A Manifesto of Meaninglessness

Yet another righteous declaration from the self-proclaimed moral middle, Centrism: A Moderate Manifesto. It’s written by Bo Winegard over at Quillette.

It doesn’t seem particularly coherent, except maybe on an emotional level. It comes across as uninformed and inapplicable platitudes, along with some moralistic patronizing. More of a description of a personality type or a psychological attitude than a political position. The author is basically saying he wants to be a good person and doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Ya know, why can’t everyone just get along?

I’m not going to argue against that sentiment. But there needs to be some meat on the bone, if we are to make a meal out of it.

“The centrist, like the conservative, is therefore worried about radical utopian proposals because the centrist fears that they might inspire dramatic alterations that upset a reasonably successful social order.”

Many people are worried about radical utopian proposals. The minor detail is that those such as myself see the rhetoric of the status quo as radically utopian.

Capitalist realism with its ideals of free markets freeing the world, meritocracy freeing human potential, and creative destruction freeing innovation. Geopolitical neoconservatism proclaiming to spread democracy around the world by force of superior moral example and moral righteousness, in the form of a Whiggish Holy War of Manifest Destiny. Paternalistic Technocracy of learned professionals, wise leaders, and maybe even an enlightened aristocracy.

Is this what such centrists are in the center of? If so, such centrists are radical utopians because the reality on the ground doesn’t match this ungrounded ideological optimism (or rather dogmatic arrogance). Besides, our country is rare in the world for having been founded on soaring idealism, even though it has become co-opted by the reactionaries and authoritarians in power.

I’m not clear what claims of being realistic mean in all of this. Realism always necessitates an ideology by which to judge reality. Almost everyone perceives reality as being on their side. So, whose realism are we talking about? Does this supposed centrist see himself at the center of reality itself?

“So far, so conservative. This sounds like a modern version of Edmund Burke’s political philosophy. But, there are two great differences between the centrism here conceived and conservatism: (1) Centrism does not loath change and (2) it does not accept a transcendental (religious) moral order.”

It does have much in common with Burke’s views. More than the author realizes. Even the supposed differences mentioned don’t apply, which is why it is important to be well informed.

Burke was in the progressive party, the Whigs. He often supported political reform. He was a conservative only in Corey Robin’s sense of the reactionary mind. He was seeking reform in response to a failed traditional order. Burke did not loathe change. In fact, he supported change so far as to support the American Revolution, up to the point that Independence was declared (as he remained loyal to the British Empire, even as he wanted the status quo improved).

On the second point, Burke didn’t believe in a transcendental (religious) moral order. He wasn’t a believer in natural law, although interestingly many early leftists were (and many still are, such as progressive Evangelicals, New Thought Christians, and New Agers). Rather, Burke was a critic of natural law, specifically as a basis of social order and a political system.

“The great conservatives of the past–Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, Klemens von Metternich, John Calhoun, T.S. Eliot, et cetera–often evinced a peculiarly fervid attachment to the current social order”

It depends on which individual in relation to which aspect of which then current social order.

Because of his Whiggish progressiveness and reform-mindedness, many arguments have been made for Burke as a liberal, in the way that Locke was a liberal (both having a reactionary aspect that would show up in certain areas, but that is true of many liberals today in the Democratic Party). Remember that Burke was for revolution before he was against it, as initially no one knew what revolution would mean, and obviously Burke didn’t immediately see it as threatening.

Even Calhoun has been categorized as a liberal by Domenico Losurdo, from his European left-wing perspective, and he makes an interesting argument. Calhoun talked of the necessity of divided power and the protection of minorities, even as he defended slavery (many liberals back then weren’t abolitionists).

The centrism being described in the article sounds like what one person called melancholy liberalism:

“Part of the strength of that liberalism has been its power of self-criticism. […] what differentiates liberalism from socialism and premodern conservatism is its conviction that there is no permanent solution to the problems of politics […] as we come up against environmental and economic limits to progress. The conclusion is premature. Much of the globe still lacks the freedom that the West takes for granted; and it is precisely at moments of discouragement that liberalism itself is most vulnerable to attacks from more confident and simplistic ideologies. The beleaguered tradition needs, and deserves, not just critics but celebrants.”

I’m sympathetic with this attitude and worldview. During a transitional period of my life, I was drawn to this melancholy liberalism and drawn to the appeals of moderation and centrism. My present leftism has been an attempt to shake myself free from this narrow thinking.

To return to the Quillette article:

“The conservative is correct that the past is full of wisdom for the future; but the progressive is correct that the past is also full of errors, dogmas, and barbarism. Perhaps one could put it this way: The past is like an old, unused, and rotting library; the books are full of wisdom, but the building is ruined by insects and decay. The conservative wants to keep the library; the centrist wants to keep the books; and the progressive wants to burn the whole thing down and start over.”

Liberalism was founded on an Enlightenment worldview that looked to the past. Enlightenment thinkers and revolutionary leaders were constantly referencing the ancient Greco-Roman world along with the early history of Europe and the British Isles. It related to why they were prone to invoke natural law, a Greek philosophy that had been used by Stoics (and, following their example, early Christians) to challenge imperial authority.

What kind of demented person sees progressives as wanting to burn the whole thing down and start over? The author here shows his reactionary side, a fear of even mild leftism as a danger to the existing social order.

“Centrism, then, is defined by a number of assumptions and tendencies; it is not defined by policy dogmas. Below is an undoubtedly incomplete but useful list of these assumptions and attitudes: (1) Mistrust and disdain for extreme proposals and actions.”

That is true of many people. Only a minority of people anywhere on the political spectrum would embrace extreme proposals and actions. But it always depends on who is defining extreme.

Those on the political left often see the political right as extreme. And as extremist neoliberals and neocons control our society, many outside of the center of power see centrists as extreme, specifically in that the center of power contradicts and subverts the center of majority public opinion. I’ve often noted, on many important issues, how far right self-proclaimed centrists are in comparison to most Americans.

With this in mind, I’ve asked: Is there a balance point in a society of extremes? What can centrism and moderation mean?

Now to the second defining assumption and tendency of ‘centrism’:

“(2) Mistrust of grand political theories or systems.”

That’s fine. Few ascribe to grand political theories or systems. That isn’t how most people think. But there are always grand political theories and systems playing in the background.

Being a ‘centrist’ doesn’t save one from this fate, considering that the status quo itself is built on grand political theories and systems, one of the grandest (i.e., largest and most encompassing) in all of world history. The status quo that dominates is also quite absolutist in its claims on reality, which is the ground upon which centrists base their moral authority to judge others.

“(3) Skepticism about the goodness of human nature.”

Skepticism in general is found among a wide variety of people. Leftists and left-liberals have a strong skeptical tradition. It’s the reason many of them prefer to focus on systems and environmental conditions, rather than placing their faith in an inherently good human nature that will win out against oppressive evil.

Most people across the political spectrum, including conservatives and right-wingers, think of human goodness as more of a potential than anything else. That isn’t meant to dismiss the genuine disagreements about that human potential.

“(4) Desire to seek compromise and form large coalitions.”

Anyone who knows history knows that compromise and large coalitions have been found among diverse ideological groups and movements. This was particularly true of the political left. The early European workers movement included Marxists, communists, socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, libertarians, etc. And similar to Martin Luther King jr, the Black Panthers early on sought alliances with a wide variety of others: feminists, Native American activists, and poor white groups.

What we see of the left is splintered and beleaguered by generations of oppression and persecution. Cold War witch-hunts, COINTELPRO, and union-busting have had a devastating effect. The once large and diverse leftist coalitions in the US are now but a memory, although there are many on the left who have continuously fought to rebuild them.

“(5) Pragmatic emphasis on science, evidence, and truth.”

What does this have to do with centrism? Scientists and other professionals dealing with evidence (and truth) hold different ideologies, including on the far left and far right. And a wide variety, specifically on the political left, support scientists in this endeavor.

Among those who celebrated the hope and sought the pragmatic application of science included: Nazis, Soviets, and Maoists; New Dealers, eugenicists, and race realists; Progressives, Objectivists, and Libertarians; left-wingers, right-wingers, and centrists; et cetera. Only those like anarchist environmentalists and extreme New Agers along with the most reactionary of right-wingers have consistently and entirely dismissed the dominant scientific paradigm.

This past century has been ruled by science and it required a contrarian attitude to oppose it.

“(6) A healthy admiration for patriotism and a distrust of identity politics.”

Patriotism is a form of identity politics. People hold many identities. In the 19th century, it was common for Americans to identify with their state or their region, not with the country as a whole and certainly not with the federal government. Many others have identified with their ethnic group or religion. The average person has always had multiple identities that overlap and sometimes contradict.

Identity politics isn’t a new invention. Our country was founded on identity politics, specifically that of an institutionalized and legally-enforced racial order that dominated every aspect of life, economy, and politics. Even feminism was a growing political movement prior to the American Revolution, although suppressed for a while following that. If present identity politics gets your panties in a wad, the identity politics of the early twentieth century would have scared you shitless.

“(7) A steadfast dedication to rule of law and fidelity to constitutional principles.”

Few are absolutely against rule of law and constitutional principles. It depends on the political order.

Every major society that ever existed had rule of laws and many had constitutional principles. Saudi Arabia has theocratic rule of law and the Islamic centrists living there have steadfast dedication to rule of law. The Soviet Union and Maoist China were constitutional republics where fidelity to constitutional principles was considered the social norm.

So, what point is the author trying to make?

“For the centrist, one of the more disturbing trends of the past 15 years is the radical moralization of policy preferences.”

Radical and moralization are the kind of words that means many things to many people. To me, radical just means going to the roots (of human nature, an ideological worldview, a belief system, a social order, a country’s founding, or a civilizational project). What one does after getting to the root is another matter — root it out like a weed, pick out the grubs, replant it elsewhere, or whatever else.

“There are many good-natured people on both sides of this debate. However, many on the Left not only disagree with restrictive immigration laws, they denounce those who support them.”

Many? Is the author implying that there are more on the left that denounce those not on the left than those on the right who denounce those not on the right? And why does the author as a self-proclaimed ‘centrist’ pretend to stand above the fray in denouncing others?

“That thought should chasten us and cause us to be as tolerant of the failings of our fellow citizens as we wish our descendants to be of us. Perhaps this is what centrism really is: a tolerant smile at the recognition that we are human, all too human.”

That really says nothing at all. That we are human, all too human is no grand insight of rare wisdom. It’s a fairly standard view.

The crux of the matter is what kind of tolerance toward which humans in which context. Is the author tolerant even of those who are intolerant of tolerance, those who would seek to undermine and destroy it? Should the American Revolutionaries have tolerated the British Empire and British East India Company? Should the slaves in the South tolerated their violent oppressors? Should the Jewish freedom fighters have tolerated the Nazis? Should Native Americans have tolerated those killing them and taking their land? Should workers have tolerated the abusive and corrupt Robber Barons?

What is the alternative? Would peaceful protests, petitions, and hunger strikes have stopped such evil? And what about the present evil of a two party system that promotes vast inequality, a permanent underclass, mass incarceration, plutocratic corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, a military industrial complex, CIA covert operations used to oppress populations and overthrow governments, near continuous wars of aggression around the world, invasion and occupation of numerous countries, the terrorizing and dislocating and killing of millions of people year after year, and on and on?

What morally sane person would want to claim a centrist position amidst such horrifying suffering and oppression?

* * *

Some helpful views from the comment section:

Speaker To Animals
September 1, 2017
“In most of the United States, for example, sex cannot be bought and sold legally. There are, of course, reasonable arguments for the legalization of prostitution, but it is not immediately obvious that society would be better if all potential market transactions were allowed.”
This raises the question of which ‘centre’ centrism is based on – the centre of the sates in which prostitution, for instance, is illegal or the centre where it is not?
Here in the U.K. prostitution is not illegal. Most people think it is, but it isn’t; practices associated with prostitution, such as soliciting and running a brothel are illegal, but not the sale of sex itself. Elsewhere in Europe there are countries where selling sex is legal but purchasing sex is not. In much of the rest of the world it is illegal for a woman to show her hair in public.
What you call centerism is just your own societies status quo. Defending the status quo is fine if you live in a liberal society but not when you live elsewhere. Why not just defend liberalism and call it liberalism?

Keith Ammann
September 1, 2017
   The author mischaracterizes progressivism. It’s not looking to burn down the library or anything in it. It wants to build a library that’s capable of accommodating new books. If the old library can be repaired and expanded, great. If not, demolishing and rebuilding it is simply common sense.
Also, the author condemns the left’s “radical moralization of policy preferences.” I would point out that many of these “preferences” are actively undermining the 20th-century international human rights consensus. Given the atrocities that led to the establishment of this consensus (in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”), how can we consider attacks on this consensus to be anything BUT a moral issue, perhaps the most important one of our era? Should we excuse policies that overtly and aggressively assault people’s rights and dignity, that dismiss equal justice, civil liberties, freedom of conscience, and economic security and opportunity, as mere differences of opinion about which people can disagree and still get along? If “Philando is a human being, as deserving of life as I am” is a radical moral position, then I have no use for any centrism that shies away from it.

September 1, 2017
At least at the start with broad strokes, I feel very comfortable calling myself a centrist by that definition: not a Republican, not a utopian calling on us to trust our neighbors unaware of human instincts or game theory.

Here however is the bs that gets moderates correctly mocked:
“the centrist has no sympathy for crowds shouting, “Jews will not replace us.” But it is crucial to remain committed to the rule of law and to protect free speech.”
If you want to represent moderates, if you want moderation to rebuild the center of American politics, then when people fly swastikas you need to be there. You need a plan, you need to do organizing. When you say “no sympathy,” that is the same as the centrists who had no sympathy for the original Nazis, closing the shutters on their windows and leaving it to someone else to do the work.
Moderation doesn’t need the defense given here. I think most people — certainly most of the left out to the Sanders or Chomsky edge — have an idea of human nature, have an idea of the value of the democratic movements that came mostly out of part of Europe (though I would rather be more specific.) Moderation needs to have politically crushed the Birthers and now the Alt-Right, ok, choose the methods, but you have to do the work to get to the end result.
The broad strokes ring true: No wild Communist revolutions. Instead, breaking up monopolies, national healthcare, making sure that everyone has job opportunities with dignity, and you’re going to come up with a real plan for getting the Nazis to be again unacceptable, rather than complain about the people trying something, right? The problem with moderation in America is not that it lacks respect from left or right — it’s not a philosophical problem — but that it is too apathetic and doesn’t do the organizing work. You can see something similar on the left: you talk about Antifa, which is a microscopic organization that liberals all the way out to Chomsky (well past Sanders) think is counter-productive. They organize.
The extremes are out-organizing the middle. To me the middle is single-payer health care; to you it might be something else. But screw the philosophy, almost everyone wants to be a moderate, almost no one wants to work. But 10,000 moderates on the street next time the Nazis have a rally, instead of having only thousands of liberals and dozens or a 100 or so Antifa show up.


What is the Moderate Center of a Banana Republic?

The Corruption Of Money
by Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers

Robert Wiessman, the director of Public Citizen, points out that there is broad popular support for transforming the economy and government. He writes: “. . . more Americans believe in witches and ghosts than support Citizens United . . . There is three-to-one support for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.” Some other key areas of national consensus:

  • 83% agree that “the rules of the economy matter and the top 1 percent have used their influence to shape the rules of the economy to their advantage;
  • Over 90% agree that it is important to regulate financial services and products to make sure they are fair for consumers;
  • Four-fifths say Wall Street financial companies should be held accountable with tougher rules and enforcement for the practices that caused the financial crisis;
  • By a three-to-one margin, the public supports closing tax loopholes that allow speculators and people who make money from short-term trades to pay less taxes on profits than full time workers pay on their income or wages.
  • About two-thirds oppose corporate trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and 75% believe such deals destroy more jobs than they create.

These are just a few examples that show near unanimity on issues where the government – answering to the oligarchs – does the opposite of what the public wants and needs.

90 Percent Of Public Lacks Trust In US Political System
by Staff

Seventy percent of Americans say they feel frustrated about this year’s presidential election, including roughly equal proportions of Democrats and Republicans, according to a recent national poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. More than half feel helpless and a similar percent are angry.

Nine in 10 Americans lack confidence in the country’s political system, and among a normally polarized electorate, there are few partisan differences in the public’s lack of faith in the political parties, the nominating process, and the branches of government.

Americans do not see either the Republicans or the Democrats as particularly receptive to new ideas or the views of the rank-and-file membership. However, the candidacy of Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination is more likely to be viewed as good for his party than Donald Trump’s bid for the Republican Party.

The nationwide poll of 1,060 adults used the AmeriSpeak® Omnibus, a monthly multi-client survey using NORC at the University of Chicago’s probability based panel. Interviews were conducted between May 12 and 15, 2016, online and using landlines and cellphones.

Some of the poll’s key findings are:

  • Just 10 percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence in the country’s overall political system while 51 percent have only some confidence and 38 percent have hardly any confidence.
  • Similarly, only 13 percent say the two-party system for presidential elections works, while 38 percent consider it seriously broken. About half (49 percent) say that although the two-party system has real problems, it could still work well with some improvements.
  • Most Americans report feeling discouraged about this year’s election for president. Seventy percent say they experience frustration and 55 percent report they feel helpless.
  • Few Americans are feeling pride or excitement about the 2016 presidential campaign, but it is grabbing the public’s attention. Two-thirds (65 percent) of the public say they are interested in the election for president this year; only 31 percent say they are bored. However, only 37 percent are feeling hopeful about the campaign, 23 percent are excited, and just 13 percent say the presidential election make them feel proud.
  • The public has little confidence in the three branches of government. A quarter (24 percent) say they have a great deal of confidence in the Supreme Court and only 15 percent of Americans say the same of the executive branch. Merely 4 percent of Americans have much faith in Congress. However, more than half (56 percent) of Americans have a great deal of confidence in the military.
  • Only 29 percent of Democrats and just 16 percent of Republicans have a great deal of confidence in their party. Similarly, 31 percent of Democrats and 17 percent of Republicans have a lot of faith in the fairness of their party’s nominating process.
  • Neither party is seen as particularly receptive to fresh ideas. Only 17 percent of the public say the Democratic Party is open to new ideas about dealing with the country’s problems; 10 percent say that about the Republican Party.
  • The views of ordinary voters are not considered by either party, according to most Americans. Fourteen percent say the Democratic Party is responsive to the views of the rank-and-file; 8 percent report that about the Republican Party.
  • Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has never held elected office or worked for the government, but most Americans do not regard the Republican Party as especially receptive to candidates from outside the usual influence of Washington and party politics. Only 9 percent consider the Republican Party open to outsiders.
  • Most Republicans (57 percent) say Trump’s candidacy has been good for the Republican Party, although only 15 percent of Democrats and 24 percent of independents agree.
  • The Democratic Party is not viewed as friendly to outsiders either. Only 10 percent say the Democratic Party is open to candidates that are independent of the established order.
  • However, in contrast to Trump, the entry of Bernie Sanders into the race for the Democratic nomination is not see as a negative for the party. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Democrats say Sanders’ bid for the nomination has been good for the Democratic Party, along with 43 percent of Republicans and 22 percent of independents (54 percent of independents report it is neither good nor bad). Although Sanders has served in Congress as a House member and Senator for more than 25 years, he was an independent and did not register as a Democrat until recently. […]

While Americans have doubts about the overall political system and its fairness, nearly 3 in 4 say they have at least some confidence that their vote will be counted accurately. Just 1 in 4 report they have hardly any confidence that their vote will be counted.

Still, many Americans express qualms about how well the two-party system works for presidential elections. Nearly 4 in 10 regard the two-party system as seriously broken. About half say this system for electing a president has major problems, but could still work with some improvement. Just 13 percent of the public says the two-party system works fairly well.

Americans also question the fairness of the political parties’ presidential nominating processes. About 4 in 10 have little confidence in the equity of the parties’ nominating process for president. Four in 10 have some faith that the Republican Party’s means of selecting its standard bearer is fair, but only about 1 in 10 have a great deal of confidence in the process. Similarly, 38 percent have some confidence in the Democratic Party’s procedures, but only 17 percent have a great deal of confidence.

Again, while partisans are more confident in their own party, the levels are low. Thirty-one percent of Democrats express confidence in the Democratic Party’s nominating process, compared with 9 percent of Republicans and 6 percent of independents. Republicans have even less faith in their party’s system: 17 percent have confidence in the Republican Party’s nominating process. Only 11 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of independents agree.

Many Americans want changes to the process. Seven in 10 would prefer to see primaries and caucuses be open to all voters, regardless of the party registration. Only 3 in 10 favor a system of closed nominating contests, where only voters registered in a party can participate in that party’s primary or caucus. A majority of each party say they favor open primaries and caucuses, though Democrats are more likely than Republicans to support them (73 percent vs. 62 percent).

Most states hold primaries rather than caucuses, and most voters prefer primaries. Eight in 10 Americans say primaries are a more fair method of nominating a candidate. Less than 1 in 5 view caucuses as a more fair method.

US Is Not A Democracy
by Eric Zuesse

A study, to appear in the Fall 2014 issue of the academic journal Perspectives on Politics, finds that the U.S. is no democracy, but instead an oligarchy, meaning profoundly corrupt, so that the answer to the study’s opening question, “Who governs? Who really rules?” in this country, is:

“Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But, …” and then they go on to say, it’s not true, and that, “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened” by the findings in this, the first-ever comprehensive scientific study of the subject, which shows that there is instead “the nearly total failure of ‘median voter’ and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories [of America]. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

To put it short: The United States is no democracy, but actually an oligarchy.

The authors of this historically important study are Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, and their article is titled “Testing Theories of American Politics.” The authors clarify that the data available are probably under-representing the actual extent of control of the U.S. by the super-rich:

‘Economic Elite Domination theories do rather well in our analysis, even though our findings probably understate the political influence of elites. Our measure of the preferences of wealthy or elite Americans – though useful, and the best we could generate for a large set of policy cases – is probably less consistent with the relevant preferences than are our measures of the views of ordinary citizens or the alignments of engaged interest groups. Yet we found substantial estimated effects even when using this imperfect measure. The real-world impact of elites upon public policy may be still greater.”

Nonetheless, this is the first-ever scientific study of the question of whether the U.S. is a democracy. “Until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions [that U.S. policymaking operates as a democracy, versus as an oligarchy, versus as some mixture of the two] against each other within a single statistical model. This paper reports on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.” That’s an enormous number of policy-issues studied.

What the authors are able to find, despite the deficiencies of the data, is important: the first-ever scientific analysis of whether the U.S. is a democracy, or is instead an oligarchy, or some combination of the two. The clear finding is that the U.S. is an oligarchy, no democratic country, at all. American democracy is a sham, no matter how much it’s pumped by the oligarchs who run the country (and who control the nation’s “news” media). The U.S., in other words, is basically similar to Russia or most other dubious “electoral” “democratic” countries. We weren’t formerly, but we clearly are now. Today, after this exhaustive analysis of the data, “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” That’s it, in a nutshell.

Fighting For A Legitimate Democracy, By And For The People
by Kevin Zeese & Margaret Flowers

Two weeks ago in reaction to the McCutcheon decision we touched on an issue that will become central to our movement: Has the democratic legitimacy of the US government been lost?

We raised this issue by quoting a Supreme Court Justice, former US president and a sitting US Senator:

“The legitimacy of the US government is now in question. By illegitimate we mean it is ruled by the 1%, not a democracy ‘of, by and for the people.’ The US has become a carefully designed plutocracy that creates laws to favor the few. As Stephen Breyer wrote in his dissenting opinion, American law is now ‘incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy.’ Or, as former president, Jimmy Carter said on July 16, 2013 “America does not at the moment have a functioning democracy.”

“Even members of Congress admit there is a problem. Long before the McCutcheon decision Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) described the impact of the big banks on the government saying: ‘They own the place.’ We have moved into an era of a predatory form of capitalism rooted in big finance where profits are more important than people’s needs or protection of the planet.”

The legitimacy of the US government derives from rule by the people. If the US government has lost its democratic legitimacy, what does that mean? What is the impact? And, what is our responsibility in these circumstances?

We can go back to the founding document of this nation, the Declaration of Independence for guidance. This revolutionary document begins by noting all humans are born with “inalienable rights” and explains “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted” and that government derives its “powers from the consent of the governed.” Further, when the government “becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government….”

After we wrote about the lost democratic legitimacy of the United States, this new academic study, which will be published in Perspectives on Politics,revealed that a review of a unique data set of 1,779 policy issues found:

“In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”

And, this was not the only study to reach this conclusion this week. Another study published in the Political Research Quarterly found that only the rich get represented in the US senate. The researchers studied the voting records of senators in five Congresses and found the Senators were consistently aligned with their wealthiest constituents and lower-class constituents never appeared to influence the Senators’ voting behavior. This oligarchic tendency was even truer when the senate was controlled by Democrats.

Large Majorities of Americans Do Not Rule

Let the enormity of the finding sink in – “the majority does not rule” and “even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”

Now, for many of us this is not news, but to have an academic study document it by looking at 1,779 policy issues and empirically proving the lack of democratic legitimacy, is a major step forward for people understanding what is really happening in the United States and what we must do.

Before the occupy movement began we published an article, We Stand With the Majority, that showed super majorities of the American people consistently support the following agenda:

  • Tax the rich and corporations
  • End the wars, bring the troops home, cut military spending
  • Protect the social safety net, strengthen Social Security and provide improved Medicare to everyone in the United States
  • End corporate welfare for oil companies and other big business interests
  • Transition to a clean energy economy, reverse environmental degradation
  • Protect worker rights including collective bargaining, create jobs and raise wages
  • Get money out of politics

While there was over 60% support for each item on this agenda, the supposed ‘representatives’ of the people were taking the opposite approach on each issue. On September 18, the day after OWS began we followed up with a second article dealing with additional issues that showed, the American people would rule better than the political and economic elites.

While many Americans think that the government representing wealthy interests is new, in fact it goes back to the founding of the country. Historian Charles Beard wrote in the early 1900’s that the chief aim of the authors of the U.S. Constitution was to protect private property, favoring the economic interests of wealthy merchants and plantation owners rather than the interests of the majority of Americans who were small farmers, laborers, and craft workers.

The person who is credited with being the primary author of the Constitution, James Madison, believed that the primary goal of government is “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” He recognized that “if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure.” As a result of these oligarchic views, only 6% of the US population was originally given the right to vote. And, the first chief justice of the US Supreme Court, John Jay believed that “those who own the country ought to govern it.”

This resulted in the wealth of the nation being concentrated among a small percentage of the population and their wealth being created by slaves and other low-paid workers who had no political participation in government. The many creating wealth for the few has continued throughout US history through sweat shops, child labor and now, poverty workers, like those at the nation’s largest employer, Walmart. By putting property ahead of human rights, the Constitution put in place a predatory economic system of wealth creation.

In fact, Sheldon Wolin describes the Constitutional Convention as blocking the colonists desire for democracy, as economic elites “organize[d] a counter-revolution aimed at institutionalizing a counterforce to challenge the prevailing decentralized system of thirteen sovereign states in which some state legislatures were controlled by ‘popular’ forces.” The Constitution was written “to minimize the direct expression of a popular will” and block the “American demos.” For more see our article, Lifting the Veil of Mirage Democracy in the United States.

In many respects, since the founding, the people of the United States have been working to democratize the United States. Gradually, the right to vote expanded to include all adults, direct election of US Senators was added as a constitutional amendment but these changes do not mean we have a real democracy. The work is not done. The legitimacy of people ruling has not been achieved.

While we have the right to vote, our carefully managed elections consistently give Americans a choice of candidates approved by the wealthiest; and through campaign financing, media coverage, ballot access, managing who participates in debates and other means, the ruling elite ensure an outcome that will not challenge the power of the wealthiest Americans and the country’s biggest businesses.

This week, Nomi Prins, a former managing partner at Goldman Sachs wrote about the long history of how the nation’s biggest bankers have controlled presidents throughout the last century. She writes: “With so much power in the hands of an elite few, America operates more as a plutocracy on behalf of the upper caste than a democracy or a republic. Voters are caught in the crossfire of two political parties vying to run Washington in a manner that benefits the banking caste, regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican is sitting in the Oval.”

In many respects, our task is to complete the American Revolution and create a real democracy where the people rule through fair elections of representatives and there is increased direct and participatory democracy.

Living In The Illusion Of Democracy
by Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers

The Democrats and Republicans Have Created Fraudulent Debates

The hubris and manipulation of the two establishment parties is evident in the presidential debates. The two Wall Street-funded parties decide who is allowed to participate in the debates. The so-called debate ‘commission’ is a disguise apparatus of the Democratic and Republican parties. It is a commission in name only, in reality it is a corporation created by the two parties and controlled by the two parties. When the disguise is removed, it becomes obvious that the Democrats and Republicans are choosing to only debate Democrats and Republicans, and preventing any competition.Democracy Not Plutocracy

In 1988, the Republican co-founder, Frank Fahrenkopf, who remains a co-chair, indicated at the news conference announcing the ‘commission’ that they were “not likely to look with favor on including third-party candidates in the debates.” The New York Times quoted the Democratic co-founder, Paul Kirk, saying: “As a party chairman, it’s my responsibility to strengthen the two-party system.” As a result, there has not been a third party candidate in the debates for 24 years, even though there have been third party candidates on enough ballots to win a majority of electoral college votes in every election. Closed debates create the illusion that there are only two candidates running for president.

When the ‘commission’ was founded, the League of Women Voters warned that the parties taking over the debates would “perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.” They resigned their historic role as the non-partisan sponsors of the debates because they refused to be “an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.” They foretold the truth, and now we must all work to undo the hoax.

This year, 76% of voters want four-candidates in the debates. A majority of people in the US believe neither party represents them. The two parties are shrinking and now each make up less than 30% of the voters, with a record 50% of voters considering themselves independents. The two establishment parties have nominated the two most unpopular candidates in history with six in ten voters disliking Clinton and Trump. An Associated Press/GfK poll found that four out of five voters fear at least one of the two nominees, and 25% fear both, a number confirmed by Gallup. Three-quarters of those planning to vote will do so based on whom they dislike rather than whom they support.

This is why three-quarters of voters want Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party included in the debates – people want more choices. Both will be on almost every ballot but voters will not get to hear from them and learn what they stand for. The dislike of the two parties and their candidates is also why the fake ‘commission’ must do all it can to prevent voters from knowing that they have more choices for president.

And, they have an ally in the media which expects to receive $6 billion in political advertising in 2016.The media wants that advertising more than they want a real democracy. As the CEO of CBS said, “Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS.” As a result, you will see no criticism of the fake debate commission. Jill Stein was able to briefly sneak in an article on The Hill website about her experience during the first debate last week, i.e. being excluded from the debate, escorted off campus when she was doing media interviews, holding a people’s debate outside the debate area and 22 people being arrested for protesting the closed debates, as well as how her campaign used social media to break through. The article was up briefly, but quickly disappeared from the front page.

In almost every election a large majority of US voters want more candidates in the debates but the phony commission serves as a blockade, preventing real democracy. If we want a democracy that is of, by and for the people, it is critical we end the debate commission’s fraud on US voters. Rather than creating barriers to participation, the rule should be simple and objective: if a candidate is on enough ballots to win 270 electoral college votes they should be included in the debate as very few overcome the ballot access hurdles placed before independent parties.

The United States is in a Democracy Crisis

The fraudulent debates are one example of many of how US democracy is manipulated and managed to ensure that only candidates who represent the wealthy can be elected. The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs reported this year on the extent of the democracy crisis. They found the legitimacy of US government has disappeared:

“Nine in 10 Americans lack confidence in the country’s political system, and among a normally polarized electorate, there are few partisan differences in the public’s lack of faith in the political parties, the nominating process, and the branches of government.”

There is close to unanimous consensus that the elections fail voters and do not create a legitimate government. The poll taken as the primary season came to a close found “only 13% say the two-party system for presidential elections works.” The elections have left most Americans feeling discouraged with 70% saying they experience frustration and 55% reporting they feel helpless. Only 13% feel proud of the presidential election.

The excluded parties are taking unusual steps to reach voters. Jill Stein accomplished a historic breakthrough during the first presidential debate, by using cutting edge social media tools to insert her live voice into the debate in real time. The Stein-Baraka campaign used Facebook, Twitter and Periscope to reach approximately 15 million voters within 24 hours of the first debate, “Jill Stein” trended at #1 on Facebook on debate day and Google searches spiked with one of the top search phrases being “How do I vote for Jill Stein?” No 3rd party candidate has reached such a large audience since Ross Perot was included in the debates 24 years ago. But, this cannot compete with the two party debates which appeared on every network with an audience of more than 80 million and constant discussion in the media leading up to the debate and after it.

During the upcoming vice presidential debate on Tuesday, candidate Ajamu Baraka will be using the same social media tools as Stein as well as being inserted live into the debates by Democracy Now. Baraka will answer every question as if he were included by pausing the debate and then returning to it after he answers. This three-candidate debate can be viewed on Jill Stein’s Facebook page and website, as well as on Ajamu Baraka’s Facebook page and on Democracy Now.

Presidential debates are not only about getting someone elected, they are also about setting the political agenda for the country. With only the Democratic and Republican nominees included many key political issues are not being discussed. The debates spend a lot of time on nonsense while ignoring many important issues that impact the lives of the people of the United States as well as ensuring a liveable planet.

In the first debate, time was spent on whether President Obama was born in the United States, or whether Donald Trump’s criticism of a former Miss Universe was inappropriate. But there was no discussion of tens of millions of people living in poverty, what the country can do to confront climate change, how to erase student debt or whether the United States should be an empire.

In fact, the word “empire” has never been in a presidential debate as the political elites do not want to discuss the reality of US global domination. They do not want people considering that an empire economy is the reason for many of our economic problems. These are a few issues among many that will not be discussed this election season.

And, if an issue like healthcare is discussed there will be no one on stage who represents the views of the 60% of voters who support a single payer, improved Medicare for All, because neither of the establishment party nominees do. There will also be no one on stage to talk about key movement issues like the systemic racism exposed by Black Lives Matter, the wealth inequality demonstrated by Occupy, and the protests against pipelines by Indigenous Peoples and communities across the country. On these and many other issues there will be no discussion or only discussion from the point of view of two Wall Street-dominated parties. The political agenda will be warped and ignore the people’s concerns.

Inequality Means No Center to Moderate Toward

Moderation is the issue at the moment, specifically now that politicians have been the target of violence. That is always a surefire way of getting the attention of the political class and the corporate media that obsesses over them.

A single politician shot is more concerning to the mainstream than millions of poor people harmed by the policies of politicians. Worse still is multiple politicians attacked simultaneously — it is a national tragedy, worse than decades of hate crimes and generations of institutional racism, worse than overthrowing numerous democratic governments and committing state terrorism.

Such is the way of the world, at least in a society like this. But it would be nice if some worthy public debate were made possible, even if only briefly. Maybe we shouldn’t wait until the next act of mass violence before dealing with issues of substance. The politics of spectacle is great for campaigns and corporate media profits. It’s not so great for democracy, though. Citizens shooting politicians could be seen as an indicator of failed democracy. Other indicators to be considered are politicians sending citizens off to fight immoral wars of aggression to kill innocent foreigners for reasons of geopolitics and police officers violently targeting innocent citizens for reasons of authoritarian social control.

When the government seeks to solve its problems through violence, it sets the example for its citizens that problems are solved through violence. Some might argue that is not the most optimal of results for a civil society.

* * *

Despite the shallow concerns of the comfortable classes temporarily made to feel uncomfortable, no one doubts that the problems of extremism are very much real. At the Eat Pray Vote blog, Lauren Wynn writes about political moderation (Fear and Loathing in American Politics: the Future of the Sane Center). She states that,

“It occurred to me that many of his assertions could be equally applied to both sides of the aisle — right and left, Republican and Democrat were interchangeable. Crazy concept, huh? If everyone is being this reactionary – which conversations with and observations of both sides indicate might be true – then is a middle ground even possible?”

Many Americans would agree with her, myself included. I’ve seen a number of articles like this, from diverse perspectives and yet with similar questions. I would point out that an increasing proportion of the public dislikes both parties, as there are now more independents than partisans in either major party. After all, we just had a presidential election where the two main candidates were the least popular of any major presidential candidates since polling data has been kept. And following the election, both of them continue their decline into unpopularity, demonstrating that voters still despise the choice that the ruling establishment forced upon them.

Wynn does briefly and partly get to this issue. In discussing fear, she quotes from a NYT article by Emily Badger and Niraj Chokshi (How We Became Bitter Political Enemies):

“Independents, who outnumber members of either party and yet often lean toward one or the other, are just as guided by fear. More than half who lean toward either party say a major reason for their preference is the damage the other party could cause. Only about a third reported being attracted by the good that could come from the policies of the party toward which they lean.”

Fear. That is the most troubling part. To live in fear is not a happy state, especially when it forms the ground of society and the background of daily experience. Such a culture of fear doesn’t come out of nowhere. I’d argue that fear is more of a symptom than a cause, a symptom of a sick society. Speaking of a “Sane Center,” what is supposedly ‘sane’ in a society like this? I wouldn’t consider the majority of politicians, plutocrats, and pundits who dominate our society to be paragons of sanity, not in terms of either mental health or moral decency.

I noticed that the NYT article quoted Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford political scientist: “If you go back to the days of the Civil War, one can find cases in American political history where there was far more rancor and violence… But in the modern era, there are no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ — partisan animus is at an all-time high.” That is an odd claim. American history is full of near endless “rancor and violence.” The late 19th to early 20th century was so full of conflict that there were violent labor conflicts and military-style race wars in the streets, while the government feared being overthrown such as by the Bonus Army camped out on the White House lawn. I find myself in a near constant state of amazement at the historical amnesia of Americans, even among the the well-educated. No matter how bad problems are right now, they don’t compare even slightly to numerous other periods in US history.

Anyway, being critical of the culture of fear, I’m strongly supportive of a “Sane Center.” But it depends on what is meant by that. If sanity means being well-adjusted, then what is being adjusted to? Such things are always relative, specifically in terms of left vs right. Context is everything.

We should consider the origins of the left-right divide. The right side has for millennia been associated with power and authority, tradition and the status quo. That is why Jesus was described as sitting to the right of God. And that is why, under the French monarchy, aristocrats and clergy supporting the monarchy sat on the right side of the assembly. Even once the king was deposed, the French assembly maintained this seating with the most radical revolutionaries sitting to the left.

About the French Revolution, it’s interesting to compare it to the American Revolution. Some of the American founders gave primary credit to Thomas Paine for the American Revolution or at least in lending much inspiration toward its success. Paine was as radical as they come, in many ways far to the left of present Democrats (e.g., basic income).

Yet guess where he was seated as an honorary member of the French assembly. He sat on the right side with his moderate allies, as under that context he was a moderate who argued for not beheading the king and for passing a democratic constitution, the whole issue of a democratic rule of law and democratic procedure. He was more radically liberal than were the radical revolutionaries, but this radical liberalism is precisely what made him moderate. It was those radical or rather reactionary revolutionaries, when they gained control, who sentenced Paine to death and he narrowly escaped that fate.

As always, the issues is to the right or left of what? Paine was trying to hold the “Sane Center” in an insane world. Even the American Revolution was far more violent and bloody than is typically acknowledged,. It was a time when wealth and power ruled brutally and it was no easy task for the oppressed to stand up to that injustice, both on the right and the left. Interestingly, during such revolutions, aristocrats and plutocrats are found on both sides of the fight. The French Revolution was initiated with the help of many aristocrats and clergy who were tired of oppressive monarchy. And the same was true of the American Revolution.

Paine was an Anti-Federalist, the ideological group that supported democracy as opposed to centralized power. The Anti-Federalists considered themselves to be the real Federalists because they actually wanted a Confederation of states, as was agreed upon under the first constitution, the Articles of Confederation (the second constitution, ironically, was unconstitutional and passed unconstitutionally according to the first constitution). Because of the second constitution, most US citizens lost power and representation with only a few percentage having the right to either vote or run for office. When the revolution continued under the new government by those demanding the democracy they had fought for, the aristocrat Washington put an army together and violently put down those dreams of democracy.

The US isn’t a country that was founded on a “Sane Center.” That isn’t the kind of country it is. But it is a country that was inspired by democracy and genuine democracy is as radical today as it was in Paine’s lifetime. As Jimmy Carter has observed, the US is a banana republic and was that way before Trump came to power. Research has confirmed this in showing that we don’t have a functioning representative government, as politicians most of the time do what the wealthy want them to do and not what the middle-to-lower classes want them to do (this was analyzed in comparing public policy and public opinion). Still, we are an aspiring democracy and such aspirations shouldn’t be dismissed.

That is the context. And that leads me to the specifics of this article. It was written that,

“During the 2016 Presidential election, deep fissures appeared in both the Democrat and Republican parties. The Democrats were divided between a far-left candidate in Bernie Sanders and a more traditional Democrat in Hillary Clinton. Likewise, Republicans were divided among far-right candidates, traditional Republicans and a complete outlier — Donald Trump.”

Let me first question the claim about what is traditional. What is the comparison being made? Bernie Sanders positions are well within the range of standard policies of FDR’s New Deal. Some consider FDR to be a traditional Democrat and, if so, it should be noted that Clinton’s positions make it clear that she is to the right of FDR.

We also know that the majority of Americans presently agree with many of Sanders’ positions, as polling and surveys show that most Americans are to the left of both main political parties. So, in what sense is Sanders a “far-left candidate?” Sure, he is to the left of the political center in Washington and in corporate media. But the political center in Washington and in corporate media is to the right of the American public. If we are to use the American public as the measure of the center, then that would mean Sanders is a centrist and all the major candidates are to the right of that center.

There is more than one ‘center’ to choose from. It depends on which part of society one identifies with. As someone who agrees with majority public opinion on many issues, I personally prefer to use the known data about public opinion as the defining standard of the political center. But I realize others would prefer a different center, as they don’t want a “government of the people, for the people and by the people.” I do want such a government, as did Paine, but also as did Republicans once upon a time as those words were spoken by the first Republican president.

That gets us to confusion of what goes for traditional in the GOP. As one scholar made clear, the Republican Party has from the beginning swung between the extremes of populism and plutocracy, somehow melding the two poles at the moment with Trump. At present, it’s hard to imagine Republicans doing something as radical as abolishing slavery like Lincoln, breaking up monopolies like Roosevelt, calling out the Military-Industrial Complex like Eisenhower, or simply creating the EPA like Nixon (it’s amazing how liberal Nixon looks these days, more liberal than many Democrats right now).

It hasn’t just been the GOP pushing right for decades. The Clinton New Democrats sought to triangulate by also pushing right. This is how both parties became uncentered or rather created their own center, quite contrary to the silenced majority. Where is the sanity in this? Why do we allow corporatist parties and big biz media tell us what is the Sane Center? They aren’t in the moral position to be telling anyone much of anything. Rather, those in the so-called ‘mainstream’ are the problem.

“Moderatism seemed to have all but disappeared over the past several decades with progressivism’s constant march to the left and conservatism’s to the right, but following the election, people from both sides began discussing a path forward that would help heal the gaping wound of division in our country.”

In that light, what is moderation as an ideological goal, this so-called moderatism? That is to say, what is being moderated between and to what end? Obviously, what goes for moderation in ‘mainstream’ politics isn’t moderating toward the center of public opinion of citizens and eligible voters. When both parties are immoderate, when the corporate media is immoderate, when public intellectuals are immoderate, how is the disempowered and sometimes overtly disenfranchised public supposed to seek out moderation? Does ‘moderate’ have any meaning when the most publicly centrist and most popular candidate in the country, Bernie Sanders, is called a radical left-winger by the minority in the comfortable classes?

This has a way of making many average Americans start feeling a bit radical. Maybe at times like these radicalism is the last refuge of the “Sane Center.”

* * *

One of the similar articles I’ve come across is by Peggy Noonan, a WSJ piece (Rage Is All the Rage, and It’s Dangerous).

For a mainstream media hack, her writing is more tolerable than that of many others, but this particular one didn’t do much for me. It’s more false equivalence. As I regularly make clear, I’m no fan of Democrats. Still, we should be honest enough to admit that the GOP and its supporters, especially pundits on talk radio and Fox News, have been inciting violence for decades (e.g., repeatedly calling Dr. Tiller a “baby killer” on one of the most popular right-wing shows until an audience member murdered him).

That said, the entire country at the moment is feeling pressure and the situation isn’t primarily ideological in nature. Even a moderate mainstream politician and former president like Jimmy Carter openly states that the US is a banana republic, which is to say that partisan animosity is the least of our worries. This is at a time after decades of worsening inequality (a defining feature of banana republics), something that research has proven worsens social problems in general and violence most of all. Republicans have been pushing the gospel of inequality for as long as they’ve been pushing violent rhetoric, and it has been a useful political strategy. For that reason, those in the Democratic Party seeking greater power within this banana republic have copied GOP strategies and also pushed right.

Nonetheless, we live in a far more peaceful era, compared to the past. The 1960s to 1980s was extremely violent, across the political spectrum (economic and political problems did contribute, although the worsening rates of lead toxicity of post-war industrialization and mass car culture played a larger role). And the first several decades of last century were even more violent, that having been the era of bomb-throwing anarchists, the terrorist Klan, and large-scale organized crime.

Ideology, at times, has been a more central concern. And it does help us understand how we got to this point. There is research that shows that violence always gets worse under Republican administrations, at least for as long as data has been kept. Right-wing and reactionary ideology worsens social conditions because of what it promotes. But once a society gets pushed toward instability, ideology itself is no longer the motivating factor. Ideology simply creates the conditions for violence to play out for other reasons, typically more personal motivations.

The guy who shot those Republicans probably didn’t do so for ideology, no more than the increasing hate crimes from the political right are intended as a political strategy. Most people aren’t overtly ideological in having clear and consistent ideological principles, even as they get caught up in the ideological rhetoric fanning the flames. Many Americans are simply feeling desperate, distressed, outraged, and much else. As research shows, high inequality doesn’t increase the probability of either kind behavior or intelligent choices. Only after bad conditions and bad feelings hit a breaking point does ideology typically follow as a way of ranting or rationalizing.

Ideology might offer an outlet for one’s feelings and give form to one’s voice, but ideology plays more of a role on the societal level than on the individual level. That is true until social conditions get so bad that people start organizing terrorist groups that regularly blow up buildings, assassinate people, etc. We haven’t quite gotten to that point yet. Even then, few if any join a terrorist group because of ideology, although there is no doubt that ideology helps to create and cement a new social identity, including social identities people are willing to die for.

Our concern about ideology, first and foremost, should be the neoliberalism and neoconservatism that forms the harmful social conditions and so makes violent consequences inevitable. Once we are at the point of people committing mass violence, talk about ideology is largely moot. We need to push it back a step to see where it originated.

* * *

Related to those articles, I was reading Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder. It was published this year. Although far from perfect, I hope it gets a wide reading by the public and gains some traction in the media.

It is a useful book because his analysis of inequality is primarily through a lens of social science, rather than economics or politics. The author explains in great detail the real world impact inequality has on people in all aspects of their lives. The basic point was made many years ago in The Spirit Level by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, but Payne takes it a step further in showing the immense amount of research that has accumulated and showing how all the research connects to form a larger understanding.

The case against inequality goes far beyond a mere moral plea for justice and fairness. Inequality makes everything more dysfunctional. This is seen most clearly in diverse social problems, but there are larger consequences starkly shown in the political sphere. If a divided country is what is wanted, there are few more effective ways to divide a population than through inequality (pp. 110-111):

“Political scientist Nolan McCarty and his colleagues have also traced political divisions over the last century in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, formulating a measure of polarization based on how lawmakers vote, similar to the data used for Andris’s graphs. The polarization index is at its highest when all Democrats vote one way and all Republicans vote the other. Using this index, they calculated how polarized American politics has been in every Congress since 1947. Figure 4.5 shows that polarization in the House of Representatives and the Gini index of inequality have followed strikingly similar trajectories. Results for the Senate are similar. Both inequality and polarization were relatively low through the 1950s and 1960s. They then began rising in tandem in the mid-1970s and have remained on par ever since.”

There is one point that has long stood out to me, as seen with inequality research. It isn’t limited to the problems affecting the lower classes. Even the plutocrats become divided in conflict. That is what results when inequality becomes so entrenched that it forms into a widespread culture of mistrust, anxiety, and fear. This is seen in comparing countries which many earlier books on the topic have discussed. Even the wealthiest are worse off in a high inequality society than they are in a low inequality society. Inequality increases stress-related illnesses, violent crime, and political corruption. To live amidst inequality is to constantly feel on edge. No amount of wealth, power, and privilege can protect one from that sad state of affairs. No gated community can entirely isolate one from problems that tear apart the very social fabric that society depends upon.

Inequality is self-destructive. It has to be remedied if the worst possible consequences are to be avoided: economic collapse, government failure, inability to defend against foreign invasion, terrorism, military coup, civil war, revolution, or some combination of these. Simply devolving into an authoritarian police state and banana republic isn’t much of a better fate. But the point is that the experience of shittiness becomes pervasive even while the outward forms of civil society are maintained. It happens in ways that are hard to see from within a society because the problems become normalized according to the status quo and the ensuing epistemic closure shuts down our ability to imagine anything else. All that is experienced by most people is a general sense of worsening. They simply feel bad which leads to some combination of apathetic resignation and fearful scapegoating. This does not help to build a shared attitude of common good and cooperation, much less compassion and tolerance.

As inequality becomes a chasm dividing the public, the center literally disappears while the once large middle class shrinks. That center is what holds civil society together, what creates a sense of a shared social order (something explained by Aristotle more than a couple of millennia ago and also explained by Adam Smith more than a couple of centuries ago). Inequality turns people against one another. This can be seen in different areas of society, such as on an airplane where people are forced into close proximity. The socioeconomic status of passengers, real or perceived, represents a microcosm of the larger society (pp. 2-4):

“As they discovered, the odds of an air rage incident were almost four times higher in the coach section of a plane with a first-class cabin than in a plane that did not have one. Other factors mattered, too, like flight delays. But the presence of a first-class section raised the chances of a disturbance by the same amount as a nine-and-a-half-hour delay.

“To test the idea another way, the researchers looked at how the boarding process highlights status differences. Most planes with a first-class cabin board at the front, which forces the coach passengers to trudge down the aisle, dragging their baggage past the well-heeled and the already comfortably seated. But about 15 percent of flights board in the middle or at the back of the plane, which spares the coach passengers this gauntlet. As predicted, air rage was about twice as likely on flights that boarded at the front, raising the chances of an incident by the same amount as waiting out a six-hour delay.

“This air rage study is revealing, but not just because it illustrates how inequality drives wedges between the haves and the have-nots. What makes it fascinating to me is that incidents of rage take place even when there are no true have-nots on a flight. Since an average economy-class ticket costs several hundred dollars, few genuinely poor people can afford to travel on a modern commercial airplane. Yet even relative differences among the respectable middle-class people flying coach can create conflict and chaos. In fact, the chaos is not limited to coach: First-class flyers in the study were several times more likely to erupt in air rage when they were brought up close and personal with the rabble on front-loading planes. As Ivana Trump’s behavior can attest, when the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange.

“But they do not act strange in just any old way. Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.

“Picture a neighborhood full of people like the ones I’ve described above: shortsighted, irresponsible people making bad choices; mistrustful people segregated by race and by ideology; superstitious people who won’t listen to reason; people who turn to self-destructive habits as they cope with the stress and anxieties of their daily lives. These are the classic tropes of poverty and could serve as a stereotypical description of the population of any poor inner-city neighborhood or depressed rural trailer park. But as we will see in the chapters ahead, inequality can produce these tendencies even among the middle class and wealthy individuals.

“What is also notable about the air rage study is that it illustrates that inequality is not the same as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it. That phenomenon is the subject of this book. Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not. Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.”

* * *

For some historical context, Noam Chomsky is useful (“The Common Good”, The Sun magazine, November 1997):

“Aristotle took it for granted that a democracy would be fully participatory — with the notable exception of women and slaves — and would aim to promote the common good. But he argued that, in order to achieve its goal, the democracy would have to ensure “lasting prosperity to the poor” and “moderate and sufficient property” for everyone. If there were extremes of poor and rich, or if you didn’t have lasting prosperity for everyone, Aristotle thought, then you couldn’t talk seriously about having democracy.

“Another point Aristotle made was that if you have a perfect democracy, yet have big differences of wealth — a small number of very rich people and a large number of very poor — then the poor will use their democratic muscle to take away the property of the rich. He regarded this as unjust and offered two possible solutions. One was to reduce poverty. The other was to reduce democracy.

“A couple of thousand years later, when our Founding Fathers were writing the Constitution, James Madison noticed the same problem, but whereas Aristotle’s preferred solution had been to reduce poverty, Madison’s was to reduce democracy. He said quite explicitly in the Constitutional Convention that, if we had a true democracy, then the poor majority would use its power to demand what nowadays we would call agrarian reform, and that couldn’t be tolerated. The primary goal of government, in Madison’s words, is “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” He also pointed out that, as time went on, this problem was going to get worse, because a growing part of the population would suffer serious inequities and “secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of blessings.” He therefore designed a system that would ensure democracy didn’t function. As he put it, power would be in the hands of the “more capable set of men,” those who held “the wealth of the nation,” and the rest would be factionalized and marginalized in various ways.”

* * *

Here are some concluding thoughts. In this post, I resisted linking to any of my old posts. I’ve written about this kind of thing many times before, but I didn’t feel like dredging up prior commentary.

For the longest time, I identified as a liberal and it is still hard for me to shake that identity, even as I’ve seen the problems with it as a specifically American ideological category enmeshed in class politics, class privilege, and class warfare. The specific problem is that the liberal class which, because middle class professionals are found in academia and media, has come to dominate the rhetoric of liberalism within public debate.

My tendency is toward moderation. And I wish I lived in a moderate society. But I don’t. The reality is that the rhetoric of moderation is too often used in mainstream/corporatist politics to defend what is immoderate to the extreme, just as liberal rhetoric is wielded to prop up illiberal power structures. My concern, as always, is more about the reality than the rhetoric. Yet to deal with the reality requires understanding the rhetoric and how it is used. That further requires immense context to gain that understanding, context that few Americans are ever taught.

Inequality and class division makes for a stupid society. I mean that quite literally. It simply is not good for the highest levels of neurocognitive development and hence intellectual capacity. Inequality, similar to poverty, stunts normal development and this can be seen in brain scans. Long-term social and psychological stress accumulates into high rates of what essentially is trauma. An entire national population traumatized isn’t so talented at achieving a moderate civil society. People, under extreme duress and unhealthy conditions, tend to think and act stupidly and that stupidity gets magnified on the collective level.

This is why it is so heart-rending to speak of an idealized “Sane Center.” A common attribute of high inequality societies, specifically those dominated by the WEIRD demographic (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic), is that they have high rates of mental illness. It’s not just the poor having their brains fucked up from lead toxicity, although that is a major component with the combined effects of economic segregation and environmental racism. In the US, even the wealthy have higher rates of mental illness. There are poor communities around the world that, despite lacking healthcare and all the niceties of modernity, have very low or even seemingly non-existent rates of mental illness. The primary difference isn’t between poverty and wealth but between high inequality and low inequality. Of course, combining poverty with high inequality creates an even greater shit storm.

This is what gets me. Those demanding moderation are often the most privileged. They are people who too often think they are above it all and so look down upon all those other crazy people, such as the poor whites who are falsely blamed for Trump’s election. It is the comfortable classes, in their privilege and authority, who get to define what (and who) is ‘sane’ and ‘insane’, along with what is ‘centrist’ vs ‘extremist’ and ‘moderate’ vs ‘radical’. This even sometimes goes along with forms of gaslighting that make people feel insane — such as hearing politicians, pundits, and public intellectuals speak about the world in a way that doesn’t match the lived reality of most people in the world.

We don’t live in a sane and moderate country. Acknowledging that fact should be the starting point of any public discussion. The ‘center’ of a society gone mad is not where we should move toward, if the public good and functioning democracy is our aspiration.

* * *

6/26/17 – I originally wanted to avoid linking to old posts. But then I got in a debate. That person kept demanding evidence. I find that tiresome because, if someone wants info, they can find it. It’s not hard to find.

I guess I’ll make it even easier to find by offering some of that info gathered on my blog. Besides the following posts, I also shared a bunch of poling data and such down in the comments section. I don’t want to give anyone the opportunity to pretend this info doesn’t exist. Here it is:

US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism
The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1
Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich
Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data)
Gun Violence & Regulation (Data, Analysis, Rhetoric)
Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals
Environmentalist Majority
Public Opinion On Government & Tea Party
Warmongering Politicians & Progressive Public
Who Supported the Vietnam War?
Political Elites Disconnected From General Public
Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism
Polarizing Effect of Perceived Polarization
Liberalism: Label vs Reality (analysis of data)
Sea Change of Public Opinion: Libertarianism, Progressivism & Socialism
Black and White and Re(a)d All Over
NPR: Liberal Bias?
Man vs Nature, Man vs Man: NPR, Parking Ramps, etc
The Establishement: NPR, Obama, Corporatism, Parties

Radical Moderates, Depressive Realism, & Visionary Pessimism

Depression is an odd thing. It is one of the most debilitating ‘diseases’ that mostly goes unseen.

A depressed person can appear normal and even someone in a severe depressive state can hide how bad it is. This is why suicides can surprise so many people, sometimes as if it came out of nowhere. Some depressives can hide their depression from their own awareness, burying themselves in work or distracting themselves with addiction.

It is also one of the least sexy of the mental illnesses. It’s not as fascinating as schizophrenia or multiple personal disorder. It only reaches the level of melodrama if depression is of the bipolar variety. But unipolar depression is actually rather boring. The only time it becomes romanticized is in the writings of famous authors, especially if they are alcoholics who kill themselves.

As for normal people, depression is more likely to increase one’s invisibility, because the depressive withdraws from the world, sometimes to the point of becoming unemployed or even homeless. The depressive, when pushed to the extreme, can become an isolated non-entity. The depressive rarely commits suicide in direct fashion (surprisingly difficult to achieve), instead preferring to slowly kill themselves through lack of taking care of their own basic needs. Sustaining bodily existence isn’t always a central concern for the severe depressive, whether or not they commit self-harm.

Still, for someone familiar with depression, there are some aspects of it that fascinate. The withdrawl from the world isn’t just social but also psychological. Experience loses meaning and emotion. The world can feel empty and lifeless. The sense of self shrinks, sometimes to the point of disappearing. At the lowest of low points, depression swallows the person whole. It can be a truly stark state of mind, everything cut down to its minimal essence, even the voice in one’s head gone silent and no outside voice able to reach into that silence.

As one person described it, “Because I had no self. No safe space inside. Just despair.” The self ultimately can’t function in isolation, as relationship is the lifeblood of our humanity. It is utter alienation, disconnection between self and other, and so disconnection within the self, an implosion of one’s existence: “Alienation—feelings of estrangement from some aspect of a person’s existence (nature, others, and self)—results in loneliness, emptiness, and despair and is the antithesis of Heidegger’s being-in-the-world.” One then inhabits a dead world.

This seems the opposite of something like schizophrenia. In schizophrenia there is a conflation of or blurring between self and world. Rather than loss of meaning, there is an explosion of meaning. Voices don’t stay contained to self or other. It’s true that schizophrenics can experience depressive symptoms. But I suspect it it is a far different kind of experience. Interestingly, treating schizophrenia can lead to depressive-like symptoms as side effects:

“Also, the antipsychotic medications used to treat schizophrenia may produce side effects which are very similar to depressive symptoms. These side effects may include limited spontaneity in the person’s speech and movements, restlessness, and a negative mood.”

This is what fascinates me, anyway. I don’t know schizophrenia on a personal level. But I do know depression. The problem of depression is the opposite of not knowing how to differentiate the real from the imaginary—the mundane reality feeling all too real to the point of being stifling, a sense of unavoidable and irresolvable actuality, just is. If anything, imagination gets shut down or submerged into the background. Some have argued that this is depressive realism, most specifically in terms of self-awareness and self-assessment, what is and has been, although the evidence is mixed. Even an optimism proponent like Martin Seligman, in The Optimistic Child (p. 296), discussed the merits of pessimism:

Supporting evidence for depressive realism can flooding in: Depressed people are accurate judges of how much skill they have, whereas non-depressed people think they are more skilful than others think them to be (80% of American men think they are in the top half of social skills). Non-depressed people remember more good events than actually happened and forget more of the bad events. Depressed people are accurate about both. Non-depressed people are lopsided about their beliefs about success and failure: if rewards occur – they claim the credit, the rewards will last and they’re good at everything; but if it was a failure, you did it to them, it’s going away quickly, and it was just this one little thing. Depressed people are even handed about success and failure.

The unipolar depressive has fewer extremes of emotional affect (i.e., emotional numbing and flattening) and so maybe fewer other extremes as well, which could express as ‘moderate’ (i.e., emotionally detached) views and opinions, the unipolar depressive simply not getting all that excited about and emotionally invested in externalities, a pervasive disinterest and indifference. This may have something to do with why political moderates are less happy than political extremists, the latter tending toward partisanship and dogmatism (the loyal followers and true believers). In turn, this might be why liberals are less happy than conservatives, as liberalism (specifically as liberal-mindedness) predisposes one to questioning the status quo, doubting social norms, challenging authority, and pushing boundaries.

In a world dominated by a status quo of extremists (extreme in attitude and demagoguery, not in breadth of political spectrum), the moderate liberal will be the least happy person around. Or is it the least happy will simply turn to moderate and liberal views, not out of ideological principle but just basic psychological bias? Either way, when extremists are in power, moderation becomes a radical act and so moderate in that case doesn’t mean centrist and mainstream. The problem, as always, is the loudmouthed and sometimes violent extremists get all the attention, and they are more zealously motivated to take power and enforce social norms. The moderate too often remains silent or is silenced, because to speak out is to become a target of extremists and those who will openly support moderation and defend moderates are unfortunately too few.

In this context, there is an insightful commentary about depression and autism, in the context of nerd identity:

“Communal belief – social reality – and the sacrednesses that it produces are precisely the powerful layers of distortion that we are likely to notice (and hence have a chance at seeing through). We are less able than normal humans to perceive social/sacredness reality in the first place, and to make matters worse, we are addicted to the insight rewards that come from trying to see through it even further. Autism is overrepresented in our community; depression, too. Autism is associated with a reduced ability to model other brains in the normal, social way; this failure carries even into modeling the mind of God, as autism is inversely linked to belief in God. The autistic person is more likely than the neurotypical to notice that social reality exists; we might say the autistic person gets a lucid dreaming reality check for the great social dream with every inscrutable (to him) human action he witnesses.

“Mild depression removes pleasurable feelings from everyday life; it interferes with a mechanism for sacredness-maintenance distinct from the theory of mind path autism blocks. Meaning is deconstructed in depression; social connection is weakened. Ideas and things that for normal individuals glow with significance appear to the depressed person as empty husks. The deceptive power of social and sacredness illusions is weakened for the depressed person (as are certain other healthy illusions, such as the illusion of control). This is not necessarily a victory for him, as self-deception is strongly related to happiness; the consolation of insight may not make up for the loss of sacredness in terms of individual happiness. The characteristic that distinguishes us is not necessarily a good thing. Our overdeveloped, grotesque insight reward seeking is likely maladaptive, and is probably not even doing our individual selves any good. Extremists – those most capable of perceiving social/sacred reality – are happiest.

This relates to defensive pessimism. It isn’t just about an attitude but also behavior. Depending on the task and context, defensive pessimists can be as or more effective than strategic optimists. But it is true that optimists will be more successful specifically in fields where selling oneself is a priority to success. A pessimist will be honest and accurate in their self-appraisal, not always a recipe for success in a Social Darwinian (pseudo-)meritocracy.

As such, optimists are better able to make positive change from within the system. They have a less antagonistic relationship to the status quo and to the ruling authorities that maintain the status quo. They look on the bright side of the way things are, looking for opportunities to exploit rather than fundamental problems to explore. So, they are more likely to be successful in socially acceptable ways. They’re less likely to rock the boat.

Major changes that challenge the entire social order and dominant paradigm, however, would require a different kind of mindset. That is where depressive realism might have the advantage. Many radical and revolutionary thinkers were highly critical and often antagonistic. They saw what was wrong with the present, which motivated them to imagine alternatives.

This could explain someone like Thomas Paine—he came to be hated by so many, even as he was proven correct in his visions and fears of the fate of the United States. His critical attitude was too demanding and uncompromising. He cut right through the bullshit and so had a way of making many people feel uncomfortable and irritated. In common parlance, he was an asshole with a sharp tongue.

Nothing ever seemed to quite work out for Paine in his personal life, with much unhappiness from early on and into his old age, a failure by mainstream accounts. He was profoundly dissatisfied with the way the world was. This is what fueled his outrage and made him a visionary, not a mere optimist. But, oddly, I don’t think he ever wanted to be a radical—like John Dickinson who also was Quaker raised, Paine spent his life trying to moderate a world of destabilizing and often horrific extremes. Such moderation is rarely taken kindly and, by both extremes, is seen as extreme. Religious and atheists, reactionary right and Jacobin left— they all attacked him with equal fervor.

Depressive realism can shut down imagination. But not always. Sometimes depression opens up the vista of imagination by forcing one to question hidden biases and assumptions. It forces one to stand back, which allows the opportunity to see a greater view. Seeing reality in the present more clearly can lead one to see reality in entirely new ways.

Seeking the first kind of change will tend toward happiness. The second kind less likely so. But there is more to life than happiness.

To Become Radical in a Time of Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Unfurl the Flag of Liberalism

I have a conjecture about liberalism and conservatism. My speculation is about the psychological side of things, moreso than the political.

As I’ve often pointed out, liberals are prone to conservative-mindedness when under conditions of social stress or cognitive overload (here is the most recent post on the topic). But not all liberals seem to be prone to this and maybe under normal conditions most liberals aren’t prone to it.

I’m not sure. I just know there is something in liberal psychology that makes this a very real possibility. The examples of it in politics can be seen all the time, especially during times like these when conditions are far from perfect for the liberal predisposition. Then again, when are conditions ever perfect for or much in the way of being conducive to the liberal predisposition?

Liberals rarely if ever get the opportunity to fully be themselves, to let their liberal flag wave fully unfurled.

My thoughts relate to the issue of fear. Some studies have shown conservatives have a larger part of the brain that deals with fear. What I was wondering is if there are different kinds of fear, not all kinds being labeled fear as such. Some of these kinds of ‘fear’ might be more relevant to the liberal mindset.

Let me use an example to clarify one possibility. There is often an inverse relationship between homicide and suicide. It has been theorized that this is based on whether anger and aggression is turned outward or inward. Similarly, maybe there is a difference between fear turned outward or inward, the latter experienced as anxiety or in other ways.

I suffer from social anxiety, though the emphasis is more on the anxiety part. There is a lot of fear involved, but it is very internalized. I don’t project my fears onto outside factors or people so much, at least not in any specific way. I don’t fear other countries, cultures, ethnicities, religions, etc. I’m a typical liberal in that sense. At the same time, I have tons of internalized fears that express as anxieties, doubts and guilt.

When I look at conservative-minded liberals, what I see is liberalism turning on itself. Such people seem to let their doubts of liberalism get the better of themselves. That is one of the things that liberals seem really good at: doubt. It can be quite undermining and self-destructive, especially in movement politics and party politics, but also on a personal level.

Liberals don’t have the kind of righteous certainty and proud confidence that is more common among conservatives. Liberals not only have endless doubts, but we’re talented at rationalizing our doubts. We have as many good reasons to doubt as conservatives have to believe. Liberals tend to approach things more indirectly, like a fox circling around and around then backtracking and then circling around some more. This hedging-your-bets mentality has its benefits in that it moderates extremes and allows for a carefulness that dampens arrogance and zeal. Also, it is a stumbling block.

Many liberals seem afraid of being caught up in radicalism or even getting called radical. Liberals are sensitive. We don’t want our feelings hurt and we don’t want to hurt the feelings of others. We just want everyone to get along. Direct confrontation seems dangerous, and maybe for good reason. Conservatives do seem better at winning that game. So, why should liberals play into their own weakness?

I’m wondering about this because I want a liberalism that can win, not simply not lose. I want a fighting liberalism of the variety seen expressed by Thomas Paine and Martin Luther King jr, a liberalism not afraid of a few bruises or hurt feelings. Liberalism can express strongly at times for certain liberals, but it sure is rare.

Why is that? Is it just fear? Or is there something else going on here?

JFK’s Ideology: The Real Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what does the social science research show?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Classical Liberalism Liberal?

Liberalism: Label vs Reality (analysis of data)

Deep South, Traditional Conservatism, & Future Possibilities

Deep South, American Hypocrisy, & Liberal Traditions

Jonathan Haidt’s Liberal-Minded Anti-Liberalism

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

Haidt’s Moral Intuition (vs ethical reasoning)

Haidt & Mooney, Moral Foundations & Spiral Dynamics

Liberalism: Weaknesses & Failures

The Enlightenment Project: A Defense

Criticizing Mooney’s Praise of Haidt

Republican Liberalism

Re: The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives

Liberalism, Enlightenment & Axial Age

Symbolic Conflation & Empathic Imagination

Ideologically Confused Partisans

More Thoughts on Ideological Confusion

JFK, Little Bit Muddy: A Liberal Definition of Liberalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Continue reading: part four)

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)