Monday, December 24, 2007

Why the “new progressive movement” is fucked

Well, maybe that’s a little too strong. It’s sometimes hard to tell what all the hoopla is about when it comes to the great progressive ascendancy that’s supposedly underway, but it’s clear that something is happening and there are a few genuinely hopeful signs.

For one thing, many liberals seem to be shedding the crippling allergy toward the left that was such a debilitating feature of Cold War-era liberalism. Some of the old shibboleths about American foreign policy are being slowly shaken off and it is now possible to occasionally stumble on once-verboeten terms like “imperialism” in the pages of respectable liberal outlets.

Of course, these verdant shoots of spring are products of the political awakening that has unfolded in the Bush years. When I started writing about politics in the mid-to-late 1990’s, the political landscape was much different. As I saw it, on this side of the valley was The Left, of which I considered myself a part. On the other side of the valley were the neoliberal centrists who played liberals on TV: fake liberals - like Cokie Roberts or Thomas Friedman. And in between there was a great empty expanse. Now that expanse is being populated by genuine liberals - bloggers like Eschaton, columnists like Paul Krugman and commentators like the younger staff of the American Prospect. All of this is good news.

So why do I say that the new progressive movement is fucked? Because they have no ideology. They lack any semblance of a creed. Now, naturally, the progressives would vigorously dispute this. Of course we have a creed! We believe in universal healthcare, combating global warming, protecting the right to abortion… [etc., ad infinitum] But that’s not a creed, it’s a list of policies. And of course, what happens when you have only a list of policies as your lodestar is that crafty politicians come along who loudly claim to embrace your goals before quietly vitiating them with a lobbyist’s scalpel and reams of fine print.

The minute these new progressives try to put their creed into words, it melts into a flavorless mush of insensible campaign rhetoric, the kind imperishably satirized by the Simpsons in an episode broadcast during the 1996 Clinton-Dole campaign. The space alien Kodos, doing his best to impersonate an American politician in a live televised debate, delivers his opening statement:

My fellow Americans. As a young boy, I dreamed of being a baseball. But tonight I say, we must move forward, not backward! Upward not forward! And always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!

Now, don’t accuse me of making blanket statements without backing them up. I’m going to do no less than prove my point scientifically! A good way to illustrate what I’m talking about is to compare the mission statements of two think tanks. The first is the Center for American Progress, a central hub of the new progressivism. The second is that hallowed bastion of the conservative movement, the Heritage Foundation.

Here I will apply what I believe to be a useful technique of rhetorical analysis. Political scientists like to speak of positional issues and valence issues. The first are statements that clearly demarcate people according to their particular ideology. If a politician says “I believe gay marriage is a sinful abomination,” that's a positional statement - it puts him squarely in one camp and separates him clearly from millions of people who support gay marriage. By contrast, when a politician says, “I believe in a strong economy,” he's using a valence issue. Pretty much everyone wants a “strong economy,” whatever that means.

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to reproduce each think tank’s mission statement below. Position-speak will be displayed in red. Valence-speak will be in blue. The acid test is whether or not a politician with the opposite ideology could comfortably mouth the same words. If he could, it's mere valence-speak.

Now, one caveat. In one sense, all political discourse is valence-speak. We all try to put our ideas into words that our audience will be most likely to accept. The anti-abortion movement obviously chose the moniker “pro-life” because everyone would like to think of themselves, in some sense, as pro-“life.” (Same goes for “pro-choice.”) But declaring oneself “pro-life” is nevertheless unmistakably positional, and for a very simple reason: Everyone understands exactly what it means. There is no warm, fuzzy ambiguity about it. It means only one thing: “I want to restrict abortions.”

Sometimes, however, rhetoric can be deliberately ambiguous. It can seem to point somewhat to a particular ideological position without being entirely clear. Such language is weakly positional and it will appear in green. Finally, an obvious point: My coding is ultimately, to some extent, subjective. So I'll deliberately give CAP the benefit of the doubt.

Okay, here goes. First up, the Heritage Foundation statement, which is short and sweet:

Founded in 1973, The Heritage Foundation is a research and educational institute - a think tank - whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.

There you have it. In Heritage’s brief statement, bold, clear, straightforward ideology – red predominates by a wide margin, with just a hint of blue sprinkled in.

Next up we have the Center for American Progress, which rambles on and on (already a bad sign):

As progressives we believe that America should be a country of boundless opportunity—where all people can better themselves through education, hard work, and the freedom to pursue their dreams. We believe this will only be achieved with an open and effective government that champions the common good over narrow self-interest, harnesses the strength of our diversity, and secures the rights and safety of its people.

Real progress will be achieved only through innovative solutions borne of open collaboration.

To realize our vision we must:

Build an opportunity nation where every hard-working person, regardless of background, can realize their dreams through education, decent work and fair play.

Reawaken America’s conscience, our sense of shared and personal responsibility, to build healthy, vibrant communities.

Reform government so that it is of, by and for the people: open, effective, and committed to the common good.

Use America’s strength to bring the world together, not pull it apart.

CAP’s blurb is a sea of meaningless blue nonsense. “Innovative solutions borne of open collaboration”? Even the language I generously coded as positional - "harness the strength of our diversity," "bring the world together" - is basically reheated PR-speak that one could find in any quarterly report to the shareholders.

The conclusion is inescapable: Liberals just don’t have a creed that they feel comfortable expressing in direct and straightforward language. Now, why is this? There are two reasons, I suspect. First, it’s partly a legacy of postwar ADA-style liberalism, which frequently went out of its way to depict itself as a non-ideology; a program of technocratic pragmatism and cautious experimentation - the Vital Center, in other words.

But I think the deeper reason is that if liberals tried honestly to formulate their principles in abstract terms, they would quickly discover how poorly they echo the American vernacular. Many swing-voting Americans would simply recoil from them. After all, Americans are, in the famous phrase, programmatically liberal but ideologically conservative. The hard fact is that this country’s political culture has evolved in such a way that what passes for harmless valence-talk here is actually quite right-wing, when you think about it.

For a progressive movement aspiring to ascendancy, facing that fact, and how it came to be so, would require a searching reexamination of great swaths of the hallowed American history and tradition that liberals seem to feel a constant need to pay reverent homage to – the Constitution, the Democratic Party, any number of past liberal heroes.

Much easier to keep talking about “building healthy and vibrant communities.”