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April 28, 2005

What We Stand For: Installment #1
Posted by Michael Signer

I'd like to keep on with the discussion of what progressives stand for, not just against.  Hat-tipping to a discussion by Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly asks the same question.  Like almost everyone, he ends up inconclusively:

So what do liberals need to fight back? Although no set of principles is going to cover every base, I'd argue that we need three or four backstops that underly a lot of the things we want to accomplish. But what?

So, to take up the gauntlet, here's one idea (for a few others, check out this great working paper titled, "The Values That Unite Democrats" by the Truman Project's Ganesh Sitamaran and Peter Buttigieg).  I'll tie this into foreign policy at the bottom, I promise:

In politics, progressives believe in probity for probity's sake.  They believe politics can be more honest, more thoughtful, more considerate, and more enlightened.  This is why we have a principled basis for disparaging the brutishness of conservatives like Tom DeLay and John Bolton and, before them, Newt Gingrich.

As I noted last week, the progressive stance in both the DeLay and Bolton affairs has been inspiring, in part because of our principled opposition to the basic conservative idea that, well, being a dick is not just OK in politics, but admirable.   

This makes sense.  Conservatives fundamentally believe realpolitik drives the world.  They see power as the basic fluid coursing through the body politic.  It's why Nixon was fundamentally a conservative and it's why George W. Bush so unembarrassedly embraces politics qua politics. 

Progressives are different.  While we might agree with the premise that realpolitik empirically underlies a lot of human history, we believe the jungle has to compete with the city.  Trust-busting, sunshine laws, basic corporate regulation, labor laws, and the New Deal were typically progressive.  The efforts against them were typically conservative. 

None of this means we're wimps.  There was a lot of discussion last year about Alan Wolfe's article in the Chronicle of Higher Education arguing that conservatives are tougher and more brutal than progressives.  Here's his nut graf:

Liberals think of politics as a means; conservatives as an end. Politics, for liberals, stops at the water's edge; for conservatives, politics never stops. Liberals think of conservatives as potential future allies; conservatives treat liberals as unworthy of recognition. Liberals believe that policies ought to be judged against an independent ideal such as human welfare or the greatest good for the greatest number; conservatives evaluate policies by whether they advance their conservative causes.

Then there was "Voting democracy off the island: reality TV and the republican ethos", an article by Francine Prose in Harper's last year, where she argued that reality TV's base lowest-common-denominator brutishness was "Republican."

Observant readers may already have noted that the guiding principles to which I've alluded flinty individualism, the vision of a zero-sum society in which no one can win unless someone else loses, the conviction that altruism and compassion are signs of folly and weakness, the exaltation of solitary striving above the illusory benefits of cooperative mutual aid, the belief that certain circumstances justify secrecy and deception, the invocation of a reviled common enemy to solidify group loyalty--are the exact same themes that underlie the rhetoric we have been hearing and continue to hear from the Republican Congress and our current administration.

Both of these arguments have major, fatal problems.  Prose's approach to Republicans is so fraidy-cat and caricatured (they're big and mean and gross) it comes perilously close to being silly.  And Wolfe confused being intellectually comfortable with toughness with being politically capable of it. 

We're not talking about parties or politicians here, we're talking about ideology.  The Kennedies routinely destroyed their political enemies.  RFK and LBJ were hardly cuddly with each other, and they were on the same side.  Bill Clinton was brutal toward those who threatened his political power.  Remember Lani Guinier? 

Progressives can be just as politically tough as conservatives, which may be our greatest strength.  FDR and JFK showed we're better at chewing gum and walking at the same time.  We can realpolitik while working toward a better world, because our philosophy is less hidebound, and more open-minded.

In the national security realm, as weirdly radical-liberal-Wilsonian as the neocon thread of Bush's post-9/11 foreign policy is, his foreign policy as a whole is still fundamentally conservative -- meaning the Administration is still more comfortable in bed nuzzling with the realpolitik ogre than seducing Lady Liberty.  Bush says he's for democracy everyplace, everywhere.  But when he's faced with hard choices in Russia -- where the Administration wrongly believes we have no real diplomatic or military leverage against Putin's regime -- he blinks, and goes with realpolitik.  And so it goes in Saudi Arabia, China, and Mexico, too. 

The real progressive, on the other hand, sincerely views democratization as an ideal in its own right.  Whether we're looking toward Jefferson or Jackson or, farther back, Kant, freedom and democracy fuse in our philosophy with peace and progress. 

This is why Bush's democratization platform is ultimately so insincere.  True, the neocons clearly believe in democratization.  They were originally liberals.  Their weird genetic hybrid of Ayn Rand-style conservatism and Kantian liberal ideas has created the chimera stumbling around in Iraq. 

But the people around Bush with real, continuous power (like Rumsfeld and Rice) tolerate Bush's neocon spasms like a parent whose red-headed stepchild has ADD.  They keep democratization in the basement. 

It's up to progressives to spring the door and free the kid.  We believe (or should believe) in democracy abroad because we hate the politics Delay, Bolton, and Gingrich practice here at home.  It's all connected.  We aspire to probity for probity's sake because we have a vision of politics as a place where we see the best of human nature, not the worst.

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Comments

--"True, the neocons clearly believe in democratization."--


I wish the people would provide some evidence for this. If you look at what the neocons said before the war, Perle, Feith, and Wurmser advocated bringing back the Hashemite monarchy. Kagan said that with our army in Iraq, we would suffer "no disruption in oil supplies," and Wolfowitz admitted that a major reason for the war was so that we could have bases in Iraq.

When Perle invited that lunatic Murawiec into the Pentagon to give a Powerpoint presentation, there was no mention of democracy, but plenty of talk about countries being tactical and strategic "pivots," and Egypt being the "prize." (Haaretz claimed that one of the slides at that presentation said: "Palestine is Israel, Jordan is Palestine, and Iraq is the Hashemite Kingdom.") The fact that a convicted embezzler like Chalabi was even mentioned as a possible candidate to lead Iraq shows how much the neocons care about democracy.

Even the supposed idealist, Wolfowitz, famously complained that the Turkish military hadn't intervened in the debate over whether to let American troops in to attack Iraq. His friend Wurmser said that Wolfowitz "believes very strongly that power can be used very effectively to create more power." That sounds like a goal even Kissinger could endorse.


"Idealism is the noble toga that political gentlemen drape over their will to power." -- Aldous Huxley

-

I don't think a general outlook of "we're moral and you're not" is going to work politically (in either the domestic or the international arena). Conservatives have their own version of this same argument and, for various historical reasons -- and some good philosophical reasons, I think -- their version often resonates more with the American public.

Here is a different model of political success: co-op some of what is right on the other side and steal a few of their political allies. "We're moral and all those neanderthals are, like, all *realpolitik*" -- I think that line is a real loser and rightly so. Even if you talk tough and advocate launching the occasional cruise missile at bad guys.

Philosophically, the right view is a bit different from what Michael implied. It is not just a matter of acknowledging pre-existing moral facts. It is more a matter of stressing that that most important thing in international affairs -- aside from the direct defense of national self-interest when this is all that is possible -- is achieving a more robust set of mutually-accepted and mutally-beneficial norms. In an important sense, it is about the "creation" of moral facts on an international scale from the "materials" of national self-interest and the requirements of achieving mutual and collective goods, given collective-action problems. Sometimes, working toward this will require thinking and acting strategically rather than morally; sometimes, absent sufficient moral consensus, strategic, competitive thinking and behavior is all that is available in defining and defending our national interests.

The right view is not: think and act morally but be tough. It is rather: think and act morally when possible, strategically when necessary, in order to achieve the wonderful and fair prize of international moral consensus (and thus better define and achieve our national interests).

I don't think a general outlook of "we're moral and you're not" is going to work politically (in either the domestic or the international arena). Conservatives have their own version of this same argument and, for various historical reasons -- and some good philosophical reasons, I think -- their version often resonates more with the American public.

Here is a different model of political success: co-op some of what is right on the other side and steal a few of their political allies. "We're moral and all those neanderthals are, like, all *realpolitik*" -- I think that line is a real loser and rightly so. Even if you talk tough and advocate launching the occasional cruise missile at bad guys.

Philosophically, the right view is a bit different from what Michael implied. It is not just a matter of acknowledging pre-existing moral facts. It is more a matter of stressing that that most important thing in international affairs -- aside from the direct defense of national self-interest when this is all that is possible -- is achieving a more robust set of mutually-accepted and mutally-beneficial norms. In an important sense, it is about the "creation" of moral facts on an international scale from the "materials" of national self-interest and the requirements of achieving mutual and collective goods, given collective-action problems. Sometimes, working toward this will require thinking and acting strategically rather than morally; sometimes, absent sufficient moral consensus, strategic, competitive thinking and behavior is all that is available in defining and defending our national interests.

The right view is not: think and act morally but be tough. It is rather: think and act morally when possible, strategically when necessary, in order to achieve the wonderful and fair prize of international moral consensus (and thus better define and achieve our national interests).

"But when he's faced with hard choices in Russia -- where the Administration wrongly believes we have no real diplomatic or military leverage against Putin's regime -- he blinks, and goes with realpolitik. And so it goes in Saudi Arabia, China, and Mexico, too."

Enough. What are you going to do about Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia? There's only so much democratization that the US can support here; at the end of the day, we'll deal with these regimes because we have to.

"The popular conception of Mr. Lincoln as one not seeking public honors (is) very wide of the mark. He was entirely human in this regard, but his desire for political preferment was hedged about by a sense of obligation to the truth that nothing could shake. This fidelity to truth was ingrained and unchangeable.
In all the speeches I ever heard him make - and they were many - he never even insinuated an untruth, nor did he fail when stating his opponent's positions to state them fully and fairly. He often stated his opponent's positions better than his opponent did or could. To say what was false, or even to leave his hearers under a false impression, was impossible to him. Within this high enclosure he was as ambitious of earthly honors as any man of his time.
Furthermore, he was an adept at log-rolling or any political game that did not involve falsity. I was Secretary of the Republican State Committee of Illinois during some years when he was in active campaign work. He was often present at meetings of the committee, although not a member, and took part in the committee work. His judgment was very much deferred to in such matters. He was one of the shrewdest politicians of the State. Nobody had more experience in that way, nobody knew better how to turn things to advantage politically, and nobody was readier to take such advantage, provided it did not involve dishonorable means. He could not cheat people out of their votes anymore than out of their money."
-Horace White

Does that sound like the Republican Party to you? Now check out Joseph Goebbels' principals of propaganda. The similarity between it and the GOP's attack mentality are frightening.

That being said, this "were good and they're evil" is what got progressives into this mess in the first place. How many 60s and 70s blowhards pronounced themselves superior to history and beyond the "fly-over" states,the corrupt and rascist masses of evil white men? (please don't beat my brains in for this- I don't believe it but I am surrounded by people who do).

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