Sunday, November 28, 2004

More of My Problem With "Values" Talk

In my previous post, I gave vent to my dissatisfaction with any political morality that starts from the premise that individuals have moral obligations only to their own selves, and not to the community.

Now a post by one of the guest bloggers over at Eschaton reminds me that this antipathy needs to be counterbalanced by another, equally strong:

I cannot abide a political morality that regards itself--or, let's say, it's understanding of its own principles--as unambiguously moral, and therefore beyond reproach. The idea I have in mind was perfectly captured by Reinhold Neibuhr (subject of the aforesaid Eschaton post), who put it this way in his The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness:
[T]here is no historical reality, whether it be church or government, whether it be the reason of wise men or specialists, which is not involved in the flux and relativity of human existence; which is not subject to error and sin, and which is not tempted to exaggerate its errors and sins when they are made immune to criticism.

This is why Neibuhr, the liberal Protestant, like his contemporary C.S. Lewis, the conservative Catholic, was a democrat from necessity. As Neibuhr famously put the case: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." The relativity and contingency of political life cannot be escaped, and any political morality that claims to have done so, is probably headed for disaster. Lewis (in his Of Other Worlds) made the point even more adamantly:
I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point be sated; and since he dimly knows he is going wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations. And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic, held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated.

For anyone who nevertheless feels, as I do, that politics must not be left bereft of morality--that, in fact, a political morality that articulates definite responsibilities of and to the community is a necessary component in the government of a free society, it remains to keep in mind Neibuhr's admonition that such a political morality must remain morally ambiguous, since "it cannot merely reject, but must also deflect, beguile, harness and use self-interest for the sake of a tolerable harmony of the whole." Or, as Machiavelli notoriously put it, political morality requires us to know how not to be good. Anything else would not be the salvation of politics, but its destruction.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

My Problem With "Values" Talk

Values talk, in the form it takes in our current politics, worries me. But from what I have heard from both partisan camps since the election, I suspect that my kind of worry is not the typical kind. So I want to say a few words about it. If I'm to be criticized on "values" issues, directly or by proxy, I want to make sure the critics have the right target in their sights. I also want to make sure that those who would take me for an ally know what they're getting themselves in for.

To explain my worry, I want to go all the way back to an early example, almost a founding moment, of the current era of political values talk. It was a speech given by Ronald Reagan on January 25th, 1974, at the First Conservative Political Action Conference.

It was a bleak time for the conservatives. Governor Reagan was in his last year in office, and would soon be replaced by Jerry Brown. He had yet to make his public concession that Richard Nixon, whom he had championed for years, and defended as recently as the previous May, had deceived the nation. But talk of Watergate already dominated the conference. The conservative hero Spiro Agnew had been forced to resign to evade bribery charges, a major Democratic victory was looming in the mid-term elections, and the crowd was soured enough on the ideological deviations of the Administration's economic and foreign policies (price controls, détente) to give its official representative to the conference, speech writer Pat Buchanan, a thorough grilling.

And yet it was, it retrospect, an occasion of beginnings. In attendance were the seasoned political operatives who would, over the next half dozen years, fuse a diverse array of mostly single-issue "values" voters into the a formidable new electoral coalition: Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie. Reagan acknowledged the presence of the conservative movement's erstwhile champion, Berry Goldwater, but he was also making ready to take over the leadership of that movement, and to make an even bolder run at the GOP establishment than Goldwater had. Within two years he would be challenging an incumbent Republican President for the party's nomination and--despite almost unanimous opposition from the party hierarchy--very nearly winning. Four years after that, with Weyrich and Viguerie's New Right coalition fully deployed behind him, he would finally avenge Goldwater's defeat and bring movement conservatism to power for the first time.

So this was Reagan in his heyday, his ideological elan at its peak, and the speech is still regarded as among his best. I want to focus on its central allusion, which gives the speech its title, and which is one Reagan would return to again and again in years to come. After a litany of liberal pessimism, profligacy and paternalism, Reagan cites the lay sermon given by John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts, aboard the Arrabella in 1630:

We will be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.
Reagan immediately adds: "Well, we have not dealt falsely with our God, even if He is temporarily suspended from the classroom." What follows is another, concluding litany, but this time a litany of progress: soaring life expectancy, rapid gains in racial equality, educational achievement, unprecedented material prosperity balanced by religious and cultural vigor, a kindliness "unmatched" in the world, space exploration and, as the capstone, a divinely ordained destiny to "lead the free world."

Leave aside the questions that always came up when Reagan would launch into one of these paeans to American progress--questions about the actual mechanisms and social forces responsible for the cited progress (in particular the almost perverse citation, in front of this particular audience, of progress on racial equality as something "we" had achieved). What interests me is not so much Reagan's talent for obscuring the work of social progress while celebrating its results. What I find even more fascinating, astonishing really, is what becomes of Winthrop's sermon. For this illustrates Reagan's ability to speak in a moral register while removing any taint of collective or public moral obligation. It is a talent the right has never ceased to exploit, down to the present day.

In Reagan's reading, our prosperity and progress since that first founding is proof of divine favor. Governor Winthrop set before us a blessing and a curse, and Governor Reagan is sure that we have justly received the full measure of that blessing. The only curse on the land he is aware of, is the one brought on by those who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the fulfillment of the blessing, and so continue to force all manner of collective schemes down our throats, to solve problems that a free and virtuous people such as ourselves can not really have. There is the strong implication of impiety in such obstinacy--an implication reinforced by the liberal "suspension" of God from the classroom. Piety, on the other hand, is the enjoyment of prosperity and power. In Reagan's version of the sermon, our worldly successes represent the realization of God's plan for the Americans, and to express dissatisfaction with them is turn one's back on Him, rejecting His gift of freedom.

Now compare the use Reagan makes of Winthrop's the City on a Hill to what Winthrop actually says. First, note that this little sermon is called "A Modell of Christian Charity." The word and concept of charity do not come into Reagan's reading -- American conservatives had not yet discovered the strategic advantages of talking a lot about "compassion."

Next, and more importantly, consider that the subject of the sermon is inequality. Winthrop takes some measure of social, economic and political inequality as a given, and so treats its existence with a frankness that will become hard to muster in our public rhetoric after 1776. And yet Winthrop is addressing a community embarked on a great collective task, and inequality among the members of such a community was evidently something that required explanation and justification. Inequality must have some rationale, which turns out to be its usefulness in strengthening the bonds of community, and humbling the pride of all its members. Inequality exists:

That every man might have need of other, and from hence they might be all knitt more nearly together in the Bond of brotherly affeccion: from hence it appeares plainely that noe man is made more honourable then another or more wealthy etc., out of any particuler and singuler respect to himselfe but for the glory of his Creator and the Common good of the Creature, Man.
This introduces the great theme of the sermon, which is the need for an unprecedented strengthening of the bonds of community. Winthrop goes on to remind his listeners that the life they are about to embark upon in New England will put unprecedented temptations and demands on the community, and that they must respond by surpassing themselves in the fulfillment of their mutual pledges:

[W]ee must be knitt together in this work as one man, wee must entertaine each other in brotherly Affecion, wee must be willing to abridge our selues of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities, wee must vphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality, wee must delight in eache other, make others Condicions our owne reioyce together, mourne together, labour, and suffer together, allwayes haueing before our eyes our Commission and Community in the worke, our Community as members of the same body....
Now there is nothing of this spirit of community in Reagan's speech--not here and, to my knowledge, not on any other of the many occasions on which he evoked Winthrop's City on a Hill. It is as if Reagan intuitively knew that an audience of movement conservatives, whose greatest spokesman he was, would sit still for expressions of collective piety only so long as those expressions wound up affirming the present state of American civilization and, most especially, the present condition of community in America.

But of course the very notion that he could do more than that is absurd. The values Reagan celebrates in this speech and elsewhere as emblematic of America--individual independence, economic enterprise, technological prowess, military strength--do not begin to make room for an interpretation of substantive inequality as an opportunity for greater community. Instead, they amount almost to the converse of that--formal equality as an opportunity for the creation of fully justified inequalities. Nor are those values, framed in that way, compatible with the idea that individual wills and desires should subordinate themselves to some enduring communal work, some ongoing task of creation in which all participate, and whose imperatives are binding on all. On the contrary, the only collective task compatible with those values is one of destruction--military victory. Nor do they encompass anything remotely like the mutual reciprocity, care and affection that Winthrop calls for from the members of the community.

This is why values talk in American politics worries me. Those most eager to sell us values in exchange for our votes like to portray themselves as bringing some great and demanding discipline to bear upon the body politic. Given the nature of their wares, this strikes me as a piece of self-flattery at best, and a terrible delusion at worst.

The kind of values talk made for winning elections these days seems incapable of distinguishing between how we want to see ourselves, and what we really are--or maybe it is just uninterested in such distinctions. One fact is most telling: The demands it makes are somehow always directed at those perceived as lacking in values--never at the bearers of values themselves. Such talk does not stop to consider that values might raise a standard of performance against which the present practices of those who profess them most strongly might fall short--that values talk might cost us something, might demand something of us, rather than merely serving to assure us of our own righteousness, and to justify the restraint or punishment of those we consider less righteous than ourselves.

In our current politics, I mean, values are almost always a salve or a weapon, almost never an instrument of genuine moral reflection and self-discipline. There seems to be no acceptable public language for making genuine moral demands on ourselves. It is as if a block had been introduced somewhere in the American mind, warning our politicians (and most especially our so-called conservative politicians) against going down any path that might require genuine self-sacrifice, a humbling of the self's own pride and purposes--no matter how pious and patriotic their audience's mood. After 9/11, we were asked mainly to spend more money on ourselves, and given fat tax cuts (with borrowed public money, most of it going to the best off among us) to encourage us to do so. That one fact says all one needs to know about the level of "values" our politics presently permits.


[The above text is a slightly revised version of the original post.]

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Let Us Now Give Thanks and Praise

For my Thanksgiving prayer, here are a few words from Hannah Arendt on the intricate web of relationships among wonder, admiration, thought, speech and praise:

What sets men wondering is something familiar and yet normally invisible, and something men are forced to admire. The wonder that is the starting-point of thinking is neither puzzlement nor surprise nor perplexity; it is an admiring wonder. What we marvel at is confirmed and affirmed by admiration which breaks out into speech, the gift of Iris, the rainbow, the messenger from above. Speech then takes the form of praise, a glorification not of a particularly amazing appearance or of the sum total of things in the world, but of the harmonious order behind them which itself is not visible and of which nevertheless the world of appearances gives us a glimpse.

Post-Election Political Theorizing, Part III

By now a number of bloggers have already linked to this article by Christopher Hayes in TNR, giving a first hand account of what it was like trying to persuade undecided voters in Wisconsin to vote for John Kerry. Hayes' stories of encounters with such voters are a rich source for the kind of thick data that exit polls can't provide -- a vein that has not been worked very well in the election post-mortems that I have seen so far. (An exeception is Digby's use of it to add force to his interpretation of the Bush victory as as the triumph of showbiz values plus tribalism.) The piece deserves both wider circulation and as much careful thought as we can give it. What follows is my own modest attempt to learn from it.

Hayes' own conclusion -- "that the caricature of undecided voters favored by liberals and conservatives alike doesn't do justice to the complexity, indeed the oddity, of undecided voters themselves" -- seems undeniable. So a good place to start is with what he calls the "observations" that he culled from his encounters, and that led him to that conclusion:

Undecided voters aren't as rational as you think.

One probably wants to put scare quotes around that "rational" -- it really means: predictable. Here Hayes finds stark confirmation of Philip Converse's classic essay, "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics," first published forty years ago and highlighted anew last August in a popluar review of the state of political science research on voting behavior by Louis Menand in The New Yorker. In essence, Hayes found that his voters' political opinions were what Converse called "unconstrained" -- with the implications of one opinion failing to rule out another opinion with contrary implications. Hayes cites a Bush supporter whose most important issue was the environment, an enthusiastic Dean supporter who switched to Bush after Dean lost the Democratic nomination, and a Kerry volunteer who switched to Bush because of the President's "support" for stem cell research (!). In short, the normal "heuristics" whereby politically active people and eager spectators of the political game sort candidates and opinions into mutually-exclusive ideological categories simply did not apply -- even in simplified or debased forms. It's hard to escape the conclusion that these are less Popkin's "reasoning voters" than Converse's "non-ideologues" -- voters who lack a coherent political belief system of any kind.

Undecided voters do care about politics; they just don't enjoy politics.

The importance of this observation lies, I think, not so much in how it marks undecideds off from decideds, as in how it implicitly marks undecideds off from the much larger pool of plain non-voters. Essentially, it seems that the undecideds regard politics much as non-voters do, except that the undecideds retain a residual feeling that voting is somehow a duty or obligation to be born. This makes the them, in effect, the representatives of the non-voters among the voters -- the outsiders among insiders. If this is right, then the implication is pretty important, because people who play and intently watch the political game are accustomed to thinking of "swing voters" and non-voters as different blocks requiring very different (difficult to reconcile) appeals -- the one representing a battle for the ideological middle, the other a potential reserve army for base mobilization. This is probably a distinction of limited usefulness: Non-voters and swing voters are probably very similar in their adherence to "unconstrained" (that is, not smoothly predictable) opinions that don't fit neatly anywhere along any of the given ideological spectra. I'll have more to say about this below.

A disturbing number of undecided voters are crypto-racist isolationists.

Hayes' anecdotes suggest that a strong undercurrent of know-nothingism -- we are capable of civilized government if left to our own devices, but other peoples are not, and should be dealt with accordingly -- is available for both isolationist and imperialist purposes. Thus, we must either mind our own business, or else dominate others with whom we come into contact. There is little faith in any alternative based on the active promotion of our ideals -- whether the cooperative kind of promotion favored by John Kerry or the coercive kind of favored by George Bush. And, in general, American security and interests are not seen as being much implicated by what happens to others on the world stage. Here again, political opinions seem realtively unconstrained by logical consistency or correspondence with fact. But more than this, they reflect no particular view of Amercia's much-discussed (by elites) leadership role in world affairs, or its place in history. America is not the representative of any political cause, so much as a tribe in a hostile world. Foreign policy is not an international form of politics so much as a domain of violent encounters where one either avoids fights, or wins them quickly and gets out.

The worse things got in Iraq, the better things got for Bush.

This observation speaks to the overwhelming fatalism of the maginal voter born of their skepticism about the ability of politics and politicians to change anything big and complex for the better. Hayes makes clear that Iraq was just a special case of a general phenomenon. The story was the same on the deficit, or healthcare -- the more intractable the issue, it seems, the less likely the undecideds were to believe any politician's promises of fixing it. Retrospectively, they therefore absolved Bush of any special blame for objectively bad conditions -- since politicians can do nothing anyway, the incumbent is not particularly at fault for how bad things are. But the lack of interest in the past did not mean these voters looked with any real hope toward the future -- thus Kerry's promises to do better thus left them unmoved. Although these voters recognized the importance of Iraq, it is as though they dared neither raise a standard of accountability for past actions, nor invest too much hope in the success of future actions -- presumably for fear of being disappointed. Such concerns were thus effectively removed from their political calculus. Expecting little from their politicians, they discounted claims that would have required them to raise the bar.

Undecided voters don't think in terms of issues.

Hayes thinks this is his most myth-shattering observation, and he is probably right. His undecideds were not, for the most part, torn between the candidates because certain issues drew them in one direction, while others pulled the opposite way (environment vs. abortion, say, or Iraq vs. terrorism). Instead, the whole framework of approaching politics in terms of more-or-less well-defined issues was foreign to them. Hayes gives the especially telling example of a man whose recent personal experience with a work-related accident might have predisposed him to sympathy either with tort reform or labor rights. In fact, he showed interest in neither, since he made no connection between his predicament and any conceivable political action.

These voters did not think in terms of issues, then, not because they lacked concerns that might have been addressed through public policy, but because they completely failed to consider such a possibility. They utterly lacked what C. Wright Mills once called "the sociological imagination" -- the ability to connect a personal problem in one's life with social problems of the milieu. And so they regarded their predicaments and worries as utterly beyond the aid of politics. Informing them, for example, that Kerry had a plan to lower health care costs elicited disbelief in the very notion that such a thing could be subject to political decision and control. This unwillingness or inability to operate with the concept of a political issue was so extensive, according to Hayes, that it amounted to a "fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the 'political.'"


Now this absence of a sense of the political is the thread that runs through all Hayes' observations, tying together the "unconstrained" opinions, the lack of passionate political interest, the unreflective tribalism, the fatalism. I want to think about this a little, and to do so I want to borrow the framework John Schaar used in his 1966 essay "Insiders and Outsiders." The undecideds are interesting precisely because they stand on the margins beteween insiders and outsiders -- they vote, but without enthusiasm; they participate (barely), but without really adopting the terms of participation used by the insiders of either party; they give their opinions to the pollsters and the canvaasers, but those opinions are not predictable and steady, the way insiders' opinions are. The undecideds then are truly ambassadors from the outsiders to the insiders, in that they share many of the characteristics of outsiders, and yet, unlike them, have one (perhaps very tentative) foot in the public realm. It is this position -- and not some supposed median location on a left-to-right ideological spectrum -- that gives such voters a significance far beyond their numbers. They are not in the middle of the political system, but on its margins. They are the insiders' outsiders.

Put it this way: For the undecideds, the political realm floats above their lives without making any real contact with those lives. They sense its importance (or are at least willing to accept the claim of insiders that it is somehow very important). That indeed is why they trouble themselves to vote at all -- why they are not in the ranks of the outsiders. But they would probably be at a loss as to account for that importance in their own words, much less to link it to their own everyday lives. Partly this is because they do not credit politics with being able to do much, if anything, about the large matters with which it claims to deal -- the subject may be important but the activity is unavailing. Partly it is because those same matters are in fact so large -- their importance is remote, abstract, generalized, while the problems that press in upon these voters' lives are immediate, concrete, specific.

It is as if the undecideds are being called upon to be judges in a game whose prizes they have no inherent interest in, and whose terms they do not really understand -- but, since they have been asked to judge, and they are willing to do the onerous job that is asked of them, as best they can. As for themselves, when they look out at their lives and the lives of those around them, they see plenty of troubles, but the idea that politics could do anything about those troubles, is inconceivable. Politics is not the cause of their troubles, and it can do nothing to fix them. Instead, politics concerns other, bigger things -- which it also mostly fails to deal with successfully.

Suppose this is an accurate account of how most (not all) swing voters think about their electoral choices. Further suppose that -- minus the sense of duty that makes them at least cast a vote -- this is also a fair account of what many (not all) non-voters think about politics, or would, if they ever gave it much thought. If all that is so, then what, if anything, can or should be done about it?

I don't have any special insight here, but I want to use the problem so framed to think through a little more the whole question of "values" and their relation to political action that has been in the air since the election.


First, it seems obvious that the Right is currently doing a far better job of winning over marginal voters like the ones Hayes describes -- both by taking a bigger share of those known to be undecided than history would predict (remember the undecideds-break-for-the-challenger rule?) and also by drawing non-voters (who, again, likely have a similarly attenuated relation to the political realm as undecideds) directly into the Republican ranks. In short, the movement-driven GOP is doing a better job of expanding its base from the pool of marginal voters.

Second, their success on these margins is no doubt owing at least in part to the so-called "values" vote. That at least seems to be the consensus among those who have sifted the tea leaves of the exit polls. And given the way that undecideds and other marginals approach political questions, this makes some intuitive sense. As Hayes points out, "Everyone feels an immediate and intuitive expertise on morals and values--we all know what's right and wrong." The appeal to values, that is, seems to work for the GOP with these voters precisely because that appeal has so little directly and distinctly political content in it.

Yes, some public policy measures do fall out of all the values-talk -- support for state and federal constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage and its correlates, for legislation and judicial appointments aimed at eroding reproductive freedom, for government censorship on behalf of "decency" standards in cultural production, and so on. But, first, none of these are actually central items in the GOP's public policy agenda -- at least not when compared to, say, tax cuts designed to benefit disproportionately high incomes and accumulated wealth, or the removal of regulatory oversight from, and the granting of special privileges to, extractive industries. More importantly, the "values" oriented policy changes all come down to attempts to use the state's police powers to enforce individual moral obligation -- to constrain individuals to live what the advocates of such policies believe to be more righteous and disciplined private lives.

The public good is not even in view in such measures -- not at least as a goal in itself. Their advocates betray no interest in solving public problems as such -- problems that affect everyone, and whose resolution would require changes in the relations of each to all the others. For instance, public policies to reduce the number of abortions receive either little attention, or an actively hostile response, from the same advocates who press for restrictions on abortion rights. Similarly, conservative positions on crime and drug policy are largely dictated by the felt need to demonstrate strong social disapproval of such behavior by punishing it aggressively -- effectiveness in actually reducing the amount of crime or drug abuse is at best a secondary concern.

From this perspective the public world is mostly seen as a source of potential contamination, to be combatted on behalf of individual redemption. It is not even remotely thought of as a place in which to work out shared solutions to common problems. GOP values talk is about reshaping the moral lives of individuals, or at most of individuals-in-families, but never of citizens. It has almost nothing to say about the quality of the lives we live as members of a single political community. Such talk is thus deeply privatistic at its core, concerned above all with fencing off and protecting a zone of moral purity from the perceived onslaught of a hostile public world.

This in turn means that a depoliticized citizenry is not necessarily an impediment to mobilizing more supporters on the Right. On the contrary, the less people look to the political realm for solutions to public problems -- the more they see it as only capable of contributing to those problems -- the more receptive they are to solutions that require nothing more than changes in individual, private conduct. Even if such changes need to be enforced by public power, that is still easier to believe in than that public power will actually be able to change the world in some positive direction. Instead, one need only believe that public power will be used to punish and restrain individuals who do not have their own lives in order. One can believe that much, after all, even (indeed, perhaps especially) in a dictatorship. No sentimental faith in democratic self-government is required. Everyone knows that rulers like things orderly. All that is needed is to get the bleeding-heart liberals out of the way.

Matters stand otherwise on the Left. Some of the frustration that true-blue Democrats and liberals feel with all the talk about reaching out to swing voters on "values," has to do with their entirely correct intuition that there is no way to fight effectively for a progressive agenda if, for tactical or strategic reasons, one has to give up the right to make public claims on the attention of the citizenry. If "reaching out" means adopting the same contemptuous and cynical attitude toward the whole notion of public life and public commitments that the Right both feeds and exploits to its advantage, then, many progressives feel, we may as well pack it in. From the progressive standpoint, our public discourse is already so debased that truly public questions -- questions about what is good for the country as a whole, as opposed to this or that individual or group -- can hardly get a hearing. Who wants to push them even further away, by indulging the rhetoric of private moral purity? We may win a little more, here and there, but to what end? The country doesn't need two parties that think private piety is a perfectly adequate replacement for public spiritedness.

We have, then, an interesting divide on what might called the relationship between morality and politics, with the Right obviously getting the better of the deal, at least in terms of its ability to reach marginal voters. The Right looks to the protection and promotion of private morality, the left to moral obligations to whole community. The Right's values-talk speaks directly to the lives of depoliticized marginal voters -- their fears for how their children will deal with temptations of the street and the crowd, their relief at having overcome their own demons and moved on, their anxieties about staying on the straight and narrow in a world that makes that hard to do. Whatever one thinks of these concerns, and however unhelpful or even counterproductive some of the Right's proposed solutions might be, there is no denying their immediate, visceral appeal. They have the feel of real, human problems that anyone, in any walk of life, might share.

The official story on the Right of course is that the left simply has no moral orientation -- no concern with "values" -- to offer. Or else it does advocate values, but debased ones -- the values, roughly, of Soddom and Gamorra. I'm not sure it matters much whether the Right thinks of the Left's ways as a kind of moral relativism which refuses to distinugish between right and wrong, or as an active preference for vice over virtue -- a pact with the Devil. Either way, the end result is (for the Right) about the same -- anything goes, everything is permitted.

Now to anyone who has actually spent a little time among leftists, this is of course a laughably inapposite caricature. Leftists tend to be moralistic to a fault. Often their entire interest in politics is explicitly grounded in unrelievedly moral concerns. Largely as a consequence, there is often relatively little patience among them for the radical contingency that characterizes all political action, and for the attitudes of historical irony and the comic tolerance of human folly that deep acquaintance with such contingency tends to produce -- and that are probably the only attitudes that make one capable of sustaining such an acquaintance for long without succumbing to despair. The Left tends, on the contrary, towards a sometimes-debilitating obsession with moral seriousness expressed as ideological purity. The attitude makes for a lot of abortive crusades, plenty of factionalism, long meetings, and much reinventing of the wheel. The syndrome was beautifully satirized in Monty Python's Life of Brian:

REG (to Brian): Right. You're in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People's Front.
ALL: Yeah!
JUDITH: Splitters!
ALL: Splitters!
FRANCIS: And the Judean Popular People's Front.
ALL: Yeah! Oh, yeah! Splitters! Splitters!
LORETTA: And the People's Front of Judea.
ALL: Yeah! Splitters! Splitters!
REG: What?
LORETTA: The People's Front of Judea. Splitters!
REG: We're the People's Front of Judea!
LORETTA: Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.
REG: People's Front!
FRANCIS: Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?
REG (pointing to a lone man): He's over there.
ALL: Splitter!


Obviously, this kind of thing is of limited usefulness in reaching out to voters who have not already been highly politicized, and the undecideds, as we have seen, are among the least politcized voters imaginable. But why is left-wing moral animus mostly a burden in electoral politics, while the right-wing variety is an asset?

I think there are two general answers to this, one of which is the aforementioned difference between concern with private versus public moral objects, and the other of which has to do with the epistemological modesty, or immodesty, of moral claims. The short version of the latter is that the Right is willing to be less intellectually scrupulous in its claims and, though this doesn't make those claims any more politically or morally coherent in our present circumstances, it does give them a certain ideological verve that the Left's instrumentalized public values tend to lack.

Both of these differences between Right and Left are in turn rooted in the (to be sure, very different) responses their adherents have developed and cultivated to what we may as well call the ongoing crisis of authority in the modern states. Ultimately, it is that shared dilemma, rather than the small current advantage in dealing with it enjoyed by the Right, that interests me. For I do not think that the Left is going to get very far tinkering at the margins of this problem. Really fresh thinking is necessary and, for that, one needs to risk being a little radical.

These are fairly huge themes, and I can't do any more than sketch them here. One upshot is that the Left has given itself much the harder task when it comes to the universally-difficult job of reconciling moral and political life and standards under modern conditions: It has both tried to achieve a more forthright integration of the two spheres than the Right has ever dared and, at the same time, it has, out of epistemological scruple, undertaken this task with a much more limited set of moral resources than the Right routinely permits itself. But another upshot is that Left and Right are both pretty thoroughly mired in the problem of how to square moral and political commitments in a liberal capitalist democracy. Their settlements of this question are awkward and unsatisfactory to large numbers of citizens (or maybe they would better be called would-be citizens), and so the parties are left scrounging for new adherents even in the most polarizing and high-stakes of elections.

To try to show what I mean, I am going to borrow yet another analytic device, this one from J. David Greenstone's excellent study called The Lincoln Persuasion. The device is a relatively simple matrix that sorts political-moral views along two dimensions. (My use of it will be quite different from Greenstone's, but I wouldn't have thought to do it without his example.) The vertical dimension asks whether moral obligations are seen primarily as collective or individual -- as obligations of each to all, or of each considered in isolation from all others. In our somewhat watered-down contemporary language, we often talk about "social responsibility" and "individual responsibility." In an older, harder-edged vocabulary, it is the difference between the duty to one's city and the concern for one's soul. The horizontal dimension asks whether moral standards are grounded in claims about the final (that is, the highest, most universal and objective) ends of human life, or whether they concern only the choice the right means to achieve human purposes (goals that are necessarily diverse and possibly irreconcilable with one another). Call this the distinction between instrumentalism and transcendence (or, for you philosophers out there, consequentialism and deontology).

Without bothering to justify it further, let me present an initial version of this matrix, with various contemporary political ideologies or groups located in what seem the approriate quadrants. Later I am going to add complexity to this picture, but if you don't find at least some political reality in the simple version, the complex one probably won't convince you either. So here goes:




 InstrumentalismTranscendence
Social
Responsibility
Organized Labor,
New Deal Coalition
The New Left,
Greens
Individual
Responsibility
LibertariansChristian Right


I imagine that all this is pretty self-explanatory. The traditional Left occupies the upper left quadrant. It's politics is shaped by moral obligations centered on the community, best expressed in the social safety net that grew out of the New Deal and the incorporation of organized industrial labor as a legitimate social force. To the Right, this emphasis on social goals often looks like meddling do-goodism at best, elitist paternalism at worst. At the same time, liberalism keeps its distance from talk of transcendent moral principles. Its historical commitments to freedom of conscience and religious liberty spill over into its entire attitude toward the moral realm. The virtue in politics means effective pursuit of ends that must be set elsewhere in life -- particularly in private life -- and debateable only there. For different individuals and groups will have different ends, and the liberty of each demands that no one dictate terms to anyone else. The liberal conscience virtually requires us to treat all goals (within very broad limits, chiefly that of not harming others or impeding their goals) as equally worthy.

In the lower right quadrant, we have the more recent phenomenon of the Christian Right, core of the contemporary conservative movement. Here, moral principles have an undoubted and unambiguous grounding in "absolute truth," religiously revealed. This gives the movement its ideological elan, but it also causes many on the Left to see it as a kind of moral tyranny, far too eager to "impose its morality" on everyone else. At the same time, however, the Christian Right is oddly disengaged from questions of collective moral responsibility or meaning. With few exceptions, its "values" are for individual souls, or at best individual families. The public realm comes into the conversation only negatively -- as a source of corruption or, at best, of useful curbs on those who fail in the task of individual responsibility. It is to be improved mainly through opposition to its ways, and by cultivating righteous alternatives in the private moral sphere of the family, whose protection is paramount.

The other two quadrants are occupied by more maginal ideological phenomena, but ones that are still useful for understanding how their more popular alterntives are put together. In the lower left quadrant, the complete shunning of any moral identification with the community (typical of the Christian Right) meets the pure focus on efficiency of means to the exclusion of correctness of ends (usually associated with the liberal Left). These are the truly consistent libertarians who might, for example, defend unregulated capitalism and legalized drugs or prostitution with equal fervor. In the upper right quadrant, conservatism's unabashed interest in moral purity -- in the right ends, uncompromisingly adhered to -- meets the liberal idea of a moral community. The result is the ideological passion and social activism of the New Left or, in our day, of the Greens and the anti-globalizers (as well as, to a lesser extent, the Deaniac wing of the Democratic party).

Of course, this little device radically simplifies the moral-political landscape. It portrays a pretty rigid set of moral-political options, but part of that rigidity is in the model itself. It should really be made much more nuanced before it is deployed to make any claims about the political reality it seeks to depict. I believe that this can be done, but I am not going to pause to do it in detail here. (Much of this work would be in effect an extension and updating of Greenstone's outstanding analysis of the fault lines in the nineteenth-century version of the American "liberal consensus.") Instead, I am simply going to present, without much further comment, a slightly more elaborate version of the model, with more ideological groups and some added capacity for representing shades of meaning, rather than mere binary oppositions. My hope is that the improved fidelity of this version will help make the model's general usefulness and power a little clearer:





 InstrumentalismBothTranscendence
SocialOrganized Labor,
New Deal Coalition
Liberal Christians,
The Social Gospel
The New Left,
Greens
BothNeo-Liberals Conservative
Catholics
IndividualLibertariansRight EvangelicalsFundamentalists


The only thing I would add is that I think it can be made out that Bill Clinton tried very, very hard to occupy that sweet spot in the very center -- the overcoming of both political-moral polarities simultaneously. This would have been a very strong position indeed, had Clinton and, more to the point, his party been able to hold onto it -- or rather, if they had let it deepen its hold on them. But, for a whole set of reasons that I won't go into here, that did not really come close to happening, despite Clinton's evident political success as both candidate and president.

Now all this business with matrices and models is obviously still very rough, but the intuitions it seeks to capture are relatively simple and, I hope, uncontroversial. First, the political-moral landscape in the last half-century or so of American politics is just too complex to model in terms of a simple left-right dichotomy. (Nor is the usual resort to "social issues" in distinction from "economic issues" very helpful in this regard: That obscures more than it illuminates, partly because it provides no account of why different groups have such seemingly-paradoxical positions on the different classes of issues, and partly because, as we have seen, marginal voters don't see the world in terms of political issues anyway.) Second, our more-or-less stable political ideologies have a great deal to do with how the different politically-articulate groups see the relationship between morality and political power. Third, the whole phenonmenon of marginal voting and non-voting is somehow also related to these available options for describing and understanding the moral-political world -- but negatively: a great many of our fellow citizens do not find themselves and their lives in the various political-moral systems on offer from the politically articulate groups.

Fourth and finally, seen in this light, the GOP success with "values"-based issues in the recent election is a marginal phenomenon in the strict sense that it represents no fundamental change in the political-moral landscape. In this election, both parties tried desperately to get a relatively small number of persuadable but mostly-inattentive voters to accept their party's favored settlement of the political-moral conundrums of contemporary Amerian life. The story of the election is that, after enormous expenditures of money and effort by both sides, one party did slightly better at this sisyphean task than the other.

Considering that both party machines pulled out all their stops, and invented a few new ones, and succeeded in driving their vote totals far above those of the lackluster 2000 election, the results were still pretty meager. At about 56%, the turnout of voting-age population only slightly exceeded that of the best cycles of the last three decades (55.1% in 1992 and 55.2% in 1972) and fell far short of the participation level common in the fifties and sixties. (From 1952 to 1968, turnout in presidential cycles fell below 60% only once: in 1956 only 59.3% made it to the polls.) As for Mr. Bush's mandate, as others have pointed out, one has to go back to Wilson to find an incumbent reelected with a similarly tiny margin of victory. In short, there was no great resurgence of interest on the part of the marginals and the non-voters in the political-moral visions being offered to them by the major parties.

In a future post, I want to look again, and more critically, at those available political-moral visions. As I mentioned before, I think they can all be understood largely as responses to an ongoing and deepening crisis of authority in the U.S. (and which is shared with all the large modern states). Their various shortcomings, I mean, have a common root, and they are far more intimately related, especially in their failures, than most on either the Left or the Right realize.

But those, as I say, are matters for another post. This one is long enough already.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Post-Election Political Theorizing, Part II

It turns out that being "reality-based" is not enough. That at least seems to be the emerging consensus among the most thoughtful segment of the online left, as its contributors continue to mull the election result.

Josh Marshall makes the general point as well as anyone:

The difficulty for Democrats today is that they excel at the libretto of politics but have little feel for the score.

Democrats frequently console or rally themselves with the fact that most voters agree with them on individual issues. And then they're mystified when they don't win elections. Sometimes it seems, or people convince themselves, that it's because one candidate is more likable than the other. Some people think that's the case with this just completed presidential election. And perhaps it is to some degree. But the bigger difference is that Democrats don't do anywhere near as good a job at telling a story with their politics.

If you want an example think of a movie with great acting and set-design but no discernible plot.

Yes, you're for this and that policy and you have this, that and the other plan. But what story or picture does it all amount to? What things does it say are important and which things less important? What does it all amount to in terms of who we are as Americans and who we want to be?

I think I can tell you what the Republicans are for and without referencing hardly any policy specifics. They're for lowering taxes in exchange for giving up whatever it is the government pretends to do for us, (at a minimum) riding the brakes on the on-going transformation of American culture, and kicking ass abroad.

That’s a clear message and a fairly coherent one, whatever you think of the content -- it’s about self-reliance and suspicion of change. And Democrats have a hard time competing at that level of message clarity.

What's the Dems' message, boiled down to as few words, and framed in terms simple imperatives and aspirations, rather than policy? And which are the do-or-die issues, and which are expendable?


Kenneth Baer, writing with somewhat more asperity in The American Prospect, concurs, adding that Kerry in particular was politically unmusical:

Bush was able to win these [swing] voters not because of his personal relationship with Jesus but because he was able to make the case that he has firm principles and Kerry does not. To be sure, Kerry had better policies on jobs, health care, energy independence, and a whole host of issues, but voters never got a sense of the principles that led Kerry to offer these solutions or that would guide him as president. They heard notes but no music. They were given answers but no vision. The seeming lack of guiding beliefs made Kerry look like a weak leader, and, in an election in which security concerns were paramount, this was fatal.


And Kevin Drum raises the possibility that perhaps the liberals and the Democrats are hitting the equivalent of J. S. Mill's midlife intellectual crisis, and that it is this that is keeping them from coming up with the "elevator pitch" that voters need to hear:

I suspect that most people, maybe even most liberals, would say we've accomplished 80% of what we set out to do back in the 30s and 60s. Maybe even 90%. In terms of genuinely big programs, the only one left is national healthcare — and that's just not enough to hang our hats on.

To a large extent, Republicans have woven a compelling narrative out of their desire to tear down a big part of this liberal legacy. If they succeed, public opinion is almost certain to turn against them, but in the meantime Democrats are stuck. Merely objecting to the Republican agenda isn't enough, especially since Republicans are mostly nibbling around the edges, not taking a chainsaw to liberal programs.

But if we've accomplished most of what we set out to do all those decades ago, what's next? Finishing off the final 10%? Fighting a war of attrition against relentless Republican dagger thrusts? It's true that those things need to be done — and I'm not trying to denigrate their importance — but they just aren't compelling enough to win elections for us. We need new goals. We need a new elevator talk.


To contribute my own metaphor to the growing pile: The campaign of the challenger was all Leviticus and Numbers and no Exodus or Deuteronomy. And this seems to me about right as a diagnosis of the defeat.

Nor do I think that this represents a merely incidental or transitory weakness of liberalism, or of the Democratic party of which liberals still form the core. The ways of the Bush Administration have only served to reawaken and heighten liberals' genetic suspicion of the visionary or symbolic register of political speech. To borrow a metaphor Kenneth Burke once used to make the same point: It is deeply characteristic of liberalism to try to outlaw a function to prevent its malfunction.

So it has been with what I am going to call, in the space of this post at least, the mythological elements of political thought and action. I don't want to get too hung up on terminology right now. If you prefer, you can substitute "ideology" or "vision" or even "utopia" where I say "myth." The distinctions are not without importance but what I want at the moment is a very broad view of a very general phenomenon. I am trying to get at what the writers are pointing to in speaking of stories, movies, music, pictures and the like, and for this purpose the word myth will do as well as any.

As I see it, liberalism (or progressivism or the left) needs to address the mythological elements of political thought for two kinds of reasons:

  • As Mark Kleiman more-or-less says, we operate under our own version of a political myth anyway -- albeit not a very coherent one -- and our not being aware of this doesn't mean others aren't, and don't hold it against us.

  • Second, as I pointed out in my last post, the question of the relation of liberal politics to its ideological sources is quite complex, because a major part of liberalism's myth consists in what H. G. Gadamer called the Enlightenment's "prejudice against prejudice," or what Tocqueville identified as the tendency in America (the Enlightenment nation par excellence) towards unconscious Cartesianism.


This in turn means that liberals tend to do quite badly -- half awake as it were -- something all who act must do. For what is called mythology or ideology is the necessary concomitant of action in the world.

This is not just, or not quite, because we don't, and can't know, how our actions will turn out. There is something true in that -- in particular we can never know enough to know whether the outcome of our action will be successful. But it states the case in the negative, and that can be misleading -- the picture is of myth and ideology as compensations for lack of knowledge we might conceivably have if our models were more accurate, more predictive.

But there is also an affirmative case to be made here. Myth is partly a confession of ignorance, but only partly. It also bespeaks our ability to act to create a future that is not yet an apparent choice in the present -- to bring something new into the world. It is essential to our ability to treat the future, as John Schaar once put it, as more than a choice among pre-existing destinations, but rather as a place we are creating. So our seeming lack of knowledge here is not necessarily a liability, but is rather internal to the activity of political action as such.

There was profound hubris, to be sure, as well as utter contempt for the viewpoints of others in the now famous remark made to Ron Suskind by an anonymous senior advisor in the Bush White House:

The aid said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors....and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."


But beneath the imperial hubris and the mindless contempt in that statement lies a plain truth about political action -- one we cannot afford to ignore. As Hannah Arendt beautifully put it:

[O]ur ability to lie -- but not necesarily our ability to tell the truth -- belongs among the few obvious, demonstrable data that confirm human freedom. That we can change the circumstances under which we live at all is because we are relatively free from them, and it is this freedom that is abused and perverted through mendacity.


What the political liar does, in other words, is to misdirect into the past the inherent human capacity, normally directed safely toward the future, for seeing the world other than it is, and then changing it. That this inherent capacity of action tempts us to great folly -- and most particularly, as Arendt pointed out, to that modern form of deception and self-deception that seeks to destroy those factual truths it cannot indefinitely hide-- does not keep it from being the source of whatever genuine hope and freedom there is in our common life.

It is this capacity which explains those moments of political transformation that defy the most careful modeling of the existing choices, when suddenly the game that all the players assume they are playing changes, the preferences of the players themselves somehow shift, and an equilibrium that seemed improbable or impossible a moment ago becomes the new premise of everyone's activity. Aristide Zolberg once identified such "moments of madness" with revolutionary situations, but they can even happen in the midst of normal, electoral politics -- as J. David Greenstone shows is his powerful study The Lincoln Persuasion.

The need for being "reality based" is to have a firm place to stand when we go to world-changing. That place is the past, established by factual truth, transmitted by trusted and authoritative testimony, and vouched for by communities of those dedicated to discovery and preservation of such truth. That was Arendt's point -- to surrender to the temptation to ignore or dismiss factual reality altogether, is to give up the only sure basis for real, satisfying change in the here and now.

What I want to add is only this: That what we call myth, or ideology, or vision turns out to be a species of knowledge after all. Indeed, it is one particularly suited to this capacity to bring something new into the world. For what is required to do that -- once the best evidence and the most reliable testimony and the smartest experts have been consulted -- is a kind of knowledge that requires something of us, and that cannot be assimilated unless we do that thing. It is knowledge that we cannot really grasp, or receive, without being changed in the process.

Stanley Cavell has called this "acknowledgment" and it is I think the kind of knowledge that myth affords. There is never quite anything new in it, but once seen, it can change how we see everything else. John Schaar in his "Power and Purity" gives a particularly lively illustration:

Malcolm's myth taught that the white race is the devil, and to both black and white people that expresses an essential historical truth. But it is a truth too elemental and too ugly for many to accept.


That is a bitter example, perhaps, but even the most hopeful political movements will have, in their founding myths, and on every occasion when those myths are reaffirmed, something similar -- a kind of knowledge that presents what there is to see in a certain light, from a certain angle of vision, and urgently solicits our willing participation in that vision (or provokes our rejection of it). Martin Luther King, jr.'s justly famous I Have a Dream speech was a great instance of such an invitation. His less well-known but even more powerful Letter From Birmingham Jail -- that incomparable ideological pot au feu -- is another.

Indeed, our greatest interpreter of the civil rights struggle, James Baldwin, characterized its entire purpose in precisely these terms, in an awesome series of essays written during the heyday of that movement, essays that draw profoundly on the prophetic tradition. According to Baldwin, the goal of the struggle was:

[N]othing less than the liberation of the entire country from its most crippling attitudes and habits. The reason that it is important -- of the utmost importance -- for white people, here, to see Negroes as people like themselves is that white people will not, otherwise, be able to see themselves as they are.


This helps to explain why myth is necessary -- the truths it seeks to embody are often well known to everyone, but have proven too hard to face directly, because facing them means changing who we are and what we do: the epistemological problem and the moral-political problem are one and the same. As Ursula K. Le Guin once put it, "When the genuine myth rises into consciousness, that is always its message: You must change your life."

Even the most hopeful myths, when they are serious, have this characteristic of being a kind of provocation leading to conversion. And that shouldn't surprise us. Faithfulness to any demanding collective goal (in business, in sports, in the arts) already implies a kind of acknowledgment -- in much the way that faithfulness to a friend does. It is an acceptance of the fact of community in some work -- the mutual implication of at least a part of one's own life in the lives of others and, all together, in the common task. And that means, so far as that faithfulness extends and is really tested, acceptance of a common fate as well. Political myth draws on these ordinary sources of experience to project faith and its attendant acknowledgment over a larger and more impersonal field of action.

This is the sense of myth or ideology or vision that I want to recapture and put into circulation as we think about what went right and what went wrong in the late election, and what we hope to accomplish in the next one, and in all the lesser, but still tremendously important political struggles between now and then.

I think it can be made out that the modern Republican party, in thrall to a conservative movement that has grown ever more rigid as its triumphs have multiplied, is deeply wedded to one such political myth. I think it can also be shown that this myth -- though certainly very clear in its aims and very strongly held -- is a profoundly bad one for America: cramped, narrow, ungenerous, hubristic, given to substituting domination for authority, and built much more on fear of unfamiliar others and of the future, than on hope for the possibility of genuine community.

But this does not mean that those of us who are opposed to this destructive myth can do without one of our own. If we try that we are only too likely to wind up being guided by shards and fragments of half-remembered myths of struggles gone by. But by the same token such myths do not spring up out of the ground, on demand and fully formed. They are usually emergences, forged out of available materials by the work of many hands, all trying to find a way forward, and hoping for one that will attract the largest possible number of adherents. So it might be worth our asking what we want from such a myth, what it needs to accomplish for us, and even how we might go about telling a good one from a bad one -- or at least good materials from bad.

I will try to address some of these questions in future posts.




Saturday, November 13, 2004

Post-Election Political Theorizing, Part I

Mark Kleiman, as part of his continuing "after action report" on the election, asks a useful question (What is it about liberalism that sticks in the nation's craw?) and makes a good start on an answer:

The problem, I take it, is not that liberals (and by extension Democrats) are perceived as being morally unconcerned, but that they're perceived as having the wrong set of moral commitments.

This strikes me as half right. The examples Prof. Kleiman adduces -- compassion for wrongdoers and a distaste for their punishment, tolerance for racial and religious minorities, some environmentalism, and most gun control -- are pretty clearly cases of liberal moral commitments that are troublesome (or loathsome) to large numbers of Americans who don't share them (or still resent having been made to share them).

I take Prof. Kleiman's point to be that while some of this is unavoidable -- since the commitments in question (e.g., religious tolerance) are core liberal values the "political price" is worth paying -- some of it (e.g., what passes for gun control) does little but make liberals feel good for getting their way at the expense of others' views, and so should be discarded. It's hard to disagree with such practical triage for ideological litmus tests. It strikes me as a continuation of the kind of thing Bill Clinton taught us to do, to such great advantage, in the 1990's.

More generally, I think it's a very good idea to give critical attention to the question of the different ways that politics and morality intersect for liberals and conservatives. But here I'm pretty sure Prof. Kleiman's way of putting the matter is leaving out something important.

There is no doubt that liberalism is seen by many in the (to be sure, not very imposing) majority as forcing unwelcome obligations on the individuals who make up that majority. This is one criticism of liberalism, or say of one strain of liberalism, that can be made from a conservative standpoint. But it is a critricism that could also (and could perhaps more naturally) be made from within liberalism itself -- specifically from its libertarian wing. It is a picture of liberalism as having decayed into something like its opposite -- a kind of paternalism.

Meanwhile, there is equally little doubt that liberalism has become associated, in the right half of the public mind, with the abandonment, even the banishment, of moral responsibility -- a philosophy, as a the critics would have it, of "anything goes." This is the criticism that sees liberalism as a particularly pernicious brand of relativism. And I think it is fair to say that such a criticism is almost always expressed in conservative (or even reactionary) terms.

True, some liberals talk about the strategic need to tone down their libertarian impulses to keep from offending the moral sensibilities of realtively-conservative swing voters (Prof. Kleiman and others have done this). But principled liberal arguments for reducing the scope of moral choice in favor of dogmatism, are vanishingly rare. In any case, it would foolish to ignore this aspect of liberalism's bad name.

However, Prof. Klieman's point does raise an interesting question: How can liberalism be seen as both of these things by broad swaths of the public -- often by, I assume, the very same people? How is it that liberals can be seen simultaneously as moralistic scolds seeking to impose their views, and as amoral nihilists seeking to keep moral judgment at bay?

To make headway on this question, I think it needs to be treated as part of a larger question about the state of contemporary political ideas. It is no secret that there is a sharp ideological divide in American politics today. However we characterize that divide -- whatever we want to say about "Red State America" and "Blue State America" -- the divide itself seems to be a rock bottom fact of our condition. This may be a lamentable fact, but we are probably not going to gain much of an understanding of the state of contemporary liberalism without understanding of that divide.

After all, the "conservative" side of this divide has its own oddities. For instance, there is the interesting question of whether modern Amerian conservatism is truly conservative at all. Consider:

Movement conservatism has, to be sure, some elements of traditional conservatism in it -- for example in its regard for patriarchal morality in the private sphere of the family, or in its putative suspicion of highly rationalized social action ("social engineering"). But to a liberal critic, these elements look suspiciously like window dressing. The core of contemporary American conservatism remains, strange as it may sound, a libertarian liberalism of uncommon dogmatism -- a liberatarian liberalism that thinks of itself as unconditionally, categorically true.

What this so-called conservatism lacks is precisely a conception of what traditional conservatism regards as most essential -- namely, an order of rank among all goods, culminating in and held together by a highest, and somehow transcendent good, one whose influence in turn pervades the entire social order, and silently prevails throughout the length and breadth of that order, without the benefit of, or the need for, either force or persuasion, and which provides the ultimate standard by which all the lesser goods, and all action in pursuit of those goods, are to be judged.

It is not that our conservatives do not sometimes talk this way -- they do, but always in very selective and partial contexts. We hear a great deal from them about the need for "absolute truth" and "higher law" when these ideas can be used as a kind of political cudgel against the presumed selfishness and immorality of liberals. But, somehow, the moment the question turns to the prospect of even a slight restraint upon the ability of businesses to sell, or consumers to buy, or owners to profit, the higher law vanishes behind clouds of doubt, and the absolute truth gives way to a veritable wilderness of relativity in which we can no longer presume to rank any one individual's need or desire above any other's, on pain of standing revealed as elitists and would-be tyrants.

This is hardly surprising. There is simply no way for our contemporary conservatives really to believe in an integrative principle of good (whatever it might be), when so many of the practices and institutions they are most worshipful of presuppose the absence of any such principle. Above all, such a principle would be incompatible with the libertarian view that individuals should be let alone to pursue whatever (legal) economic goods they deem worthy, and that they alone are the legitimate judges of worthiness. By itself, this one commitment probably makes any truly conservative principle of order -- which, to say it again, is always grounded in a ranking of all goods under a highest good that provides the standard of judgement for the whole -- utterly impossible.

Liberalism, then, is not the only political philosophy that seems to be at odds with itself, and if conservative criticisms seem to home in on a fault line in contemporary liberalism, then liberal criticism of contemporary conservativism is easily enough able to return the favor. And, to say it again, all this seeming internal contradiction doesn't prevent us from being sharply divided along ideological lines. So what is going on here?

To be continued....

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Plus Ça Change

From "Getting Religion," a review essay by John H. Schaar, in the October 1976 issue of The New York Review of Books:
The evangelicals have surely returned from the wilderness they wandered in for some decades after the fierce internal struggles of the early decades of this century and the debacle of the Scopes trial. But they have reconquered only a modest part of the influence they had on national life in the nineteenth century, when theirs was the strongest voice in the shaping of the national culture, and when the working alliance between the politicians who made the nation's laws, the industrialists who organized the production of its goods, and the clergymen who shaped and defended its morals was secure beyond challenge. It is very doubtful whether anything at all close to that earlier condition can be restored. We have simply gone too far down the paths of pluralism and secularism for that to happen.

What we are seeing in the current evangelical revival, or in the increased concern of evangelical leaders with public questions, is therefore not as new as it may appear. There is hardly the slightest possibility that the nation is experiencing a spiritual rebirth, although millions do indeed seem to yearn for forgiveness and salvation. Nor is there much likelihood that the leaders of evangelical opinion will develop any significant new visions of public life and policy. The brute fact remains that this country, which has produced more Protestant believers than any other, has also produced fewer powerful Protestant theologians and theological-social theorists than any other major Protestant country. The evangelical leaders are not equipped intellectually to think through the complex social issues of the times and offer genuinely new and promising solutions to them. Not since Reinhold Niebuhr has American Protestantism produced a theological-social thinker of the first rank. Without a genuinely critical position resting on Christian foundations and directed by a coherent theological vision that can deal with modern science and technology and the realities of foreign cultures, it is very likely that the evangelical voice in politics today will once again confuse Christian faith with the American flag, and condone social exploitation as the necessary price of "economic freedom."

For those of you fortunate enough to have a subscription to the online edition of the Review (and thus unfettered access to its marvelous archive), here is the link to the whole text. For spiritual "blue staters" who have had enough talk of electoral strategy and tactics in the last week, and are wondering "What now?", Professor Schaar's essay -- far less dated than one might suppose -- would not be a bad place to start doing some actual thinking about that question.

I'll have more to say on the question of religion (or, more broadly, "values") in contemporary American politics in my next post. For as I see it (and, yes, I'm aware that this could just be an artifact of my having spent too long in graduate school), the issues that are swirling all around us now are but more acute and pressing versions of those that have long obsessed me.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

The Conventional Wisdom vs. the Data

So I've been looking at the exit poll data in preparation for trying to say something intelligent about the question of the hour (roughly: What now?) and I have to agree with Matthew Yglesias, Paul Freedman and Alan Abramowitz, that that the already-congealing conventional wisdom (roughly: Bush won on religion) is all wrong. In fact, the exit poll data appear to violate a number of CW snap judgments about the race. Here are a few that jumped out at me in comparing the 2000 and 2004 results:


Bush's Winning Margin Didn't Come From Rural America

It flies completely in the face of the conventional wisdom, but Bush's share of the rural and small town vote stagnated or declined, while Kerry's went up (3 points among rural voters and 10 among small town voters). In the cities, meanwhile, especially the larger ones, it was Bush taking significant ground from Kerry (13 points in big cities, 11 in small). Of course, these are relative shares compared to 2000. Overall, Kerry is still comfortably ahead in the cities and Bush in the countryside. But the point is that there was no great groundswell of rural or small town voters for Bush. (On top of not giving Bush any more love, the rural vote actually declined in relative terms.) Instead, Bush did significantly better on the margins in the cities (thereby cutting into Kerry's natural base) and somewhat better in the suburbs. The latter is especially notable (even though his relative gain is smaller there) because with 45% it is far and away the single largest voter block, even if small and large cities are taken together. It is also notable that with his 3 point gain in the burbs, Bush's total there nearly mirrors his popular vote total. The burbs were the demographic Ohio of the race.


Those Most Concerned About Terrorism Voted Against Bush

While there are no surprises in the "whom do you trust to fight terrorism?" numbers -- Bush beats Kerry by almost a 3 to 2 margin -- the picture gets muddier when one looks at the details of the terrorism issue. As expected, Bush bests Kerry among those worried about terrorism, but all of that advantage turns out to be concentrated among those "somewhat worried" about the issue, who chose Bush 56% to 43%. Among the smaller number of voters "very worried" about terrorism, where the conventional wisdom would lead one to expect a Bush landslide, Kerry won -- and by a similarly decisive margin. This might have been fatal for Bush if he hadn't also secured narrow leads (almost exactly mirroring his popular vote margin) among those "not too" or "not at all" worried -- or if the "somewhats" had not been the majority of all voters, and twice the size of the "very worried" block. In short, Bush's win on the terrorism issue appears to have depended on voters having a pervasive anxiety about it, but not regarding it as a great source of concern. By implication, Kerry may have missed an opportunity in not seeing and raising Bush's scare tactics on the issue.


Kerry Did Attract New Voters -- While Losing Old Ones

If the responses to the exits poll are to be believed, then Kerry did just fine among voters who sat out the 2000 election, winning them handily by 54% to 43%. And this same group also formed a significant share of the 2004 electorate. Why didn't this advantage with non-2000 voters translate into a better relative showing than Gore's? Because a whole bunch of Gore voters sat this one out. Rather than an equal number of Bush and Gore voters, those who voted for Bush in 2000 outnumbered returning Gore voters 43% to 37%. Kerry's added support among new and marginal voters was offset by major relative losses among Gore supporters. Go figure.


Bush's Opposition to Gay Marriage Wasn't Decisive

In fact, the whole question appears to have been a wash. To be sure, there were more hard-line anti-gay marriage voters (37%) than there were pro-gay marriage voters (25%), and Bush obviously carried the former -- though not as handily as Kerry did the latter. But more importantly, the combined pro-marriage and pro-civil union vote (which tracks Kerry's position better than Bush's, Bush's late and somewhat contradictory endorsement of civil unions notwithstanding) -- was a clear majority of the electorate, by 3 to 2. Kerry's problem here was simply that the moderates -- the civil union voters -- actually went narrowly for Bush (52% to 47%). Notably this is within a point of the overall electoral result, suggesting that the group that held the balance of power on this issue simply may not have voted on the basis of it at all.


Abortion Was More Salient Than Gay Marriage

Abortion looks to have been a little more salient for Bush than gay marriage, but here again Kerry's real vulnerability is among relative moderates, on an issue where the electorate breaks slightly to the left, when those moderates are taken into account. Kerry and Bush were both north of 70% with strict pro-choice and anti-abortion voters, but Kerry managed only a 3 to 2 advantage with those wanting abortion to stay "mostly legal," while Bush was still over 70% with those wanting abortion to be "mostly illegal." In other words, moderate pro-choicers displayed less partisan loyalty than did moderate pro-lifers. It's also notable that although there are still more hardline pro-choicers than there are hardline pro-lifers, the proportion did shift slightly in Bush's favor, realtive to the 2000 results.


Bush Improved More With Relatively "Unchurched" Christians

As Alan Abramowitz has pointed out, there was no new flood of frequent church attendees for Bush, and he actually made larger gains (in the 3% to 4% range) among those who attend religious services infrequently or even never. The denominational numbers do suggest, however, that Bush made notable gains among the large number of self-identified religious voters -- a 5 point gain among self-identified Catholics, who make up over a quarter of the electorate, and a more modest 3 point increase among Protestants, who are still over half of all voters. This is the grain of truth in the conventional wisdom. Combined with the church attendence numbers reported by Abramowitz, this indicates that Bush's increase in relative shares was concentrated among fair-weather or even non-practicing Catholics and Protestants.


The Get-Out-The-Base Strategy Worked -- For Karl Rove

The numbers on party ID and (even more) ideological affinity show that while Kerry did pretty well in the battle for relative shares, the GOP had the edge in the battle to get their voters to the polls, and this made all the difference. Kerry actually increased his relative shares among Democrats (up 3% from 2000) and Independents (up 4%), narrowly beating Bush among the latter group (49% to 48%) -- something Gore failed to do. But all this made no difference because both groups' share of the electorate declined relative to the Republicans'. There were as many of the latter as Democrats this year (37%, down from a 39% to 35% Demoratic advantage in 2000), and this combined with a slightly greater loyalty to their candidate (93% vs. 89% for the Dems) was enough to give him the victory.

The ideology numbers tell the same story: Kerry did reasonably well in relative shares -- gaining a little among moderates, loosing a little among conservatives, and consolidating liberals for a 5 point gain. But the real story is the 5 point decline in moderates' share of the electorate -- and the complementary 5 point gain for conservatives. This undoubtedly reflects genuine party building, hearts-and-minds stuff, not just single-issue hijinks. Hat tip to TNR's Noam Scheiber who seems to have been among the first to spot and emphasize the GOP base turnout story. Says Scheiber:
[I]t looks like Bush's base turned out pretty reliably. It was Kerry who couldn't close the deal with the swing voters Rove gave him the opportunity to win--or possibly even with his own base. What Rove accomplished with his base strategy was to effectively shift the burden to Kerry: Rove was saying he'd take a relatively certain thing--a big conservative vote--and make Kerry beat him across the rest of the political spectrum. As of now, it looks like Kerry wasn't up to the challenge.

Does this mean that Kerry should have pursued a base-only strategy himself, even though he wasn't forced into it -- as Scheiber says Rove essentially was a result of the Administration's hard right agenda?

Not exactly. Even before the 2004 gains, self-identified conservatives constituted almost half-again as large a chunk of the electorate as self-identified liberals. Right now, liberals need moderate allies more than conservatives do. Kerry's 9 point advantage with moderates must be retained and, one hopes, even expanded in the next cycle. Meanwhile, Democrats also need to focus on growing their liberal base. The trick will be finding ways to do both of these things simultaneously.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Gam Zeh Ya'avor

It now seems certain that Kerry will shortly concede, and that Bush will have an undisputed Electoral College victory to add to his clear popular vote majority. I feel that my country has made a terrible mistake, and I can only hope that it will escape the worst of the consequences I can foresee following from that mistake.

Beyond that, there may or may not be much to say about the electoral outcome itself, what it means and what it portends. But now, in any case, is not yet the time to say it. I feel a strong need to look and see, before saying any more. So, for the moment, I have nothing to add to last night's posts.


Except this -- a particularly beautiful version of an old, old story:

One day Solomon decided to humble Benaiah ben Yehoyada, his most trusted minister. He said to him, "Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. I wish to wear it for Sukkot which gives you six months to find it."

"If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty," replied Benaiah, "I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?"

"It has magic powers," answered the king. "If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy." Solomon knew that no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility.

Spring passed and then summer, and still Benaiah had no idea where he could find the ring. On the night before Sukkot, he decided to take a walk in one of he poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by a merchant who had begun to set out the day's wares on a shabby carpet. "Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?" asked Benaiah.

He watched the grandfather take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When Benaiah read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile.

That night the entire city welcomed in the holiday of Sukkot with great festivity. "Well, my friend," said Solomon, "have you found what I sent you after?" All the ministers laughed and Solomon himself smiled.

To everyone's surprise, Benaiah held up a small gold ring and declared, "Here it is, your majesty!" As soon as Solomon read the inscription, the smile vanished from his face. The jeweler had written three letters on the gold band: gimel, zayin, yud, which began the words "Gam Zeh Ya'avor" -- "This too shall pass."

[Link]

A Smidgen of Analysis Before Bed

A little early post-mortem analysis on the (likely) Bush victory in Ohio, from the NYTimes:


But the Democrats' improved performance in [Cleveland and Columbus] was not enough to close the gap with Mr. Bush, in large part because the Republicans squeezed additional votes out of their traditional political base in the northwest part of the state, the rural western border with Indiana and the conservative suburbs around Cincinnati, Republican strategists said.

Many tiny rural counties, where Mr. Bush had won 65 percent or more of the vote in 2000, gave him even larger margins this year. Analysts attributed that improved turnout among conservatives in part to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that was on the ballot.

"The Republicans really galvanized their base with their get-out-the-vote operation, and they did so in large part by taking advantage of cultural issues that were important to Republicans voters," said Eric Rademacher, the director of the Ohio Poll at the University of Cincinnati. "Clearly one of those issues was the constitutional amendment."


It's a point that Yglesias made earlier in the evening here and here. With gay marriage bans on the ballot (and passing) in a number of key states, the same thing may have taken place elsewhere as well, possibly making the difference in a number of close races.

In short, it looks like Rove's strategy of using "social issues" to further mobilize the base, flat out worked. This would be reminiscent, actually, of the way the Homeland Security bill was used in the 2002 midterms, and the way gun control paranoia was used in 2000: All of these were very effective mobilizations that turned, not on huge policy differences, but on relatively narrow ones, chosen more for their symbolic value -- as stand ins for major cultural cleavages.

Here, once again, is an area where a sufficiently ruthless, highly ideologically motivated and compact party has a huge advantage over a more loose-knit, pragmatic, and largely interest-based coalition. The former can mobilize supporters by readily appealing to a core of shared sentiments ("values"), even if it means trading in what they know to be policy nonsense. The latter, meanwhile, tends to be committed to seeking reasonable policy outcomes that provide actual benefit to its coalition members, and therefore is much less well equipped for such ideological gamesmanship.

It is not quite a pure case of "the best lack[ing] all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity," but it may be disturbingly close to that: Ideological accumen without realistic policy, realistic policy without ideological fire.



The Long Night of Waiting

For the record:

Unless something changes in Wisconsin, John Kerry is absolutely right to refuse to concede the election until (and unless) it becomes certain that the number of ballots remaining uncounted in Ohio -- including provsional ballots -- is less than George Bush's current lead in that state. For him to do any less, given what hangs in the balance, would be to fail in his duty to all those who pinned their hopes for this country's future on his candidacy.

And more: Given what happened in 2000, and what the GOP was up to in minority precincts in Ohio and elsewhere tonight, Kerry has other obligations as well. He owes it to the memory of every civil rights worker who ever took a police baton to the head, or a blast from a fire hose, or a bite from one of Bull Conner's dogs, to conduct a fair but vigorous fight for every single vote that is rightfully his.

John Edwards said tonight, with a touch of bravado, "We've waited four years for this victory, so we can wait one more night." But some in this country waited a hell of a lot longer than four years, and suffered through a hell of a lot more than a sleepless night or two, to make this a place where their vote counts. We owe it to them to make absolutely certain that it still does.

Let Mr. Bush have his victory, if victory is what he has earned; but let there be no victories at the expense of even a single American citizen's right to vote. If things get messy, that is the principle that should guide Mr. Kerry, and his supporters.



Tuesday, November 02, 2004

What Kind of Victory?

Damn, it looks like maybe I was right about Iowa after all. Bush has opened up an 8K lead there with 92% of precincts reporting. So it might wind up that three of my five projected switchers from 2000 will pan out.

Unfortunately, the two that didn't just happened to be the two most decisive battlegrounds in the country -- the two states that I (along with practically everyone else) always suspected would decide the election.

I'm obviously assuming Ohio stays Bush. Cleveland, Youngstown and Toledo have narrowed Bush's margin to about 100K, but, with 92% of precincts in, hoping for the provisional ballots to turn it around now feels like a bridge too far -- at least at this hour. I reserve the right to feel differently about it in the morning.

Baring any such turnarounds, it's looking like Bush with 286 EVs.

More disappointing, in a way, is the fact that Bush will now have a popular majority to point to (52% at this hour -- although the West Coast will surely shave that down somewhat before all the counting is over).

This national majority maps well onto his apparent local majorities in Florida and Ohio. From what I've seen, it also maps, within those states, onto his majorities in the counties that have close to the median distribution of Democrats, Republicans and Independents. In other words, Bush appears to have won a very narrow, but clear victory among (predominantly suburban) "swing voters."

If true, that would mean that any increased turnout on the Dem side was more or less matched on the GOP side, making the new-voter and GOTV efforts a wash: Yet another blow for a perennial dream of the Left. And it raises the question of just how the Bush campaign pulled off this small majority among median voters, given that general dissatisfaction with the incumbent certainly seemed high enough, prior to the election, to deny it to him.

What did it? What made the small but decisive difference with this small but decisive group?

The smears that made the bona fide military hero look worse than the draft dodger who failed to complete his stateside duties? A simple unwillingness to dump a sitting president in time of war? Residual effects of the disinformation campaign that linked Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, Iraq and Al Qaeda? Genuine approval of the idea that the best policy, in the wake of 9/11, was to kick a little Muslim ass (or a lot), and not be too particular about the details? Violent antipathy towards gay marriage? Religious solidarity among non-denominational Protestants? The fact that the challenger speaks French -- with a Boston accent?

My bet would be on some witches' brew of all of the above, all held together through the master narrative of the plainspoken Strong Man versus the effete Rival, whose intellect and cultivation make him weak and indecisive in a crisis: the Gunslinger versus the Tenderfoot.

(The above said with hat tip to Richard Slotkin.)

When I can stand to look at it sine ira et studio (which may not be anytime soon), it'll be interesting to see what the data have to say on the matter. But I doubt those data will get at the real sources of Bush's appeal to "middle America," the sources found in that old script that somehow made all the disparate sentiments and illusions of his supporters hang together.




Ohio Blues

Well, it looks like I was wrong about Florida and (possibly) Iowa. Obviously, I'd much prefer to have been wrong about New Mexico and New Hampshire.

If Kerry holds on in Iowa, plus New Hampshire and Wisconsin (where his leads are razor thin), then the final EV tally will probably be 279 to 259. The question is: in whose favor? And that brings us to Ohio.

At this hour, it's going to Bush by what looks to me like a decisive 130,000 or so votes, with 3/4 of precincts reporting. There's a narrow (and rapidly diminishing) chance that the precints in and around Cleveland could make up the margin -- especially if there is any substance to the rumor of 300,000 provisional ballots yet to be counted. In which case, Ohio becomes this year's Florida -- as indeed some had predicted it would.

But I wouldn't bet the farm on it. So it's time to start preparing for the possibility of four more years in the wilderness....

And what will serve for our manna, until at last we come into the land of Canaan?