Liberal First Principles
Look, I think the important question remains whether or not Kaus’s work is to the benefit of the liberal cause or not. To me, the answer is “usually not.” But that’s an argument about policy and strategy, not nomenclature.
I think Freddie is half-right. Right that the central question is not whether M.Kaus should or shouldn’t be labeled a liberal (Freddie himself admits that was an error on his part) but an individual’s role in the liberal cause. But wrong I think insofar as he (Freddie) thinks that the bone of contention within the cause is one of policy and strategy.
I think rather it is a question of first principles and primary commitments.
Freddie admires the various brands of reformist conservatisms (Mssrs. Douthat, Salam, Larison, Dreher, Poulos, Schwenkler, et. al), seeing in them a pride in their own tradtion. For neoliberals (with Kaus as the emblematic incarnation of that tendency in Freddie’s mind) it is in Freddie’s mind rather the opposite:
Reformist conservatives tend to say “we are the real keepers of the tradition.” Neoliberals, meanwhile, tend to define themselves by how distant they are from traditional American liberalism.
Everything then resides on how one understands “traditional American liberalism”. I think Freddie is bypassing this main artery of political philosophy in favor of the capillaries of policy and strategy. Policy and strategy are second-order to the question of commitments and vision or outlook–they serve the vision.
The conservatives he mentions are not just (or I would say even primarily) focusing on the tradition but rather on a first principles argument–what conservatism should be all about. I think that he has some respect for their approach suggests a potential parallel for himself and like-minded folks. I think (along with Scott) that this first principles 21st century liberalism would be a prime spot for Freddie to take up blogging residence instead of say focusing more on policy-strategy (generally the provenance of the so-called netroots/liberal blogosphere).
Unlike Scott however, I don’t think the issue is that liberals tend to forward looking as opposed to backward looking. I’m not entirely sure how accurate such a stereotype really is. The Civil Rights Movement, The New Deal, The Marshall Plan, Kennan’s Containment Strategy, The Progressive Era, The Great Society, The Creation of The Liberal Internationalist Order–liberals are not lacking in their own history. Even if it’s forward-looking, it’s a constant them of forward-looking-ness.
Since we live in the ashes of the age of Reagan, as that corpse of a political vision, zombie-like hollowly walks and talks, because of its preminence for the last three decades (including the neoliberal interregnum of the 90s under Clinton) we tend to think of conservatism as the dominant political philosophy with the deep roots, the tradition, and the like.
But undoubtedly liberalism–for all its strengths and weaknesses–was the dominant political philosophy of the 20th century. Until that is the New Deal synthesis and coalition collapsed under Carter, ushering in the Reagan (counter?)revolution.
That synthesis was Big Labor-Big Gov’t AND Big Business. With the breakdown of the New Deal coalition (which even the Republicans who ruled during its dominance only moderated, see Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford), liberals through the 80s largely sided with Big Gov’t and Big Labor (increasingly government and service sector instead of big industrial) with Big Business largely going the way of the Republicans.
And here is where the neoliberals come in. They sought to re-admit the Big Business (now largely financial) to the Democratic Coalition. In my admittedly partial understanding of the mind of neoliberals they see themselves as reviving that core piece of traditional liberalism. I think they over-reached generally and lacked balance but that probably was a factor of being aligned against an unbalanced liberalism in the form of post 60s progressivism.
But for all of Mickey’s pro-business/anti-union talk, he is profoundly opposed to a core policy of neoliberalism and democratic-left generally: open borders. In that sense, I see Mickey (though more pro-free trade) more in line with Michael Lind’s critiques of progressivism–against the post 70s dominance of the Democratic Party by liberal interests groups (often racially-sexually-environmentally conceived) and white mass upper class technocrats (socially liberal, fiscally libertarian/conservative). I see Kaus as trying in his own (I think in some regards flawed way) to get back to the New Deal Coalition: Big Business and middle/working class populism. Again Kaus believes that income inequality is a done deal, contra Lind, but believes strongly in social equality.
Why would this reviving tendency in Kaus matter? Because, quoting Freddie once more:
The standard neoliberal attitude is that someone or some idea is serious precisely to the degree to which it represents a split from liberal orthodoxy. The goal should be to say “this idea is what’s best for liberalism.” Not to begin from the assumption ”this idea, by virtue of being too left-wing or liberal, isn’t what’s best for liberalism.”
But again which liberal orthodoxy? Which liberalism? Which is why I think first principles is the missing ingredient here. If the goal should be, as Freddie says, “what’s best for liberalism” then if someone is really convinced that the dominant group in liberalism is a parasitic upon true liberalism, then why shouldn’t Kaus argue “by virtue of being too left-wing, this isn’t what’s best for liberalism.” If say liberalism is a New Deal center-left liberalism as opposed to say progressivism. But that yet again gets back to the argument about what is the operative understanding of what constitutes liberalism.