In the previous post on this subject, I used a mostly-wrong comment by Jonah Goldberg as a starting point to riff on the differences between liberals and conservatives in having a sense of their own intellectual traditions. I read another piece last week that I want to comment on, although my comments will be less extensive because the source material is mostly correct, but I have a slightly different take.
A friend called to my attention Peter Levine's blog, and in particular Levine's essay-post, "What's wrong with the left, and what we can do about it,". Levine is an exemplary public scholar, who has written serious books on political philosophy but also devotes himself to more practical questions such as how to involve young people in politics. (I don't know him, although we travel in similar circles.)
I recommend reading Levine's essay in full, but here are his basic points and my comments:
1. That "the Left" (defined broadly) should not assume that its disadvantage is merely in money, message discipline and viciousness, and attempt to emulate "the Right" in those categories. I basically agree that there is a profound mistake in looking at the institutions, the tactics, and the tone of the right and treating them as a formula for political success, to be emulated as closely as possible. For example, I have always thought that people who argued, "We need a Heritage Foundation for our side" were ignorant about what the Heritage Foundation actually does and just how effective it is (or, to be frank, it isn't), and also inattentive to the strengths and shortcomings of the existing constellation of liberal and liberal-centrist policy organizations and media operations.
On the other hand, you do need money to develop a message and get it across to people, and you do need to respond to attacks and critiques as they come along. Too often, the lag between a Bush or Republican claim and the response has been measured in days, not hours. (The best example: it took two days before any Democrat/liberal was able to criticize Bush's "Mission Accomplished" appearance on an aircraft carrier, and by the time the criticism -- for wasting federal dollars, for dishonesty in explaining why Bush had to land on the carrier -- arrived, it merely gave the photo op another day or two of free time. Fortunately, that stunt backfired of its own accord.) There must be a capacity to respond in the same news cycle to anything that comes up. That's not something that would "damage an already fragile civic culture," as Levine warns. It's just one of the rules of the game in the world of modern media.
2. That "the Left lacks vision...their crisis is intellectual not tactical." True, or as true as such a broad generalization can ever be, but Levine says some things in support of this position that deserve further examination. First, he argues that it was back when Bush seemed most likely to win reelection that "Democrats had the incentive to develop new visions and new directions. They failed to do so." Now, Levine argues, because it seems more likely that Kerry can win merely on Bush's failures and his own better tactics, he will not develop an alternative vision, which will leave him with no mandate except to maintain the New Deal order.
This seems to be a variation on the mythology of the right, in which the darkest moments, particularly the aftermath of Goldwater's defeat in 1964, have been reinterpreted as an era in which their great forefathers (as discussed in my previous post), hiding in their catacombs, designed a philosophy. I'm not sure that theory holds up to scrutiny. It's not how the ideas associated with the New Deal came into being, or Clinton's governing agenda, which was designed after the election and ultimately turned out to have been adapted from Paul Tsongas's. The real possibility of having to govern the country will induce more creativity than the blank slate of futility.
It's also a little unfair to the other candidates. Although Kerry has not yet put forward much of a "new vision or new direction" -- it's certainly not too late -- I would continue to argue that Edwards did -- in a way that will certainly influence the Democratic Party in the future -- and so did Lieberman and Kucinich, whether you agree with either one of them or not, and while Dean's campaign had less substantive content than one would have expected, his stance and tone were an important challenge to Democrats and can be as important as ideas.
[Update: In the first version of this paragraph, I called the Dean campaign "astonishingly vacuous." While I think it was suprising to realize that a campaign that attracted such broad support at first really didn't have much to it besides opposition to the war and excitement about the campaign itself, that phrase went much further than I meant to. I thank Lerxst and other commentors for calling me on it.]
Levine notes that "political candidates are not the only ones who develop new political visions," which is truer than he realizes. In fact, I don't think they can develop them at all. Having worked on a presidential campaign in 2000, I came to the conclusion that the hardest thing to do within a campaign, even an idea-driven campaign, is to develop new ideas, because the field operation, the message-of-the-day, the press, dealing with the candidate's time, etc., consume everyone's energy. The best a campaign can do is to pick up on and promote ideas already developed, and so I see campaigns as the moment where we measure the availability of new ideas in the larger world, and the success of other groups and people in developing the kind of visions and policy blueprints that candidates can use. If the candidates fail to do so, it is at least in part an indication of the failure of the think tanks or other institutions that are supposed to do the job.
Levine goes on:
the most exciting new participants in the political debate have been independent bloggers. But the major bloggers on the Left?people like Josh Marshall, Calpundit's Kevin Drum, and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the Daily Kos?strike me as strictly tactical thinkers. That is, they assume that the goal is to defeat George W. Bush, and they look for ways to score points against him. He is hypocritical one day, misguided the next. I thoroughly agree, yet I don't see any basis for a new direction in American politics. Their strategy is to make the president look bad, elect a replacement, and hope that he comes up with new ideas. If there are more creative leftish thinkers in the "blogosphere," I don't know who they are.
At the risk of seeming blog-o-centric, which I'm not, I think in fact there's a lot of deeper thinking in this sphere, and the potential for more. Leaving Kos, whose site is really a campaign news site that's also a platform for a lot of other people, aside, I don't agree that Marshall and Drum are "strictly tactical thinkers": they are exactly what's often missing in the idea-generation process of politics: people with tactical intelligence about politics who also can go deeper on policy and public philosophy. All of us, whether we write blogs or opinion journalism in traditional outlets, face the temptation to jump at every stupid thing we see come out of the administration, and there are so many that every blog journalist can sometimes be the first to catch some outrage and garner some quick notice. I've done it, and it's usually when this weblog gets the most hits and trackbacks. To use a phrase that Bush might have used once, it's like "swatting flies" instead of maintaining the discipline to really construct an alternative vision. But there are a lot of flies, they're big and they bite. I take from Levine the point that we should try to maintain that discipline, and also to acknowledge blogs like Matthew Yglesias's or Crooked Timber, among others, that go well beyond the day-to-day fly-swatting.
We also all struggle with the fact that, as much as we may understand that we need an alternative liberal philosophy, all the theorizing is for nothing if we don't change the underlying conditions of government. If we don't restore some revenues for the public sector, we will wind up in less than two decades with a deficit equal to 10% of GDP, and at that point, no way to save the economy except to pare tje public sphere back to its bare essentials. If we don't stop the progression toward federal courts packed with judges determined to return to pre-New Deal jurisprudence, there will be as little opportunity for new visions as FDR had in his first years. And if we cannot bring an end to American unilateralism, we will soon live in a world so hostile that we have virtually no ability to influence cross-border concerns such as air, water, labor, security. Changing these circumstances are preconditions for any fresh vision of national possibilities, and the first step toward changing these circumstances is to change administrations.
Back to the blog issue: on the whole, I think good blogs by smart people have the capacity to put the process of debate and development of ideas on a much faster track. Imagine the old days when an interesting article might appear in a quarterly such as The Public Interest or the older American Prospect, it would circulate, letters would appear in the next issue a few months later, others would respond, the author would reply and strengthen her ideas, then a more prominent figure might give a speech based on the idea, a member of Congress might draft the idea into legislation, a foundation might fund a demonstration project and then an evaluation. Months and then years would pass. Some, not all, of this knowledge production can be done so much more quickly now, and blogs, together with online platforms associated with traditional media, think tanks, or independent projects like opendemocracy.net make up the new marketplace of ideas, now speeded up like every other marketplace: the ebay of ideas.
3. That liberals/Democrats are the real conservatives, and good for them. This is Levine's most provocative and subtle point.
Today's progressives are not only conservative about New Deal institutions. They are eager to conserve natural ecosystems and minority cultures (especially poor, indigenous ones). They are more fiscally conservative than Republicans. They are also more resistant to scientific innovation: witness their response to genetically engineered crops. They have adopted traditional conservative priorities by objecting to federal power in the areas of law enforcement (the USA Patriot Act) and education (No Child Left Behind). And they are the biggest defenders of institutions, such as public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities, that promote the high culture of the past.
This isn't quite right -- for example, it's currently the right that resists scientific innovation or independence; what progressives are more likely to object to is the rapid commercialization of technologies such as genetic engineering before the health and environmental implications are fully understood. (Wow, there's a probably whole essay here in how the Enlightenment pairing of scientific progress with rapid development of market capitalism has essentially been undone by this group of radicals. But that's for another day, and probably another writer.) Mostly Levine's point is correct. And Levine could make his point more strongly by discussing the deficit, where once again, liberals will find themselves in the position of restoring fiscal sanity, whether they like it or not.
4. That this "Left-Conservatism" is not enough of an agenda to win elections. Here Levine gets very close to an issue that I've tried to deal with a lot, although he gets at it in a different way. Levine sees paralyzing contradictions in this conservatism, and I agree. I think the problem is not the conservatism so much as the fact that liberals don't own up to it. Despite all evidence, we operate on the assumption that those who call themselves conservatives advocate modest ambitions, a limited government, and open markets. In contrast, liberals think they are offering compassion, greater spending, bigger government. The Bush agenda of short-term spending and long-term starvation has left Democrats disoriented. There's no kid we can point to who's not getting her school lunch because of Bush -- although there will be before long. As I've argued before, Democrats haven't been slick enough about breaking the tackle, and moving the occupy the space that the other side has left open. For example, the creative response to a $550-billion piece-of-crap Medicare prescription drug bill is not a $1 trillion alternative, as the House Democrats proposed. It is a $300 billion alternative that's structured to be far more effective and generous to individuals. It's the challenge of getting beyond the politics of "more," and finding a way to embrace what is conservative in the best sense about our vision and recast it as a more forward-looking and less reactive set of ideas.
These are Levine's macro-comments, and then he gets into some specific suggestions for the substance of a liberal vision, which are good. I have some comments on those as well, but I'll cut this post off right here and respond to the rest of his brief and eloquent essay soon.