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September 22, 2009

Whither Liberalism?

In a compelling piece in Salon, Michael Lind reflects on the death of neoconservatism—thoughts occasioned by the death of one of its flounders, Irving Kristol. The central claim is that the origins of the intellectual movement were not conservative at all, but a kind of traditional liberal response to the counter culture left of the 60s. Lind writes

But in its origins neoconservatism was a movement of the center-left, not of the right. Here is Nathan Glazer, co-editor with Irving Kristol of the Public Interest, in that magazine's final issue in spring 2005, recalling the origins of the journal in the 1960s: "All of us had voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, for Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and I would wager (?) that most of the original stalwarts of The Public Interest, editors and regular contributors, continued to vote for Democratic presidential candidates all the way to the present. Recall that the original definition of the neoconservatives was that they fully embraced the reforms of the New Deal and indeed the major programs of Johnson's Great Society ... Had we not defended the major social programs, from Social Security to Medicare, there would have been no need for the 'neo' before 'conservative.'"

In its origins, neoconservatism was a defense of New Deal/Great Society liberalism at home and abroad, both from the radical, countercultural left of the era and from its own design defects. The early neocons were Kennedy-Johnson liberals who believed that liberal reform should avoid naive utopianism and should be guided by pragmatism and empirical social science. The '70s neoconservatives were so focused on the utopianism of the '60s campus left, however, that most paid too little attention to a far greater threat to their beloved New Deal tradition, the utopianism of the libertarian right. Ultimately Milton Friedman and other free-market ideologues did far more damage to America than the carnival freaks of the counterculture.

It was this internecine in the left that led both to neoconservative intellectuals abandoning the Democratic party to join the Republicans of Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan, and, eventually, abandoning their original ideological committments and liberal values. And it was the latter, Lind suggests, that transformed the once fertile intellectual movement into an essentially anti-intellectual, knee-jerk sensibility favoring Rightest foriegn policy adventurism. Lind concludes with a call for liberals and Democrats to avoid returning to the New Deal for their ideological sustanence and, instead, look to the original neocons for progressive direction.

Fair point, especially if we understand "early" neoconservatism in terms similar to those Lind proposes. Interestingly, moreover, that call points out another fundamental fact of current political discourse: liberalism is nearly as undefinded ideologically as is conservatism. Indeed, it's ironic that while conservatives are universally regarded as philosophically fractured and bankrupt, they have become almost coherent in their opposition to Obama. (No surprise there, it's far easier to harmonize a noisy chant than build a consensus of ideas.)

The problem for liberalism, I think, is that it gained power without fully winning (or even fully articulating) its ideas. What was most apparent to voters, besides his race, temprement, and obvious intellect, was thaat he was the "unBush." The pragmatic progressivism that animated his book, The Audacity of Hope, was likely not the reason most people voted for him.

The task now is to build, from the position of power, a coherent ideology to shape an achievable vision of the future.

Posted by stevemack at 10:21 AM | Comments (0)

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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