Tuesday, June 29, 2004
There is a very interesting debate going on over at Brad DeLong's website about Rawls and Hume. It has degenerated into a discussion about utilitarianism, but nevertheless I have been impressed with the quality of the debate.
Which got me to thinking about the relationship (if any) between political theory and politics. This website is in an effort to bridge the gap between abstract and practical political considerations- it is up to you to decide how effective I have been. But some might argue that high-flown philosophical and historical notions have little purchase on the day-to-day political fracas. Which is one reason I think we as liberals are getting clobbered.
The conservatives have for years been peddling a flawed Randian moral psychology and getting away with it. Liberal politicians have called them mean and liberal philosophers have either ignored or dissected them, but there has been little cooperation between the two (with the exception of Bill Galston), which is why I think the right has been so successful. The difference between liberal and conservative philosophy has little to do with the intellectual merits- there is almost no serious thinker who thinks conservatives have a clue, which might be why the right is always bashing academia. No, the difference between right and left intellectualism is that conservatives have thought through ways to articulate their position in a way comprehensible to the public, and in doing so have not only been able to shift the political debate in their favor but also keep their team united. Nothing aids cooperation like knowing you're on the same team.
This rhetorical failure of the left has real consequences. It has enabled conservatives to persuade large sections of the public to their way of thinking. And the bigger problem is that, unlike 19th century conservatism, 20th century conservatism is without merit- it is simply wrong. It is so wrong it is antithetical to the democracy, something we are only now beginning to realize.
What the left needs is an understanding of political rhetoric. Conventional rhetoric is simply the ability to persuade, but high rhetoric allows its practicioners to close the gap between the conventional political discourse and more abstract reasoning. In short, is packages philosophical notions into digestible morsels. Reagan was spectacularly good at this. And this is also where Bill Clinton really let us down- unlike a Cuomo or a Kennedy, he was never able to communicate broader themes to the public. Instead, he operated within Reagan's paradigm and became a prisoner of it.
So we need our liberal philosophers (whether they be utilitarians, rawlsians, communitarians, or what) to huddle with our political strategists. Which means we need people who can talk to and synthesize the thinking of both.