Thursday, October 7, 2010

Defending Liberalism vs. Defending Liberal Policies

In response to this post, reader Scrooge McDuck writes (my emphasis):
“I think that something happened--since the 70s-- in the liberal mindset. Conservatives are able to make a full-throated defense of their views on purely normative terms. I don't believe in the conflation of markets and freedom, but I fully understand how someone could.

Liberals don't defend liberalism any more, as a world view: they defend policies. And if, in defending policies, they undermine liberalism, they seem to be able to live with that.


“I don't know if this is true, but I suspect that if the Health Care Reform Act was sold only as a way of guaranteeing closer-to-universal access to health care, it would have done much better in the political sphere. But the variety of arguments offered in support of the bill included: access, cost containment, insurance company regulation, etc.

“The truly great liberal politicians built policies that were simple in concept, and culturally attuned for resonance: the Social Security Act, WPA, moon shot, civil rights. Today's Democrats build camels: jerry-rigged crap collections with a thousand superfluous features thrown in; each designed to appease a particular constituency.

“This may be good short-term politics, but I think it has killed the liberal 'brand.'  My sympathies are much more aligned with liberal goals than conservative ones; nevertheless, it seems like conservatives have the heat, the moral fervor, and ethical conviction that people want to see in their politics.


“In the mid-80s, partly in response to Reagan, a 'neo-liberal' movement was nurtured, encouraging a wonkier, more market-oriented, "centrist" approach to politics. I was one of them. But in retrospect, I think that we have harmed, more than helped, liberal goals in America.”

3 comments:

Dave said...

Sara Robinson touches on a similar theme in today's New Republic:

"Every American over the age of ten knows what the GOP and the conservative movement stand for."
[...]
"Progressives, on the other hand, have never tried to brand themselves in any kind of organized, coherent way−which is why even progressive leaders are often caught flat-footed when asked about the core values our movement stands for."

http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-cohn/78278/building-the-progressive-brand

Ron Replogle said...

Dave: It kills me that Robinson speaks of branding in this connection, as if making liberalism persuasive was a matter of finding a catchy marketing devices rather rather than simply having persuasive ideas. That's precisely what I mean by the "liberal obsession with messaging."

Dave said...

It doesn't kill me, but I did find it comical how her tone suggests: "Those sneaky Republicans have come up with this great marketing hook: they call it 'having a set of guiding principles.' Huh. Maybe we should try that too! But, y'know, solely as a marketing ploy."

Having said that, I agree with her observation that whereas everyone knows the guiding principles of conservatism, the same can't be said for liberalism or progressivism. The point where I differ from her is that where she sees this as a failure to *communicate* liberal guiding principles, I worry that this is a failure to *have* (well-defined and agreed-upon) liberal guiding principles.

Liberals need to find, and think in terms of, these guiding precepts in order to (if I may be so rude as to butcher Scrooge McDuck's observation) advance liberal principles, rather than defend liberal policies.