Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Complexity of American Ideology

Some folks might have caught the generally flawed discussion at Forbes this week on "The 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media."

Since the Democrats are in power with a new administration, and much of the governing conservative philosophy has been abandoned (by Republicans) or repudiated (by Democrats), it's certainly a worthy effort to pin down not just the top liberal thinkers, but to lay out some kind of liberal philosophy as well.

There's a lot of problems here, however. The first is that no one in American politics really agrees on what liberalism is any more. The second is that Forbes' top 25 is wholly arbitrary and plainly unserious in its effort to really identify a core set of writers and public intellectuals who'd best represent what it means today to be "liberal." According to Forbes:

Broadly, a "liberal" subscribes to some or all of the following: progressive income taxation; universal health care of some kind; opposition to the war in Iraq, and a certain queasiness about the war on terror; an instinctive preference for international diplomacy; the right to gay marriage; a woman's right to an abortion; environmentalism in some Kyoto Protocol-friendly form; and a rejection of the McCain-Palin ticket.
That's fair enough, except the authors needed some kind of qualification for the use of "liberal" in the American context. In history and political philosophy, liberalism has a significantly different foundation than that implied by the welfare-state liberalism that defined the Democratic Party throughout most of the 2oth century.

Traditional liberalism is best referred to as classical liberalism. It's foundations are found in the natural rights and social contract theories of the 17th and 18th centuries, best represented by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. These thinkers stressed the innate God-given rights of the individual in the state of nature. Key concerns here are life, liberty, and property/happiness, and classical liberals evinced supreme skepticism of governmental power, and thus sought to proscribe the authority of the state, whose ultimate authority was to preserve and protect the natural rights of the individual. Ron Chusid, whose blog is "Liberal Values," discusses
the problems of liberal nomenclature:

When I use liberal in the name of this blog, I am referring to liberalism in both its broad historical sense and with consideration of the variations in meaning internationally, as opposed to indicating support for any narrow partisan views. Some have suggested that I use the term classical liberalism instead, but I have preferred to leave this open, not wanting to be concerned about whether any specific views I hold fit into this label. Recent events have also forced me to tolerate more government activity in the economy than I would have previously supported. I have given homage to the birth of classical liberalism, and its stress on both personal and economic liberty, during the enlightenment in the subheading of the blog title.
American liberalism, which precedes even the bastardized liberalism in the Forbes authors' framework, stresses a substantial role for government and the state in promoting civil and political equality and in guaranteeing relative outcomes in economic activity. The Democratic Party through the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson sought to expand government's role in society at the expense of personal liberty, yet maintained national security commitments that would hardly characterize the Democratic political establishment today. Since the Vietnam War, contemporary liberals have sought to rein-in military spending and have resisted the use of force in foreign hostilities. Liberalism today is marked by unlimited "choice" in reproductive health (roughly abortion-on-demand), total separation of church and state, and aggressive affirmative action to promote underqualified minorities. Contemporary liberal are "tax-and-spend" on the economy, and they promote a "root cause" approach to criminal justice that seeks to soften victims' rights in favor of expansive protections for the accused.

The second problem for the Forbes piece is its extremely imprecise selection of the "top 25 liberals."
The list positions Paul Krugman and Arianna Huffington at numbers 1 and 2 (and we could quibble with that as mischaracterization, although they're both classic "establishment"). But after that we see a number of personalities we'd normally consider center-left or moderate, such as Fred Hiatt, Hendrik Hertzberg, Thomas Friedman, and Fareed Zakaria.

Most problematic is the inclusion of a number of bloggers on the extreme left of the ideological spectrum. These include Glenn Greenwald, Josh Marshall, Markos Moulitsas, Andrew Sullivan, and Matthew Yglesias (and less so Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein, although the difference compared to the aforementioned is slight). The inclusion of these seven bloggers can be interpreted a number of ways, but for the most part we'd more appropriately refer to them as far-left radicals or secular progressives. Either way, this bunch represents the demands on the contemporary ideological left for extreme change in society's policies, processes, and institutions.

The extreme left goes beyond traditional 20th century Democratic liberalism to call for the repudiation of the hierarchies of the establishment and the overthrow of the most cherished traditional values and assumptions of the people. The radical secular push on gay marriage extremism is a key case in point, as is the tremendous backlash against the aggressive use of state power to combat terrorism domestically and overseas.

In contrast to the Forbes definition, we're not talking here about a "certain queasiness" with the war on terror or the "instinctive preference" for international diplomacy. Today's secular progressives are screaming antiwar absolutists who are now seeking war crimes prosecutions for former GOP leaders who launched wars at home and abroad amid tremendous bipartisan cooperation of the two major parties.

What is more, today's radicals finesse and hide their true ideological project. Andrew Sullivan still clings to the conservative label while pushing the most aggressive (and literally unhinged) attacks on people like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. On gay marriage particularly - what I've identified as the signal policy of today's progressive nihilism - Sullivan excoriates anyone who disagrees with his position, bitterly denouncing them as "Christianist" - a meaningless term of derision used to attack traditionalists and Republican moralists. As R. Andrew Newman
has written:

If you refrain from punching your fist in the air exuberantly over the holiness, the exaltedness, the eye-spinning splendiferousness of same-sex marriage, if you fail to demand this very nanosecond that courts make it the law of the land, Andrew Sullivan knows what you are: a bigot, a hatemonger, a torture-supporter, even a Bush-backer ... You're a "Christianist."
Glenn Greenwald's just as bad on civil liberties, attacking anyone as "Beltway blowhards" or some such epithet of totalizing excoriation (Greenwald has routinely compared former Bush administration officials to Nazi German war criminals prosecuted at Nuremberg). Matthew Yglesias is essentially a Marxist pacificist anti-American who adopts the most extreme-leftist line possible on any of the major issues of the day. Of course, none of these people are identified for the genuine radicalism they represent, which in itself is an indication of how far the American political spectrum has evolved to a solidily leftist orientation. As far-left blogger Steve Benen noted today, in a satirical comment on the increase in Democratic Party identification in 2008:

Obviously, the only appropriate conclusion one should draw from this is that the United States is a center-right nation, and Democrats have to govern in a more conservative fashion if they expect to stay in office.
Actually, Benen confuses America's traditional conservative political culture of individualism and political liberty for ideological orientation. But his sarcasm points to how today's left conceives and advocates a radical secular progressivism as the defining ideological orientation for American politics. This is not John F. Kennedy's Cold War liberalism. This is the totalizing quasi-Marxist project of New Left revolutionaries of the 1960s.

All of this suggests that the term "liberal" is actually not so useful to describe leftist orthodoxy in the age of Obama. The president himself has long been associated with progressive causes and post-structural academic theories. His reincarnation as "pragmatic" is politically expedient and disingenuous. The back and forth cooperative relationship between Barack Obama and today's progressive radicals (Moultisas' anti-Semitic Daily Kos led
the Obama campaign's public release of the president's certificate of live birth) is an indication of how established secular progressivism is in the mainstream Democratic Party hierarchy.

Some on the left will naturally dismiss this discussion as "wingnuttery" (they absurdly think they are "the center"), but even top liberal-centrists like Senator Joseph Lieberman have identified today's Democratic Party as hijacked by the hard-left partisans of the netroots fever swamps. Radical progressives are hardly "liberals" according to the traditional conceptions of the term. Folks pushing for what might be identified as a democratic-socialist model (note the small "d") would possess greater analytical clarity, as well as ideological integrity, by coming out as radical secularists rather than some incoherent mix of the leftist-libertarian-progressive labels now regularly used to disguise their repudiation of establishment traditions and moral exceptionalism.


LFC said...

Most of this post (apart from the brief in-the- ballpark description of classical liberalism) is a confused mishmash, or just incoherent.
You treat secularists and democratic socialists as equivalent; are you aware that there are *religious* socialists? Are you further aware that most or all of the people you name would not identify themselves as democratic socialists or (probably) even social democrats?
I'm not particularly a fan of Andrew Sullivan, but your critique of him is off the mark. Yes he's definitely for gay marriage, but he's not a "radical," imo. (He was a Republican for a long time, don't forget.) Yglesias also does not strike me as a radical, though I don't read him very often. None of the people mentioned in this post, I would surmise, or in the Forbes list, is a radical in any widely accepted sense of that word. Nor are today's liberals/progressives mainly throwbacks to the 60s New Left. (Yglesias, for example, was born in '81 or thereabouts. The 60s New Left does not seem to be much of an influence on him, though I'm willing to be corrected on this if someone can show me something he's written that would go to the contrary.)
This post on the whole is an unilluminating flinging around of ill-defined labels.

Anonymous said...

Wow Prof., that was good.

Though I guess this subject is your day job :).

Great post and enjoyed it.

EuroYank - Virginia Hoge said...

Nice well written blog, but I think its time you got a real job, and let the theory follow you!

Joe "Truth 101" Kelly said...

In your own long winded, cut and paste way Professor, you manage to once again show that because you are turned off by what gays do in private, (what they should be doing in private) you don't want them to have the same rights we heteros enjoy. Your aversion to government no matter how much a good one can improve the lives of the American people is obvious.
Government plays a vital role in keeping us safe and helping make our lives better. Part of that is allowing American's to mind their own business when their activities and preferences cause no harm to their neighbors. That's what being a Democrat and in your deluded opinion a "Nihilist" is Professor.

Jason Pappas said...

Quite true, the 'liberal' label doesn’t fit the vast majority of the Democratic Party. If ‘socialism’ wasn’t considered a dirty word in our country's history, they wouldn’t have tried to pervert the meaning of an honorable word, one which has its roots in the notion of liberty—individual liberty.

repsac3 said...

I got nothin'... (That is, I'm sure every regular here already knows what I think of this screed.)

Perhaps somethin' will come to me & I'll be back, but in the meantime, I just wanted to subscribe to the comments.

So it's not a total waste, though, Truth's comment about Donald's aversion to government put me in mind of this opinion piece I read over the weekend about Reagan.: Reagan wouldn't recognize this GOP - Los Angeles Times. Government can be the problem, but Reagan never meant to suggest in that speech that it always IS the problem. Somethin' to think about...