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9/17/2004

Liberalism

Paperwight (of Fairshot) has two great posts on "post-reason" politics, or the devolution of politics from a fact-centered practice to a sentimental, or heuristic driven, enterprise.

His "central insights" into the Atwater/Rove brand of politics:

  1. Act as if there are no facts. There are simply things that people say or believe, and other things that other people say or believe.
  2. Act as if there is no causation. There are simply things that people do and other things that happen. There is no connection. [Fair Shot 9/9/04]
He is on firm ground here. Atwater/Rove political strategy focuses on branding political entities, without regard for factuality or reality, merely the power of disembodied argument. Atwater/Rove doesn't even bother to employ facts in its branding exercises when they are an option - use of fact allows refutation, which muddies the message.

Paperwight is on much less firm ground with his explanation for the rise of Atwater/Rove politics. He claims that the process of Enlightenment has faltered, and the world has gotten so complex that some people are reverting to superstition to simplify their relationship to external reality. There are a lot of complex assumptions underlying this argument, but it's not really necessary to go into them. I basically have one major critique. I'd go further than Mixing Memory, to claim that the Enlightenment neither did away with heuristics nor was contrary to interpretive rules at any important level. The Enlightenment, to the extent that it can be defined at all, includes in its core the idea of meta-heuristics, or ways to differentiate between "good" and "bad" rules, usually focusing on their instrumental value, but occasionally adopting some other standard. One could easily claim that the Rove/Atwater political strategy with its attendant regimes (Paperwight calls it the "campaignistration," which I think I'll steal) challenges those meta-heuristics, but that is not necessarily an anti-Enlightenment venture.

It's easy to criticize an argument though, if one doesn't bother to offer an alternative explanation. I don't want to just snipe, so I'll set out the beginning of my alternative, and see if I get a reaction.

Rather than being anti-Enlightenment, Atwater/Rove politics is ilLiberal (note the capital "L," which I'll use to signify political Liberalism as opposed to American left/liberalism). Political Liberalism is something I'm usually fond of – only in my more despondent periods do I embrace a more radical democratic or progressive vision, end even then I usually fudge the distinctions. At its core are three assumptions, three commitments that are essential to a functioning Liberal society:
  1. Commitment to deep pluralism. This doesn't just mean recognizing that diversity is pretty and should be embraced. It entails not just an acceptance of deep divisions within society, but a positive belief that those divisions usually make an ongoing enterprise stronger. This is the deep pluralism of John Rawls, Raymond Aron, and Isaiah Berlin, not the weak pluralism of the Republican National Convention.

  2. Epistemic humility. For a society to be liberal, people have to concede that there is no such thing as 100% certainty on any particular political issue, and that there is always a chance, however small, that alternative positions are superior. There is an important corollary to this humility: people should assume that those they disagree with are operating in good faith, and that courtesy should be returned in kind – i.e., people should extend a rebuttable presumption to those with whom they disagree that they are operating out of sincerely held beliefs.

  3. Respect for Rules. Pluralistic conflicts are to be mediated by pre-existing rules and institutions. Those institutions should not change to prefer a particular political situation without significant public engagement (periods of heightened democratic consciousness). People compete under these rules through pre-delineated avenues, the most important of which is communication and persuasion. When a situation is resolved, the result is presumptively fair, though still open to contestation through rule-defined political practices (i.e., going to the courts, normal political practices, etc.).
"Liberalism" defined this way is in no way neutral or impartial. It favors a certain mentality, and requires as the price of admission substantive assumptions, notably a form of tolerance. This requirement can be a heavy burden, and many people bear it only reluctantly. That people bear it at all is a testament to the strength of an American norm in favor of deep pluralism, a norm that is still fairly vital today.

Just not as vital as it once was. It's not even that the specific Liberal norms (that people we disagree with are basically decent and have a right to their say and even their occasional political success) are weakening – I suspect they were never as strong as I like to believe. It is that the meta-norm that holds politicians and political elites to those standards is weakening. The process began in certain quarters (the Whittaker Chambers branch) of the right during the Cold War, with the conflation of all forms of liberalism with Communism and Totalitarianism. It has only accelerated with the demise of Communism and the attendant loss of a coherent ideological "other." We are now at a point where it is a sign of pride, an electoral selling point, that a candidate thinks his or her opponent is evil and must be destroyed. I like to imagine that there was a time, and perhaps it was only among political elites, where people wouldn't support a candidate, even if that candidate ascribed to their political positions down the line, if that candidate spit on Liberalism.

Obviously, that norm is gone. Since Clinton's election in 1992, conservatives have rejected deep pluralism, increasingly defining the left as un-American and unacceptable, Totalitarianism in sheep's clothing. People like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly regularly accuse prominent liberals of being Nazis or Satan ("Diablo"). Liberals are on Saddam's side, or on bin Laden's side, or fifth columnists – they won't defend the country. Rather than recognizing that political dispute can result in stronger policy and a better country, dissent is an obstacle to progress.

The conservative embrace of "moral clarity" is in fact a profound repudiation of political Liberalism. The epistemic humility that is at the base of interaction between fundamentally conflicting reasonable worldviews has been tossed out the window, to leave nothing but moral Manichaeism and judgment day. We are moral, our opponents are not, there is no room for compromise (neither with OBL, nor with our political opponents), and that is the end of the conversation. Also gone is the "good faith" corollary. There are no efforts at persuasion, no operational assumption that liberals are also looking for effective ways to improve the country, merely insinuation that they are on the side of terrorists. This is where the strictly sentimental Atwater/Rove approach to politics rests its feet – on sub-rational methods to vilify and denigrate opponents.

The third axis of Liberalism is also, of course, under assault, but that isn't an essential feature of the Atwater/Rove school. It's more the Delay/Starr school. The impeachment, the 2000 election, redistricting, it's all part of an assault on the procedures that had served as a fairly neutral playing field. Even attacks on the media, science, agency rulemaking, and the judiciary are deeply antithetical to the Liberal idea of neutral institutions. Conservatives really took the "personal is political" idea to heart.

The illness of the overarching meta-norm is not a small matter. It is the only bulwark preventing healthy liberalism from devolving into Schmittian decisionism. And it is fragile. There are strong incentives for political actors to break the norm for immediate political advantage. When you are willing to accuse your opponent of being evil, of acting in bad faith to advance a nefarious agenda, you have a relieved yourself of the tedium of authentic persuasion. When this practice becomes widespread, a defensive abandonment of Liberal norms is almost inevitable, lest the opposing illiberal position win. Even the accusation that an opponent has abandoned Liberalism is at some level an illiberal accusation, as it imputes bad faith and a degree of illegitimacy to one's opponent. Liberalism is fragile, and must be constantly watered (though hopefully not with blood).

Conservatives might not disagree with the theoretical framework I've laid out here. They would merely accuse Democrats or liberals of disavowing Liberalism first. I realize that persuading them otherwise is almost certainly futile – all I can say is read Tom Daschle's Like No Other Time - the Democratic Senate Minority Leader still hasn't realized we are playing a post-Liberal game. Ted Kennedy was willing to impute good faith to Bush on Leave No Child Behind and Medicare, John Kerry on the war authorization. In contrast, no Republican supported Clinton's health care reform or first tax package. Paul Krugman's The Great Unraveling lays out the case against the GOP. Liberals (small "l") that haven't realized the nature of the game, and continue to operate under Liberal assumptions, like to kick the awakened liberals while they're down – all the while walking onto the football field with their badminton rackets. Even liberals that now think Bush is a horrible President think they are "honest critics" while clued in people (read: Atrios) are merely shrill. Mickey Kaus, Richard Cohen, most of the New Republic - anachronistic relics that spit on those fighting today's fight.

It would be great if it were some other way. Liberals (small "l") have been exceedingly reluctant to give up our fidelity to Liberalism – that's why John Kerry is still out talking about issues and policies, rather than working on a comprehensive strategy for branding Bush. I don't see a resting point though, a point where we can take a look at the bigger picture and say "I don't like where this is going," and undertake an effort to breathe life back into the Liberal meta-norm. There is simply too much incentive to cheat and too little hope for political success by unilaterally abiding by the rules. Certainly, if Bush wins, there's no reason to believe we'll ever have a chance to look back. The man doesn't have a Liberal bone in his body, wouldn't recognize it if it hit him in the face.

Not sure if this qualifies as a rant or not – it is more just a look at some of the theoretical conflicts I regularly struggle with. As we develop our left counter-institutions, I actually do have hope that we can structure things in such a way that Liberalism isn't left in the dust. Unfortunately, it's a theoretical project beyond my scope.

 

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