Thursday, September 30, 2010

Am I Really A Liberal?

I’ve argued before that rationality in political deliberation is crucially a matter of thinking along with an ideological community. So how can I keep calling myself a liberal when I spend so much of my blogging time disparaging the rationality and civic morality of other liberals? Don’t my complaints imply, by my own lights, serious reservations about liberalism itself? Or, less politely: whose side am I on anyway?

Although I sometimes bristle at their uncivil tone, questions to this effect are fair enough. By any measure, this blog sometimes exceeds the bounds of liberal etiquette about what subjects are and are not fit for criticism within liberal circles. Were ideological authenticity merely a matter of minding one’s manners, that would seal the case against my liberalism. But I’ve been blogging on the assumption that being an ideologue isn’t just about marching in doctrinal lockstep with comrades, but of aspiring to join them in being right. Any self-respecting ideologue must therefore believe two things: first, that everyone ought to embrace his values and his governmental strategy for realizing them; and second that, when push comes to shove, his comrades will actually join him in promoting those values and that strategy.

When an ideologue entertains the possibility that he may be wrong on either count, neither he nor his erstwhile comrades can take his ideological affiliation entirely for granted. At their most dramatic, changes in ideological commitment resemble religious conversions. That happens when an ideologue’s realization that he’s been serving the wrong values propels him headlong into the political opposition. The best first-person account of this phenomenon that I’ve encountered is Whittaker Chambers’s autobiography describing his transformation from a communist conspirator in the 1930s to a fervently anti-communist conservative in the 1950s. Chambers didn’t just change his political beliefs. His conversion was the culmination of a process that shattered his deepest convictions about himself, about whether, at bottom, he was a creature of History or of God.

The fact that nothing that dramatic has ever threatened to happen to me doesn’t put my liberalism beyond dispute. Most ideological conversions don’t assault a wavering ideologue’s sense of self that radically. They occur when a once-reliable ideologue concludes that he still has the right values, but that his old comrades no longer do. Think of neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz, Jean Kirkpatrick and Richard Perle who severed their ties to the liberal community in the 1970s when they concluded that most liberals were no longer willing to wage the cold war on its principal military, diplomatic and ideological fronts.

For a time it was debatable whether these unreconstructed cold warriors or the McGovernites were being more faithful to core liberal values. It wasn’t long, however, before that became merely a scholastic question. At the end of the day, liberalism (or conservatism, neo-conservatism) is just what the people we call "liberals" (or "conservatives" or "neo-conservatives") actually believe. When the McGovernites took possession of the Democratic Party and the principal organs of liberal opinion, cold war liberals either had to surrender to that tide or find a new ideological home. People like Podhoretz, Kirkpatrick and Perle migrated to the conservative community because they wouldn’t surrender

I don’t have the stomach to contemplate joining the community of conservatives, but I’ve said enough unflattering things about liberals to entitle them to ask themselves whether I really belong in their company. Why should they give me the sympathetic hearing that one owes an ideological comrade? The short answer is that I subscribe to the core values they claim to uphold, above all, to the foundational liberal commitment to social and economic equality. That’s why I take the liberal side in almost every contest over the content public policy, differing only when I think there’s a better way of combating inequality than the traditional liberal remedies. If you ask me, on issues of substance, my liberal credentials are pretty solid.

My reservations about my liberal comrades aren’t about their political objectives but the way liberals promote them and understand themselves while they’re going about it. I too often have a hard time understanding why my liberal comrades are so sure that their political opponents’ values aren’t just unattractive, but politically illegitimate, and therefore unworthy of representation in the process of public decision-making. Try as I might, I’m often unable to fathom the notion of “legitimacy” that’s supposed to reconcile liberal attitudes with rudimentary norms of democratic citizenship. Worse, there are times when I can’t help thinking that much of what liberals say about the illegitimacy of their opponents’ actions and ideals is an outright betrayal of the idea of equality at the core of my liberalism.

So there’s at least one respect in which my situation does resemble that of the neo-conservatives shortly before they defected from the liberal fold:  I’m starting to fear that people now setting the ideological tone of the liberal community aren’t living up to their own values. I don’t deny that the tension between my understanding of liberal values and current liberal politics puts my own liberalism in question. If it persists or widens, I’ll either have to stop calling myself a liberal or amend my understanding of core liberal values enough to bring it into line with what liberals actually believe. That’s a bridge I’ll cross if and when I come to it. I continue to think, or hope, that it won’t come to that because the rules of liberal etiquette are still lenient enough to leave room for me in the community of liberals.

In the meantime, liberals readers are entitled to their suspicions about me. I ask only that they save a little of that suspicion to direct at themselves.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your post presents a lot of food for thought. I'm actually suspicious of someone who can say "I am a this" or "I am a that." Issues facing us are so complex and there are so many. How can someone always be on one side or the other? And then there is the complicating factor of the individuals who represent liberal or conservative views and their methods, which you find troubling.

I've been a regular reader of your blog. You discuss many topics which should give both liberals and conservatives pause, because both sides have been guilty of the same bad behaviors. But when it comes to core values, why can't you be a little bit of both?

Osama Von McIntyre said...

Ron -

You've posted many interesting, contrarian, and quixotic posts, here, and this blog has definitely contributed to the range of opinion that feeds my own thinking.

But as for whether you are a "liberal" any more, honestly, who gives a shit?

In the sense that you're writing, you're really asking whether you still consider themselves part of the liberal "tribe," and the title of your blog provides a wry and accurate assessment of that state of affairs.

As for the reciprocal question of whether the tribe considers you one of them: really, why do you care? I draw a distinction between liberalism (reformist and pragmatic) and leftism (dogmatic and ideological): you are clearly a liberal, and less clearly of the "left."

What you've been kvetching about since you've started this blog are some problems--both tactical and cultural--within the American left, and how they undermine their own ultimate goals, and sully your idea of civic rectitude.

I don't disagree with many of your critiques, although we differ to the extent that the same kinds of issues exist on the right as well: I would argue that the American right has become so insular, dishonest, and tactics-oriented that they present a far greater danger to civic culture and civility.

Reform generally comes from disaffected outsiders. Our political culture is clearly broken, and unable to address long-standing problems of substance. Let's both step outside the tent, and start something grand!

Ron Replogle said...

Osama,

I think membership in an ideological community in both its aspects--self-identification and having one's membership recognized by other members--matters. Politics is a team sport; it's not a matter of acting together, but of thinking together by applying our common sense to political issues as they arise. But "common" sense has to be common to some particular group of people.

I've tried to get at why membership in an ideological community figures crucially in political deliberation in the link I put in the above post and here (http://www.ronreplogle.com/2010/04/yet-another-post-on-epistemic-closure.html). I'd be interested in knowing what you think.

Osama Von McIntyre said...

Two things: I think you're misunderstanding the concept of "epistemic closure," as least as defined by Julian Sanchez, the gentleman that defined the term as it has been used in the blogosphere ( see http://www.juliansanchez.com/2010/04/22/a-coda-on-closure/ ). I'm pointing this out, because I think it's key to the argument you made in todays' post, and in the post you referenced in your reply).

To clarify, "epistemic closure" does not mean "close-mindedness," but rather describes the tendency of ideological groups to speak only among themselves, to the ultimate detriment of their grasp of "objective reality." And that is one of the dangers of having both feet completely in the tent.

In our polarized political discourse, the tendency of each community to consider those outside of their ideological community irrational, incoherent, and miscomprehending are part of what binds them. But, increasingly, both left and right look at their competing communities as illegitimate and corrupt, in addition. (Just sample some of the comments in straight-partisan blogs like Human Events and TalkLeft, and you'll be sickened by some of the venom).

At this point, I think that the conversation, such as it is, has become so crazy, so subtext-laden and symbolic, that membership in those tribes prevents meaningful conversation. What does "liberty" mean to a right-winger? What does "fairness" mean to a left-winger? The organizing concept of both ideological clusters is completely impenetrable to those not in the "in-group." And it is at that point, I think, that political communities cease to form a useful civic function.

If, in your soul, you need to belong to one of the tribes, fine. But we live in an era in which half of the country declines to define itself in terms of the three broad political ideological groups (left, right, and libertarian). And that pretty much maps with my perception of the people I see around me: I think the substantial majority of Americans are not particularly ideological, although they have a generally coherent set of beliefs.

I think it is because of the insularity of those ideological communities that our political conversations are so unsatisfying, right now. The conversations within those communities are largely kabuki theater, all very dramatic, but not much related to the real world.

So, "membership" in these communities--at least as they exist on left and right right now--is actually malicious. I would love to see new political parties and coalitions emerge, and am personally convinced that America will not achieve a consensus "mainstream" until that happens.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if we aren't seeing new coalitions/parties emerging now, case in point being the Tea Party movement. Though I think the two party system will always prevail.

I wonder when we say that we are a 50/50 country, if it is always the same half on each side. I'll bet there is a good many of us who jump back and forth.

Dave said...

I'm with Osama in not really caring whether you're a "card carrying" liberal. You always make such an earnest effort to put yourself in the shoes of the opposition (whomever that may be) and present their position from *their* point of view -- in a positive and respectful light. So, as long as you continue to objectively present both points of view, should it really matter to your readers what your subjective views are?

What's more, you're a heck of a writer and analytical thinker, and I would continue to eagerly read your posts even if you really *were* a liberal, and not just a fraud. (ha ha)