Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Democrats and Communitarians (But What Kind?)

Tuesday is my heaviest teaching day of the week, and so I missed out on an exchange which bubbled through the blogosphere yesterday, and is continuing today. Of course, I miss a lot of exchanges, but given how central the larger political and moral argument between libertarians and communitarians is to my heart, I'm sorry I didn't see this one unfold in real time.

Greg Wythe has the best round-up of the exchange so far; Amy Sullivan points to a piece by David Gerstein which argues that Democrats have lost--boy, this sounds familiar--the ability and willingness to aspire to any kind of moral authority: to affirm, in other words, specific value judgments. Or, more specifically, as Gerstein puts it: "We don't hesitate to judge people's beliefs, but we blanch at judging their behavior. That leaves us silent on big moral issues at a time of great moral uncertainty, and leaves the impression that we are the party of 'anything goes.'" He's right, of course, and Amy is correct to praise him for it, as well as to link to the Noam Scheiber piece which praises "communitarian," value-judgment-making Democrats. Predictably (and let it be said that predictability is often a virtue), Matt Yglesias disagrees, primarily focusing on the "prudishness" which he sees lurking behind the whole argument, especially given that--from his point of view--there is no evidence to support the idea that our (I say) crass, sexualized, commercialized culture is actually hurting anyone. Ed Kilgore, partially defending himself against Matt's critique, insists that "identifying with the parenting struggles of middle-class voters," which progressives need to do with they are ever going to counter the Republican's culture war juggernaut, has at least as much, if not more, to do with the way in which these messages are conveyed by our culture than by the messages themselves:

"As a parent of a teenager, I am not that worried that the ever-present marketers will turn him into a sex-addict or a sociopath; I'm more worried that he will turn into a total greedhead whose idea of the good life is stuff, and whose idea of citizenship is to demand a better personal cost-benefit ratio on his tax dollars....In terms of macro, as opposed to micro, factors, Matt repeatedly says the social indicators show the kids are all right, except they are getting mighty fat. We could have a debate over those indicators, if he'd specify them; and I'm sure they would be great comfort to the parents whose children's cohorts haven't quite yet entered the data base. But more generally, there are...a variety of reputable studies indicating the kids may not be all right, at least when they are exposed redundantly to violent, sexual, misogyinist, and hyper-commercial images."

Ed is absolutely on the money here, but Matt's not it buying it. To the extent that all Ed and Amy and all us other "progressive prudes" are talking about is making the V-chip available to parents, and taking other actions to make it easier for parents to withstand certain elements of the cultural marketplace and thereby have the "space" to inculcate the values they think necessary into their children, Matt's all for it--but he doesn't think that's where the arguments which he's responding to will end. And he's right; they shouldn't end there, and this is something that Democrats who (I think rightly) choose to experiment with the "communitarian" label need to be willing to respond to. The end result of such experimentation is liberals and progressives who, like conservative Republicans today, are willing to make judgments so that, in Ed's words, "voters [can] figure out whether [progressive] politicians actually believe (a) there are principles more important than politics, and (b) there is such a thing as right and wrong." And this exactly what Matt, and liberals like him, don't want, because it goes entirely against what he sees the purpose of politics to be--namely, to limit society and provide resources so that people can exercise as much liberty as possible. From this perspective, the last thing you want is for any politician to take a definite cultural or moral stand, save in regard to the most universal and minimal of principles. Why? Because, says Matt, "[o]nce you abandon the principled position that it's not the appropriate role of a politician to be telling people what music they should be listening to, it becomes impossible to defend the existence of anything without endorsing it's point-of-view." And Matt, who--like so many of us--enjoys music and movies and art which includes content which in the real world many might well find highly distasteful, doesn't want to get into that fight. Do progressives, Matt asks, want to engage in a "values debates" with social or religious conservatives who find "pop cultural products which indicate that gay people are okay" to be distasteful? Of course they don't, he concludes. QED.

The best possible response I can make to Matt is one I wrote way back in November, when I was on my first (and, I suppose, continuing) "religion and the left" rampage:

"[T]he 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..."scolds-in-chief"....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....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...and all progressive causes will suffer."

If Noam and Ed and Amy and others are going to (I hope, I pray) continue to push for liberals to acknowledge and take seriously the "communitarian" factor of progressive politics, then they're going to have to accept Matt's challenge, and ask themselves if they are willing to follow through on what the popular cultivation and affirmation of values (including religious and moral values) on the part of the government and politicians will entail. It will entail, very possibly, drawing lines and limits (if not necessarily, always, laws--but sometimes it will mean that too) in response the serious concerns of groups of people who feel bounded to certain principles, commandments, or ways of life. It won't do to simply be solicitous of various discrete aspects of our society's otherwise marginalized middle-class and working-class morality; it will mean allowing for the cultivation of a "worldview which makes certain [moral] perspectives and principles inherent to [one's] thinking about political matters." So you may end up condemning bad art, or even acting to limit the availability or production of bad art (at some times, in some places, in some ways), simply because it's bad. The fact that it may have been freely produced and freely consumed art is important, but secondary to the discussion when framed in this way.

I guess the real point is: are the Democrats to be encouraged to merely leaven their liberalism with some strategic communitarianism, or should they be encouraged to see populist, progressive politics as linked to communitarian priorities in some key ways? My preference for the latter is obvious; for others, that remains to be seen.


Anonymous said...

I posted about this debate, so excuse the repetition. I'm less interested in the philosophical issues behind it and more interested in figuring out the politics of it. For my money, if anyone is going to raise the issues of Hollywood and culture with any degree of integrity, they are also going to have to figure out how to raise the issue of unfettered capitalism and corporate greed. Because if something can sell, it'll get sold. If conservatives were really serious about stopping sex and such from hitting the airwaves, they would go after that businesses that profit from doing so. A $500k or $1 mil fine against a network might seem like a heavy fine, but most of the networks are smaller pieces of a much larger whole. So while they won't like paying it, it is chump change to the mutlinational media conglomerates that own them.

IMHO the worship of the market is where the DLC has really transformed the Democratic party, and it needs to be pushed back into a proper balance. Not just on the values front, but on environmental and workers rights fronts as well. Since the Dems sold those down the river a long time ago, as a liberal I believe that we have to use whatever levers we still have to wedge them back into the Democratic agenda. Values is a political opening the left should take; if it doesn't it's going to happen anyway, but only as defined by the other side. And that's what gets us into the Schaivo messes of the world now.

As I noted elsewhere, if congress seriously wanted CBS to never show another boob again, they'd go after GE. If the wanted to make sure that the FX channel never aired another "shit" or "asshole" again on The Shield, they'd go after Rupert Murdock's Newscorp. I think a progressive communitarian position would work to splinter the right by pointing out that if they were truly serious about cleaning up the airwaves, porn producers, etc., i.e. the things that conservatives claim are destroying "traditional values," they'd go after the corporations that profit from them. In the scheme of things it would be a rearguard action to try and eradicate it, since capitalism itself is the engine under the hood of the machine that is destroying their so-called traditional values. But the case could be made that entertainment could certainly be better channeled and contained in a way that suited the family values crowd on both the right and left.

If I were a smart populist lefty candidate, I would try to stake out the position that since the right won't go after it's corporate masters, the left will. Then I would proceed to tie Enron economics and Exxon pollution in with GE and Newscorps' production of "Hollywood filth". To balance first amendment concerns, I would recommend chasing everything into the walled gardens of cable, with the more grownup stuff on channels like HBO. We could argue about whether that would be a hardship for the poor, who wouldn't be able to get their so-called Hollywood filth as easily as the rich, but politically who's going to make it? I also think it would put the right in a difficult position, since it hammers a wedge into one of their most vulnerable fault lines between the free market and traditional values.

So if the rightwing politicians want to scream about Hollywood to their socially conservative followers, ok. I suggest the left point out that those big corporations they claim are destroying our families are owned and operated by their biggest contributors. If it were me in charge of the message, then every Dem on every talking head show that gets into one of these "values" debates should say "Well if [Newscorp or GE or evil corporation X] wasn't such an important contributor to your [party or campaign or majority leaders defense fund], maybe we could fix that. And if [evil corporation Y] wasn't a big contributor of your [party or campaign or majority leaders defense fund] we'd be able to fix [health care,  Social Security, military and teacher pay, schools, etc.]"

Posted by cvcobb01

Anonymous said...

Could you give a for instance that is at the exteme end of your point of view. Some specific action that a progressive politician should, in your opinion do, that you think would be most intolerable to someone like Matthew Yglesias?

Posted by theCoach

Anonymous said...

My you know America has a higher infant mortality rate than the UK, Canada, Sweeden, Germany, Austria, Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Portugal, Spain, and about a dozen other countries?

I'm happy so many of your friends have the relative material comfort to debate about the decency of Sex in the City . For now, my "family values" are constituted by the notion that people ought to be able to feed their families, take them to the f***ing doctor, that kind of stuff. Shame on the left-democrats for having similar priorities. They clearly don't get it, huh?


Posted by matt

Anonymous said...

My rough and ready guide would be that any approach that endangers Life of Brian is a bad one. 

Posted by Doug

Anonymous said...


Good of you to position yourself on a high moral plateau, so much the better for looking down on other perspectives.

“…my "family values" are constituted by the notion that people ought to be able to feed their families...”

News: Nearly everybody’s “family values” are constituted by similar notions. Where there is disagreement is in how to accomplish these things. You obviously have “the plan.” Perhaps you should reveal it; only then can the little folks properly worship you from below.

Unfortunately, with out such a blessed revelation, we are left to consider all the nuances and contradictions of the politics. One can easily argue, as I assume you would, that to address such fluff issues (as those discussed it the post) is to focus on irrelevance, but one could also argue that a society that fails to acknowledge its shallow, hedonistic, self-absorbed, puerile nature is a society unprepared to help those that need it (and unable to produce kids that care).
“My hell…” Quite right, but I’m afraid that your heaven would be everyone else’s hell.


Posted by Brad

Anonymous said...

As you know I'm with you on this generally, but I have some pretty standard leftist concerns with it all. While I agree that people on the left should be open to a kind of communitarian

"drawing [of] lines and response to the serious concerns of groups of people who feel bounded to certain principles, commandments, or ways of life",

we shouldn't then forget that these "lines and limits" are just as often tools of social division and weapons of conflict as they are the hallmarks of a healthy ethical life. This idea may be of relatively recent vintage, but it's not of an exclusively liberal one. Indeed real-deal communitarians--namely in the socialist tradition--have been the chief voices for precisely this concern. And it's one which the left only forgets to their peril.

The irony in all this talk of communitarianism is that at least in the U.S., it is precisely when voters are thinking about how to implement common values (rather than about how to ensure that certain contested values win) that the Democrats win elections. Granted these contested values are in one sense just as "communitarian", if not more, than the typically American (liberal) concerns about e.g. personal freedom and equal opportunity. But perhaps the commandments, principles, and ways of life we have in mind don't get noticed unless they're particularistic and exclusive. I don't want to exclude religious, moral, particularistic-cultural conerns from democratic debate, but neither do I want to priviledge the parochial, the unreflective, and the particular (by calling these things "richer", "thicker" or whatever) over "thin", "formal" liberal ideals like toleration and private freedom, which are less communitarian but are often more universally human.

Leaving aside which 'communitarian' issues and policies the left could accept politically, the point here is that the left cannot accept a communitarian politics of monologue. The American left, in my mind, shouldn't have (and doesn't have) much of a problem 'scolding' from time to time. But on its good days it also insists that you also have to listen. Maybe gays shouldn't be allowed to get married. But they should in some sense be given an intelligible answer to the question: "Why can't I (as a human being with just as much value as anyone else) get married?" Democracy is not (contrary to what some, like Judge Posner, have recently asserted) about giving people the right to assert their undefended, particularistic preferences without debate or exchange. Again this is not a shocking new teaching but it is indispensible for this question. If the left is going to 'get morals' or 'get religion' it's got to find a very different way of making political hay from them than the right has done. It can't be tempted by the allure of a creed which finds a way to exempt itself from public inspection. The point isn't that right wing culture politics is pure evil and so we shouldn't dirty our hands, but rather that their kind of culture politics doesn't work for us strategically or morally. We're aiming to win a different kind of voter, and aiming to fulfil a different ideal of democracy.


Posted by Jeremiah J.