June 24, 2005

IF WE DON'T DEFEND STAGFLATION, DETENTE AND DISCO WHO WILL?:

The Liberal Project Now: Liberals need to remember their first principles, rebuild a majority, and connect to a new generation. (Paul Starr, 05.19.05, American Prospect)

Liberalism is at greater risk now than at any time in recent American history. The risk is of political marginality, even irrelevance. And the reason is not just a shift in partisan control of the federal government. There has been a radical change in the relationship of ideology and power in America. Only by renewing both the principled commitments to liberal ideals and the practical basis of liberal politics does liberalism have any chance of recovery.

Fifty years ago, the absence of ideological divisions was widely thought to be one of the distinguishing features of American politics. [...]

When historians and social scientists in the ’50s said American politics reflected an ideological consensus that was liberal at its foundations, it was the absence of any socialist challenge that they mainly had in mind. Conservatives weren’t offering a clear ideological alternative, and the two major parties seemed to have only minor differences. For decades, even as a conservative challenge emerged and partisan differences widened, liberals had a partnership with power, or at least access to it. Liberalism stood for reform, but it wasn’t oppositional: Liberals did not regard themselves as outsiders looking in on American politics from a hostile distance. As late as the 1990s, they had a friendly administration, a closely balanced Congress, and federal courts that offered a good chance of vindicating their claims.

Only in recent years -- as Republicans have gained control of Congress and the executive branch, sought to bring the courts into line, and taken the conservative movement and its intellectuals into a governing partnership -- have liberals faced the possibility of being totally excluded, not just from power but from any influence or access. And that loss threatens to make the enterprise of liberal reform, and even protest, seemingly irrelevant. For what point is there to reform or protest if power is not susceptible to persuasion, and perhaps not even to pressure?

The liberalism of the 1950s and ’60s, in contrast, was both a governing and a reforming philosophy. Liberals had helped to fashion the domestic order created during the New Deal, and after World War II they had shaped America’s internationalist commitments aimed at containing communist expansion and avoiding war. Liberals also aimed, however, to compel a government that espoused liberal principles to confront its own contradictions and limitations. That meant, among other things, dealing with the national shame of racial oppression, the persistence of poverty, the hidden problems of environmental degradation, and the threat of nuclear catastrophe.

The liberal project of the post–World War II era was to awaken the public to long-ignored problems, to make liberal government bolder, and to get its leaders to take political risks. In the public mind, liberalism was the innovative and outward-looking force in American politics; conservatism, the stodgy and parochial source of resistance. Under those circumstances, liberals had power to the extent that they could bring about change, while conservatives had power to the extent that they could stop it.

Now the relationships have been reversed, and liberalism risks getting defined, as conservatism once was, entirely in negative terms. Liberals certainly need to defend liberal accomplishments and oppose conservative measures, but they cannot allow themselves to become merely defensive and oppositional. That, of course, is how the right would like to cast them. The liberal challenge today is to avoid this trap, to make the case for liberalism’s first principles, and to renew the project of liberal innovation. And in that effort, magazines such as this one -- and intellectuals generally -- have a useful role to play.


Odd to pine for the unanimity of the McCarthy era, but he's right about liberalism's brain death. The notion though that the policies that led to the American 60s and 70s and the continuing collapse of Europe are defensible seems insane.


MORE:
The Evangelical Conservatism of George W. Bush; Or, How the Republicans Became Red (Wilfred M. McClay, February 23, 2005, EPCC)

What I want to look at is, specifically, how the administration of George W. Bush seems to have marked a sea change in the evolution of Republican politics, in conservatism, in the present and future alignment of our political parties and ideologies, and the role of religion in our public discourse and public action. In addition, however, I want to talk about the ways that, taking a longer-range historical view, what looks like a sea change may in fact merely be the process of this administration and the political party it leads rejoining itself, consciously or not, to certain longer traditions of American political and social reform. And I will also want to ask, in the end, whether these changes or reorientations are entirely a good thing, or whether there are aspects of them that should give pause to Americans in general, and to conservative Americans and evangelical Americans in particular.

*****

Let me ease into the subject with an anecdote, meant to illuminate the meaning of my subtitle. Toward the end of April in 2001, I found myself on a business trip to New York, and thought that I would use the occasion to have lunch with a friend, one of those people one deals with for years by phone and email without ever having met in the flesh. I should add, too that this was and is someone with her feet planted firmly and intransigently on the political Left, with the most dismissive and contemptuous attitude imaginable toward Republicans in general and George W. Bush in particular -- but an otherwise charming and intelligent person who tolerates me as a harmless eccentric. We arranged to meet for lunch at a little place off Union Square. After we’d firmed up the arrangements by phone, she concluded with the following instruction: “Now remember, it’ll be May Day, so be sure to wear a red tie.”

Not wishing to offend, I obliged. But I wondered at the request, which struck me as a bit absurd. I thought I detected in it the scent of nostalgia for a bygone era. It was as if we were still living in those heady days when a May Day visit to Union Square might mean an encounter with fiery labor organizers, or German-speaking radical anarchists, or a garment-workers’ rally -- or maybe an earnest, rousing speech by Eugene Debs or Emma Goldman or Norman Thomas -- instead of an encounter with a swarming beehive of commercial activity, around a Square which now offers the full array of franchise outlets that one would likely find anyplace else in America -- Staples, Barnes and Noble, CVS pharmacy, and so on -- all accompanied by the deafening noise of seemingly incessant construction. And I somehow doubt that “Red Emma,” were she to show up, would regard my red tie as a very impressive sign of my solidarity with the workers of the world.

I can understand a certain nostalgia for the Left’s glory days -- for a time when there was still a plausible sense that it was the Left that stood for the common man and the human prospect, over against the dehumanizing forces of industrialism and finance capitalism and murderous nation-state rivalries and militarism and racial subordination and class arrogance and massive economic inequality, and all the other evils in the long parade of human folly. I’m far from immune to the pull of such concerns myself, as I think many decent people find themselves. It seems to be an especially bitter experience for those who have experienced such glory days to realize that times change and one can’t draw on their moral and intellectual capital forever, which may explain why that realization has been so slow in coming to the aging leadership of the Civil Rights Movement, or the Vietnam-era boomers who currently dominate the major media and the universities.

But how, I wondered, could anyone who had just lived through the 2000 presidential election, and its endless maps of America by state and county, still associate the color “red” with the Left? Particularly when, nearly four years later, after another presidential election and after exposure to another endless succession of maps, the association of “red” and “Republican” seems to have become firmly rooted in our discourse, embraced by both parties. Now we are even treated to learned disquisitions by intrepid reporters from our major daily papers who have donned their pith helmets and ventured out into the far hinterlands, trying to find and comprehend the inner essence of that exotic thing, Red America.

Someday the precise story will be told, by a historian more patient than I, of how the Republican party came to be assigned the color “red” in the mapping of the 2000 electoral results. From what little I have been able to determine, the change seems to have happened gradually, and with no visible conscious intent, and considerable inconsistency along the way. As recently as the 1980 election, the late David Brinkley, then still an anchor at NBC News, was drolly comparing the map representing Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory to a suburban swimming pool -- solid blue, in other words. Time magazine somewhat more generously referred to the 1980 map as “Lake Reagan,” and stuck with a blue-Republican and red-Democratic scheme all through the 1990s. Other networks and news outlets used different color schemes during those years, sometimes replacing blue with white, and even reversing the coloration more or less at will. (I distinctly remember watching the 1980 returns on ABC, and hearing Frank Reynolds turn to Ted Koppel and say, “The country’s going Red, Ted!”)


How and why most of the major media outlets (with the exception of Time) fixed upon the red-Republican and blue-Democratic schema in 2000 remains somewhat mysterious. When a New York Times graphics editor was asked for his paper’s rationale, he responded simply that “both Republican and red start with the letter R.” So chalk one up for Sesame Street.

Of course, for anyone who knows even a smattering of modern European history, this is a truly an astonishing turn of events, whose significance is only barely hinted at by Frank Reynolds’s wisecrack. It’s amazing how willing the democratic Left has been to acquiesce in the loss of one of its most permanent, most universal, and most beloved symbols -- the color Red -- without serious protest. I am not talking here about yielding some of the more or less primordial symbolic meanings ascribed to Red, though those too would seem to be worth hanging on to. Red is the color of life, of love and fidelity, of warmth, of emotional intensity, of power and grandeur. Any political movement or party worth its salt would like to lay claim to such things. But I am thinking more specifically of the political meanings of Red, which may draw upon these more primordial meanings, but also link them to specific historical events and causes and traditions and aspirations. We Americans tend to think, in our own times, of Red in this sense referring exclusively to the history of Communism, but that is a vast oversimplification. Let me be clear in what I’m saying here. I don’t want to be associated with the view that Communism was merely “liberalism in a hurry.” But by the same token, I do want to insist that the range of historical referents to Red would be better described as different expressions of an energetic and idea-driven commitment to systemic progressive reform, expressions that can and do vary widely in the extent of their liberalism or illiberalism, but that have in common a commitment to the general cause of human freedom and human liberation.

Those political meanings of Red emerged fully in the French Revolution of 1848, when socialists and radical republicans adopted the red flag as a symbol of their cause, in contrast to the white flag of the Bourbon monarchists and the more moderate tricolor flag of the liberal Second Republic. From then on, the red flag became firmly associated in French political culture with the progressive socialist cause. Later the softer and more humane image of the red rose would be adopted as a symbol of the French Socialist Party, and was used to especially good public effect in recent memory by Francois Mitterrand. Its enduring power was manifest at Mitterrand’s funeral nine years ago, when throngs of mourners arrived at the Notre Dame Cathedral bearing red roses in their hands.

Similarly, the British Labor Party used a red flag, followed by a red rose, as its symbols. The party early on adopted as its anthem the song “The Red Flag,” which describes the “scarlet standard” as “the people’s flag,” “the hope of peace,” the banner and symbol of “human right and human gain.” Similarly, the color Red (and usually also the red rose) is strongly associated with the Australian Labor Party, the Canadian Liberal Party, the German Social Democratic Party, the Dutch Socialist Party, the Party of European Socialists (located in Brussels) and the Socialist International. Just out of curiosity, I paid a visit to the current websites of each of these organizations, and believe me, you have never seen so much red, and especially so many red roses, outside of the city of Pasadena on New Year’s Day.

So there is a strong and enduring historical association, at least within modern European political culture, between the color Red and the most strongly progressivist, activist, reformist movements in European political life. But, you may well be asking, so what? This is all very interesting, I suppose, but what earthly difference does it make, so far as the United States and the Republican Party are concerned? Isn’t it possible, for example, that American disregard for European color rules is precisely a sign of our superiority, and our exceptionalism?

A reasonable question. My answer would be this. The mutation in the political meaning assigned to the color Red in America seems to have come about largely by chance and careless inattention. Nobody -- not even the devious, all-knowing, and all-powerful Karl Rove -- sought to induce or manipulate this change. But I believe one can make a very strong and suggestive argument that, in fact, this shift in symbolic meaning, even if entirely unintended, is extraordinarily meaningful, and fits in utterly unexpected ways with the historical situation in which we find ourselves. Hegel spoke of the “cunning of reason” in history, a term that indicated the ways in which the concatenation of seeming coincidences and random irrational events in history ends up furthering the cause of great, consequential, and intelligible change. Just such cunning may in fact be in evidence in this instance.

What I am saying, then, is that there is a sense -- a limited sense, but a real sense -- in which the Republican Party of George W. Bush has indeed “become Red” -- if by “being Red” one means, rather than being the standard bearer for the specific agenda of socialism, instead standing for a grand commitment to the furtherance of certain high ideals and goals, an agenda of progressive reform meant not merely for the sake of the nation, but for the general good of humanity. Such are precisely the sort of larger causes that socialism nearly always has championed. But they can no longer be regarded as the exclusive property of socialism, or more generally of the Left. Bush’s administration may well represent the culmination of a change that has been in the works for a quarter-century or so -- perhaps dating back to the days of Reagan, who loved to quote one of the quintessential Red thinkers, Thomas Paine -- an effort to capture the mantle of progressive change for the benefit of the conservative party. These efforts have not been a notable success in the past, and even the most plausible of them, Newt Gingrich’s notion of a “conservative opportunity society,” foundered on the rocks of its creator’s problematic persona. Yet it may be clear to future historians that events of the past quarter-century have slowly been weaving a possible new guiding narrative for the Republican party.

As a result, it entirely plausible, I think, for Republicans to assert that the conservative party in America today is the party of progress, of human liberation, of national and international purpose. And Democrats who snicker at such an assertion do so at their own risk, for it is even more plausible to state that the liberal party is the party of opposition to change -- the party of entrenched interests, of public bureaucracies and public-employee unions and identity-politics lobbies, the party that opposes tax reform, opposes tort reform, opposes educational reform, opposes Social Security reform, opposes military reform, opposes the revisiting of Supreme Court rulings, opposes the projection of American power overseas, opposes the work of Christian missionaries, opposes public accountability for the work of the scientific research community, opposes anything that offends the sensibilities of the European Union and the United Nations, and so on. Indeed, there are times when it seems they are on the verge of adopting the National Review’s famous slogan, about standing athwart history and yelling “Stop.”

Now some of these things may be worth opposing, and I am not here this evening to endorse or condemn the whole slate of either party. But it seems clear that such a shift of party identities may now be upon us, and that the shift of the color Red to the Republican side may provide an interesting symbolic representation of it.


Turnabout is foul play (Charles Krauthammer, 6/24/05, NY Daily News)
What has happened to the Democrats over the past few decades is best captured by the phrase, coined by Kevin Phillips, "reactionary liberalism." Spent of new ideas, their only remaining idea is to hang on to the status quo at all costs.

This is true across the board. On Social Security, which is facing an impending demographic and fiscal crisis, they have put absolutely nothing on the table. On presidential appointments - first, judges, and now, ambassador to the United Nations - they resort to the classic weapon of Southern obstructionism: the filibuster. And on foreign policy, they have nothing to say on the war on terror, the war in Iraq or the burgeoning Arab Spring (except the refrain: "Guantanamo").

A quarter-century ago, Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.) noted how it was the Republicans who had become a party of ideas, while the Democrats' philosophical foundation was "deeply eroded." But even Moynihan would be surprised by the bankruptcy in the Democrats' current intellectual account.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 24, 2005 10:06 AM
Comments

one would look long and hard to find more incoherent
nonsense than that which is exhibited in this excerpt.

truly astonishing.

Posted by: JonofAtlanta at June 24, 2005 10:23 AM

Liberalism's not dead. It's just pining for the fijords.

Bill Buckley's lasting legacy was to provide a forum for conservative thought, leading to a unifying conservative philosophy that could be the foundation of effective political movements. Liberals will have a difficult time doing this, because their philosophies lead back to people like Marx. Say what you will, but conservatism's guiding lights never inspired anyone to commit genocides.

Posted by: Scott Ferguson at June 24, 2005 10:42 AM

"When historians and social scientists in the 50s said American politics reflected an ideological consensus that was liberal at its foundations..."

So, how many Americans of the 1950s were in favor of partial birth abortion and same-sex "marriage"? A "liberal" from that era would be horrified to be associated with a "liberal" of today.

Posted by: b at June 24, 2005 10:43 AM

I disagree. I think this exerpt is a pretty good summary of the decline of liberal power in the United States. The problem that modern American liberals have is that they do not really want anything to change, or at least to change from where the county was after the 1992 elections.

Posted by: Earl Sutherland at June 24, 2005 10:44 AM

The liberal paradigm had been to wield the power of government to transform society. This was the Marxist prescription, not the Madisonian. They could get away with it when their goal was not inconsistent with the interests and values of a majority of Americans.

Their crack-up insued when sub-fringe components of their coalition, such as homosexuals, athiests and earth-mother worshippers, imagined that they could steer the Democrat party and in turn the nation into imposing their adgenda on society.

This delusion was a direct consequence of their application of Marxist thinking to a Madisonian democracy. In their minds, that's how it's supposed to work: the intelligencia seize control of the apparatus of state coercion and wield them dictatorially, transforming society from what it is to what it would be if only the poor fools were as bright as the intelligencia.

The proximate cause of their downfall was that they went after the guns. Private reservation the right to posess and use the means of force is a central American institution. Had they not gone after this right, the political history of the United States may have been very different.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 24, 2005 11:13 AM

Hey Lou, I'm a gay Republican. Are you kicking me out of the party? ;-)

Posted by: Scott Ferguson at June 24, 2005 1:55 PM

Concerning the "red shift" of the Republican party, I have a simpler explanation. With the decline of the Communist era, red lost its cachet for the Left, but it found an attractive substitute in UN blue. These days, blue represents unelected, centralized government. If you are a Democrat, what's not to like? If, as some maintain, B. Clinton's campaign to become UN Secretary General succeeds, the Deomocratic Party's identification will be complete.

Posted by: Ed Bush at June 24, 2005 2:16 PM

Scott Ferguson

I can't speak for Lou, but if your agenda includes things like gay marriage, or throwing temper tantrums and trying to close down organizations like the Boy Scouts, then I would prefer you were not in the Republican party.

Posted by: h-man at June 24, 2005 3:19 PM

Scott, we respect your privacy; we now know that you yourself do not. There are heroes out there who happened to have had a homosexual orientation, such as Ferderick the Great and Whittaker Chambers, whom we honor none the less for their private affairs. The problem arises when the homosexual attempts to use state power to change the extent to which our children accept the judgement of civilization on these practices.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 24, 2005 3:52 PM

conservatives and republicans don't define themselves by their sexuality. i doubt this scott person is actually a republican.

Posted by: cjm at June 24, 2005 4:41 PM

My guess is that the red/blue shift happened because the big networks didn't want to associate Democrats with red and its socialist/communist connotations.

Posted by: PapayaSF at June 24, 2005 5:03 PM

Republicans should be proud of the color Red: The victor always bears away from the field of battle the colors of his defeated enemy...

Posted by: Ptah at June 24, 2005 5:24 PM

My guess is that PapayaSF is right. Nothing happens by chance and the switch in colors was a deliberate attempt to disconnect Democrats from the negative connotations of the color red and paint them a benign blue while assigning to Republicans the warlike red.

Posted by: erp at June 24, 2005 7:36 PM

CJM: I'm a Republican because it's the party that doesn't require me to check my brain at the door. By that standard, YOU are the Democrat! (The other give-away: you write your posts in all lowercase letters!)

Lou: It always comes down to children, doesn't it? That's been the favorite defense of ugly liberal positions too -- "We're doing it for the children!" At least you're not equating homosexuality with paedophilia. That's a blood libel.

erp: Yup!

Posted by: Scott Ferguson at June 24, 2005 8:47 PM

sf: i type lower case because it hurts my fingers to shift to uppercase. i went to your website, and it looks like it has potential, but it's confusing. giving you the benefit of the doubt on your identification as a gop'r. do you have children ? if yes then your comments are perplexing, if no then they are understandable, pace the three poor angels taken away in n.j.

let's start over, what's your story ?

Posted by: cjm at June 24, 2005 9:53 PM

Pay it forward.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 24, 2005 11:03 PM

cjm:

Wasn't there a prominent Republican recently who said homosexuals shouldn't be in the party?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 25, 2005 9:58 AM

Jeff,

I think that was Dean saying white Christians couldn't be Democrats. Something like that anyway.

Posted by: Rick Ballard at June 25, 2005 9:33 PM

Rick:

No, it was Pat Robertson.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 26, 2005 7:54 AM

Whom Dean might as well have quoted in his own remarks. One blockhead deserves another.

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 26, 2005 7:36 PM
« 50-0 FILES: | Main | DO DEMOCRATS REALLY WANT TO TALK ABOUT THIS?: »