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Monday, January 19, 2009

The Kind of Liberal We Need

Today is a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., our nation's officially-anointed African-American hero; tomorrow is Inauguration Day for Barack Obama, the first African-American to be elected President of the United States. The confluence of these events is enough to make even grumpy conservatives reflect upon their significance, and they're right to do so. Will tomorrow's events signal the emergence of a truly "post-racial" era in American politics? Will the significance and--perhaps more relevantly--the electoral influence of the morass of racial hate, contempt, resentment, guilt, condescension, bitterness, exclusion, and confusion which dominated and warped American policies for decades (or, as Senator Obama himself suggested, since the country's beginnings) have truly been transcended? Will, in short, tomorrow be the moment that King's dream is finally, or at least nominally, fulfilled?

Well, better bloggers than I can struggle with the whole "post-racial" thing. For me, I'm still wondering about the dream.

The most important thing to note about King's dream is that it changed. It changed as he grew and as his country changed during his lifetime and during his career as the leader of the moral crusade which was the civil rights movement. Ari Kelman notes this change--as embodied in such later sermons he gave, like "The Other America"--and how much of America's popular memory resists that change. Note also, though, that his dream didn't change radically--it merely changed the way much of liberalism changed as the twentieth century progressed, as King's appreciation of what that "freedom" he wanted to hear ring throughout the nation required. Not just the integration of schools, but also better schools; not just the enforcement of voting rights, but better--more inclusive, more egalitarian, more just--options to vote for; not just judging people only by the content of their character, but in making it possible for more people to magnify, explore, refine and extend that character. King was never man thoroughly committed to old-world beliefs about freedom and liberty; no black person raised in the American South in the 1930s could believe that, and certainly not one who went on to attend seminary in the 1940s reading such early Social Gospel thinkers like Walter Rauschenbusch and their critics like Reinhold Niebuhr. But it's undeniable that from 1963 to 1968 his liberalism, his commitment to "freedom," went through a powerful metamorphosis, moving beyond the individualistic and rights-centered orientation of his earlier invocations of the dream of equality, and linking it more firmly to economic justice, collective action, and democratic empowerment. He became, in short, an advocate of a social democratic common good--a liberal who wasn't, strictly speaking, a socialist, but whose vision of, and demand for, a more equal American could easily be compared to such, and was.

Of course, we know from Obama's campaign that just about any talk about "sharing the wealth" in America is going to earn you comparisons to socialist revolutionaries; that is, apparently, how our political culture works. William Galston and Michael Lind had an interesting debate in The Washington Monthly a few years ago, over what liberals should do about the fact that Americans repeatedly embrace "freedom" above all other political values. Galston's argument was that there isn't any problem, so long as liberals would be willing to fight for a more expansive definition of the term--the way King and, before him, FDR did--against the conservative "presumption that government and individual liberty are fundamentally at odds." Michael Lind dissented in part from this, arguing that "freedom," as valuable as it is, can only take liberal politics so far; that in order to make the sort of transformations which FDR and MLK made for the sake of the poor, oppressed, and left behind, it is necessary to move into more explicitly republican, participatory, public interest-type language. This is an argument which will probably never go completely away (see another recent iteration of essentially the same argument over liberalism and the common good, involving Michael Tomasky, Galston, and several others here and here), until and unless our economy completely collapses and the resulting chaos leads us to make our politics more reactionary, or more radical, than the legacy of the Great Depression and WWII has made them to be. We're a pragmatic, individualistic, liberal (in the broadest sense) country, and for better or worse, you can only do so much with that.

Communitarian that I am though, I'm always looking for voices and parties and approaches, whether conservative or progressive (or both!), which can move us away from that reality, however minimally, and towards a political perspective which incorporates the sort of cultural and social sensibility that made, I think, Martin Luther King (and some who might be considered his ideological forerunners, as well as his moral descendants) so important to being liberal in America. And that, of course, leads me to Obama's inauguration tomorrow.

Early on, though I wasn't on the Obama bandwagon, I was struck by his talk of post-partisanship, of service and citizenship. Not that such isn't the sort of boiler-plate we can hear from almost any aspiring politician; of course it is. But he seemed to mean a lot of it, something that became more and more clear to as he struggled through the media fiasco created by the preaching and occasional ranting of his long-time pastor, Jeremiah Wright. I liked that he seemed loathe to distant himself too much from Wright's criticism of America as a nation that allows a pre-occupation with improvement and growth to eclipse a sense of limits and mutual responsibility (themes that King rarely forgot about, as much as he changed over the years); I especially liked--and really, who didn't?--his powerful distillation of the whole controversy into a reading of America that, as I put it, included (rather than avoided) the "conviction that morality and sin and hope and forgiveness are complicatedly caught up in all of our lives," which is exactly the element of civic, even spiritual, seriousness that so many other empty-headed liberal appeals for unity have lacked. All this brought me to feel that Obama's intellectual pragmatism, as much as it may at times lead him to be oblivious to, or even condescending towards, the real passions that ground people in their families and places and beliefs, is a pragmatic sensibility that is more than economic or partisan; it is deep and holistic. He may not be as driven as MLK came to be by social democratic or common-good interpretations of what the dream of liberal freedom means, but I think his is, nonetheless, a liberalism that sees as much of this nation as any president is ever likely to, and genuinely wants to bring what he sees--the people, their problems, and their possibilities--into his thinking and his plans and his goals as well.

Robert Bellah, the grand old theorist of America's civic religion--which, to put it in terribly simple terms, is the conservative assumption that the preservation of certain fundamental (cultural and religious) truths will work to liberal and egalitarian ends--has written a wonderful, thoughtful reflection on the meaning of Obama's election, making two important points. First, that the vision of a common good, in the American political context, whether articulated in a classical republican or a Biblical way (or both, as arguably Obama himself tends to do), is far from a meaningless invocation of "service," but rather a serious and important recurring feature of our culture, saving us from the excesses of our "default individualist tradition." Second, that Obama does descend from the sort of intellectual sketching that this post has been doing, and put real meat on the bones; as Bellah puts it, "If you look at Obama's specific policy concerns you will find the common good at the core of almost all of them....universal health care...[his] jobs program, his environmental program, his foreign policy concerns [--] are all examples of making the common good the focus of politics." Which means, as I read Bellah (and thus Obama), that he appreciates both our polity and the ideals that it is a carrier for, and doesn't get the two of them confused.

In a thoughtful column that is nominally about federal housing policies, but in reality is touching on the hard problem of economic justice in a complex, liberal society like our own, James Polous--himself an avowed conservative--acknowledges that Obama seems to understand the difficulty here; that the simple liberal responses to the problems King came to confront--throw money at it! let the Supreme Court solve it!--just won't do, as King himself also realized. This, as much as Polous may be loathe to admit it, suggests that Obama's aim is get our nation, as a people, as a community, to commit as much as it practically possible to a freedom which is truly common (and which, therefore, will be difficult to construct and even harder to maintain), rather than posit a "nationalized ideology" that everyone will have to sign on to. Here's hoping he can do it. He won't be able to do it alone; hopefully, in time, liberals and conservatives alike will recognize that the change he's aiming for is one we all need.


Anonymous said...

I read the Lind-Galston disagreement a little differently than you do. He explicitly endorses Galston's claim that "liberty should be at the heart of American progressive politics". But he adds that a distinction should be made between the republican tradition of liberty and the individualist tradition of liberty, and he takes Galston to task for speaking primarily in terms of individualist liberty. It's not that you need republicanism in order to get "common good" concerns such as the welfare state, it's that we need republicanism to remind us that freedom requires solidarity, political participation, civic virtue, economic independence, and some level of equality. FDR's doctrine of freedom, Lind explains, was as republican as it was individualist, and so should ours be.

I'm very pleased to see smart conservatives see some things to like in at least the *idea* of Obama. I doubt they'll like the results (I might not, either), though. As hard as Obama tries, it will be hard to see Niebuhr written all over his Middle East policy, and spending levels and interest groups are about to make their entrance on the scene. Onthe other hand, David Brooks seems like he'll be smitten for years, and even people like David Frum probably won't warm up to the role of angry opposition for quite a while.

Jeremiah J.

Anonymous said...

More later, perhaps, but I wonder how many actual liberals embraced "the simple liberal responses to the problems King came to confront--throw money at it! let the Supreme Court solve it!" This seems more like what conservatives said about liberals, rather than what the folks themselves were saying.

Russell Arben Fox said...


[Lind] explicitly endorses Galston's claim that "liberty should be at the heart of American progressive politics". But he adds that a distinction should be made between the republican tradition of liberty and the individualist tradition of liberty, and he takes Galston to task for speaking primarily in terms of individualist liberty.

You're right, though I'm not sure that differs all that much from what I said. Galston, in his response to Lind, certainly seemed to appreciate the, perhaps small, but still significant differences between the two of them. "Republican liberty" may be another species under the genus "freedom," but it nonetheless is a kind of freedom which emphasizes limits, sacrifice, collective action, common goals, etc.; in other words, it is a freedom that is achieved in a very different manner than Galston's (who concludes his response to Lind by saying that he believed liberals can't give up with trying to find ways to frame and deliver their progressive goals in the context of straightforward majority self-interest; as much as I think Galston philosophically is sympathetic to virtue-talk, he just doesn't seem to believe it can be approached directly).

Galston has more experience with real-world politics than Lind, and no doubt his advice is the sort which will likely have more influence over an Obama administration. Still, when you look at all these themes of "service" and "civility" and "common interest" that Team Obama keeps hitting on, you can't help but wonder (or, in my case, hope).

Russell Arben Fox said...


I wonder how many actual liberals embraced "the simple liberal responses to the problems King came to confront--throw money at it! let the Supreme Court solve it!" This seems more like what conservatives said about liberals, rather than what the folks themselves were saying.

A fair point; by bringing Polous's observation in as a way to wrap up my post, I brought in a pretty significant allegation which demands some context. I guess I would say, very briefly, that the sort of non-participatory, nationalized liberal responses that Polous is talking about, and that I believe King (and, in his own way, Obama) was and/or would have been troubled by, really only came into their own in the 1970s; the roots were there earlier, to be sure (particularly in connection with liberals relying upon Warren's Supreme Court to advance their goals through the 50s and 60s), but those roots were also accompanied, as we know, by massive and often very productive levels of community organizing and coalition-building. Come the 70s, through, and you start to see the decay of liberal fervor, being replaced by a reliance on top-down solutions that were never, in my opinion, broad enough or contextual enough (or big enough, in terms of a level of money or reach that was adequate to the problem). I would place busing under this label; Roe v. Wade too.

Clark Goble said...

It seems to me it's too early to see if there will be a post-racial America. I'm hopeful but still rather skeptical. It does seem after reading and listening to tons of pundits from all ways of life (and race) speak on this that no one has a clue what will happen. It strikes me as odd to worry about it too much - predicting the future isn't something intellectuals are too good at.

Your point about freedom is good. It reminds me of the bifurcation of liberalism into modern liberalism and libertarianism. The ultimate issue is whether there are positive rights or only negative rights. I suspect that this is the route Obama is taking. Trying to communicate that freedom is more than freedom from but also freedom to.

That said, I think the single biggest danger is that (perhaps like George W.) Obama overreaches and becomes guilty of hubris. Thus far he appears very pragmatic to me. (The aiming at the center is less significant since I think a good case could be made that Bush was a centrist despite all the calls of far right-wing nut)

I see the biggest danger being the budget. I think he's going to be able to do a lot since even a lot of conservatives agree a large stimulus bill is necessary. However I think many also think Obama, or at least the Democratic Congress, will aim to sneak in a permanent New Deal under the appearance of a short term stimulus package. There is a real danger that Obama will run into trouble with deficits. Either he'll have to significantly increase taxes (creating blowback and perhaps economic troubles) or run deficits that'll make even W's look small.

I'm hoping this doesn't happen. But it's going to be interesting to watch both how Obama manages Congress and whether he listens to his Clinton advisors regarding fiscal responsibility. (Less of an issue for the next two years because of the recession)