Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Paul Starr’s Dispatch from the Ideological Trenches

I’m a big fan of Paul Starr and have been reading the American Prospect off and on since it first appeared. So I’m interested in his reflections about the state of American liberalism occasioned by his magazine’s twentieth birthday. Most of Starr’s piece is devoted to bucking up demoralized liberals by reminding them any serious political movement has its ups and downs, and that the present state of the Democratic Party and the liberal movement isn’t as bleak as it appears. Here’s his conclusion.
“The Democrats will lose ground this year because they've failed to provide economic remedies fast enough. But the long-run problem for Republicans is that remedy is not what they have been offering -- not for health care, for which they barely offer even the pretense of a solution; not for the recession, which their ideas would aggravate; not for immigration, one of several issues they want too exploit without facing up to the facts; not for climate change, which many of them entirely deny; not for energy, where their favorite response, as summed up in the chant, "Drill, baby, drill," was drowned in the Gulf oil spill. Events like the financial collapse and the oil spill keep reminding people that they need a competent and activist government to rein in the market. Unless conservatives abandon ideological fantasy and denial and become a responsible partner in government, progressives will dominate the search for remedy. And if that is what political tug-of-war is all about, we will ultimately win it.”
This is the sort of empty boilerplate you expect from a committed ideologue commemorating such an occasion. Having an ideology entails believing that you and your comrades reliably have the best answers to ideologically contested questions. And that, in turn, entails believing that your political adversaries are not just wrong on this or that issue, but reliably wrong on all ideologically contested issues. Together, those beliefs may not strictly entail that your opponents are the prisoners of an “ideological fantasy” and in “denial” but they certainly invite those thoughts. So if you had software that substituted “conservative,” and “Republican” in every place where Starr says “liberal” or “Democrat” (and vice versa) you could generate a perfectly acceptable commemoration for an anniversary edition of the National Review by pressing one key on your computer.

I’m more interested in how Starr remembers the state of ideological play twenty years ago when he and others started the American Prospect. With the Cold War nearly over and the Reagan revolution running out of steam, he recalls that there were “legitimate grounds for believing that the United States was on the cusp of a new liberal era.” Starr concedes that never quite happened owing to Republican take-over of Congress in 1994.  But he's consoled by the fact that the Democratic Party has managed to hold its electoral ground over the intervening years. He never asks, however, how successful liberals have been at holding their ideological ground.

I don’t think that many liberals believed in 1990, as they now begrudgingly acknowledge, that the welfare state is unsustainable in its present form. Certainly they wouldn’t have guessed that, in five short years, a Democratic president would be telling them that “the age of big government is over.” Nor would it have occurred to them that the Democrat Party would now be taking it on the political chin for enacting a healthcare bill that looks a lot like the alternative Republicans would offer to HillaryCare in the early 90s.  And 1990 liberals would have laughed out loud if you told them that eighteen years hence, a liberal Democrat running for president would say: “I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush. I don’t have a lot of complaints about their handling of Desert Storm. I don’t have a lot of complaints with their handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

Paul Starr leaves all of this out.

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