JFK’s Ideology: The Real Debate

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

Before I offer my conclusion, let me begin with the last thoughts of S. Freeman from our dicussion. In response to what I’ve written so far, he stated the following:

You are correct to say that perceptions of ideologies change. I do not believe ideologies themselves change much beyond being refined or some of their principles being reinterpreted to gain a clearer understanding of the ideology. However, as noted, people start using terminology (ideology) in different ways so a word (liberal, democracy) no longer means what it originally meant. This, at least in part, is a failure of our educational institutions. I also think these changes are not accidental, but often are deliberate to confuse and mislead people. Republicans are, and have been since the 1960’s Lockean Liberals on economic issues. They are very poor Burkean Conservatives on social issues. I say very poor because their positions on social issues contradict several Burkean principles. Thus Republicans are something of a blend of Burkean Conservatism and Reactionaries on social issues. I was in a debate at a university with one of these guys on Columbus Day a year ago. He strongly argued most amendments to the Constitution were unconstitutional, specifically including the 13th Amendment. To which I responded by saying, “then, slavery still should be legal, and African Americans still should, or at least could, be slaves. He said, while he personally opposed slavery, that was the intent of the authors of the Constitution, and therefore, it was/is wrong for government to outlaw slavery. He’s considered a conservative, but that is not Conservativism; that’s reactionaryism.

Democrats are Lockean Liberals on social issues, but not on economic issues. They lean toward Burkean Conservativism in the sense they (seek to) implement policies that disproportionately favor the propertied class and maintenance of a fundamentally anti-democratic oligarchy in the name of democracy.

People would have a MUCH clearer understanding of the political system, of politics in general, and of the ideological orientations (including the basic conservatism of Kennedy) IF people did not work constantly to muddy the meanings of ideological terms, and if we did a much better job teaching ideology in our education institutions.

With his assassination, JFK  can feel like a useful unchanging marker by which to measure and judge. But we can’t get around how the distance of time has made his image hazy in our minds. Our views of JFK may say more about us than about JFK. That may bother Freeman more than it bothers me. In my liberal-mindedeness, such uncertainty feels less disconcerting and troublesome. It is just the way the world is.

Crazy as I am, I see the real debate only beginning as the superficial debate is ending. The debate never was about JFK, not on a fundamental level. What was actually being contested was not just JFK’s ideology or even ideology in general but our shared sense of human nature and social reality. It’s not only about who gets to define the terms of the debate for even more importantly is who gets to define the parameters of meaning, define how and why it matters at all.

In the discussion of JFK’s ideology, I only came across one analysis, imperfect as it is, that gets close to this deeper vein of thought. John C. Goodman (in Was Kennedy a Conservative?) says that, “An ideology is a set of ideas that cohere.” He continues:

Socialism is an ideology. So is libertarianism. Suppose I told you that socialists believe the government should nationalize the steel industry and the auto industry. You would have no difficulty inferring what their position is on nationalizing the airline industry. Right? Suppose I told you that libertarians believe in a free market for tinker toys and ham sandwiches. You would have no difficulty inferring that they also believe in a free market for Rubik’s Cubes.

Sociologies are different. They represent a set of ideas that are often incoherent. These ideas are likely to come together not because of reason, but because of history or happenstance. Not only do the ideas not cohere, they may be completely contradictory.

The problem with Goodman’s analysis is that he is using this description of sociologies as a way to dismiss them. He is more like Freeman in wanting absolutist, self-contained ideologies. An ideology ought to be precisely what it is and nothing else. The fact that actual existing politics rarely if ever meets that standard really irks this kind of person. It seems wrong and unacceptable. Ideologies should be clearly stated and purely expressed.

In the above article, Goodman was quoting himself from his own blog (a practice that I fully condone). His attempt to discern why a sociology is not an ideology followed what amounts to a complaint about what gets called “modern liberalism”:

Let’s put this a different way. Given that liberalism is the dominant political ideology and given that it largely replaced 19th century classical liberalism, is there a place I can go to find why the proponents think it’s so much better than the ideology it replaced? If the answer is “no,” why is that?

The answer, I believe, is that liberalism is not an ideology at all; it is a sociology. The same may be said of conservatism. (Incidentally, Friedman did not call himself a “conservative;” he called himself a “classical liberal.”) I’ll save the conservatives for another day.

Goodman doesn’t come off as very well informed. He dismisses that liberals today have a coherent vision. He dismisses without even seriously considering the case of what liberals actually believe. Many liberals have presented coherent ideologies of liberalism, but Goodman is entirely clueless of this (as some commenters noted in his blog: John Walter and MarkH). In my discussion with Freeman, I made the point that liberalism, including classical liberalism, is a lot more complex than those on the right would like to admit — as I explained it:

This demonstrates the problematic analysis of separating so-called classical liberalism and so-called modern liberalism. Modern liberalism began to form centuries ago. And classical liberalism didn’t take on its modern meaning until the twentieth century. A bit of a confusion in labeling, I would say. It is a modern confusion, though, and isn’t how those in the past would have thought about these ideological worldviews and tendencies.

It is better to think of such distinctions in terms of the Enlightenment. Paine was in the Radical Enlightenment tradition begun with Spinoza. Burke followed Locke’s tradition which is called the Moderate Enlightenment or the Counter-Enlightenment. The Enlightenment most clearly started with Spinoza, but for the British and Americans the Enlightenment they are familiar with is that of Locke. Jonathan Israel writes of this distinction in several books.

When Corey Robin refers to reactionary conservatives, he is speaking of the Counter-Enlightenment. Its proponents took on a lot of the same ideas and tactics as the radicals, but they used it to defend the social order against the radicals who challenged it. At the same time, these reactionary conservatives attacked the old order (the ancien regime) for its failure. So, it was a desire to replace an older hierarchy for a newer and better one.

Still, in separating the wheat from the chaff (in Goodman’s analysis), an important point can be brought forth, whether or not Goodman intended it. He is right to speak of ideologies and sociologies as two separate factors, although from a social science perspective they are a lot closer than he would find comfortable. In fitting his analysis to the social science research, his analysis needs to be reversed. There are many liberal ideologies and, to generalize a bit, only one liberal sociology (a very broad liberal-mindedness that can accompany an endless number of ideologies, including those not typically considered ‘liberal’; for example, I’ve met many liberal-minded libertarians and a significant number of relatively liberal-minded ‘conservatives’).

Liberalism is and always has been a general category and a relative term. The word itself has a fairly old etymology preceding and so not limited to specific ideologies. There is no getting around that broader meaning which is better captured by social science than political science.

So, what does the social science research show?

I’ve covered this territory many many times. For my purposes here, let me keep it simple.

First, here is my standard caveat. Liberalism and conservatism aren’t necessarily the same thing as liberal-mindedness and conservative-mindedness. I don’t want to absolutely equate these. However, to the degree their is any consistency and coherency to ideologies, it is because they are built on fundamental factors of human nature. Speaking of liberal-mindedness and conservative-mindedness is the best proxy we have in referring to a very basic distinction that we intuit.

With that in mind, the best broad descriptor I’ve so far found that strongly correlates to this distinction is that of Ernest Hartmann’s boundary types: thick and thin. As a way to bridge the sociological and political, I’m reminded of Thomas Sowell’s constrained vs unconstrained visions (not precisely the same as thick and thin but closely related in concept). What I sense in the motivation of Goodman and Freeman is a seeking to constrain ideology, to make it sit still and be a single thing, forever unchanging (i.e., give it thick boundaries). Because human morality is limited and inevitably fails because of foibles of human nature (as is suggested by many conservatives), we must constrain ourselves (and constrain others) to social orders based on constrained and constraining ideologies. That is the only purpose an ideology can or should serve.

In this manner, conservatives are tempted to define liberalism according to their constrained vision and hence to limit liberalism to a conservative-minded framework. They refuse to let liberalism speak for itself or to let liberals define themselves, refuse to allow liberalism be unconstrained according the nature of liberal-mindedness. This is how conservatives end up wanting to claim both conservatism and liberalism by claiming they are simultaneously true Burkean conservatives and true classical liberals, everything else being false idols (RINOs and mere sociologies).

This seems to be the motivation for some conservatives wanting to claim all the great liberals from the past. This strongly conservative-minded type wants to force everything and everyone into their constrained vision of an orderly reality, an orderly view of human nature, an orderly defining of ideologies. The past is safe because, as Mark Twain notes, even the radicals are safely contained within their own deaths. Past figures, no matter how while alive they may have challenged past constraints, can’t challenge the constraints of the present for their voices have been permanently silenced. Hence, they can now be made into saints and worshipped. As for the living, radicals and liberals can’t be trusted for they refuse to limit themselves to the constrained demands of conservatism. Living liberals must be dismissed while dead liberals are available as necessary to be sanctified.

To reinvent JFK as a conservative is the attempt to make past liberalism safe, cleansed of its radical challenge to authority, social order and the status quo. Moderate as he was, even JFK was too dangerous for the conservatives of his times. He pushed a blatant progressive agenda. But in the liberal movement forward, with the increasing liberalism of the population and of society, the further distanced we become from the past the more it appears conservative relative to the present. All the past becomes frozen in place, all the dead actors forced to play their roles like puppets in the conservative morality tale.

For further reading on this topic from my blog (in order of date of posting):

Is Classical Liberalism Liberal?

Liberalism: Label vs Reality (analysis of data)

Deep South, Traditional Conservatism, & Future Possibilities

Deep South, American Hypocrisy, & Liberal Traditions

Jonathan Haidt’s Liberal-Minded Anti-Liberalism

Conservatism & Liberalism: What is their relationship? What do they mean?

Haidt’s Moral Intuition (vs ethical reasoning)

Haidt & Mooney, Moral Foundations & Spiral Dynamics

Liberalism: Weaknesses & Failures

The Enlightenment Project: A Defense

Criticizing Mooney’s Praise of Haidt

Republican Liberalism

Re: The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives

Liberalism, Enlightenment & Axial Age

Symbolic Conflation & Empathic Imagination

Ideologically Confused Partisans

More Thoughts on Ideological Confusion

4 thoughts on “JFK’s Ideology: The Real Debate

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