Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Thanks a Lot

Last year, at this time, I shared my favorite Thanksgiving hymn. This time around, let's go with a much humbler song, but one no less appropriate to the day:

Thanks a Lot

Thanks a lot
Thanks for the sun in the sky
Thanks a lot
Thanks for the clouds so high

Thanks a lot
Thanks for the whispering wind
Thanks a lot
Thanks for the birds in the spring

Thanks a lot
Thanks for the moonlit night
Thanks a lot
Thanks for the stars so bright

Thanks a lot
Thanks for wonder in me
Thanks a lot
Thanks for the way that I feel

Thanks for the animals
Thanks for the land
Thanks for the people everywhere
Thanks a lot
Thanks for all I've got
Thanks for all I've got

(Text and music by Raffi)

This song came into my head yesterday afternoon, as I was walking home from the office. I walked through the mostly empty campus, past the athletic field, past another street of faculty homes, through a stand of oak and pecan trees (featuring deep red leaves and bare branches), over a small creek than sometimes floods with rainwater, and down to our little home, with the lights on and Alison awake and ready to play. It was foggy and wet out, and turning cold; the few rays from the setting sun played on wisps of cloud hanging low. Inside it was warm and bright. It was a beautiful walk, which I'm lucky enough to be able to make every day. There's a lot I'm lucky to have. A whole lot.

Happy Thanksgiving, to one and all.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

That's Entertainment!

Over the last year or so, our girls have become captivated by a lot classic Hollywood musicals. They sing the tunes to each other as part of games, and sometimes just to themselves. (Recently, at a playgroup with some other kids, another woman from our church was taken aback to hear Caitlyn, our four-year-old, singing quietly to herself "If I Were a Rich Man," except she tends to change the lyrics around a little; more often than not, it becomes "If I Were a Rich Woman.") Some of their favorites include Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Meet Me In St. Louis, The Sound of Music (of course), Singin' in the Rain, Mary Poppins, Annie, The Music Man, The Wizard of Oz and more. Granted, not all of these are what most people think of when you talk about old Hollywood musicals; interesting how Mary Poppins, for example, since it was produced by Disney and features animation, is left off most musical lists. But for the girls it's all the same; something about the way in which music mixes with story, becoming part of the story, has really grabbed them. I think in some very basic way it's teaching them about what art and entertainment really are. For one thing, it was exciting for them to discover on their own that "Esther" from Meet Me in St. Louis is also "Dorothy" from Wizard of Oz, and so forth. More fundamentally, I think it has helped them see that, as people in real life do not break out into song depending on their mood, these otherwise very realistic stories (all right, maybe Mary Poppins and Wizard of Oz don't qualify) must therefore be a peculiar kind of "comment" on real life, a way of throwing some aspect of it--its humor, pathos, pain, unpredictability, whatever--into sharp relief. Megan, our eight-year-old, in particular I think has been helped by these musicals. Since she was very young movies of all sort have just overwhelmed her imagination; the musical cues alone would, when it looked like there was going to be any conflict featured on screen (and we're talking about Cinderella-level conflict here; we police our children's viewing habits pretty closely), drive her out of the room, to hide in closets and under bed sheets. It's not that she doesn't have a strong and powerful imaginative sense, or an ability to focus on the story; she'd continue to peak out at the tv, or run back and forth asking us what she'd missed. It's just that, for whatever reason, she's particularly sensitive to intense imaginative presentations, and tends to so clearly identify her own thinking with what she's seeing that the merest sign of danger or embarrassment or confusion is often too much for her. (She's like this with books as well as visual entertainment, as I explained in my Harry Potter post.) But the confrontations and adventures she's seen in musicals have had a different effect on her; she can handle them, via the music, much, much better than I had thought she could. She's learning about being a viewer, about what it means to be entertained, in other words. Which, when it isn't constructed as a passive enterprise but a critical and engaged one, is a very good thing.

Their interest in musicals followed Melissa's and mine; at some point about a year or two ago we decided that we were really lacking in the classic Hollywood entertainment department; my mom loved all these old musicals, directed several for local casts in our church when I was growing up, and I felt particularly embarrassed by the fact that I'd forgotten so many plot points and songs. So we started building up a collection. We're getting most of them on DVD, which makes it easy for the girls to play their favorite scenes over and over again, and also makes it easier for us as parents: we can more easily show them great songs without them begging us to let them watch movies we don't think they're ready for yet. Fiddler on the Roof, despite its very accessible and engaging music, is clearly a little too heavy and mature for them at this point; ditto for My Fair Lady (possibly my favorite of them all) and West Side Story. (And they'll have to age about another ten years before we let them watch Chicago!) And the fact is, we've found that we don't really think all of these movies, even some of the most famous, are worth the time. Oklahoma? Great music, but the characters and story are terribly boring. Carousel alternated between creepy and dull. And Hello Dolly! was a horrible vanity project; An American in Paris, while not horrible, suffers similarly. So it's not like everything out there is gold.

Recommendations, for us or for the girls? What classic works of entertainment are we missing? We should probably rent The King and I, and see if it hold up to our memory. I've still never seen South Pacific, amazingly enough. How about Anchors Aweigh? That's where Gene Kelly dances with Tom the Mouse, right? Any others?

Monday, November 22, 2004

Comments Post #1: Christians, Libertarians, and Civic Obligation

As promised (though a couple of days late, as usual), here's my first round-up of comments, which hopefully will become an irregular but consistent feature. Enjoy.

My post on Alabama, Moral Values, and Education generated a lot of comments, thanks to the link from Crooked Timber. Several were critical of my assertion that any Christian who seriously wanted to see their mostly socially conservative values incorporated into, and reflected by, our social policies ought to be ashamed at the way the Christian Coalition simply dug in their heels at the prospect of Alabama potentially recognizing a public right to education. Thomas wrote:

"I live in a state with a constitutional guarantee of public education, and we've been held hostage by a state court for more than a year. Instead of letting the legislature fund education, the judge wants to dictate the acceptable level and distribution of funding, in order to protect the rights guaranteed. I'd vote to take that guarantee out of the constitution in a heartbeat, to get the case out of court and put the issue back into the political sphere. The political sphere will raise my taxes without doubt, but I'll know who to credit and who to blame."

That's a sentiment I can respect, if not fully agree with; as I noted in that post, Arkansas has been subject to litigation arising out of our state constitution's educational guarantee for over a decade, and no one is particularly happy with the results (not even the school district that started the original lawsuit, since in winning its case it has also been shown to be unsupportable insofar as equal funding requirements are concerned, and thus has been consolidated). I'm no fan of judicially driven politics. That said, I think there is an important civic aspect to the issue of what a state's constitutional language includes which is being ignored; namely, the idea that a state, as a body of people, ought to collectively reflect certain egalitarian priorities, including (I think) a guarantee of at least a minimal fair education. Such collective action out to arise popularly, I agree. But then again, for various avowedly Christian interest groups to work to stop popular changes in the language of a constitution doesn't sound any better to me either--in fact it sounds worse, because it seems to be not all that much different from working to prevent the establishment of any civic obligation to the poor whatsoever...which is kind of where other comments went. As TW put it:

"[A]nyone who thinks that they have a 'right' to vote themselves or another a subsidy paid for with someone else's tax dollars (regardless of whether they're willing to pay more themselves) is a thief, pure and simple. While arguably giving your own money by voluntary choice to a needy person is Christian, there is nothing 'Christian' about voting to raise the taxes of others in any sense of the word."

Harry's response to that was dead-on:

"TW is operating with a very odd sense of theft. Would it, for example, constitute theft to raise taxes in order to secure a fair justice system? Or to secure a police force sufficiently capable and non-corruptible to protect churches from fire-bombers? No; because we are all obliged to contribute to the maintenance of a system in which all our fellow citizens can have their rights secured . . . Of course, that can only be secured through a system of taxation, and no-one has the right to exempt themselves from contributing to the maintenance of a fair system of rights. The thieves, if you want to use that language, are those who vote to maintain low taxes so that they can refrain from fulfilling their moral duties to others."

I'm not a fan of "rights-talk" by any stretch of the imagination; still, the basic "fairness" that Harry is talking about here is an egalitarian principle deeply embedded in the Christian ethos (as well as many other philosophical and ethical systems). Given that the realization of this principle requires sharing, common concern, and collective action, to say that taxes--even taxes voted upon by the people, and taxes shared throughout the population!--cannot be considered anything other than "theft" leads me to believe that TW either 1) rejects the applicability of Christian principles to the modern world entirely, and thus either rejects Christian morality out of hand or rejects modern forms of organization and the state itself entirely (neither of which, given the context of his post, strikes me as likely), or 2) thinks that any and all "subsidies" (again, including those which strive to provide a common and fair system to all contributors), whatever their motivation, have to overcome some kind of logical barrier which automatically gives priority to one's possession of one's own dollars. In other words, public provision, whether or not it's morally defensible, is all fine and good, but holdings are still sacred. Which leads DJW to add:

"[T]here's something funny about political ideology here in the states. Namely, we're susceptible to ill-conceived, simple-minded libertarian rhetoric."

Which I agree with completely. I appreciate Harry and others being willing to give the socially conservative voters who helped push Bush to victory credit for their beliefs, and look for ways to bring about some progressive consistency between what their religious and moral beliefs call for, and the best egalitarian traditions of the Democratic party. But this isn't going to be an easy transformation, assuming it's even possible. Dsquared thinks the evidence suggests, speaking of red-state religious voters, that:

"They're not lost sheep who have strayed into the rightwing fold despite being Christians, simply for lack of love from leftwing democrats. They're deeply rightwing people who have managed to reconstruct, on the basis of some pretty creative scholarship, a version of Christianity which accords with rightwing values."

On the other hand, following my The Democrats and My (Social) Hopes post, Nate Oman suggests that religious progressives like myself ought to concentrate on the Republicans rather than the Democrats:

"The Democrats are . . . institutionally incapable of moderating their position on abortion, civic religion, and the other sorts of issues that you would like to see the party change directions on. The chief reason is economic. The Democratic party survives on the cash of metropolitan elites, who while moderately friendly to progressive economics are desperate to keep the barbarian hordes from the heartland at bay. The party simply cannot afford to permanently alienate this group and it never will . . . From my point of view, the only route to the sort of politics that you would like see is to transform the Religious Right into a more economically progressive movement and then to get the Religious Right to transform the GOP. In this sense the Religious Right is much like the metropolitan elites who play money bags to the Dems; it is a constituency that the party cannot afford to alienate."

He could be right. My resistance to thinking this way, however, is grounded in what seems to me to be fundamental to classical liberal and libertarian thinking: that an individual's acts have an irreducible economic element to them. This kind of liberal decisionmaking posits socio-economic "spontaneity"--namely, the expression of individual interests--as the heart of all decent and free societies; to bring politics--the collective act of ordering society in accordance with ideas--into the mix is to threaten coercion. The doctrine of laissez-faire, so central to contemporary Republican party rhetoric, has identified spontaneous liberty (in the sense of accumulating or disposing of property) with moral action, whereas the Democrats, going back to through the Great Society and FDR all the way to the Progressives, have been the one major party which has provided intellectual shelter to a more positive conception of liberty. Obviously, I think the Democrats today have failed to recognize and reach out to the other positive thinkers in America's political landscape, but at least the tradition and the rhetoric is there; whereas for the Republicans, you've got to go back to Lincoln (though Teddy Roosevelt felt the lure of this older, more political notion of liberty to a degree). In other words, I think it's easier to change the perspective of liberal elites (like by helping them see the best that popular Christian morality has to offer, even if that obviously isn't often on display today) who at least supposedly accept the reality and the priority of the commons, then it is to change the whole economic worldview of mainstream conservatives, because for so many of them, as noted above, even the ethical demands of Christianity as they understand it appears to be, in some ways at least, subject to the test of property. Either way, it's not going to be an easy battle, but for the moment I'd rather take on libertarians nearer to home than farther afield.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Marriage and Social Policy

Many thanks to Harry Brighouse of Crooked Timber for linking to my post on Alabama and the likely rejection of Amendment 2, which would have removed the language which denied the existence of any general right to an education from the state constitution. Quite a few people posted insightful comments, including Harry himself; I'll have to fish some of those out (along with a few comments from some earlier posts as well) and present them along with some comments of my own about libertarianism, Christianity, and "moral values." But for now, a couple of quick notes on some related subjects, specifically having to do with welfare, marriage, and the role of the state.

This week, Slate ran a dialogue which featured posts from Mickey Kaus, Ron Haskins and Jonah Edelman on Jason DeParle's new book, American Dream, which closely describes the lives of the poor in America during the era of welfare reform. All of the e-mail exchanges on DeParle's book are superb; one should read the whole series (here, here, and here). Among their praise for DeParle's work, several conclusions emerge: that Clinton-era welfare reform got at least a few very crucial things right; that linking welfare to work is a crucial step in breaking the cycle of poverty; and that an immense distance remains to be traveled if equal opportunities are truly to be available to the urban poor. All three discussants agree that the single greatest contributor to that distance is the dreadful state of the family in inner cities. Again and again, the facts makes themselves undeniable, in the words of poor women themselves as well as in statistics: the violence, despair and bad choices which plague the poorest communities in America are profoundly wrapped up in the irresponsibility and criminality of men who father children, refuse to look for or keep jobs, abuse girlfriends and the welfare system, sell and do drugs, intimidate friends who try to change, and generally fill the lives of so many struggling working mothers, desperately trying to raise their children (usually illegitimate, generally torn between multiple homes as well as the street), with pain, confusion, and fear. What could possibly alter this dreadful legacy? Obviously what's really needed is both a general cultural revival as well as the preservation of a economic world where the jobs which cities once provided cannot so easily be taken away by globalization or illegal immigration; but the discussants don't go in that direction. What they do talk about is increasing the minimum wage (to try to compete with the drug economy which "employs" so many poor black males) or even legalizing drugs (if only to bring some disciplinary consequences and legitimacy to the "jobs" most of these men have at least some familiarity with). Mostly, however, they talk about marriage: whether the slowly increasing earning power of formerly welfare-dependent working mothers will lead to more women finding the strength to refuse to put up with unproductive men in their lives, and what, if anything, the state can do to them help get to that point. This leads to a discussion of Bush's "marriage initiative"--which DeParle, who has long been associated with liberal critics of Republican efforts at welfare reform, has cautious approval for. It isn't every day that one sees a discussion about welfare embrace both promoting marriage and universal health insurance--but to my mind, they both have the same goal in mind: helping people get into the sort of situation where they can live a life of security, both financial and emotional. The pathologies of poverty in the U.S. make it clear that both the Republicans and the Democrats have missed, or refused to see, for a very long time how both of these two securities are profoundly mixed.

Meanwhile, here in Arkansas, our governor is pushing "covenant marriage"--a recent legal innovation, also available in Arizona and Louisiana, which requires couples to accept pre-wedding counseling and allows divorce only in cases of adultery, imprisonment, abandonment, abuse and after a substantial waiting period. Arkansas has a very high marriage rate, but also an extremely high divorce rate, which is pretty common throughout much of South (a point that can be legitimately made as part of an accusation of red-state hypocrisy). Again, the real issue here is one of education (the lack of it), poverty (the extent of it), and the culture of divorce itself--which is present everywhere, but more easily manifest in areas where the sort of habits and choices that clearly work in favor of staying married are less common. Fighting this culture is thus only one part of the problem (and a difficult one, so long as no-fault divorce remains the law of the land), but nonetheless an important part, and trying to make marriage into a stronger and more binding association through political and social pressure sounds like a good (if limited) strategy to me. For those who find any sort of state intervention or involvement in the supposedly "private" matter of marriage to be distasteful (which is really a way of saying that any sort of public judgment about one's lifestyle is to be avoided), Governor Huckabee's agenda will of course seem like more moralistic interference. It think, on the contrary, that it's one aspect of a broad and necessary movement, a movement to strengthen and make more valuable the marriage relationship for everyone, for dozens of easily empirically demonstrable reasons. Of course, that won't satisfy those with philosophical objections, which is why my arguments about the legitimacy of (some) state actions in relation to a popularly held, communally articulated moral agenda continues (and will likely long continue) to run up against the arguments of those who don't see why there need be many (or perhaps even any) collective obligations, whether financial or personal, in a liberal state. But in the meantime, the fact that at least some people are recognizing the relevance of the "moral issue" of marriage to social policy, both for the inner cities as well as elsewhere, is an encouraging sign.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Alabama, Moral Values, and Education

I've spent the two weeks since the election writing again and again about how the socially conservative religious and moral concerns of large portions of the American population (mostly in the rural South and West) need to be granted more respect by progressives. My argument has been that incorporating such religious and moral thinking into the campaign for progressive causes is not only strategically necessary, if any sort of coherent movement to preserve social justice is to make headway in America today, but also wise, in that such values can support and extend the progressive argument in important ways. I believe all that. But I don't want to be painted as someone who believes that religious conservatives in America today, and particularly in the South, are at this moment ready and willing to join in some sort of populist-socialist crusade, because that's ridiculous. Making recommendations to my fellow progressives doesn't mean that I don't realize that most of the hard work has to be done in local religious communities themselves, which have (for both understandable and perverse reasons) to a great extent locked themselves into mindset that rejects much social obligation. Case in point: Alabama and Amendment 2.

This morning, I read John Brummett's column about the close but likely defeat of Amendment 2 in Alabama, a proposed amendment to the state constitution which would have repealed segregation-era language included in the document back in the 1950s. The strategy of Alabama politicians back then to avoid any potential interference with their racist educational system was to amend the constitution so that it included, besides poll taxes and mandated segregation, language which denied the right to an education at taxpayer expense for any Alabama child. Thanks to federal action, poll taxes and the doctrine of separate-but-equal was rendered moot; but the rejectionist language itself remains in the constitution, and has become a branch which many of those who reject a sense of obligation to the larger (and multiracial) social unit which Alabama in fact is continue to cling to. The push for Amendment 2 was led by Governor Bob Riley, who has bravely fought for a better Alabama before, and done so on explicitly Christian grounds. But once again, the Christian Coalition of Alabama and many of their Republican allies refused to budge on their opposition. Not that they necessarily still harbor segregationist sympathies; Amendment 2's opponents insisted that the racist language in their state constitution is meaningless, and that they would introduce legislation to strip them in particular anyway. But to actually get rid of that specific aspect of the constitution which at one time allowed the white population of the state to avoid obligations to the black population, and which is now embraced as a way to keep taxes low and keep the state from being obliged to actually repair the deeply divided and unequal public education system in the state...well, that's taking things too far. Roy "Ten Commandments" Moore took to the barricades, insisting that Christian schools and home schoolers of all sorts would be forced by itchy trial lawyers, looking for a chance to sue the state, to accept onerous and unfair tax burdens if a right for all citizens to be equally educated were recognized by the constitution. His argument appears to have worked, at least barely.

The discussion about this ugly vote over at James Joyner's blog is revealing. Yes, Alabama does have a terrible constitution, a convolunted mess with over 700 amendments running to 12 times the length of the average state constitution; perhaps it is not unreasonable to believe that a great many voters simply vote against any and all amendments purely out of disgust. And no, of course the tax-via-lawsuit issue isn't a red herring; as a resident of Arkansas, I understand very well the complicated and painful issues which arise when the state constitution's guarantee to educate the children of its residents is forced by legal action to confront terrible disparities in wealth on the one hand and strapped state coffers on the other. I'm not crazy about addressing education inequalities through judicial intervention, and while I think a state education is valuable on its own merits, I'm not unsympathetic to those who wish to preserve a certain independence, for religious or moral reasons, from the public school system. And of course, there are communal concerns which come into play here, which bump up uncomfortably against class issues and more (see Alan Ehrenhalt's article about the reaction of isolated-- and mostly white, though he doesn't mention that--rural communities to Arkansas's school consolidation plan here, and my response here (scroll down for both)). But the fact remains that public education is perhaps the single most extensive and widely supported egalitarian program in the history of the United States; whatever its failures, supporting it (in principle, if not in its every detail) surely ought to be an obvious obligation on the part of everyone who professes to believe that God created us to bear one another's burdens, and to make no distinction between the poor and the rich. Were the opposition to this amendment by many conservatives complemented by an earnest effort to redress the injustices of Alabama's tax code, or at least ask themselves how Alabama can do better in educating all its citizens, then I could understand, if not agree, with their actions. But no such effort was made; leaving aside vague concerns about not making Alabama's messed-up government any messier, this boiled down to a simple refusal on the part of a very slight majority of Alabama voters to see themselves as obligated to those who lack the resources or opportunity to either escape from or improve their own public education. I dislike seeing Southerners tarred with the legacy of segregation, but Brummett is not entirely wrong in referring to many Christian schools as "retro tools of resegregation"--spend much time in the South, particularly the Deep South (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana), and you'll see how many churches and social organizations set up "private" academies in the wake of desegregation, and how the continuing impact of those admittedly often excellent religious schools warps (and depletes) the funding and administrative resources of the local school districts which remain to take care of that portion of the population left behind.

Dealing with civic obligations is never easy, and the compromises which follow the demand that, for example, a right to an education be recognized are never going to satisfy everyone. But I'd much rather see every Southern state go through the stress which Arkansas has experienced over the last ten years or more than watch a large number of white Christian voters unknowingly (or worse, knowingly) brush aside a fundamental egalitarian and Christian principle as part of a partisan struggle. Many social and religious conservatives in the South and West have drawn themselves away from civic responsibility, shamefully allowing archaic and otherwise rejected political strategies to provide them with a way to hide from the inequality and need that education can provide at least a partial solution to. In this case, progressives like myself have our work cut out for ourselves locally; the problem isn't blue, but entirely and embarrassingly red.


Since I rebooted the blog, I think I've grown more comfortable with the time it takes up, what I can do with it, and what I expect out of it. (We'll see how long that feeling lasts.) Laura's right that a lot of what goes into a blog is about "honing" yourself, your ideas and arguments and thought processes, "finding yourself," as it were, in the midst of intellectual currents, the news of the world, and most especially the everyday. Obviously, one of the best ways to measure how that honing project is coming along is through feedback. At first I was wary of installing a comments feature; now I'm delighted I did. Reading comments is such fun, and so helpful. Of course, so long as I'm on Blogger the best patches in the world still won't give me a platform where real online discussions can easily take place, but that doesn't bother me too much; if I went to Typepad or some such system, I almost certainly wouldn't be able to resist interacting with those of you who comment, and that would throw whatever balance I've achieved with the present blog out the window. I admire very much the wonderful online communities which have grown up around the great, interactive blogs out there (Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Crooked Timber, John and Belle, etc., as well as my own Times and Seasons), but even attempting to replicate that here (assuming I could, which almost certainly wouldn't be the case) would take a lot more time and energy than I'm willing to give.

But as I've read the comments from many of you, I've become dissatisfied with just leaving them down there. So I've decided to institute an irregular "Comments Post." I might end up doing it weekly, but given that there are some weeks when I don't write, that might not hold up. We'll see how often I do it (it'll probably be an end of the week or weekend thing). Laura used to do a "reader e-mail day" on her old Blogger blog; I hope this feature can be something like that. I'll just sample (or excerpt) some recent comments, publish them as a regular post, and add some comments of my own to some or all of them. I hope it'll work. Anyway, expect the first such entry before the end of the week, and thanks for reading.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Antipopulism, and Its Consequences

Matt Yglesias, citing Jeffrey Rosen, notes over at TAPPED that "The bulk of the conservative judicial agenda has little to do with abortion, gay rights, or other hot-button issues. Instead, the right's legal theorists and, increasingly, judges have a much more ambitious plan to scale back a bunch of New Deal-era jurisprudence and deem huge swathes of the regulatory state unconstitutional." This is certainly true, and it begs the question of what the left is going to do about it. Well, actually, Matt fears they might do nothing: "My biggest fear about the courts over the next few years is that in seeking to protect Roe the Democrats will wind up giving away the store on almost everything else." Like him, I'm afraid that might be the case. Matt is correct in writing that this kind of conservative judicial activism is "radically counter-majoritarian"--the basic egalitarian premises of the New Deal are deeply popular, if not especially well understood, with the result that few people understand how it is that in buying into "ownership society" rhetoric, which is couched in the same or at least similar "social justice" and "compassionate" terms as those programs which FDR and, earlier, the Progressives pioneered seventy or more years ago, they contribute to the undermining of the legal and political will and interpretation which made it possible for these highly popular measures to come about in the first place. And unfortunately, this misunderstanding, and hence laxity in guarding whatever common economic security the American citizenry has managed to secure, is deepened by a liberal movement so wrapped up in individual lifestyle issues (issues that are, often, both irrelevant and needlessly antagonizing to many working-class voters that desire some recognition for their to a degree purposefully limited lives) that liberal politicians seem inconsistent, if not hypocritical, when they try to turn the spotlights on such simple collective issues as income, health care, national service, trade, and so forth. There is little that is actually, genuinely, populist about Bush's tax plan or any number of other policies; but those behind the Bush agenda can portray themselves as such, borrow the rhetoric and perhaps even be unaware themselves at how falsely they often use it, because Democrats too often allow themselves to be (not inaccurately) painted as antipopulists, supporting social agendas that don't link up with the very worthy things they have to say regarding economic need.

Drake Bennett, whom Matt cites as part of his argument, thinks that overturning Roe v. Wade and returning the issue of abortion to the decision of popular majorities within the states, would benefit the progressive movement, because it would force the Republican party to either put up or shut up regarding abortion, with the likely result that the party would divide along traditional conservative and more libertarian lines, thus weakening it. But that's strategic thinking; more important is what such an overturning would mean for the play of political ideas across the spectrum. If Democrats did not have to campaign with that albatross around their neck, wouldn't it be likely that they (or at least some of them) could join their support for moderate, popular restrictions on abortion (such as I outlined here) with similarly popular campaigns for preserving the legal limits which have protected social insurance and health programs for most of a century? The death-knell of New Deal jurisprudence begins with a basic argument about the individual and their property; how can progressives adequately defend the economic priorities they have long stood for if at the same time they can be legitimately be accused by red-state rabble-rousers of being antipopulist defenders of the (usually elite) individual's right to choose, in any and all cases? To preserve a polity that is both legally and politically capable of showing significant social concern for all citizens requires taking seriously the popular, moral concerns of those citizens; otherwise, you'll lose a lot of people to the siren call of closing themselves (and their incomes) off from a society that they just think is invasive anyway.

Matt concludes by arguing that "social liberalism would at least have a fighting chance" in the legislative arena, and he's correct. There's a lot more moderation in the red states (and elsewhere) than the currently traumatized liberal camp might care to believe; the problem (or one of the problems) is that there hasn't been the humane (one might even say hermeneutic) respect for participatory action and collective decisionmaking that we've needed to see it come to light. On both sides of the divide, the quest has been for absolutes, not populist association. I don't see any reason why there couldn't emerge through the give-and-take of legislation a plausible, moderate, socially concerned platform which emphasized both justice and civic responsibility, moral limits and communal provision. For the Democrats to drop their emphatic defense of this crummy bit of law would be a good start.

Friday, November 12, 2004

The Context People, the Context!

Obviously, you just can't say this often enough: the argument isn't that getting progressives in the Democratic party to recognize and incorporate as valid the moral concerns of America's religious voters means electing, as Matt Yglesias fears, "scolds-in-chief"; neither Ed Kilgore nor Brad Carson suggest that any of the particular elements of contemporary American culture which they list as problematic for many voters require explicit condemnation. The argument, rather, is whether or not progressives are going to express a willingness to scold, or at least a sympathy for those who feel it necessary to do so. In other words, it's not whether or not the Democrats can realize that, say, abortion or violent video games or Sex in the City has got to go; it's whether they can realize that there are possible worlds into which such things ought not go, and that respecting the popular wishes of the people involves a recognition of the maintenance, or even the potential emergence, of such a world. What is at stake in the culture war, if you want to call it that, isn't the content of the culture so much as the context within which people may determine their cultural environment, and whether in the eyes of the state they will be legitimated or marginalized through doing so. Carson, a recently defeated Democratic representative from Oklahoma puts it together:

"The culture war is about matters more fundamental still: whether nationality is, in a globalized world, a random fact of no more significance than what hospital one was born in or whether it is the source of identity and even political legitimacy; whether one's self is a matter of choice or whether it is predetermined, before birth, by the cultural membership of one's family; whether an individual is just that--a free-floating atom--or whether the individual is part of a long chain that both predates and continues long after any particular person; whether concepts like honor and shame, which seem so quaint, are still relevant in a world that values only 'tolerance.' These are questions not for politicians but for philosophers, and, in the end, it is the failure of liberal philosophy that we saw on November 2."

Limits are useful things, and even if you prefer to reject the communitarian instantiation of any one set of (religious, national, cultural) limits, the act of limiting, drawing boundaries, and (yes) scolding transgressors of such, is essential to allowing a sense of affection for one's lived context to develop. If the power of the federal judiciary or the media undermines the legitimacy of such identity and context-establishment, then there will be hell to pay (as there was in Oklahoma), and all progressive causes will suffer. True, some social conservatives want to remake the country so that it exhibits a single, unchanging moral content; most, however, simply want to be a part of any potential exhibiting. My hope is that if progressives can learn to do this, we will be able to show my fellow red-state voters how the egalitarian project can reveal and even help rectify the way our country's insufficiently socially-attuned economy itself contributes at least as much, if not more, to cultural stress than anything coming out of Washington D.C. or Hollywood. But at this point, the first steps have yet to be taken by either side.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Thrill of Family Life

This morning, at about 4:00am, Megan, our eight-year-old, opened our bedroom door and walked over to my side of the bed. It was dark, and raining hard outside our bedroom window.

"I had a bad dream," she murmured, not entirely awake, crying quietly.

"Come on in," I said to her, and she climbed into the bed beside me, and snuggled into the crook of my arm. She lay there until I was sure she was asleep, and then I carried her back to her bed. Lifting her up, her long, slender legs extended almost straight out, I wondered--as I often wonder--how much longer I'll be able to treat her like a child. Sometimes I look at her two sisters, Alison and Caitlyn, playing together, and I think: by the time Alison (who will turn one in just a few weeks) is as old as Caitlyn (four years old), Megan will be eleven--an adolescent. Will she let me carry her to bed? Will she come into our room when she has a bad dream? How will I feel about that?

Questions for another time. This morning, carrying her to her room and then returning to bed, knowing that I've done what a parent is supposed to do, I felt good. Fulfilled. Strong.

Every parent (or, at least, one hopes and prays every parent) knows what I'm talking about: the way that playing with your children, working with them, teaching them, doing right by them, is sometimes, maybe even often, a kind of thrill, a rush of pleasure or power or confidence. "This is working," you think to yourself, "stuff is happening: learning and loving is taking place." Your child, your family, becomes an extension of yourself, or maybe they extend into you; either way, you just feel larger, more capable, with greater breadth and presence than you did before. Of course, this is a central part of most romantic aspirations as well: you want to get together with someone, and with that someone you end up becoming so much more you then you were before, or ever imagined you could be. But I think it's doubled, tripled even, in domestic contexts, as part of ordinary family life. Maybe this is one way in which we can see the innovations of bourgeois life, whatever their blind spots and restrictions, has having been a moral gain.

It's an easy feeling to get all saccharine about, this thrill of family life; harder to dramatize. It's so easy for stories to present the family--the spouse, the kids--as an obstacle, or a dramatic foil (will she ever trust him again? will he do his duty? who will save that dying child?!?), that is assuming they don't take the easy route and just make the hero or heroine a loner, a misunderstood outcast, or someone who leaves domestic life in the background without any attention being paid to it at all. To tell a story where the strength which comes from being a family or a couple that are all in it together forms the backbone of the tale is pretty rare. That's one reason Melissa and I found The Incredibles so, well, incredible. Yes, there were some of the usual domestic tropes: unhappy husband, overbearing wife, kids with problems, etc. But fundamentally, the film simply posited, right from the outset really, that all of them (Bob, Helen, Violet, Dash, even Jack Jack) were "incredible," and so of course they were even more incredible when standing side by side. This isn't a family values debate; I neither know nor care if Brad Bird is or wanted his movie to be seen as traditional or conservative. What I liked was the thrill of seeing the son and daughter and wife and husband all do their thing: run across water and smash robots and stretch through closed doors and escape deadly traps and generally kick ass. And do it in such a way that the real domestic core of their strength, their "agenda" as it were, was always in plain view.

Of course, dealing with superheroes--and animated superheroes at that!--allows you some narrative room that other genres perhaps don't, so maybe it's just not to be expected that many films will give you families acting in tandem and building off one another like that. I can actually only come up with a couple of other examples: Spy Kids, of course, at least the first two, where Robert Rodriguez gave us a lot of delightful and never condescending heroics by way of family dynamics. And then (don't laugh) W.S. Van Dyke's many Thin Man movies. Okay, sure, Nick and Nora Charles aren't anyone's ideal couple, especially since the whole conceit of the films is that they're genteelly plastered most of the time. And there wasn't a kid until the third movie. No matter; in these film, all the tropes of the meet-cure romantic comedy are sublimated into the story of a husband-and-wife detective team whose wit are products of their loving relationship. Because they stand together (mildly tipsy together), they're Nick and Nora, world-class detectives. Apart, what would you have? No thrill at all, that's what.

I'm sure there must be more movies that make something thrilling out of the basic attachments of family life, but I'm drawing a blank. Suggestions anyone?

Sunday, November 07, 2004

The Democrats, and My (Social) Hopes

The argument over the destiny of the Democratic party, hardly a new debate, isn't going to end anytime soon. Along the way, there are bound to be interesting bedfellows and surprising overlaps. For example, I've noticed Democrats as liberal as Kevin Drum, and Republicans as conservative as Joe Carter, both talking about how the Democrats ought to rediscover "states' rights" and federalism, and be content with the existing division over various moral/religious/cultural issues in the country--a concept that Timothy Burke, among many others, proposed out of frustration, and which we both subsequently explored at length. Maybe something will come of it, maybe not. But I'm exhausted by it already, at least for the moment. It's been quite an intense week.

There's one point that I feel deserves an additional bit of emphasis though: given my particular (socially conservative, economically progressive) views, why fight for the soul of the Democratic party? Belle Waring's call for libertarians to join the Democratic party strikes me as a little too neat to be workable, but I can't deny that, at least if the enormous traffic among libertarians her post has elicited in any guide, there's a persuasive case to be made there. Moreover, intellectual consistency forces me to acknowledge that, somewhere in the midst of Bush's mostly incoherent (if marvelously effective in partisan terms) "big government conservatism", there is a set of principles which I, presumably, should want to align myself with. Compassionate conservatism, national identity, community values, etc., etc. So why not turn to the Republicans, and try to make them see that cultural conservatism is compatible with social democracy? (After all, the socialist spending habits are already there, right?)

It's not entirely implausible. But frankly, I fear that the ethos of laissez-faire, however inconsistently practiced, has wormed it's way too deeply into the Republican intellectual infrastructure to be extricated, certainly not at least while current Republican strategies have lead them to political dominance. Despite all the ways in which some might, in good faith, try to present Bush's vision of an "ownership society" as the fulfillment of the communitarian Third Way, the conceptual roadblocks in the way are immense; as I wrote once before on this topic, Bush's reading of American society is fundamentally "dismissive of the group; in its defensible effort to focus on the individual, it drops the necessarily social, even collective, aspect of welfare, justice, virtue, and even (yes) liberty." Even Bush's absolutely admirable commitment to faith-based groups has always had more to do with delivering services to individuals (cheaply as well as faithfully), than with bonding people together in a society where faith-based associations play a central (or even a significant) role.

When Laura McKenna touched on the issue of religion and politics following the election, she mentioned that her father "once wrote that pro-lifers should be more at home with the Democratic party." She's referring to George McKenna's article, "On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position," one of the very best things I've ever read on the politics of abortion in America. (It was originally published in The Atlantic Monthly back in 1995; you can find it now here.) His argument was basically an attempt to adapt to the abortion debate Lincoln's approach to slavery: strong moral condemnation contained with pragmatic restrictions, or in other words, don't try to eliminate it, but don't let it expand, and let your judgment of it be known. It's an approach which required a belief that "the nation had to do more than formulate procedural rules [which McKenna's associated with Stephen Douglas's plans to put slavery to a state-by-state vote]; it had to make moral judgments and act on them." Then, after making his recommendation, he asked which of the two main parties was most likely to be willing to adopt a morally authoritative, communally judgmental role? His answer was:

"[T]he proper philosophical home for pro-lifers right now is the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. To test this...substitute the word 'racism' for 'abortion.'...Democrats know that racism, like abortion, cannot be abolished by government fiat. But they also know that it is wrong to subsidize racist teachings publicly or to tolerate racist speech in public institutions or to permit racist practices in large-scale "private" enterprises. Democrats also insist that government has a duty to take the lead in condemning racism and educating our youth about its dangers. In other words, the same formula--grudgingly tolerate, restrict, discourage--that I have applied to abortion is what liberal Democrats have been using to combat racism over the past generation....With abortion, as with racism, we are conceding the practical impossibility of outlawing the evil itself but pledging the government's best efforts to make it 'rare' (Bill Clinton et al). When it comes to philosophical coherence, therefore, nothing prevents Democrats from adopting my abortion position. Indeed, there is very good reason to adopt it."

Of course, he recognizes the power of the abortion lobby, which may finally be weakened after this latest election--but then again, maybe not. And it's possible Professor McKenna has changed his mind; in the article he also acknowledged that Lincoln's "noble tradition" of providing "moral leadership" for the nation, a "synthesis of humanitarianism and institutional responsibility," still flourished in the Republican party as late as era of Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressives, and he said he suspected it would someday be rediscovered. Well, maybe that describes today's GOP. But somehow, I think not. As Josh Marshall put it, most erstwhile "national greatness" Republicans dropped that rhetoric once it became clear that "Texas-style conservatism" could win elections and govern on the cheap, and the torch-carriers for TR's moralistic legacy have mostly affiliated themselves with the Democratic party (not that Kerry offered us much by way of national civic renewal, but it was better than what the GOP was offering).

I don't believe pragmatic, libertarian-inclined voters will stop leaning towards the GOP, not so long as it is their agenda to keep taxes low, and Bush certainly knows how to do that. Perhaps it's wishful thinking, and perhaps my preference is ultimately just an aesthetic one, but if anyone is likely to pick up the moralistic and populist thread in America today, and use it to weave a progressive political argument, I think and hope it'll be the Democrats. That's not to say I'm hitching my star to them; I sympathize with the comment made by Charlie ("I consider myself to be a liberal in the tradition of Al Smith, Bob Casey and Hilaire Belloc....George Bush is not my man....[but] it's just a damn shame that the Democratic Party abandoned me about the time I was born, because now I'm politically homeless"), and I've happily defended my, shall we say, "expressive" votes in the past. But still, I think that this is where I'll continue to focus my hopes, until and unless something better comes along.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Notes on a Manifesto (and One of My Own)

The following assumes that you've read Timothy Burke's tremendous "Road to Victory" essay, as well as his follow-up post. If you haven't, do so; I'll try to reconstruct parts of his argument as I go along, but you owe it to yourself to read the whole thing.

Tim has pulled together and sythnesized a lot of information in the name of presenting liberals and progressives of all stripes with a fundamental choice between what he sees as the only two plausible routes towards rebuilding a Democratic coalition which can win elections in what is, as all the arguments over the last couple of days make clear, a much more conservative and religious nation than most observers realized. (Yes, the evidence may be inconclusive, and yes, maybe in a sense this election did statistically just come down to the flipping of a coin. Nonetheless, look at the numbers: significant numbers of white Kerry voters throughout the red states voted in favor of ballot initiatives banning the legal recognition of same-sex marriages. So did large numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics. The "moral values" issue may not be the sum total of meaningful electoral politics today, but it is a major variable in it.) One of the paths Tim describes is his own preferred one: a "soft libertarianism" which will be able to pull in the "South Park Republicans" and other small government-types that sympathize with what might be called social liberalism. (Belle Waring is an enthusiast for this route too.) The other path is mine: a "communalist-socialist" left that accepts--even embraces--the religiousity of the rural South and Midwest so as to bring the working class back around to (or at least, remove moral barriers from them giving a good listen to) egalitarian politics. These are both extreme types, of course; no potential movement could ever fit so neatly in theoretical constructs that owe at least as much to Tim's and my own philosophical and moral engagements with the complications of modernity as to actual electoral returns. But still: if there are red states and blue states, and if--when push comes to shove, when ballot initiatives hang in the balance, when soldiers are fighting far away--it turns out that the number of American voters (including whites and minorities) who understand themselves to reside within the metaphorical territory of Heartlandia really is growing, it behooves progressives to think deeply about making use of that reality. While there is much thinking yet to come, Tim's thinking is already as about lengthy, imaginative and detailed as one could hope.

Of course, I have a few nits to pick. He describes the old New Deal Democratic coalition as "unions, racial minorities and educated cosmopolitan elites," and sees Bill Clinton as having been the Democrats' "last waning gasp before the sun set on [that] coalition," who held together an "old and fragmenting set of interests and constituencies" through charisma and good luck. I'm doubtful. Clinton was and is practically synonymous with the Democratic Leadership Council, whose whole exist has been dedicated to exploring ways to transform the Democratic party. Admittedly, one of those ways involved becoming comfortable with the language of religious values, moral identity, and social responsibility, a language which atrophied through the 1960s and 70s (and whose atrophy ended up driving away the "Reagan Democrats," the working class traditionalists and ethnics who had for decades supplied much of the civic trust and solidarity which made elite liberal interventions and projects conceivable in the first place); in that sense, Clinton was trying to recapture New Deal magic. But at the same time Clinton was also the man who spoke futuristically of trade and empowerment and opportunity and making ours a nation of "knowledge workers." Which sounds, frankly, not a little bit like what Tim proposes; indeed, how much difference is there, really, between a "soft libertarian progressivism" and the 1990s Robert Reich-Ruy Teixeira-John B. Judis thesis that a progressive majority of ever-"Newer Democrats" can be jury-rigged out of all the self-employed, secular, creative types which abound in the "ideopolises" of America? Not much at all, I'd warrant. And, as I've noted, it's a thesis that has yet to be much reflected in electoral reality (though Judis, et al, still insist time is on their side!). Tim suspects that his path is the easier to carry out, but given that this whole discussion arises out of the question of how to confront the fact of rural religiousity in the U.S., it seems to me that the heavier burden is on the one path--namely his--which actively declines to incorporate that reality.

Also, he frequently speaks of both of our proposed leftisms as being "junior partners" in our respective coalitions, in my case the Democratic agenda being subservient to all the moral particularities and priorities of red state America, in his case having to follow behind "strongly...meritocratic visions and conceptions of social mobility and economic policy"--which essentially means, if I understand him correctly, a wholly needs-tested vision of the welfare state. Perhaps this is merely a semantic point, but I don't see why this would be the case. To take, for example, as Tim presents my view, red-state religion seriously as one of the bases for an egalitarian politics would mean that such a hypothetical communalist-socialist agenda wouldn't be a "partner" to social traditionalism; it would be concomitant to it. Same thing for his own path. I am talking about a rethinking of the liberal agenda appropriate to America today, and so, I assume, is Tim; if so, then the product of such rethinking wouldn't necessarily feel unfairly but needfully yoked to a distasteful parallel agenda, since it would have come to be what it is as an ideology at least in part through that agenda.

But these are small points about what is a truly large and visionary essay. What I most need to say about it is a qualification and selective defense of the path he, for the most part accurately, calls my preferred one. In general, I think he presents my vision in a much more menacing light than is warranted--I spoke of the "authority" and "moral judgment" found in community; he talks about it as a "loving and familiar tyranny"--but that's to be expected: it's his essay, after all. In particular, I would like to emphasize two terms which do not appear in his essay at all--terms which, by exploring their absence in Tim's manifesto, help me realize that, while I didn't mean it to be, my earlier post was perhaps my own manifesto too.


Those terms are populism and social justice.

I don't mean that what I'm asking for, or what I think exists in red states today, ready and waiting to link up with and jump-start a new progressive coalition, is the remnant of any specific historical populism (though I'll be the first to admit that I think William Jennings Bryan got at least as much right as wrong). I mean populism broadly, as a way of thinking about politics which reflect the concerns of solidarity, identity, closeness and "affectivity." It is affection, specifically that which arises from and depends upon a shared life, a defined (and therefore somewhat limited) life, that makes possible real social concern, a concern which is not restricted to a needs-tested distribution of a few select goods (which at best can only result in the just treatment of those who accept the terms of choice which the market--and those who are lucky/hard-working/well-connected enough to dominate it--consciously or unconsciously impose), but which actually seeks make the production of goods a component of one's participation in the community. Not for nothing did late 19th-century populism easily merge with socialism, and not for nothing are social democrats today often the most responsive to the diverse demands of community, whether in neighborhood design, public schooling, welfare provision, or a dozen other areas. To talk about populist justice means to talk about "the people" not in the abstract, whether behind a veil of ignorance (John Rawls) or as individual choosers confident in their holdings (Robert Nozick), but to begin where they live, in their (often religious) communities. The goal is not some rigorously Marxist collectivizing of the material and economic and social life of all communities, in the name of uniting everyone's species-being; modern American life (in the red states as well as the blue!) will not support such an utterly non-meritocratic market. But we can limit and constrain the meritocracy in the name of civic equality (neoliberalism meets socialism, even if the neoliberals don't realize it) in the name of granting recognition to communities and people's identities as they are.

Which communities? Which identities? How much recognition? Those are the essential, and never finally resolvable, questions which any modern person (and Tim is right to say that we're all modern, but more about that below) who does not choose cosmopolitanism must ask. What's the range or boundary within which a people ought to be allowed or expected or encouraged to collectively conceive themselves, and grant priority and authority to the affective ties which thereby emerge? Tim pushes hard the idea that my path involves an "uncompromising embrace of strong federalism"; I would disagree, but only because there is simply no way to define for purposes of coalition building a single measure for communal attachment, within our society or any other: there are, and always will be, as Michael Walzer put it long ago, different "spheres" of moral and civic infrastructure, communal provision, and opportunity which characterize the lives of people. Being a populist in America can mean, and often will mean, "states' rights"; but populist feeling can take root in spheres both larger and smaller than those currently enshrined in our constitutional system. Some of the hostility which divides certain populists from communitarians comes from just such a historical confusion; despite what I recognize as some legitimate critiques that can be made of the modern communitarian movement and its dependency on sociological models, the fact is that communalism is first and foremost a claim about ontology, or philosophical anthropology, and populism is a way of expressing such politically. The expression of populist affectivity can be very intimate, but it can be national as well.

Yes, that's right, nationalism, which as Matt Ygleisas acknowledges Democrats need to learn to be more comfortable with. I'm as disturbed as anyone at the often ugly, and always irresponsible way, Bush and his team have turned the rites of patriotism into a partisan tool; they have degraded our national discourse by presenting our national identity as wholly a crusading one, and thus leaving anyone who doubts the crusade open to accusations of America-bashing and lacking love for their country. (Yes, jingoism has always troubled populist movements, as has isolationism, but such a mode of collective politics needn't reduced to either.) I admire Kerry's attempts to pull together and articulate a patriotic alternative to Bush's rhetoric throughout his campaign, and the amount of opposition and hostility his efforts received speaks well for their at least partial effectiveness. But if Kerry's struggle to present himself as a loyal and moral soldier was ultimately a failure in the minds of many red-state patriots, it clearly has to do in part with the simple fact that Kerry became a leader of the antiwar movement after he returned from Vietnam, but perhaps even more to do with what kind of movement that was. Unlike the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement never truly extended, not in a significant way, beyond its upper-class academic confines; one can certainly make a historical argument about how that particular attack of America's (military) identity was framed and undermined by a conflict-hungry media, but one cannot deny that, in the end, Kerry's was not a populist attack on the war which he had honorably served in: it was an elite one. James Fallows nailed this decades ago in his famous essay on how he dodged the Vietnam draft, and the class divide in military service hasn't gotten any better since.

Class is inseparable from the whole matter of whether and how progressives can or should respect populist religious feeling. Not that religious belief is a function of class; I don't think that at all. But it is the divide in status and position and stature, a divide which allows one group to feel separate and alien from another, which prompts Christians to feel oppressed in America, which is of course a numerically absurd proposition. Months back, Scott Martens wondered if there was any hope left "for a populism that isn't a sack of bullshit." He worried, following the lead of Mark Ames, that if the lower classes really are just provincial incompetents and fools who believe in a ridiculous sky god, improving their (and thus everyone else's) lot in life cannot be left to them, but rather to a "kinder, gentler, less exploitive, less manipulative ruling class," a "naked political machine" that will advance progressive causes in an elite manner, because the alternative--namely, actually encouraging (to use an example from Ames's article) Debbie, a poor white nineteen-year-old Christian single mom with a data processing job in Kentucky who "respected Bush for being 'real,'" to exercise real political power--is a terrible prospect. I don't know how ironic their arguments are, with their claims that the secular elite ought to just start acting like it and 'fess up to their dislike of the Debbies of the world, but it would be foolish to deny that Scott and other like him are at least appreciating the size of the gap here. I know Debbie, or someone just like her, because I go to church with her every Sunday, and I know what she--in her admittedly small, admittedly provincial way--thinks of the elite trying to lift her worldview up: as Matt again recognizes, the actions of those on the elite side of the class divide to address moral issues over the last 40 years have constituted, and been received, not as a shared popular concern, but as an outright intervention into Debbie's moral life.

Since so much of this debate is lumbering around the legacy of the South, let's just get it out in the open: the question of intervention is never easy, and never easily ended, not even for the South. The Civil War was a good and necessary thing. As was the Reconstruction (and yes, there should have been more of it). As was Brown v. Board of Education. We are, once again, moderns; we are the inheritors of a tradition of thinking which posits the possibility, and the appropriateness, of ideology-formation and ideological action, actions which run against tradition, habit, and yes, affective feeling. (You can attribute this to Calvin, or Descartes, or Locke, or Kant; whichever you prefer.) We can, in short, imagine ourselves as capable of judging our particularities, and we do; we long have and ought to continue to intervene in various particularities in the name of imagined universals. The problem is that any and every self-judgment of a group is going to create a division between an in-group and an out-group, but the out-group (unless they are, say, all killed, or brainwashed, or forced to emigrate) is going to continue on: the act of imagining cannot wholly extricate itself from the memory of the material and historical form of life (the language, the jobs, the families and neighborhoods) which existed before the division. (I simply disagree with Tim on this point: he misundstands hermeneutics, or at least I have a different take on hermeneutics than he does. Social reality is not endlessly recycled, if I am correct in thinking that is what he claims; on the contrary, things do melt into the air, get lossed, and their loss--the space that was--is felt by more than merely those who miss the privileges which those things provided. Why else would have so many socialists and traditionalists over the years looked back to the memory of the Confederacy as a solace against the capitalist universals that have filled our "purified" civic space? Because they're all hidden racists who miss the days of slavery? I think the evidence for these folks, from Eugene Genovese to Wendell Berry, suggests otherwise.) The legacy of the South's particularity shapes us as a people, just Quebec's continuing legacy shapes Canada. What to do about it? Shift to a different particularity; choose to emphasize that while one sphere was broken up, another one remains (which will itself someday come under tension, but then the particularity can shift again--Tim, like many suspicious of community, as well as many of its more narrow-minded defenders, I think fails to see how what really matters is the context of affection, not some eternal, static content; he focuses on the stuff, rather than how the stuff is lived). This is why Abraham Lincoln, and then Martin Luther King, are America's populist prophets: they rebuked the Southern communities and practices they opposed in the name of a universal, but then grounded that universal in a particular sphere which the South knew well: we can all together sing this particular Negro spiritual, we are all together under the condemnation of this particular God. That's what doing justice to all (Debbie included) requires.

Yes, my solution to the Democratic dilemma would involve backing off on certain contemporary liberal verities: but I would insist that the believers which merged into a coalition would be able to discover other (even egalitarian!) preferences within their ways of life, just as those who previous didn't see the point sharing might find that (as Tim implies) the hermeneutic recollection and projected imagination of a Norman Rockwell civic and personal morality might have application outside of the red states after all. (In other words, the communities formed by traditional, working-class and rural Christian marriages and families exhibit a populist morality which does translate into social justice. Mark Schmitt and Keiran Healy are asking the right questions; Matt is, once more, giving the right answers.)

America is an imagined political community, as are all polities. The old liberal argument was either that the gross praticularities of that imagination could be overcome, transcended by a rational and principled cosmopolitan neutrality (Martha Nussbaum's stoic universal humanism), or failing that, that the populist component of our (like any) national imagination itself could be changed into something safely secular: a purely civic nationalism, where our affections for the particular aren't focused on any one habitus so much as on the interventionary rights and laws behind it all (Jürgen Habermas's postnational Verfassungspatriotismus, or "constitutional patriotism"). For those further on the (antireligious) left, the idea was always that, as Katha Pollitt puts it, economic populism would be the "solvent" that would melt away all those negatives which liberals have traditonally associated with "reactionary cultural politics." These both completely misunderstand affectivity, for they leave the authority of the people, and the authoritative bonds which people make (or "imagine," if you prefer), out of the equation. They fail to take seriously that our loves are inseparable from our (material, economic, and social) lives, and so that if you marginalize what someone loves then you may as well be attacking their lives. The solution must be populist, in the sense that it must strive to emulate the authority and the affection which pulls people together, despite class, and makes them share (or mutually limit, if you prefer) at least part of their lives. (Which is one of the reasons national service can be properly understood as populist project.) The left I imagine would come up with wholly different arguments to deal with the tragedy (and, yes, occasional tragic necessity) of abortion, as well as all the other "values" issues which the Republican party has wrongly been able to corner. (Steve Waldman's argument that Democrats must "swallow hard and reassess their approach to abortion" is a good start.) Take away, or at least minimize, the specter of secular interventionist judges from the gestalt, the imaginative project, of white rural Christians, and you'd be surprised how many could be brought around to adding class back into their populist political preferences. Not all of them, to be sure, and maybe not even most—but enough to make a difference.


One last point, about being liberal.

I said before that we're all modern here, and it's true; we all operate in a world where a sense of our own selfhood, and our ability to project our will independent of any other, is taken as a given. To truly reject the modern conceptualization of technology, personal transformation, and exchange which emerged 400 years ago requires a radicalness far beyond that advocated by any socialist or traditionalist whom I think might properly contribute to the creation of a more communitarian Democratic left; certainly beyond anyone I've cited or would cite in making this argument. (A point which is manifestly clear to my more determinedly Marxist and environmentalist friends; the fact that I think cities can be (mostly) sustainable, and that corporations are (often) defensible, marks me as just one more well-intentioned soul stuck inside the Matrix.) Living in the modern world, consuming its goods and making use of its tools is in no sense threatened by populism; the people that I am talking about, with whom in many ways I belong, for the most part couldn't care less that modernity is mostly a matter of indiscriminate and pluralistic material, economic, and social willing, so long as their (often religiously informed) wills can participate too.

But there is tendency on the part of many liberals to assume that the products of their ideology cannot function without a concomitant embrace of a singular philosophical anthropology as well. Hence Garry Wills, who looks at Bush's re-election and concludes that the rejection of contemporary liberal verities and standards by many voters must mean that the Enlightenment has just ended. But this is foolish, partly because ignores the role republicanism played in the founding of the nation (a concept about which Sheldon Wolin, about as uncompromising an egalitarian democrat as you're likely to ever find, could teach Wills much), partly because it ignores the Counter-Enlightenment tradition, or rather assumes that the latter never had anything to say about pluralism. Leaving the history of political philosophy aside: being liberal does not mean being a liberal--a secular, antitraditonalist, individualistic, Enlightenment thinker--all the way down. Liberalism, as I argued a long time ago (ripping off Walzer while doing so), can be an adjective, as well as a known; modernity can--and should!--teach one lessons of prudence (lessons backed up by virtues as old as Aristotle, I might add) that will result in a liberal attitude toward the world. Hence, "liberal communatarian," "liberal republican," "liberal Mormon," etc.: as Walzer put it, "the adjective expresses our fears, the noun, our hopes" (or, to put it in terms more appropriate to this post, our moral source, our authority). No one that we should want to make part of a serious progressive politics actually wants to lose the flexibility that the modern world has given us--and I promise you, the moment anyone can conclusively show me that all, or even the majority, of the Debbies I know really do want to wage exactly the sort of nihilistic "jihad" Wills thinks the Bush's red-state majority announces, I'll repudiate this whole post. But I don't they'll be able to, so long as one doesn't insist that the only liberal civility worth the name must be backed up with a libertarian metaphysics to boot.

This, I suppose, is my response to John Holbo's concern that to rethink progressive priorities in light of the religious limits conceived by social conservatives is ask for something asymetrical. To want the left to show respect for religion is to demand more of the left than of the right, since their whole position, as John sees it, is to forbid giving respect to those with whom the they disagree (specifically gays, though John could have picked many other examples). I agree with him, to a point: there is a terrible lack of civility towards the struggles and lives and loves of gay people in a lot of red-state America, and conservative religious feeling is certainly part of the cause. (Though by no means a necessary cause: Noah Millman, a conservative Jew and an opponent of same-sex marriage--but also, like me, an opponent of the Federal Marriage Amendment--has consistently written with more thoughtfulness and respect on this issue than any man I know.) We should be wary of this. But to say it is unfair to expect such wariness to be comprehensive part of a new progressive coalition, that such a demand is especially burdensome upon on the "rest" of my proposed left, is wrong. "Russell’s proposal is for lefties," John writes, "who have nothing against religion. (Or if they do, that has nothing to do with being a lefty.)" Except that, to take Wills as an example, being against a certain kind of populist religion has been assumed to have a lot to do with being a lefty. I, for one, don't see why that has to be.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Ruy Teixeira Concedes!

Buried somewhere within that much-too-long (but cathartic, for me at least) post of mine yesterday, was an expression fo deep skepticism for the Teixeira/Judis recipe for an "emerging Democratic majority," and specifically for what they've long said about the white working-class in America. In a nutshell, they figure that, so long as the "ideopolises" keep growing, and America's demographics keep shifting, then the majority of all those lower and middle-class provincials, worshipping in their churches somewhere in rural, red state America, will be brought along (or bought off) by the great, creative, liberal tide. (And those that can't or won't will eventually die anyway.) I've always found this thesis condescending, but more importantly I've thought it the wrong way to approach us religious believers. The left doesn't have to flirt with theocracy, as I wrote yesterday; it just needs to show some respect:

"[I]s it not possible that the measure of moral authenticity to the average believer is not the content of one’s profession or performance of belief, but the context, the seriousness with which such belief is treated?....Think about Bill Clinton....[E]veryone knew he wasn’t at all pious. [Yet he] was forgiven that—by enough evangelicals to win various Southern states, at least—because it was manifest that he didn’t think religion was something he needed to condescend to. He shared that context. The lack of follow-through in legislative content can be forgiven if it at least begins with recognition and respect. Clinton certainly didn't outlaw abortion, and the dedicated anti-abortion professionals in America today certainly never gave him an inch of credit. But consider what happened at the margins, in the provinces, when Clinton declared when he accepted the Democratic nomination that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare"....That's called moral judgment, using the power of the office to define and order what American life ought and ought not be about. That swayed people, a few of them anyway, because it showed some respect for how they had constrained and disciplined and thus made difficult their own lives, and thus allowed them to hear what this liberal politician had to say about taxes and medical care, because they knew it was out from someone who was willing to put themselves where they lived."

Well, Teixeira has weighed in on the election--and among other conclusions, he allows the following:

"The last three elections (2000, 2002, 2004) have all had strong 'culture war' components that have severely depressed white working class support for Democrats. Recall that Bill Clinton actually carried the white working class (whites without a four year college degree) by a point in both his election bids. But in 2000, Al Gore lost these voters by 17 points; in 2002, Democratic congressional candidates lost this group by 18 points and this year, the situation appears to have worsened further....The fact of the matter is that Democrats cannot win when they do so badly among this very large constituency. John Judis and I always believed that the trends we described in The Emerging Democratic Majority could underpin a majority coalition given reasonable (not majoritarian, but competitive) performance among white working class voters. Alas, this does not qualify as reasonable performance. Democrats’ difficulties with this group surely have a great deal to do with these voters' sense of cultural alienation from the national Democratic party and its relatively cosmopolitan values around religion, family, guns and other social institutions/practices....Given this sense of cultural alienation, it must be questioned whether candidates like Gore or Kerry can ever really be viable with these voters. Democrats may have to choose candidates in the future who do not so easily evoke this sense of cultural alienation and who can connect in a genuine fashion with these voters. I come to this conclusion reluctantly because I had hoped that an effective campaign could overcome this obstacle by, in effect, using wedge Democratic issues like health care or jobs to build support among this group. But the messenger appears to matter a great deal, just as having a message does [italics added]....The Democrats in the future will have to pay attention to both, I think."

Think about this map, and think about The South That Might Have Been. What's the blue I see? Why, it's Memphis, St. Louis, Birmingham, Natchez, Little Rock, Texarkana, Charleston, Durham, and many more, including my own county in northeast Arkansas. How hard would it be for the Democrats to run a candidate with a sensitive enough religious and economic agenda (an absolute no to partial-birth abortion, perhaps?) that it would only put off, say, 30% of the white Christians in the counties surrounding these cities, as opposed to 50% of them? (Progressives can't get that one-third, but we don’t need to lose half.) You'd see a lot more blue, that's what you'd see. You might even see Kerry in the White House. To quote Henry Higgins: damn, damn, damn, damn, damn.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Some (Long) Thoughts on Religion, Progressive Politics, and Not Fighting Another Civil War

First things first: damn. When I saw how the Senate was going last night, my longing for a Kerry presidency redoubled, if only so that there could be some sort of balance, some sort of give-and-take in government for the next two and probably four (or more) years. It didn’t happen. I’m grumpy about it, to say the least. The great egalitarian accomplishments of the last fifty years--Social Security, Medicare, public education as we knew it--are all on the chopping block. And there’s no one new at the wheel to guide us toward a broader, less tunnel-visioned foreign policy. We’re in bad shape, no doubt about it.

More challenging things second: everyone is talking about the exit polls which demonstrate that, frankly, Iraq didn’t matter all that much to a great many voters, and neither did the economy. What mattered most for most voters was "moral values"–namely, the struggle over same-sex marriage, abortion, and all the rest. This has led the blogosphere today to talk about religion, particularly the sort of religious values and language that could play well in the red states (particularly the American South), and why the Democratic party has a distinct lack of such, and whether that can or should be rectified, or, conversely, ought to be celebrated as a badge of angry, disdainful pride. The idea of finding a good Southern Democrat, and getting them to talk about the interests and "work ethic" of America's (often rural, often socially conservative and religious) lower-middle and working classes, is central to the imaginations of many (John Edwards's boosters not the least), and I'm hardly immune to it. Hey, all things considered, I wanted Gephardt. But it is the latter, deeper possibility--that there is now an insurmountable divide between the religious, working-class, tradition-bound residents of provincial America, and the progressive political agenda as manifest in the Democratic party--or at least the reflections I'm seeing on just such a possibility, which most interest me.

(Note: in a sense, what follows is a composite of all those posts on populism, class and culture which I promised, and now that the election is over probably won't ever write, at least not as I originally conceived them. So there's a certain amount of murky reaching and recycling in what follows. You've been warned.)

A friend of mine e-mailed me this morning, with the simple message: "the Civil War begins today." His language is on point, but I’m not sure we can leap to thinking about a renewed struggle with the Confederacy quite yet. Let’s instead think about the culture wars in a more general way. Timothy Burke has long been writing about this conflict more thoughtfully and better than anyone I know. A few months ago, he laid out his fears that there was a core group of voters in America, the Bush voters, who genuinely embrace the president's numerous flaws because they see him as their greatest vehicle towards remaking America in their image. Timothy pleaded with them to recognize that Bush’s economic and social agenda wasn’t just unpopular with a great many American voters (49% of them, as it now seems fair to say), but is actually crushing to the possibility of maintaining (through government neutrality and a relatively small amount of wealth-sharing) a diversity of spaces and consequently a certain amount of civic peace. In essence, he argued, to choose Bush is to "choose tyranny"–not because he himself is necessarily a tyrant, but that to so ruthlessly impose an agenda upon a divided nation is by definition tyrannical. Now, with the popular election of Bush by exactly the narrow majority he feared, Timothy calls down condemnation upon the Bush voters, upon "their president" (not his) for his and his followers' refusal to accept life in a "shared social reality."

This isn’t strictly about a bunch of radicals from Texas and Oklahoma imposing an oppressive Christian theocracy on the U.S., though a fair amount of that kind of fear is tied up in Burke’s argument. More broadly however, he's framing the culture war as a contest between traditionalists and moderns, the latter being those that delight in, or at least tolerate, the spaces and nooks and crannies and surprises of the liberal order, with all its material innovation, irreverence and creative destruction, and the former being those who want gemeinschaft, who dislike the new, the cranks who hate "the cities and the educated and the culture-makers and the secularists." Of course, this sort of class-sensitive analysis, one which places religious conservatives like Pat Robertson and economic communitarians like Ralph Nader on the same side, doesn’t hold any water when it comes to talking about yesterday’s specific electoral results (Bush clearly doesn’t have an anti-capitalist bone in his body). But the point is nonetheless a good one: the residents of Heartlandia, as Timothy put it in a later post, want a world with more authority, more discipline, more unity, more specificity--a "city on a hill," if you will--whereas those in Bicoastia hold to the essentially libertarian ethos of "don’t tread on me."

(One could, perhaps, try to connect this to a theory of economic relations, wherein the greater market freedom seemingly endorsed by Bush and Co. is translated in their minds into an opportunity for greater individual responsibility, possession, and mastery. In other words, more stability and control over the "social power that reserved particular cultural forms as the source of social distinction or hierarchy." If the government doesn't take my money, then I have that much more power create--through gated communities, private schools, etc.--my own safe and enduring environment! But this gives them way too much credit; I think it makes more sense just to assume that such conservative social and economic thinking is simply incoherent. What conservatives at one time did recognize was the same thing which socialists of all stripes, including Marx, have always recognized: that allowing economic empowerment to follow only the rules of the marketplace, accruing to the hard-working but also and more importantly to the lucky, the privileged, the well-born, well-connected and, most especially, the self-interested, spells doom for any kind of civic morality and, hence, any truly shared collective goods. Timothy has mentioned that he doesn't really consider himself a "leftist" any more; his focus, in the end, is simply on who has which goods and whether they have what they have a right to, rather than on who gains and who loses from the production of such goods in the first place. That is, he's consistently liberal; he doesn't agree that there are forms of power that melt away when ways of life are changed, so long as the people are free and able to pursue their preferred individual changes. One of the reasons I believe, as I'll get to later, that progressive politics can find a home in a restrained religious world is because I think the argument for social justice, properly understood, really is closer, or at least as close, to the conservative one than the liberal one. I'm by no means an orthodox Marxist, but I still hold out for a social democracy can bring together both religious conservatism and egalitarian concern. But I'm digressing from the practical egalitarianism Timothy and I both share.)

If I may elaborate on Timothy’s superb reading of recent events, Bush is Heartlandia’s strong leader, their resolute authority, their guide through difficult times, and they’ve clung to him and celebrated him despite all the evidence and details which undermine almost every one of his accomplishments, as well as so much that was once central to America’s role in the world. He is their moral voice, and that’s enough. Kerry’s efforts to speak of faith and morality and the necessary limits of hard choices, however heartfelt they were, remained essentially "bicoastal"--when he addressed a woman who asked about abortion during the debate in St. Louis, Kerry responded with as much fervor as he could muster, "I respect your views." But what kind of authority, what kind of order, can be contained in an open-ended morality which says, in the end, "there’s your morality, and then there is those people’s over there"? There’s no particularity, no resoluteness, no definitiveness there. Only a patronization, as Harry notes, of the poor provincial who doesn't see how much wider and diverse the real world really is.

To return to the main point: for Timothy, Bush’s victory means that those who oppose him and his brand of culture-war governing have no other option but to search "for the Fort Sumter of our times and our souls, for the path to the figurative dissolution of our contaminated Union." He is far from the only blogger speaking in apocalyptic terms. Yet I can’t quite tell how hopeless he really is; he doesn’t truly think a division in our society between Heartlandia and Bicoastia is conceivable (any more than Matt Yglesias thinks a federation between the blue states and Canada, and its separation from "Jesusland," is possible), because 1) there is too much interplay between our ways of life anyway, and 2) because there is and must be a "bottom floor of basic rights" that he cannot cede to the desire to create a definite cultural particularity, a guarded Christian enclave protected from the blue staters and their devious ways. In making this argument, Timothy echoes one of his greatest posts, a meditation upon intervention, on the invasion of the particular by the universal--both its necessity and its tragedy--which has been greatly helpful to my own thinking over the past year or so. I do not know if he intends his invocation of our need to continue together and thus "intervene" as necessary, but also of the way secular liberalism might have been better off if it hadn’t "pushed too hard...towards a transformative project," to contribute to an argument for "some new alliance, with a new mix of issues and convictions" that could carry progressive causes forward. Perhaps not. But I for one don’t mind having the contradictions of modernity placed front and center, because I at least do think there's another form of progressive politics possible, one that can challenge, as the old liberal coalitions no longer can, the current Republican dominance of the Heartlandia core. The problem is that it requires an ethos which many liberals hoped to have ejected from the modern egalitarian American state when they--the universal choosers, the liberal liberators--rejected the restrictive, populist particularisms of the South (and the Midwest, and most of the West too): moral authority. Or, in other words, a genuine respect for, and a willingness to employ, a judgmental religious voice.

(Which, of course, is interventionary too, only interventionary in a different way. Practically speaking, that difference is small, which is why all crusaders, whether liberal or conservative, religious or secular, need to hold their principles to the test of prudence and the present day, something which Bush’s actions in Iraq, I realized too late, did not do. But on a theoretical plane, how important is that rather small difference? Not at all, if you doubt that there is any order beyond the one we will into existence. For Timothy, every extremist is just as modern as every other one: anti-moderns have a universalizing agenda the same as liberals do. But should you take seriously the idea that we dwell in an order not of our own making--that is, if you allow that ontology can have something to do with politics, can limit it and oblige it--then perhaps religious interventions can, perhaps, take on a somewhat different hue, though they remain every bit as potentially abusive as ever.)

Descending from philosophy to politics: what would this embrace of judgment entail exactly, and is it remotely possible? Ought the Democratic party try to compete with the Republicans in being a "moral voice"? For many, to invite any sort of immersion in the ethics and habits of the red states is to poison the progressive cause entirely; it is to shake hands with the Ku Klux Klan, apologize to the Confederacy, wink at anti-gay bigotry, hand power over the inbreeds from Deliverance, and generally ruin everything civilization stands for. It is demographic talk like this that leads so many secular progressives to find great comfort in Ruy Teixeira's thesis (which I've never liked, and which doesn't seem to be panning out, so far anyway) that, eventually, all those blue-collar, rural (racist, moronic) Jesus freaks will die out, leaving the future to the secular, urban, multicultural, self-employed, high-tech (enlightened) creative class. (Either that, or it leads them to engage in fantasies about how much nicer America would be if only General Sherman had been more thorough in his march through the South.)

I couldn’t disagree more, though I recognize that the odds of such disagreement being heard when we have only two major parties to choose from, with no Christian socialist or culturally conservative social democrat option in sight, will be a long and difficult haul. And admittedly, the burden is primarily upon religious progressives like myself; one cannot reasonably expect secular liberals and desperate Democrats to take seriously as a ground for argument and actions the particularist beliefs and perspectives of a region of the country, and a class of the population, which has just thoroughly rejected them. Still, short of waiting for the apocalypse, I see two tasks before us, one long-term, the other short. I have no idea which is more likely to come about than the other. (Both are, it goes without saying, unlikely in general.)

First: there are, there have always been, there will always be, Christians whose beliefs lead them to be social conservatives and economic progressives. (For evidence, look here and here.) We exist, and we have no party to represent us. (The Democratic party once did, back in its working-class heyday, but respect for that kind of traditional authority has been declining ever since the 1970s.) What we need to do is work for the transformation of America’s political and party system, so that more venues can open up, and the death-grip which a warped, half-statist, half-libertarian, decidedly non-communitarian "conservatism" holds over "moral values" in America can finally be loosened. It may not happen in my lifetime, but it's something worth working for, and praying for. Second, and of greater relevance to this discussion: in the meantime, we need to continue to work towards making the Democratic party remember the lesson of Carter and Clinton, the lessons of respect.

After the way Kerry flogged his "faith" to no end on the campaign trail, it might be easy to dismiss this as a lost cause: the Republicans have grabbed religion, so let them have it. (After all, all that fire-and brimstone crap is just for the weak and superstitious, right?) One can point to the example of Amy Sullivan as evidence that there’s nothing new to be said here. I admire the hell out of Amy’s work, and have nothing but praise for it...but, if one honestly wishes to ask what sort of thinking could lead the Democratic party to start putting forward an agenda that shows some respect for the unavoidable fact that they live in a socially and culturally conservative country, then I think it may be worth noting that her primary campaign--to open up religious voters to progressive causes by helping progressives learn to make their case in religious language--may be backwards. What if what is necessary is not translating liberal political imperatives into an evangelical or culturally conservative idiom, but rather taking such faith seriously as a legitimate basis for thinking about politics, and drawing progressive concerns from it? It won’t be a liberalism which gives you abortion rights–but maybe it’ll give you health care. Isn’t that worth something?

Think about Bill Clinton; think about the ease with which he sat down with black preachers and white pentecostals. (That is, when he was governor; his time in Washington poisoned him and those around him, made him a polarizing figure that drove an even a deeper wedge between the Democrats and white rural believers, a tragedy that I hope a just God will punish both Clinton himself and Kenneth Starr for.) Was it all a "spiel" to him, a language he adopted to get elected? Hardly, yet everyone knew he wasn’t at all pious. He was forgiven that—by enough evangelicals to win various Southern states, at least—because it was manifest that he didn’t think religion was something he needed to condescend to. He shared that context. The lack of follow-through in legislative content can be forgiven if it at least begins with recognition and respect. Clinton certainly didn't outlaw abortion, and the dedicated anti-abortion professionals in America today certainly never gave him an inch of credit. But consider what happened at the margins, in the provinces, when Clinton declared when he accepted the Democratic nomination that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare." Rare. Meaning: it's a bad thing, aborting an unborn child; we ought to do less of it. The people who have or make it seem easy to have abortions when there's no call for abortion are in the wrong. That's called moral judgment, using the power of the office to define and order what American life ought and ought not be about. That swayed people--a few of them, anyway, enough to unite with the (not incidentally often socially conservative) African-American population of the South and thereby pick off a few states--because it showed some respect for how they had constrained and disciplined and thus made difficult their own lives, and thus allowed them to hear what this liberal politician had to say about taxes and medical care, because they knew it was out from someone who was willing to put themselves where they lived.

All I’m saying is this: is it not possible that the measure of moral authenticity to the average believer is not the content of one’s profession or performance of belief, but there context, the seriousness with which such belief is treated? It comes down to ontology again. All politics, all modernity, is interventionary; it’s unavoidable, unless you genuinely desire the life of the Amish. But is liberalism alone, the secular historical accomplishment of such, the only way to generate the arguments for the sort of interventions necessary to make the modern order egalitarian, to make it decent? If you think so, then you must believe that Bush and everyone who voted for him is nothing more than an incipient fascist, a greedy and hateful and bitter rube from Texas (or Bavaria) intent on plunder and murder and putting their boot in the ass of anyone, Iraqi or American, who gets in their way. Because, after all, their Heartland talk, however sincere and serious and definitive and clear, must by definition just be bullshit: a spiel, nothing more. That probably describes Tom Delay, and more than a few others. But in general, I don’t think that's correct. I think the Bush-voters are wrong: wrong about the untrammeled market, wrong about the "ownership society," wrong that the environment can take care of itself, wrong about the role of the state, wrong about what is needed to make America responsible and admired in a world in need of our wealth and example. Moreover, I think they are deluding themselves if they don’t recognize that the man they elected, despite the few good things he’ll do, is very bad at carrying out even some of his best plans. But I don’t think Heartlandia is poisoned, and I don’t think the religion and way of life we embrace out here (metaphorically speaking, of course; we live in cities too) is so undeserving of respect and so incapable of grounding a government that could conduct the sort of careful, egalitarian interventions we ought to support. Of course there are theocrats around; some Southerners may not stop until Nathan Bedford Forrest occupies the White House. But some others--enough, again, to win a few states at least--just like knowing that the President of the United States won’t stop them from praying at high school football games. If the person who makes that promise speaks their language, knows where they’re coming from, and makes that knowledge part of their platform, then who knows what may open up. Probably not my longed-for Christian communitarian polity, that's for sure, but maybe a way to get enough of religious America on board a simple liberal egalitarian agenda so as to save what little social justice remains in our country. It might even avoid another Civil War. It’s worth thinking about, anyway.