Political Alliances and Reform

“Our opponents have stripped the discussion of rights of all its complexity.”
~ Howard Schwartz, Beyond Liberty Alone, Kindle Location 1349

I had a direct experience of this over these past few days. I was involved in a political debate. It was on a facebook page for a local group, Reform the Johnson County Criminal Justice System. Before I go into the details of the situation, let me briefly explain the background of the group.

The group was formed because of a particular issue that was being fought against, but it quickly broadened in scope. It attracted many people from a wide variety of ideological perspectives. Over time, some people grew dissatisfied. Many liberals, progressives, and similar types left the group and joined another group. The main guy who organized the group was one of those who left. He passed the keys onto at least one other person, Sean Curtin.

Sean is a lawyer and a libertarian. He is very much an activist. I get the sense that he dedicates his entire life to his politics. He seems devoted and is a decent guy. However, he is a tad dogmatic in his right-wing politics. There is a slight reactionary slant to his libertarianism, but someone was explaining to me that he has been moving (or, because of circumstances, has felt pushed) leftward toward greater alliance with liberal and progressive reformers.

I like to see alliances. This is what makes me a liberal. I’m all about seeking mutual understanding. That is often easier said than done. Sean had sent me a friend request on Facebook and I accepted. I remained ‘friends’ with him for a while, until his dogmatism irritated me enough and I unfriended him.

That wasn’t that long ago when I unfriended him. I hadn’t interacted with him since. For some reason, I was drawn to comment on a post on the group’s Facebook page. He joined in along with some others. It didn’t lead to fruitful discussion. No mutual understanding followed from it, to say the least. Instead, Sean deleted the entire discussion thread. He essentially silenced his opponents. Not very libertarian of him, I must say… or maybe all too typically ‘libertarian’, in that it is liberty for me and none for thee.

The discussion began because of a video talking about “personal responsibility”. This led to talk about rhetoric in terms of language and ideas. It was just when I thought the discussion was getting interesting that it got deleted. I think I understand why. The direction that I was pushing the discussion toward was one in which a libertarian position has little defense. Right-libertarianism can’t handle much direct scrutiny of its ideological rhetoric, because it falls apart or else becomes quite wobbly.

From Sean’s perspective, betraying his idealized principle of liberty by shutting discussion down was more acceptable than allowing any further scrutiny of that ideal and the related ideological rhetoric upon which it is based. That is why I began with that quote by Howard Schwartz. Libertarianism, in its extreme right-wing form, necessitates a simplification of thought and hence a narrowing of debate.

As such, someone like Sean can move pretty far to the left on many issues, but he can only go so far. This leftward shift can even include acknowledging racial bias. It’s just that it has to be kept within a limited framework of analysis. To question too deeply into racism would point toward its structural nature. This enters into dangerous territory of larger social injustice issues that erode at the very foundations of the economic system that libertarians so strongly uphold.

This was the direction in which the discussion was headed. And this is why Sean had to end it before it got too far. This is problematic for any attempt at an alliance for reform. If an alliance is dependent on the lowest common denominator, including reactionary politics into a reform group can bring the agenda down to an extremely low level. This is an even greater problem when reactionary attitudes are held by the leader of a reform group.

This incident has made me question any hope for an effective alliance between the left and right. I haven’t given up hope, but I’m feeling circumspect. Maybe Sean and other libertarians will surprise me in how far they might go, when push comes to shove.

7 thoughts on “Political Alliances and Reform

    • Well, you are apparently logged in now. I’m sorry you were having trouble. I know how annoying that can be. Logging in shouldn’t be difficult. Anyway, carry on. I assume you have a comment you’d like to post.

      • Yes, after repeatedly not recognizing my userid or password (not the first time, btw), WordPress finally, somehow, let me post a response.

        I don’t have anything profound to offer, Benjamin; I just wanted to say that I’ve had similarly unproductive experiences trying to reach people who are dogmatic in their views. And yes, it does dampen one’s hopes of finding common ground across ideological lines.

        • I was wondering how one defines success in such an alliance. The group I’m talking about supposedly wants to reform the local criminal justice system. But how would we know it was successfully reformed? If we just reformed all the external problems but didn’t reform structural racism within the local institutions, would declare success and close the group down?

  1. Libertarianism is more about giving the freedom for the very rich and corporations to exploit the very poor than it is about real freedoms I fear for all of society.

    You will rarely hear an American styled libertarian talk about giving the poor, disadvantaged minorities, or others “freedoms” or the opportunities to advance their lives.

    • Totally agree.
      Just as Ayn Rand’s heroes (e.g. John Galt) are all highly successful in the capitalistic sense, so too are the role models of libertarianism.

    • I generally agree. But sometimes wonder about an American libertarianism that returns to its roots.

      There are several sources of influence. The origin proper of libertarianism was in the European workers movement that included a diversity of ideologies, from anarchists to Marxists. Libertarianism originally wasn’t an ideology for the rich and privileged. Some other sources of specifically American libertarianism are individuals such as Thoreau and Paine, but those two were radical left-wingers by today’s standards.

      There are plenty of left-libertarians in America. It’s just you rarely hear about them or don’t realize they are libertarians. Chomsky is a left-libertarian. Why let reactionary right-wingers coopt and control the label of libertarianism? These same people also often call themselves the true liberals, and many on the left have abandoned the label of liberalism for progressivism. We on the left need to quit ceding ideological ground to the right.

      We need to take libertarianism more seriously than right-libertarians take it. The best way to attack reactionaries is to demand that they live up to their own rhetoric. If they want to proclaim liberty, then attack them every time they betray that principle. Use their rhetoric against them.

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