Democracy Arsenal

« Four Things the Connecticut Primary Won't Change | Main | Too Ruthless to Win »

August 04, 2006

Grand Bargains Between the Left and Center-Left
Posted by David Shorr

The more I talk to fellow Iowans, the more optimistic I am about the potential for consensus-building across the progressive spectrum, even on some difficult issues. If moderates and those with a more sweeping critique just take a step toward each other, they may be surprised to look down and find themselves on common ground.

The classic FDR quote about fearing "fear itself" used to sound like a historical echo, but now it rings in my ear with a today kind of relevance, every day. Those of us involved in the national security debate are positively spooked by the fears of our fellow citizens (or the fears we imagine them to have). How can we convince the fearful that we're worthy of their trust? In some of our more flinty statements, you can hear the clenched jaw, not because we don't mean it, but because we're trying too hard and leave out the leavening of wisdom.

And we're even afraid to talk to each other -- about military strength or international trade, for instance. But despair not...

Basically I'm picking up from Suzanne's stirring call for common cause and will try to give it some content based on a limited sample of conversations with flesh-and-blood non-wonks.

Job Exporter, meet Protectionist

Free traders and workers have been nervously eying each other, and their mutual suspicion has kept us from delving into some critical issues about the place of America and its workers in the 21st century global economy. Workers blame trade for their job insecurity, and supporters of free trade worry about protectionism and threats to the global economic system.

I know more economist jokes than economics, so I won't trot out statistics about the net effect of trade. My interest is in a policy agenda that responds to both sets of concerns.

The basis for consensus is neither radical nor especially complicated. Globalization must be managed to benefit more people and harm fewer. And trade is not the root of all corporate or economic evils. In other words, paying workers overseas pennies a day isn't cheap labor but servitude. Failing to provide a safety net, adequate training, or preparation for future industrial trends isn't a "flexible work force." At the same time though, global trade doesn't fully explain the stagnation of American wages or the erosion of our social contract.

What does this consensus require of each side? Champions of labor can't claim globalization serves only the interest of corporations -- not when it has lifted millions out of extreme poverty in China (or when they take advantage of "everyday low prices"). Champions of trade can't pretend that the invisible hand of globalization is delivering benefits for enough people.

The overall goal is a rising standard of living at home and abroad. So how do we do that? Trading partners and companies with the lowest wages and repressive workplaces must be pressed to raise standards. Pennies-a-day isn't going to raise any family out of extreme poverty or lift any nation into the global middle class. And if we're going to demand flexibility from our workforce, there need to be cushions for the affected and 21st century industries to provide good jobs. Meanwhile, what's keeping current employers from raising wages?

As I say, not radical. The near-dead Doha Round was supposed to focus on poverty reduction. The debate over adjustments, training, and industrial policy is old. But a refocused debate -- away from the free trader v. worker standoff -- would be a helpful first step.

War-monger, meet Pacifist

Here's another pair of progressives who don't trust each other. The ready-to-use-force wing resents the burden of the anti-war legacy and the ammunition it has given conservatives. Activists feel that for all their toughness, moderates don’t have the guts to resist America’s violent impulses and present a real alternative to conservatives. What may not be obvious is that a compromise between these wings can be a source of formidable political strength.

As with so many issues, the key is Iraq. The decision to invade Iraq, a precipitous war of choice with the feeblest of political rationales, as well as its implementation, are apt reminders of what not to do. And there’s also the contrast with Afghanistan, a war of necessity, also with pathetic follow-through.

So it’s hard to understand, especially with public opinion where it is, why a progressive should have trouble speaking forthrightly against an overaggressive US posture. But activists also need to appreciate why progressives can’t promise that peaceful means would solve all problems. From what I’ve seen, though, activists do indeed get this.

My prescription is that our arguments should follow a tough-and-smart formula. The words "tough" and "smart" are not useful, but a consistent structural form to our arguments could be quite powerful.

Here’s the idea. Every time we express that can "get the job done;" we should match that expression immediately (same breath) with what it means to do it wisely and realistically. Some examples:

  • We need to focus on both the front end of terrorism -- groups planning attacks -- as well as the back end -- mass support. It won't do much good to just go after today's terrorists and ignore the political struggles that affect the recruitment of tomorrow's terrorists.
  • We will maintain the world’s strongest military, not only to achieve the country’s aims, but also because a superpower can help support the international community with open sea lanes and the threat of force against major violators of global rules. We can regain that legitimacy.
  • Our uniformed services are ready to do whatever we ask them to do. We keep faith with the troops not only by equipping them with the best, but also by choosing wisely the missions we give them.
  • We will pay tribute to the honor of the military by respecting military honor. Warriors do battle according to ancient discipline, not ruthless savagery. The Geneva Conventions are not an obstacle to our military, but essential to their ideals.

You get the idea. Many of the readers of this site can choose better words, but I think this is what we need in place of "I’m tough too."


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Grand Bargains Between the Left and Center-Left:



I'm glad to engage in a discussion aimed at trying to build some common cause between the center-left and the left. But I am afraid that in order to do so we will have to come to grips with the reality of philosophical conflict. We can't just focus on matters rhetorical compromise and framing, as you have. To frame someting, we need to have some common understanding of what we are trying to achieve in the first place. And I'm afraid there is a deeper philosophical disagreement between the center-left and the left that is the root cause of most of the differences between them. This post, on the other hand, merely offers a pair of "split-the-difference" suggestions for rhetorical compromise.

The dominant political impulse of the left is an egalitarian one. Their political ideals tend toward visions of highly egalitarian societies. The ideal future state of affairs, for them, involves very high levels of equality within societies, but also equality among societies.

Those who are part of the modern national security establishment - including those who regard themselves of the center-left - show no such dispositions. For one thing, they seem almost genetically predisposed to seek and maintain dominance, hegemony, primacy, preeminence, etc. (The prefered terms vary, as does the tone and the choice of means, but the basic thrust remains the same.) That drive for domination and power, whether of the hard or soft variety, seems to be built into the very ideological foundations of the institutions they serve.

Nor do they indicate that they seek preeminence as only an instrumental good - a temporary means to the creation of an egalitarian world of the future. I have had many discussion with the center-left national security types, and offered that as a suggestion, but they never seem to take up the offer. No, they are committed to US primacy in perpetuity - even if they like to think it will be a kindly, benevolent sort primacy.

I wish I could say for sure what the centrists do seek, but they don't usually lay it on the table. As best I can tell, they are much more focussed on formal governmental and legal institutions than economic conditions and the distribution of power. Their ideal world seems to look a lot like 2006 America - or maybe 1997 America.

If that is true, then there is bound to be a lot of suspicion and distrust from the left. Leftists want to change America in some fairly profound ways. Those on the left don't see the contemporary US as a model for the rest of the world. The centrists seem to believe we already live in something pretty close to heaven - we just need to add a few strands to our social safety net - and they want to spread that heaven around the world.

This conflict comes out in the talk about democracy. For the left, a democratic society is a society that governs itself, and one in which each citizen participates equally in the work and benefits of government; it is a system in which each citizen's preferences count and no citizen's preferences counts more than any other citizen's preferences. The leftist also typically believes that wealth is power, and so it is absurd to contemplate a system in which equality of political power exists side by side with great disparities in wealth.

Leftists seek equality in the relations among nations as well as within nations. Anything that smells like imperialism, domination or foreign control strikes leftists as inherently undemocratic and wrong. But the centrists don't seem to mind domination as long as it is "benevolent" domination by an "exceptional" country. They believe in natural aristocracy, not democracy. So when they go on about "democracy promotion" or building the "democracy arsenal", I don't even know what they are talking about. Where are the proposals from the center-leftists for a more democratic world system?

I would like to hear a few of the centrists give a forthright account of the kind of world they want to build. Honestly, I have no clear idea about what their vison of the future is. What is the world supposed to look like in 10, 25, 50 or 100 years? How are the policies they support conducive to creating that world?

And for the centrists, it's always about striking the perfect balance and positioning themselves in the least inoffensive position through the use of language: not too much of this, not too much of that - something juussst right and down the middle. Along these lines, the centrists always seem to assume the debate is about means. They assume that their conflict with the left is about the manner of action, and not what that action is meant to achieve. And they love tidy little symmetric formulas: We must be tough, but tough with brains; Compassionate, but "muscular", etc. But these terms don't describe ends, thet describe traits. When the centrists talk about foreign policy, the focus is overwhelmingly on generically characterized practical virtues, and not nearly enough on the long term political and economic goals.

By the way, is "activists" the new euphemism for the left? I thought there were plenty of centrists and conservatives who were activists too.

Dan, it seems to me that your comment leaves very little room for a meeting of hearts and minds within the Democratic party.

There are clear philisophical differences between left and center left. And we have to build both substantial and rhetorical bridges. That means we must all entertain the idea that we may be holding onto some particular tenet too rigidly. Ironically that would make us conservatives.

Among these differences is the relationship between individuals and society. For example what do we envision greater economic equality to look like? Does it require that all people have the same economic means? Or does it require broad acces to opportunity? Can we at least begin this conversation by agreeing that we all believe the government must invest in physical and technological infrastructure, education, health care, child care?

I think the scope for compromise on the Democratic side in the domestic field is greater at the present time than in the foreign policy field. While there are big differences between the left and the center on domestic issues, the radical cultural and economic agenda of the Republicans is so repulsive to all of us that, yes, there is much of substance we can agree on, and many changes we all want to see.

But the conflict in the area of foreign policy is more severe.

When I read the centrists, the Truman Democrats, DLC-style New Democrats etc. one often gets the impression that they think the national security debate on the Democratic side is mainly between, as David Shorr caricatures them, "war-mongers" and "pacifists"; Ot is between "hawks" and "doves"; between those who are "ready to use force" and those who are "reluctant to use force"; between those who prefer a "muscular" foreign policy, and those who want a "gentle" forein policy.

In other words, they tend to assume that we Democrats "all want the same thing", but differ about the appropriate means to those common ends. They think it is only a debate about the proper scope for the use of violence in the international field.

Thus they think we can resolve the dispute by sensibly recognizing the appropriateness of different means in different circumstances, and by papering over our conflict by using difference-splitting language that balances off each strength or power-connoting expression with a compassion or wisdom-connoting expression. Of course, this isn't really a method for making intellectual progress. It's juts a quick-fix recipe for expedient political communication.

Temperamental difference in attitudes toward violence do indeed account for some of the differences among Democrats, around the edges of the debate, but I don't think it accounts for the heart of the contemporary disagreement.

Leftists and centrists differ in their political ideals.

I think those on the left would prefer to live in a country that strives to conduct itself in the international field as one member of a community of equals, and restricts its uses of force to self-defense and co-ordinated, collective action to maintain the peace. They view doctrines of imperial domination, national supremacy and perpetual military primacy as inherently undemocratic, and incompatible with the most fundamental American ideals. The left's political ideals are egalitarian, communal and universalistic.

The centrist Democrats, the other hand, the ones who dom