JFK, Proud Liberal and Professional Politician

(Part two of four: one, two, three, and four)

In this debate, I find myself more in line with what John King said in a discussion on Anderson Cooper’s show (along with Ira Stoll and Douglas Brinkley) — from the transcript:

I think it’s a debate that you have because our times have changed so much and when you think about that label, when Bill Clinton was the Democratic president after Walter Mondale lost 49 states, he said he wanted to be a different kind of Democrat.

And so parties changed. The conservative movement has gone through several changes from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan, to now when you see the Tea Party. There are some things Ronald Reagan did the Tea Party members would call liberal.

So I think part of it is as the times change and as different political movements become ascendant, you look back at prior political leaders and you try to put them into the context and the language of today and today’s politics are quite messy. So I don’t think it’s quite fair to anybody, anybody in history to take from today’s mess and look back and try to find them a place.

The point I would make, though, is that JFK was a liberal by his own definition, the same definition by which many liberals today praise JFK. He didn’t see liberals as militarily wimpy and fiscally flabby:

What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?” If by “Liberal” they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of “Liberal.” But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”

I’m not sure why liberals must concede to an unfair caricature made by conservative, a caricature that only serves the purpose of maligning liberalism. The conservative argument seems to be that, because JFK was a strong effective president, he therefore can’t be a liberal. Everything that Americans have come to love, no matter how liberal it may seem, is actually conservative. And everything that is liberal must, therefore, be morally wrong and politically a failure and generally unAmerican.

No matter the contortions necessary, reactionary conservatives have to find some way to claim a president as respected as JFK. This forces them to argue that JFK was so right as a conservative that his defense of his own liberalism must be wrong. In doing so, conservatives oddly end up arguing against JFK himself, despite his having spelled out in no uncertain terms his own ideological persuasion. JFK, in claiming to be a liberal, must accordingly either have been a liar or clueless.

A reviewer of Stoll’s book, Mark Klobas, concludes that:

The biggest problem with Stoll’s book, however, is that his entire argument is based on a false assumption about the labels he uses. Early in the book, he sidesteps the problem of defining what the word conservative meant to Kennedy by declaring that the “shifting definitions of the terms over time” rendered such an activity pointless. This allows Stoll to adopt his own definition of conservatism to make his case, one rooted in the conceit that liberals in the 1950s weren’t religiously devout, or anticommunist, or opposed to union corruption, or in favor of reducing taxes. Whether it is the result of historical ignorance or deliberate deceptiveness, it is a fallacy that undermines his entire argument and reduces his effort to a pointless demonstration of ahistoricism. The result is a sloppy and unconvincing book, one that will only convince those who want to believe that the man who once declared that he was “proud to be a liberal” was anything but.

Klobas’ review inspired some worthwhile discussion that I’ve taken part in. With my first comment, I threw out my standard position that the political beliefs and values of actual people often don’t fit the MSM-propagated ideological stereotypes and straw-man arguments, my position being related to the reasons given by John King above. I then added, in a later comment, a lovely quote by Mark Twain:

Conservatism is the blind and fear-filled worship of dead radicals.

That quote supports the view of Corey Robin in painting conservatism as inherently reactionary. I’m largely persuaded by this view specifically in terms of movement conservatism, but I’m also wary about generalizing too much. I’ve come across people who seem politically conservative in many ways while not seeming reactionary, maybe even being overtly anti-reactionary.

Then again, I suppose any ideology could theoretically be taken up by a reactionary because, as described by Robin, co-opting ideologies is the precise talent of reactionaries. Robin’s reactionary conservatives, in his telling, originally fought against the traditionalists (i.e., the pre-Enlightenment ancien régime) and yet today they stake a claim on this very traditionalism or at least on its rhetoric. That is a part of Stoll’s argument in claiming JFK in relation to his being a Catholic since, after all, the Catholic Church is one of the last vestiges of traditionalism in the modern world. Stoll goes so far as to call JFK a theocon.

But Catholicism is also behind the communitarian values that, following WWII, made Catholics the single largest group of union members. Is this communitarian aspect of traditionalism also conservative? Or do conservatives just want to pick and choose which aspects of traditionalism they will accept as they pick and choose which aspects of liberalism to co-opt? Is conservatism, at least the American-style reactionary conservatism, anything other than the taking of certain remnants of traditionalism and welding them to the established liberalisms that have become inseparable from the American identity?

In the vein of Mark Twain, this ideological confusion was stated in the following manner by Gunnar Myrdal (in An American Dilemma):

America is conservative in fundamental principles… But the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.

This relates to what researchers have found about most Americans being symbolic conservatives and pragmatic liberals. What this means is that, when given a forced choice of two options, most Americans choose to identify as conservatives instead of liberals. But this is just a label. When asked about specifics, they support mostly liberal positions. So, this ‘conservatism’ of the majority isn’t conservative in any fundamental sense.

As expounded upon in this passage by Louis Hartz (in The Liberal Tradition in America):

But how then are we to describe these baffling Americans? Were they rationalists or were they traditionalists? The truth is, they were neither, which is perhaps another way of saying that they were both. [ . . . ] the past became a continuous future, and the God of the traditionalists sanctioned the very arrogance of the men who defied Him. [ . . . ] one of the enduring secrets of the American character: a capacity to combine rock-ribbed traditionalism with high inventiveness, ancestor worship with ardent optimism. Most critics have seized upon one or the other of these aspects of the American mind, finding it impossible to conceive how both can go together. That is why the insight of Gunnar Myrdal is a very distinguished one when he writes: “America is … conservative… . But the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.” Radicalism and conservatism have been twisted entirely out of shape by the liberal flow of American history. [ . . . ]  The ironic flaw in American liberalism lies in the fact that we have never had a real conservative tradition.

Given this, what does it even mean to call any American a ‘conservative’? Or for that matter, a ‘liberal’?

Part of the confusion comes from those who seem to think conservatism and liberalism represent clearly defined ideological systems instead of general persuasions, often vague and inconsistent. Depending on context, these general persuasions can be expressed in many ways and take many forms. This understanding is articulated well by Alan Wolfe (in A False Distinction):

[E]verywhere I go, the moment I tell people that I have written a book about liberalism, I am invariably asked which of the two I mean. Classical liberalism, my interlocutors patiently explain to me, is that wonderful notion of the free market elucidated by Adam Smith that worships the idea of freedom. The modern version, by contrast, is committed to expansion of the state and, if taken to its logical conclusion, leads to slavery. One must choose one or the other. There really is no such thing, therefore, as modern liberalism. If you opt for the market, you are a libertarian. If you choose government, you are a socialist or, in more recent times, a fascist.

I try to explain to people that in my book I reject any such distinction and argue instead for the existence of a continuous liberal understanding that includes both Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. But so foreign is this idea to them that they stare at me in utter disbelief. How could I have possibly written a book on liberalism, I can almost hear them thinking, when this guy doesn’t know a thing about it?

[ . . . ] I think of the whole question of governmental intervention as a matter of technique. Sometimes the market does pretty well and it pays to rely on it. Sometimes it runs into very rough patches and then you need government to regulate it and correct its course. No matters of deep philosophy or religious meaning are at stake when we discuss such matters. A society simply does what it has to do.

When instead we do discuss human purpose and the meaning of life, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes are on the same side. Both of them possessed an expansive sense of what we are put on this earth to accomplish. Both were on the side of enlightenment. Both were optimists who believed in progress but were dubious about grand schemes that claimed to know all the answers. For Smith, mercantilism was the enemy of human liberty. For Keynes, monopolies were. It makes perfect sense for an eighteenth century thinker to conclude that humanity would flourish under the market. For a twentieth century thinker committed to the same ideal, government was an essential tool to the same end.

This diversity within liberalism goes for issues like defense as much as with economics.

Some liberals are pacifists, but as far as mainstream politics goes there are probably more liberals that tend toward war hawk positions than the opposite. We aren’t a nation of pacifists and so mainstream liberalism in this country has never been primarily defined in opposition to strong defense. Reflections of this can be seen in the parties as they shift in their positions. An analysis by John C. Goodman, imperfect though it is in other respects, gets at this particular point:

Take the issue of national defense: The Kennedy-was-a-conservative crowd points to the fact that Kennedy was the pro-defense candidate in the 1960 election.

He accused Eisenhower of allowing a missile gap to occur and letting the Soviet Union become the stronger power. His solution? More silos with more missiles.

If you find it perplexing that a liberal Democrat would take that position, you are probably too young to remember that for most of the 20th century the Democratic Party was the party of war. The Republican Party was the party of peace.

In fact, a not inconsiderable faction of the Republican Party was downright isolationist. Our anti-communist Cold War foreign policy was almost completely shaped by Democrats.

Although he was a general, Eisenhower was elected to end the Korean War and give us international peace and stability. On his way out of office, he warned of a “military industrial complex.”

By contrast, Kennedy escalated the Vietnam War and his policies toward Cuba almost got us into World War III on two separate occasions.

It wasn’t until we got to the 21st century that the party’s positions had clearly reversed. Today, it’s the Republicans in Congress who worry that the sequester is taking too much away from the Defense Department. Most Democrats couldn’t care less.

Goodman makes a point I hadn’t considered. I’m not familiar with this apparently significant isolationist contingent of the GOP at that time. Richard Eskow made the same point in reference to George F. Will’s argument:

Will then pivots to the Vietnam War, citing Kennedy’s alleged commitment to that conflict as evidence of his conservative bona fides. But Will only convinces us that he himself is a creature of the 1960s, when support for military intervention was assumed to be the “conservative” position. The opposite has often been true in American history. Interventionism has often been seen as liberal and isolationism as conservative.

The warlike nature of today’s conservatives is more likely the result of their campaign donations from big defense contractors, together with their hostility toward Muslims. Kennedy’s military doctrine was incomplete, but even at its most aggressive it had nothing to do with conservatism.

According to the simplistic interpretation of the political spectrum, are we to claim these isolationists were weak liberals? Is Ron Paul a weak liberal today for believing it is wrong to belligerently and wastefully use the military? Is JFK more of a conservative than Ron Paul? I’m willing to bet Ron Paul would disagree. I just don’t see this kind of thing as a fundamental divide between liberalism and conservatism. Besides, I don’t know why conservatives would want to equate conservatism with belligerent warmongering and suicidal brinkmanship. Gene Healy of the Cato Institute wonders the same thing:

It’s a strange view that favors confrontation and foreign-policy “toughness” as ends in themselves, even at the risk of nuclear annihilation. But then Stoll has a lot of strange views on foreign policy. On Vietnam, where JFK had deployed some 16,000 troops by 1963, Stoll writes, “President Kennedy and the national security team he brought into office have been faulted for leading the country into the Vietnam War without clear objectives … a formal declaration of war [or] an exit strategy”; however, “that criticism should be discounted for [sic] the fact that South Vietnam fell to Communist North Vietnam only in April of 1975.” (If you never end the war, you never have to ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake.)

Doug Mataconis, commenting on this quote of Healy, clarified the issue at hand:

Of course, Healy’s critiques about Kennedy’s record are  precisely the kinds of things that a conservative of Stoll’s variety admires, so it’s not entirely surprising that he’d try to claim the Camelot legacy for the right. I have to agree with Healy, though, that while Kennedy’s actions may have been consistent with the views of the time they are hardly something that modern conservatism should seek to claim as its own unless it wants to return to the big government conservatism of the Bush years.

However conservatives want to define themselves, the point that Eskow makes, like Goodman, is that Kennedy was fundamentally a moderate:

In his finest moments, John F. Kennedy heard the music of his moment and made it better. That’s not conservatism, or centrism, or even pragmatism. It’s leadership.

I would be less generous. I’d simply call JFK a professional politician. What some might call moderateness, I’d call realpolitik. JFK was doing what any professional politician would do during the Cold War, whether conservative or liberal. The public was demanding that their politicians be Cold Warriors. It was the mood of the times:

Similarly, as Steinglass notes, Kennedy’s foreign policy was no different than most members of his own party at the time. In those years before the Vietnam War, when the Cold War was still very, very hot, in fact, the anti-Communist containment policies that Kennedy pursued were pretty much universally shared across the leading members of both political parties. Moreover, during the 1960 campaign, part of then Senator Kennedy’s argument against Vice-President Nixon’s campaign was the allegation that existed at the time that the United States was falling behind in the race to create a sufficient stockpile of missiles capable of striking the Soviet Union in the event of nuclear war, thus endangering our nuclear deterrent. In other words, Kennedy ran to Nixon’s right on foreign policy to some extent, although it turned out at the time that existing intelligence, which Kennedy didn’t have access to at the time, showed that the so-called missile gap was largely non-existent. This is also the same John F. Kennedy who went ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion, stood up to the Soviets over the Berlin Wall, successfully stared Khrushchev down over the Cuban Missile Crisis, and expanded the U.S. involvement in South Vietnam that had started under the Eisenhower Presidency. While one might be tempted to call this a conservative foreign policy, the truth is that it was really just a continuation of the then-existing bipartisan consensus and that a President Nixon elected in 1960 most likely would not have acted any differently than President Kennedy did during his two and 3/4 years in office. Kennedy’s foreign policy was, then, neither liberal nor conservative as we understand those terms today.

Whatever the case may be about JFK’s early political career, many argue that JFK became more liberal. Joe Strupp summarizes the views of several historians:

Allan Lichtman, American University distinguished professor of history, agreed. Although he noted that Kennedy started out his presidency as a “very moderate Democrat,” he adds that “he evolved and changed over time and moved to a much more liberal position internationally and in domestic policy.”

If he had lived longer, maybe he would have become even more liberal still as did his brother, Bobby Kennedy. We can speculate endlessly and, depending on our political biases, our speculations could go in many directions.

(Continue reading: part three)

3 thoughts on “JFK, Proud Liberal and Professional Politician

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