Who was Ronald Reagan? And what was the Reagan Revolution?

When Reagan was a Democrat, he was a union leader, socially liberal Hollywood actor, starry-eyed liberal progressive, anti-communist, pro-capitalist, ultra-nationalist, big-spending FDR New Deal supporter, big government public welfare state promoter, and patriotic cold warrior.

And then when Reagan became a Republican, he instead was a union opponent (although still able to get labor union support to get elected), socially liberal political actor, starry-eyed neoliberal progressive, anti-communist, pro-capitalist, ultra-nationalist, big-spending permanent debt-creating militarist, big government corporate welfare state promoter, and patriotic cold warrior.

Nothing fundamentally changed about Reagan, as he admitted. He liked to say that the Democratic Party left him. This is in a sense true as Democrats turned away from their racist past. Other things were involved as well.

I’d say that his shifting attitude about the New Deal welfare state was more situational, as many white Americans were less willing to support a welfare state after the Civil Rights movement because it meant blacks would have equal access to those public benefits. Reagan probably was always a racist, but it remained hidden behind progressivism until black rights forced it out into the open. Even his union views were more of a situational change, rather than an ideological change, for the Cold War reframed many issues.

The combination of Civil Rights movement and Cold War were a powerful force, the latter helping to make the former possible. The Cold War was a propaganda war. To prove democracy was genuinely better, the US government suddenly felt the pressure to live up to its own rhetoric about civil rights. Black activists pushed this to their advantage, and many whites in response went from liberalism to conservatism. This created a strange form of conservatism that was dominated by former progressives turned reactionary, which in some ways just meant a reactionary progressivism that hid behind conservative rhetoric.

This is how Reagan went from a standard progressive liberal to the ideal personification of reactionary conservatism. Yet he did this while politically remaining basically the same. Reagan didn’t change. The world around him changed. There was a society-wide political realignment that went beyond any individual person.

Still, it wasn’t just a party realignment with the old racist Southern Democrats switching loyalties to the Republicans. There was that, but also more than that. Many old school Democrats, even those outside of the South, changed party identification and voting patterns. Prior to the shift, many Republicans would praise liberalism (from Eisenhower to Nixon) and there was room for a left-wing within the party itself. After the switch, all of that was replaced by a mix of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, an alliance between economic libertarians and war hawks. So-called conservatism became a radical and revolutionary force of globalization.

The deeper shift involved not just to the political spectrum but the entire political framework and foundation. Everything shifted and became redefined, as if an earthquake had rearranged the geography of the country to such an extent that the old maps no longer matched reality.

One major change is that the noblesse oblige paternalism of the likes of the Roosevelts (TR and FDR) simply disappeared from mainstream politics, like Atlantis sinking below the waves never to be seen or heard from again. Politics became  unmoored from the past. Conservatism went full reactionary, leaving behind any trace of Old World traditionalism. Meanwhile, liberals became weak-minded centrists who have since then always been on the defense and leftists, as far as the mainstream was concerned, became near non-entities whose only use was for occasional resurrection as scapegoats (even then only as straw man scapegoats).

Two world wars had turned the Western world on its head. Following that mass destruction, the Cold War warped the collective psyche, especially in America. It’s as if someone took a baseball bat to Uncle Sam’s head and now he forever sees the world cross-eyed and with a few lost IQ points.

As with Reagan, nothing changed and yet everything changed. The Reagan Revolution was greater than just Reagan.

* * * *

http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1894529_1894528_1894518,00.html

He may be the patron saint of limited government, but Ronald Reagan started out as a registered Democrat and New Deal supporter. An F.D.R. fan, the Gipper campaigned for Helen Gahagan Douglas in her fruitless 1950 Senate race against Richard Nixon and encouraged Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for President as a Democrat in 1952. While he was working as a spokesman for General Electric, however, his views shifted right. “Under the tousled boyish haircut,” he wrote Vice President Nixon of John F. Kennedy in 1960, “is still old Karl Marx.” By the time it actually happened in 1962, Reagan’s decision to cross over to the GOP didn’t come as much of a surprise. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” he famously said. “The party left me.”

http://www.politifact.com/florida/statements/2010/mar/30/charlie-crist/crist-says-reagan-was-democrat-converting-gop/

Giller said Reagan endorsed the presidential candidacies of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 as well as that of Nixon in 1960 “while remaining a Democrat.” [ . . . ]

Historian Edward Yager, a government professor at Western Kentucky University and author of the 2006 biography Ronald Reagan’s Journey: Democrat to Republican, said Reagan “was registered Democrat from the time that he voted for FDR in 1932, when he was 21.”

Yager said he’s never seen copies of the voter registration cards, but noted “virtually all the sources that refer to” Reagan’s party affiliation indicate that he was registered as a Democrat and that “he has two autobiographies in which he refers to his voting for FDR four times, then for Truman.” Reagan was a Democrat, added Yager, even when he voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower.

http://www.shmoop.com/reagan-era/ideology.html

Interestingly, Ronald Reagan himself did not always espouse the firm anti-government beliefs that eventually came to define Reaganism. As a young man, Reagan was actually a Roosevelt Democrat. The Reagan family only survived the Great Depression because Jack Reagan, young Ronnie’s unemployed father, was able to find a job in one of the New Deal’s work-relief programs. A few years later, Ronald Reagan found himself admiring Roosevelt’s leadership of America’s World War II effort to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. (Reagan joined the military but performed his wartime service in Hollywood, acting in American propaganda films.)

http://www.firstprinciplesjournal.com/articles.aspx?article=1082

Reagan was a New Deal Democrat. He joked that he had probably become a Democrat by birth, given that his father, Jack, was so devoted to the Democratic Party. The younger Reagan cast his first presidential vote in 1932 for Franklin Roosevelt, and did so again in the succeeding three presidential contests. His faith in FDR remained undimmed even after World War II, when he called himself “a New Dealer to the core.” He summarized his views in this way: “I thought government could solve all our postwar problems just as it had ended the Depression and won the war. I didn’t trust big business. I thought government, not private companies, should own our big public utilities; if there wasn’t enough housing to shelter the American people, I thought government should build it; if we needed better medical care, the answer was socialized medicine.” When his brother, Moon, became a Republican and argued with his sibling, the younger Reagan concluded “he was just spouting Republican propaganda.”

http://www.politicususa.com/2014/02/11/barack-obama-tax-spend-liberal-ronald-reagan.html

http://my.firedoglake.com/cenkuygur/2010/07/08/who-is-more-conservative-ronald-reagan-or-barack-obama/

http://mises.org/library/sad-legacy-ronald-reagan-0

http://open.salon.com/blog/rogerf1953/2010/01/29/the_myth_of_ronald_reagans_iconic_conservative_image

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/opinion/15herbert.html?_r=0

http://www.forwardprogressives.com/4-things-conservatives-hate-to-admit-about-ronald-reagan/

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/07/21/997013/-Ronald-Reagan-officially-too-liberal-for-modern-GOP

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0301.green.html

http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2011/02/05/142288/reagan-centennial/

http://www.nationalmemo.com/5-reasons-ronald-reagan-couldnt-make-it-in-todays-gop/

http://www.msnbc.com/the-last-word/watch/when-reagan-was-a-liberal-democrat-219696195576

https://books.google.com/books?id=U2cs7IHERBwC&pg=PA5&lpg=PA5&dq=Ronald+Reagan%E2%80%99s+Journey:+Democrat+to+Republican&source=bl&ots=iYjMx2KM_g&sig=gQtw5ENydTFPXhmJ0bOiAwIp_uE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=HyjAVLe2AYuVyATR8oKYBg&ved=0CCsQ6AEwBQ

To Become Radical in a Time of Change

I’ve identified as a liberal, ever since I was old enough to think about such things. My liberalism means a number of things. I’m most fundamentally psychologically liberal, and so it is a personal sensibility and identity. But I’m also socially and culturally liberal, which is the basis of my worldview and the way I relate to others. As far as ideology goes, I’m broadly liberal in supporting democracy.

All combined, I don’t know how not to be liberal. It is my fate. It is the core of my being.

I’m consistently principled in my liberalism. It isn’t about party politics. For this reason, I’m more radical than and more critical of what goes for liberalism in the mainstream. Also, my radicalism has increased over time. I’ve become more radical precisely because of my liberalism. I’m not radical by predisposition. It’s just that, according to my liberal values, radicalism naturally follows as a moral response to present conditions in our society.

I see no way of genuinely being liberal without becoming radical. I’d rather be a moderate, if I lived in an ideal world and a just society. But I have to deal with this world I was born into.

This puts me into an odd position. I defend my liberalism because it is core to who I am, for good or bad. I understand the complaints against liberalism and often agree with them. My values of liberalism are what make me critical of the liberalism I see that contradicts those values. Much of what gets called liberalism doesn’t seem liberal to me, by any fundamental sense of the word, at least to my liberal mind.

What got me thinking about this is the recent Ferguson protests. Because of social media, I’ve been more connected to the local activist community. This led me to get more involved than I normally am, at least in recent years. There aren’t many blacks in this small Midwestern liberal college town (Iowa City), but there presence is significant enough. We have one of the highest racial disparities for arrests in the country. The local rallies and marches have been organized by the blacks who live here, most probably being college students.

I’ve been closely observing events and discussions. I’m always curious about what things signify at a deeper level.

This town is atypical in many ways, including the type of black living here, especially in terms of activists. There are poor blacks here, often referred to as “those people from Chicago”. But I’m not sure about the backgrounds of the local black activists, probably less likely to have come from the most impoverished inner city neighborhoods. What has stood out to me, in interacting with them, is how lacking in radicalism they are, as far as I can tell so far. Their demands seem completely in line with a simplistic identity politics narrative. Most of the local radicals, instead, are white (see here and here). One local left-winger I’ve been talking to does know of one black radical in a nearby city, Cedar Rapids, who is critical of identity politics… but he apparently hasn’t yet spoken out publicly.

I know black radicals are protesting in other cities and doing so vocally. I know black radicalism has a long established history in this country. Yet the black leadership, just like the white leadership, is typically moderate. Most of the protest messages play right into the mainstream racial narrative.

What I also have noticed is the absence and/or silence of other minority perspectives in this town (with 17.5% total minority population, about equal parts black, Hispanic, and Asian; along with a small percentage of other non-white races/ethnicities). I’m not sure that these non-black minorities are actually being silent or just getting lost in the noise. There are some Native Americans in the area with, for example, the nearby Meskwaki settlement (not a reservation, for they bought the land); although there are fewer in Iowa City. More significantly, there is a fairly large Hispanic community around here.

As far as I know, no minorities besides blacks were involved in any of the local organizing around recent events. These other minorities aren’t being heard or even acknowledged. The organizers said they were creating one particular rally as a safe place for black voices. But what about a safe place for Hispanic voices? Where is the solidarity among the oppressed? Why do blacks dominate the narrative even when there are also other minorities impacted? Hispanics are regularly targeted, profiled, harassed, brutalized, and killed by police. Why do the voices of Hispanics get ignored not just by the mainstream media but also by mainstream activists, both white and black?

This is how identity politics ends up dividing and isolating people.

Like poor whites, Hispanics don’t fit the mainstream racial narrative. Part of the reason is because Hispanics aren’t a race. They are split between those who identify as black and white. Yet they also experience all the same problems blacks experience. As far as that goes, there are more whites in poverty and these are concentrated in specific ethnic populations that have been in poverty for centuries. They also are part of the permanent underclass that has existed for longer than the social construction of race as it developed out of colonial thought.

There has always been state violence, social control, and a permanent underclass. All of that existed long before racism, long before a racial order, long before racialized slavery. But race gets conflated with everything in American society. It is the metaphorical hammer with which everything looks like a nail. Racism is a real problem, and yet few understand what it really means. Our language is too simplistic and our knowledge too lacking.

Class divisions and oppression preceded race issues. Racism was created to serve old class divisions and social control, not the other way around. Racism is built on and dependent on classism. There is no way of getting around that fact.

Racial ideology obscures more than it clarifies. Certain poor white populations have rates of social problems and incarceration as high as any poor minority population. There is no monolithic white population. Many of these poor white populations have always been impoverished and isolated, but they haven’t always been considered white. The legacy of their questionable whiteness persists. They also are victims of an oppressive racial order. For all intents and purposes, the poorest isolated rural whites aren’t ‘white’ in how the mainstream media uses that word in contrast to ‘black’. They don’t fit into the story that typically gets told about American history.

The territory between Hispanics and poor whites is a nether region in the American psyche. It is also a growing sector of the society. Poverty, of course is growing at present. Also, as the minority-majority emerges, the most quickly growing demographic is that of Hispanics. I suspect it is this shift that is throwing the social order off keel. Hispanics, in their communities, embody the full range of the racial order. No other population in the US is like that. Hispanics aren’t just a threat to WASP culture but to the entire racial order and its concomitant racial narrative. Blacks fit nicely into American understanding of race. The Civil Rights movement can be made sense of without challenging the racial status quo. This is why blacks can never represent an equivalent threat to mainstream society and the dominant class.

That is what so many activists don’t understand. And, as long as they are committed to the racial narrative, they will never understand. This is also what keeps the typical black activist and leader from a truly radical vision. This is what disconnects so much of black activism right now from the message Martin Luther King, jr. was preaching near the end of his life. There are important black radicals to be found, such as Angela Davis, but the mainstream doesn’t pay them much attention, at least for the time being.

What many have noted is that racism arose in a particular context and has been tangled up in other factors. The twin forces of modern history has been the racial order and the capitalist order, i.e., racism and classism. Capitalism, however, was a unique brand of classism that didn’t previously exist. It formed out of colonialism and globalization. We are experiencing the results of a centuries old project. The racial aspect evolved during that time and continues to evolve. A new racial narrative no doubt will form, but it won’t be what we can expect based on the past.

A shift is happening. We have to look at the clues to see what this means. We can’t simply force new challenges into old narratives and think we’ve got it all figured out. Mainstream rhetoric and bourgeois politics aren’t helpful.

I don’t know what this shift is. I’ve been following the trends for more than a decade now. I see a shift or shifts happening, but heck if I know what it all adds up to. What I do feel sure of is that it will be a game changer.

This is what draws my mind in the direction of radicalism. We need new thinking and language, new narratives and visions, new ways of organizing and forcing change. We meed to get to the root of what is happening. We need to harness this change with new understanding, rather than being harnessed by our own ignorance.

We are beyond the hope of minor reform. Activism needs to become radical again. Our complacency will not last, whether or not we are ready for what comes next. We might as well embrace change with open arms for change already has its grip on us.

Widening the Field of Debate

In my life, I’ve known about as many people on the far left as on the far right. A comparison came to mind. This comparison is based on my personal experiences and so take it for what it is worth.

The most thorough critics of our society that I’ve met tend to be on the far left. Why might that be the case?

I suspect this relates to the outsider status that those on the far left have in American society. Unlike on the far right, far left positions aren’t particularly respectable or even always allowable in mainstream American society. The average American rarely, if ever, hears any left-wing perspective about anything. It is as if the left-wing perspective doesn’t exist, except as a Cold War spectre (although I also suspect this may be changing, however slowly).

All the time, right-libertarians and fundamentalists are seen in the MSM, as regular guests and sometimes even with their own shows. There have even been some genuinely extremist religious leaders on the right who have had the ears and personal phone numbers of major political figures, including presidents. Yet it is rare to come across Marxists, socialists, and anarchists anywere on the mainstream, whether media or politics. Could you imagine how shocking it would be to turn on the tv and see, on a primetime network news show, a panel of left-wingers discussing a presidential election debate where one of the candidates was as left-wing as is Ron Paul right-wing? In the US, liberals are the symbolic representatives of the entire left and, in most cases, they make sorry representatives at that.

Besides socialists and Marxists, there also have always been left-libertarians and many progressive evangelicals in the US, but you don’t even see them much in the mainstream. Most American libertarians I’ve met don’t even know that left-libertarians exist or know the origins of libertarianism itself. Likewise, most religious people on the right seem to assume that they have sole proprietorship of religion, especially evangelicalism, and are clueless about the large and growing religious left. Among the young generation, there are more progressive than conservative evangelicals (and the same is true for young Christians in general).

Furthermore, as a label, socialism is gaining majority of favorability among the young and certain minority groups, and still you don’t hear much about this in the mainstream. The Milwaukee sewer socialists were once highly praised in this country and yet today they are forgotten. Why is that?

None of this inspires politicians and pundits, reporters and journallists to take any of these views seriously.

Every newspaper has a business section where one regular comes across libertarian and other right-wing views. It used to be common for newspapers to also have labor sections, even including left-wing opinions and analyses, but not these days. Where in American society, besides the alternative media, is the far left supposed to be regularly heard? Why don’t they have a place at the table, even if only a voice to offer balance?

The left-winger’s outsider status probably radicalizes them more than otherwise might be the case. Because they are excluded from the system, they have less invested in the system and so are in a position to be the most critical.

This is why I argue that liberals need left-wingers. We liberals need them to keep us honest and keep us focused on what matters. Mainstream liberalism not unusually fails for a similar reason that equally applies to much of the right, a resistance to fully and radically challenge the status quo, the established order. From progressive to libertarian, from Democrat to Republican, they all are simply varieties of ‘liberals’ in the broad sense and all of them grounded in the classical libreralism, the Enlightenment Project that is the inspiration and foundation of American society.

Left-wingers aren’t entirely outside of the liberal order. In this post-Enlightenment age, no one entirely escapes the touch and taint of ‘liberalism’. But many left-wingers are definitely further than most people from the center of the American ‘liberal’ order. It is only on the far left that you find people genuinely struggling (beyond mere reaction) for a path beyond this ‘liberal’ era and hence beyond the mainstream debate that remains constrained within th narrow political spectrum.

I say this as a liberal, atypical but still more or less liberal in the mainstream sense. As a liberal, I find it surprising that I’m usually more radically critical than are many libertarians on the right. I see the problems within the liberal order, both in terms of progressivism and capitalism. I see these problems as someone who is part of this liberal order and hopes the best for it, but my vision has been made clear by listening to the views of those standing further out. I’m giving credit where it’s due.

Those on the left often know more about those on the right than vice versa. This as true as for politics and economics as it is for religion and science. I’ve noted this in my debates about genetics with hereditarians, specifically race realist HBDers. Many on the right think they are outsiders, that they are being excluded and no one is paying them the attention they deserve, but in my experience those on the left (especially the far left) pay them lots of attention — it’s just that those on the right are too oblivious of that attention, having the insider privilege to be oblivious to those truly on the outside. These right-winger’s views aren’t as challenging to the status quo as they’d like to think, often just a reactionary position that attempts to shift the status quo backwards slightly.

Right-wingers are more invested in the system. Like liberals, most want reform, not revolution. They are basically content with the established order.

Right-libertarians claim they’d like a smaller federal government that regulates capitalism less, but very few of them want to fundamentally change either the federal system or the capitalist system that is at the heart of our present social order and its attendant problems. Fundamentalists complain that religion should play a bigger role, but they tend to see this as simply as a process of putting the religious right into positions of power within the present system.

Except for the extreme fringe of anarcho-capitalists and Randian Objectivists, those on the right don’t seem willing to be so radical as to be a genuine threat to the social order. It requires a radical mindset to follow one’s principles to their fullest expression and furthest endpoint, a mindset that most liberals and most right-libertarians lack.

Why is it common to hear right-libertarians attacking big gov while defending big biz? And why isn’t it common for left-libertarians to do the opposite, attack big biz while defending big gov? Why do so many left-libertarians seem more consistently principled in criticizing all threats to liberty, political and economic? Why are left-libertarians more concerned than right-libertarians about all forms of concentrated wealth, centralized power, and hierarchical authority?

I hear conservatives and right-libertarians constantly talk about free markets. But if you question them, most have never given it much deep thought. Their views are mostly based on political rhetoric and talking points. They are repeating what they’ve heard, instead of thinking for themselves. It never occurs to them that even most people who disagree with them also want free markets. It never occurs to them to consider what freedom actually might mean or should mean. I’m almost shocked by how many right-libertarians take a globalized economic system as being a free market, despite all the social oppression and military force involved in maintaining it. What is libertarian about that? In a principled sense, it is the complete opposite of any meaningful sense of liberty.

The harshest critics on the right are those that even the right doesn’t pay much attention to. That is particularly true for the anarcho-capitalists. They at least have the balls to take free market theory as far as it can be taken. When an anarcho-capitalist speaks of free markets, they are touching upon the fundamentally radical essence to the freedom part of that equation.

I’d like to see more radical thought in general. It is what we need right now and I suspect people are becoming more open to it. I do want a far left to keep  liberals on their toes. For the same reason, I want a far right to keep conservatives (and other moderate/mainstream right-wingers) on their toes as well. Widening the field of debate at both ends will lead to more vibrant debate in between the extremes.

 

Beyond the Stereotype of the Liberal Elite

I was rereading a few articles by Joe Bageant. He wrote about many topics, but one stood out to me this time: liberalism. He sometimes uses liberals as the contrast to the stories he tells about his fellow Appalachians from his hometown. I realized he was using liberal in a specific sense, not uncommon in the US, at least in the mainstream.

I was reminded of how many different liberalisms there are, most of them having to do with the dictionary definition of the word as liberal-minded. In my previously reading another author, Domenico Losurdo, it took quite a bit of struggle to grasp his European perspective of liberalism, which I came to realize included and emphasized what in the US would be called conservatism. Maybe Losurdo is onto something, as I discovered looking at Pew results showing a significant number of Americans self-identify as conservative even as they hold stereotypically liberal views across the board, socially and economically.

Bageant was certainly not using a European perspective or thinking about complicating survey results. He never clearly defines what he means by liberal, but it became clear through his usage. He seemed to be using the category, in the American context, as representing people with all or most of the following:

1) White, ancestrally and/or culturally WASP, identified with the dominant culture and social order.
2) Native-born American, with unconscious or unadmitted tendencies toward nativism and ethno-nationalism, their loyalty ultimately being to the status quo of white America, multiculturalist rhetoric aside.
3) Mainstream, born into privilege along with relatively more power and influence, a part of the system and invested in the system.
4) Gatekeepers of the mainstream, defenders of the status quo, middle-to-upper class economic elite, well-educated intellectual elite, salaried professional employees in academia, media, and other respectable fields.
5) Secularists and atheists, critics of the lower classes and low culture.
6) Democrats, partisan voters, politically involved as activists, leaders, politicians, pundits, and talking heads.

It is the stereotype of the liberal elite. As a liberal, I don’t fit much of that. I question this stereotype, popular both on the far right and the far left. I’m not arguing that only I, as a liberal, get to define liberalism. My point is just that there is more to liberalism than a stereotype.

One of the problems is that many people who get labeled by others as liberal don’t self-identify as liberal nor necessarily hold strong liberal views, maybe even holding some rather illiberal views. I like to use Obama as a case in point. He doesn’t claim to be liberal. Liberal rhetoric aside, he doesn’t act overly liberal. If liberal rhetoric is all it takes to be liberal, then most people in this post-Enlightenment world are liberal. That doesn’t seem helpful in understanding liberalism.

There are many Americans, like myself, who identify as liberal or who otherwise consistently hold strong liberal views. Most of these people probably don’t fit the stereotype of liberalism. There are working class liberals. There are even poor liberals, some of whom are homeless or unemployed. There are liberals in prison and in ghettoes. There are liberals in rural farming states. There are disenfranhised liberals and radical liberals. All kinds of liberals in all walks of life.

I might go so far as to argue this is the silent majority of liberals. They aren’t the liberal elite and so they aren’t heard. The average liberal gets less attention than the average conservative, because the mainstream narrative portrays the average American as conservative. But polls don’t support this assumption, this stereotype of a liberal elite versus the conservative masses. In many ways, the masses are more liberal than the elite.

It was unfortunate that an otherwise insightful thinker like Bageant fell into that trap of political rhetoric. He was asking about how do we get the poor and working class to become better educated and informed. A good question, if framed correctly.

What Bageant didn’t note was that there are and always have been many liberals like me. I’m well read and put a lot of effort into undersanding the world, but I’m not an elite of any kind, especially not an intellectual elite. My mostly working class family arose out of poverty in recent generations and, working class myself, I’ve lived below the poverty line before and don’t live far above it now.

There is a whole new generation that has been hitting adulthood during this new century. They are more well educated and have more access to info (including alternative sources) than any generation in history. They also have high rates of unemployment and poverty. It is becoming ever more common to find people with college degrees working minimum wage. Relevant to the discussion here, this young generation is also more liberal than previous generations, whatever they may label themselves.

I’m not sure what Bageant thought about these people. Most young whites in many Southern states are also quite liberal, according to the data. Many of the bought Obama’s hype, but they are hardly a partisan stronghold of Democratic loyalty. In writing about his hometown, what Bageant doesn’t talk about are the younger generation, many of whom have left behind that world but have not forgotten it.

Bageant’s Scots-Irish kinfolk aren’t represntative of most poor and working class Americans. They are a sub-population under great stress, a population with a specific history and culture. Generalizations shouldn’t be based upon them. They aren’t the heartland. They are just one of the many dark corners, places growing ever darker as the following generations merge on the socially liberal big cities and metropolises.

In speaking of liberalism and conservatism, we need to look beyond the stereotypes of the past, whether or not those stereotypes ever corresponded to reality.

Conservatives Watching Liberal Media

Conservatives are always going on about the media having a liberal bias. They say the same thing about college professors and scientists. There is a sense in which they are right.

I sometimes watch older television shows when they happen to be on. I’m thinking of shows like The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie. Mash, etc. These shows regularly have liberal messages. My mom watches many of these shows and I think she is unaware of how liberal they are.

I remember the response my dad had when he found out that the MASH producers were intentionally trying to influence public opinion about the Vietnam War. He felt betrayed, as this was one of his favorite shows. Of course, my dad isn’t offended by all the shows and movies that pushed right-wing WWII and Cold War propaganda. Sure, everyone making media has their biases. More than left or right bias, the biggest bias of all is pro-corporate. Still, liberal bias particularly sells well in our society.

Liberalism sells for a number of reasons.

For one, liberalism as licentious behavior is fun to watch and freedom-loving liberal messages are inspiring. But a lot of liberalism in the media is more basic. The Waltons often had morality tales about treating people equally and fairly with particular shows focusing on prejudice against Germans, Jews and blacks.  Little House on the Prairie was about a sensitive father figure and many of the episodes were about helping the underprivileged or oppressed, from blind people to Native Americans.

Another reason is that most Americans are very liberal about most issues. Producers make this liberal-biased media because they are making it for a mostly liberal audience. In the US, even conservatives are relatively liberal compared to other societies and compared to the past of our own country. This relates to the corporate bias. Mainstream media is produced to make big profits. To a large extent, what is sold is what people will buy (although buying habits can be manipulated).

This isn’t anything new. From the early to middle of last century, liberalism was the dominant ideology. Even mainstream conservatives wouldn’t talk badly about liberalism and would even praise it, from Ike to Nixon. There always has been a strong liberal strain throughout the entire history of this country. Obviously, this isn’t a traditional society and so conservatism in the US has defined itself in relation to liberalism. It shouldn’t be surprising to find liberalism in media, education and science when most Americans, however they may identify, are for all practical purposes liberal themselves. I suppose it also shouldn’t be surprising that, complaints aside, even conservatives enjoy the liberal-biased media.

As someone who can be critical of both liberals and conservatives, I find the dynamic between them amusing.

Conservative-Minded Liberals: Reactionary & Xenophobic

A while back I was involved in some discussions about Jonathan Haidt’s model of moral foundations via some book reviews. One of those discussions was resurrected. Two people offered links to articles. It connected to something else that was on my mind. That something is violence.

In the discussion, there was a link was to a piece by PZ Myers. What caught my attention was instead a comment by Eamon Knight:

“I mostly liked The Happiness Hypothesis, but I think Haidt’s gone downhill since (and in a direction pointed to by the flaws in that book, ie. let’s just appreciate everyone’s viewpoint because it comes from their basic psychology, even if it requires overcompensating for our natural pro-self bias). I’m reading the last chapter of Pinker’s Better Angels, in which he discusses the underlying psychology of the decline in violence. He frames his exposition in terms of Haidt’s Moral Foundations (the original five), though even more in terms of [mumble’s — sorry I’m not near the book at the moment] Relational Models (the two taxonomies roughly inter-map). Pinker argues that human violence has declined precisely as we have moved away from an emphasis on (using Haidt’s terms) Purity, Authority and Loyalty towards Care/Harm and Fairness — IOW, as we have become more psychologically “liberal”. Even modern conservatives are where liberals used to be — it’s getting harder to justify eg. outlawing certain sexual behaviours on the grounds of “yuck” or blind obedience. So to hell with Haidt’s false equivalence — we are better off by ignoring some bits of social-psychological baggage that worked for small foraging bands, just as we need to train ourselves into restraining our natural taste for sweets and fats that developed in the days when dinner was A) uncertain and B) often had to be chased down.”

Haidt argues that humans and hence society functions best when there is an ideal balance between moral foundations. The problem is such an ideal comes off as an abstract belief. Functions best for what purpose and for whom?

He justifies this balance by claiming he has gained a vantage point above all of us peons. Through his model, both conservatives and liberals can be transcended, although with a tilt toward conservatives for he oddly claims they are more balanced than liberals (an argument he makes by not taking into account some of the moral values that liberals possess and conservatives dismiss). As Eamon Knight says in another comment:

“Or to borrow a punchline originally used in a different domain, but which seems applicable here: the important thing is that Haidt’s found a way to feel superior to both sides.”

Haidt sees himself as a missionary who learned from the natives (conservatives) and now wants to teach the civilized folk (liberals) about the benefits of a more natural lifestyle. Meanwhile, from the safe position of his lectern, he conveniently doesn’t mention that the natives have a high rates of violence and death.

Still, I don’t just want to beat up on poor ol’ Haidt. Let me move onto the next link. It is a response to Haidt by Sam Harris. Of course, Harris does beat up on Haidt, but that isn’t what interested me. Instead, I want to beat up on Harris a bit to even things out.

Harris begins with the same basic insight as Pinker:

“Anyone feeling nostalgic for the “wisdom” of the Aztecs? Rest assured, there’s nothing like the superstitious murder of innocent men, women, and children to “suppress selfishness” and convey a shared sense of purpose. Of course, the Aztecs weren’t the only culture to have discovered “human flourishing” at its most sanguinary and psychotic. The Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Maya, Inca, Olmecs, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Teutons, Celts, Druids, Vikings, Gauls, Hindus, Thais, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Maoris, Melanesias, Tahitians, Hawaiians, Balinese, Australian aborigines, Iroquois, Huron, Cherokee, and numerous other societies ritually murdered their fellow human beings because they believed that invisible gods and goddesses, having an appetite for human flesh, could be so propitiated. Many of their victims were of the same opinion, in fact, and went willingly to slaughter, fully convinced that their deaths would transform the weather, or cure the king of his venereal disease, or in some other way spare their fellows the wrath of the Unseen.

“What would Haidt have us think about these venerable traditions of pious ignorance and senseless butchery? Is there some wisdom in these cults of human sacrifice that we should now honor? Must we take care not to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Or might we want to eat that baby instead? Indeed, many of these societies regularly terminated their rituals of sacred murder with a cannibal feast. Is my own revulsion at these practices a sign that I view these distant cultures with the blinkered gaze of a colonialist? Shall we just reserve judgment until more of the facts are in? When does scientific detachment become perverse? When might it be suicidal?”

That is more than a fair point stated with dramatic flair. There are many things that are ‘traditional’ which we would rather not continue. Besides human sacrifice and cannibalism, one could mention common examples from past societies such as slavery and theocracy. Moral progress fits uneasily in Haidt’s scheme of moral foundations.

Harris further on continues his line of thought, but then takes it down a dark alley of his own (bigoted?) paranoia:

“The same point can be made in the other direction: even a liberal like myself, enamored as I am of my two-footed morality, can readily see that my version of the good life must be safeguarded from the aggressive tribalism of others. When I search my heart, I discover that I want to keep the barbarians beyond the city walls as much as my conservative neighbors do, and I recognize that sacrifices of my own freedom may be warranted for this purpose. I even expect that conservative epiphanies of this sort could well multiply in the coming years—just imagine how we liberals will be disposed to think about Islam after an incident of nuclear terrorism. Liberal hankering for happiness and freedom might one day yield some very strident calls for stricter laws and tribal loyalty. Will this mean that liberals have become religious conservatives pining for the beehive? Or is the liberal notion of reducing harm flexible enough to encompass the need for order and differences between in-group and out-group?”

How did the mostly non-Christian Japanese feel when the Christian Americans dropped atomic bombs on their cities? Some of those Japanese were liberals concerned about the long history of being oppressed and exploited by Western countries. And some of those Japanese were liberals concerned about when their own government went the path of oppression and exploitation in relation to the Chinese. Many liberal Muslims, Arabs, Africans and Asians have been concerned about the violent militaristic Western countries with long histories of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, slavery, wars of aggression, invasion and occupations, etc; all issues that many non-Christians see as directly connected to a Christian heritage going back to the Crusades.

A Christian nation is the only one ever to have gone nuclear on another country. Why is it terrorism if Muslims were to do it but a morally justified act of war when Christians do it?

Harris didn’t need to go there. It didn’t help his argument.

Harris isn’t wrong to bring up the violence of particular groups, but he ignores a larger issue of culpability. When the Iraq War (a war of aggression) was promoted, many liberals jumped on board. The number of innocent people who died because of that war makes the casualty numbers of the 9/11 attack look minuscule. Middle Easterners have more reason to fear us than we have to fear them.

This weird mix of liberalism and xenophobia is what I call conservative-minded liberalism. I see it all the time. It’s similar to how some progressives in the past became neoconservatives or how some liberal-minded people today have have embraced neoreactionary ideologies such as the Dark Enlightenment. As I’ve argued before, this seems to be a central aspect of liberalism, it’s ability to shift toward its opposite (sometimes shifting back again and at other times getting stuck).

I came across another example of this from a friend of mine, a very intelligent and well-educated friend I might add:

“Immigration to UK seems to be implicated in the UK criminal class now carrying guns and using them to shoot law abiding citizens and their police adversaries. The old ban on gun crime apparently was maintained by criminal norms–UK criminals shunned others who had shot the police. A criminal who shot and killed 3 UK police in the 1960s was shunned by his fellows and given no place to hide in his local community–he eventually lived in a tent in remote moorland (and was there apprehended).

“Now, that informal arrangement (which empirically, by inspection, seems to have existed) has collapsed. Criminals carry guns and use them against the police, so the police have armed themselves, too.

“One factor that contributes is immigration of Afro-Carribeans to UK, who brought/bring with them different norms for gun crime. For example, murder rates in Jamaica are 50x higher than in UK (Collier’s figures). If Jamaica does not have the highest homicide in the world, it’s quite high.

“A paradigmatic case is Mark Duggan (Afro-Carribean descent) who shot and killed three UK police and was lionized (rather than ostracized) by substantial portions of his co-ethnics in London. After he was shot, vocal portions of his co-ethnics sided with him against the police, and accused the police of brutality.”

Afro-Caribbeans live in poverty that was created from a colonial past. Poverty, for all races and ethnicities, correlates to higher rates of violence and crime. It sucks to be so oppressed to the point that poverty, and the desperation that goes with it, persists for generation after generation. Once slaves, I’m willing to bet those Afro-Caribbeans experience racism on a daily life which makes it hard for them to find good work and housing. Europe has the problem of ghettoizing immigrants, something the US doesn’t do (here in the US we only ghettoize our native-born poor minorities).

Besides, if we included all the violence done in the name of UK citizens by way of their government, the murder rates would look a lot differently. I’m willing to bet Collier isn’t including police brutality and wars of aggression in his figures, and certainly not all the victims of slavery and genocide (and other victims of colonialism and imperialism). We don’t even know how to count up all the victims in order to compare them. But Afro-Caribbeans haven’t enslaved UK citizens en masse nor started a war of aggression against the UK nor tried to make the UK into a colony.

My friend then concluded:

“The interpretation: Duggan can be viewed (in game theoretic terms) as a “super-villian” who violated the old norms, increased distrust between UK indigenes and Afro-Carribean new-comers, and is a paradigmatic signpost / marker of a transition to a new, more violent equilibrium (vigilant UK police must now be ready to shoot suspects before they might pre-emptively be shot *by* suspects).”

Or maybe it is simply the inevitable results of a colonial past with continuing poverty, oppression, and racism magnified by globalized capitalism and growing economic inequality. There are a lot of factors going on and few if any of them can be understood in isolation. There would be no Afro-Caribbeans in the first place if not for the intertwined history with colonialism and slavery. Afro-Caribbeans are as much a product of the Europe as of Africa, both culturally and genetically.

“Another salient example of norms,” my friend explained further, “probably not discussed in Collier but it came readily to mind.”

“In the USA, in theory and I think also in fact, Mafia (La Cosa Nostra) norms prohibited the murder of uniformed police officers and judges. I don’t know when this got to be the case, but it seemed to facilitate a “non-agression pact” in which Mafia members lived openly without much hiding who they were, and cops went home and slept at night with a bit less trepidation.

“The counterexamples in other countries are well known: Italy, Colombia, and Mexico come to mind offhand.”

Yes, norms change. But the argument seems strange.

The Mafia is listed as an example, but Italy is offered as a counterexample. The Mafia brought there norms from Italy. They were social norms and they were quite violent. An early version of the Mafia were the Black Hand. The more Anglo-American KKK was very similar, specifically the second KKK around the same time as the Black Hand.

Both the Black Hand and the KKK were anti-democratic and used violence when they saw it as convenient. They were some of the most violent groups in US history and yes many innocents were harmed, and the era when they dominated was one of the most violent in uS history. They both were trying to enforce their versions of traditional social norms and cultures, but they were also strongly opposed. One of the main motivations of the KKK was fighting against ethnics like the Black Hand because they feared changes that were undesired.

These kinds of arguments fall apart when you look at all of the data and look at the entire history. But that isn’t my main point in writing about this kind of argument. All three of these liberals (Haidt, Harris, & my friend) argue for traditional Western values. They may disagree about other things, but they agree about this style of argument. This is what makes them conservative-minded liberals, conservative-minded with a reactionary slant.

It is obviously a popular viewpoint. Even liberals get stressed out by the uncertainties of modernity: globalization, industrialization, de-industrialization, offshoring of jobs, world wars, etc. Everything is changing and we humans don’t have the capacity to easily deal with this on the individual level. It is overwhelming.

My argument is that liberalism can only operate on its own terms during peaceful times and in democratic societies. Liberalism becomes dysfunctional or forms weird hybrid ideologies when it is dominated by illiberal forces. It is only in brief moments when we can see the potential of liberalism manifest without the constraints of fear and anxiety. That is understandable, but unfortunately I don’t think many liberals fully understand this.

Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism

I’ve been reading, since it became available the other day, The Great Debate by Yuval Levin. I won’t attempt a review until I’m finished with it. For the time being, let me use a particular point as a jumping off point.

Levin, in introducing the lives of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, writes (Kindle Location 163):

IT MAY SEEM STRANGE to seek philosophical arguments in the words of two men so deeply involved in day-to-day politics. We are not used to political actors who are also political theorists. Such actors were certainly a bit more common in Burke’s and Paine’s era— when in both Britain and America we encounter some politicians who wrote and thought like philosophers— but they were still very much a rare breed even then. And because nearly all of Burke’s and Paine’s pamphlets, speeches, letters, and books were written with some immediate political purpose in mind even as they made larger arguments, scholars of both men’s views have battled over some very basic questions through the centuries.

Part of the problem is that both of these people were political actors rather than political philosophers. Both were seeking to change the social world around them. This seems even more central for Burke who was first and foremost a life-long professional politician. Raised by a father who was a lawyer for the Irish government, Burke was raised in a political family. Burke never had to learn a trade like Paine, never personally experienced poverty, homelessness and hunger like Paine. Burke wasn’t part of the English aristocracy, but he was very well off compared to most British people at that time.

One major point is that the worlds in which Burke and Paine were living were vastly different. Levin makes a false portrayal when he claims that, “Each was a man of humble origins” (Kindle Location 239). To Burke, the prospect of revolution threatened his class privilege and socio-political position. To Paine, the prospect of revolution offered him rights and freedoms he was being denied. They were hardly responding to the same situation and so it is unsurprising that their responses were so different.

As I explained it in a comment to a review of this book:

Historical context is everything.

A person would be entirely clueless about Paine’s position if they didn’t know this historical context: the Commons (as it relates to the Charter of the Forest, common law, the rights of Englishmen, and pre-Lockean land rights) and land enclosures (privatizing the benefits of public resources while externalizing the costs); populations being pushed from their homes and communities in the countryside and forced into concentrated cities where they experienced desperation and rampant disease; growing rates of unemployment, homelessness and poverty; protests and the formation of the first labor unions in London; starvation and food riots while the poor were being hung for simple crimes like stealing a loaf of bread; massive numbers of the destitute being imprisoned, put in workhouses and sold into indentured servitude; et cetera. All of that was what was the background to what was going on when Paine came of age.

Before Paine was a revolutionary, he was a civil servant of the British government seeking gradualist reform within the system. Understanding the historical context that made Paine a revolutionary would also help one understand why Burke transformed from a moderate progressive who supported revolution to a reactionary conservative who opposed revolution. It wasn’t necessarily inevitable that these people would become who they became. Paine was no more inherently a revolutionary than Burke was inherently a reactionary. They were products of their times and of specific environments, especially large rigid class divisions with Paine coming from the working class and Burke coming from the upper class.

When Paine was growing up and becoming and adult in England, the government wasn’t open to being reformed. If it had, Paine might have lived a long contented life as a civil servant. The British government only took reform seriously after it was humbled from its loss during the American Revolution. It is unfair and unreasonable to compare Paine’s response to a reform-resistant pre-revolutionary British government and Burke’s response to a reform-accepting post-revolutionary British government.

Unfortunately, Levin apparently (from what I can tell by my reading of his book so far) doesn’t discuss this historical context and doesn’t give evidence that he understands it.

So, they were both political actors. However, they were acting in response to and toward very different life experiences. If Burke like Paine had been raised working class and had been treated dismissively by the British government, he wouldn’t have developed into the same person. That is an important thing to keep in mind, assuming one desires genuine understanding of historical figures instead of trying to force them into ideological boxes.

As Levin continues (Kindle Location 169):

In Burke’s case, the leading question has been whether he had a consistent set of views throughout his life or whether the French Revolution transformed him somehow. As we will see, Burke spent the first two decades of his political career championing various sorts of reform: of the British government’s finances, its treatment of religious minorities, its trade policy, and more . He spent much of this time pushing against the standing inertia of English politics. But after the revolution in France, which he was concerned might be imported to Britain, Burke was above all a staunch defender of Britain’s political traditions. He strenuously opposed all efforts to weaken the power of the monarch and the aristocracy and warned against fundamental political reforms (like moves toward greater democratization) that might unmoor the nation from its long-standing traditions. He has sometimes been accused, therefore, of changing his most basic views and turning against his former co-partisans and friends. The charge could first be heard in his own lifetime (voiced by Paine, among others) and has been repeated by some of Burke’s biographers and interpreters ever since.

Consistency is more of an issue of theory than of subjective human nature in the context of the messy details of living. Both Burke and Paine changed over their lifetimes. And so neither, in that sense, is ‘consistent’. Understanding why Burke changed is not unlike asking why Reagan switched loyalties from the New Deal Progressivism of the Democratic Party to the Neocon-ruled movement conservatism of the Republican Party. Burke, like Reagan or like Paine, changed because the social and political conditions changed around him.

Few if any people remain unchanged during drastically changing times. Furthermore, no one knows who they might have become under different life conditions, with different events and experiences, in response to different opportunities or oppressions. We all have endless lives not lived, potentials not manifested, roads not taken.

Still, we all want to think we are consistent, that we are morally principled rational actors. So, we try to make sense of what we have become. It is hard for us to know what is genuine insight and what is mere rationalization.

This is also something Levin doesn’t consider, instead taking Burke at his word (Kindle Location 177):

But such a charge miscasts both Burke’s earlier and later views, neglecting the arguments he offered both as a reformer and as a conserver of Britain’s political tradition. Those arguments were always about finding a balance between stability and change— the quest that, as we will see, was at the core of Burke’s ambitions. In the concluding words of his Reflections on the Revolution in France, clearly foreseeing the coming charge of inconsistency, Burke described himself as “one who wishes to preserve consistency, but who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end, and, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise.”

This image of the man seeking to balance his ship—or to balance his country in a sea of troubles—against various threats to its cherished equipoise, is fitting, in light of Burke’s varied causes and arguments throughout his eventful career. He was a reformer when some elements of the English constitution threatened to suffocate the whole. He was a preserver when it seemed to him, as David Bromwich has put it, “that revolution is the ultimate enemy of reform.” Equipoise, for Burke, is not stagnation, but rather a way of thinking about change and reform, and about political life more generally. As we will see, it was a central metaphor of his political thought.

Of course, no person, especially no professional politician, wants to be seen as inconsistent. That is the dreaded waffling and flip-flopping for which conservatives like to blame liberals. Conservatives pride themselves on supposedly being principled whereas liberals get characterized as moral relativists. As such, Burke the father of conservatism can’t be a moral relativist. God forbid! Burke was more noble than that. He was seeking ‘balance’ and ‘equipose’. Could you imagine a politician today trying to rationalize away charges of inconsistency with such highfalutin language and getting away with it?

I don’t know Burke’s writings all that well. From Levin’s explanations, Burke seems to have been, if anything, a bit wary of being too principled for in that direction lies radicalism (Kindle Location 312):

Burke argues that human nature relies on emotional, not only rational, edification and instruction— an idea that would become crucial to his insistence that government must function in accordance with the forms and traditions of a society’s life and not only abstract principles of justice. “The influence of reason in producing our passions is nothing near so extensive as it is commonly believed,” Burke writes. 5 We are moved by more than logic, and so politics must answer to more than cold arguments.

Having “stark and fundamental principles” (Kindle Location 499) from which one reasons toward political action is what a radical like Paine does, not Burke. “Universal principles” (Kindle Location 543) are dangerous for all worthy values must submit to and serve the social order rather than the other way around. The danger of being too principled is that way lies the extremes of revolution (Kindle Location 120): “the French Revolution launched in earnest the modern quest for social progress through unyielding political action guided by uncompromising philosophical principle.”

This Burkean conservatism sounds like moral relativism to me. Indeed, Levin argues that Burke was fundamentally a utilitarian in that he supposedly didn’t believe humans could know natural law. Moral principles were only to be invoked as they were useful or, as I’d say, when convenient to his purposes.

Even so, Burke wasn’t even consistent in this. When it was inconvenient to limit himself to tradition and established order, he would invoke abstract universal principles as needed (Kindle Location 1453):

Because he had very little positive law to appeal to in making his case, he grounded his passionate and powerful appeal in a higher law. “I impeach him,” Burke told the lords regarding Hastings, “in the name and by virtue of those eternal laws of justice which he has violated. I impeach him in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured, and oppressed, in both sexes, at every age, rank, situation, and condition of life.”

The accusation of the radical left by the likes of Burke was that they were essentially too principled; yet the left, radical or otherwise, continuously gets accused of being unprincipled. Which is it? Talk about inconsistency. We can’t even determine the problem, much less the proper stance that would offer a solution. It seems to be that this Burkean stance allows for whatever is convenient at the moment, convenient that is for maintaining the social order and maintaining the power of those who already have it. Burke, in justification, uses yet another fancy term — ‘prudence’ (Kindle Location 1573):

Prudence is not the opposite of either principle or theory. Prudence, rather, is the application of general experience to particular practical problems. In Burke’s view, the prudent person believes that the experience of our society generally points to underlying principles of justice (and of nature) and so offers more reliable, if less specific, guidance than do abstract theories like the natural-rights liberalism that Paine would import wholesale into practical politics.

“History is a preceptor of prudence, not of principles,” Burke writes; it does not offer us direct knowledge of precise or abstract rules. But it does give us general rules, which are certainly good enough most of the time.

Prudence isn’t immoral. It is just morality that is relative to human experience (i.e., moral relativism). The practice of prudence doesn’t deny theory. Rather, it is the theory of the practical (i.e., utilitarianism). I guess it was relatively moral and practical for a conservative like Burke to support monarchy and anti-democratic oppression and yet conservatives today would find that less relatively moral and practical. That is as close to consistency as this kind of conservatism gets.

The descriptive is the normative and hence the prescriptive, or in the words of Levin: “For Burke the resort to history is the model of nature’ (Kindle Location 1623).

The problem with this was explained by the author of another book I was reading the other day — Racecraft by Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields (p. 128):

All human societies, whether tacitly or overtly, assume that nature has ordained their social arrangements. Or, to put it another way, part of what human beings understand by the word “nature” is the sense of inevitability that gradually becomes attached to a predictable, repetitive social routine: “custom, so immemorial that it looks like nature,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote.

An additional problem is that even conservatives like Burke don’t consistently seek to defend all traditions and in fact they will even actively attack traditions when they don’t like them. Their vision of tradition is dependent on cherrypicking. Liberals like Paine, on the other hand, often find themselves in the position of defending tradition against the attack by conservatives:

Someone like Paine wasn’t simply attempting to create something new. He was trying to save what was being destroyed, the commons along with the rights of Englishmen. This relates to a long English tradition going back to the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. Liberalism arose not just in envisioning new liberties but in defense of old liberties. Such things as the commons are what modern conservatives would like to conveniently forget. Conservatives want to pick and choose what they want from the past and discard the rest.

So, is there anything consistent to conservatism besides, as Corey Robin argues, reaction? If the seemingly inconsistent Edmund Burke is the father of conservatism, then what is this conservatism?

Let me lead into my conclusion with one last quote from Levin (Kindle Location 824);

Paine’s book was the most significant reply to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, though it was by no means the only one. Indeed, dozens of counter-pamphlets soon appeared, mostly from English radicals and dissenters accusing Burke of abandoning both Whig principles and his own principles. They charged him with a profound inconsistency, given his support for the American Revolution and his earlier assertion (in his 1770 pamphlet Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents) that the deep disgruntlement of an entire population is proof that the state requires serious reform. Thomas Jefferson spoke for many when, upon reading the Reflections, he remarked that “the Revolution in France does not astonish me so much as the revolution in Mr. Burke.” 56 This theme of inconsistency would follow Burke for the rest of his life and indeed well beyond his life, among historians.

This charge of inconsistency, with Burke as their ideological father, continues to plague conservatives to this day. As far as I can tell, they have no better justification to offer to refute this charge. Conservatives barely even acknowledge it, much less try to explain it.

Maybe conservatives need to look for a better foundation.

Foundations and Frameworks

Even after a four post spree on JFK, my mind was stuck on the discussion. What was catching in my craw more than anything was Thomas Sowell’s constrained and unconstrained visions.

I don’t know if Sowell understands what is so significant about this distinction.

Like many conservatives, I get the sense he merely wishes to use it to dismiss liberalism and rationalize it away. In the conservative telling, the constrained vision conforms snugly to the cold hard reality of depraved human nature (or to Christianize it as ‘fallen’; or to state it less dramatically as psychologically limited) whereas the unconstrained vision is ungrounded idealism and impractical utopianism or worse (basically, the same aforementioned depraved human nature but let loose to run amuk or unanchored to run aground).

This can feel, at its worst, like a Manichaean opposition of Good vs Evil or else just righteous submission vs the temptation of sin. The moral of the story is this: Humans are limited and their only wise recourse is to grimly accept this limitation. Anything else will lead to oppression and suffering, failure and tragedy, immorality and wrongheadedness. No one can deny that it makes for great emotion-rousing rhetoric. However, as for sober-minded analysis, it seems less than useful for actually understanding the intricacies of human nature.

Considering this, I’d rather not fall into the same trap of over-simplified thinking and unfair portrayals. Neither constrained nor unconstrained is more real than the other, certainly no more conforming to human nature. They are both, after all, expressions of the same human nature. Each holds a piece of the puzzle, an aspect of truth. We must take each seriously on its own terms, and not try to force one into the terms of the other. That attempt at ideological enforcement is the sin I charged against conservatives seeking to co-opt JFK’s legacy.

The ever-present problem is that I’m coming from a liberal-minded perspective in judging these conservatives. Co-opting a liberal icon or liberal strategies and rhetoric, that is precisely what (reactionary) conservatism is all about… or so argues Corey Robin and I partly agree. It is as I argue with being a “little bit muddy” is precisely what liberalism is all about. The motivations of one makes little sense to the motivations of the other.

This is a more serious issue than it first appears. The liberal/conservative distinction may be greater than most realize. It’s not just that they operate according to different terms. I’ve been coming to the conclusion that they operate on entirely different levels of thought and behavior, entirely different social and psychological realities, entirely different which isn’t to say entirely exclusionary and oppositional, not necessarily so.

That is a major insight that has been dawning on me.

Conservatism and liberalism, as general categories, maybe aren’t polar opposites. Maybe the reason conservatism so easily allies with or gets combined/confluent/conflated(?) with right-wing ideologies is that conservatism is more on the opposite end of the spectrum from leftism. My suspicion is that liberalism is something else altogether, a separate spectrum stretched between liberal-mindedness and anti-liberal-mindedness (Is it akin to the dualistic pairing of anarchism and authoritarianism?). From the conservative point of view, it seems difficult to understand liberalism other than as a facade for leftism, most often the dread communism. Likewise, from the liberal point of view, there can be a tendency to see conservatism at best as soft fascism or paternalistic fundamentalism.

I sense a complexity that gets hidden behind all the rhetoric. Some conservatives can seem quite liberal-minded. And some liberals can seem quite conservative-minded. According to mainstream ideological thought, this obviously makes no sense.

Constrained and unconstrained begins with a simple division: inclusionary vs exclusionary, narrow vs broad, closed vs open, etc.

This is seen in studies based on simple observations such as eye movements. Conservatives tend to remain focused and undistracted whereas liberals are constantly shifting their eyes to look about at faces around them. Some have speculated that this focus is why conservatives are disproportionately found in professions that are narrowly defined with clear limits, articulate rules, and systematic procedures (e.g., lawyers, managers, and surgeons).

However, from this simple division, complex worldviews form about which much else aggregates. There is more going on here than merely focused or not.

Conservatism seems more basic. In times of stress or tiredness, cognitive overload leads everyone into conservative-mindedness. Our focus narrows as we look for the problem or stressor, seek out the potential enemy or other threat, draw inward to save our reserve of energy. It is much more difficult to shift into liberal-mindedness and maintain it. It is a ‘higher’ cognitive functioning and requites a higher cost of effort and energy.

What is achieved with this extra effort and energy?

I’ve wondered if liberal-mindedness is built on conservative-mindedness in the way civilization is built on tribalism.

When civilizations are under stress, people return to tribalistic behaviors in seeking safety in their nation, race, ethnicity, kin, or religion. Liberal-mindedness, like civilization itself, is not entirely natural in that it is a redirecting of human nature toward conditions quite different from the conditions in which human nature evolved. Civilization probably wouldn’t even be possible if not for this redirecting of liberal-mindedness into greater unconstrained visions. Civilization is the outward manifestation of liberal-mindedness; in turn, civilization is what enables and sustains liberal-mindedness.

This isn’t to say liberal-mindedness is a modern invention. I think it was always there, but it just would have played a lesser or more mediated role in simpler societies. Every society needs some people with liberal-minded abilities and everyone needs some liberal-minded abilities some of the time. Still, it seems more like a secondary functioning within conservative-minded tribalism. The shackles of the constrained vision in this kind of society are less often loosened and only for brief periods, but the unrestrained vision of modern social democracies can’t operate that way.

Conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness could be better understood in the framework of Spiral Dynamics. Conservative-mindedness is more about the basic levels of individual and social development, the base of what Ken Wilber would call a holarchy. Liberal-mindedness maybe isn’t even distinct and maybe can’t act independently at those basic levels. Full liberal-mindedness is more of an emergent property, gradually taking form but only at a very late stage in development is it able to assert its own authority. At the more complex levels of individual and social development, liberal-mindedness comes into its own, becoming something entirely new and unpredictable. Being children of modernity, we forget how strange is our socially liberal modern society. We take it for granted and don’t understand how fragile it is, how easily lost or destroyed. Regression ever threatens.

Such complex societies as ours can only maintain themselves by reversing the priorities of the tribalistic social order. As conservative-mindedness began as the foundation for liberal-mindedness, the latter then becomes the frame for the former. A modern society can only function well as long as conservative-mindedness operates within a liberal-minded social order. Ultimately, for the unconstrained vision to be itself, it can’t exist within the constraints of the constrained vision. However, the constrained vision can fully operate within the unconstrained vision. The relationship between the two can’t be at the same level of functioning.

To put this in political terms, social democracies can allow for religion but only to the extent that church and state are kept separate. Social democracy and theocracy are mutually exclusive. Similarly, kin and state must be kept separate as social democracy and nepotism are also mutually exclusive. Social democracy requires the emphasis be put on the greater whole rather than subordinating the whole to the parts.

The foundation, by definition, must remain at the bottom of the house. A foundation can no more be the entire house than tribalism can dominate and rule over a complex socially democracy. Each has a role to play and they can only play their role to the degree they function according to their respective purposes. If the foundation becomes unstable, the whole house is brought down to the same level, an equality created by leveling downward. That is to say, the house falls down.

Modern civilization feels so precarious as we keep wondering about how strong the foundation is. This is a reasonable worry.

We have little faith in the stability of the house because we have little understanding of its architecture. For too long, we simply trusted it to remain standing. But for a house to remain standing, it must constantly be repaired and fortified. We have too many occupants and not enough architects and builders. We are coming to realize how little we understand about why houses remain standing… or what brings them down.

This is problematic, to say the least, because this liberal/conservative relationship is not understood. But this lack of understanding isn’t inevitable and certainly not desirable. We need to get past polarization and find balance. What we see as being separate and at odds is actually part of the same human nature. If all of this didn’t work together, civilization wouldn’t be possible in the first place. A house divided… well, ya know…

There is a good reason for why even modern conservatives are relatively liberal-minded compared to conservatives in the past (or even most liberals in the past). And there is good reason for why liberal-mindedness increases with each generation as the complexity of society increases. This is most definitely not meant to dismiss conservative-mindedness, the very foundation of human nature and civilization. It is just that it must be kept in mind that foundations have very specific purposes. To try to place the foundation on the roof would lead to disaster.

At the same time, there is good reason for why liberals so easily revert to conservative-mindedness. There is much more to a house than its foundation, but a house isn’t very stable without a strong foundation. It is because liberals are so capable of switching between liberal-mindedness and conservative-mindedness that they are able to fully secure the frame to the foundation. Conservatives are less capable in this, as research shows. Still, they have another talent. They become reactionary conservatives by co-opting the products and artifacts of liberalism and then using these to adapt. This process is the way conservatives strengthen the foundation, thus more firmly strengthening the walls that attach to that foundation, and thus allowing new floors to be built at the next level.

Conservatives working at ground level and liberals working above. In between, what they are building together takes form.

This co-opting can be annoying to liberals, but it is necessary. What annoys liberals is that conservatives won’t admit that co-opting is what they’re doing, won’t give liberals credit for their efforts. Liberals seem more willing to treat conservatives as equals, as fellow builders. The conflict is that conservatives seem less willing to offer respect in return. It isn’t just that conservatives won’t admit their agenda to liberals. As far as I can tell, they don’t even admit this to themselves.

There is something about conservatism that is resistant to self-awareness. Foundations, after all, aren’t designed for letting light in. They are optimally made to be buried, secured deep in the ground.

That is fine as far as it goes, but it would be nice if conservatives learned to appreciate the value of also building windows and doors in order to let light  in. With light, we can then look upon the foundation and see if it is well built or if it needs further strengthening, see if there are any leaks or cracks in the basement. Conservatives seem afraid of what they might see or what others might see, afraid that if a critical eye is turned to the fundamentals of society that the whole thing will become vulnerable from our loss of faith. But what is the point of strength at all costs? Sure, walls built like foundations without windows and doors could potentially be very strong walls, but such a structure wouldn’t be a house and there would be no easy way to repair it as needed.

What I wonder is what would happen if this shared building process were to become conscious and out in the open. Couldn’t conservatives remain who they are while working with liberals and giving them their due? I think they could. However, as far as I can tell, they can only do so within the liberal framework. If liberals can accept a conservative foundation, why can’t conservatives accept a liberal framework built upon it?

How is a well functioning liberal framework built when liberals are less interested or able in forcing their liberal-mindedness onto others? Or to the degree they do attempt force, how do liberals resist becoming increasingly conservative-minded and so having their guiding purpose weakened? Conservatives have a great ability and compulsion to force conservative-mindedness onto others. Liberals, at their worst, are weak and pathetic. This is why liberal-mindedness isn’t the foundation. Nonetheless, liberalism has its role to play. But how do we convince conservatives to stop obstructing, to stop preening over what a lovely foundation they have and let others build something worthy upon that foundation?

Too often, it feels like liberals can’t win for losing. Can’t gain the upper hand except by playing according to the rules of conservatism and becoming conservative in the process. Liberals have to somehow get conservatives to believe that it is in their own conservative-minded interest to defend the liberal social order. Conservatives have to come to understand that merely defending the foundation won’t by itself ensure that the house remains standing. If they like living in this house of social democracy with all of its modern benefits and comforts, then they too have to accept responsibility for maintaining it.

Liberals can’t force conservatives into this understanding. But there are other tools besides force. It takes more than a hammer to build a house. So, what are these other tools?

Foundations are symbolic of short term interests. Conservatives are very focused and so are good at this. However, conservatives lack the vision to see what could or should be built upon the foundation or how the foundation is built limits what later can be built upon it.

Enslaving black people and creating a slave-based constitution is an example of this. This was a conservative social order based on hierarchical authority and justified by fundamentalist religion and classical thought. It was very strongly structured and certainly wasn’t overflowing with liberal-minded social democracy. Because of this, the unforeseen consequences were dire.

Even for the self(ish)-interests of the white aristocracy, this ended up not being beneficial in the long term. It was a bad deal all around. The liberal-minded during the revolution foresaw this, but the conservative-minded paid them no heed. There is more to building a strong nation than simply building a strong founding. It is necessary to know what the end result will look like and what good is achieved by it. There was no way a nation built on slavery wouldn’t lead to vast suffering and conflict. We are still suffering the consequences to this day.

The foundation was strong, but it was a bad foundation. The problem is that it is hard to dig a foundation up after a house is already built on top of it, a house that is now inhabited. Conservatives would be wise to unconstrain their vision a bit and look beyond mere foundations. Trying to use the present to remake the past doesn’t solve the problems built on the past.

A conservative could argue that many liberals, on the other hand, don’t have much appreciation for foundations at all. That very well might be true.

Foundation building isn’t the talent of liberals. Liberals are able to build grand edifices, as even conservatives will admit. I push  this point a little further in arguing that civilization itself is the grandest of edifices made possible by innovative liberals, by the dreaming and scheming liberal mind.

Nonetheless, even though foundation building isn’t their talent, I find it interesting that liberals can worry more about foundations than conservatives. Liberals instinctively understand their grand edifices will stand or fall depending on the foundations. But since foundations are closer to the conservative nature, they tend to take them more for granted… or something like that.

This is an issue I’ve tried to make sense of before.

This is how liberals in America can become quite conservative-minded, sometimes seemingly having forsaken their liberal-mindedness in the process. Liberals have done this because they want to save what they have already built and are afraid to build further until it has been secured. Reactionary conservatives, however, can feel like a mutant species of ideology. They have gone so far in the direction of co-opting liberalism that they seemingly forget their roles as conservatives. They aren’t necessarily any more loyal to the foundations of traditionalism than are liberals.

This is where my metaphor begins to break down. How do we make sense of this American phenomenon of conservative-minded liberals and reactionary-minded conservatives? How can we get conservatives to act conservative-minded so that liberals can go back to being liberal-minded?  Or is there a way to shift this strange dynamic toward a constructive end?

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

JFK, Little Bit Muddy: A Liberal Definition of Liberalism

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

All of that was just preamble for what most intrigues me about such endless debates.

What gets me thinking about all this are the underlying issues, the fissures forming. This situation of conservatives defending a liberal like JFK demonstrates how much these labels have changed. As I’ve often noted, the entire political spectrum of the American public has shifted under our feet. This changing social reality sends all the politicians and pundits into a high-drive frenzy, not unlike the strange behavior of animals before an earthquake.

JFK was a pragmatic moderate. I must admit that I don’t get the equating of moderateness/moderation solely or even primarily with conservatism. Certainly, JFK hasn’t changed in the last 50 years since he died. It is the political context that has changed. Older conservatives are discovering the entire world they once knew is fast disappearing. In response, they latch onto any figure that symbolizes America’s past glory days. Having died in office, JFK makes the perfect screen to project upon. His bipartisan tendencies toward compromise (typical of Democrats) lacked ideological purity and so it is easy to cherrypick, as Stoll does, the aspects one likes while disregarding the rest.

I touched upon my core understanding in a comment to Klobas’ review:

Besides, even liberals become more hawkish during hawkish times, as research has shown. Following 9/11, liberals who saw more repeated video of the attacks early on became stronger supporters of the war hawk policies of the Bush administration. Those liberals who initially only heard radio reporting remained more skeptical/wary/resistant of hawkishness. […] 

It is irrelevant that JFK went part of the way with the war hawks. Liberal Democrats went part of the way with the war hawk Bush administration, but that didn’t mean that all the Democrats were really conservatives pretending to be liberals. Obama has followed the Bush war policies without much change, but that doesn’t mean Obama is a conservative pretending to be a liberal (although I’ve always questioned to what extent Obama is a liberal since he has never identified as such; nonetheless, the real issue is that conservatives consider Obama a liberal despite is not being a dove).

JFK wasn’t any more of a war hawk than many other Democratic presidents and politicians. I don’t know if that necessarily makes him a liberal, but it is hard to see that as evidence of him being a conservative.

My worthy opponent in that discussion, S. Freeman, made a decent argument to the contrary and he does so with an amusing story:

Parts of your response remind me of the story of Little Johnny and the mud puddle. Little Johnny asks his mother if he can go out to play with Little Billy. Little Johnny’s mother says no because they are about to go off, and Little Johnny already is dressed. Ultimately, she relents with Little Johnny’s solemn promises to be careful and stay clean. A few minutes later, Little Johnny returns, covered in mud from his waist down. As his mother scolds him for breaking his promise and getting into the mud, Little Johnny explains he and Little Billy were running when they saw they were running toward a large mud puddle. In trying to avoid the puddle, their feet got tangled up and both boys went flying. Little Johnny’s mother was not impressed and continued to scold, to which Little Johnny said, “But Mother, I just fell half way into the mud puddle. Little Billy is fell completely in and is covered in mud from his face to his toes. The point is, while Kennedy may not have “gone all the way” with the war hawks, and while there may have been many war hawks at that time (I was alive then, and remember those times well, including Kennedy’s highly incendiary rhetoric and his baiting Khruschev at their summit. Your argument is Kennedy only got a little bit muddy while the warhawks were covered completely in mud. It may to you and to other readers, but to me, it just does not pass the “mud” test. Had he been less reckless, less belligerent in both rhetoric and action, I might agree with you. But Kennedy, in his less than 3 years in office, had more confrontations with the Soviet Union than did Eisenhower in his entire 8 years in office. Kennedy’s hands just are not as clean as you tend to present them.

That way of looking at the world demonstrates a fundamental distinction between liberalism and conservatism, specifically in the context of liberal-mindedness and conservative-mindedness. As a liberal-minded fellow, I don’t think in dualistic terms of either muddy or not muddy. There is a big difference between a grown man who gets a little muddy while simply going about his work and little boys jumping in mud puddles.

My suspicion is that JFK would more likely understand this liberal-minded viewpoint than he would the conservative-minded either/or dualistic thinking. JFK didn’t get a little bit muddy because he believed in the principle of being muddy. A strong defense, like tax cuts, was a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

What the likes of Stoll and Freeman don’t understand is that liberals are more accepting of being a little bit muddy. Heck, this is that very famous moral relativism that liberals are always getting accused of by conservatives. Most liberals acknowledge it is a muddy world, but they tend to see that as less of an excuse to embrace an ideology of mud and foresake one’s duty to try to remain as clean as possible under muddy conditions.

As I’ve argued many times this can be both a strength and a weakness. I briefly mentioned it in my discussion with Freeman when I spoke of the divergent liberal responses to 9/11. Here is what I was speaking of:

Liberals who gleaned most of their news from television in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks increased their support for expanded police powers, bringing them closer in line with the opinions of conservatives, a study by a UW-Madison researcher shows.

In contrast, heavy newspaper reading by liberals was related to lower levels of support for expanded police powers and for limits on privacy and freedom of information, basically reinforcing the differences between liberals and conservatives, says Dietram Scheufele, a journalism professor who conducted the study.

“TV pushed the two groups together in their thinking about post-9/11 policies, such as the Patriot Act. It made liberals more conservative. It took them away from what they initially believed and pushed them more toward a more conservative law-and-order stance,” Scheufele says.

The study, soon to be published in the journal Mass Communications & Society, is based on a survey of nearly 800 residents of Tompkins County, N.Y., in the fall of 2001, shortly after the attacks. Its results have been validated by two subsequent national surveys.

The survey showed that among liberals who watched little television, about 20 percent favored more government police powers. But about 41 percent of liberals who were heavy viewers of TV news supported such measures – much closer to the 50 to 60 percent of conservatives who supported greater police powers, regardless of how much TV news they watched.

The gap between conservatives and liberals widened, however, among heavy newspaper readers.

About 39 percent of light-reading liberals backed restricting freedom of speech in the days after the attacks, versus 31 percent who were heavy newspaper readers. Among conservatives, about 66 percent favored the limits, and nearly 70 percent of heavy readers backed the restrictions.

“Newspaper reading tended to reinforce partisan leanings, partly because it is more selective, readers have more options and seek out their own viewpoints,” Scheufele says. “By contrast, TV coverage is very linear, doesn’t offer any choice and was more image driven. You saw the plane hitting the building time and time again.”

I more thoroughly discussed this issue in a post of mine from last year. That post goes a long way in explaining why liberals easily get confused with conservatives, especially during times of fear and anxiety. One of the talents of liberals is the ability to act like conservatives. As quoted in that post, the psychological reasons for this are summarized well in a paper by Jost, Federico and Napier:

Given that nearly everyone wants to achieve at least some degree of certainty, is it possible that conservatism possesses a natural psychological advantage over liberalism? Although answering this question is obviously fraught with challenges, several lines of research suggest that this might be the case. First, a series of experiments by Skitka et al. (2002) demonstrated that “the default attributional position is a conservative response,” insofar as both liberals and conservatives are quick to draw individualistic (rather than system-level) conclusions about the causes of poverty, unemployment, disease, and other negative outcomes, but only liberals correct their initial response, taking into account extenuating circumstances. When a distraction (or cognitive load) is introduced, making it difficult for liberals to engage in correction processes, they tend to blame individuals for their fate to the same degree that conservatives do. Skitka et al. (2002) therefore concluded, “It is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to behave like a liberal” (p. 484; see also Kluegel & Smith 1986, Skitka 1999). Research by Crandall & Eidelman (2007) takes this general line of reasoning even further, showing that a host of everyday variables associated with increased cognitive load and/or increased need for cognitive closure, such as drinking alcohol, lead people to become more politically conservative. Both of these lines of research are consistent with the notion that conservative styles and opinions are generally simpler, more internally consistent, and less subject to ambiguity, in comparison with liberal styles and opinions (e.g., Tetlock 1983, 2007; Rokeach 1960; Tetlock 1983, 2007). A third reason to suggest that conservatism enjoys a psychological advantage over liberalism comes from research on system justification, which suggests that most people (including liberals) are motivated to adapt to and even rationalize aspects of the status quo, that is, to develop and maintain relatively favorable opinions about existing institutions and authorities and to dismiss or reject the possibility of change, especially in its more radical forms (Jost et al. 2004a). Studies show that justifying the status quo serves the palliative function of increasing positive affect, decreasing negative affect, and making people happier in general, but it also undermines support for social change and the redistribution of resources (Jost & Hunyady 2002, Napier & Jost 2008a, Wakslak et al. 2007).

In my post, I could easily have been speaking of Cold War Era liberals like JFK when I wrote this:

As a movement, liberalism rarely ever suffers from the condition of being too liberal for conditions have to be perfect for the liberal predisposition to fully manifest. Such perfect conditions don’t come around that often and they tend not to last very long. In moments of peace and prosperity, the general public can forget about possible threats and their emotional response becomes dampened, a contented optimism taking its place. Such a moment occurred after the Great Depression and once again after WWII, but after those brief moments conservatism ruled during the Cold War Era and into the post-9/11 Era. Liberals have at best hunkered down and at worst given their support to the conservative agenda (pushing deregulation, dismantling the welfare state, building up the military, going to war against Iraq, supporting the Patriot Act, maintaining Gitmo, empowering the executive branch, etc). Sadly, the liberal movement doesn’t make much of a worthy enemy for the conservative movement. Conservative leaders just have to say “Booh!” and liberal leaders run for cover.

The Cold War Era was far from meeting the perfect conditions necessary for full manifestation of liberalism. There is no contradiction for a liberal to be a “little bit muddy” during such liberal-unfriendly times. For good or ill, that is precisely what liberalism is all about.

(Continue reading: part four)