Happy New Year
Friday, December 31, 2004
I have been taking it easy this week when it comes to blogging, but today there is quite a bit that is worthy of comment. I hope every one is having a nice winter holiday season. I for one am ready for things to get back to normal.
First I want to continue my running debate with Ed Kilgore of New Donkey. In the last couple of days he has updated his "Lessons Learned" posting with essays
on foreign policy and the values debate. In both articles he lays out the problems that Democrats face pretty effectively, but I have real reservations about his proposed solutions. For foreign policy, he seems to be hewing to the Beinart line, which as I have commented before is in error. I think that Chris Bowers
has a good explanation of why this approach is a mistake. On the issue of values, Kilgore again makes a relatively uncontroversial point (that Democrats need to frame our arguments in moral terms, and to stick to thematics) while providing precious little in the way of guidance.
To risk sounding like Walter Mondale, I must ask "where's the beef?" I read the PPI summary
on a new Democratic foreign policy, and it was indistinguishable from Kerry's position. To say that the problem is the "Michael Moore" wing of the party, whatever that is, is to do little more than set up a straw man, and to reinforce the Republicans' negative frame. And as for the values debate, I think the DLC'ers are again falling into the trap of believing that the Democrats can replicate Clinton's tactics. Clinton's approach to values issues (through triangulation), which was small bore incrementalism, is a strategy suited for an incumbent. Incumbents need only play a successful defense to get re-elected. An out-party needs to present issues in much starker terms. In the last several campaigns the Democratic candidate has tried to "speak to the concerns of the religious right," the DLC has suggested. But all this seemed to do was reinforce the image of Democrats as wishy-washy.
In sum, I think that the DLC, while well-intentioned, is pursuing a strategy that is either a) already the Democratic consensus, or b) wrongheaded because by taking the conservative attack on liberals as gospel only makes their job easier. I think Kilgore is right when he says that we need to think hard about how to blunt the cultural conservative assault on liberalism. What I fail to see his how he has any realistic strategy for doing so.
There are two other issues I want to speak to. First, I would like to rebut Sanford Ungar's
op-ed in the Washington Post. Ungar is concerned with Robert Byrd's amendment to the federal approprations act mandating the teaching of the Constitution in school. Ungar believes that this is an unconstitutional intrusion into state powers. According to him, the federal government has no business setting federal educational standards. If we start here, where will it stop.
I'm going to skip the slippery slope part of the argument and move straight to the heart of the matter. First, the original purpose of public education in this country was training citizens. So I don't see any problem with mandating it. If the states refuse to teach our youth to understand the political system, it is up to the national government to step in. Secondly, I am exhausted with the canard of states rights. The Constitution is not a suicide pact. If the states are unable or unwilling to solve a problem, are we to just throw up our hands. The three most important areas of public policy that states have been responsible for in the 20th century were civil rights, the environment, and education. And they have made a dog's dinner of each of them, so much so that in the former two instances the federal government decided to take a role. The big education debate in the last generation is whether the feds should do the same with the third. We have been moving steadily in that direction, under Democrat and Republican alike.
Now to avoid the charge of inconsistency, I would like to tell everyone that I would rather the states take an active role in partnership with the national government. Consistent with my principle of "liberal federalism" I think that setting standards and providing money is precisely what the feds should be doing. What I would like to stop seeing is people opposing education reform by hiding behind the fig leaf of states rights. When you will the end of something, you also will the means. If it takes national intervention to solve our educational crisis, so be it.
Finally, I want to mention the tsunami disaster. I was in Indonesia this time last year. I was with my wife in the general vicinity of where the hit took place (we were further south). A friend of mine actually surfed to safety when the tidal wave came. If you don't believe me, check this out...
Surfer unaware of wave carnage
Wednesday, December 29
A MELBOURNE man has survived by surfing the 10-metre tidal waves that have killed more than 29,000 people in Asia.
Surviving fishermen last saw Chris Scurrah, 30, surfing the monster tsunamis off the coast of Padang, Indonesia, near the Mentawi islands.
It was probably his surfboard that saved him according to his girlfriend Christina Fowler, who has not heard from Chris other than what local fishermen have reported.
``He's probably having the time of his life, just loving it'' Ms Fowler, 36, said.
``He was probably safer in the deep water, rather than on land.''
The massive swell would have come as shock to the 30-year-old, who said he was only expecting small waves when he kissed his girlfriend good-bye in Padang on Christmas Eve.
It's been a nervous wait for Ms Fowler who feared her loved one would be lost at sea when the earthquake hit, without warning.
The American bed and breakfast manager said fierce winds and heavy rain caused minimal damage to the Padang township, situated half-way up Sumatra, compared to what other parts of Asia have suffered.
But the storm combined with a pulsating river was enough for her to pack her bags and prepare to climb aboard her building's roof as the only safe haven.
She said the Indonesian town was gripped in panic, unsure what was happening.
``There were people running around everywhere, frightened,'' she said.
``Mostly because a lot of the people in Indonesia don't know much about natural disasters and can't swim.''
Ms Fowler said she expects her boyfriend to return today.
There are very good people who live in Indonesia, people who are struggling enough as it is. They didn't deserve this, but acts of God are out of our hands. People rarely deserve what they get.
What is in our hands is how we respond to the suffering of our fellow humans. And it is here where the behavior of our government has been disgraceful. George Bush waits a week to respond and then offers a pittance? The U.S. takes no leadership role in the greatest natural disaster in recorded history? Forget the bad diplomacy! This is just wrong! The next person who tells me that George Bush is a good man and a good Christian is going to get a punch in the face. Then they can turn the other cheek.
You want to do the right thing? Then whatever your faith, help:
ACTION AGAINST HUNGER
247 West 37th Street, Suite 1201
New York, N.Y. 10018
AMERICAN JEWISH WORLD SERVICE
45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor
New York, N.Y. 10018
AMERICAN JEWISH JOINT DISTRIBUTION COMMITTEE
South Asia Tsunami Relief
847A Second Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10017
212-687-6200 ext. 851
AMERICAN FRIENDS SERVICE COMMITTEE
AFSC Crisis Fund
1501 Cherry Street
Philadelphia, Pa. 19102
AMERICAN RED CROSS
International Response Fund
P.O. Box 37243
Washington, D.C. 20013
151 Ellis Street
Atlanta, GA 30303
CATHOLIC RELIEF SERVICES
P.O. Box 17090
Baltimore, Md. 21203-7090
DIRECT RELIEF INTERNATIONAL
27 South La Patera Lane
Santa Barbara, Calif. 93117
DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS
P.O. Box 1856
Merrifield, Va. 22116-8056
EPISCOPAL RELIEF AND DEVELOPMENT
P. O. Box 12043
Newark, NJ 07101
INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF RED CROSS/RED CRESCENT
INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL CORPS
1919 Santa Monica Boulevard, Suite 300
Santa Monica, Calif. 90404
INTERNATIONAL ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN CHARITIES
Asia Disaster Response
P.O. Box 630225
Baltimore, MD 21263-0225
ISLAMIC RELIEF USA
Southeast Asia Earthquake Emergency
P.O. Box 6098
Burbank, Calif. 91510
Southeast Asia Earthquake Response
P.O. Box 2669
Portland, Ore. 97208
8320 Melrose Avenue, Suite 200
Los Angles, Calif. 90069
Donor Services Department
26 West Street
Boston, MA 12111-1206
SAVE THE CHILDREN
Asia Earthquake/Tidal Wave Relief Fund
54 Wilton Road
Westport, Conn. 06880
General Emergency Fund
333 E. 38th Street
New York, NY 10016
WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME
US Friends of the WFP
PO Box 11856
Washington, D.C. 20008
Have a happy new year.
Tuesday, December 28, 2004
There is something very strange going on in Missouri. In a recent decision
, the courts implied that the payment of a fine to a victim's family could be used to reduce a defendant's sentence. When combined with the recent discussion of "victim's rights" and the concern for alleviating the emotional pain of the victim's family, we are fundamentally altering the legal principles of the country. We are in fact opening a Pandora's box.
The concept of "blood money," that the perpetrator of a crime owes something to the family of the victim, is a very old idea with deep roots in our culture. In medieval Germany it was known as the weregild
. Rather than executing someone for murder, the family owed cash to the bereaved to make up for the pain and suffering.
So if this idea goes back so far, what could be wrong with it? Well, slavery was a tradition too. The principle of the weregild, of a victim-centered notion of criminal law, was downplayed in the modern era. When someone breaks the law, he is committing a crime not just against the victim but against the community. Yes the victim (if alive) or the victim's family can sue for damages. But that is a civil suit, which is conducted under very different principles. The criminal suit is that of the community charging a defendant with having broken the social contract. This is where the ideas of natural law, deterrence, public safety, and all the other justifications for public punishment play a role. The nomenclature of cases highlights the differences between the two kinds of suits: Smith vs. the Robertsons would be a civil suit, Jones vs. the State of Missouri a criminal trial. See the difference?
There is a very good reason we do things this way. If we mixed up criminal and civil trials, not only would be (further) undermining the sense that we share a common life with joint rights and duties. We would also transform the law into an instrument for revenge rather than justice. And we would be headed further down the road of commodifying human life. We don't charge people for voting, we don't allow people to sell organs or their unwanted children, and we don't allow people to get off the hook by paying a big fine. Doing so puts a price tag on humanity, and differentiates the worth of people based on their financial resources. And that is something we as good democrats should be against.
Hot Air? Gasbag.
Monday, December 27, 2004
Long delayed but finally delivered.......
According to George Will
, global warming is a fantasy. The belief that the world's temperature is rising, with potentially disastrous effects, is a myth devoid of real scientific support. Twenty years ago we were all panicked about another ice age, and in another twenty there will be some new catastrophe. The peddlers of environmental extremism are either soft-headed or have hidden agendas, or both. So stop worrying.
And what is Will's source for this dramatic revelation? Where has he found evidence for such a startling accusation? Why, the esteemed Nobel Prize winner and noted environmental scientist Michael Crichton. I can't wait to be able to clone dinosaurs and travel through time!
It is more than a little amusing to read an article in which the author condemns others for believing everything they read, and then watch that self-same author rely on highly questionable sources. Why, we might even call it hypocrisy. Will again deploys that condescending tone for which he so condemns the left. For example, when he wants to taint the idea that greenhouse gases are warming the atmosphere, he does so by putting "greenhouse gases" in quotes. What literary acumen! What compelling reason!
Here, watch me do the same thing:
George Will cites the following "evidence" in support of his assertions: that global temperatures "declined" between 1940 to 1970, that the Icelandic "glaciers" are expanding, and that "Antarctica" is getting colder.
Hey that was fun!
This data would all "be" very comforting if it were true. But alas, it isn't. The last few years have been the warmest on record
, the Iceland glacier is disappearing
, and big chunks of Antartica are breaking off
. So much for relying on reputable evidence.
But hey, what do those folks at NASA know? They only put someone into space. Next thing you'll be telling me is that humans "evolved."
And as for George Will, I suggest that the next time he wants others to accuse others of being self-interested hysterical morons, he get his facts straight.
Trying to Understand My Lessons
Thursday, December 23, 2004
This is just a brief note before I take a hammer to George Will later in the afternoon.Ed Kilgore
has an insightful post on his blog New Donkey in which he lays out what the Democrats should learn from their failures in 2004. His first three conclusions are spot on: Democrats need a persuasion strategy as well as a mobilization strategy, we need to adapt to our role as an opposition party, and our campaigns need to be oriented around a few key themes rather than a laundry list of proposals.
Where I am somewhat hesitant is Kilgore's fourth suggestion:
that message must, for the foreseeable future, address the perceived weakness and incoherence of Democrats on national security issues; the perceived elitism and relativism of Democrats in terms of their understanding of the direction of American society and culture; and the perceived obsession of Democrats with a program-heavy, values-lite approach to economic and other domestic issues.
The Democrats suffer from a framing problem on national security, not a substance problem. The Democratic approach to foreign policy is so sensible as to be noncontroversial: relying on international cooperation and negotiation to pursue the war on terror, rather a ridiculous attempt at democratic imperialism. But we do need to explain this position. I think in the last election the Iraq fiasco and the Democrats' initial support of the war complicated our problem. I'm not convinced that lightning will strike twice.
I am glad that Kilgore uses the phrase "perceived" when he notes the elitism and relativism of Democrats on cultural issues. But again, his suggestion gives us very little indication of where we are supposed to go. I am still waiting for a concrete proposal from the DLC wing of the party on how to deal with cultural valence issues.
I am really not sure what Kilgore means by "program-heavy, values-lite" approaches to domestic and economic policy. Is he just reiterating the point that Democrats need to frame their positions in moral rather than programmatic terms? Fine then. But if he is saying that we need to embrace faith-based initiatives, he can take a walk. Or is he just arguing that we need to abandon the poor and working class? In any event, I await the promised Part II, where I hope he gets into more specifics.
Merry christmas. Talk to you later.
Wednesday, December 22, 2004
Foreign policy strategists claim that the United States is in a new era of diplomacy and war because the threats to our security are asymmetric. Rather than great powers facing off with each other over territory, influence and ideology, we are faced with opponents who are not based on any state. Nuclear proliferation, terrorism, the drug trade - these are not problems that can be solved through the traditional mechanisms of diplomacy and deterrence.
Liberalism is also facing the challenge of asymmetrical warfare. Contemporary conservatism is less interested in reasoned political debate or incremental change than the destruction of liberalism. Liberals want to govern, conservatives want to dominate. Liberals recognize the legitimacy of the Republican party, and expect their rivals to respect the principle of the loyal opposition, the 2-party system, and democratic discourse. For conservatism, compromise is weakness and liberalism is an alien graft that must be rooted out of American politics. Anything goes in the pursuit of their unholy vision. Dishonesty, manipulation, illegalality - these are just par for the course. Democratic politics is not the rational meeting of the minds, but warfare by other means.
In short, liberals are bringing knives to a gunfight, and predictably enough we have been getting slaughtered. Conservative ruthlessness presents us with the prospect not of temporary defeat by total annihilation. It is time we recognized this enemy for what it is. Today's Unreasonables are frankly not all that interested in democracy so much as victory. If we win, they can continue in their own private lives pursuing any good they choose. If they win, their vision of the good life will be imposed on all of us. The stakes really are that high. We are at war abroad AND at home against the forces of religious authoritarianism and corporate fascism, and if either are successful our way of life will come to an end.
Time to get serious.
Tuesday, December 21, 2004
What with the last-minute christmas shopping frenzy and (for some of us) the end of the semester, it's hard to find time to think about politics. But don't be fooled: politics is still going on around you. The Bush Administration is advancing on a wide number of fronts, and it's up to all good liberals to pay attention.
The policy proposal with the splashiest headlines is social security "reform" (i.e. elimination). But there are other major proposals in the works as well. The Republicans are considering tax reform by moving towards a national sales or flat tax, or just making another round of huge tax cuts. Looming over the tax discussions is the AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax), which should soon start taking large bites out of middle incomes. Any change in the AMT (like indexing it) will add another hooping spoonful of deficit to go with our already full plate of debt. Additionally, the no child left behind act is about to reach its third year, when schools with failing grades get shut down. You heard me. We are apparently on the verge of wholesale school privatization.
In social policy, the Unreasonables are gearing up to replace Rehnquist, who is going to retire this term. It remains to be seen whether Senate Democrats are ready to put up a fight against a conservative replacement, since it wouldn't change the outlook of the court much. There is also likely to be a series of bills out of congress further restricting gay and abortion rights. The religious right is going to demand their due.
Finally, there is foreign affairs. Iraq is a quagmire of course, and everyone is waiting to see if a civil war breaks out after the January election. If it does, get ready for the draft debate to start up again. There is also growing discussion of whether or not the U.S. should invade Iran and Syria. No I am not kidding. The drumbeat has already started.
So go ahead an enjoy christmas dinner, and light one up on New Years. But then get ready to get back to work. We certainly have it cut out for us.
Call Back the Hounds!
Friday, December 17, 2004
This is really getting out of hand.David Sirota
writes a piece on economic populism. The DLC
wing of the party criticizes it. Then Sirota
responds, bashing the DLC as corporate shills. Ed Kilgore
effectively brands Sirota as an ignoramus. Matt Yglesias
requests the comabtants put down their knives even while piling on. Can we calm down please?
This debate over populism has more heat than light. There is far more ground in common between the 2 warring factions than the combatants realize. For example, if you compare the DLC-sponsored Marshall Wittman
piece to David Sirota's article in the Prospect, there is considerable overlap. Both believe Democrats need to make a greater effort to work over white working class voters. Both believe reframing the economic debate in moral terms is central to this task. Both sides think we should finesse cultural issues, and neither side is happy with the Bush foreign policy. Can't we all just get along?
I think this debate is driven largely impulses ingrained from long-term intraparty disputes. People are rehearsing very old arguments accusing the other side of being pinheads when in reality the debate is over. There is a synthesis lying on the table, and both sides are fighting over who gets to grab it. The DLC is not irredeemably pro-corporate. Populists are not empty-headed left wing nutjobs. What we are arguing about is whether the volume on the stereo, not what music we should listen to.
So chill out!
Thursday, December 16, 2004
Once again Amy Sullivan
, liberalism's ambassador to Christian America, has done a very brave thing. In the Washington Monthly, she suggests that the Democrats should moderate their rhetoric on abortion. According to Amy, the Democrats should emphasize that they don't like abortions, but see them as a necessity. In other words, they must distinguish between being pro-choice and pro-abortion. Amy is not alone. Several other commentators and even John Kerry have suggested the same thing. The idea appears to be to finesse abortion as a political issue in order to get back to economics.
What we are talking about here is not substantive positioning but rhetorical framing. Amy doesn't think the Democrats should modify their stands even on controversial issues like so-called "partial birth" abortions or parental notification. Instead, Ms. Sullivan suggests that Democrats should emphasize their approach as trying to reduce the number of abortions without making it illegal or restricting access.
Unfortunately, I just don't see how you can square that circle. If Democrats don't change their positions on concrete matters of concern, they will just be seen as trimming. I can imagine the debate:
Democratic Candidate: I believe abortions should be safe, legal, and rare.
Republican Candidate: I think that we need to protect life. My opponent doesn't! He's just waffling again!
Democratic Candidate: That's not true!
Republican Candidate: Really? Are you in favor of letting parents know when their teenage daughters are getting abortions?
Democratic Candidate: Uh, no. You see....
Republican Candidate: I see well enough, and so do the voters. They can see you're still in favor of allowing the murder of near-term children!
Democratic Candidate: Not exactly......
It reads like a damned Hannity and Colmes transcript. And the reason it does is that our hypothetical Democrat has already conceded that abortion is morally wrong. Once he does that, the debate is over. The Republican can just hammer away that at least he is sticking to a consistent moral position, that he is a man of principle.
In constructing a rhetorical narrative, it is absolutely vital to set the terms of the debate. By accepting the argument that abortion is a bad thing, you concede far too much grounds to the Republicans. The reason that the pro-choice activists have defined themselves they way they have is because they want the argument to be about choice. The focus needs to remain on the woman and her problems. The minute you divert attention to the foetus, you have lost the battle.
Honestly, why is "pro-life" a respectable position? Why must we compromise on this issue? Everyone but fanatics is pro-choice if the woman's life is in danger or there has been rape or incest (unfortunately, a lot of anti-choice people ARE fanatics). But what about a teenager? Must she bear a child to term? How about if she is in college? Should she drop out and take care of it, compromising her entire future? As for the adoption option, has it occurred to anyone how physically and emotionally traumatic it is to give birth to a human being? And why is it that women should be presented with these choices? Because of the sin of Eve? Because they had the temerity to have sex without the purpose of procreation? Give me a break.
So it finally comes down to this: anti-choice positions are ultimately unacceptable because they are ultimately about imposing one's religious beliefs (that sex is for the purpose of procreation, that life begins at conception) on others. "Pro-life" amounts simply to controlling women's sexual activities. The only reasonable â€œpro-lifeâ€ position out there is to say that you won't have an abortion yourself
. Other than that, you just don't get a vote in what others do.
I'm not pro-choice because I like abortion per se. But I do think that early abortions should be absolutely protected under any circumstances in which a woman decides she doesn't want to reproduce. Once the foetus can exist independently outside the womb (without scientifically advanced assistance), it is then reasonable to weight the interests of the foetus against the interests of the woman. It is only here that we can have meaningful debates over whether abortions should be permitted. I think that this is the pure pro-choice position, and I also think it is the only morally acceptable position to have.
We should never reduce women to instruments of another's will, to make her a conveyor belt for baby production. There is a reason that feminism came in the wake of effective birth control. The ability to control one's reproductive choices opened the door out of the kitchen. And I for one am never going to help shut that door.
Getting Our Own Back
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
What should the government do? And which governments? The problem of determining the appropriate degree of government involvement in solving problems is a very nuanced issue. What we liberals can all agree on is that the conservative effort to corporatize (NOT privatize) American life is ridiculous and destructive. They don't think we should do ANYTHING to solve our problems. By doing so, they present liberals with an opportunity, provided we figure out how to properly talk about the issue. We have a chance to portray ourselves as champions of small town values, personal responsibility, and the little guy.
A good example of how to do this is the courts. Adam Cohen
in the New York Times has a discussion of radcon efforts to repeal the New Deal. The packing of the courts with right-wing ideologues has encouraged the Republicans to seek to overturn the Wickard decision of 1937, which permitted governments to regulate the market. Our enemies want to revive the old Lochner Court era principle of "the sacred right to contract." Democrats need to take this issue directly to any court nominees in the future. Does America really want to repeal the minimum wage and re-institue child labor? Do the Republicans want to prevent even state governments from governing economic relationships? Do we want NO checks on corporate power? We can also use tie this issue to international trade. Maybe the U.S. should consider not trading with any nation that engages in child labor. That's a trade policy with moral implications that will make cultural conservatives think twice (and cause Wal-Mart fits).
Corporate welfare presents another opportunity to break the mold of public opinion. Ed Kilgore
writes that some Democrats want to declare corporate subsidies unconstitutional. I think this is a silly idea, but it does bring to light an interesting problem. A sound development policy is absolutely essential to building the U.S. economy. The reason that a weaker dollar is not shrinking the trade deficit is because we don't make any of the things we want, so we have to buy them from abroad. Sorry NYT
, but reducing the budget deficit isn't going to do the trick. We need a comprehensive strategy for import substitution, and that will require subsidies to business. But I think we can frame this issue as subsidies for who. Democrats should be for helping new and small businesses (the famous â€œentrepreneurs) and against help to big corporations whose idea of competitiveness is shipping their jobs overseas.
Focusing on states is another sound strategy (see Jared Bernstein
in the Prospect). We can fight the Republican attempts to preempt state policies under the banner of allowing communities to determine how they want to live. Hell, we can even attack the Republicans for being in favor of "big government, one-size fits all solutions." As I've written before, mobilizing at the state level serves a number of purposes: it immunizes us from the "big government" smears, gives us something to do while we are out of power, and will help build coalitions and grass roots infrastructure. It also serves the purpose of democratizing the party, which would be nice even if it had no other benefits.
There are two broader points that I think are important to highlight. First, liberals need to work aggressively to distinguish themselves from big government ideas. We need to focus rhetorically and substantively on enhancing the public sphere, whether that is voluntary action, community laws, state policies, or our traditional emphasis on the national government. This is why I think Paul Waldman's
piece in the Gadflyer, while correct on its face, is so dangerous. We cannot continue to conflate "public" with "government." It is this confusion, and the elimination of the public by conservatives, that has caused us so much trouble.
Secondly, Democrats need to present arguments for and against policies not as scattershot, stand-alone issues (a bad habit picked up from Clinton), but as part of a comprehensive (and comprehensible) whole. Marshall Wittman
speaks to this issue in his discussion of Newt Gingrich's strategy in 1993-94. The reform message and political tactics were all in the service of a broader political vision. What we need are not substantive policy reasons to oppose the Republicans. Their ideas are so outrageous that these should be self-evident. What we need to is to make sure that in every discussion of Republican proposals, we remind people of how they are corrupt, power-hungry, ruthless, slaves to Corporate America, and unconcerned with the lives or fortunes of real Americans, whether they live in small towns or big cities.
It is by connecting our ideas within an overarching rhetorical narrative that we can re-define what it means to have values and remind others (and ourselves) what Democrats stand for. We need to tell everyone what we believe, and expose those other people for what they believe. If we do that, the winning will take care of itself.
Public vs. Government
Monday, December 13, 2004
The era of big government is over, or so said Bill Clinton. Unlike many liberals, I think he was right to say this, just not in the way that conservatives or the media meant it. I think that the day when America's problems could be centrally managed from Washington is probably over, due to both political obstacles (i.e. conservative propaganda), historical change (we have different problems now) and because there was always a problem with liberalism's overly technocratic impulses.
The difficulty with technocracy (rule by experts engaged in central planning) is that it is demobilizing and undemocratic. It replaces one sort of elite (the corporate or social ones) with a new form (the supposed "new class" of liberal intellectuals) that pursues egalitarian ends by inegalitarian means. The liberals reliance on national planning to solve problems is party responsible for the conservative ascendancy. It allowed the right to steal the populist label and define liberals as elitists, as absurd as that may sound. Now this accusation may be unfair, but it does contain that essential kernel of truth: we have been too in love with big government. Let's admit it.
This isn't to say that I think that we should sacrifice the country at the altar of the free market. We all know how that has worked out. I am less in sympathy with the conservative critique here than with the agenda of the New Left in the 1960's and the civic republicans today. What liberalism has failed to do is operate with a sufficient eye to the procedures of democracy. People feel governed, they feel the recipients of government services, they feel like subjects
. What we want is a republic full of active citizens involved in self-government. It was this yen for greater participation and civic involvement that was at the heart of Kennedy's appeal ("ask not...."). It underlay the thinking some of the left-wing attacks on liberalism and has been exploited by the right.
There is a crucial distinction between what is public and what is government. Public and government action are not the same thing, although they are frequently conflated. The word "republic" is a derivation of the Latin "res public," the public thing. Democracy means rule by the people. Nowhere do we see in these terms tax policy and legal sanction. Self-rule is a far greater enterprise than any law. Democracy transcends government. We have fallen into a conservative trap if we confuse the political and the public with the government. Liberalism has been reduced to a caricatured champion of government, which is not what we should be about at all. Political leadership involves mass mobilization beyond that required by government. We want leaders, not managers.
Of course government plays an important role, particularly in terms of imposing fair rules and providing resources. Of course we liberals must champion policies that, in the language of reinventing government, leverage public and private action. But we must stop thinking that the government is synonymous with the political. Citizenship is a thing of the every day, government a force abstracted from us. We are liberals, not technocrats. And we must remember this.
What the Heck is New Liberalism?
Saturday, December 11, 2004
The New Liberalism I talked about yesterday might be mischaracterized as simply New Populism. This is not what I intend. Populism is one element of a broader redefinition of what liberalism means. To emphasize traditional populism alone is just as foolish as to rely on pluralism or progressivism alone. Much of the intraparty debate over the last several decades has been precisely this argument: which kind of liberalism should be dominant. What this dispute fails to realize is that liberalism is, like conservatism, an overarching ideology. Conservatives have forged a rough ideological consensus which synthesizes the themes and papers over the differences in their coalition. They have developed this ideology into a rhetorical narrative which they club us. We need do so the same.
Stressing populism, even a reformulated populism, will not recapture our majority. The reason I have emphasized populism is that this is the part of our coalition that is most disaffected. We are getting killed among the white working class, and unless we remember how to talk to them, we will continue to get killed. So they are a constituency that we must pay particular, but not exclusive, attention to.
When I speak of a New Liberalism, I have in mind something like the fusionism of Buckley at the National Review, which brokered an alliance among religious fundamentalists, anti-communists, corporate America, and southern segregationists. Liberals have pluralists, populists, and progressives, and we need to develop a unified, coherent language that speaks to all three groups. To do this, we need a set of common themes.
The basic liberal impulse is egalitarianism: we believe that we are not in this alone, that any man's loss lessens me. It is this community message that gives liberalism its moral power. It instructs citizens to reach above their own narrow concerns and look to the benefit of their whole society. It is precisely this kind of language that Kennedy and Roosevelt used so effectively, and that Democrats have basically lost. This community message is not specifically about government, but is more broadly about public action (which can exist as part of or outside formal government institutions).
To enable this broader egalitarian message, we need specific themes. I would suggest responsibility, nationalism, and opportunity. By responsibility, I mean something like Dean's speech
. It is exactly what I have in mind. Secondly, there is nationalism. Nationalism can be used in a simple patriotic sense (we love America too, you know), but it also emphasizes our common citizenship. We are American first, and our ethnic, class, gender, and religious sensibilities come second. By reminding Americans that we are one people, we can try to counteract the division of the country along lines that splinter the egalitarian coalition. Clinton hinted at this theme during his superb (if disparate) convention speech this summer. Finally, opportunity is a good theme to leverage in questions of egalitarian distribution. I would prefer to use the word autonomy, but I think that the word "autonomy" is a political non-starter. Every one in this country deserves to have the power to determine own life. Giving power to big companies, or surrendering to the forces of globalization, OR imposing our religious beliefs on others, are all denials of the principle of opportunity.
This is somewhat like Bill Clinton's New Covenant (community, responsibility, opportunity), which is no accident. One of the great failures of the Clinton era is that he really stuck with the New Covenant message. It was an excellent starting point, and a way to integrate all his various policy proposals. But then synthetic reasoning and rhetorical narrative was always Clinton's basic failure. Oh well. No one is perfect. I think the other excellent example of what I have in mind is Barack Obama's keynote address, which effectively united the themes of opportunity, nationalism, and responsibility. It's one of the many reasons I like him so much.
What do you think?
P.S. I have posted a diary on Daily Kos responding to the DLC attack on Sirota here
A New Liberalism
Friday, December 10, 2004
Everyone says the Democrats need a new message, but most never present one. So here goes.
First, to analyze our enemy. To summarize where we've been so far, there are four basic elements of conservatism: cultural traditionalism, libertarianism, neoconservatism, and corporatism. I have already dealt extensively with what I think each of these types of conservatism mean and what I think is wrong with them. But each have aspirations and insights that are worth learning from, or at least that we as liberals have to come to grips with.
Cultural traditionalism has a respectable emphasis on small town rural life, and demonstrates the power of nostalgia on the human imagination. Any successful political doctrine needs to tap into the legacy of the past if its message is to resonate. Libertarianism has a respectable emphasis on personal liberty and rights, but more importantly on personal autonomy. It reminds us that the government is far too often something that happens to us rather than something we control. Neoconservatives instructs us as to the centrality of foreign policy and its relation to our long term security and prosperity. Liberalism can't be just about domestic issues. The world has become too small. And finally, corporatism at its best has a worthwhile concern not just with distributing economic gains, but actually generating economic growth. When the U.S. economy was hegemonic, liberals could just try to move money around and tinker with macroeconomics, but those days are over.
Second, to analyze our friends: liberalism has three basic constituencies. There are the populists, who are the historic heart of liberalism and are rooted in the anxieties are the working class. When united, they are always a majority of the voters. But they are vulnerable to right wing propaganda, and we have lost many of them because of they have become convinced that liberalism, big government, and pluralists are their enemies. Progressives are the middle class reforming base and the intellectual leaders of the party, but they have lost their intellectual creativity and have become far too technocratic for their own good. Finally, pluralists are dedicated to the politics of personal liberation, be it ethnic or cultural minorities. Unfortunately, they have often veered off into the dead end of multiculturalism, and have also confused assertions of moral superiority with political persuasion.
The above analysis indicates a single strategic imperative: liberals must
win back the populist vote. This is going to take more than class warfare, although simple economic populism will need to play an central part in our strategy. We are going to have to identify who the enemy of working class America is, and that enemy is the Republican party and its corporate benefactors. And we are going to have to take seriously the problems that people have with liberalism and the reason they have been attracted to conservatism. But we are going to have to expand what we mean by economic populism. More on that in a minute.
First, liberalism needs to put its own house in order. We must move towards "liberal federalism" and stop thinking that the solution to every problem is a program designed by experts and run by bureaucrats in Washington. We need to craft policies that are designed to empower citizens as more than individuals (the mistake of neoliberalism) - that just makes them customers. Instead, we need to concentrate on reviving civic associations and developing institutions that ask citizens to act collectively. Political parties have always served this function, so part of this task is to re-organize the party to focus less on fundraising and more on participation. We need to return to the high rhetoric of civic participation and communal responsibility. It was always here that liberalism was strongest. Second, we need to articulate liberalism as a form of nationalism. This taps into the community spirit I was just talking about, but it also argues that what unites us as a people is far more important than what divides. The integrationists were right and the multiculturalists are wrong.
Liberalism needs to be reformulated so that it is less urban. We need to define a small town liberalism and a small business liberalism. To do so is to reinvent populism, or more properly to return it to a previous era. Populism is not just about unions demanding decent wages and benefits. It also looks to independent proprietors who are being driven out of business by big corporations, and seeks to protect small town life from the cruelest element of the market. Liberals can make a convincing case that they are the best ally of small town and small business America, and they must do so.
A new liberalism would also think more seriously about foreign policy, and by this I don't just mean the War on Terror. Yes we need to return to a more multilateral, "soft power" foreign policy. But we also need to realize that the line between foreign and domestic policy has been erased. Middle class economies will not survive globalization unless they are protected by labor and environmental standards. Middle classes are an act of political will, not the market. We need to define a global economic structure, but we can only do so in partnership with other industrial democratic nations. So we must create international institutions that unite the 1st world not just to combat terrorism, but to defend the middle class and promote democracy. The left really and finally needs to become an international movement.
Liberalism needs to create a development strategy. The corporatists have abandoned any desire to actually improve the U.S. economy: they are only here to make a buck. Our economic structure must be designed in a way that promotes the creation of new businesses (preferably small ones) that regain lost U.S. markets at home. We won't have a middle class if we don't have any manufacturing workers. Period. A development strategy need not take the form of simple protectionism, but the government can help through subsidies and favorable regulations.
Finally, liberals need to make tolerance a key political value. For too long tolerance has only meant "put up with me you bigot!" We learned from the successful integration of Catholics that the American people will set aside their prejudices if you a) evince respect for their worldview, and b) remind them that there are democratic principles at stake. It will be difficult but I think we can get there. And liberals need to help persuadable traditionalists understand that liberty is how you protect your values. If you try and impose them on others, they will to try and impose their values on you.
So that's my idea. It's not entirely new, and it lacks stirring language. But what it does do is define the political problem, develops key themes, and is backed up by substantive policy changes. What do you think?
Stole My Thunder!!!
Wednesday, December 08, 2004
Go read David Sirota's
article in the American Prospect. Right now. I mean it. More later.
The Decline of Liberalism
Having discussed the intellectual qualities of today's liberalism, I will now turn to its historical development. The roots of liberalism lay in populism, in the class and regional animosity of small farmers against wealthy landowners and urban mercantilists, who they saw as trying to exploit them. This anger was exploited by Jefferson (who actually represented the planters) and given full expression by Jackson. It was primarily rural and agrarian in tone, although it did reach out to manufacturing workers in the cities. For a long time this constituted the dominant political force in the United States.
The populist supremacy was unraveled by two factors: the civil war (which split northern and southern populists) and the industrial revolution (which diluted its voting strength). And for a while the right, led by the Republican party in the north and the Bourbon Democrats in the south, was supreme. Then the reaction set in. The abuses of the corporate world generated the labor union movement, which was a revival of urban populism, and persuaded rural populists to change their strategy by becoming pro-government. The other new force was progressivism, who distrusted corporate and party institutions and wanted to democratize, centralize, and professionalize the American political system.
These three groups were finally united by FDR, forging the ideology that today we call liberalism: using government power on behalf of the little guy. In this form liberalism was the dominant force in American politics for over a generation. The Republicans got back into the game by attempting to smear liberalism as communist, but their real success came in the 1960's. The civil rights revolution and its aftermath created pluralism, which extended egalitarianism from economic to cultural issues. This threatened the populist-progressive coalition, because on social issues the populists had always been fairly traditional.
The right saw its opening and made the most of it, beginning with Nixon. They worked steadily to define a new enemy for populists: not Big Business, but Big Government, which now looked to be shifting resources from the white working class to women and minorities. The existence of pluralism also transformed a lot of populists into cultural traditionalists. After all, populism had always been about conserving what they had, whether that be small town life our their jobs. As soon as conservatism was able to define a new force causing their problems, they flipped to the other side. So liberalism was left with pluralists and progressives, but lost all the rural populists and a lot of the urban ones.
Ideologically, liberalism passed from forward-looking change to defensive protection of the New Deal and Great Society. Instead of aggressively seeking out new problems to solve and innovating new solutions to these problems, liberals became obsessed with defending their legacy. This was entirely sensible, given that conservatism was determined to destroy that legacy. But liberalism has never found its way back to its core ideals: that the community owes justice to the least of its members, and that preserving democracy requires constant change in the face of historical change.
At the same time, liberalism still believes that it is a fractured coalition. Organizationally, this is true - every issue group insists that its is the most important. But liberals in the main disagree on virtually nothing. In the 1960's the left really did disagree on policy. Today it is only a difference of degree, i.e. which issue should be emphasized. But the false consciousness that exists on the left has prevented us from creating central organizing institutions, and hence no overarching strategy or consistent rhetorical narrative. And we lose.
Intellectually, liberalism has also become somewhat rigid. Rather than coming up with solutions to new problems (and we have a lot of them), we are defending old solutions to old problems. And we have a knee-jerk support of the sort of solutions that worked before: using the central government's bureaucracy and relying on technocratic expertise. Finally, liberalism has become far too secular and urban. It vision appears to have little place for people of faith or people who don't live in cities. You can't call suburban life a wasteland and expect to win suburban votes.
Finally, liberalism reliance on bureaucratic solutions is somewhat undemocratic, and is part of what makes us vulnerable to the charge of elitism. Progressives really do sort of believe in rule by experts. But when you rely on an intellectual elite to govern, you have a society in which citizens are not active determiners of their own destiny but merely consumers of government services and subjects of external power. All we have asked them to do is vote. None of this is really all that democratic.
So these are the reasons for our generation-long retreat, as I see it: intellectual rigidity, technocracy, a defensive attitude, the loss of our populist roots, and simple political incompetence. So how do we fix it? I'll try to begin answering that question tomorrow.
Monday, December 06, 2004
I generally like what Digby has to say, but when I read this
I knew he had stepped in it. I also knew my wife the evolutionary biologist would have some choice words. Here they are:
Yesterday, Digby wrote about an article called "The Fundamentalist
Agenda", which uses an evolutionary psychology argument to explain fundamentalist religions. I am an evolutionary biologist, and evolutionary psychology makes me mad. It makes me madder that reasonably intelligent people like Digby fall for this pseudoscience.
One more time: "Alpha Male" doesn't mean what people think it means. In some species (but NOT ALL), males and females form dominance hierarchies. These dominance hierarchies are simply to gain priority of access to resources. These resources are different for males and females. In females, the resources that matter are food. In order to reproduce, females need enough food during pregnancy and lactation, and enough food for their weaned offspring to survive. For males, the necessary resource for reproduction is... females!
The alpha male, then, is concerned with protecting his mates from other males - a strategy that may or may not work depending on the species. In some species, females are seasonal breeders, so all females are mating at the same time, so there is no way that males can prevent others from mating. The alpha male is dominant only to other males. Males and females have separate dominance hierarchies.
Who protects the territory? Well, who is concerned with protecting the food supply? That's right, FEMALES. And females have their own dominance hierarchy, so that higher-ranking females can take resources away from lower-ranking females. And it is females who are often most concerned with chasing away other groups from their territory.
Males do not "set the rules", and females do not "obey the males". Most of this mistaken ideology about animals comes from 1) wishful thinking and 2) 1950s studies of hamadryas baboons. In hamadryas baboons, they have a "harem" social structure, in which a male controls 1-4 females. He keeps them in line through violence, with behaviors such as neck-biting to make sure they stay with him and do not mate with other males. In this way, hamadryas baboons are completely UNLIKE any of the other 250 species of primates. Except for perhaps humans.
Also, there is not necessarily a "clear separation between the in-group and the out-group." How do you think groups get new members? In many species, one sex is philopatric, meaning that they stay in the group they are born into, and the other disperses, or moves away from home once they reach maturity. They're not out there forming new groups - they're joining pre-existing ones. In most mammals, females are
philopatric. And females are often on the lookout for new mates - novelty is sexy. So then the males in the group might get a bit territorial to keep these new males out - but this is not as effective as human males might hope.
Alpha males do NOT define territorial boundaries. They do NOT set norms and behaviors. These are anthropomorphized ideals trying to justify what humans think that a leader should do. To make a list of what human males and females do and then claim it is biology is exactly what is wrong with evolutionary psychology. Scientists test hypotheses by looking at a set of data. Evolutionary psychologists look for anecdotes that support their point of view.
You want to use animal behavior to explain human behavior? Fine. But learn something about animal behavior first.
Isn't she cool?
Anyway, I think that Digby's general point is still worthwhile: that religious fundamentalism taps into some basic human desires. But the desire is to dominate females, not defend territory. Maybe the "security moms" vote for Bush stems from the female desire to defend territory.
And as for the argument that liberals should go aggressively after religious fundamentalism, tying the islamic variant to our own christian one and labelling it as fundmantally un-American? I can only say yes yes yes yes yes.
Sunday, December 05, 2004
There is no majority. If you subtract women, gays, blacks, hispanics, asians, jews, and secularists from the American population, there really isn't much left. So if equality were merely a question of numbers, there wouldn't be a problem. But equality and social justice are not about numbers, they are about power. For centuries a male straight white elite has dominated society's resources and rewards at the expense of every group.
This state of affairs is just wrong. It goes against every decent moral impulse. It is this simple argument, that oppression is wrong, that gives pluralism its tremendous moral force. It is the unassailable justice of the pluralist cause that has made it the most energetic and impassioned element of contemporary liberalism. If populists have the votes and progressives have the plans, pluralists have the passion.
At its core the pluralist message is unassailable: every person should be judged on their own merits, on their own deeds, and they deserve rewards commensurate to their contribution. Everyone deserves a shot at the good life. Arbitrary considerations like gender or race or religion just shouldn't matter. This simple argument seems so consonant with American ideals that for a brief moment it looked like pluralism was going to carry all before it. In the 1960's, pluralists looked invincible.
But pluralism has an achilles heel. In fact, it has more than one. There are two basic constituencies to the pluralist ideology, one dealing with ethnic identity and the other with personal identity. Ethnic minorities want a place at the table next the english, irish, germans, italians, etc. They want a piece of the pie. They don't want their ethnic identity to be a handicap. The identity pluralists, on the other hand, believe in the politics not of group liberation but of personal liberation. They want to topple the very, very old structure of western life and allow women and gays to finally walk tall. They don't just want toleration - they want acceptance.
Both of these type of pluralism have generated intense opposition. Not all of the the opponents to ethnic pluralism are just bigots. Some have a valid (or at least comprehensible) point to make. You see, when the "easy" victories establishing legal and political equality were won, pluralists then turned to the harder tasks of social and economic equality. But this required the redistribution of resources from one group (mainly poor and working class whites) to another. The backlash is certainly understandable, and aws rendered all but inevitable with the stagnation in middle class incomes that hit in the early 1970's.
The second reason for the backlash against ethnic pluralism is that the latter evolved from an integrationist to a multicultural ideal. The former says that the new groups just want to be Americans, the second that they will never be Americans, that America means white and that this is something they can never be. To even try would guarantee only cultural annihilation or continued domination. But this vision paints a picture of an America permanently divided by race, a vision even liberals might balk at.
The politics of personal identity has even more powerful enemies because its ambitions are so much greater. To overturn the social order is to offend everyone who believes in that order. It is to spit in the face of cultural traditionalists, to tell them that their way of life is repugnant and needs to be expunged. You can understand why this might make them a little cranky.
None of this is to say that pluralists aren't right, it is only to say that their moral virtue comes at a terrible political cost. Push to0 hard, too fast and you invite defeat. Go too slow and you allow oppression to continue and foster ever great frustration. The balance is a tricky one. But it is a balance I think can be found.
Ethnic pluralism can abate the backlash by making common cause with working class populists. They have essentially indistinguishable aims, namely economic opportunities. What they need to realize is that the enemy isn't each other but the economic elite. Those a the top are gleefully exploiting them even while they play white and minorities one against the other. And I think that multiculturalism is simply a mistake, an intellectual and political dead end. American culture is not a monolithic white creation, but an adaptable whole that can change even as it absorbs new groups. There is room for everybody. To divide ourselves along largely illusory ethnic and racial lines is only to hand the right one more weapon to use against us, this time one of our own fashioning. No thanks.
It is harder to know what to say about identity pluralism. There really is no justification for cultural traditionalists' treatment of people with vaginas or their loathing for people who have unconventional sex. There are some identity liberals who have been deliberately inflammatory (all straight sex is rape, being a housewife is stupid), and they should certainly cool it. And there are cultural traditionalists who are not really bad people, only profoundly misguided or overly afraid. To those people we need to explain that a happy family life really doesn't rely on the exploitation of women and the oppression of gays. But the sad truth is that a lot of traditionalists are just haters, and there can be no compromise with that sort.
The good news is that I think history is on our side. Increasing intermarriage is blurring ethnic boundaries, the notion of gender equity is becoming more a norm, and younger people just don't hate gays very much. As liberals we can do a lot to hasten these changes, but in the end it is mainly a matter of time.
Many liberals today prefer to call themselves progressives. I really hate this. Perhaps the reasoning is that since liberalism has been defamed, we should use another, older word to describe what we are for. But doing so is like referring to a car as a tire, or naming your cat paw. It is using a piece of something to describe the whole.
Progressivism is an honored political tradition. It developed in the late nineteenth century in response to the corruption and incompetence of the patronage system, and the abuses of the big trusts. Their response was to use legal sanction and institutional reform to clean up government, politics, and business. The idea wasn't to get rid of the system, but to make it work better. Their tools were government action, open elections, and professionalism.
The progressives originally had a home in neither party. For years they were the key swing constituency in American politics, and hence both parties adopted elements of their platform. Finally the Democrats under Franklin Roosevelt won their loyalty, and they have been the leading element of the Democratic coalition ever since. For better or worse, they have been the brains of the whole operation.
Progressivism is a political philosophy dedicated to issues. Progressives approach political events with a rational eye. They believe in the use of sweet reason and hard thinking. Political leaders should be personally disinterested, and decisions should be made not based on any particular interest but for the public good. Progressives are essentially goody-goody reformers (I mean this in a nice way). They have a real faith in democracy and democratic discourse, and of the power of public action to improve people's lives.
Progressives have a truly awesome legacy. In this century they abolished child labor, created the minimum wage, established Social Security and Medicare, and led the War on Poverty. They were a key supporter of the labor movement (see the Populists) and civil rights (see the Pluralists). They have been fighting for years for national health insurance, their one unfulfilled ambition.
But this movement, as honorable, even glorious, as it is, definitely has its down sides. It is primarily an urban, middle class (even upper middle class) phenomenon. It tends to ignore rural issues and has some suspicion for small town and suburban life. Progressives believe in helping the poor and working class, but they tend to do so in a somewhat patronizing way. They are somewhat technocratic, with an emphasis on central leadership rather than decentralized participation. They want to control the national government and use it to govern in the people's interests. The people play a somewhat passive role in this formulation, except when it comes to voting in elections (which is pretty limited form of participation). So central has government action been in their thinking that they have tended to neglect the importance of over civil and political institutions (they did a real number on political parties). And because progressives believe so much in issues and rationality, their politics tends to be moralizing (even condescending) and passionless. As a consequence they have had some difficulty appealing to our emotions or even really persuading people. Asserting your moral rightness is not a great way to win people over.
Now I don't mean that all progressives are this way. What I do believe is that these are certain tendencies in progressive though and action. They smack of elitism, and it is this that the right has capitalized on. There is a certain intellectual rigidity: they pretty much got everything they wanted in by 1970 (except health care), and have been playing defense ever since. Their ideas as a consequence look pretty stale. As progressives have come increasingly to dominate the Democratic Party and liberalism itself, the right has exploited these stereotypes to their advantage.
However, I think that progressives are learning. There is a renewed emphasis on new policies, new messages, a more aggressive strategy, and more popular mobilization. This process must continue, and they must continue to reach out to their ideological partners, populism and pluralism.
But hey, guys! Don't stop calling yourselves liberals!
Friday, December 03, 2004
The liberalism I grew up with was not the left of academia or sophisticated New York salons. It was the liberalism of small farmers and manufacturing workers who just wanted a fair shake, who believed that big corporations were trying to screw them. To put it in more sophisticated terms, they believed that the social elite must not monopolize the social surplus. Anyone who contributes deserves a share of the benefits. Today we call these people populists.
The ideology of populism is not to be confused with the Populist Party, and has little to do with the social democracy of western europe. Its nascent form is to be found in Jefferson's party, and reaches its mature nineteenth century form under Jackson. The populism of those times was directed at urban elites and rich planters who they saw as preventing regular Americans from making a good living. It viewed government as the enemy, because the federal government was viewed as the instrument of their enemies.
Populism underwent a revolution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There were two main elements to this change. First, they realized that government power could be used to regulate the corporations who were jeopardizing the economic independence of small farmers. So they became champions of strong government rather than its opponents. Second, the balance of power among populists shifted from the countryside to manufacturing workers. The latter played second fiddle to the former until the industrial revolution dramatically expanded the number of urban manufacturing workers. But this basic coalition of farmer and worker was the essential electoral base of every successful Democratic presidential candidate from Thomas Jefferson through Franklin Roosevelt.
Populism is against a lot of things. It is against Big Business, its historic foe. It is once again a critic of Big Government. And it has had an ambiguous relationship with Big Labor. Populism is intensely nationalistic and tends to be against the rest of the world. There has also been a regrettable tendency among some strains of populism to be against ethnic and religious minorities, as well as immigrants. It is this kind of populism which is partly responsible for its bad odor at the present.
The question is, what is populism for? Contrary to many of its critics, it is neither mindless envy nor American socialism. Populism is at its core essentially egalitarian. Populists believe that people's economic independence must not be threatened by powerful external forces. They want each person's ability to be the determiner of her fate. Basically they just want the rules to be fair, and are antagonistic to the idea that any person or group should be able to cash in on arbitrary advantages (like who they know or who their parents are). Populists are in many ways the quintessential Americans: they want everyone who works hard to have a house, a yard, and be able to take vacations. They want everyone who is willing to sweat have a chance to make it to the middle class. What a radical idea.
The problem for Democrats today, as so ably demonstrated by Thomas Frank in his What's the Matter with Kansas, is that populism has been captured by the right. The erosion of middle class living standards requires an explanation, and vague forces like â€œthe global economyâ€ are not going to cut it. There needs to be a concrete enemy, one you can grapple with. In the same way the earlier generations of populists viewed eastern elites and corporate executives as the source of their woes, contemporary populists have been given a new foe: liberals (who also happen to be, in stereotype at least, eastern urban rich pansy snobs). So they are voting for the party who is the one really responsible for their deteriorating situation.
This has happened before. In the post-bellum South, populists fought over who was to blame for their socioeconomic disaster. The northerners could not be gotten at. At hand were two candidates: the planter class that had led the country into the war, and the freed slaves who were the legal beneficiaries of it. While many southern leaders tried to do the right (and proper) thing and create a bi-racial coalition of poor sharecroppers and small farmers against the rich planters, this effort was undone by racial animosity. Instead, the planters managed the pit the poor whites and blacks against each other. The South has never really recovered.
Today's populists must not make that mistake. There is an enemy at hand, an enemy that just so happens to be their old, once-defeated foe: corporate america. What liberals need to do is figure out how to convince them.
The War on Fundamentalists
I'll return to my main subject when I get back from work later, but for now I want to comment on the War on Terror. In the New Republic Peter Beinart
argues that liberals should take the War on Terror more seriously. We should follow in the footsteps of our forbears Harry Truman and John Kennedy, and repudiate the heirs of Henry Wallace. Kevin Drum
and Bull Moose
My response? Sure, so long as we properly define who the enemy is. Many people have objected to the War on Terror because you can't make war on a tactic. The problem with our efforts to combat terrorism is that they mis-diagnose the problem. The enemy isn't terrorism, it's religious fundamentalism. Not islamic fundamentalism, but religious fanaticism in general. Bush has resisted this formulation and continued to attack a vague "terror threat" not only to frighten us into electing him but because the more obvious description of the threat could easily be applied to him
One of the dirty secrets of American political history is that the Republicans were so virulently anti-communist not because of principle but because the issue allowed them to lose the label of appeasers they earned because of their isolationism during WWII, and gave them a club to beat liberals over the head with by implying liberals were all proto-communists (see my post of a few days ago).
I think we should return the favor. The real threat to America is the ideology of the Holy War, or religious authority that is politicized and uses force and oppression to pursue its aims. We have our own fundamentalists here at home. We must combat this un-American ideology wherever it surfaces, we must use all the resources at our disposal: our schools, our courts, our army, our diplomats, and our allies, to remove the taint of religious extremism at home and abroad. We will not let those people
take the world back to the middle ages, where men were taught to accept their suffering and women that they should know their place.
Eat that, Jerry Falwell.
Introductory Notes and a Guest Blog
Thursday, December 02, 2004
A little while ago I spent a lot of time digging into the meaning of conservatism. My intent was to dissect the intellectual and emotional foundations of conservatism, and in doing so better equip liberals in rebutting it. I believe that, like all successful ideologies, conservatism taps into deeply held human aspirations and cultural beliefs. In the last generation or so the right has been much more skilled in organizing and presenting their position. I think the best way to put our own house in order is to recognize and learn from the successes of conservatism. Having examined the enemy, I am now going to examine my friends.
Liberalism is often characterized as a messy group of out-groups all clamoring to get a share of the pie and motivated by socialists concepts of liberation. As such, liberals have no unifying core, which makes it difficult for them to make a coherent political argument. There is not one liberal voice, but a cacophony of sounds, with each group trying to drown out the others. In practical terms this is a fair characterization - this is in fact how liberals behave. But this behavior is largely a product of poor self-understanding. Liberalism in fact does have a set of unifying convictions. I will describe that unity a little later.
I dealt with the socialist element yesterday, but to summarize I think it is not only damaging politically but is also simply wrong to argue that liberalism is just a American offshoot of Marxism. Liberalism is a home-grown ideology with distinct perspectives contained within it. In the same way that there are many conservatisms (cultural traditionalism, libertarianism, corporatism, neoconservatism), there are several basic forms of liberalism. Liberalism does not contain hundreds of different groups. This is to confuse issue emphasis (what policy area one believes is most important) with ideology. Instead, liberalism can be distilled down to just three basic points of view: populism, progressivism, and pluralism.
Over the next several days, I am going to analyze these three perspectives and talk about the good and bad points about them. I will also trace where they come from, how they evolved, and most importantly what they have in common. Because just as hierarchy and order lay at the heart of the conservative worldview so does liberalism have it own center.
In the meantime, Ben Ross is back for another guest blog. It is a post on some affairs down in D.C., but it certainly shows up the self-interest and elitism of the contemporary political press corps.THE "LIBERAL MEDIA" AT WORK
The Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, have been fighting for almost two
decades over a planned light rail line called the Purple Line. In October
2001, Governor Parris Glendening announced plans to move ahead with the
project. But the state elected a Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich, the
next year, and he has put the project on a back burner.
The light rail line is supported by an extraordinarily broad coalition
that includes chambers of commerce, the AFL CIO, the Sierra Club, the
NAACP, Hispanic organizations, and many civic associations. But the transit line would use an old railroad right-of-way that bisects the golf
course of the exclusive Columbia Country Club. The country club, whose
membership includes many prominent Washington lobbyists, and its allies
among nearby homeowners have spent more than $600,000 in their efforts to
block the project (www.innerpurpleline.org/opposition.htm).
This story is obviously local Washington news. Yet the doings of Columbia
Country Club have been covered more prominently in the Baltimore Sun and
the New York Times than in Washington's supposedly liberal hometown
newspaper, the Post. The Sun ran a front-page story on this topic on
December 2, 2002. Pulitzer Prize-winner Gretchen Morgenson's Times column
about Columbia Country Club, Fannie Mae, and the Purple Line appeared on
the front page of the Sunday financial section of Sept. 29, 2002 and was
reprinted in newspapers across the country.
While the Post sometimes mentions Columbia Country Club in articles about
the Purple Line, it has never reported in depth about the club's
Across the top of the Washington Post's front page last Friday
was an article about a dinner and money given by Columbia Country Club to
wounded Iraq War veterans. These activities are laudable, and if they had
been conducted without media attention would deserve only praise. But
they are neither Friday's biggest news nor the biggest news about Columbia
Country Club. The $20,000 donated to the veterans is a pittance compared
to the money that the country club has spent to block the Metro line.
Post Columnist Tony Kornheiser is a member of Columbia Country Club. In
July 2003, Governor Ehrlich played golf as Kornheiser's guest at Columbia
Country Club. One month after playing golf with the Post columnist, the
Governor told another newspaper that the Purple Line "will not go through
the country club."
http://www.gazette.net/200335/bethesda/news/174791-1.html The Post
disclosed the Kornheiser-Ehrlich golf date in an article about the
governor's golfing habits on August 9, 2003, but has never mentioned it in
connection with the Purple Line.
In its editorials, the Post regularly holds forth about the urgency of
building new highways and condemns neighbors who want to block these
roads. Yet there are two transportation projects the Post has opposed:
the Purple Line route that passes through Columbia Country Club and a
proposed streetcar on K Street in downtown DC. Interestingly, when these
editorials were written most of the Post's editorial board lived in two
ritzy neighborhoods the transit lines would pass through: Chevy Chase and Georgetown. The reasons the Post gave for opposing these projects had, of
course, nothing to do with local neighborhood objections...
If you're interested, you might want to contact the Post's ombudsman Michael Getler (email@example.com) and complain.
Are Liberals Just Commies???
Wednesday, December 01, 2004
at MyDD has laid down a challenge. In explaining why liberalism is in the intellectual hole it is in, he suggests that the culprit is Karl Marx. Because socialism was the central animating force of the left in the 20th century, the discrediting of Marx leaves liberals without a leg to stand on. This is why an emphasis on class politics (a la Thomas Frank) is doomed to failure. Instead, liberals need to re-ground their ideology, purged of its Marxist influences.
This is just slander. The liberal tradition is far more deeply rooted in American, and indeed Western, history than Ben suggests. Twentieth century liberalism was indisputably influenced by socialism, but its essential foundation is as red white and blue as you could like. To say that liberalism is just an alien form european socialism grafted onto America is to buy into conservative hype and divide us from our own historical roots.
Until recently I agreed with Ben - I though liberalism was just an American variant of democratic socialism. But I was wrong. Liberalism has a real respect for private property not because liberals realized that the abolition of property wouldn't sell, but because we thought private property was a good and useful thing. Modern liberalism has its American origins not in Marx, but in Jefferson and Jackson. The defense of the forgotten middle and the downtrodden poor is a constant theme in American politics. It is only the method for pursuing that objective that has changed. Nineteenth century liberals distrusted the government as a tool of eastern elites. Twentieth century progressives and populists, who were scarcely socialists, refined the basic liberal conviction by deciding to use state power to regulate what they saw as their true enemy, Corporate America. U.S. liberalism is primarily the descendent of William Bryan and Woodrow Wilson, not Marx and Engels.
Something else that needs to be clarified: Marx was no socialist. Yes, technically he was part of the socialist movement, but in reality he founded communism, which is a very different thing. As we all know, communism developed into a statist philosophy under Lenin. But even in its early stages Marxism fought battles with the democratic socialists of western europe. It is a bizarre tendency in America to conflate socialism with communism. We all seem to forget that the socialists hated the communists and were some of our best allies during the Cold War. Or has everyone forgotten about NATO? And tying the two to liberalism is the basic smear of the left by conservatives. To concede this point is to concede the game.
To believe that class politics is the creation of Marx is to betray a real ignorance about history. Marx himself was inspired by Aristotle, who wrote extensively about class divisions in his Politics. The fight between rich and poor for control of the community is as old as popular government. It is in fact the key challenge for popular government, hence Plutarch's comment that the oldest and most fatal ailment of republics is the gap between rich and poor. Marx just had a particular formulation of this very old dispute.
To say that Marx has been intellectually discredited is to belabor the obvious. A friend of mine once said that academia is to communists what Latin America was to fascists. Marx's solution to the problems of capitalism was deeply flawed, and his conception of human nature essentially bankrupt. But as I grow older and watch the development of the global economy, I find myself remembering Marx's analysis of the contradictions of capitalism. The emergence of a global elite, the commodification of labor, and the proletarianization of professionals and independent proprietors; all of these phenomena are very familiar to anyone who has read Marx. Perhaps his cure is ineffective, but his diagnosis of the disease seems ever more appropriate.