name New York.

Crises was published in 1972, and all four of its pieces were originally published between 1969 and 1971 — during the Presidency of Richard Nixon. It would not be wrong to think of Crises as a critique of “the imperial presidency” of Richard Nixon. But in a broader and deeper sense, Crises is a diagnosis and critique of the crisis of post-WWII, Cold War liberalism, and here I mean both the powerful welfare-warfare state that had been constructed through the efforts of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, as well as the way that these institutions had been thrown into crisis by their own unintended consequences, in the process calling into being their own immanent critics if not “gravediggers” — civil rights activists, Black Power activists, and of course the New Left student movements that eventually gave rise to what we now call “identity liberalism.”

Arendt was a critic of all of this. The political turmoil that Arendt addresses in the book is the turmoil of liberalism — of the liberal Republican administration of New York Mayor John Lindsay; the liberal “multi-universities” of Berkeley and Columbia that were first subjected to criticism and then placed under siege by student radicals and by police; the liberal civil rights movement that was floundering even before the 1968 assassination of Dr. King; the liberal national security managers who had engineered U.S. hegemony in Western Europe, Latin America, and Asia, but then engineered a war in Vietnam in which they had become stuck; the liberal Democratic party that was adrift without a clear sense of identity, but that retained control of both houses of Congress throughout the period.

The authors of The Pentagon Papers were liberals who were seriously trying to figure out how they had gone wrong, and those among them who had become the most vocal dissenting critics of the War — Dan Ellsberg, Mort Halperin, Leslie Gelb — were liberals. The Institute for Policy Studies, the left think tank that originated in powerful antiwar criticism, was founded by two liberals—Marcus Raskin, who had worked as an aide to McGeorge Bundy on the National Security Council, and Richard J. Barnet, who had worked as an aide to John McCloy in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, both during the Kennedy administration.

The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — known as the Kerner Commission — was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 to address the causes of the violent race riots that had broken out in American cities in the period 1965-67. Its chair was a liberal Democrat, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, and its co-chair was a liberal Republican, New York Mayor John V. Lindsay. Every one of the Commission’s 11 members was a liberal of one sort or another.

The 1968 teacher’s strike that threw New York City politics into crisis and that contributed to the poisoning of race relations in American politics long thereafter, pitted the liberal United Federation of Teachers against advocates for community control of inner-city schools that included Black Power activists but also included liberals like Mayor Lindsay and McGeorge Bundy — the same man who had helped to engineer the Vietnam War, who then went on to become President of the Ford Foundation, in which capacity he promoted a number of civil rights initiatives, including the community control initiative attempted in NYC public schools in 1968.

Liberalism-in-crisis was the dominant public philosophy when Crises was published. While Arendt was a sharp political critic, she was an iconoclast who resisted all labels and was not herself emphatically anti-liberal. In some ways she can be seen as a radical; in some ways she can be seen as anticipating neoconservative themes; and in some ways she clearly can be seen as a kind of liberal (what Arnold Kaufman would call a “radical liberal”), a defender of civil liberties and authentically representative government powered by active citizenship. But it is not wrong to read her as in some ways abetting the intellectual crisis of liberalism.

As Steve Fraser makes clear in his excellent Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America, it was in response to the liberal Mayor Lindsay’s effort to promote racial integration in New York City that “liberal” became a term of abuse not simply for white racists in the South, but for urban, blue-collar whites in the North; it was Italian-American Mario Proccacino from the Bronx, the former associate of liberal Republican Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who in 1969 ran against Lindsay for mayor as a Democrat, who coined the phrase “limousine liberal,” thus becoming perhaps the first “Reagan Democrat.”

At the same time, “liberalism” had also become a term of abuse on the left, particularly as part of the compound “corporate liberalism.” During this time uncompromising critiques of liberalism were penned by important writers on the left such as Noam Chomsky, Robert Paul Wolff, and Herbert Marcuse; and the term “liberal” became a regular adjective of derision (in a famous speech that is featured in the film “Berkeley in the Sixties,” Free Speech Movement Mario Savio utters the word liberal with both emphasis and undisguised contempt).

That was then, and this is now. Fifty years have now passed.

During this period “liberalism” has become even more widely discredited, in part due to the limits and contradictions of its official custodians, and in part due to its channeling into new social movements, and demands for inclusion and recognition, that fractured “the liberal coalition” along racial and gender lines.

More importantly, during this period right-wing Republicanism ascended to national hegemony by exploiting these contradictions and tensions within liberalism, by playing on and intensifying racial, gender, and sexual resentments, and by claiming to be the party of Patriotic, God-fearing, White American Normal.

And here we are today, in the Age of Trump.

Trump not only represents the culmination of this process.

His own identity, and the politics of vicious polarization and racial resentment on which he long has thrived, can be traced back to the conflicts of late-1960’s New York City, and to the revolt of the “outer boroughs” — especially Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens, the borough of Trump’s origins and my own — against “liberalism.” From Proccacino and Roy Cohen to Rudy Guliani to Trump. From the worst elements of New York City to the cesspool that is the current White House.

Many of the insights contained in Arendt’s Crises are obviously relevant now.

But whereas Crises was written amidst a crisis of liberalism beset by contradictions and tensions, we live amidst a crisis of liberal democracy that has been progressively weakened by five decades of conservatism. What is really in crisis now is the post-Reagan political formation that arose in response to and repudiation of liberalism. Liberalism is much weaker today than it was in 1972. It also looks much better today, looking backward, than it looked in 1972, looking forward. Between past and future much???

In 2015 historian Rich Yeselson published an important piece in Democracy Journal whose title and subtitle say it all:

What New Left History Gave Us:

The New Left historians’ withering critiques of liberalism have proven enormously influential. But do they hold up in our more conservative age?

Yeselson’s answer is basically “No!” And I agree with him.

What the New Left social critics and activists who were my teachers and role models didn’t sufficiently realize was that the “radicalism” they extolled was fueled by the failed promises of liberalism, was energized by the hypocrisies of liberalism, and indeed in some sense presupposed liberalism in power, as a force that might be responsive, if pressed, to more radical demands for inclusion and recognition. As New Left historian Staughton Lynd observed as early as 1969, in a special issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science dedicated to “Protest in the Sixties”: “The theorists of corporate liberalism believed their main enemy to be, not the reactionary Right, but the liberal Center. Their attitude may be compared to that of the early German Communist party in the early 1930’s, which directed more hostility toward its Social Democratic competitor than toward the Nazis.” As Lynd noted then, this underestimation of the powers of backlash and the possibilities of reaction was a serious mistake. Of course it was not the only mistake. And my point is not to blame the New Left for our current predicament.

All the same, that form of “corporate liberalism” is now withered. And its evisceration by Trumpism causes, and should cause, many to rethink the contempt for which they long have held “liberalism” broadly speaking.

At the same time, there is no going back. Mark Lilla, in The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, presents some cogent criticisms of the excesses of what is often referred to as “identity liberalism.” But he is wrong to judge and to blame these priorities, and to fail to see that in many ways the things he is criticizing under the rubric of “identity politics” have been important means of democratic empowerment and the expansion and enrichment of liberalism.

Liberal democracy is currently in crisis and under siege. What we need is to name, vigorously defend, and also give new meaning to the distinctive values of liberal democracy: equal citizenship; human rights; freedom to associate, speak, dissent, criticize, and protest; vigorous political contestation; and a democratic state that is responsive to the claims of social justice and ecological sustainability.

The challenge for liberals is not only to create new narratives and new coalitions and to forge a new language of commonality. It is to empower new organizations and political candidates, revitalize social movements and political parties, and generate a deep base of support for a politics of autonomy, solidarity, and liberal democratic deepening. This is a tall order. Holding the center, and broadening it, expanding its commitment to social, economic, and political equality, is the herculean task before us.

Arendt’s Crises of the Republic furnishes us with brilliant insight into an earlier crisis of liberalism from which we can learn much. Our own crisis is, I am afraid, an even more serious one, and we will need to think hard, and work hard, if we are to find our way beyond it.

Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, forthcoming next month from Public Seminar Books/OR Books.