Posts Tagged ‘Liberalism’

Joe Biden and the limits of NYRB liberalism

May 13, 2020

I get e-mails from a long-time friend in south Texas in which he shares his thoughts about politics and the passing scene.  With his permission, here is one of them.  I’ve added a couple of illustrations and a link.

The New York Review of Books was launched in 1963, during a newspaper strike (remember unions?) that temporarily shut down the anodyne New York Times Book Review, a feature of the Sunday Times.  

In high school, I read the electrifying first issue of the NYRB in my hometown public library.  It featured in-your-face, hyper-literate take-no-prisoners review-essays two or three thousand words long, written by the best writers in New York.  

One early review of a biography of Patton used the word “fuckings-up.”  A letter to the editor in the next issue pointed out that the correct plural is “fuck-ups.”  I was hooked.

It’s now more than half a century later, and I’m still reading the NYRB—after a lot of twists and turns, on their part, and on mine.

Their NYRB editor before this one, Ian Buruma—who got bumped after a couple of issues for printing something by some Canadian guy with #MeToo trouble—promised “a wider range” of authors.  I took this to mean: more conservative authors, more often—and I think I was right.

But the word “conservative” here needs a gloss.  NYRB authors are never hard-shell conservatives—like some of the reviewers (e.g., Edward Luttwak) who turn up occasionally in the Times Literary Supplement to give readers a bracing glimpse of how things look from the other side.

No, NYRB essayists are conservative only in the sense of wanting to get back (in the WayBack Machine?) to where we were on the Monday afternoon before Election Day 2016.  Let me explain:

The current issue, for instance, features an article on “rebranding” the Democratic Party by one Joseph O’Neill, a novelist who teaches at Bard College, an upstate-New-York haven for rich hippie-kids. (Bard art majors are provided with their own studios.)

O’Neill’s thesis is that the Republicans and Democrats are like Coke and Pepsi, or Bud Lite and Miller Lite–which makes sense to me.  But O’Neill DOESN’T MEAN, as I would, that they’re two essentially identical products.  (Have you actually looked at the stuff Joe Biden has supported—and opposed—during his long career?)

No, O’Neill means instead that Pepsi can gain market share only by getting Coke drinkers to switch, and vice versa.  So, according to O’Neill, what the Democrats need to do is REBRAND themselves (he quotes legendary Mad Man David Ogilvy from the 50s, a candid, entertaining writer) so as to pull over low-info, “ideologically squishy” swing voters. It’s all a question of PR.

O’Neill goes into the tall grass here, talking in considerable detail about how the Democrats need to devalue the GOP “brand,” with its connotations of strength and patriotism, rather than just attacking Trump.  

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What’s so great about freedom?

October 24, 2018

Liberalism is the belief that human rights are the most important value.  I have believed this for most of my life..

I just got finishing reading a book, WHY LIBERALISM FAILED by Patrick J. Deneen (2018) that says it is impossible to build a nation or a society on this basis.

And that most of the troubles of the United States today are the result of trying to build a society on this false basis.

Liberalism has failed because it has triumphed, Deneen writes.  Its triumph makes manifest the flaws that were there all along.

He has strong arguments for this (even though, in the last chapter, he halfway takes them back – I will get to this is due course).

He explores the same territory as Chris Arnade, Zygmunt Bauman, Matthew CrawfordRod Dreher and Pankaj Mishra. There’s a lot to think about.

Deneen defines liberalism as the philosophy that says the most important thing is freedom to choose.   One version is classic liberalism, which in the USA is called conservatism, that says freedom means government should not restrict individual freedom of choice.

Another version is progressive liberalism, that says government can and should empower individual choice by promoting education, public health, retirement security and the like.

Classic liberals have not succeeded in freeing individuals from control by a powerful government; progressive liberals have not succeeded in freeing individuals from control by powerful private organizations.  Deneen believes there are systemic reasons for his.

He says both forms of liberalism differ from the older conception of liberty as self-government.  In the older conception, free individuals were those who were in control of their passions, greed, anger and fears, and did not need external control, and a free community was likewise keeping itself in order without external control.

As a wise friend of mine, Michael Brown, once remarked, individualism used to mean self-reliance, and now means self-expression.

Liberal ideas originated in Western culture about 500 years ago with Francis Bacon, according to Deneen; he  thought that the advance of science and knowledge would enable humanity to control nature rather than being subject to it.  Individual people were separate and independent of nature, not part of a great chain of being.

 

 

These ideas began to be put into practice about 250 years ago, by thinkers who believed it would be more realistic to found society on the basis of rational self-interest rather than on ideals that were often ignored.

Adam Smith’s “system of natural liberty” was an economic system in which entrepreneurs acting out of self-interest competed to serve the common good.  James Madison’s idea of constitutional government was to set up checks and balances so that the conflicting ambitions of politicians resulted in a balance that served the common good.

When Smith, Madison and other early liberals wrote of people acting out of self-interest, they weren’t thinking of sociopaths.  They were thinking of the normal level of selfishness of respectable middle-class British subjects and American citizens.  But the British and American liberals of that day were the heirs of an older moral culture that they took for granted.

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Populists vs. liberals in American history

August 16, 2016

One of the main things I’ve learned from reading American history is that political alignments in the past were very different from what they are now, and that, prior to the New Deal, “populists” and “liberals” were rarely found in the same party.

By “populist,” I mean someone who defends the interests of the majority of the population against a ruling elite.  By “liberal,” I mean someone who takes up for downtrodden and unpopular minorities.

3080664-president-andrew-jackson--20--twenty-dollar-billAndrew Jackson, the founder of the Democratic Party, was a populist.  He gained fame as the leader of a well-regulated militia, composed of citizens with the right to keep and bear arms, who defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans and who fought for white settlers against Indians in what later became the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.

He was regarded as a champion of poor workers, farmers and frontier settlers.  In an epic struggle, he broke the stranglehold of the financial elite, as represented by the Second Bank of the United States, on the U.S. economy.   Jacksonians fought for the enfranchisement of property-less white people.

In standing up for the common people, Jackson denied any claims to superiority by reason of education and training.  He defended the spoils system—rewarding his political supporters with government jobs—on the grounds that any American citizen was capable of performing any public function.

Jackson was a slave-owner and a breaker of Indian treaties.  He killed enemies in duels.  He was responsible for the expulsion of Indians in the southeast U.S. in the Trail of Tears.   He was not a respecter of individual rights.   He was not a liberal.

This was opposed by almost all the great New England humanitarian reformers of Jackson’s time and later.  They were educated white people who tried to help African Americans, American Indians, the deaf, the blind, prison inmates and inmates of insane asylums.  Almost of all them were Whigs, and almost all their successors were Republicans.

They were liberals, but not populists.  Like Theodore Parker, the great abolitionist and opponent of the Fugitive Slave Law,  they despised illiterate Irish Catholic immigrants in his midst.  Poor Irish people had to look for help to the Jacksonian Democratic political machines.

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What’s the matter with the Democrats?

May 21, 2016

This was originally published on March 28, 2016

I looked forward to reading Thomas Frank’s LISTEN, LIBERAL -or- What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?  I finished reading it over the weekend, and it’s as good as I thought it would be.

It is an explanation of how the Democratic Party ceased to be an advocate for the interests of working people and organized labor, and instead became the party of the credentialed professional class, as exemplified by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Thomas Frank is best known for his book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? which is about how a once-radical state became a stronghold of the right wing.  In this book, he explains how the party of the New Deal became the party of bank bailouts and pro-corporate international trade deals.

Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank

The change began with the split between college-educated idealists and blue collar union workers in the late 1960s.  Young radicals thought that the New Deal was yesterday’s news and that labor leaders such as the AFL-CIO’s George Meany were obstacles to peace in Vietnam and justice for minorities and women.

The young radicals triumphed in 1972 when they nominated George McGovern for President, under convention rules written so as to guarantee representation  for minorities, women and youth, but not for union members.

When McGovern went down in humiliating defeat, the party leaders rewrote the rules so as to prevent another McGovern from arising again.  They did not, however, return to their New Deal roots.  Instead they started to bid against the Republicans for support of the business class.

These two factions of the Democratic Party – social liberals and the business conservatives – eventually came together.

Their common ground was belief that the world should be run by an elite of smart people.  Their liberalism consisted of belief that there should be equal opportunity to enter this class based on educational credentials and professional achievement.

The idea was not to raise the material standard of living poor people and the working class in general, as in New Deal days.  It was to give everybody, through access to education, an equal chance to be part of the elite, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or social or economic class.

Then, if you still couldn’t succeed, it would be your own fault.  Maybe you didn’t study hard enough in the fifth grade.

This is not to say that Democrats became the same as Republicans.

Republican leaders wanted to be governed by an elite of tough, successful competitors.  Democratic leaders want to be governed by an elite of enlightened thinkers.

Republican leaders embrace economic inequality because they believe the laws of the free market are moral values.  Democratic leaders accept economic inequality because they believe the laws of the free market are scientific laws.  Republicans despise losers.  Democrats sympathize with losers, but do not think it is feasible to help them.

Republicans govern in the interests of the top 1 percent of income earners.  Democrats, as Frank wrote, govern in the interests of the top 10 percent.  [1]

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The assumptions and logic of neoliberalism

November 14, 2015

There is no such thing as society.  There are only individuals, and their families.      ==Margaret Thatcher

∞∞∞

Neoliberalism is the philosophy that economic freedom is the primary freedom, economic growth is society’s primary goal and the for-profit corporation is the ideal form of organization.

It is the justification for privatization, deregulation and the economic austerity being imposed on governments by lending institutions.

What follows is my attempt to understand the thinking behind neoliberalism.  I welcome comments, especially from those who think I am wrong or unfair.

17149339-Abstract-word-cloud-for-Neoliberalism-with-related-tags-and-terms-Stock-PhotoGovernment is by definition coercive.  All governmental authority is ultimately backed by armed force.  The role of government should be limited to protection of life and property and enforcement of contracts.   

Private enterprise is by definition free choice.  Privatization by definition increases freedom.  All income deriving from the private sector, and not involving force or fraud, is earned income.

Most people are good judges of their individual self-interest and bad judges of the common good.   People generally make good decisions as consumers and poor decisions as voters.  Consumer choice is more meaningful than the right to vote.

Free markets, though the law of supply and demand, coordinate individual choices without the direction of any particular people or group of people.  The free market is more impartial and just than any system of planning or regulation could be.

A capitalist dictatorship that protects property rights is better than a socialist democracy that attacks property rights.

Economic growth is the key to increasing economic well-being.  Growth is produced by capital—that is, by investment in machines, factories and other human-made goods that generate new wealth.  

In a free enterprise economy, capital is invested by private individuals based on the law of supply and demand.  Whatever diminishes the ability of individuals to accumulate wealth or respond to the signals of the free market diminishes capital and retards economic growth.

Money spent on welfare and charity may temporarily alleviate distress, but it will not cure poverty.  Only capital investment and economic growth will do that. 

Capital investment and economic growth should take precedence over public education, public health, the environment and other so-called pubic goods, because they are the means of generating the wealth that pays for the public goods.

Banks, investment firms and financial markets are the key institutions of society.  They must be preserved in order to support investment and economic growth.

Monetary obligations are absolute.  Any person, organization or government that borrows money has an absolute obligation to pay it back, no matter what the sacrifice.  People who don’t repay their debts or fulfill their contracts are parasites on the system.

Inequality is a good thing.  To break up accumulations of wealth that have been acquired by legitimate means is not only unjust because it destroys the just reward for achievement.  It destroys the capital by which new jobs and wealth are created.

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Non-moral arguments for humane goals

June 26, 2014

History professor Eric Rauchway pointed out how progressives advocate humane policies based on strictly economic criteria.

Back in the early 1900s, Charles Beard noted that merely to tell Americans that their factories were injuring workers more wantonly than those of any other country would fail to move a nation so fixated on profit.

You had, he said and I’m paraphrasing, because I’m not able to look it up at the moment, to tell the American people that it was inefficient to keep killing workers – that it was a waste of human capital, an unproductive use of resources.

This rhetorical tactic aims at moral ends by appealing to a venal calculus.  Like the commuter who rescued his fellow-citizen from a train track because he didn’t want to be late to work, maybe we will rescue our public goods from disruption – not because it’s the right thing to do, but because we won’t profit if we don’t.

via Crooked Timber.

I hear this kind of rhetoric  liberals today.  They concede the moral high ground to their opponents and then argue that their policies would be a better way of achieving non-liberal goals – for example, that health care reform would be a good way to help balance the federal budget.

One problem is that this type of argument is not always valid.   The larger problem is that when it is, it is not convincing to people committed to the view that the harshest policies are always the most realistic

The giant vampire squid becomes gay-friendly

April 24, 2014

The Mafia, as has been said, is not an equal opportunity employer. But even if it was an equal opportunity employer, it would still be a criminal organization.

Likewise, while Goldman Sachs is cultivating a reputation for being gay-friendly, it is still the same financial predator that is always was, still what Matt Taibbi called the “giant vampire squid,” inserting its tentacles into every crevice of the American economy and sucking out the blood.

giant_squidHuman Rights Campaign, the gay rights organization, honored Goldman Sachs at its annual dinner last year, and named Lloyd Blankfein, its CEO, as its national corporate spokesman for gay marriage.   It’s nice that a few gay people will get a shot at high-paying jobs at Goldman, but that doesn’t entitle the firm to a plenary indulgence, or get-out-of-jail-free card, or whatever you want to call it from the harm it has done to ordinary Americans, including gay people, through its financial manipulations.

As Matt Taibbi has documented, former and future Goldman officials in government successfully lobbied for repeal of the regulations that held banks back from reckless speculation with their depositors’ money.    They then pursued a policy of pump and dump, bidding up the price of investments, such as subprime mortgages, that they knew were worthless, then bailing out at the key moment and leaving the suckers holding the bag.

Goldman and similar Wall Street manipulators did more harm than to just bankrupt a few unwise investors.  Their financial manipulations brought about the Wall Street crash of 2008 and the wave of layoffs and mortgage foreclosures that followed.  Gay people suffered as much as their straight neighbors.   As Kathleen Geier pointed out, gay people as a group as not especially affluent — contrary to the way they’re typically depicted on TV.

Some of us liberals like to point out how conservatives can be suckered into voting against their economic self-interest by cynical appeals to feelings about social and cultural issues[1].   However this may be, they aren’t the only ones.

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Political correctness and repressive tolerance 2

April 7, 2014

quote-i-disapprove-of-what-you-say-but-will-defend-to-the-death-your-right-to-say-it-voltaire-334856

I once wrote a post in defense of political correctness.  In it I argued that the phrase “political correctness” was used by people who wanted to immunize themselves from criticism for saying things that were insulting, vulgar and bigoted.   I am politically correct in that sense.  I believe in treating people with courtesy and respect, and part of that is avoiding language they consider insulting

I think there are certain opinions of which I have a moral obligation not to allow to go uncontradicted.

I think there is such a thing as “murder language” — epithets used by Cossacks conducting pogroms against Jews, by lynch mobs stringing up black people, by homophobes who beat gay people to death — and I don’t think such language is socially acceptable

But these considerations don’t apply in the resignation of Brendan Eich, the Mozilla CEO who was unmasked as having contributed to supporters of Proposition 8, the California referendum against gay marriage, and who refused to back down from his belief that marriage is only between men and women. 

I haven’t heard any allegation that he was unfair to gay employees of Mozilla.  In fact, nobody would have known about his opinions if somebody hadn’t taken the trouble to dig it out.

I am a paleo-liberal, who came of age during the Joe McCarthy period, and I see a parallel between what happened to Brenden Eich and the blacklisting of the great Hollywood scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo for his support of Communist causes.  

Of course Eich is in a better position to retire on his millions than Trumbo had of earning a living when he was banned from working in Hollywood.  On the other hand I think Trumbo’s illusions about the Soviet Union were a much more serious mistake (to put it mildly) than Eich’s failure to keep up with received opinion about gay rights.

One thing they have in common is that they are being punished not just for their past political record, but for refusing to back down from their convictions.   Both Eich and Trumbo could have saved their careers if they had recanted, even if nobody believed their recantation was sincere.

Proposition 8 was supported by a majority of Californians.  That is a lot of people to declare ineligible for executive positions in high tech companies in Silicon Valley. 

At the time Proposition 8 was on the ballot, Barack Obama declared his belief that marriage was only between a man and a woman.  I don’t recall anybody who thought this made him ineligible for public office.  (more…)

Political correctness and repressive tolerance

April 4, 2014

cakvin&hobbes

I’ve long thought that “political correctness” was a minor problem, mainly affecting English departments in liberal arts colleges rather than the general public.  Evidently not.

http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/if-brendan-eich-isnt-safe/

The inventor of JavaScript has resigned as CEO of his Silicon Valley company because of protests about him donating money to an anti-gay marriage group.

The interesting thing for me about the above article by the self-identified conservative Rod Dreher is that I can remember when his view would have represented the extreme civil libertarian position.

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/04/mozillas-gay-marriage-litmus-test-violates-liberal-values/360156/

All this is a reminder that “liberal” and “left,” while they may overlap, don’t mean the same thing.

http://fredrikdeboer.com/2014/03/24/is-the-social-justice-left-really-abandoning-free-speech/

The liberal position is, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

http://www.thenation.com/blog/179160/cancelcolbert-and-return-anti-liberal-left#

Okay, there are worse things. 

http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2014/04/in-us-democracy-is-now-sham.html

But, as my mother frequently said to me when I was a child, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Competition: its benefits and its pitfalls

January 7, 2014

four-arenas-competition1Science fiction writer David Brin wrote recently society works best when there is competition—competition in the marketplace to make the best products at the lowest price, competition in elections to see which politician can best serve the aims of the public, competition between scientists to make new discoveries and argue for new theories, and competition between lawyers to make sure all sides of a case get a fair hearing.

That is a great ideal.  The problem is to make it work as intended.

A society such as he describes is something new in history.  Most complex civilizations in history were organized from the top down—with government monopolies, hereditary monarchs, religion (or political) dogma and no such thing as impartial law.

Jonathan Rauch in his 1992 book, The Outnation: A Search for the Soul of Modern Japan, noted the contrast between the USA and hierarchical Japan:

It was [John] Locke, followed by Adam Smith and others, who first built the theory of liberal social mechanisms – public processes, like voting or trading or performing experiments, in which no one gets special personal authority (no kings, no dictators, no high priests or oracles) and no one in particular gets to control the outcome.  In the liberal scheme of things, no matter who you are, your vote is just a vote, your dollar is just a dollar, and your experiment had better work when anyone else tries it.  Moreover, there is no last election, last trade, or last hypothesis.  America is John Locke’s country.

The problem is how to create the conditions in which competition works for the benefit of society.  As Brin noted, the kind of competition he described can take place only within a legal governmental framework that gives protection against fraud and force.  To say that rules and regulations are incompatible with the free market is the same as saying that referees are incompatible with basketball.

Rules and regulations do not work unless a majority are willing to obey them.  Unenforceable laws are not merely useless, they are harmful.   Laws are no substitute for a basic ethic of honesty and fair play.

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More diversity, less equality: why the tradeoff?

May 24, 2013

During the past 30 or 40 years ago, the United States has come closer than ever before to equal opportunity, not only for African-Americans and women, but also GLBT folks and the physically handicapped.

At the same time a huge gap has developed between a tiny elite, who gather a greater share of American wealth and income year by year, and the vast majority of Americans, who are either falling behind or struggling as hard as they can to keep even.

Samuel Goldman, writing in The American Conservative recently, said this is no paradox.  He wrote that the tradeoff between diversity and equality is a result of a tacit grand bargain between the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s and corporate America.

inequality… The stories of greater social equality and economic inequality are far from “unrelated”.  Rather, social inclusion has been used to legitimize economic inequality by means of familiar arguments about meritocracy.   According to this view, it’s fine that the road from Harvard Yard to Wall Street is paved with gold, so long a few representatives of every religion, color, and sexual permutation manage to complete the journey.  Superficial diversity at the top thus provides an moral alibi for the gap between the one percent and the rest.

via The Spiritual Crisis of the Bourgeois Bohemians.

Rod Dreher, also writing in The American Conservative, put it this way.

economic_inequalityFrom a contemporary progressivist point of view, non-rich social conservatives who vote Republican do so out of false consciousness, or mindless bigotry.  But how many liberals would vote for a politician who proposed to stick it to the banks and the oligarchs, and who endorsed a broadly progressive economic agenda, but who openly opposed gay marriage and abortion, and endorsed religious piety?  (Basically, your pre-1970s Catholic Democrat).  Very few, I would imagine.

The culture war is in some ways class war by another name. Whenever you see some middle or upper class person gabbing on about the importance of diversity, you shouldn’t expect that they mean actual diversity — because then they would be eager to include, say, white working-class Republican Pentecostals — but rather diversity as what Goldman calls a “moral alibi,” which entails one’s ability to conceal one’s own real motivations from oneself.

via Culture (War) Is Everything.

I think there is a lot of truth in this, and it explains a lot.

It explains how Silicon Valley billionaires can avoid taxes, export jobs to some low-wage Third World country and shrug off the problems of middle-class and working-class Americans, and still be considered liberals and good friends of President Obama.

And it explains how President Obama can still be considered a liberal as he tries to undermine Social Security, attack teachers unions and negotiate trade treaties that lock in the corporate agenda.

When I worked for Gannett, CEO Al Neuharth ostentatiously promoted the advancement of African-Americans, women and gay people, which made him bullet-proof against criticism for offering sub-standard pay and benefits and crushing labor unions.

Our “diversity training” sessions always seemed to me to be part of a policy of divide-and-rule. I remember that at one session, a gay white man got up and said that gays, African-Americans and women in the newsroom should unite against the straight white men—not a view that would improve morale or teamwork.   He was not rebuked, and was later promoted.

The tipoff as to management’s aims was in the fact that they refused to agree to a clause in the union contract calling for non-discrimination based on sexual orientation.  The company wanted GLBT people, as well as African-Americans and women, to look to management, not to fellow workers, for their rights.

Of course acceptance of diversity is a good thing, not a bad thing.  It is a good thing that Ursula Burns, a black woman, can become CEO of Xerox, but not everybody can be a CEO or wants to be one.   Some people are content with an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, and what’s wrong with that?

Nor is there any logical reason why diversity and equality should be tradeoffs.  The U.S. labor union movement has long ceased to be a movement primarily of native-born white men.   Trade unions recognize that they can’t win unless they stand together, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or anything else.

§§§

[AFTERTHOUGHT 5/25/13]

As I see it, one link between social liberalism and economic inequality is a widespread meme that sees society as an arena of competition and social justice as a guarantee of fair rules and a level playing field.

If you see society in this way, rather than as a means for people to co-operate for mutual benefit, then justice demands that you do your best to assure equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, physical handicap or anything else that isn’t under control of the individual.   But these meme does not give the wealthy any obligation toward the non-wealthy.  It would be like demanding that the winner of a high-stakes poker game return some of his winnings to the loser.

 

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A pragmatic case for voting for Obama

September 10, 2012

Click to enlarge.

Click on Ted Rall’s Rallblog for more cartoons.

Hat tip to AZspot.

Is Obama really the lesser of two evils?

July 26, 2012

Many liberals who are dissatisfied with Barack Obama intend to vote for him anyway because they think Mitt Romney is worse.  But is President Obama really the lesser of the two evils?

Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are committed to tearing up the Bill of Rights in the name of the so-called war on terror.  Both are aligned with Wall Street financiers, and to continued war overseas.  On the other hand, Obama is less extreme than Romney, probably will make better (or less bad) Supreme Court appointments and make be better on social-cultural questions that don’t threaten the wealthy and the powerful.  But none of these things make him the lesser evil.

What the Obama administration has done, which the Bush administration did not do and the Romney administration probably would not be able to do, is to destroy the liberal opposition.  Democrats in Congress defended Social Security against President Bush; they have not defended it against President Obama.  They questioned President Bush’s claim of authority to imprison and torture people on his personal say-so; they have not questioned President Obama’s claim to kill people on his personal say-so.  If President Romney started a war with Iran, I’d expect a certain number of Democrats to oppose him; if President Obama did the same thing, not so much.

Republicans in Congress have been justly criticized for partisan obstructionism, but on issues of civil liberties, waging war and protecting financiers, there is a remarkable bipartisan consensus.  I would have thought Republicans would oppose President Obama’s assertion of unilateral power to commit acts of war, target people for killing and cloak his actions in secrecy, but on these issues they are at one with the Democrats.

I expect to vote either for Jill Stein, the candidate of the Green Party, or for ex-Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico, the candidate of the Libertarian Party.  It doesn’t really matter, since it is a foregone conclusion that President Obama will carry New York, but I would not vote for Obama or Romney even if New York were a battleground state.

Click on Obama May Not Even Be the Lesser Evil for a good article by Andrew Levine in Counterpunch which makes this point.

What liberalism ought to be

February 17, 2012


Fundamentally liberalism is an attitude.  The chief characteristics of that attitude are human sympathy, a receptivity to change and a scientific willingness to follow reason rather than faith or any fixed ideas.
    ==Chester Bowles

***

This, perhaps, is the testament of Liberalism.  For underlying all the specific projects which men espouse who think of themselves as Liberals there is always, it seems to me, a deeper concern.  It is fixed upon the importance of remaining free in mind and action before changing circumstances.
This is why Liberalism has always been associated with a passionate interest in freedom of thought and freedom of speech, in scientific research, in experiment, in the liberty of teaching, in an independent and unbiased press, in the right of men to differ in their opinions and to be different in their conduct …
    ==Walter Lippmann

***
The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.  This is the way opinions are held in science, as opposed to the way they are held in theology.
    ==Bertrand Russell

***

What do I understand by the Liberal principle?  I understand, in the main, it is a principle of trust in the people only qualified by prudence.  By this principle which is opposed to the Liberal principle, I understand mistrust of the people, only qualified by fear.
    ==William E. Gladstone

Looking back on the Progressive Era

February 10, 2012

I first read RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY: A History of Modern American Reform by Eric Goldman when I was in college in the 1950s.  It is a history of American progressivism and liberalism from Grant to Truman.  Its pivot is the Progressive Era, 1890-1920.  I reread it a couple of weeks ago to see if it held any lessons for today.

The issues of the Progressive Era – corporate monopoly, Wall Street’s power, corruption, global trade, immigration, racial and religious prejudice, the gap between the haves and the have-nots – are still with us today, and our thinking on these issues has not gotten far beyond the ideas of the Progressive Era.

Goldman focused on the ideas of middle-class reformers and college-educated intellectuals, rather than insurgent farmers and industrial workers, which I think is justified, because few social reforms have ever been accomplished in the United States without the support of the middle class.

He did not attempt to define progressivism and liberalism, words which represented different things in different eras.  If there are any common threads at all in progressivism, they are sympathy for the underdog, opposition to the power of big business and a desire to improve rather than replace American capitalism and democracy.  Communism, anarchist and other radical ideologies are outside the scope of Goldman’s book.

At the dawn of the Progressive Era, the big banks, railroads and industrial corporations largely controlled government in their own interest.  Corruption was rampant; bribery was common.  What was even more powerful than money was what Goldman called “the steel chain of ideas.”  It was commonly accepted that regulation of economic activity was (1) unconstitutional, (2) contrary to the laws of economics, (3) contrary to Darwin’s principle of survival of the fittest and (4) contrary to God’s law—all arguments that are still made today.

Goldman devoted several chapters to reform interpretations of law, economics, Darwinism and the social gospel.  The common thread was the pragmatic philosophy that there is more than one way of looking at any thing, and you should choose the one that works best for the benefit of all.  John Dewey was the great exponent of this way of thinking.  The problem with this way of thinking, as Goldman pointed out, is that a pragmatist has to make a separate decision in each situation because on the circumstances of the particular case.   Pragmatism is not founded on a rock.  It is hard for pragmatists to stand up to absolutists.

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A blast from the past

August 3, 2011

Listen to this 1936 re-election speech by President Roosevelt to get an idea of what a liberal President sounded like 75 years ago.

President Roosevelt won re-election by a landslide, with 61 percent of the popular vote, carrying every state except Maine and Vermont.  Today the Washington press corps and political establishment would consider somebody who used language like this a member of the lunatic fringe.

Click on Speech at Madison Square Garden on October 31, 1936 for the complete audio and transcript of President Roosevelt’s speech.

Soul brothers: Carter, Clinton, Obama

September 15, 2010

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were white men who were Governors of Southern states.  President Barack Obama is a black man who was a Senator from a Midwestern state.  Yet in their politics and policies, they are more alike than they are different.

All three ran for office as outsiders.  They had little or no experience on the national scene, but they turned that liability into an asset.  They said they would break with politics as usual in Washington, and bring about a new era.  Once in office, they claimed to transcend partisanship, and to have got beyond traditional liberal vs. conservative thinking.

In fact, none of them represented a break with the past.  They filled their Cabinets from the ranks of the Washington establishment.  They weren’t exactly failures.  They all had certain accomplishments.  But neither Carter nor Clinton was a transformative President in the way that Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were, and I expect the same will be true of Obama.

Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama have been outstanding in their intellectual mastery of the details of policy and government – much more so than Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush.  But Reagan and Bush knew something more important.  They knew their own minds.  They had guiding philosophies which informed their judgments and the judgments of their superiors.

Carter and Clinton were pragmatists, as is Obama. They rejected “ideology.”  Their aim, like Obama’s, was to support whatever produced the best results.  But in practice, they seemed to flounder.  In contrast to the Reagan and Bush administrations, their administrations lacked direction.  Pragmatism was un-pragmatic.  It didn’t work.

Reagan and Bush met the “elevator speech” test; you could state their principles to somebody on an elevator before the person got off at the next floor.  Their basic principle was that government was evil and its activities should be minimized, except in regard to national security and preserving order, in which case its powers should be absolute.  I don’t agree with this philosophy, but it is understandable.  I could not give an elevator speech explaining Carter’s philosophy, nor Clinton’s, nor Obama’s.

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