Walter Russell Mead recently pointed to Jeffrey Toobin’s article on Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia. Toobin profiles Thomas’ orginalist interpretation of the Constitution and shows that Thomas is probably the most intellectually rigorous conservative justice on the Supreme Court. Toobin points out that Thomas’ thought helped to blaze a trail for the Tea Party movement. Mead writes that the recent revival of the Second Amendment as a protection for individuals’ right to own guns could possibly mean that the Tenth Amendment could eventually come into play again, which would curtail federal authority. I don’t wish to make any predictions, and I hardly have a fully thought out philosophy of constitutional law, so I’ll just leave you to read the articles if you’re interested.
Filed under: America in the Modern World | Tagged: American liberalism, American political culture, Clarence Thomas, conservative movement, Constitution, constitutional law, Jeffrey Toobin, Supreme Court, Tea Party, Virginia Thomas, Walter Russell Mead | Leave a Comment »
Walter Russell Mead’s latest post on the future of liberalism looks at why the Democratic blue model doesn’t work in American politics anymore, and for good measure he also discusses the reasons that the Republican model won’t work either. Mead uses the term “liberalism” broadly to refer to the Anglo-American political tradition that began with resistance to absolutism (see my summary here), so by his definition most Americans would be either 3.0 liberals (who emphasize economic freedom and individualism) or 4.0 liberals (who advocate a more powerful state to manage the economic and social challenges of the industrial age).
To set up his point, he lays out five things that Americans want from their candidates:
- “physical safety for themselves, their loved ones and their property” from foreign enemies and domestic criminals
- improvement in standard of living: “Most of American history has worked out this way; on average, each successive generation has lived about twice as well as its parents. This is what Americans think ‘normal’ is; this is what they think the United States should be doing. If our living standards aren’t perceptibly rising, somebody is messing up.”
- “honor”: “they want to feel free, equal and in charge of their own lives. They don’t like plutocrats, snooty social hierarchies, privileged hereditary ruling elites, or intellectual and moral elites telling them how to live.”
- “Americans want to feel that the United States of America is on track to fulfill its global mission,” the content of which is greatly contested.
- “Finally, Americans want to believe that all four of their goals work together: that defending their security, promoting their prosperity, preserving their freedom and equality and fulfilling their world mission are all part of an integrated package and world view — and that the commonsense reasoning of the average American can understand the way the pieces fit together.”
For much of the 20th century, Mead writes, the “blue model” of Liberalism 4.0 delivered this for the electorate, as illustrated by the fact that Eisenhower, the only Republican elected between 1932 and 1968, governed in this same framework.
I wrote in my last post that we probably can’t go back to the postwar period of American economic dominance. Mead believes that in this period of changing economic times we can’t go back to the past circumstances in which Republican 3.0 liberalism or Democratic 4.0 liberalism worked. Late 19th-century laissez-faire was based on an agricultural economy, high tariffs, and wide-open immigration. More pointedly, I think, the postwar period that was the golden age for modern Democrats is not easily recoverable:
But if 3.0 fundamentalism can’t bring back the agrarian utopia or the industrial conditions of the 19th century, blue fundamentalism won’t help us either. There is no going back to 1962. The Blue Social Model of 20th century, the great achievement of 4.0 liberalism, was rooted in conditions that we cannot replicate today. Between World War One and the 1970s – the years in which the Blue Social Model took shape and rose to power and success – the world economy was in an unusual state. International financial and trade flows were much lower than before 1914 and after 1970 due to the disruptions of the two world wars and the Great Depression. And the United States was so far ahead of the rest of the world in manufacturing (especially after almost European and Japanese factories were destroyed in World War Two) that few American companies (or workers) had anything to fear from foreign competition. Capital was much less mobile; it was much easier to tax high earners without driving savings and investment out of the country.
At the same time, Americans in the first two thirds of the twentieth century were more willing to engage in group politics than many of us are today. Industrial workers fought to build unions — and generally voted the way their leaders advised them. Ethnic groups stuck together and voted as blocs more than most of them do now. 4.0 politics generally involved negotiated agreements among party bosses and other leaders who commanded loyal followings; not many politicians today can count on this kind of unquestioning support and party structures and patronage networks are both weaker and less reliable than they used to be.
Instead, Mead believes, both 3.0 and 4.0 liberalism actually made themselves irrelevant:
The successes of 3.0 led to its decline: rising agricultural productivity ultimately drove millions of farmers off the land; the high tariffs helped attract tens of millions of immigrants; ideas and institutions developed in a homogeneous, egalitarian and predominantly agricultural country no longer worked very well in an industrial, urban country threatened by class conflict.
The same thing happened to 4.0. Our successful manufacturing economy led us to push for free trade; that stimulated other countries to export to US markets and generated the kind of financial flows that undermined the nation-based Keynesian economic models of the 4.0 econ wizards. The rising affluence of Americans facilitated their mass migration into the suburbs where the old party organizations and ethnic and tribal loyalties broke down. More affluent and better educated voters were more individualistic and saw the system of party bosses as an obstacle to democracy rather than as a way of making it work.
Neither 3.0 nor 4.0 was stabbed in the back; they both died of success. Each version created a social system and an economy so dynamic and so inventive that ultimately the country outgrew them. Our success changed the world – and that meant we had to reinvent ourselves to prosper in the world we ourselves had done so much to make. We cannot turn back the clock – nor should we try. America’s job in the world is to boldly go where none have gone before, not to consume our energies in vain attempts to recreate the glories of an unattainable past.
I’m not sure about that last flourish (time will tell, and God may have far different plans), but I think that Mead has the best grasp of anyone that I have read on the economic side of our national challenges. His weakness is probably that he minimizes the culture war dynamics that affect our politics. There’s a brief part at the end of the post that suggests that the “progressive” cultural changes will be permanent, but I think that the culture war colors the economic debate in ways that I haven’t seen him explore.
Ben Smith at Politico writes:
The exodus of white Democrats to the GOP in southern state legislatures this year is the last chapter of a very old story about realignment, one that — in this homogenous media age — has finally come to the most local levels of politics.
This, in Georgia, is something different — and striking to insider because one of the switchers, Ashley Bell, is a former president of the College Democrats seen not that long ago as a Democratic rising star:
Two African-American Democrats on Thursday announced that they were joining the Republican Party.
Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell and former state executive committee member Andre Walker said the Democratic Party had grown too liberal and they are finding a new home with the Republicans.
Jeff Martin’s analysis of modern conservatism that I referred to in my last post reminded me of an interview that I listened to while washing the dishes recently (dishwashing is my new time to listen to podcasts). Marvin Olasky of World Magazine interviewed one of the founders of the neoconservative movement, Norman Podhoretz (article with link to audio here).
Podhoretz said that if he were choosing the name of the movement that he helped to begin, it would have been “neonationalism” rather than neoconservatism “because it was really based on this profound commitment to a new idea about America and about the American role in the world, especially in its conflict with Soviet totalitarianism.”
The neoconservative vision of an aggressive American foreign policy promoting the spread of American ideals certainly fits with Jeff Martin’s description of America as the “universal nation,” which has become so important in the GOP’s foreign policy (it’s been there for a longer time in liberal foreign policy, going back at least to Woodrow Wilson). Podhoretz’s statement also lends credence to paleoconservative arguments that neoconservatism really isn’t conservative.
On Google Reader, Joel shared a post from the What’s Wrong with the World blog. The author, Jeff Martin, considers a critique of William F. Buckley’s conservatism from the left and goes on to consider what American conservatism is conserving. He believes that anti-communism tended to morph conservatism into an ideology competing with other ideologies, rather than a Burkean conservatism that seeks to conserve the full-orbed heritage of the past. The post is long but worth reading. Here is the conclusion:
Finally – conservatism, of the actually-existing American variety. Human errors are not unmediated issues from the nature of the species, but products of a wealth of contingencies, which make possible the errors of any epoch. Here, we must observe a sequence of beginnings. Conservatism, prior to the national traumas of the Great Depression, and the momentous years of the New Deal, when the power of business was supplanted, to some degree, by the power of the political, was – excerpting repulsive apologies for Social Darwinism and plutocrats, such as those of William Sumner – an elite, literary phenomenon, primarily articulated in opposition to the emerging mass culture. Strands of conservatism also deplored the centralizing tendencies of industrialism, and argued for the preservation of agrarian, human-scale societies. The New Deal, however, catalyzed a political revolution of sorts, and not just in Washington, but among rightists, who feared that transition from “the business of America being business” to the centrality of the political, and who likened that transition to unpleasant and sanguinary ideologies. That catalyst was insufficient, though, to establish a movement, at least not a movement capable of attaining and holding power, employing it to reshape the politico-economic order. And it is with this that, following the Second World War, and the emergence of the Soviet threat, we pick up the story of modern conservatism, to which Buckley was so integral. That conservatism fused the traditionalist strand hostile to mass culture, the strand skeptical of, or hostile towards the post-New Deal order, and anticommunism; operationally, the unifying passion was anticommunism, but much of the funding came from the second faction. This very fusion – fusionism? – led to an ideologization of conservatism, and a reshaping of the American ideology; the long, twilight struggle against communism saw conservatism slowly slouching into ideological modes of thought and definition, and witnessed the American order itself assuming some of the vices, of reductionism, dogmatism, and regimentation, of the Soviet system. Capitalism became an ideology, and more absurdly, an ideology supposed to be conservative, whereas capitalism is merely a different form, a more bearable form – of the Revolution. And then, communism imploded, from its own internal contradictions, its inherent impossibility, external pressures, and, I should say, because of the sanctity and courage of a Polish Pope; and with this implosion, the unifying passion of conservatism vanished. Conservatives, more so now than at any time in the past, cannot define what it is that they propose to conserve; what, that is to say, makes them conservative. As of this writing, what defines them is the fact of opposition.
What is American conservatism? Conservatives are still wrangling over that very question, engaging their political adversaries without a clear answer, and coasting on the legacy of their past, ever drifting.
The link in that paragraph is also a good read, arguing that conservatism’s opposition to communism and leftist anti-American critiques defined conservatism as the defender of corporate capitalism as the definition of economic freedom and American policies that set up the United States as the model for the world:
We might flesh out the argument by indicting the pointlessness of the old fusionism, which essentially invoked traditionalism in order to justify the corporate, managerial capitalism which has been its inveterate foe; but the character of contemporary conservatism will have to stand as the first count of the indictment. That conservatism has celebrated uncritically and reflexively the American economic system, and has regarded democratic capitalism as a universal template, souring on the administration which sought to export it by force of arms largely on account of its domestic bungling. And it has demonized critics as anti-American and unpatriotic, because they have had the temerity to view America as an historic, bounded nation – a nation we love not because she is the universal nation, but because she is ours.
After Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” event in DC last weekend, there have been some evangelicals concerned about the prospect of a Mormon wanting to lead an ecumenical spiritual revival:
- My friend Rick Hogaboam
- Russell Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Hat tip: Rick)
- Doug Wilson
- Chuck Colson (referencing Moore’s column, which was quite good)
- Todd Friel and Brannon Howse
From a different perspective, William Saletan wrote that the rally showed conservatism’s unique way of incorporating previous liberal achievements into contemporary conservatism.
Filed under: 21st Century | Tagged: American evangelicalism, American political culture, Brannon Howse, Chuck Colson, conservative movement, Douglas Wilson, Glenn Beck, Rick Hogaboam, Russell Moore, Todd Friel, William Saletan | 2 Comments »
Doug Wilson, reflecting on Glenn Beck’s novel The Overton Window and Beck’s view of humanity:
Our problem is humanism, and we cannot effectively counter radical leftist humanism with apparently milder right wing forms of it. The humanist believes that mankind is basically good and, going back to Socrates, the explanation for evil is ignorance. If man is basically good, where does all this evil come from? It has to come from ignorance, and the solution to ignorance is education. The solution to the political pathologies we see in Washington today is to get involved and “get informed.” But the biblical answer is repentance, and repentance all the way down. Our solution is not to get angry at what “they” are doing to us, but rather to be grieved at what we have done to ourselves. One of the basic things we have done in this regard is flatter ourselves — and Beck’s approach here is part of the problem.
Wilson’s not anti-Beck; in fact, he liked the book. At least in the sense that so much (liberal and conservative) activism is about the egregious harm committed by some outside force against the innocent common people, Wilson echoes James Hunter’s critique of our political culture.
Hunter here looks at the assumptions that lie under contemporary American political life, arguing that the major trend is toward the politicization of more and more of life: increasingly, every question is a political question. As cultures lose their consensus, he writes, laws must multiply in order to force cooperation, and the increased number of lawsuits is a reflection of this trend. This makes the state the center of cultural gravity, and other institutions and groups begin to get their privileges and limitations from the state, and political ideology becomes an important identity marker for people and media. Interest groups intensify their political activity. In thinking about the roles of interest groups, I’m reminded of Marvin Olasky’s observation that although Democrats promise to break the power of lobbyists, their desire to increase federal programs actually strengthens the lobbyists as Washington now has more money to spend, and I’m also reminded of Tom DeLay’s K Street Project that sought to set up a new alliance between Republicans and lobbyists. In sum, “this turn toward politics means that we find it difficult to think of a way to address public (by which I mean collective, common, or shared) problems or issues in any way that is not political” (105).
This trend leads much political action, he believes, to be defined by the Nietzschean “will to power.” Partisan groups seek to impose their domination, based on “ressentiment” (another Nietzschean term, French for resentment) that flows from a sense of victimization. He argues that this now defines the culture of politics in the United States, using culture in the same way that he used it in earlier chapters: a system that provides an often unspoken way of looking at the world. Thus, this does not mean that every person engaged in politics is resentful, but instead that the political culture is built on the will to power and resentment. In his next chapters, he will look at the Christian Right, Christian Left, and neo-Anabaptists and try to show how their political thought goes along with this political culture.
As far as causation, Hunter traces the trend of politicization to the New Deal. He now believes that conservatives and liberals are equally caught up culture of politicization. Doug Wilson makes the point that true small government conservatives (which he distinguishes from believers in “compassionate conservatism, big government conservatism, bombs away conservatism, telegenic conservatism, and other forms of unconservative conservatism”) are fighting the good fight against the state, which as Hunter describes, is politicizing everything. That’s a fair point, I think, but from where I sit conservatives who really are arguing for small government in the way that Wilson talks about are marginal in the modern spectrum of conservative political thinkers. Those who expressed concerns about the expansion of government powers under the Bush administration were sometimes given a platform in the mass media, but seemed to me to be pretty marginalized in the conservative movement. So Hunter can be forgiven for not addressing them, I think, because they aren’t one of the major trends in American politics (unfortunately). But I think that Wilson’s point needs to be incorporated too.
I think that Hunter’s characterization of the political culture is really good. The fracturing of the broad consensus in American culture in the 1960s is one of the major facts of life. It blew up the political coalition that had sustained the New Deal and gave political voice to conservatives who dissented from it. Perhaps paradoxically, not only was the liberal political consensus broken, but so was the traditional cultural consensus that assumed a general version of Christian morality. As Hunter notes, political solutions to national problems are usually interpreted through the matrix of conservative and liberal (although liberals rarely call themselves that).
The last two elections seem to resonate with Hunter’s view of culture too. Bush and Obama both won victories that were hard fought and extremely emotional and satisfying for their supporters, who hoped that this would be the time that they could strike the blow against their enemies. Both elections were followed by questions of how the defeated party would survive in the new political landscape (to my embarrassment, I thought that these were credible explanations both times). Both moved on their agendas, Bush with social security reform and Obama with a huge array of programs.
But a funny thing happened: American culture wasn’t actually transformed. Neither Bush nor Obama had really built a coalition that would back them on everything; they had merely, in my interpretation, gotten their base and others who found them better than the other candidate. The opposing party, whose candidate had gotten over 45% of the vote in both cases, marshaled its considerable resources, now augmented by fear of the power that the victors had gained, to “take America back.” We don’t know how the 2010 elections will turn out, but we can tell that the Republicans have done anything but wither and die.
After Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate election, I posted my thoughts on Facebook, saying that there are two laws of American politics today, which were roughly these:
- Politics is getting mad at the other party for what you did two years ago.
- It doesn’t take long for one of our two major parties to be in power before the public gets sick of them.
I think that’s because the two parties can’t really capture the “center” of American political culture that it needs to satisfy the demands of its base, perhaps because there is no real center in American life because of cultural fragmentation. Or perhaps it’s because of the sense that government’s job is somehow to make our lives easier and better, but not in ways that cost us any money.
I like that Hunter takes a look at American political culture. I think that we need more systematic approaches if we want to understand what really ails the political process. Usually, analysis focuses on the problems that other guys are causing. What about the problems that we are all participating in?
Filed under: Modern World | Tagged: American liberalism, American political culture, Bush administration, Christ and culture, conservative movement, Douglas Wilson, James Davison Hunter, Marvin Olasky, Obama administration | 4 Comments »
Reading about Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s pro-life work yesterday reminded me of this book review by Michael Novak from a few years back. It contained this memory from Novak, who worked on George McGovern’s campaign in his days as a Democrat:
In his late-starting 1972 race for the vice presidency, the cause was hopeless. But Mickey Kantor, Mark Shields, Jeanie Mains, Doris Kearns, and a host of talented volunteers poured out to join him. McGovern assigned us the task of winning back the Catholic ethnic vote that Nixon had so knowingly cut into in 1968. We saw a lot of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, occasionally St. Louis, and then around and back again. Toward the end, when the crowds were huge and enthusiastic, we began to feel–unbelievable as it now seems–that the press must be wrong, and the campaign might have a chance of winning. What the crowds were actually saying is that they weren’t going to vote for us, but we shouldn’t take it personally, because they really did like Shriver.
At a factory gate, on one occasion, I watched one of the advance team hand out flyers in a see-through blouse, a miniskirt, high boots, and a big red “Abortion” button. Turning away from her in disgust, the older workers weren’t meeting Shriver’s eyes, and I saw two spit on the ground in anger–this in a factory in Joliet, Illinois, from which the Democrats should have gotten, maybe, 114 percent of the vote. It wasn’t Sarge’s fault. But such experiences of the Democratic party that year, not respecting its own base, were enough to make a neoconservative out of me.
The inroads that Nixon and the Republicans made by talking about the “Silent Majority” and engaging in the “Southern Strategy” have been talked about quite a bit. But there also seems to be another part of the story, that of the Democrats doing quite a bit to lose those who became Reagan Democrats.