Wednesday, January 2, 2008

These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have 37 policy proposals.


So many interesting things are being said about why the new progressive movement is, or is not, fucked. I hope I’m not violating some cosmic blog law by responding to comments with a fresh post. If I am, at least let it be said that I feel terrible about it.

1. Now, some people are saying that the Right didn’t really work out an elaborate ideology over the last 40 years - it’s just an illusion. Or it’s not a real ideology, it’s just a bunch of hallucinations from crazy people; we can all safely ignore it. This argument seems to be associated with the mistaken belief that somehow in arguing for the existence of a coherent conservative ideology, I was saying it’s an attractive ideology that we should all stand in admiration of. To state what I thought would be obvious, I am not a conservative! Far, far from it. That’s the whole reason I wrote this post. There’s a difference between saying the Right has an elaborately worked-out ideology and saying you agree with it or think it should be emulated.

2. Nevertheless - at the enormous risk of making it seem even more like I’m defending conservatism (which I’m not!) - let me say that I think the attempts by some of the commenters to “prove” that the Right’s ideology is nothing but smoke and mirrors are misguided. And here, let me be clear that I’m not talking about the idiotic vulgarized ordure that gets flung by Sean Hannity or whoever - I’m talking about the ideas that Hannity is vulgarizing. First, it’s not vital that an ideology be entirely consistent or empirically well-grounded for it to win broad appeal. I recently read a brief little introductory textbook on political philosophy, written by a British professor. He dealt with all the classics – Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Marx, etc. For every one of these thinkers he was able to present a devastating counterargument (usually formulated by some later philosopher) that uncovered a fatal hole in the original author’s thesis. And these are the great thinkers of the Western tradition! Proving that a system of thought has serious flaws does not prove that the system is gibberish. That’s why the philosophy journals are still to this day publishing arguments by modern-day Lockeans, utilitarians, Marxists, etc., trying to improve and refine their arguments.

3. Some of the arguments attempting to prove that conservative ideology is nonsense don’t do a very good job of it. Worse, they do liberalism no favors. To say that “conservatism isn’t really about getting government off our backs” and pointing to abortion or gay marriage or wiretaps has two big problems. One is that it doesn’t work very well. The Right says it wants limited government – a government limited essentially to the task of protecting persons and property. But since they famously believe that fetuses are unborn persons – indeed, they won’t shut up about it! – banning abortions doesn’t really violate that stricture. Wiretaps are supposedly about protecting the nation from terrorists, so those are kosher. And as for gay marriage, permitting it is neither more nor less statist than outlawing it. For the state to refuse to marry gay couples is discriminatory, but it’s not a case of government interference.

4. But the real problem with the “they’re not consistent!” argument is the unstated message it sends. Every time I hear liberals critique conservatism by saying it’s not consistent about getting the government off our backs, I always think: Is that your objection? Does that mean you’d be for privatizing Social Security as long as the Republicans were consistent about all the other stuff? There is a strong odor of insecurity coming from such rejoinders; deep down, they seem to accept the premise of the ideology they claim to have contempt for.

5. I’m surprised no one has directly attacked the weakest point of my original post, which is that I never made a case for why a coherent ideology should even be necessary for a successful movement in the first place. Some people did say they thought an ideology isn’t desirable, though. There were two lines of thought here. Grodge said we should forget about ideologies - it’s pragmatism that you really need to govern a country. Anonymous said (I think): we have no time for abstruse theories and dogmas – we have to win an election and get these fascists out of office!

All I can say is that these comments represent a very different idea of what our goals should be than mine. Which is fine; for the moment, we’re all facing in the same general direction. But I do think these sentiments – once again - reflect how enormously successful the conservative movement has been. It’s a matter of scale. Many people don’t realize or remember how radically and fundamentally Reagan changed the political horizon. It’s become a cliché to say that Clinton was working within the parameters set by the Reagan Revolution. It’s true. It’s also a cliché to say that the radicalism of the Bush administration lay in its drive to push the Reagan movement forward even further. Also true. We’ve come a long, long way since 1980. (One modest indicator: The top marginal tax rate is now 35%. The Democratic candidates say they want to restore it to 39.6%. The Republicans want to make it permanent at 35%. When Reagan came in it was 70%.) What’s astonishing to me is the number of people who are absolutely up in arms over what Bush has done, ready to revolt, stiffened by righteous anger...And yet, if you probe a bit, you find that their idea of victory is more or less to get us back to 1997. Don’t get me wrong – 1997 is a lot better than 2002. But it still puts us snugly within the Reagan parameters. (And maybe that’s on purpose: So often you hear liberals saying things to the effect that “Reagan would never have done what Bush is doing.” Yeah. Good old Reagan.) Looking at it historically, the sheer scale of the difference between that vision and mine makes me dizzy. Personally, I’m fond of 1937.

6. But there’s still that lingering question of whether an ideology is even necessary for success. I can’t prove that it is. But I’ll say this. In the long term, politics only really changes because of passionate minorities. Only superficially is it affected by the average median swing voter. When passionate minorities take shape – sociologists call them social movements – they exert a powerful, gravitational force on the rest of the public.

Ordinary, day-to-day politics is about politicians and parties vying over who most faithfully embodies the electorate’s conventional wisdom. Social movements change the conventional wisdom. In fact, at any given moment, the conventional wisdom of the day is nothing more than a sedimented accretion of ideas that were once propagated by previous social movements. There are a limited number of social movements in U.S. history, but the main examples include the Republican/antislavery insurgency of the 1840’s-1850’s; the Populist movement, 1885-1896; the CIO organizing upsurge of 1935-38; the civil rights movement; and the conservative movement of the 1960’s.

We are living in an era whose conventional wisdom was largely scripted by that movement. And that will not fundamentally change unless a new social movement of some kind materializes. If it doesn’t, Mitt Romney might still lose in 2008 -- but I guarantee you another Mitt Romney will come along and win a few years later. And with just a touch of incompetence and a debt to his base, it will be more or less a repeat of the Bush years.

Here’s my point: There has never in history been such a thing as a genuine movement committed to pragmatism and throwing the bums out. It can only happen with an ideology, a creed.

No ideology, no movement. No movement, no change in conventional wisdom.

No change in conventional wisdom and we will be alternating between Bushism and Clintonism – between 2002 and 1997 -- for the rest of our lives.

14 comments:

Cervantes said...

I agree that we need to make the case for liberalism more effectively -- and that Democratic politicians for the most part, rather than doing that, are out there focus grouping and polling and trying to find stuff to say that people will already agree with.

That said, since reality has a liberal bias, what that really means is that we need to have a movement in favor of reality. The rap on conservative ideology isn't just that it's inconsistent -- it's that it rests on false beliefs, that it is inconsistent with observable reality. Its purpose is not to understand the world, but to fool people into voting against their own interests and those of their neighbors.

We don't need to invent a new ideology, we just need to defend the truth and expose the lies. I suppose, given the nature of the corporate media which formally equates truth and lies and makes no effort to tell the truth, that does require some sort of a social movement. But in our current situation, it seems to me that there is room for a movement based on pragmatism and throwing the bums out, even if there isn't exactly precedent for it.

Dr. Pain said...

Is the problem that progressives don't have an ideology, or that they're afraid to confess to it? Isn't the base ideology for progressives progress towards a society of equality: equal opportunity, equal benefit, and equal security? But put that baldly, it becomes obvious that this ideology (1) sounds uncomfortably like the ideology of communism, and (2) challenges the fundamental principles of the US (such as capitalism). And so progressives hide their ideology behind vague language and feel-good valence statements.

Anonymous said...

Dr. pain is on the money...the fact is that "late-stage" Capitalism and the democratic process really don't have anything to do with each other. In fact, you don't need democracy to have a business class; Singapore and mainland China are deeply undemocratic, and yet their economies are booming. The difference between Progressivism and Marxism-Leninism is that the former is done by governments who understand the class system and are trying to keep the bottom half from revolting, while the latter want a revolution from the bottom half to change the society utterly. However, because mainstream US thought has been so warped to the right, ANYTHING that is vaguely progressive is seen as some sort of commie plot. I think this defensiveness on the part of the right comes from a hidden recognition that the freewheeling Capitalism of the 1980s-early 1990s damaged America badly, that the "dot com" model was no help, and that the second Bush years have done even more damage. To allow any "New Deal"-style changes would mean that their quasi-libertarian policies are as useful as astrology.

- Strelnikov

FearItself said...

Some of your commenters seem justifiably leery of the "sound bite" aspect of ideological statements. Still, language that is simple, memorable, logical, emotional, and specific can have a powerful political impact. "Taxation without representation." "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." "Hell no, we won't go." Ideology is more than mere sound bites, but I suspect you can't have an effective political ideology without good sound bites. That said, let's think about what progressive ideology really is, or what it ought to be.

I enjoyed and even agreed with a lot of what "principled progressive" said in a comment on the first post, but it all has an "Age of Aquarius" feel about it that I think would never get off the ground in our current political and social climate. Whether any non-conservative political rhetoric can fly in our time, in the face of corporate-controlled mass media, is (I hope) still an open question. I refuse to despair; the mass media are powerful, but not all-powerful.

Much of the idealogy of contemporary liberals/progressives is already clearly expressed in documents such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence--not because the founding fathers were liberal, but because they used those documents (for the most part) to express ideological principles, rather than policies, and those principles still animate Americans of all political persuasions today. The difference between progressivism and conservatism is primarily a difference in emphasis and priorities: in how we express our understanding of what is important.

I agree that expressing one's views in position-speak is valuable. I think it's a necessary condition for political success, although it's not enough on its own. Let me take a stab at expressing several vital tenets of progressive ideology in position-speak:

- Progressives oppose the creation and maintenance of an American aristocracy.
- We oppose establishing an American empire.
- We believe that separation of religion from government should be preserved, for the benefit of both government and religion.
- We are willing to sacrifice some measure of physical security in order to preserve our constitutional liberties.
- We are willing to sacrifice some wealth for the sake of environmental preservation, because we recognize that non-economic costs can outweigh economic costs.
- We believe that well-crafted government policies can help solve problems, and that our society faces some problems so large and complex that they require well-crafted federal policies.

This is just a short list of principles that occurred to me over the last 20 minutes. I'm sure I've left off some principles that are important to other liberals/progressives out there. I've probably left off some that are important to me.* Right now, though, I have several questions:

1. Relevance: Could a list like this respond to the ideological void you detect in the "new progressive" movement? You complained about "a list of policies" in the original post (and in your response to Slim's comment), so what I've tried to give you is a "list of principles." Do you find this difference significant and useful?
2. Divisive Items:Have I articulated any ideas here that would likely be wedges, rather than unifiers, for a progressive movement?
3. Missing Items:What ideas should be added?
4. Form:Is a list of principles the best way of articulating progressive ideology? Is there any other way? Can anyone envision a synthesis of progressive ideology into single, short statement that wouldn't begin to sound like valence-speak? Even if we could frame such a statement, should we do so?
5. Political Praxis:If a list is the way to go, how long a list should we shoot for? Everyone will want to add their own pet cause to the list, and some of the items will turn off some members of the movement, stressing any progressive coalition (arguably, this is a big reason for liberalism's struggles since the late '70s). How do we decide what goes on the list, and how long the list will be?

*Here are two items I left off the list because they seemed too much like "policies":
- We support the rights of workers to unionize.
- We believe that women deserve legal autonomy over their own bodies, including their reprductive organs.
and here is one I left off because I'm not sure how it fits in:
- We believe corporations do not deserve the same rights as individual people.

scudbucket said...

Scanner,
I think this quote captures some of the differences you've been talking about (from Atrios, quoting Jim RObinson):

With Fred, we know we’re getting a solid, no-nonsense, commonsense pro life and liberty conservative who will defend the nation, secure the borders, defend the constitution, appoint originalist judges, defend the Bush tax cuts, work to simplify and flatten the tax code, keep social security solvent while providing alternative private accounts, reduce government and spending, and work to return states issues to the states.


Independent of valence/position ambiguities, these are all positive assertions outlining, or at least revealing, an overarching political philosophy. It is hard to imagine what the progressive equivalent to this would be.

But that doesn't mean there isn't an underlying creed. Let's identify two types of progressivism and give them names. One form of progressivism is revolutionary, the other reactionary.

Revolutionary progressivism advocates overturning established institutional structures and replacing them with more equitable, more just alternatives. This type of progressivism, insofar as it is comprehensive, would quite obviously have a creed.

Reactionary progressivism, on the other hand, merely advocates for changes within existing institutional structures as a reaction to perceived inequalities or harms. Since it merely attempts to redress inequities within institutions, there is no a priori, or ideological, judgment for or against any particular institution.

Now, reactionary progressives, it seems to me, are clearly the most represented type in America. But the criticism that they don't have a creed is, I think, a bit overblown. The main reason it appears that they don't have a creed is that, by definition, reactionary progressives merely react to specific injustices. This gives the impression of randomness, and the absence of an ideology. But I think each specific policy position does evolve from a basic creed: that government ought to promote the greatest good for the greatest number consistently with basic human and civil rights. But this creed also entails - and this is where the specific policy positions are generated - that certain other, necessary conditions be met: equality, fairness, justice, economic and environmental sustainability, etc.

That there are no specific general principles (eg, lower taxes) in the reactionary progressives worldview is a criticism only if you want revolutionary change.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure the "marshy" liberalism is without ideology post FDR. Consider for a moment, that that ideology has been appropriated by the right and slowly hollowed out and fashioned into its present contradictory "ideology".

This ideology, with distinction to other (major) political ideologies, and is indeed the primary American antidote against other, alien ideologies, is the ad-hoc ideology of American Exceptionalism. For it is the exceptionalist tenets of the primacy of individualism, laissez-fare economics, and equality under the law that are suppose to produce an enlightened egalitarianism far advanced from the (big & oppressive)communism and socialism European models. And by implication, a general distaste for government. Most liberal Americans, as most conservative Americans would subscribe to such a template, as illustrated by the cross spectrum appeal of a Ron Paul.

But, what the republican revolution has done (among other things) is to insert numerous other cloaked modifiers into equation that have undermined the basis of exceptionalism and cynically turned it into a vehicle to destroy itself. Such as the person(ification) of corporate identity, or the sectarian(ization) of political life, or its evangelic patriotic equivocation of spreading empire. Not to mention the persistent erosion of numerous civil liberties and rights as a matter of national security or patriotism. Its almost laughable how the republicans have taken the blind faith of American exceptionalism and turned it into garden variety national fascism, except that, as becomes clearer everyday, that liberals as well, have unwittingly played "the good German" role also in their tacit acceptance or belief in the unquestioned exceptionalism.

anna missed

Anonymous said...

What was the title of the political philosophy textbook you mentioned?

The Scanner said...

Anonymous said...

What was the title of the political philosophy textbook you mentioned?


It was this:

http://tinyurl.com/2odcd3

SteveB said...

It's interesting that your list of American social movements is so short. Where's the women's movement? The gay rights movement? The antinuclear movement? The environmental movement?

And that's unfortunate, because you were exactly right, here:

In fact, at any given moment, the conventional wisdom of the day is nothing more than a sedimented accretion of ideas that were once propagated by previous social movements.

All of the movements I listed above have fundamentally changed the way Americans think. All, in that regard, have been successful, and continue to be successful.

But it seems you're looking for some big thing called the "Progressive Movement", and because you're not finding it, you conclude that we're fucked.

Meanwhile, the immigrant-rights movement continues to grow, but because they're not labelling themselves "progressives", maybe they don't count either?

Baldie McEagle said...

I think the main points here are that (1) tactical arguments are all well and good, but tactics don't win wars, only battles---and no true believer will accept them anyway. Only a "swing voter" will see the contradictions of abortions/wiretaps as contradictions. The true believer sees consistency, and the true (nontriangulating) liberal sees a consistent pattern of lies and opportunism. And (2) that web of lies, a crucial part of the aristocracy's strategy to pretend it's not an aristocracy, is just too big to attack head on, i.e., in a negative manner. We could repeat all day that X and Y are lies, but without the aristocracy's resources and mechanisms of control, we won't convince many people. Believers and swing voters will only be affected when they see the bodies and when they wake up in a homeless shelter or a refugee camp. To wage an effective campaign against conservatism, then, especially from a position of opposition (and in my opinion, while I recognize the dangers of unchecked liberalism, I truly believe that conservative ideology only makes any sense or is reasonable when its proponents are in the minority and on the defensive---that's when it's truly "conservative," and not simply authoritarian) is to assert positive principles. But (3) today's liberals have either forgotten or have not yet rediscovered liberalism's core and pre-Nixon principles. Why? Incessant rightist propaganda, excessive youth, short memories, corporatist success, good times, defeats by Nixon and then by Reagan, and the absence of a credible propaganda arm---a function once performed by the government itself in civics classes and other uncool venues now abandoned or defunded. Yes, it's true---liberals are not entirely sure they want to bring back the Man they defeated in 1968, and rebellion has been so thoroughly co-opted, and financial success so completely sexed-up, that we may never see his like again. We've given up. (See below for what we've given up on.)

Finally, to add an important item to fearitself's list: We recognize the primacy of the public sphere over the private sphere. This has nothing to do with privacy and everything to do with money. Public spending is infinitely more efficient than private spending---even conservatives will acknowledge that as the country deteriorates from its loss of family values and social capital, they will need to spend more to shield themselves from the decay, and this is in fact their goal, not an effect of the failure of privatism.

This means we support public funding of public transportation, public education, public spaces, public speech, public discourse, public everything. It means we SHOULD support full public knowledge of everything that goes on in government, so that there are no fiefdoms in government such as the Pentagon, the CIA, the various congressional committees, and so on. But we blew this one, as Scanner suggests, by 1937.

No One of Consequence said...

I find it disturbing that there is such an emphasis on ideology's importance as a movement-justifier. Ideology is useful first and foremost as a rhetorical tool. Frankly, I do not believe the most dangerous people in the right believe in their ideology. Abortion is a good example. Abortion is a wedge issue now not because the right wing cares about fetuses, but because they couldn't appeal to racial bigotry any further. (Recall the Bob Jones case.)

Right wingers are liars. They say one thing and do another. The reason why wiretapping and abortion work with their "anti-big-government" gibberish isn't because of the existance of other principles the author pointed out. That arugment assumes the other principles are believed in with as much faith as the big government shibboleth, a poor assumption. No, these things all go together because they get right wingers closer to the world they want. They want wiretapping because they want to take advantage of you. When they say they want to protect you, they are lying. They want to torture people because they enjoy torture. When they say they want to protect you, they are lying. When faced with the reality of soldiers and their commanders raping women in children in Iraq, they defended the rapists. This had nothing to do with national security and everthing to do with the fact that, frankly, they think rape is ok so long as the victim is of the right type. These are not good people. Their political movement is, at bottom, faithless -- and yes, there is mild irony there, but not much. Many of these people are the intellectual decendants of those who used the Bible to defend enslavement, institutional rape, and casual murder of an entire race of people for their personal enjoyment. Why would you expect to find faith in this political faction? They speak of faith and of morals precisely because of their failures in these areas. They are liars.

It is a tremendous error to claim that ideology has, inherent in itself, some beneficial quality to a political movement. Its strength is in its ability to persuade. The lack of a "progressive ideology" is nothing more than a lack of a "progressive advertising campaign." I will be willing to admit that an ideology could also useful for prioritizing policies once one has power, but note that this isn't an inevitability. Hell, since many Repugs don't even believe in the swill they promote, they aren't bound by their ideological prioritizations once in office. What if, once a repug is in office, anti-homosexual legislation gets sidetracked and Viacom media acquisitions come to the fore? Well, then, ideological mission accomplished, even though the tenets of the ideology are violated.

That some Repugs believe in the self-effacing contradictory mass that makes up right-wing ideology does not undermine this position. As I said, the point is to create converts (and to give the party cohesion). The proof is in what happens when a beliver discovers contradictions: whatever is best for the "believer" becomes the resolution. That is not an example of principle, but the opposite.

If you want to criticize the progressive movement, criticize its outreach, criticize its articulation. But to say that its lack of organizing principles between its policies is a fatal flaw is absolute garbage. Repug ideology's value is its marketability. Progressives would be served by anything, ideology or otherwise, that increases the audience for their propaganda and/or better organizing tactics.

Progressive Traditionalist said...

Hello.
This issue is a thing which has vexed me of late, a grouping of disparate policy positions that are lacking a principled underpinning.

Please note at this point that I am a progressive which is opposed to equating "liberalism" with "progressivism."
If you look at the damage Reagan did to the libertarian movement, you should be able to understand why.

That said, the liberal philosophical underpinning is already there, through the work of John Rawls.
These are liberal principles:
justice as fairness, overlapping concensus, reasonable pluralism.
I could come up with more if I would bother to open the book.

That said, I don't see anything particularly wrong with conservative ideology. The neo-liberal/neocon stuff, on the other hand, is particularly abhorrent.
I would rather have the Goldwater Republicans and the Rockefeller Republicans back.
Similarly, the conservative movement would benefit a great deal from discourse (as opposed to propaganda statements).

Darn it! I did open the book, to see if I could find where he conjoins the two basic questions, and I found a few more liberal principles (this stuff is dripping with them):
fair value of political liberties (as opposed to being merely formal), fair equality of opportunity, the difference principle.

I believe your complaint is not so much that a comprehensive liberal philosophy does not exist, but in that an observation of it in the contemporary liberal movement is sorely lacking.
The liberal community has sacrificed priciple for dogma.

I have maintained for some time that the Republican juggernaut of the 80's & 90's is no more than a myth.
The story isn't so much that the Republicans won, but that the Democrats lost. And they lost, and rightly so, because they are so effective at alienating the populace. The Republicans simply appealed to the electorate, which usually turns out to be a winning strategy.

A brief example:
The right has had great success in its anti-regulatory movement by using the term "business-friendly." The supposition lies that its opposite is business unfriendly, when in fact it is "consumer-friendly."
Yet, the Democrats rush to assure business that they, too, are business-friendly, even though all businesses are consumers of goods as well.

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business card scanner  said...

Interesting one ! It is good to see the short list of American social movements. I was bit surprised after seeing it. What about the women's movement,the antinuclear movement,the Environment movement etc. Scanner, I am quite interesting in knowing about it..