Liberal First Principles


Chris Dierkes

Chris Dierkes (aka CJ Smith). 29 years old, happily married, adroit purveyor and voracious student of all kinds of information, theories, methods of inquiry, and forms of practice. Studying to be a priest in the Anglican Church in Canada. Main interests: military theory, diplomacy, foreign affairs, medieval history, religion & politics (esp. Islam and Christianity), and political grand bargains of all shapes and sizes.

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7 Responses

  1. Chris, as mentioned in the post, I don’t suppose the characterization I make to hold true 100% of the time. But as an orienting generalization, I don’t think it’s terribly off the mark. Certainly liberalism has a history to which it has a relationship, I’m not arguing some sort of a-historical view. Rather, I’m suggesting that the relationship of liberals to that history is much different than conservatives to their history precisely due to the first principles of modern liberalism. So looking for liberals to articulate their relationship to their traditions in the same way that conservatives do strikes me as strange.

    I think, though, that we have larger fish on the line in terms of a discussion about the first pricnples of a twenty-first century liberalsim, at which I would love to take a stab with you, Freddie, and anyone else who would like to jump in.Report

  2. Avatar Will says:

    Interesting post, Chris, but doesn’t this whole debate strike you as rather trivial? I mean, is Kaus’s self-identification really undermining liberalism from within? Personally, I’m inclined to think that the benefits of keeping a few heterodox thinkers around outweigh any downsides, but Kaus isn’t exactly a critical cog in the liberal political machine. If he was less abrasive, I doubt he’d draw a fraction of the amount of attention he attracts now.Report

  3. Avatar Chris Dierkes says:


    Re: liberals have a different relationship to their history than conservatives.

    I don’t know, depends on which liberals. One of the things that always (and still does) struck me about Obama was his sense of the historical arc of liberalism and how he connected that to a kind of liberal patriotism and the larger American story. I think if Freddie is looking for a kind of pride in that tradition, Obama’s is the guy to follow.

    I think rather than a different relationship to their history, I find on occasion liberals not really knowing their history. Maybe that supports your generalization. That they don’t know the history bc of their different relationship to it.Report

  4. Avatar Chris Dierkes says:


    I think the question about whether Mickey is really a liberal or not is pretty meaningless. I’m not a self-identified liberal (I’m not a self-identified anything really politically speaking) so I don’t have the same identity-emotional resonances that Freddie does around the issue (given it’s his tribe) and therefore am not particularly attracted to or repelled by the talk about “pride” in liberalism.

    But I do think it does (or at least can) touch on the issue of the first principles discussion–however imperfectly that was what I tried to communicate in this post–vis a vis liberalism and that to me is very interesting.

    My sense like in Freddie’s post is that liberals tend to jump to policy and strategy (Ryan Avent, M. Yglesias, E. Klein being probably the best and smartest examples of that trend) but not have this more philosophical first principles discussion. While I don’t always agree with their views, I like the heterodox conservative writers because they do broach that topic. I like that they bring onto the front burner if I don’t always support their views. Does that make sense? I think that is something liberals could learn from reading those guys. It would be interesting to me see a similar kind of conversation occur more often on the left.Report

  5. Avatar Will says:

    Chris –

    I think there were big, messy debates over the first principles of liberalism in the 1980s and the early 2000s, when conservatism seemed ascendant and liberals had to go back to the drawing board. I tend to think that those discussions only take place when a party is down and out.

    That said, I also think the nature of the fusionist project means that first principle debates are simply more important to conservatives than they are to liberals. Some self-identified Republicans would describe themselves as modern heirs to the liberal tradition, while others are staunch traditionalists. The Democrats, on the other hand, don’t have a major philosophical fault line running through their intellectual history. A few academics have developed communitarian and postmodern critiques of modern, technocratic liberalism, but this takes place at the movement’s fringes. The divide between cultural and fiscal conservatives, on the other hand, is always front-and-center.Report

  6. Avatar Chris Dierkes says:


    Interesting points. I think the fault lines in worldwide liberalism are much stronger than you suggest–but you may be right about US liberalism.

    I also think you are right that these first principle discussions generally happen during a time of political wilderness for the group involved. This discussion may need to be more upfront though now for liberals especially if the stimulus/bailout thing doesn’t really fly. Obama ran against Clintonism (rhetorically) but has now filed himself with Clintonian types and is a little more left version of a New Democrat seems to me. If that doesn’t work, they could be in for some serious problems.

    I’ll have to think more about your fusionist point, but it strikes me that there is a weird disconnect forming (see Matt Bai’s The Argument) between the increasingly homogenized Democratic Federal Congress and the voter base. Those fractures were held together undoubtedly by the glue of anti-Bushism. But that can’t hold forever. I think a more fusionist-first principle MO would be a help over the tendency towards interest group-ism on the left. But that just might be my idiosyncratic musings.Report

  7. Avatar Will says:

    Chris –

    I think there are real fault lines developing within the democratic coalition, and I think you’re right to point to the emerging divide between democratic voters and their policy-making proxies. But I think the party rank and file basically agree with their leadership about what constitutes a good society – egalitarianism, tolerance, economic opportunity etc. – the really disagreements arise only when the discussion turns to means (this, I think, is the fundamental difference between neoliberals and progressives).

    With conservatives, on the other hand, social traditionalists and fiscal conservatives have vastly different political worldviews. I don’t think this forecloses the possibility of tactical collaboration, but I do think it makes conservative debates over first principles a lot messier and a lot more important than comparable debates on the progressive end of the spectrum.Report