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.”


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."

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.