Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Liberals and the Left

by Joe Miller

At the TPMCafe Bookclub, Todd Gitlin is blogging about his new book, The Intellectuals and the Flag. It seems that Gitlin's basic premise is that, post 9/11, "intellectually as well as politically, it felt to me that the left was disarmed." Indeed, Gitlin goes on to criticize in the second part of the book several "incapacitating trends in the academic left." Gitlin goes on to suggest rather pointedly:
Suppose that intellectuals of the left were thinking more clearly about the American nation as (a) a whole and (b) a work in progress? Suppose that ideas about actual American potential proved more appealing on the putatively left-wing campus than sticking up, in code and despair (albeit with flourishes), for all kinds of exotic indeterminacies, theological neo-Marxisms, and third-worldist romantic fancies?
In his discussion of Gitlin's post, Michael Tomasky argues for a distinction between the left (which he claims dominates academia) and liberals, claiming that
the dividing line[between liberals and the left], I think, hasn’t to do with ideology, but something more innately human: faith. Not religious faith. Faith in America and its potential to do good; and faith that we can build a civic sphere in which engagement and deliberation lead to good and rational outcomes. The left doesn’t have it, for the most part (there are some exceptions). But liberals uniformly must.
I couldn't agree more.

I've been trying for a while now to articulate the distinction between liberals and leftists. I know that there are all sorts of trends on my side of the political spectrum that I find quite distasteful. Multiculturalism. Relativism. Marxism (and its bastard post-isms spawn: postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism and deconstructionism. Yes, I know the last one isn't a 'post-ism'. I think that it deserves (dis)honorable mention here, though.) It's these sorts of ideologies that spawn the blame-the-U.S.-for-everything mentality that pervades the academy. I, for one, get tired of the assumption that my Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker means that I must agree with the latest Limbaugh/Hannity/O'Reilly librul bogeyman. Liberals end up, in the popular mindset, being equated with every leftist loon out there.

I'm not sure that I would go as far as Gitlin is tying a more optimistic worldview to patriotism per se. It's not that I have any real objection to loving my country; I do in fact prefer living in the U.S. to living elsewhere. Okay, I've a real weakness for the UK. But let's face it; the UK these days is Boston crossed with Savannah. And older buildings. I digress. No, my objection is not that I think people ought not love their country. Overt displays of emotion for pretty much anything make me uncomfortable, so I cringe a bit at people crying during the playing of the national anthem at the Olympics. That's not a critique of the overt patriotism so much as it is my own personal hang-up about open displays of emotion.

My worry about patriotism lies more in the ease with which patriots are sometimes (willfully) blind to the faults of their governments. Gitlin quotes Mark Twain approvingly: "Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it." The problem, however, is that those who support their country strongly often come to conflate their country with their government. Twain's remark is a long way from, "My country, right or wrong," but the slope between those two positions is slippery.

I would argue that what is needed is a compromise between the kind of unquestioning patriotism that has led some on the right to embrace torture just as long as the government tells us that it's necessary and the knee-jerk anti-Americanism that does seem to pervade college campuses. We should take pride in living in the wealthiest and (arguably) most free nation in the history of our species. But we must also be aware that "Hey, we're better than anyone else" isn't an untrumpable defense against all criticisms. There are some areas in which the U.S. could be doing better than it is (e.g. more emphasis on effective family planning of the sort that makes abortions less common, full legal recognition for same-sex couples, better access to health care for the poorest among us--hey, we're rich enough that we can afford to sacrifice some efficiency here). But there are nevertheless a whole host of areas in which we are doing things quite well, often orders of magnitude better than other nations manage. Where things are going well, we should say so.

This doesn't seem that much to ask from academics. One of the first lessons that I learned as a brand new teaching assistant back at Virginia Tech was to be sure that at least some of the comments that I put on essays should say something positive. It's easy to point out flaws, but pointing out only the flaws and leaving nothing but critical comments in a sea of red ink usually results in students who simply stop reading the comments. Those of us who take our teaching seriously try to remember that basic truth (though it's sometimes hard to do). We academics ought not forget that the same principle applies when we adopt our role as public intellectuals. All criticism all the time will result in a public that just stops paying attention.


Blogger Matt McIntosh said...

I think a good philosophical litmus test of "liberal vs. leftist" might be to ask them what their opinion of Adam Smith is. Guys like you and Brad DeLong and Matt Yglesias would probably have positive things to say about him, but a leftist is practically ideologically bound not to.

11:20 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...


Yeah, that's probably a pretty good test. It's odd, too, that capitalism has come to be associated so strongly with conservatives when it's profoundly not at all conservative. (Several commentors at TPMCafe have made this same point.) Capitalism tends very much to disrupt the status quo. Indeed, the Liberal Party in the UK was filled with progressives who were also among the loudest advocates for capitalism (J.S. Mill was elected as a Liberal MP in 1865, for example). Conservatives were mainly mercantilists or aristocratic landowners. The shift over the past 150 years is quite odd.

11:47 PM  
Blogger Andrew Perraut said...

150 years ago? Probably not a coincidence that things changed right after the publishing of The Communist Manifesto and socialists successfully co-opted the popular descriptor "liberal."

1:18 AM  
Blogger Matt McIntosh said...

I was gonna say, but Andrew kinda beat me to it... there's nothing odd about it Joe. When people calling themselves liberals start becoming democratic socialists, the free marketers have little choice but to end up "conservatives".

2:53 AM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

Andrew and Matt,
Poor choice of words on my part. It's not that I find it odd that, given how history in fact played out, liberals are opposed to the market, leaving the label "conservative" for the marketists. Rather, what I find odd is that liberals at some point decided that markets aren't consistent with liberalism.

It's still odd to me that anyone who is a genuine conservative (i.e., not just adopting the label because it was the only one left) would sign on to capitalism. It's hard to see how capitalism is all that consistent with things like the traditional community or the nuclear family. Indeed, as Matt rightly points out in Catallarchy post, a real commitment to capitalism would seem also to commit one to cosmopolitanism. That's not a particularly conservative position. It is, theoretically, a good liberal one though.

8:53 AM  
Blogger Ocham said...

It's hard to see how capitalism is all that consistent with things like the traditional community or the nuclear family.

It's also hard to see why it's inconsistent. But presumably you had some positive reason in mind?

9:21 AM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I really need to sit down and re-read Smith. Over time, possibly due to reasons you have basically outlined here, I have fallen into the mindset of 'modern capitalism == mercantilism == corporatism.'

Perhaps that is why I'm always that 'single leap' away (as I often say in class) from agreeing with your position. I can see the point and why it is good, however, it is tainted by the conception of modern capitalism as I pointed out above.

I still say that total laissez faire does nothing more than obliterate morality. Hayek was fearful that any planning at all would lead down 'the road to serfdom.' I, on the other hand, think that without at least a little planning (read a few restrictions), that the market will eventually lead to things like, say, the company store. Look at it like this: if all businesses were to start refusing to hire employees that may end up costing the company more money (read: blacks, since they appear to contract AIDS at a rate higher than other races; hence, higher insurance rates for the company) they would be free to do so in a totally free market. They would succeed over a company that did not have this internal hiring restriction, due to having more capital free to spend on other endeavors. Now, consider how dangerous it is to commute. Why should my company bother with hiring people who commute to work when they have a higher risk of dying versus people that I could have living right here, on a 'corporate campus?' I suppose one could see where I'm going with this.

BTW, this sort of thing is already happening. http://www.detnews.com/2005/business/0501/27/A01-71823.htm Slippery slope or not, I'm not too thrilled about where this appears to be going. Keep in mind that it is bullshit behavior like this that gets more regulation and government intervention slapped on companies.

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...


Sorry, forgot that blogger isn't smart enough to auto-anchor an URL.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

I suppose that what I had in mind was a set of objections that are typically taken to be liberal objections but which strike me as far more conservative. Consider: capitalism means that companies act in such a way as to maximize profits. It doesn't take long to discover that there are tremendous economic benefits to scale. If I can buy huge quantites directly from manufacturers, I can often negotiate lower prices. Thus Wal-Mart is born. Consumers flock to Wal-Mart because (a) prices are lower, and (b) you can get all sorts of stuff all in one spot. Of course, Wal-Marts are big, so they have to be built on the outskirts of town. People have to drive to them. And once you get large numbers of people already driving out to Wal-Mart, well, then it starts to make sense to put some other stores around Wal-Mart--maybe some places that specialize in areas that Wal-Mart doesn't cover extensively. Again, economies of scale dictate that bigger is (frequently) cheaper, so we get a Home Depot, and Barnes and Noble, and a Best Buy. Before you know it, you've got strip malls all over the outskirts of town while downtowns become deserted.

In the meantime, with that extra money we're saving on consumer goods, we can now afford a fourth bedroom and a bit of yard, and since we've got all those roads out there anyway, we might as well move to the bigger house just outside of town. Soon we're off in the suburbs, living among people we don't really know all that well (because we all work in different places and commute in every day and because we all drive to different places to shop). We stay home to watch our (cheap) plasma tv, especially now that the downtown bowling alley has closed (inevitable once the mom and pop businesses all collapsed in the face of competition and the residents moved to bigger houses in the 'burbs). Before you know it, we're a bunch of atomists with very little in the way of deep roots in our community.

I don't offer any of this as criticism. I happen to like Barnes & Noble and Best Buy and I commute to my job. But the capitalism that gives rise to cheap books and suburbs also pushes us in the direction of individualism rather than in the direction of communitarianism. Focusing more on individuals and less on communities moves us toward cosmopolitanism, again more associated with liberalism than with conservativism.

3:46 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

I think this analysis might make generalizations that are a bit too sweeping. Certainly there are those on the left who advocate greater state control, deprioritization of business freedom, obnoxious anti-americanism, etc. However, you must look at it from the perspective of the other side as well. Having a Kerry/Edwards sticker may not make you a Molotov cocktail throwing Black Bloc'er, but it doesn't exactly imply a sufficient resistance to the status quo in the sense that Kerry and Edwards were not against the Iraq war, mercantilist trade policies, expansion of gov't authority, etc. Those stances matter to people, even if certain liberals can live with the contradictions.

I don't really have a problem with an explicit distinction between the left and liberals (though I don't think it's as clean as you appear to). However, if you want concretize that distinction, then it would be ideal to postively demonstrate what liberalism is - and not just in theory but in the real world. It should no more be soley defined by opposition to conservativism anymore than leftism should be defined soley by opposition to liberalism. The current left is largely a reaction to status quo liberal politics more than a reaction to right wing politics. Bringing the two together is more than just getting the left to behave, and when you dismiss the movement in such a way you jettison a lot of powerful thinkers whose primary difference with you is the inability to juggle the cognitive dissonance of doing the same thing and expecting different outcomes.

In the context of the topics you discuss, therefore, I think it makes more sense to talk about radicalism vs. incrementalism. The left you're describing seeks a more "in your face" approach to reform, while the liberals you describe seek more gradual change within the system. There is both a theoretical and strategic distinction there that informs the differences you point out. Both sides have advantages and drawbacks, and indeed both sides may have different goals from time to time. I'm just saying that if you're going to fault the left for their rhetoric, you should fault the "liberals" for theirs as well. It's my opinion that neither group is served by the image they project, and that is the real problem with realizing left/liberal goals. I'm all for uniting behind those goals, but until liberals can be a little more left and vice versa, established interests are not likely to be successfully defeated - or even convinced to compromise.

In other words, I utterly reject the premise that the left is f__king it all up for the Democrats.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

A friend sent this to me. Thought it was funny:
1. You have to be against capital punishment, but support abortion on demand
2. You have to believe that businesses create oppression and governments create prosperity.
3. You have to believe that guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens are more of a threat than U.S. nuclear weapons technology in the hands of Chinese and North Korean communists.
4. You have to believe that there was no art before federal funding.
5. You have to believe that global temperatures are less affected by cyclical changes in the earth's climate and more affected by soccer moms driving SUVs.
6. You have to believe that gender roles are artificial, but being homosexual is natural.
7. You have to believe that the AIDS virus is spread by a lack of federal funding.
8. You have to believe that the same teacher who can't teach 4th- graders how to read is somehow qualified to teach those same kids about sex.
9. You have to believe that hunters don't care about nature, but PETA activists do.
10. You have to believe that self-esteem is more important than actually doing something to earn it.
11. You have to believe that Mel Gibson spent $25 million of his own money to make "The Passion of the Christ" for financial gain only.
12. You have to believe the NRA is bad because it supports certain parts of the Constitution, while the ACLU is good because it supports certain parts of the Constitution.
13. You have to believe that taxes are too low, but ATM fees are too high.
14. You have to believe that Margaret Sanger and Gloria Steinem are more important to American history than Thomas Jefferson, Gen. Robert E. Lee, and Thomas Edison.
15. You have to believe that standardized tests are racist, but racial quotas and set-asides are not.
16. You have to believe that the only reason socialism hasn't worked anywhere it's been tried is because the right people haven't been in charge.
17. You have to believe that homosexual parades displaying drag queens and transvestites should be constitutionally protected, and manger scenes at Christmas should be illegal.
18. You have to believe that this message is a part of a vast, right- wing conspiracy.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Charles Johnson (Rad Geek) said...

Jeremy: "Certainly there are those on the left who advocate greater state control, deprioritization of business freedom, obnoxious anti-americanism, etc. However, you must look at it from the perspective of the other side as well. Having a Kerry/Edwards sticker may not make you a Molotov cocktail throwing Black Bloc'er ..."

Just so we're clear, whatever you think of the Black Bloc, they do not "advocate greater state control." Black Blocs are an anarchist protest formation. They favor the abolition of the State as such. If you think that being of the Left, or the radical Left, ipso facto equates to greater state interventionism, then you need to think harder about the variety of people who come under the Leftist banner.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

Just so we're clear, whatever you think of the Black Bloc, they do not "advocate greater state control."

Uhh... that's not what I was implying at all. Either you misread or my statement was too convoluted (entirely possible). I was rather contrasting the mainstream "Left" with the radical "Left", showing that there's an important distinction to be made.

Glad we could clear that up without casting aspersions on how thoughtful people are. :-\

11:00 PM  

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