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)

JFK, Proud Liberal and Professional Politician

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Continue reading: part three)

JFK, Liberal

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

Some on the right have argued that John F. Kennedy was a conservative.

This argument has recently gained attention because of a book by Ira Stoll that was published this year: JFK, Conservative. It has created a bit of a stir in the mainstream media. It seems to be mostly people trying to grab a bit of the JFK assassination semi-centennial limelight.

Still, not everyone is interested in this media game of making outrageous statements. As demonstrated by the Cato Institute Vice-President Gene Healy, at least some on the right won’t embrace this tactic of co-opting liberals for the conservative cause:

Stoll lays it on pretty thick: in his telling, JFK was a great president, a good man, and—no kidding—a good Catholic. Moreover, Kennedy’s policies—his “tax cuts, his domestic spending restraint, his pro-growth economic policy, his emphasis on free trade and a strong dollar, and his foreign policy driven by the idea that America had a God-given mission to defend freedom”—show that he was, “by the standards of both his time and our own, a conservative.”

It’s a cramped, reductionist account of conservatism, one that collapses the entire political tradition into its neoconservative variant. But an even less charitable person than I could make the case that it’s a fair approximation of “actually existing conservatism,” and Stoll’s thesis has already received a fair bit of praise from commentators on the Right.

God help us. If our 35th president—fiscally profligate, contemptuous of civil liberties, and criminally reckless abroad—is a paragon of modern conservatism, conservatism is in even worse shape than I thought.

Albert J. Menendez who is the author of two books on JFK, after pointing out that “[h]e was a liberal in the context of his times, and Congressional Quarterly and others who rated his votes in Congress asserted his liberalism.”, put his conclusion more bluntly:

Certainly, Southern racists and segregationists and Goldwater supporters did not see Kennedy as a conservative. And African Americans all over the South placed his picture on their walls after Nov. 22, 1963.

Or as Leo Ribuffo, a George Washington University history professor, likewise stated it (in being quoted in an article by Joe Strupp):

“He certainly wasn’t considered a conservative at the time by the rising conservative movement like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater,”

As many have pointed out, Stoll’s argument is similar to that of claiming Ronald Reagan as a liberal. Even a strongly conservative commentator like Albert Milliron understands there is nuance in the views of politicians and yet still refuses to accept JFK into the conservative fold:

We think that JFK was as conservative as Bill Clinton. Probably the reason we didn’t jump on the “JFK is a Conservative” bandwagon.  I have often seen folks point out that Nixon and Reagan had some ‘Liberal’ ideas.  But that doesn’t make the sum total of their political life liberal, just as some of JFK or Clinton’s conservative statements or policies made them a Conservative.

Then again, I would add that there is actually more evidence supporting Reagan being a liberal. Reagan originally was a New Deal Democrat and president of a union, was a progressive who only later in life turned neocon.

Distinctions do need to be made.

Unlike Reagan, JFK never changed parties. It wasn’t JFK or the Democrats who changed. It was Reagan who helped change the Republicans when he transformed his progressivism into neoconservatism. “Republican praise of Kennedy,” explains Bernard Von Bothmer, “began with Ronald Reagan, who presented himself as a political admirer and even descendant of Kennedy.” That is because he in fact was a descendant of the progressive liberalism of the Democratic Party.

But in the process of becoming a neocon, Reagan discarded JFK’s confidence in seeing the government as part of the solution. JFK had no desire to Starve the Beast or wait for tax cuts to trickle down, as many others have articulated:

Stoll’s case for JFK’s domestic conservatism rests heavily on his commitment to a tax cut passed three months after his death. On November 22, Stoll notes, Kennedy was en route to the Dallas Trade Mart to stump for reduced rates: “he was fighting for a tax cut to the end”—the martyred Christ of supply-side economics (or military Keynesianism, depending how you look at it). Tax cuts weren’t a conservative litmus test at the time, however; as Stoll notes, Goldwater feared that the Kennedy cuts “would lead to deficits, inflation, and even bankruptcy.”
(Gene Healy, Kennedy Was No Conservative)

“It’s rather silly to portray him as a conservative,” Critchlow said, later adding that the tax cut “doesn’t make him Republican or a conservative. He was trying to pursue policies, a new policy that would address the issues of three recessions in the 1950s. He wasn’t an extreme left-wing Democrat, but he wasn’t a Republican.”
(Joe Strupp, Historians: Right-Wing Media Claims Of A Conservative JFK Are “Silly” And “Ludicrous”)

Fair’s fair, but what’s really amazing about Will is that he can’t even see that liberals would see it this way. In his mind, liberals are yearning for a 100 percent tax rate so any admission that any rate—even 91 percent!—might be too high, suddenly turns JFK into Grover Norquist.
(Matthew Yglesias, George Will Hails JFK’s 70 Percent Income Tax Rate)

Yes, JFK supported cutting taxes back in the early 1960s, but then so did many members of his own party, as the fact that he was able to get his tax cut package through a Congress overwhelmingly controlled in both Houses by the Democratic Party. That doesn’t mean, however, that, were he alive today, he’d be signing on to Grover Norquist’s tax pledge and supporting calls to shut down the government rather than agreeing to any tax increase at all. Making that argument involves nothing less than drawing the kind of false historical analogies that only a blind partisan would make.
(Doug Mataconis, John F. Kennedy A Conservative? No, Not Really)

Kennedy’s statement needs to be put in the proper historical context. When Kennedy gave that speech the top marginal tax rate – the tax rate for the nation’s highest levels of income – was 91 percent. The “conservative” cut passed after Kennedy’s death lowered it to 77 percent. Today it’s 39.5 percent, a figure Kennedy couldn’t have imagined and certainly wouldn’t have supported.

Two liberal economists, Nobel Laureate Peter Diamond of MIT and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley, recently concluded that the most effective top tax rate – the one that would create the most “jobs and income and eventually more revenue” – is 73 percent. When today’s conservatives embrace rates like that, we’ll call John Kennedy a conservative.
(Richard Eskow, The “Real JFK” – Not Conservative, and Not Forgotten)

Among historians, the general consensus is that is that Kennedy’s economic fix had a significant — though complicated — long-term effect on the economy. Nearly all agree that his policies were partly responsible for the golden era of the mid-1960s, a time when the U.S. experienced vigorous economic growth. By 1966 — almost three years after Kennedy’s death — stock prices were soaring, the economy was expanding at a rate of 6.6 percent, and the unemployment rate stood at just 3.8 percent. His agenda included an increase to minimum wage, an expansion of unemployment benefits, improvements to Social Security benefits to encourage workers to retire earlier, and greater spending on highway construction and urban renewal. In essence, he was pushing Congress to jump start the economy by increasing government spending, as NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax explained on a NPR-affiliated public radio station earlier this week.

One tool Kennedy employed to encourage an economic recovery seemingly contradicts that liberal agenda. He cut taxes — despite concerns from conservatives who feared his policies would greatly increase the deficit. In response to his critics, the president famously said “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
(Meghan Foley, JFK and Obama: The Recession Presidents)

Furthermore, Kennedy’s goal was a Keynesian demand-side cut: He wanted to create a deficit in order to assist the economy by putting money in the hands of middle- and working-class consumers. Reagan’s tax policy, a supply-side cut, aimed to raise revenue and reduce the deficit; he wanted to put more money in the hands of business leaders and the wealthy in order to spur investment.

Finally, Kennedy’s ultimate plan was to use government spending to increase purchasing power, the opposite of what Reagan wanted. As Kennedy told his economic adviser, “First we’ll get your tax cut, and then we’ll get my expenditure program.”
(Bernard Von Bothmer, The right’s JFK myth: Now they claim he was conservative)

He did so in order to run a larger budget deficit, because his economic advisers, including Arthur Okun and Walter Heller, believed this would provide a Keynesian stimulus to demand. Neither Kennedy nor his advisers believed in the subsequent supply-side theory that gained credence in the 1970s, which held that low marginal rates on the very rich were crucial to stimulate investment. One of his advisers, James Tobin, explicitly said the income-tax cut would provide a short-run economic stimulus but would do nothing to promote investment “except in the general sense that prosperity is good for investment.”

Another way to look at this issue is to look at Kennedy’s justification for the tax reforms in 1961, when he originally proposed them. The initial list of reforms does not even mention a cut in the top marginal rate. It does, however, spend a lot of time arguing for taxing dividends as ordinary income, since lower rates unfairly privilege the rich who are the overwhelming beneficiaries of dividends.
(M.S., This week in up-is-downism)

Robert Schlesinger, in US News and World Report, writes that Kennedy as a conservative tax-cutter “is a powerful myth, but it is a myth”.

Tax cuts for Kennedy, he argues, were a means to an end – in much the same way as tax cuts later proposed by Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. “The key distinction is that JFK and his successors saw tax cuts as one of many available economic tools,” he writes. “Indeed Kennedy, like Obama, favored both tax cuts and spending increases to stimulate the economy.”

“Neither Kennedy nor his advisers believed in the subsequent supply-side theory that gained credence in the 1970s, which held that low marginal rates on the very rich were crucial to stimulate investment,” writes Matt Steinglass for the Economist. “One of his advisers, James Tobin, explicitly said the income-tax cut would provide a short-run economic stimulus but would do nothing to promote investment ‘except in the general sense that prosperity is good for investment.'”
(Anthony Zurcher, JFK, conservative hero?)

I hope that clears things up.

To question JFK’s liberal credential is ultimately to question the liberal credentials of the entire Democratic Party establishment.

One could note that some have argued, Rachel Maddow most recently, Clinton was the best Republican president ever and similar things have been said about Obama (following Bush military policies and pushing healthcare reform that serves big biz insurance companies is hardly the New New Deal we’ve been waiting for). And indeed, some have more favorably and less favorably compared Obama to JFK. Unsurprisingly, as time goes by, conservatives increasingly reminisce about Clinton. Give it a few more decades and someone will write a conservative hagiography of Clinton similar to that of Stoll’s book. In the words of Jim Antle:

Noting that many contemporary conservatives now celebrate liberals they once opposed—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and John F. Kennedy among them—the late columnist Joseph Sobran predicted they would one day embrace Bill Clinton and remain conservatives in good standing. That day has come to pass.

The Democratic Party following Clinton’s third-way politics can at times feel like Republican-lite, no doubt about that. But how does that make a liberal icon like JFK a conservative of the variety defended by movement conservatives? If JFK is a conservative through and through by the standards of today and of the past, then what the heck is liberalism besides a bizarre straw-man argument made in the ‘Commie’ image of the Cold War Red Scare? Or do conservatives want to make liberalism into such a wimpy shade of its former self, so small that like government it can be drowned in a bath tub? Portraying liberals as scary and wimpy is the conservative attempt at a one-two punch.

I just don’t get the agenda behind this, other than just messing with people’s minds and otherwise creating empty media buzz. In some ways, I don’t care about this entire debate, at least not on the terms it is being held. I’m more interested in the underlying issues and motivations.

I’ll put it this way:

If conservatives want to claim JFK, fine by me. But in that case, in order to be consistent they’ll have to claim a bunch of other typical Democratic politicians. That is something I doubt many conservatives would want to do. What they want to do is somehow entirely separate JFK from his Democratic Party roots which is an impossible thing to do. To claim JFK, conservatives will have to claim the Democratic Party worldview that he represented.

(Continue reading: part two)

Ideologically Confused Partisans

I sometimes feel like I’m living in Bizarro America.

Al Gore is a veteran and a successful businessman. He is of Scots-Irish descent from the Upper South where he spent summers working on the family farm in Tennessee where they grew tobacco and raised cattle. Al Gore is boring, if anything, in his being a generally upstanding citizen. He is smart and accomplished. He has lived the American Dream, if you’re into that kind of thing.

George W. Bush is a draft-dodger and a failed businessman, not to mention an alcoholic. He was born in New England to a political family of old wealth, but he pretended to be a good ol’ boy Southerner and a rancher. Even Bush’s Christianity always seemed like pretense. Everything about Bush seemed like pretense, even simple things like putting on a flight suit and declaring ‘Mission Accomplished!’.

Al Gore was an example of what conservatives idealize as a moral citizen, but they attacked him. Instead, conservatives supported George W. Bush who demonstrates the worst attributes of the ruling elite.

Now, conservatives claim Bush jr never was a real conservative. The last real conservative to be president, they claim, was Ronald Reagan.

However, Reagan was the president who chose to use deficit spending which created the permanent debt that later on both Bush presidents grew even larger. Also, Reagan was a part of the Hollywood elite, a union leader, passed the most liberal pro-choice abortion bill prior to Roe v. Wade, and was the first president to invite an openly gay couple to sleep over at the White House. Reagan’s sunny optimism and idealism was a straightforward expression of his liberal-mindedness. He was a former progressive who simply turned his progressivism toward realpolitik and became a neocon. There was nothing particularly conservative about him.

Before Reagan, Jimmy Carter was a Deep Southern Evangelical. He was an actual compassionate conservative, what Bush jr was always pretending to be. He was an old fashioned conservative of a conservationist bent, a type of conservative that used to be more common. It was Carter who was the first Evangelical president and he took his religion more seriously than any other recent president. His so-called malaise speech was all about America’s moral fiber and everything he said about America has turned out to be true.

Despite many perceived successes, Reagan was responsible for the permanent debt which is one of the greatest failings of any president in all of US history. Despite many perceived failings, Carter’s one great achievement was passing an EPA regulation to decrease lead in gasoline which is directly and positively correlated to the largest decrease in violent crime in US history and hence one of the greatest achievements of any president in all of US history.

I just don’t get what is conservative about Bush jr or Reagan nor what is praiseworthy about such ideology, whatever one wishes to call it. It’s equally confusing trying to figure out what liberalism means in all of this. The most liberal president in recent history may have been Reagan who supposedly hated liberalism. Obama is probably more of a conservative than Reagan. Conservative or liberal, there is plenty of cynical and confused, maybe even deceptive, rhetoric to spread equally around.

Conservative-Minded Authoritarianism & Liberal-Minded Anarchism

Someone once made the argument to me that there was a particular bias in social science research. The argument was based on the anecdotal evidence of the research this person had come across I suppose by way of what was reported in the media and maybe the blogosphere. His observation was that researchers had focused their studies more on conservatism than liberalism.

It would be surprising if there weren’t any biases such as this or something similar. More social scientists and scientists in geneal identify as liberals than as conservatives (and I’m sure that even the conservatives in this field are relatively liberal-minded). It does make sense that liberals and the liberal-minded would be greatly curious about those so different from their own attitude and worldview, especially considering that liberal-mindedness strongly correlates to open-minded curiosity.

Nonetheless, I doubt that curiosity is a zero sum game. A curious-minded person would probably be just as interested in liberalism as conservatism. Besides, most research I’ve seen in this area tends to simultaneously test for both sides of the political spectrum. I suspect it is rare research that would only study conservatism while entirely ignoring liberalism.

The bias I might see along these lines is more in the media reporting. The right-wing has caught the public imagination since the homegrown right-wing terrorism made itself violently known in the 1990s and especially since 9/11 brought the foreign right-wing terrorism to the attention of Americans. During the Cold War, the media focused on left-wingers while ignoring right-wingers. But the Cold War has been over for more than two decades now. With fundamentalist terrorism, Americans are learning new respect for Godlessness, despite its former association with the Communist Threat.

There is a more direct bias that is pertinent to the original hypothesis. Ever since the world wars, social scientists have been obsessed with authoritarianism. That was the era when right-wing fascism came to power. Many people escaped fascism by coming to America. The social scientists among these refugees were quite intently focused on understanding right-wing authoritarianism in the hopes of preventing its return.

There is good reason that authoritarianism has become associated with the right-wing and from there associated with conservatism. Indeed, there is a correlation in the American population between these three. The question is whether this correlation implies a causal link or is it merely an issue of historical conditions. At least for decades now, conservatism has attracted right-wing authoritarians into its ranks, seemingly as an intentional seeking of alliances by movement conservatives and GOP strategists, whether or not they fully appreciated the psychological profile of their allies. Some (e.g., Corey Robin) theorize that this is more than a temporary and circumstantial connection.

Here is the key point for me.

An authoritarian type can be either right-wing or left-wing; the reason for this is because right-wing and left-wing are more about ideology (and rhetoric) than psychology. An authoritarian type can be a conservative or anyone who is conservative-minded, the commonality of social conservatism being a reason political alliance are so easy to form. An authoritarian can even be a liberal, just as long as they are fairly conservative-minded or not too strongly liberal-minded in all ways. I’m fairly sure the one thing an authoritarian can’t be is liberal-minded, pretty much by the very definition of liberal-minded traits (which have a strong correlation to liberalism itself)

This is where its important to clarify a point. Liberalism correlates to liberal-mindedness and conservatism correlates to conservative-mindedness. However, there are still a significant number of conservative-minded liberals (and left-wingers) along with liberal-minded conservatives (and right-wingers).

Another clarification needs to be made. Fascist statists are right-wingers and communist statists are left-wingers. This is a distinction of ideology (specifically economic ideology), but there is no clear distinction when it comes to their personalities. Both kinds of radical ideologues tend to be authoritarian and, more significantly, conservative-minded. When looking at authoritarian states, including communism, the thing that stands out to me is they are against all forms of social liberalism and liberal-mindedness (and all that leans in that direction or is conducive towards it): social democracy, multiculturalism, feminism, gay rights, free speech, free press, free intellectual inquiry, free artistic expression, freedom to assemble and protest, etc etc.

This points toward the knot of confusion and so we can now disentangle the most interesting strand of bias. With my explanation so far, I hope it is beginning to be clarified why mainstream notions of liberalism aren’t an equivalent category to mainstream notions of conservatism. To nail it down, let me offer a little refresher on traits theory.

Traits exist on a spectrum with most people being closer to the midpoint than to the extremes. The typical person has some range of comfort and ability that might include to some extent both sides of the spectrum, although there will tend to be a natural resting point that an individual returns to. The extreme cases remain important for they demonstrate traits in their purest form.

Two separate traits correlate to liberalism and conservatism. Respectively, they are Openness and Conscientiousness. They are completely separate traits and so how an individual tests on one measure has no effect on how they test on the other. This can create the not unusual situation of a person measuring high on both the liberal-minded trait and the conservative-minded trait or else low on both.

I propose this as an explanation for why liberal-mindedness hasn’t been studied as fully. Most scientists, academics, college students, activists, politicians, journalists and reporters who identify as liberal probably don’t measure extremely high on Openness while also measuring low on Conscientiousness. It is true that most self-identified liberals measure relatively higher on the liberal-minded trait of Openness, but those who are highly motivated and self-disciplined enough to go to college, pursue politics and/or succeed in a professional career wouldn’t measure low on the conservative-minded trait of Conscientiousness.

Based on this, one would assume that, in respectable mainstream society, there would be a disproportionately small percentage of extreme liberals or even just people who are consistently liberal across all traits. This is predictable based on how Conscientiosness is described in the research literature. Conscientiousness is the single greatest indicator of social success (i.e., success by other people’s standards and according to the status quo). This would explain why professionally established and economically successful artists tend to have higher ratings on Conscientiousness, despite this conservative-minded trait being low among art students. I would speculate that there is a connection to why the most innovative and genius (i.e., unconventional) artists often remain poor and unknown in their own lifetimes.

In an outwardly success-oriented society, conservative-minded conscientiousness is given central priority. However, at the same time, it makes for a bias in all aspects of such a society, including research on psychological traits:

http://www.siop.org/tip/backissues/tipoct98/4collins.aspx

“Let it not be misunderstood, conscientiousness is recognizably an important predictor of performance and many other organizational outcomes (e.g., Barrick & Mount, 1991; Ones & Viswesvaran, 1996). But is it possible that this continued and concentrated focus on the validity of conscientiousness may overshadow other perhaps stronger personality predictors of job performance? Could it be that a plateau has been reached, and the time has come to move beyond conscientiousness in search of other predictor discoveries?”

Those who are extremely liberal-minded tend to have lots of social issues. Along with lacking success-orientation, they tend to be less healthy and more prone to becoming criminals (i.e., breaking laws and generally not being obedient and subservient). However, there being seen as criminals by society is the very same reason they are less likely to commit immoral acts that are the norm for a society or demanded by authority figures. So, high conscientious conservative-minded types are more likely to do horrific things and be successful at it, just as long as it meets standards of social approval. High conscientiousness, for example, will lead one to make sure the trains run efficiently in order to bring the enemies of the state to the concentration camps.

This is what irritates me. The conservative-minded project onto the liberal-minded their own conservative-minded predilections. The strongly liberal-minded will never make for good authoritarians. They may be losers who are alcoholics, drug addicts, criminals, sexual deviants, etc. They may even be terrorists of the anarchistic variety. But they won’t be authoritarians or not very successful authoritarians.

The anarchism angle is what intrigues me most of all. That seems like the polar opposite of authoritarianism. Even conservatives seem to understand that. More than the over orderliness and oppression of authoritarians, what conservatives fear more than anything from liberals is that they will undermine conservative order by undermining moral authority and social hierarchy. Liberals will only ever be authoritarians to the degree they are or become conservative-minded.

I wish liberals would be criticized for their actual faults and weaknesses, instead of being blamed for what goes against their own nature. And to return to the original point of this post, I don’t know about researchers who are self-identified liberals, but I think it unfair to blame their supposed liberal-mindedness for their heavy focus on conservative-mindedness, assuming such a biased focus even exists. If anything, the conservative-mindedness (relatively higher conscientiousness) should be blamed for their having ignored the fullest and most extreme expressions of liberal-mindedness.

We’ve already had decades of extensive research on authoritarianism. Let us check out the polar opposite side of things. Definitely, I’d like to see some insightful research on anarchism.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/per.795/abstract

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honesty-Humility_Facet_of_the_HEXACO_Model_of_Personality

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886910001182

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886911005046

http://www.psycontent.com/content/r86104550w030g0l/

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/per.845/abstract?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00224540903365364#.UY1v4Eqd6So

Click to access Duckitt%20&%20Sibley%20submitted.pdf

http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2012-19403-001

http://www.jasoncollins.org/2011/06/the-evolution-of-conscientiousness/

http://www.academia.edu/153692/Evaluating_Five_Factor_Theory_and_social_investment_perspectives_on_personality_trait_development

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092656611000997

Interesting Stuff on the Web: 3/23/13

Here are a few things that caught my attention. Taken together, they almost form a loosely coherent thought-web about the complexity of the left/right spectrum and some interesting examples in contemporary politics, from left-wing states’ rights secessionists to conservatives of the liberal tradition. I’ll share them without any commentary:

U.S. Out of Vermont!
Move over, Texas: In the Green Mountain State, it’s leftists who want to secede.
By Christopher Ketcham

“Yet here in granola-eating, hyper-lefty, Subaru-driving Vermont was a secession effort that had been loud during the Bush years, had not ceased its complaining under Barack Obama, did not care for party affiliation, and had welcomed into its midst gun nuts and lumberjacks and professors, socialists and libertarians and anarchists, ex–Republicans and ex-Democrats, truck drivers and schoolteachers and waitresses, students and artists and musicians and poets, farmers and hunters and wooly-haired woodsmen. The manifesto that elaborated their platform was read at the conference: a 1,400-word mouthful that echoed the Declaration of Independence in its petition of grievances. “[T]ransnational megacompanies and big government,” it proclaimed, “control us through money, markets, and media, sapping our political will, civil liberties, collective memory, traditional cultures.” The document was signed by, among others, its principal authors, a professor emeritus of economics at Duke University named Thomas Naylor and the decentralist philosopher Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Human Scale. “Citizens,” it concluded, “lend your name to this manifesto and join in the honorable task of rejecting the immoral, corrupt, decaying, dying, failing American Empire and seeking its rapid and peaceful dissolution before it takes us all down with it.””

Conservatives Please Read
Book review by Historied of Sidanius and Pratto’s Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression

“I have worked as an executive in the corporate sector for 35 years and felt how powerfully this approach could be used there. The chronic lack of real talent to solve real issues of the business and environment, is very much compounded by issues of dominance and restriction of the search for talent and the education of talent to elite groups who are often clueless about the world. And this book provides a critical thinking 101 approach quite independent of its content.The growing hereditary nature of management succession (think President of the USA)is part of social dominance. The socially dominant send their kids to the best schools and these seem to be structured to restrict critical thinking or divert it into postmodernist irrelevance. This book helps you see such apparently unconnected phenomena in new ways. And it might direct students towards structurally relevant issues of society rather than the marginal. While this book is an obvious resource for the oppressed, I heartily recommend it to members of socially dominant power groups like myself.”

Comment by Andrew on Corey Robin’s post Edmund Burkey on the Free Market

“I’ve always been a fan of SDO theory. It reconcils social dominance and ‘selfishness’ with altruism, solving the riddle by positing that egalitarianism is actually a form reverse social dominance whereby the group overpowers the alphas and thens uses threat of violence and/or humiliation to keep any one member of the group from becoming more power than the other. This pairs nicely with anthropologists’ and of course, Marx and Engels’ observations on the ‘primitive communism’ of early hunter-gathering societies.

“Although many would likely cringe at the suggestion, I feel it’s an actual evolutionary explanation for the differences between leftwing and rightwing politics.”

Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?
By Patrick J. Deneen

“There’s a further problem in the contemporary narrative that has been developed by conservatives regarding the course of the Constitution. While the narrative of the Constitution’s corruption by Progressives has been popularized by Glenn Beck, it has largely been developed by scholars who study in the tradition established by the German émigré scholar, Leo Strauss. They largely rely on a significant essay written by Strauss entitled “The Three Waves of Modernity.” In that essay, Strauss explains that the break with antiquity – particularly classical Greek and Roman as well as Christian thought – was inaugurated by thinkers of “modern Natural Right,” in an incipient form by Machiavelli and then further by Hobbes and Locke. These thinkers argued that a new science of politics was needed, one that was not as resigned simultaneously to a vision of ideal politics based upon the inculcation of virtue, and also a theory of decline that necessarily accompanied those high aims, as that which characterized ancient thought. Building on the “low but solid ground” of self-interest, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke sought to channel the great source of political strife toward productive ends, particularly in the areas of commerce and expansion of human knowledge (modern science). Aided by the insights of Hobbes’s one-time boss, Francis Bacon, the new science of politics was devoted to “the relief of the human estate,” a project that relied upon the new natural sciences for the expansion of human power and mastery over nature. This “first wave” of modernity recognized the inherent imperfectability of human beings – thus, that we have a nature, and that a successful politics can be built upon that nature – and served as the philosophical basis for the American founding.

“The “second wave” of modernity is called by Strauss “historicism.” Like a wave – following upon and deriving its content from the previous wave – this “second wave” took its point of departure from an instability within the first wave. The “second wave” of modernity took the basic insight of the philosophers of the first wave – that nature was subject to human control – and extended this insight to human nature itself. If external nature were subject to human dominion, why not human nature itself? Thinkers like Rousseau, Condorcet, Comte, and later, John Stuart Mill, developed the idea of human perfectibility, of the human ability to master not only external nature, but to improve human nature as well. If philosophers of the “first wave” argued that human nature was unalterable, philosophers of the “second wave” argued that human nature could be improved concurrent with an improvement in the material domain. The concept of moral progress became a central feature in second wave philosophy, a progress in historical time that was believed to culminate in man’s perfection, even ascent to a godlike condition. In America, thinkers like Dewey, Croly and later, Richard Rorty adopted the basic insights of this “second wave” of modernity.

“What Strauss perceived – and what his epigones too often overlook – is that the seeds of the second wave are planted within the logic of the first wave. A theory that rejects the fundamental governance of nature (at least that nature external to humanity) – or natural law – and substitutes this ancient Aristotelian and Thomistic standard for a more utilitarian calculus of interest inevitably jeopardizes any standard and even its own effort to ground its politics on a now more limited understanding of human nature. The “second” wave is embedded in the first wave – that is, lacking a standard by which humans are to be limited, their tendency will be to develop a political philosophy that invites thorough re-creation not only of our environment, but of the human creature. According to the implicit logic of Strauss’s argument, we do better to see that Progressive liberalism is the consequence of “Classical Liberalism,” and not its wholesale betrayal, as many today would like to believe.

“Strauss discerned that it is from the very individualistic basis of liberalism that arose the collectivist impulse of “progressivism,” initially in communism and fascism, but today in what we might call “progressive liberalism.” The false anthropology of liberalism – anathema to the deeper insights of a pre-liberal “conservative” tradition – spawns the perverse but inescapable progeny that it purports to despise, but which at every turn it fosters. Any conservative impulse is throttled by its more fundamental fealty to the liberal tradition.

“It’s true that “conservative liberalism” is more “conservative” than “progressive liberalism,” if we mean by that it takes at least some of its cues from an older, pre-liberal understanding of human beings and human nature. Still, its dominant liberal ethic – summed up in the five points I suggested at the outset – means that in nearly every respect, its official allegiances end up eviscerating residual pre-liberal conservative allegiances. In particular, it could be argued that conservative commitments 1-4 – that end by favoring consolidation (in spite of the claim to favor “limited” government), advancing imperial power and capitalism (i.e., why consolidation is finally necessary), and stressing individual liberty, are all actively hostile to commitment number 5 – the support for family and community. It is a rump commitment without a politics to support it, and one that daily undergoes attack by the two faces of contemporary liberalism, through the promotion of the Market by the so-called Right and the promotion of lifestyle autonomy by the Left. A true conservatism has few friends in today’s America.”

The ‘About’ page for the Front Porch Republic website

“The economic crisis that emerged in late 2008 and the predictable responses it elicited from those in power has served to highlight the extent to which concepts such as human scale, the distribution of power, and our responsibility to the future have been eliminated from the public conversation. It also threatens to worsen the political and economic centralization and atomization that have accompanied the century-long unholy marriage between consumer capitalism and the modern bureaucratic state. We live in a world characterized by a flattened culture and increasingly meaningless freedoms. Little regard is paid to the necessity for those overlapping local and regional groups, communities, and associations that provide a matrix for human flourishing. We’re in a bad way, and the spokesmen and spokeswomen of both our Left and our Right are, for the most part, seriously misguided in their attempts to provide diagnoses, let alone solutions.”

What It Means To Be A Progressive: A Manifesto
By John Halpin

“As progressives gear up for inevitable fights over taxes, budgets, and social policy, we shouldn’t forget about the importance of values in explaining who we are and what we want to achieve. We believe in freedom with opportunity for all, responsibility to all, and cooperation among all. We believe that the purpose of government is to advance the common good, to secure and protect our rights, and to help to create a high quality of life and community well-being. We want decent paying jobs and benefits for workers and sustainable economic growth. We want growing businesses producing the world’s best products and services. We want an economy that works for everyone, not just the few. We want all nations to uphold universal human rights and to work together to solve common challenges. This is what a progressive America looks like.”

Social Order and Symbolic Conflation

Again and again, I return to the issue of conservatism. What or who defines it? How is or should it be defined? It’s endlessly mesmerizing, at least to my more liberal mind.

There are two typical answers to the question of conservatism’s definition.

First, (true) conservatives want to conserve.

This a nice notion, but doesn’t work out very well. Everyone, liberals included, want to conserve something as this is simply a facet of human nature. So, this doesn’t get at the core motivation of conservatives as a distinct group, movement, worldview or predisposition: What exactly do conservatives want to conserve? What don’t they want to conserve? And why? Its clear that many conservatives don’t have good answers, beyond largely ahistorical nostalgic fantasies or else abstract philosophizing/theologizing. In relation to American tradition (in the mainstream), many mainstream liberals have taken on the role of conserving the status quo and mainstream conservatives quite the opposite.

Second, (true) conservatives are traditionalist.

This is another nice notion that is equally problematic. There are many traditions, even within a single culture or society or political system. Heck, after several centuries, modern liberalism has become one of the most dominant and well established traditions in the world, a tradition that the United States was founded upon. This is why American ‘conservatives’ are classical liberals rather than classical conservatives. The British Tories were the classical conservatives that Americans sought independence from.

Conservatives do want to conserve something, but many things can be and have been latched onto. Furthermore, anything conserved, even if only in memory or imagination, becomes a tradition and is treated as such by conservatives. This obviously doesn’t clarify the matter. The conservative impulse, separate from the general conserving impulse, does have limits to what or else how it is applied.

Here is my preferred hypothesis. It won’t win awards for originality, but it makes sense of the evidence.

Conservatives value relatively stable, strict or even rigid social orders that are based on, justified by and maintained according to hierarchy and authority. Conservatives will seek to conserve any tradition thus deemed worthy or, failing that, seek to (re-)create a tradition that when established will be worthy of being conserved; both of these easily being conflated at least in rhetoric, hence the close tie between the traditionalist conservative and the reactionary conservative, the distinction as such being an academic exercise — I wonder if traditionalist and reactionary are just two stages in the life-cycle of conservatism, each inevitably leading back to the other.

I would add that, in this way, there is no ‘true’ conservatism since there is no fundamental content or inherent substance. Conservatism isn’t any single thing or set of things, but a preference/tendency in relating to things. For this reason, conservatives have no loyalty to tradition simply for the sake of it being tradition.

American conservatives, for example, have no inherent commitment to any given American tradition, although of course they are committed to a collective imagining of a tradition (a social and political narrative, an origin myth) that may or may not partly correspond to some period or aspect of history. American conservatives have no particular loyalty to the tradition of the Republican Party prior to the Southern Strategy nor loyalty to the European tradition of conservatism. Each generation and group of conservatives has re-imagined what is ‘true’ conservatism.

The world history of conservatism is immensely diverse, including everything from theocracy to monarchism, from fascism to republicanism. Even American socialists have grounded themselves in conservative traditions such as German communalism. Just within the limited spectrum of mainstream American politics, there are conservatives as polar opposite as evangelical states’ rights libertarians threatening secession and secular statist neocons using liberal rhetoric about spreading democracy around the world, two extremes that can’t be contained in any single consistent ideology.

Loyalty and consistency aren’t the issues.

A social order is perceived as worthy or unworthy not because of the social order itself, rather what that social order accomplishes or fails to accomplish. What is trying to be accomplished is that a worthy order will reward the worthy and punish the unworthy. Conservatives turned away from a monarchical system of feudal aristocracy not because it oppressively denied individual rights and liberty.  What Corey Robin points out is that conservatives saw the old social order as having become weak and so no longer able to maintain its own hierarchy and authority against opponents. Conservatives didn’t want to remove this kind of social order, but to offer a new and improved version. This required adapting to changing conditions which is how modern conservatives adopted classical liberalism in place of classical conservatism.

The rhetoric of conservatism is misleading. The purpose of conservative social order is first and foremost to defend and maintain conservative social order, i.e., hierarchical authority. The upholders and representatives of conservative social order don’t need to justify their reasons to social inferiors. They just have to keep their social inferiors in their place, thus maintaining conservative social order.

On this most basic level, conservatism is morally neutral or rather morally relativistic. No external objective standard can be used to measure the authenticity and merit of a social order in the mind of conservatives. It is a self-referential closed system. That is what conservatism does: closes down, tightens the ranks, guards the boundaries, etc. This is what makes it stable and dependable, strong enough to be its own moral standard (in the way the conservative God doesn’t need to justify his own divine laws and moral pronouncements; it is right, good and true because God says so, and you know he said so because that is what God put in his own holy book).

Any principle, belief or value put forth by a conservative is always symbolic. And every conservative symbol represents the same thing: conservative social order. An example I’ve used before is that of conservatives claiming to be pro-life. I’ve pointed out to conservatives that research has shown banning abortions doesn’t decrease and in some cases increases the rate of abortions, just illegal and more dangerous. If conservatives were primarily pro-life, this evidence would cause them to change their mind. Does it make them rethink? Of course not. Being pro-life is a symbolic position representing conservative social order in its role as overt moral order.

This is an opaquely symbolic way of thinking and speaking. The best way to defend the social order is by disguising it as something other or more than what it is. The moment the social order is clearly seen, it can be openly questioned and doubted. The social order has to be taken as a given of reality in order for it to have power to persuade and inspire. The symbol must become conflated with reality and this conflation is of prime importance, the very heart of conservatism.

I can’t begin to explain how immensely this fascinates me. There is power in this that, as I’ve said before, goes way beyond anything liberalism can accomplish (which is meant as a compliment of sorts). As long as the conflation stands unchallenged, liberalism is pathetically weak (a definite criticism coming from my inner left-winger).

Many liberals don’t understand this or are afraid to speak truth to power. When social order is weakened, all of society becomes threatened by the possibility of change. Only the most radical revolutionary will embrace the new and different without trepidation. Liberals want to loosen up the social order, but they don’t want to pull out the lynchpin. This is why liberals can be more conservative than even conservatives, moderating the extremes. The reason conservatives rule to the extent that they do so is because liberals allow them.

Social order is a strange thing. It would seem even stranger that conservatives take social order for granted more than do liberals. I suppose this is the case because for conservatives social order always has to largely play out on the level of unconsciousness.

None of this is meant directly as a criticism of conservatism. Conservatism can be used in the service of beneficial social orders just as easily with destructive social orders. The deal conservatives and liberals have is the following. Liberals won’t do an all out assault on the symbolic conflation that holds social order together and conservatives will incorporate liberalism into the social order so as to strengthen it. Whether this is a good deal, whether this is symbiosis or codependency (certainly not opposing ideologies in a simplistic sense) is another matter. I offer it just as an observation and analysis of how  society seems to operate.

So, it all comes down to social order. That is what all of civilization is about. The precariousness of civilization helps me understand the mysterious and hidden nature of conservatism. I have a basic respect for the function it serves.

I’ll end as I began with some questions:

Could civilization operate differently? Or could such ways of operating serve a new kind of social order?

Political Elites Disconnected From General Public

There is an interesting article by Alex Preen on Salon.com:

Politicians think Americans are super-conservative
A survey of thousands shows candidates from both parties think the electorate is way more right-wing than it is

“According to a working paper from two political scientists who interviewed 2,000 state legislative candidates last year, politicians all think Americans are more conservative than they actually are. Unsurprisingly, Republicans think voters are way more right-wing than they actually are.”

It’s unsurprising that right-wingers are clueless about the average American. That is the nature of being a right-winger, often not even realizing one is right-wing, instead thinking one is a normal mainstream American

“Liberal politicians, meanwhile, don’t imagine that their constituents are super-liberal. A majority of them also believe that their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. Which, well, that explains your Democratic Party since the Clinton administration. They weren’t polled, but I’m pretty sure “nonpartisan” political elites in the media share the exact same misperception. (“It’s a center-right country,” we hear all the time, which it turns out is both meaningless and untrue.)”

Now, this might be surprising to many, especially those on the right. It’s far from surprising to me. The average American is way to the left of what is considered ‘liberal’ in mainstream politics and media.

“Left-liberals who actually pay attention to surveys of popular opinion on things like raising taxes on rich people and expanding Medicare instead of raising the eligibility age are frequently a bit annoyed when they watch, say, the Sunday shows, and these ideas are either dismissed as radical or simply not brought up to begin with, but all of Washington is still pretty sure that Nixon’s Silent Majority is still out there, quietly raging against the longhairs and pinkos. In fact the new Silent Majority is basically made up of a bunch of social democrats, wondering why Congress can’t do serious, sensible, bipartisan things like lock up all the bankers and redistribute their loot to the masses.”

I’m one of those left-liberals who actually pays attention to surveys of popular opinion. The one thing that surprises me is that so few people do pay attention. You’d think it would be a politician’s business to pay attention. Their whole job is theoretically to represent and yet they don’t know who they are representing.

One commenter put it well:

“Constituents? Who cares about them? MONEY votes conservative, and that’s what counts. to both parties.”

Another commenter extended that thought:

“I suspect what’s going on is that many politicians (a) feel they’re supposed to represent their constituents, (b) find they’re compelled to represent their donors and other fat cats, and (c) mitigate the cognitive dissonance by telling themselves (a) and (b) aren’t far apart, although, of course, they are.”

I makes me wonder. Can these seemingly clueless people really be that out of touch and just plain ignorant? People in politics and media tend to be people who are above average in both IQ and education. None of this polling data is a secret or difficult to find.

At least for those on the right, not knowing or pretending to not know is conveniently self-serving. The way they act and what they support implies that on some level they do know, as a commenter put it:

“Republican politicians may be in the grips of delusion about the beliefs of their constituents, but at the same time they understand the need for gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other aggressive antidemocratic uses of power, when they have it, to enforce rightwing priorities. Something isn’t quite right here.”

I care less about the politicians and media. If the public became self-aware of their own leftism, it would become more difficult for the mainstream elites to keep their ruse going.

* * *

3/22/21 – Below is an even better article by Eric Alterman, the author of the 2008 book Why We’re Liberals. I’ve had that book for a long time, maybe having gotten a copy when it first came out, but I don’t remember the details of it now. My first coming to terms with the American leftist majority came together in 2010 when I began to more seriously research the polling, survey, and demographic data. Maybe Alterman had helped plant some ideas in my mind in the years immediately prior.

Then again, much else was informing my thoughts back then. During the Aughts, I did further learn about corporate media bias and the propaganda model of news. Though my political awareness grew in the late 1990s, I had my fuller political awakening with the stolen 2000 election, about which nearly all of the media and politica elite maintained a conspiracy of silence. After that, having been a part of the anti-war protests, the largest such movement in world history at the time, I experienced firsthand how the corporate media spun narratives and downplayed the significance and size of it.

In the decade following, the reality of the US as a banana republic became ever more apparent, particularly as the even more leftist younger generation reached voting age. Yet the ensuing presidential elections again controlled the outcome with the rhetorically-framed lesser evil of forced choice between ‘mainstream’ candidates that were corporate-friendly plutocrats to the right of the American public (in reality, two greater evils). This inspired further research into how the majority was kept suppressed and how disconnection was maintained across society, which led to study of the Wirthlin effect and the history of how we got here.

I’ve continued to write about this topic, including some recent doozies. At this point, it is part of what might be the main theme of my entire blogging career. The public opinion angle on a leftward shift toward egalitariainism is one sub-theme within the larger perspective of societal changes over the past few millennia, from the Axial Age to the early modern revolts, with an increasing interest on the Peasant’s Revolt which might’ve been the first overt class war. There is a larger context and an older background to this present disconnected elite. But whatever we think of it, or however we interpret it, the basic truth of disconnection and the problems it causes cannot be denied.

Without further ado, let Eric Alterman explain the basic issue:

America is much less conservative than mainstream media believe
(text below from linked article)

It’s a well-known “fact” within the mainstream media that the country is not as liberal as journalists like to think it is. As with the consistent insistence on the prevalence of liberal bias, however, that fact is also fundamentally false.

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough is among many in the media and elsewhere who like to, as he says, “warn [their] friends in Manhattan and Washington and LA and in the mainstream media … that America is much more conservative” than they believe it to be. He made this claim in February 2012, basing it on the example of marriage for same-sex couples, noting that a majority of Americans still opposed its legalization. Scarborough did not actually identify which of his “friends” were making this claim, nor did he identify the nature of the argument they allegedly offered.

Leaving that aside, however, he had his facts wrong. According to a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service, marriage equality was supported by a 54 percent to 40 percent majority within 30 days of Scarborough’s evidence-less assertion. Similarly, the Gallup poll on the issue taken closest to the statement, in May 2012, also put the number supporting marriage equality above 50 percent. (And don’t forget, we know that Gallup consistently oversampled for Republicans throughout 2012, so that number is, if anything, understated.)

Scarborough needn’t feel alone in his ignorance. The members of America’s political class, whether journalists, pundits, or politicians, routinely overestimate the relative conservatism of the American people. In fact, David E. Broockman of the University of California, Berkeley, and Christopher Skovron of the University of Michigan published a study in March and discovered that thousands of state legislative candidates systematically judged their constituents’ political views to be considerably more conservative than they actually were.

While this was mildly true in the case of liberals and moderates, it turns out that conservative legislators generally overestimate the conservatism of their constituents by 20 points. “This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country,” Broockman and Skovron discovered. The source of this misinformation is unclear, but one can reasonably conclude that much if not all of the problem lies with the mainstream media. After all, state legislature candidates cannot usually afford much polling, and none of us are immune to the power of the media to shape what Walter Lippmann termed “the world outside and the pictures in our heads.”

A significant part of the problem appears to lie with the inaccurate use of labels. Without a doubt, self-professed conservatives consistently outnumber liberals in polls when Americans are questioned about their respective ideological orientations. Politicians, pundits, and reporters tend to believe that this extends to their views on the issues. It doesn’t. In fact it represents little more than the extensive investments conservatives have made in demonizing the liberal label and associating it with one unflattering characteristic after another.

I delved deeply into this phenomenon while researching my 2008 book titled Why We’re Liberals. In the book, I noted that as a result of a four-decade-long campaign of conservative calumny, together with some significant errors on liberals’ own part, the word “liberal,” as political scientist Drew Westen observed, implied to most Americans terms such as “elite, tax and spend, out of touch,” and “Massachusetts.” No wonder barely one in five Americans wished to associate himself or herself with the label, then as now.

Yet at the very same time, detailed polling by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press demonstrated a decided trend toward increasingly “liberal” positions by almost any definition.

Why Did I Become a Leftist?

In a previous post, I threw out some observations and conjecture about empathy in the context of recent interactions I’ve had with my conservative parents. My parents aren’t happy. Their having worked as poll workers in a liberal town on the day of Obama’s victory didn’t help matters.

Politics lately have rubbed salt into the open wounds of conservatism. The media gives us daily updates on the writhing that this has caused in the Republican Party and in the conservative movement in general, especially in relation to the Tea Party whose supporters are always going on about RINOs versus real conservatives. I don’t personally care too much about who those on the right end up sacrificing from their ranks. I’m perfectly fine with them eating their own, as they are apt to do at times like these.

However, I do care about my conservative parents which means I can’t help but personalize the issue of conservatism. I’m easily affected by the unhappiness and distress of those around me. I have a hard enough time keeping myself in a moderately good mood on the best of days, even when the people in my life are feeling satisfied with their place in the world. It would be different if I didn’t see them as often, but their moving back into town has made regular interactions the norm.

I actually like my parents in a general sense, by which I mean when they aren’t explicitly in righteous conservative mode. I’ve always been closer to them than my brothers have, for reasons that I don’t wish to entirely explain at the moment. To put it simply, I guess it comes down to understanding on a fundamental level why my parents are the way they are. I see how much I am my parent’s child. Every trait I love and hate in myself I can find correlates to varying degrees in my parents. Only circumstances clearly distinguish why I became a liberal-minded leftist rather than following in the rightward footsteps of my parents.

Looking back on my high school years in South Carolina, I can see how my left-leaning tendencies weren’t entirely formed and so not inevitable. Any number of events could have caused me to have become a conservative or at least more conservative-minded. At that time, I hadn’t yet returned to this liberal college town in the Midwest, i.e., Iowa City. I also hadn’t yet discovered the wonders and glories of the internet. My intellectual world back then was severely confined relative to my present situation living in a literary town full of book stores and libraries (public and university), all within short walking distance.

Growing up, I talked to my dad about all kinds of intellectual topics (and I still do). It was from him that I learned my intellectual abilities. This was eased both by the fact that I wasn’t yet fully a leftist and my dad wasn’t yet fully a right-winger (my dad could actually watch and enjoy the most liberal of tv shows such as Star Trek: Next Generation without any complaints). At that time, I didn’t have any other role models for what it meant to live a life of the intellect. So, my dad’s conservative intellect, albeit not without some basic liberal-mindedness, was profoundly influential upon my tender young emerging psyche.

I specifically remember two things we discussed around then in my late teens during the mid 1990s: 1) a book about the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of homosexuality, and 2) Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve which discusses race and IQ.

I look back now and see these ideas in a larger context. The right-wing culture wars were heating up and my dad was pulled into it. But at the time, I wasn’t a liberal and wasn’t versed in the liberal criticisms. I didn’t know, for example, that Murray’s book wasn’t intellectually credible. I actually took those ideas seriously for the simple reason that I took my dad seriously. I even remember repeating these ideas to others. If my intellectual development had stopped there, I would be an ideologically very different person.

The reason I took those ideas seriously was because of the social environment I found myself in. I was living in South Carolina during high school. After high school, I spent three summers in a conservative Christian YMCA camp in the belt buckle of the Bible Belt. Also, the colleges I went to (Clemson and a local community college) weren’t exactly bastions of liberalism and leftism.

I had no larger perspective at the time, but I knew on a gut-level that there was something wrong with the world I found myself in. Maybe it was depression that saved me. The tidy conservative vision of life appealed to a part of me. Like my parents, I just wanted to be a good person… which in the conservative worldview goes hand in hand with being ‘normal’. There was just one problem. I was incapable of being normal. I had profound sense of dissatisfaction and suspected that it was more than a mere personal problem.

Nonetheless, on a basic level, I understood the attraction of the simple vision of life offered by the conservative worldview. I can’t emphasize that enough. Even to this day, a strong element of conservative-mindedness has survived within me. This is why I’m so conflicted in my relationship with my parents.

If I had never discovered the wonders of liberal-mindedness, I would have ended up as a tragic figure in a conservative story. But my parents had unintentionally planted within me the seed of liberal-mindedness. My parents taught me to think independently, especially my dad who taught me to question and doubt and to think analytically. My parents also kept plenty of liberal-minded literature around the house which formed the background of my mental development.

Still, that wouldn’t have been enough to have made me into a liberal or leftist. My earliest strong introduction to the liberal worldview was public education. Despite being in the Deep South, public school introduced me to a wide variety of people, both my peers and teachers, but particularly teachers.

I had an English teacher who was British and who taught the clssics of the traditional liberal education. Two books that I discovered through his class were Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Hermann Hesse’s Siddharha. The two protagonists were typical liberal heros dissatisfied with the conservative world they were born into, both ending up alone in poverty, one ending in tragedy and the other in spiritual vision. I internalized the liberal hero and the two possible endings continue to play out in my psyche.

The other teacher I had was in an art class. He loved art with almost a sense of mission. He was one of those rare teachers who realized the power and rsponsibility of being a teacher. What he taught me was to think outside the box, to never assume anything, and to not be afraid to experiment. He is the only teacher I hated to disappoint for he saw potential in me and so allowed me to see it for myself.

Before moving back to liberal Iowa City, I had this basic liberal foundation, although I didn’t yet have a comprehension of liberalism on its own terms. The classical liberal hero, as found in Jude the Obscure and Siddhartha, lived in a conservative society. That was my situation in South Carolina, but Iowa City was a different world. All of a sudden, I found myself surrounded by well-educated liberals, authors regularly visiting for readings, aspiring writers everywhere, and numerous libraries and bookstores. My liberal-minded potential blossomed into my present bleeding heart self.

My mom recently asked me why her children all became so opposite of her and my dad. There is no way I could explain this so she could understand. Asking why I failed to become a conservative is inseparable from asking why conservatism itself has gone off the rails.

As I came into young adulthood, one thing became abundantly clear. Conservatism has offered no good answers or solutions to the problem of human suffering. This isn’t to say conservatives never will, but it would require a lot of deep soul-searching. I’ll be more than willing to reassess conservatism if it ever as a movement decides to offer a compassionate response to the struggles and sufferings of the the least among us.

Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism

Let me clear up the issue of ideology as it relates to my own thinking. I’ve discussed this before, but it can never be emphasized too much.

Conservatism isn’t necessarily the same thing as conservative-mindedness and liberalism isn’t necessarily the same thing as liberal-mindedness. (You must forgive my sometimes using, in other posts, conservatism and liberalism as a shorthand for conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness.) A conservative can be relatively liberal-minded and a liberal can be relatively conservative-minded. Conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness are on a spectrum with most people in the middle with varying development and ability in both directions.

The confusion comes from extremists having more influence over politics than does the average person. Also, with mainstream American politics in recent history, conservatism and liberalism no longer clearly or simply correspond with their respective psychological predispositions. It’s a mess with labels meaning almost anything, depending on who you ask.

Conservatism has come to mean extreme conservative-mindedness combined with or aligned with authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. Liberalism has come to mean moderate conservative-mindedness combined with or aligned with moderate liberal-mindedness, but with a constant pull toward the right for the last several decades or so. So, this has caused Democrats to take up the moderate conservative position that used to be the standard position of Republicans (e.g., Nixon and Eisenhower), leaving even moderate liberals without much of a home, not to mention stronger liberals and more radical leftists.

We have a party of extreme right-wingers and a party of moderate conservatives, a party of the extremely conservative-minded and a party of the moderately conservative-minded, a party of authoritarians and a party of lesser authoritarianism. However, neither of the main parties is left-wing nor even overly liberal-minded. Liberalism has come to mean mild-mannered centrism at best. There is no need to fear communist revolution or anarchistic terrorism coming from the Democratic Party, not even from the liberal movement for that matter. Heck, there is no need to fear from Democrats even the popular reforms that used to be promoted by the past Republican Party that was far to the left of Obama.

This problem can’t be solved by conservatives or liberals as such, at least not defined according to present mainstream politics. Left-wingers are correct in their analysis when they point this out. However, liberalism isn’t inherently weak and conciliatory, as some left-wingers assume. Liberalism can manifest in radical ways and indeed it has at other periods of history. Genuinely and strongly liberal-minded liberalism both seeks to liberalize and liberate.

But such liberal-mindedness necessitates a meeting and maybe a merging of liberalism and leftism. Liberal-mindedness is the key part, not any particular ideology. Liberalism without liberal-mindedness is pathetic. Leftism without liberal-mindedness is dangerous.

More importantly, conservative-minded conservatism without liberal-mindedness to balance it will fall off the cliff into authoritarianism. If conservatives genuinely fear authoritarianism, then they should do everything in their power to make room at the table for the liberal-minded (and make room within their own souls for a bit of liberal-minded hope and vision). I’m not asking conservative-mindedness to be sacrificed or even necessarily constrained. I’m arguing that liberal-mindedness is at the heart of democracy and of a free society, for liberals and conservatives alike. Conservative-mindedness can serve the purposes of democracy and freedom or, without liberal-mindedness to offer balance, it can serve the purposes of authoritarianism and oppression.

I speak of the necessity of balance, of interdependence, and of psychological wholeness.

The problem is conservative-minded conservatives (along with the conservative-minded of other persuasions) don’t understand the need of balance when they are in a state of fear. This is why the onus of responsibility ultimately falls on the shoulders of the liberal-minded (including liberal-minded conservatives). Only the liberal-minded are capable of envisioning an alternative narrative to that of fear and doom, paranoia and xenophobia. Only the liberal-minded are capable of offering both/and, win/win solutions. The conservative-minded aren’t capable of pulling themselves out of a death spiral of fear once it has begun.

Fortunately, most people have a combination of varying degrees of conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. Unfortunately, it’s easy even for these people to have fear shut down their own sense of liberal-mindedness. This is how moderate conservatives and also moderate liberals sadly end up supporting immoral actions such as the Iraq War and Gitmo. The two-party system, without any strong elements of liberal-mindedness, will inevitably lead to bipartisan corruption and complicity.

This complicity comes from a lack of imagination. That is the talent of liberal-mindedness: imagination (see the psychological correlates: Openness to Experience of traits theory, Intuition and Perception of Myers-Briggs, and Thin Boundary Type of Ernest Hartmann). I sometimes speak of conservatives lacking empathy, but that actually isn’t quite true or rather I’m not communicating the truth well in stating it that way. What is true is that conservative-mindedness (as a theoretical construct distinct from and separate from liberal-mindedness) lacks empathetic imagination and open-minded imagination in general.

This lack of imagination is exemplified by the cultural myth of capitalist realism — as described by Mark Fisher:

“Capitalist realism as I understand it cannot be confined to art or to the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.”

This invisible barrier is the boundary within which mainstream American politics operates. This is why liberal-mindedness is key, specifically as it relates to Ernest Hartmann’s thin boundary type. Only the thin boundary type has the ease and capacity to see past barriers and transcend constraints. That is imagination, not as mere fantasy but as a potent force of social action, even to the point of revolution when all else fails.

The trick, though, is that liberal-mindedness at its best is capable of operating without any inevitable opposition for it undermines the oppositional attitude typical of conservative-mindedness. Conservative-mindedness has no way of defending against this other than to promote fear that undermines liberal-mindedness at a gut-level. In a direct fight, conservative-mindedness will always win. Liberal-mindedness can only win by shifting the narrative of the debate, by refusing to play by the rules of conflict and antagonism.

Liberal-mindedness isn’t opposed to conservative-mindedness nor, I would argue, is conservative-mindedness by itself opposed to liberal-mindedness. Rather, it is conservative-mindedness combined with or in alliance with authoritarianism (and social dominance orientation) that is opposed to liberal-mindedness. Without authoritarianism pulling conservative-mindedness into extremism, conservative-mindedness is simply the yang to the yin of liberal-mindedness. The liberal-minded can understand this because it is at the core of their worldview. The challenge is to help the conservative-minded to realize that they too contain liberal-mindedness within themselves, even if only as a potential.

An example of unnecessary and unuseful polarized opposition is that of public versus private. In reality, both are required for a well functioning society. I see this in the debate of welfare. Conservatives construct a narrative of charity in opposition to welfare, as if private charity could solve all of the world’s problems. This is usually promoted by religious conservatives and so it is an argument for giving churches more power over society, deciding who gets helped and who doesn’t.

The problems with this are many, but one basic problem is that private charity has never proven itself to be effective. The very communities and regions that are the most religious and have the least taxation also have the worst social problems. If they can’t solve their own problems at home, what makes them think that their strategy will work for the entire nation?

Liberals aren’t against charity. As a liberal, I praise conservatives who do their best to help others through volunteering their time and donating money. But in the end such charity only deals with symptoms. By saying this, I don’t mean to disparage or devalue charity. Anyone who has dealt with a serious illness or had a loved one deal with a serious illness knows that symptom management can be one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine, especially when it comes to pain management. As nice as it is, no rational person would argue that symptom management should replace procedures that may cure the illness that is causing the symptoms.

It’s both/and. This is what liberal-mindedness can offer. Conservative emphasis on charity and liberal emphasis on social safety nets are both necessary for a civil society. So, it is left to the liberal-minded to make this case and to provide the vision, the empathetic imagination that will make this case compelling.