How Much Trouble Are We In?
Tuesday, November 30, 2004
Crowing by the likes of Mark Mehlman that Bush’s victory is the stuff of realignments really makes me chuckle. It's a classic psyche job.
Let me describe the Republican story before ridiculing it. The right-wing "analysis" goes like this: the election demonstrated that personal characteristics and values issues have a higher valence than substantive issues. Conservatives have successfully transformed elections from referenda on ideas to referenda on beliefs, and have managed to destroy the old Democratic lock on the working class because of the great valence of values issues. Despite a weak economy and the problems in Iraq, Bush managed to improve on his 2000 performance. Of particular importance is Bush’s greater margin in victory in "red" states - the Republicans now have a total lock on the South. Furthermore, he eliminated the gender gap and improved his performance among Latinos, the key growth constituency. And the Republican margins among the fastest-growing communities was simply crushing. Finally, the Republicans ran a candidate with the most conservative administration in U.S. history, lost among moderates, and still won the election. Over the next term the right wing will finish destroying the infrastructure of the Democratic party by consolidating their hold over corporate PACs, purging K Street, and crippling trial lawyers. The Democrats are dead, and only getting deader.
Wow, that all sounds pretty scary, doesn't it? Too bad it's total crap.
What we have is an election in which an incumbent running for re-election during wartime manages to get only 51% of the vote and a razor-thin margin in the electoral college. Bush's improved performance was uninspiring, given that he was an incumbent. His 3 point margin was unremarkable given that the average margin of victory for an incumbent since WW II is 10 points (including the Carter and Bush I fiascos). In addition, Bush's electoral vote margin is unimpressive. Normally the electoral vote totals magnify the popular vote margin, but Bush eked out a narrow electoral vote win despite his 3-point. Nixon and Kennedy's razer thin victories produced 300 electoral votes, but Bush got 286. Whoop-de-doo.
Statistically, the Republican do have an advantage because there are twice as many conservatives, but this has been the case for a long time. Republican party identifiers are no higher than they were ten years ago. Party id is probably a better indicator of the comparative balance between the 2 parties than ideology, precisely because the Republicans have trouble with moderates.
Looking at specific constituencies, there are some question marks about Bush's supposed improvement among Latinos. He clearly sees this as a continuing problem area, given the high-profile cabinet appointment of Hispanics. Bush did significantly better among women, but this is more likely due to 9/11 than values issues. The geographic playing field is also scarcely certain, given that the combined rural/exurb share of the vote is not rising (as pointed out by Ruy Teixeira), while Bush continues to slip in major metro areas.
As for the efforts to consolidate the victory, only time will tell. But history has not been kind to 2nd terms, and the brewing financial crisis and inevitable retreat from Iraq are scarcely likely to improve the electoral prospects of the Republican party. The Democrats are building an alternative infrastructure that will be much harder to pressure than K street. And they will be hunting Republicans with dogs and flashlights if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
The regional analysis does seem favorable to the Republicans, given the decline of the North and the rise of the South, and Republican were more competitive in the upper Midwest. This is the most significant challenge for Democrats, but we should remember that we are doing better in the fastest growth area, the West. If you look at the bigger demographic picture, things look better. Republicans do best among the white, upper-income, devout protestant, anti-gay, college educated, and married voters. What they have a growing share of a shrinking market. America is becoming browner, more secular, more tolerant, and the middle class is under increasing pressure.
Which bring me to the final piece of the supposed Republican advantage: the decline of issues & economics as voting cues. Given the probable direction of the U.S. economy and foreign policy in the next four years, we are certainly going to see this hypothesis tested. Frankly I don't think that people are going to care much about gays when they are out of job, paying 25% on their credit cards, forking over 5 dollars a gallon for gas, and waving goodbye to their son as they march off to Iraq. But we'll see.
None of this means that the Democrats are on the verge of their own realignment. It only means that the Republicans are operating with a very small margin of error. They have managed to conceal the consequences of their mistakes so far, but I'm doubtful they will continue to do so. I still believe that incompetence and arrogance come at a price, however it may be delayed. Hubris precedes Nemesis.
And a Child Shall Lead Them
Monday, November 29, 2004
There is a common belief in Democratic circles, most recently stated by the Gadlflyer’s Paul Waldman
, that the youth vote is a sign of future strength for donkeys. Kerry's best constituency was voters under 30. These voters are consistently more tolerant on social and cultural issues than their parents and grandparents. Therefore, the reasoning goes, as this group becomes a larger share of the electorate, the pendulum will gradually swing to the Democrats.
This scenario is certainly possible, but it is certainly no sure thing. First of all, the youth vote is always unstable. The very factors that make young people unlikely to vote also means that they swing radically from one political pole to another. Remember, the Boomers loved the Kennedys until they decided that they would rather become the backbone of the Reagan coalition. They used to be liberalism's greatest friends, and now they are our most significant stumbling block. While the old canard that people become more conservative as they get older is probably false, it is true that people become more fixed in their beliefs. The problem with the boomers is that they fixed in the wrong place. The current youth generation could do the same.
Second, the youth vote may be more tolerant on social issues, but they also appear to be more conservative on economics. I am speaking mainly from anecdotal evidence, but it seems as if they are real believers in the Horatio Alger myth and the importance of self-help. If I had to peg the under-thirty crowd's ideological predisposition as anything, I would label them libertarian, not liberal. This would not bode well for the future, since they could decide that economic issues are more important and start voting Republican.
Thirdly and lastly, to focus on a secular realignment based on the youth vote is an overly passive strategy. They may be trending in our direction for now, but major events or Republican strategy could reverse that trend. It also ignores the face that our strongest ideological allies, the New Deal generation, are dying off. They are being replaced with a generation which is simply bigger than the Gen Xers. The Boomers just didn't have as many kids, remember?
So by all means, let's cultivate young voters. But to take them for granted, or to assume that they will continue to support us, or to believe that their backing will be enough..... Well, that would just spell disaster.
Saturday, November 27, 2004
Yesterday I had a truly epic experience with Cablevision. My wife and I finally decided to get cable (why we waited until AFTER the election is beyond me), and Cablevision is the only service provider where we live. We were also happy to do so since Cablevision is one of the few corporate PACs which donates primarily to Democrats. We scheduled to get hooked up yesterday between 11 and 2.
What a mistake.
We figured at first that we would have to wait until after two, given how these sorts of companies work. This was fine, because we didn't want to go outside on Black Friday anyway. But as the time passed (and passed), I began to get concerned. I called Cablevision to find out what was going on, and kept calling. And calling. Finally at 6PM I told them I was cancelling my order, that I was going to get satellite instead. They begged me to wait, and assured me that the technician was going to be there in half an hour, and that they would call back to make sure.
Predictably, he never showed and they never called. So I called for the 5th time that day and told them that I was now cancelling. Thirty minutes later the technician finally showed up. When we asked him, he said he had been contacted at 6:30, after I had cancelled the order. That certainly made up our minds for us. There is no way I am doing business with a company that will only do the minimum amount possible. So satellite it is.
Why am I boring you all with this tale of woe? Because I think it says something alarming about Corporate America. In the 1960's businesses generally adhered to the stakeholder model: the interests of the customer, stockholder, and employee all had the be balanced against one another. Now the shareholder reigns supreme, and employees and customers get the shaft. The consequence has been an erosion in customer service and the quality of products delivered. It's no wonder we are losing our competitive edge, that businesses are off-shoring without the blink of an eye, and that we have seen a wave of corporate scandals. It's just about me and mine, you see. Screw everyone else.
I am also reminded of a book I read many years ago, the Business Complex, which coincidentally has been re-published this year. It lays out the problem with the large corporation. Essentially, the advantages of economy of scale are balanced against the pathologies that always accompany large organizations. After a certain point, the latter begin to outweigh the former. A growing company may at first be a healthy sign of growth (like a child filling out has she matures), but after a while continued growth just means you're getting fat.
Finally, my experience has only reinforced my belief that large retail companies add nothing to the economy. The arguments for having a large corporation have some plausibility when they refer to a business which makes something (either a tangible product or an idea). But retail chains produce nothing. They only transfer goods from one place to another. As they grow, they have all the problems with large organizations (bloated bureaucracies, disregard for their clients, unfair trade practices, abuse of their employees), with none of the benefits. I mean really, what does Wal-Mart really add to the economy?
So my advice this weekend is that when you go shopping, avoid the big chains. Avoid Wal-Mart and Target and Home Depot. Spend a few more minutes looking for an independent proprietor, a mom & pop store that wants your business because they need your business. You'll be doing yourself and your country a favor.
Friday, November 26, 2004
I hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving. Today is Black Friday, a day full of shopping and movie-attending. As a sane individual I am going to do neither and wait until Monday to do any shopping. It’s scary out there. But in honor of the latter, I decided to do a movie review.
I saw "Alexander" on opening night on Wednesday. I’d been very excited because I’d been waiting for an Alexander movie for about 10 years, particularly after Peter Jackson demonstrated how feasible new technologies made realistic battle scenes. Alexander the Great has been an obsession of mine since I was a kid. I mean really: King at 20, conqueror of the world at 25, dead at 32. What could be cooler than that? As I got older, of course, I struggled with my early hero-worship. Alexander was a very complicated man, and hard to judge as simply "good" or "bad." It is this complexity, the enigmatic character of Alexander, that I believed would make him an interesting character in a film. And the action scenes and romance would help it get made in the first place.
When I heard that Oliver Stone and Colin Farrell were tagged to create the new Alexander movie, I was concerned but hopeful. Stone was a good director (Wall Street, Platoon) who could get the financing necessary to do the job. And Farrell had the kind of rough rock-star charisma that would make him believable. But I knew about Stone’s uneven performances in films like Nixon and JFK, and Stone’s weak grasp on the psychology of power gave me pause. But I hoped for the best.
Boy was I wrong to do so. The movie was simply awful. Unlike other reviewers, I don't think the problem was the acting (except Angelina Jolie- wow was to that terrible. What’s with the Russian accent?). I think that Val Kilmer did an excellent job at the shrewd, cynical, semi-barbarous Philip II. And Colin Farrell was okay given what he had to work with. What sucked was the script. Stone could never seem to decide how he wanted to tell the story. He took Alexander’s complexity and just made it confusing.
Now to be fair, there were some good points. I won't jump on the historical inaccuracies, because all Stone really did was move some events around, which is fine. This is a movie, after all, and a director needs to take some poetic license. I wasn't crazy about how Stone made it look like Alexander lost that battle in India, because Alexander never came close to losing a battle. That’s part of what makes him so cool. But it really was no big deal.
The first half of the movie was tolerable, demonstrating the youthful Alexander and the conflicting and tumultuous relationship he had with his parents, powerful both personalities in their own right. The Battle of Gaugemela, although it combined elements of both Alexander's battles with Darius (who ran away at both of them!), was a pretty fair representation of ancient warfare: up close and brutal. And Stone’s portrayal of Alexander’s bisexuality was brave by any measure.
Where the film fell apart was the second half. Stone seems to have simply written himself into a corner he didn't know how to escape from. There was no real buildup to Alexander’s death, and only a weak representation of his struggles with his own people and new subjects.
I think perhaps Stone’s critical mistake (other than the bad dialogue) was his effort to tell the story from Alexander’s perspective. This deprives Alexander of his complexity, of his above-it-all heroic character. Perhaps the movie should have made Alexander the center of the movie, but shifted the perspective to those around him. Alexander was a powerful force in the lives of others. No one who met him was unchanged by his deeds or charisma. He was loved and feared but never ignored. Maybe by telling the story from the point of view of Haephestion, Roxanne, Darius, Olympias, Philip, Cleitus, Parmenio, Bagoas and the other key players in Alexander's life, Stone might have been able to convincingly demonstrate the ambiguous character of Alexander's personality. If he had done so, Stone might have been able to teach us about the many Alexanders without creating such a maddening mountain of mush.
Just a word or two on Alexander himself. A few of the reviewers have taken the easy road to criticize Alexander as just another bloodthirsty conqueror in the mold of Hitler and Genghis Khan. This is hardly fair. Alexander was a ruthless general, but he was also a magnanimous statesmen with a unique vision of his empire. One of his big problems was that he wanted an empire dominated not by the Macedonians but by a Graeco-Persian partnership. I give Stone credit for trying to tell this story, because it is an interesting one. Alexander was also in some senses the founder of chivalry, what with his heroic personal deeds, belief in the importance of personal honor, and treatment of women. Yes Alexander was clever, and amoral, and possessed by the urge to dominate. But at the same Alexander was compassionate, loyal, and able to articulate a different kind of future than anyone had thought of before.
I suppose I could do best by quoting Arrian in his Anabsis of Alexander:
"Whoever therefore reproaches Alexander as a bad man, let him do so; but let him first not only bring before his mind all his actions deserving reproach, but also gather into one view all his deeds of every kind. Then, indeed, let him reflect who he is himself, and what kind of fortune he has experienced; and then consider who that man was whom he reproaches as bad, and to what a height of human success he attained, becoming without any dispute king of both continents, and reaching every place by his fame; while he himself who reproaches him is of smaller account, spending his labour on petty objects, which, however, he does not succeed in effecting, petty as they are."
Wednesday, November 24, 2004
I’m taking a break from the heavy-duty theoretical stuff. Writing all those analytical pieces is exhausting. Instead, today I'm going to comment on some interesting articles over the last few days.
Everyone should go read the interview with Amelia Tyagi in the Washington Monthly. She's the author of the 2-income trap. I think her analysis of the middle class's economic insecurity is precisely the set of issues Democrats should be focusing on. Liberals need to start talking about our debt crisis – the trade and federal debt, of course, but also the personal debt. And we need to make sure people know who to blame: corporate-loving Republicans who have no idea of what real people’s problems are like.
There is also a post from MaxSpeak
from a few days ago that I feel compelled to respond to. Max called liberal federalism "infantile." He is opposed to the idea that the left should focus on state governments to pursue progressive causes. Max suggests that there is a one to one correlation between progressive policies and centralization for a reason: local governments have neither the resources nor the inclination to do liberal social policy.
Now I think Max is correct as far as it goes. States do engage in a "race to the bottom" which tends to favor pro-corporate development rather than economic and social justice. The states do have substantially less fiscal flexibility. And there is a much stronger pattern of discrimination and class bias on the part of states than the national government (for an explanation of why, read Federalist #10).
Having said all this, I think Max is assuming what exists now is the only thing that could exist. When I and others talk about liberal federalism, we are suggesting something very different than simple devolution. Liberal federalism would attempt to solve these two problems of inclination and ability by 1) organizing progressive organizations at the state level, and 2) having the federal government continue to provide the resources for social policy.
State-level mobilization would have a number of benefits. First, it would create a constituency at the grass roots level, which would pressure state governments to act in appropriate ways. One of the reasons that states are so bad at social policy is that there is little public attention on them: most folks concentrate on the national government. Second, creating a grass-roots constituency would both encourage greater popular participation, because the problems and solutions would be more immediate (the national government just seems to far away) and would create a cadre of democratic organization in all fifty-states, which we need to do anyway. By creating a permanent organization, we wouldn't have to re-invent the campaign wheel every 4 years and we could coordinate to create a viable national strategy. One of the reasons we haven't done so in the past is because of our exclusively electoral focus. If we start paying more attention to state policy issues, then we will keep people involved because they will always have something to do.
The second part of the strategy is to use the federal government to leverage social policy at the state level. The national government provides the resources and defines basic solutions to the problem, and the states and localities run with it. Liberal federalists are NOT calling for simple block grants. We are arguing for a more active federal government, but one that does not micro-manage policy.
Unfortunately, Republican domination of government makes the second part of the strategy impossible (for the moment). But our defeat in 2004 should encourage us to focus on the first part of the strategy, state-level mobilization. And by embracing a new, more flexible governing approach, we could finally shed our label as "big government liberals." Which is only to the good.
The Disasters of Neoconservatism
Sunday, November 21, 2004
Most of the variants of conservative ideology are primarily concerned with domestic politics. Neocons are different. They used to have a real concern with domestic politics, but in the last generation they have morphed into democratic imperialists. It is this sort of neoconservatism which I will discuss here.
I have described the neocons as democratic imperialists. This combination seems bizarre for good reason. Neocons see themselves as both champions of democracy and capitalism on the one hand, and of U.S. power on the other. Their model is the Cold War West: an alliance of prosperous democracies under U.S. hegemony.
Democratic imperialism happily combines U.S. security (and domination) with liberal ideals. They subscribe to the theory of the democratic peace, i.e. that democracies just don't fight with each other. Therefore if every country is a democracy, there will be no more war. In a world of free capitalist states the U.S. will inevitably be the dominant power because of its superior institutions. America will be an empire, but a benevolent one, and the world will prosper under a Pax Americana. So the triumph of liberal capitalism will also ensure permanent U.S. political, economic, and cultural leadership: the dream of every imperialist from time immemorial.
The method by which we will reach this utopia is U.S. power. America's military strength will both extend and preserve the "circle of freedom." Their model is postwar Germany and Japan, where U.S. occupation led to the establishment of wealthy democratic societies. According to Neocons, democracy can flow out of the barrel of a gun.
There is an implicit presumption that U.S. institutions, both political and economic, are not only superior to any other but are applicable anywhere. The U.S. has discovered the secret of combining civil peace, economic growth, and personal freedom. It is the historic mission of the U.S. to export this model everywhere.
Neoconservative theory is riddled with so many errors, delusions and fallacies it is hard to know where to start. The democratic peace is of course an untested theory, and the Neocons conflation of democracy and capitalism is troubling. There have been plenty of nondemocratic capitalist states, and they were very quick to fight wars with each other. More broadly, there are real tensions between free market capitalism and democracy, since unregulated the former tends to undermine the foundations of the latter. They also have a skewed theory of development economics: pure free trade is a disaster for a 3rd world economy, as they are unable to compete with superior and cheaper foreign goods.
The Neocons are undoubtedly chauvinists with regard to the superiority of U.S. institutions. There is every reason to believe that a world of democratic capitalist states would result in a relative decline of U.S. power as other states closed the economic gap. China would almost certainly be the new dominant power. And while I would agree that at our best America has made major contributions to the design of effective democratic institutions, you can't just project our system onto other nations. Japan and Germany are fallacious examples. They were advanced industrial states with a history of democracy anyway. All we did was nurture that development. We were hardly starting from scratch.
But the most foolhardy belief is that the U.S. can use it military power to advance both its hegemony and its ideas. If capitalism and democracy have an ambiguous relationship, democracy and imperialism are absolutely incompatible. Any U.S. action that smacks of imperialism will result in a backlash. Our motives will always be suspect. States will move in the opposite direction we wish, and are likely to form anti-U.S. coalitions in the face of overweening U.S. power. The neocons have forgotten that force begets not submission but only more force. The drive for hegemony is the usual cause of the fall of Great Powers. They are overextended, then exhausted, and finally overwhelmed.
Neoconservatism is a classic fool's paradise. It attempts to square the circle of preserving U.S. power and promoting U.S. ideals by wishing the tension away. It takes what is most wants to be true and pretends it is a reality. And worst of all, like it cousin libertarianism, the pursuit of its goals will not advance but undermine its aims. The logical outcome of neoconservative policy is not a free, peaceful world under a hegemonic U.S., but a poorer, violent globe with the U.S. weak and isolated, hated by the rest of the world. It will result not in the export of our democracy abroad but its erosion here at home.
All of which should make our current situation no surprise at all.
The Evils of Corporatism
Saturday, November 20, 2004
I hesitate to label the ideology of pro-business conservatives as "corporatism," since that word is used in comparative political science circles to describe a European policy structure. I have struggled to come up with a better word (except maybe "fascist"), but for the moment it is the best I can come up with. If you have a better idea, let me know.
Having said that, corporatism in the American sense will be defined as the use of government power on behalf of the managerial/capital-owning elite (wow that sounds really Marxist). The basic argument of corporatists is that economic growth is most effectively generated by placing control of the nation's economy into the hands of the most productive (and wealthiest) citizens. At worst, corporatists want government to leave business alone to work its magic. At best, it would like positive help in the form of subsidies, protection, favorable regulations, etc.
Corporatism is sharply distinguished from its current political ally, libertarianism. Libertarians believe that business should be left alone because they are a protected form of property. Corporatists are happy to use this justification, but it is not central to their case. Corporatists would be quite happy if, rather than leaving them alone, government would act on behalf of business. Libertarians would see this as corporate welfare, no more legitimate than handouts to poor people. Since the New Deal, libertarians and corporatists have made an uneasy alliance because the state appeared more likely to use its powers to regulate business. Nineteenth century corporatists used government to their advantage, and so in that era were the champions of strong government.
The real thrust of corporatism's argument in on prudential rather than moral grounds. They are not saying so much that the elite have a right to the fruits of the labor because they deserve it. Instead, they claim that the principles of economics suggest that the elite are the most likely to invest and spend money wisely, and to do so in a way that will ultimately benefit the entire society.
Now I am going to say something quite heretical for a liberal. For most of American history, the corporatists were right. Industrial development in the U.S. required that the scarce capital resource be placed in the hands of the industrial/merchant class. Regulations needed to be designed to foster economic development, and the government needed to protect nascent industries from foreign competition. Is this mercantilism? Absolutely. Is mercantilism always a bad thing? Not if you are trying to develop an agrarian economy. This is why Hamilton, Clay, Blaine and the other conservatives of the 19th century were right in their economic policies, and the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian free trade policies were wrong. Trickle down really did work. The result was U.S. economic hegemony by the twentieth century.
The irony is that by this time the old Hamiltonian logic no longer held. U.S. corporations weren't infants any more- they were full grown adults. But they still wanted to be catered to like they were kids. The image of the 30 year old still living with his parents leaps immediately to mind. American business rapidly consolidated into monopolistic trusts that ruthlessly exploited their market position to the disadvantage of their smaller competitors, the consumers, and labor. The child had grown into a healthy, well-adjusted criminal.
The reaction set in on the left, of course, in the form of Progessivism, Populism, the Labor Union movement, etc. The New Deal set in concrete the liberal ideology that unchecked business power was a danger to the United States, and it was right to do so. Trickle down had become trickle on, and a massive government intervention to regulate and control corporate America became necessary. The critique against pro-business policies is essentially now what it has always been: left to themselves, business will hog all the benefits of society and screw everyone else in the process. The only way to make them behave is to discipline them.
The conservative pro-business policies of the last generation have borne predictable fruit. De-regulation and tax cuts have led to the smashing of labor unions, environmental deterioration, lower wages & benefits, and government corruption. Where are the great economic rewards promised by the unleashing of the upper class? The 1980's revival of pro-business ideology (straight from the 1920's) claimed that high marginal tax rates and regulation were stifling growth. Leaving the supply-side nonsense aside, more respectable conservatives employed the venerable Hamiltonian argument that money should go to the top because in the long term everyone will benefit from their investments. What we saw instead was non-productive paper shuffling (the merger frenzy) and conspicuous consumption. Meanwhile the middle class stagnated and the lower class fell further behind.
Globalization has kicked the last leg from beneath the corporatist chair. Nowadays the elite resides in an isolated bubble. It is cosmopolitan and has no particular national loyalties. Tax cuts and favorable treatment to a U.S. company or to wealthy investors is likely to be used to generate growth not in America but in some other country. And shifting economic power upward doesn't make much sense from a consumption perspective either. The beneficiaries may be buying foreign rather than domestic products, and the their lower marginal propensity to consume gives you less bang for the economic buck.
The fate of those at the top of the economic ladder, of the business/investment elite, is no longer tied to the destiny of those in the middle and at the bottom. Once a prosperous elite required a prosperous America, and their works benefitted all of us. Now they can do fine even if America does poorly.
We are on our own.
The Tyrannies of Traditionalism
Friday, November 19, 2004
The rise of cultural traditionalism as a major force in American politics is one of the big stories of the era. As of 1970, there was a no organized fundamentalist political movement in the United States. Now it is one of the dominant influences in U.S. politics. The story of how and why that happened has been told many times in many places, so I won't do so here. Instead, I will attempt to explain why this theory of the world is wrong.
First, let me describe cultural traditionalism as fairly as I can. Cultural traditionalism articulates a very clear vision of the Good Life. It is one full of happy 2-parent families where the husband is the primary bread-winner and the wife is the chief home-maker. Children are a must, and their proper rearing is the central focus of family and communal life.
The ideal community is the small town. There is a suspicion of urban sophistication. Communities are tightly-knit and very stable. People don't pick up and move away all that often. Civic involvement is encouraged. People volunteer, go to church, and have cookouts on the weekend.
The personal ethic is conventionally conservative: honesty, fidelity to one's spouse, respect to those in authority, the value of a hard day's work. Again, religion plays a central role. These are a God-fearing people. This God is generically Christian, although we might imagine that one day other religious groups might be accepted in the same way that Catholics were in this century. Following divine tenants is not only the key to personal salvation but also leads to rewards in this life.
The cultural conservatives' conception of the good is superficially very attractive. It also has political resonance because it speaks to deeply held beliefs about what America is and should be. Nostalgia plays a central role in its appeal. Cultural traditionalists of every time and place have looked back to the Golden Age where kids respected their parents and waited until marriage. Today that rosy Golden Age is the 1950's.
Politically, cultural conservatives believe that their way of life is under siege. Everywhere they look the dominant cultural forces in society are rendering their ideal community impossible. Drugs, sex, crime, welfare, atheism, the list just goes on and on. Things just aren't the way they used to be, and they are looking for someone to blame. The Republicans have provided a convenient scapegoat in liberalism, but Thomas Frank has already told that story.
For cultural conservatives, the correct medicine for our society's ills is to restore the social order. Just put everything back the way it was before, make everyone behave, and things will be fine. Folks were happier that way anyway. All liberalism has done is give vent to people's basest impulses, and they are all the worse for it.
So what is wrong with this way of thinking? To put it baldly, it is illiberal. You see, the traditionalist vision is quite fragile, and their preferences other-regarding. It is not enough that traditionalists have a belief. Others must share that belief, and will be coerced if need be. Cultural traditionalism is at its core authoritarian because it believes that its way is the only way.
This intellectual aggression stems from several sources. First of all, traditionalists are just easily offended. They are offended when they see sexual promiscuity, offended when they see disrespectful children, offended when they see God driven from the public square. But there is more to it than that. The substance of the traditionalist belief system is very hierarchical: son respects father, wife respects husband, man respects God. Everyone has a proper place and must stick to it. Confucianism with all its pathologies is really just an extreme version.
It is this hierarchical flavor which makes the traditionalist world so vulnerable. You see, if women decide not to marry, if they enter the work force and assert their independence, if children decide to move to New York and become artists, if they convert to Buddhism, it amounts to a rejection of their entire way of life. It repudiates them. And it also renders their way of life impossible. If women and children resist, the whole system just falls apart. Traditionalism, because of its social integration and other-regarding character, requires not just that its supporters submit but that others do.
Finally, the cultural conservatives have to resort to overt authoritarianism to achieve their vision. They want the government to prohibit ways of life the object to. To use state power to impose one's personal vision on others is just about the definition of oppression.
My wife corrects me every time I refer to abortion opponents as "pro-life." She wants me to call them "anti-choice." I think she is probably more right than I realized. It is not just that cultural conservatives do not want women to have the choice whether or not to reproduce. It is that they do not believe that anyone should be able to make any choices. You see, they know better.
The Absurdities of Libertarianism
Thursday, November 18, 2004
This essay is the first in a series critiquing the principal schools of conservatism. I had been contemplating such a thing for quite some time, but postponed it due to the election fervor. Agre's essay and my wife's encouragement (she HATES libertarianism) have given me the kick I needed to get started. I’m hoping these posts will start some discussion, and that my readers will give me their views. All right, enough preliminaries...
Libertarianism is one of the most widely popular forms of conservatism, but at the same time the least intellectually coherent. First let me describe libertarianism's basic motifs. Libertarians' primary if not exclusive emphasis is on individual liberty. They believe that state intervention is inappropriate in nearly all circumstances. The job of government is not to inculcate virtue or re-distribute wealth. It is only there to guarantee the personal rights (particularly property rights) and act as a neutral umpire in disputes. Libertarians believe that there is a zero-sum relationship between government power and personal liberty. Any increase in public authority, no matter how well-intentioned, is a form of oppression.
On social issues, libertarianism shares some ground with liberalism. Libertarians are the determined foes of the religious right and their ilk. Like liberals, they believe that personal choice should be the dominant method of determining personal identity. Social norms are basically irrelevant because they are other-regarding preferences. You don't get a say in what someone else does, as long as it harms no one else.
It is on economics that libertarians and liberals part company. Liberals are suspicious of agglomerations of wealth and power as antithetical to democracy and fair equality of opportunity. Libertarians, on the other hand, view the market as the best way of allocating social resources. Since markets are a mechanism of free choice among rational actors, then any market outcome is legitimate. It is morally indefensible, they say, to redistribute income from the successful to the less successful. The "losers" in the economic game have earned their fate. Taxes are a form of theft, or even slavery, since they take the product of one person's labor and give it to another.
Libertarianism's resistance to government coercion also extends to regulations. Private property rights are absolutely sacrosanct. If I want to carry a gun, light my woods on fire, sell cocaine, or have a prostitute, it is my own business. If you want to distill libertarianism down to its essence, it is that they believe that I should be able to do whatever I want unless it directly harms another.
Libertarianism is most clear in defining what it is against: government coercion. It is this rebelliousness from community norms and the public responsibilities that makes libertarianism so appealing to the mildly educated young. We have all met the 20-something libertarians in college and high school who are eloquent, passionate, and a little unstable. This is not to attack libertarianism because of who believes in it (that would be poisoning the well), but only to explain why it is attractive to a particular subset of the population.
On the surface, there is something attractive, even noble, to the libertarian's commitment to liberty. To believe that we can act in an anarchic utopia is a very old dream on the left, which is why a lot of people you would think to be leftists have become libertarianism. One of the oldest impulses of the left has been to resist authority. This belief goes back at least to Socrates.
So why do I treat libertarianism with such contempt? Because its basic premise is flawed. First, they fall prey to what I have called the Jeffersonian fallacy. They have forgotten that forces other than the government can oppress you. Their problems go much deeper, however. Libertarianism is intoxicated with the idea of the "free market" when they have very little understanding of what markets really are or how they work. Their theory is also nonsensical because its policies will result in the opposite of what it intends. You can criticize other theories because their vision of the future is unattractive. Libertarianism is unique in that its attempts to guarantee personal autonomy will result in less autonomy.
The market is not a force of nature. It is a social construct. Humans have made it up- it has no greater normative force than any other decision rule. For example, we have prohibited the practice of slavery. Why is that? Why can't I sell myself into slavery? Because to do so invalidates the principle you are arguing for: selling your ability to make choices is inconsistent with the idea that we can make whatever choice we want.
The market, left alone, is a very flawed instrument. It strongly tends towards monopoly. As some groups gain a larger share of resources, due to hard work, ability, chance, whatever, they can use their market advantage to eliminate their rivals even if their rivals have a superior product. Beta was a superior device than VHS, and MAC is a better operating system than Microsoft. Quality does not always win out. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with economics knows about the tragedy of the commons, externalities, and the problems with monopolies. It was to make the market work, not to abolish the market, that progressives created all these regulatory institutions.
There is also the problem of heredity. If property rights are sacrosanct, then I should be able to give my wealth to whoever I like. No libertarian I know is in favor of a 100% inheritance tax and the abolition of private schools. But this is what would be necessary if each person were truly to start on a level playing field. Otherwise, we are allowing one generation to passed its (supposedly) earned advantage to the next generation, which becomes an unearned advantage. The libertarian is then left with two undesirable choices: claiming that an unearned advantage is unacceptable, which requires state intervention to guarantee equality of opportunity (which would make them liberals), or allowing the creation of permanent landed wealth which is unrelated to personal merit.
Libertarianism is incoherent because, given the nature of a purely "free" market, the outcome of libertarian economic policies is the creation of a highly consolidated economic system dominated by a hereditary aristocracy. This aristocracy would then inevitably use its economic power to dominate politics and culture. So much for the libertarian utopia.
But let's just assume that these contradictions can be overcome. Is the libertarian vision consistent with our notion of the good life? Does is accord with what we know about human beings? The answer is simply no. In fact, the heroic individualism of the libertarian credo bears little resemblance to reality. My actions are not solely the product of my own will. I am not an atomistic entity bouncing around the universe. My identity and choices are influenced and constrained by my environment and the choices of others. My family, my community, historical events, my friends, my education, and just dumb luck all have an enormous impact on my ability to succeed. Michael Jordan would not have amounted to much had he been born in 1765 rather than 1965. And the businessmen of the 1930's weren't just dumber than the ones in the 1960's. Its just that they were living through hard times without a lot of opportunities.
This is not to say that my character is chance "all the way down." It is only to remember that what happens to others effects me. Let's say half of what I do in life is the product of circumstances outside of my control. This means that I have no moral responsibility for or claim on half of what happens to me.
In addition, libertarians forget how much of our lives is a product not of personal action but social cooperation. This is, after all, what the market is - a social institution. A city, a country, a household function the way that it does because everyone participates. IBM has thousands of employees who in concert create the company's product. Does it seem right than only a handful of people see th rewards?
The most serious intellectual effort to justify libertarianism was Robert Nozick’s "Anarchy, State, and Utopia." In it Nozick asserts that any result is just that comes from a just procedure. If there is justice in acquisition, justice in transfer, and justice is rectification, then any outcome is just fine and we shouldn't tinker with it. What amuses me about libertarians' use of Nozick is that they have clearly never finished the book. At the end, he takes it all back. Why? Because the notion of justice in rectification (making up for past mistakes so that the process is really fair) requires that we go back and look carefully at history. Was property justly acquired? Since there is almost always some long-ago injustice in how property was created, the state has to go in and make up for it. Bingo! Government intervention.
I want to close with the most annoying argument made by libertarians. It goes something like this: there is no point in re-distributing wealth. Even if you just divvied up everything, in a few years the operation of the market would put everything back the way it was. This statement reveals libertarians' confusion of success with virtue, and their belief that the market as it exists now is a perfect instrument.
My response is simply to take them up on their challenge. Let's make all the background resources (education, etc) equal, and give everyone the same amount of money to start out with. Say, $10,000 when they turn 25. Then let's see whether the distribution of wealth, and who sits where within it, is exactly the same as it is now. Libertarians should agree to this radical social re-engineering. After all, what have they got to lose? If they really believe the results would be the same, then it would be no big deal.
Put up or shut up.
The Montana Miracle
Wednesday, November 17, 2004
Apparently, Brian Schweitzer has figured it all figured out. In 2004, while George Bush was burying Kerry in Montana, the Democrats captured the governorship and both houses of the legislature. In a vital piece in the Washington Monthly, David Sirota
explains the unlikely Democratic success in Montana this year. This article is a must-read, and Schweitzer's campaign is a must-study.
I hope everyone reads Sirota's article, but let me highlight a few points. Schweitzer's campaign recognized that Democrats must think creatively about the problems confronting the country in order to regain our status as the majority party. Schweitzer is still a true-blue Democrat. The only issue I'm aware of that he has compromised on is that of gun control, which me, Chris Bowers
, and others think we should dump as a major national issue anyway. Schweitzer has rejected the me-too Republicanism of a lot of red-state Democrats in favor of a message of economic populism and cultural moderation. This is precisely the right strategy. And the right policy as well.
There appear to be 3 key elements to the Montana Miracle. The first is that of reform. Schweitzer positioned himself as a good-government reformer hostile to the interest group domination of the state capitol. Second, Schweitzer brokered an alliance with small business owners against the mega-companies. As I've pointed out before, small business is a potential ally for liberals. The Republicans are in the pocket of the big corporations (like Wal-Mart), which are the foes of both labor unions and independent proprietorships. Third, Schweitzer immunized himself from attacks as a cultural liberal in several ways. He authentically presented himself as a man of the people, in part through his personal demeanor and pro-gun position. But more importantly, he linked environmentalists and the hunter/fisher community in a coalition against development. This is a beautiful strategy. As Sirota argues, the left can get a lot more political traction by pitching environmental protection not as preservation but as recreational use. You can't go hunting if there are no trees and all the animals are dead.
I can guess what you're thinking. But that's Montana! How could that apply anywhere else? It is precisely because it is Montana that it is so important. Rural Montana is not really that different from rural Alabama or rural Maine. If we can do it there, we can do it anywhere.
What is beautiful about the Schweitzer campaign is that it was politically effective, genuinely liberal, and is targeted to the one of the most threatening developments of our day: the erosion of the middle class and the concomitant rise of corporate power. Whether by accident or by design, Schweitzer has stumbled onto some of the key ingredients of a new liberal message.
Tuesday, November 16, 2004
In the most recent contribution to the "message problem" discussion, Kevin Drum
suggests that the Democrats have 2 difficulties in presenting their political vision: 1) liberals have already succeeded at their main goals and are just playing defense, and 2) the Republican attempt to repeal those liberal reforms are too incremental and obfuscated for us to run against.
I think that Kevin's (Is it too familiar to refer to someone you don't know as Kevin?) second point is absolutely correct. To highlight his point, he makes the useful analogy that a party needs to be able to present its narrative in the time it takes to have a conversation in an elevator. Citing James Carville, Kevin says Democrats have a litany, not a story. I think the solution here is argue for core values, for a broader set of objectives for the country- not just a list of programs. That stuff puts people to sleep.
I think the reason for our managerial focus is because
we are playing on the political defensive. When you propose a policy you have to persuade people to support it, and you usually do so by articulating the moral justification for it. Since we don't have a real agenda, all we do is respond negatively to what the right proposes. Republicans have responded to this strategic dynamic by concealing what they are for, by not presenting an easy target. Instead all they enunciate are their general principles, which people like, and retroactively claim that people support their policies. We have responded by whining a lot. No wonder people think we don't stand for anything.
Kevin's first argument reveals a major problem for us. To think that the basic task of liberalism has been fulfilled is to remain trapped in the world of the 1960's. It is to remain trapped by our own failures. To say that liberals are basically done because we put in place all the programs we wanted is to make a cardinal error. There is no enduring liberal legislative program.
Let me explain it this way. The set of policy solutions that was developed in the during the Progressive Era were implemented and largely successful. Similarly, another set of problems confronted the U.S. during the Great Depression, so we crafted a whole bunch of new reforms. They worked well too. Finally, the ideas of the 1960's were designed to solve the problems of the 1960's. They worked fairly well when they got a chance, but the liberal agenda was truncated because of the backlash against the civil rights revolution and the divisions over Vietnam. We have been trying to finish the LBJ/RFK agenda ever since. We got most of it, but we were still waiting for the rest of the anti-poverty program and for national health care. Liberals have been stuck at this point ever since.
Our rigid adherence to a set of programs is responsible for quite a few of a our problems, not least to our reputations as managers rather than visionaries. Liberalism is NOT a set of policy proposals. It is a worldview: liberals are committed to creating a more egalitarian country. We look at whatever set of problems is facing the country and try to find an equitable way to deal with them. And of course the set of problems is always changing. Liberals used to be very good at recognizing this- we would solve one set of problems (or at least take a good stab at it), and then get ready for the next group. But because we didn't complete our old sixties agenda, we got obsessed with it and have neglected the new set of issues that have developed since the 1970's.
So what are these new problems? They mainly have to do with the adjustments to the global economy. Because of growing international trade and the challenges to U.S. economic supremacy, prosperity is no longer a given. Countries also have less leverage in protecting worker rights and the environment. As a consequence, both have come under tremendous pressure. In addition, our democratic institutions have been eroded by social and technological changes as well as sheer neglect.
Liberals have done very little to grapple with these problems. Oh sure, there are lots of good ideas floating around. But they have not been organized into a systematic program with a clear rationale. We just haven't taken any of this stuff seriously enough. And because we have neglected these growing problems, we have for the first time opened the door to the right. The conservatives have filled the vacuum with the only thing they have: the past. They have managed to define the nature and causes of the problems confronting the country because we have been AWOL. In doing so, they are trying to repeal all that we accomplished and they never accepted. If we continue to neglect the new problems facing the country, or if we continue to deal with them in a scattershot way, the right will continue to set the agenda and we will continue to lose.
Articulating a new liberal agenda (and a coherent one) will solve our message problem. We won't just be reacting to what the right does. Instead, we will force the right to respond to us, and return to our proper role as the party of reform and conviction.
Maybe then we can explain what liberalsm means to someone in an elevator.
De-constructing Conservatism: Part IV
Monday, November 15, 2004
The final discussion of Agre's essay on the nature of conservatism focuses on the appropriate response by liberals. Agre articulates a series of strategies the left can employ in challenging the ascendent right. They include:
Engaging in rational and systematic debate with conservative arguments
Responding to and imitating the Wall Journal's editorial page, which Agre describes as the conservative "war room." It sets the tenor for the rest of the movement.
Cultivating a left-leaning punditry who will aggressive challenge their conservative counterparts
Be more creative with liberal arguments (and presumably, liberal policy proposals)
Take logical argument seriously
Demonize the conservative brand in the same way they have done to liberalism
Work out a more systematic liberal worldview at the theoretical level
Develop a natural American idiom for liberalism. No more techno-speak.
Pay attention to the use of language
Stop paying homage to Hollywood
Assess the 60's, both good and bad
Articulate the rationale and moral force of non-violence
Expose conservative use of the federal budget
Find more liberal patrons like George Soros
Develop liberal institutions, particularly the Democratic Party
These are perfectly sensible proposals, although I might quibble with some of the details. I think we can distill what is a very long list down to a pretty basic strategy: work through a new set of proposals to the problems facing America, and then develop a liberal rhetorical strategy and left-wing political institutions to implement them. The fact that many people have suggested these approaches (myself included) does not make them trivial. It is because they are so obvious that many of us are so frustrated. Why have these strategies not been implemented years ago?
It appears that there is now a consensus on the left that we need to refine our message and that liberals need to enunciate a more compelling political narrative. Even James Carville has said as much. I also think that the last election demonstrated a resurgence of liberal organizational activism. What concerns me is that most of this work has been anti-conservative or anti-Bush. To the extent that our opposition gives us insights into what we are for, and teaches us how we can pursue our aims more effectively, that is all to the good. But I fear that our motivation is defining us. We are beginning to absorb the mind-set of an opposition party, which is to become a minority party.
So let's continue to dissect and rebut conservatism. But let's not forget that our real interest is in advancing liberalism.
Deconstructing Conservatism, Part III
Sunday, November 14, 2004
I just realized that I have repeatedly used the word "conservativism" which does not exist, instead of "conservatism," which does. Ouch. I have gone through my previous posts and tried to correct this unforgivable mangling of the language. If I missed one, please let me know. Mea culpa.
In this third installment of my critique of Philp Agre's "What is Conservatism and What is Wrong with It," I will look at his discussion of the tactics of conservatism, or as Agre describes it, "How Conservatism Works."
Agre lays out four methods by which the right dominates political argument. He argues that conservatives systematically undermine conscience, democracy, reason, and language. I found Agre's discussion here a bit hard to follow, perhaps because he his arguments blend into one another. From what I can determine, Agre is attempting to lay out the means by which conservatives corrupt the public discourse by hijacking the language of morality even while engaging in Goebbelesque distortions of logic and language and engaging in reprehensible political techniques. My use of the word “Goebbels” is quite deliberate. As David Neiwert in particular has explained, the modern right has moved steadily in the direction of neo-fascism. Josh Marshall has also explained how there seems to be an almost post-modern rejection of objective fact in contemporary conservatism. The whole “fact-based community” stuff is only the most obvious example.
Agre is clearly correct in his description of today's conservatism as Orwellian. But it must be pointed out that authoritarianism and propaganda are neither inherent to nor the sole property of the right. The extreme left has on more than one occasion employed both, Jacobin France and Communist Russia being two well-known examples. We must be on guard for anti-democratic practices wherever they appear. At the moment they seem to have dangerous appeal on the right, but this has not always been so. In engaging today's right, we must avoid becoming like them. We must not resort to eliminationist rhetoric or brutal political tactics. "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies."
As for how we do fight the right, I will turn to the final section of Agre's essay, "How to Defeat Conservatism" tomorrow in Part IV, Solutions.
Deconstructing Conservatism: Part II
Saturday, November 13, 2004
Okay the link is back up. Here goes....
Skipping to the section in which Agre discusses the historical development of conservatism in the U.S., he makes the useful point that there was a strong elitist streak in the founders. I think this point is well taken. We shouldn't be too hard on them, I think. After, they were all wild-eyed egalitarians in the context of the times. But it is true that they were is some respects aspiring aristocrats. Not in the sense of wanting a titled, landed aristocracy (that they didn't want), but that they expected society would be led by a class of gentlemen with sufficient leisure time and education to devote themselves to public life.
Agre then points to a crucial divide in American history around 1800: that between the North and South. The South had slavery, with all its attendant evils, and the North didn't. The experience of slavery profoundly affected the development of cultural and political life in the southern region of the country. I have talked extensively about this elsewhere, but I think Agre is essentially on target.
Where I think he is mistaken is about the North. As I have said before, there have always been many conservatisms in America, both ideologically and regionally. The Northern Conservatism of Hamilton, Webster, Adams, Blaine, Henry Clay, Roosevelt (Teddy), and finally Nelson Rockefeller was rooted in the northeastern commercial society. It was internationalist and believed in a strong state structure, and was very pro-business. Despite its warts, it contributed greatly to the development of the country and was the leading element of conservative thought until its demise in the 1960's. (Point of information- I find this form of conservatism tremendously attractive and mourn its passing.)
Midwestern Conservatism is somewhat different- it is more morally fundamentalist and isolationist. It also has a more rural feel. Lincoln and Taft are probably the most important exponents of this tradition. There is also the anti-statist conservativism of the West represented by Goldwater, Reagan, and McCain. Finally there is there is the Southern Conservatism of Calhoun and George Bush (boo!!) which is defined by race and class hierarchies, imperialism, and more than a touch of fascism.
I don't intend a history lesson. I just think it is important to distinguish which sort of conservatism we are discussing. The North was NOT rapidly egalitarian. It was certainly trending in that direction, but there was a robust, intellectually respectable, and democratically robust form of conservatism with its roots in the Northern half of the country. It was not the enemy of democracy or liberalism. It was a sometime ally and worthy rival.
Agre next discusses the development of liberalism in the North. The word liberal came out of the dispute between the business and landed aristocratic elites, with liberalism applying to the former. But with the disintegration of the latter the meaning changed. For the left, liberalism became re-defined as the ideology dedicated to regulating corporate power (as the new aristocracy). The right uses it to mean anti-government.
The change in conservatism with respect to government power is critical, and I can't emphasize it strongly enough. Conservatives used to be pro-government because they expected government was pro-business and because they expected to dominate government institutions. As government power became democratized, they lost control of it. Now strong government was going to used against them rather than on their behalf. The corporations had also developed sufficiently that they no longer needed state protection, so they abandoned it the left and became its determined foe.
Liberalism underwent a similar transformation about 1900. Under Jefferson and his descendants it meant hostility to the state as an ally of aristocratic power. It was with the rise of the Progressives that the left learned they could use government against the elite, and they became the pro-government party. This evolution explains the seemingly inexplicable switch between the 2 parties on the issue of government power. The power of government is a fig leaf of an issue. The real question is what you are going to do with it.
Finally, Agre lays out what has become a familiar story: the development of a new institutional basis for conservatism outside of government and funded by corporate America beginning in the 1970's. The right developed a powerful propaganda machine and began assaulting the institutional bases of liberal power, with great success.
I should point out that in the 1960's, the right also buried its long-standing civil war between the regions. In the past the South had been outside the right-wing coalition and an uneasy ally of the left because of the legacy of the civil war. The Northeastern Conservatives lost control of the Republican party, and the Midwestern and Western variants looked to the SouthThe funny thing is that instead finding a useful electoral ally, they found a master. The South has now purged the conservative movement of all of its competitors. Where there were once had 4 regional conservativisms, now we have one national form dominated by the South.
Agre's essay here blends into the tactics of the right, so I will talk about that tomorrow during Part III, Tactics.
Friday, November 12, 2004
That is really frustrating. I had my coffee and was all ready to start my next installment when the link died. So I'm going to have to wait to continue by analysis of Philip Agre's essay. Does anyone have a copy?Kulturkampf
Instead, I will discuss Brad Carson's
article in the New Republic, and some pieces related to it. Carson suggests that there is a real cultural dispute in America that transcends any particular issue. Our opponents are fundamentally (look, a pun!) opposed to modernity, and the Democratic Party's allegiance to modernity permanently bars us from winning their votes. Cultural conservatives are simply unmoved by economic concerns. Carson criticizes liberal populists like Thomas Frank for assuming this is false consciousness: the right wing is indifferent to economics in principle. It is not a delusion.
Let me quote the most pertinent section:
"The culture war is real, and it is a conflict not merely about some particular policy or legislative item, but about modernity itself. Banning gay marriage or abortion would not be sufficient to heal the cultural gulf that exists in this nation. The culture war is about matters more fundamental still: whether nationality is, in a globalized world, a random fact of no more significance than what hospital one was born in or whether it is the source of identity and even political legitimacy; whether one's self is a matter of choice or whether it is predetermined, before birth, by the cultural membership of one's family; whether an individual is just that--a free-floating atom--or whether the individual is part of a long chain that both predates and continues long after any particular person; whether concepts like honor and shame, which seem so quaint, are still relevant in a world that values only "tolerance." These are questions not for politicians but for philosophers, and, in the end, it is the failure of liberal philosophy that we saw on November 2."
Carson's article becomes even more worrisome when read together with recent writings by Ed Kilgore and MyDD. Commenting on Carson, Kilgore says that there is a
a widespread sense that a whole host of traditional values are being threatened and perhaps extinguished by cultural forces ranging from globalization and commercialization to sex-and-violence saturated entertainment products and the moral flatulance of the celebrities whose "lifestyles" and views assault us from every direction. Kilgore
suggests that the attempt to switch the subject to populist economics is a loser. We need to confront these issues head on or we are condemned to irrelevance. The magnitude of the challenge ahead is illustrated by MyDD
. Looking at the exit polls, he comes to the realization that we face more than a directional hurdle. There are so many more conservatives than liberals that we need to win moderates by 2-1 to win comfortably. But how? If we move to the center, we demobilize the left. If we move to the left, we can't get enough centrist votes. The solution is to grow liberalism.
To sum up: Democrats have a tough time winning because traditionalists outnumber modernists. Traditionalists are unmoved by economic appeals, so we need to address the issue of culture in order to remain competitive. The question is how to do it.
First of all, I want to quibble with Carson's description. I'm not aware that liberal philosophy has any principled objection to the ideas of national and cultural identity, as long as these are not unduly oppressive. And given the force of communitarian and civic republican notions in liberal academia today, both of which are uneasy with modernity, you could even say the opposite. These schools of thought are already making a useful corrective to traditional Kantian thought.
Second, I believe that Kilgore's renunciation of economic populism and critique of Frank is mistaken. Frank suggests that what Republicans have done is not only identify the problem of culture, to validate it as it were, but also to assign blame. Conservatives have held liberalism responsible for the decline of American life. As I understand him, Frank thinks that liberals need to shift the blame to a different target: corporate america, which is peddling all this crap and ruining the middle class in the process. It is precisely the cultural appeal of anti-corporate populism which makes it so powerful. This strategy will also have the useful effect of exploding the Republican coalition.
We have to unite the economic and cultural issues into a synthetic whole. In part this can be done by using moral language, not by invoking God but using words like Responsibility and Duty and Community. Heck, these ideas are why we believe in liberalism anyway. Emphasizing economics is not "changing the subject." What is important is the moral component of politics, but doing so in a way which deals with economics. We need to bridge that old divide.
There is one thing I find uplifting about the "values" debate. It looks like the left has given up on winning the upper class. If you divide America up into the four basic ideologies (liberalism, conservativism, populism, and libertarianism), with the latter two the swing groups, you could say the debate on the left has been whether to go after downscale populists (who are anti-corporate but culturally interventionist) or upscale libertarians (who are culturally liberal but anti-statist). I always thought going for the libertarians was a mistake, which was why I thought the old pro-corporate DLC was blundering. It would have sold out the New Deal legacy by creating 2 upper-class parties.
So Kerry and Edwards were on the right track in the last election: economics is a values issues, framed correctly. What we need to do is pick up the ball and keep carrying it down the field.
Deconstructing Conservatism: Part I
Thursday, November 11, 2004
has suggested we all read Philip Agre's essay "What Is Conservatism And What is Wrong With It?"
This is a very long piece, which is broken up into several parts: an analysis of its theoretical foundations, its tactics, its history, and finally a strategy on how to defeat it. I'm going to tackle one section every day. Normally I wouldn't spend so much time on one essay, but I think this is a very important work in a vital discussion. I was planning on doing something similar, and later I'll use Agre's essay as a springboard.
So today let's discuss the theoretical foundations of conservativism, according to Agre. I'll summarize his arguments first.
Agre equates conservatism with aristocracy: it is the ideology that justifies the rule of the elite. This is, after all, Marx's original definition of an ideology. I think that in modern America the umbrella ideology for the right wing could best be called conservatism, so I'll accept that characterization for now. I will ultimately conclude it is a mistake, but let's leave that for the moment.
There are three main arguments justifying conservative ideology: institutionalism, hierarchy, and freedom. First, conservatives argue that institutions are fragile but essential to human well-being, and that the elite is a necessary custodian to those institutions. Any social change is dangerous and to be avoided. This is classical Burkean Conservatism. Agre thinks that institutions are much more durable and adaptable than Burke suggests, so change is just fine.
Conservatives also argue that hierarchy is a good thing- the people are just not qualified to rule. This is the Platonic Guardianship justification. Agre finds this argument are prima faciae unacceptable and recognizes that the modern right is very hesitant to openly state it, although it rests behind much of their logic.
Finally, there is the freedom arguments for conservatism. Agre really doesn't get into the details of how this work, but I think what he means is the libertarian case for the right- the Nozickian or Randian cases for conservativism. Agre thinks that this is just a fig leaf due to the deep-seated popularity of liberty in American political discourse. In reality, conservatives are quite comfortable with authoritarianism. Conservatism requires a internalization of aristocratic norms in the lower classes which requires at least propaganda and at most active indoctrination. Agre also argues that conservativism has only an uneasy alliance with business, because of the market's tendency to undermine the social order. Finally, Agre rightly points out that there is no necessary relationship between the size of government and political ideology- the right uses activist government to promote its ends all the time. It has no principled opposition to "big government."
Any good strategist would tell you that you need to "know your enemy." Is Agre's analysis of conservatism correct? At the philosophical level, we need to take seriously the arguments of our opponents in order to see if there is any real intellectual merit. Whether they really believe these arguments or are acting in bad faith is another issue. This is part of what bothers me about Agre's piece. He occasionally commits the fallacy of "poisoning the well." Rather than directly confront the force of conservativism's arguments, he instead just writes them off as mere hand-waving, a transparent justification for personal aggrandizement. Now this might be true. But even so it is not helpful. We are still left with no deeper understanding of what conservatism really means, or how we might learn from it. This doesn't mean we can't challenge our opponents are hypocrites. It just means I want to know what to say if I meet a conservative who isn't a liar.
The institutional argument for conservatism is actually its most respectable: we can't change anything because it might undo the delicate web of social relationships. This is the old neoconservative "Law of Unintended Consequences." It is conservativism at its best- cautious, restrained, with a keen eye for human fallibility.
I would respectfully disagree with Agre's assertion that social institutions are durable. I concur with Burke- they are fragile. This does not make me a conservative. It makes me a Burkean liberal. Institutions have a tendency to degenerate into something else. Usually this means they are captured by the elite (which is why I think Burke worried too much - his side has a natural advantage in this regard). This is no reason to reject institutions outright. Egalitarian institutions are absolutely crucial for the democratic project. Democracy, after all, is a system of social cooperation, and works through egalitarian institutions. I think one of the principal mistakes of the left in the 20th century has been its failure to create and nurture liberal institutions. In an orgy of individualism and neglect we allowed them to be captured by the right.
So the real problem with Institutional Conservatism is not that it is too rigid, but that it confuses the instrument with the end. Social institutions are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. It is how they are used that matters. You don't hate or like a hammer. You hate what someone does with it (build a house = good bash me in the skull = bad.). The other problem with Burkeanism is that it simply presumes that the elite in society are the best to maintain the social order. There is no real argument here- you could dump the hierarchy (as I have) with no appreciable change in the theory.
Which brings me to the hierarchy argument. It is here I think the Agre is being unfair. Very few on the right openly suggest that the elite should rule. Platonic Guardianship is a political non-starter. The only place they suggest that the elite should have power is in the economy, a matter about which reasonable people disagree. Hamilton wanted to give wealth to entrepreneurs not because he liked them (he didn't) but because they are wealth creators. Anyway, you can always redistribute the social surplus after they have created it. So while you can argue that the consequences of conservative policy are unjust because they lead to hierarchical outcomes, this does not make conservatives closet Platonists. It is just an argument against their policies.
This is not to say that I don't think that conservatives are in favor of hierarchy. I'm just saying that when examining intellectual arguments, we shouldn't presume this is the case.
The most politically powerful but ultimately silliest argument for conservatism is the freedom argument. Conservatives paint a rosy picture of anarchical liberty that a lot of young and/or greedy fools find very attractive. I’ll do a more thorough critique of libertarianism later, but let me give you the broad strokes. Libertarianism is an unstable theory because its outcomes are the precise reverse of its ideals. It posits perfect human freedom and projects idealized market functions onto all of society. The problem is that the free market is not really free at all: it trends towards monopoly. It takes the active intervention of government to restore competition to the market. It is competition we want, not the market. The mixed market is just the best way to get to fair competition.
This is why I think Agre is incorrect when he claims the conservatism is inconsistent with business. I repeat - markets do not trend towards social instability. In fact markets tend to ossify rather quickly into oligopolies. Small government conservatism is just what the doctored ordered, as far as IBM is concerned.
What is true of the market is doubly true of social relations. Governments are created in order to protect the weak and humble the strong. Remove government, and the strong will ride roughshod over the rest of us. How free do you feel now that you have no food, shelter, and have a gun in your face?
Libertarianism is the polar opposite of Burkeanism. The former assumes perfect human liberty and equality and then lets the machine run. Any outcome is fine. The Burkeans claim that constant intervention is required to guarantee just outcomes. And it is not libertarians who are guilty of authoritarianism- it is the Burkeans who have that tendency. If you haven't noticed, libertarian conservatives have been very unhappy with the Patriot Act.
So what is the problem with Agre's analysis? I think that he takes three different forms of conservatism (Burkeans, Platonists, and Randians) and treats them as if they were part of the same, coherent, intellectual movement. They aren't. They are all pro-hierarchy. That is true. But only the Platonists are pro-hierarchy in principle. Burkeans are against change and have a tendency towards hierarchy. Randians are rhetorically anti-hierarchy but their policies have hierarchical consequences. I think Agre does present a good case for what is wrong with conservatism. I just think he need to clarify which conservatism he is talking about.
So being a good philosopher, what can we learn from these conservatisms? The Burkean form instructs us as to the importance of social institutions and the necessity for caution. The Platonic form, while in most respects repugnant, does challenge our presumptions about the capacity of the people to rule. A Democratic Platonist might suggest we do a better job at educating our people to be citizens. Finally, the Libertarians, as annoying as they can be, do have a refreshing commitment to individual liberty. We might also take into account their recognition that too much government intervention can be a bad thing, whatever its intention. These conservative suggestions might not persuade us to become conservatives, but they will help us build a better liberalism.
Tomorrow: Conservatism in History
Keep It Simple
Wednesday, November 10, 2004
Yet another debate has begun over whether Democrats have lost because the message is wrong (run to the center!) or because the message has been imperfectly presented (we need the uber-candidate!). I think the first position is just incorrect and the second position is too overwrought. If you look at generic issue polls, Democrats win on EVERY issue. That's right- take the partisan labels off and just describe the issues, and voters routinely support the Democrats by large margins. There is no need to change the content of the message- it's been popular since the New Deal and is likely to remain so.
And the presentation of the message? There is far too much knot-tying going on. George Lakoff and John Judis have written very interesting things on the subject of issue framing. Heck, the American Prospect dedicated a whole issue to it! The basic response has been to craft our own sophisticated counter-narrative, i.e. ape the Republicans. If by framing the issue, you mean clarifying where we as Democrats stand in ways that jibe with people's pre-existing beliefs, I am all for it. If it means blurring the differences where we are weak, or accommodating ourselves to beliefs with which we disagree, then this is both unethical and counterproductive.
It has apparently occurred to no one that the reason that Republicans have to use all this massage rhetorical manipulation and framing is because they have unpopular positions. They can't call it "crony capitalism" so they call it "pro-business." They call it "balance" rather than "sell-out." It's just your basic Orwell.
Democrats have no need to adopt Orwellian language in response, because at the level of principle the voters agree with us
. We don't need to massage or obscure our beliefs. In fact, doing so is a positive hindrance. What we need to do is forthrightly state our principles and attack our opponents for their actions (thus highlighting their hypocrisy). We don't need to become masters of political jujitsu. Rove does that because he has to. When Democrats try to do the same, they come off as fakes. We are just not as good a liars as the other side because we are not power-hungry ethics-less lunatics. So let's not lie. Let's tell the truth. Sure, we need to do so in simple language. But we will come off as much more sincere, much more authentic
, if we articulate our position in a sensitive yet forceful way.
The dirty secret about rhetoric is that it is not about clever tricks with language, but about conviction. The best way to get people to believe you is to get them to believe in
you. It is all about credibility. Clinton knew this. When he made nods in the direction of mainstream values, he wasn't flipping his position. He was challenging the caricature of liberalism when it came to crime our big government. We need to do the same on foreign policy and "values."
Furthermore, if we play the Orwellian game we are agreeing to dumb down the political discourse. This will advantage the party that wants to reduce citizens to bacteria reacting the stimuli by playing to their worst impulses (by the way, that is not us). Liberalism succeeds when we speak directly to what is best in people- community, tolerance, hope in the future. If Kennedy had tried to pretend he wasn't a Catholic (and he wasn't much of one) he would have lost. Instead, he dealt directly with the issue of religious prejudice, and won.
So read your Aristotle's Rhetoric and study the speeches of Kennedy. But remember that it is easy persuade people when all you have to do is make them realize they already agree with you.
Tuesday, November 09, 2004
Lots of people argue about the meaning of the word "democracy." Some suggest it is primarily a process - i.e. majority rule within the context of rational discourse. Others think it is about substance - where the social surplus is distributed throughout the community rather than concentrated in a few hands. Those are just two definitions. There are many others.
To me democracy is really very simple. It is about self-governance: a free people as a whole makes decisions about everyone in the community. It is both process and substance, and there is a strong moral component. Democracies imply a certain restriction on political conflict, and requires a willingness to look beyond temporary personal interests towards the broader needs of the polity.
Another debate revolves around the naturalness of democracy. Some thinkers (let's call them the democratic optimists) believe that democracy is the normal form of human governance. Any people, if they choose, will take to it. Once they get a taste for it, they will stick with it because it just makes so much sense. Others (the democratic pessimists) believe that democracies are fragile hothouse flowers, highly dependent on underlying conditions. The psychological, material, and ethical foundations of the democracy are prerequisites to its continued existence and take constant care.
I fall firmly in the latter camp. I think the democratic optimists don't know much history, since democracies have come and gone over the millennia. They also confuse the philosophical justification for democracy (which is nigh-indisputable) with its stability. They forget things like the collective action problem, or interpret it in the wrong way. For example, a President has a rational interest in not cheating on his spouse, but that doesn't mean he won't do it.
But the democratic optimists have held sway in the last generation, unsurprisingly given the success of our form of government. Our last democratic crises was over seventy years ago! Why worry? Of course over the last generation the foundations of our democracy (those objective conditions I was talking about) have steadily eroded under the pressure of neglect and historical change. The superstructure of the democracy has been actively wrecked as well. The institutions which encourage popular participation (the media, the bureaucracy, interest groups, political parties) have generally been in decline, either withering away or becoming perverted, captured by elite interests. As democracies go, we are not all that healthy. At the moment I think we are downright sick.
What does all this have to do with George Bush? To repeat myself, he is no democrat (small "D"). His policies have accelerated the decline of our democratic foundations (particularly the declining middle class) while he his political style is positively fascist. Marginalizing your opposition, suppressing the vote, and manipulating the citizenry is scarcely sound practice for a democratic leader. And his party is contemptuous both of democratic process (look how they treat the House minority) and democratic substance (no give-away to corporations is too big.)
This election has shaken my faith in American democracy's future. It appears our corruption is quite well advanced now, to quote Lincoln in another context. When there is such a disjuncture between fact and perception, when citizens are so willing to invest their psyches and responsibilities in a Great Leader, democracy is scarcely possible. There are just too many people of good will who are simply deluded, and too many unreasonables who are motivated by hate and fear. You just can't make a good omelette with bad eggs. I'm not saying they are rotten- they are just starting to smell a bit funny, and I'm trying to remember how long ago I bought them.
So now I have to watch the democracy I love place its fate in the hands of a man who doesn't care about it. I have to live with the risk of 4 years of consolidation by pseudo-fascists. It's like having your first love break up with you and date a man who beats and cheats on her.
It will not be an easy time.
Monday, November 08, 2004
The culture war is very real. Coming from the South, I have seen the power that cultural identification has on politics. Whether that identity is based on race, ethnicity, or religious faith, it is a dominant motivating factor in electoral politics. In some sense, all politics is culture war.
Today's cultural dispute is of a different sort. The conflicts rise above mere tribalism and is about the nature of society itself and our place within it. Fundamentalism is a product not of the middle ages but is a response to modernity. The modern world's uncertainty, its rationalism, its defiance of tradition in the name of science, are deeply disturbing to people with strong moral values (and by this I mean both humanitarian ethics and religious devotion). The appeal of fundamentalism is that it provides illusory certainties. Fundamentalism comes in a number of guises: there is the religious kind, but there is also the philosophical variety (hence Communism and Libertarianism).
The opponents of fundamentalism are the Modernists, who though they may be uncomfortable with the consequences of uncertainty are prepared to deal with it. Modernism is almost never in the ascendant, human nature given when it is. It must accommodate the valid arguments of Fundamentalism without caving into it entirely. This is your typical thesis/antithesis/synthesis dynamic discussed by Hegel.
The danger comes when either side of the dispute approaches outright ascendancy. Untrammeled Modernists can produce societies with little tolerance for the merely human, while Fundamentalists wreak terrible damage with their pursuit of non-existent golden ages, and are also very liable to authoritarianism.
In America, we now have two political parties which are divided by this dispute. The Fundamentalist Republicans (both libertarian and religious) and their tribal allies (white southern nationalists) are opposed by the Modernist Democrats and their tribal allies (gay identity, feminist identity, black & latino identity) who are looking for their own place in sun. And we are now very close to outright domination of the state apparatus by the Fundamentalists, with predictable effects.
With this election, you can probably kiss abortion rights goodbye. And any rights for gays. And meaningful civil liberties protections for minorities. And the separation between church and state will be actively undermined as churches become just another part of the Republican party machine. The reason this is so crucial an election is not because the Fundamentalists have won a victory- they usually do until the forces of history and their own internal contradictions allow the Modernists to slip in. The danger in this election is that the fundies will institutionalize their victory. By winning control of the courts, they can block any efforts to undo the damage. The past will have a very long-standing veto on the future.
Let's say then that the Democrats recapture the Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008. They will be confronted with a thoroughly right-wing judiciary. Their options will then be reduced to a) undermining the courts, b) packing the courts, or c) defeat. The first two would violate our own democratic principles, the latter is scarcely a more desirable outcome. The only way this strategic quandry can be avoided is if the Senate Democrats refuse to allow Republicans to put ideologues on the bench over the next two years. It would be a long struggle under tremendous pressure. They would have to willing to shut down the place for an extended period of time, and would have to frame the issues in precisely the right way. It would take remarkable tenacity and skill.
Frankly I don't think they have it in them.
Sunday, November 07, 2004
I am not going to write this morning about specifics. Everyone is aware of the mistakes Bush has made and is likely to make in foreign affairs. These mistakes might be transient and correctable. I am more concerned about a greater problem: the loss of our reputation.
America has always had a special place in the world. We have in the main been a symbol of opportunity and liberty for people in many struggling nations. This is why there has always been a long line waiting to move here. But there is another side to our reputation: that of the arrogant imperial power, xenophobic and somewhat bungling. No one ever likes the dominant world power, be they British, French, Spanish or American. The degree of animosity number one's generate is highly correlated to their restraint. Great Powers that abuse their position are hated, those that use their influence with discretion and respect for others tend to be a bit more popular.
The perception of America by the rest of the world has always had this ambiguity. On the one hand we are "conceived in liberty," and on the other we are an overweening hegemon. Which perception was dominant shifted over time. But people folks were never entirely convinced one way or the other.
Now they are.
When I went abroad last year, a lot of people were angry at America. I always defended us by saying "That's just George Bush, not the American people. Remember that Bush wasn't legitimately elected. In a couple of years he will be turned out of office and we'll go back to the way we were under Clinton." And many people cautiously accepted this argument. They were willing to wait and see.
The reason Bush is so unpopular in the world, the reason he undermines our position so profoundly, is that he symbolizes everything that the world has disliked about us. He is the expression of all that was feared about America- that we were just another imperial power, one who talked a good game about liberty as a smokescreen for its ambition.
After this election, the rest of the world is now convinced. Every fear has been confirmed, every suspicion validated. In a few years, we will be without friends anywhere. Any difficulties we face will not be met with sympathy but with satisfaction. And to all my arguments, America's critics will be able to reply "You elected Bush. America wanted this. This is what you are now." And they will be right to say so.
Saturday, November 06, 2004
The most obvious area in which the Bush Administration is going to wreak tremendous damage is to the U.S. economy. As if they are unsatisfied with the poor performance of the last four years, their new policies are an orgy of self-destruction and crony capitalism. They appear determined to reduce the U.S. to a 3rd world nation.
The U.S. has been suffering from long-term stagnation of middle class incomes, which have remained essentially unchanged over the last generation. There are many causes of this phenomenon- globalization & free trade, declining competitiveness of U.S. industries, deregulation, changes in technology and management, and the decline of the union movement. The Bush Administration has positively encouraged these trends, with predictable results: high unemployment, low wage & income growth, wasteful merger frenzies, and large trade deficits. The most telling statistic: over the last 30 years, 99% of the income gains have gone to the top 10 percent of the population.
These trends are long-term threats, but U.S. policies are threatening an immediate crisis. The source? Debt. Right now corporations, households, governments, and the nation as a whole are running unprecedented and unsustainable annual deficits. This debt is not just immoral, since it amounts to a tax on the future by the past and present. It is also threatening a major financial crisis. Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker has predicted that there is 75% chance of an Argentina-style meltdown in the next couple of years. Like Argentina, we have an inflated currency and a large debt held by foreigners. Any loss in confidence will result in a run on the dollar, high interest rates and a major depression that will cut living standards roughly in half. Unlike the Argentina debacle, the U.S. crisis will probably bring the rest of the world down with it.
The Administration's response the growing crisis? Make it worse, of course. Bush & Co.'s plans to privatize Social Security, preserve and extend the tax cuts, impose a flat tax, and embark on a new round of free trade agreements with the third world will have the inevitable result of a creating a much larger debt and of magnifying the coming crisis.
We might have averted the catastrophe to come. With a Kerry Presidency, we might have been able to repeal the tax cuts and begin tackling the budget deficit (again), while managing a slow depreciation of the dollar and attempting to bring down household debt without depressing the economy. It would have been difficult and fraught with political peril, but such a strategy was at least possible. Now we will be left to pick up the pieces when it is far, far too late.
Friday, November 05, 2004
Over the next week or so, I am going to lay out why this election was so important, why the defeat was so disastrous. I will take a look at each issue area in which we are going to see catastrophic policies with enduring consequences. Today's post will serve as something of a preface.
Most of the time, elections are transient affairs. The voters speak, and there is a small and usually temporary shift in the balance of power between the two political parties. If you lose one election, you re-group and re-calibrate in preparation for the next one. There are no permanent losers or permanent winners. This is what makes democracies fun. It is also what makes it so similar in appearance to sports- the Red Sox were not executed after a defeat. There was always next year, and finally next year came.
But sometimes, there is no next year. Occasionally there are elections which are absolutely pivotal. There is a real choice to make, and a wrong decision can have calamitous and irrevocable results. America, like most democracies, has had its share of close calls. What if the Federalists had failed to ratify the Constitution in 1789? What if Aaron Burr had successfully stolen the election of 1800? What if Sherman hadn't taken Atlanta so that Lincoln was defeated in the 1864 election? What if Hoover had been re-elected or Huey Long had lived? Any of these eventualities were eminently possible, even likely under the circumstances. And each would have led to catastrophe.
Through some combination of luck and wisdom, America averted each of these potential disasters. But a different decision by the voters or our leaders could have taken things in a very different direction, towards an America none of us would want to live in. I think the election of 2004 was one of these decisive moments. For the first time, America chose wrongly. It may be impossible to correct the damage likely to be done over the next four years. The probable financial, social, and foreign policy crises are unlikely to be averted, and they will at best be very difficult to clean them up.
Why did we choose so poorly? I think perhaps that Americans have been spoiled by their good fortune. At every critical juncture we had great leaders to guide us- Washington, Hamilton, Lincoln, Roosevelt. We got used to men in white horses riding over the hill to save us. So when another great crisis arose, we just assumed that our current leader was one of the great ones, rather than one of the worst. We projected what we wanted to believe onto a man unsuited to his role. And many of us have refused to accept that the President is not what we would like him to be.
Relying on great leaders is a bad habit. Democracies are about self-governance. We are supposed to act collectively to solve our own problems, not wait for a champion to lead us to victory. Democracy is about the aggregations of small heroisms, not the drama of the Great Man. Perhaps we can take this opportunity to cure ourselves of this mischievous belief.