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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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So much to think about and say, and I'll want to work over this ground a lot with you in the coming weeks. Though like you, at the moment, I'm almost exhausted from the intensity of thinking about it all so much and so hard.

But a couple of quick thoughts, which I may reproduce later over at my blog:

1) The difference between the DLC-New Democrats and the "soft libertarianism" I propose is basically the difference between political calculation and political authenticity. The Clintonians went there only rhetorically and in an assemblage of piecemeal policy initiatives. They didn't go there philosophically, coherently, with a vision. One of the things that the current Republican coalition has going for it is that its disparate and antagonistic constituencies each perceive in it a coherently authentic politics that satisfies their desires (while failing, for whatever reason, to perceive the other visions encompassed under the umbrella). The Democrats only fake that on their best day, and I think that alone costs them a critical margin of voters. Either of the directions I describe has the virtue of being something the Democrats could pursue with that kind of authentic rooting in the consciousness and lived philosophies of actually-existing social groups. This is also why I use the rhetoric of "junior partner": I think the parts of the traditional Democratic coalition that get on one or the other of these buses are going to have to adopt a certain kind of open-minded humility about the other constituencies they find on board, and restrain themselves from cheap shots. Left-liberals who get on board the soft-libertarian bus are going to have to kick themselves in the shin before making smart-ass remarks about Ayn Rand, for example. Not to say that the remark won't come out, but you'd at least have to demonstrate the seriousness of engagement that Belle Waring and John Holbo have, as one example.

2) I think you're right that in some sense the viscerality of my feelings about expressions of community has to do with an attitude about the thing itself rather than the lived experience of community. Certainly when I encounter communities which have strongly organic, authentic conceptions of connection, I don't immediately piss all over them and insist it's hideous and repellant. In the end, I guess the viscerality of my feelings really has to do with the left communalist claims and aspirations I most typically encounter among intellectuals, because I find those unnervingly authoritarian in their rhetoric and aspirations. They're rarely "lived-in": the people who most advance them advance them as projects of conversion and remaking rather than projects which defend already-existing forms of community habitus. At best, they're lived as individualized, entrepreneurial regimes of voluntary abnegation, one-home gemeinschafts in the middle of geschellescaft. This is Schor's "voluntary simplicity", for example: communitas as an individual act that spreads through hectoring rhetorics of conversion that are aimed at other individuals and households, not an attempt (a la 19th Century utopianisms) to draw together like-minded individuals in one place and make a community out of their likeness.

One might protest that modern media and communication permit people to make spatially-dispersed "voluntary communities", and I don't want to jump too hard on the Robert Putnam bus here and insist that the only communities which are meaningful are real-world, "accidental" ones, communities of disparate individuals working out social covenants with one another through civil society. But at least the left version of "voluntary communities" often seems to me to be powerfully insincere and implicitly authoritarian, often inconsistent with the actual economic and social circumstances of those who pledge their affiliation and often desirous of using institutions and the state to compel adherence to the fairly top-level, "ideological" precepts that define community for these groups.

It just seems very different to me than people who live in a place trying to defend some more subtle and historically-derived markers of their habitus from outside intrusion and transformation.  

Posted by Timothy Burke